Talking Movies

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Rescue Dawn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down on his first mission over Vietnam. Captured by the Vietcong he plots to escape and find his way home.

Christian Bale adds another impressive characterisation to his resume playing real life Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler. Rescue Dawn is inspired by events in Dengler’s life previously documented by the legendary (by which I mean famously bat-crazy) German director Werner Herzog in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Bale expertly plays a German who has become an American citizen and whose accent is American, but not quite genuine, and whose mental state could best be described as…peculiar. Herzog, the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo is quite at home in this cinematic territory of insane heroes in the jungle and produces his best fictional feature in years. Werner Herzog is after all the man who dragged a boat over a mountain for the making of Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century rubber baron in Brazil who wanted to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon.

Herzog brilliantly uses minimal dialogue for the first half hour to tell the story of Dengler’s capture and torture at the hands of the Vietcong thru the medium of pure cinema. He wordlessly conveys the utter terror of the Vietcong whenever an American airplane screams overhead. Herzog achieves a sense of location few Vietnam films have, even Apocalypse Now’s intense feeling for its locale is eclipsed by his extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography which makes the lush jungle almost another character. Bale’s time in the POW camp moves out of this art-house territory towards more mainstream fare, and the film slows down and becomes less distinctive. The men sit and bitch about being prisoners of war, plot escape plans (as all prisoners of war seem to spend most of their time doing, to the detriment of their guards’ nerves) and try to raise morale by fantasising over their favourite meals. Herzog inserts some excellent gags here but never lets you forget that Dengler is a very odd hero figure for these men to rally round.

The relationship between Bale and Steve Zahn as a fellow American prisoner in the small Vietcong camp is highly convincing but Jeremy Davies is endlessly irritating as the only other American POW. Davies has been using the same mannered tics since 1994 and has blighted films from The Million Dollar Hotel to Solaris. His popularity with casting directors continues to mystify. Steve Zahn, by contrast, grasps with both hands the chance to do something more substantial than his usual comedic sidekick roles and delivers a touching portrayal of man worn down by despair and malnutrition. Herzog’s languid pacing in this film, particularly in the second act, may irritate people raised on MTV editing but the majesty of the landscape and the emotional depth he achieves is more than adequate recompense, Rescue Dawn is an offbeat take on a familiar genre, welcome to the extreme as a matter of course.

3/5

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: American Gangster

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

In 1970s America, narcotics agent Richie Roberts works to bring down the drug empire of Frank Lucas, who is smuggling pure heroin into the country in military coffins returning from the Vietnam.

The black Goodfellas this is not. Ridley Scott is hailed on this film’s posters as the director of Gladiator. He’s also the director of GI Jane, Kingdom of Heaven and A Good Year to name just three of his super-turkeys from the last decade. This film has his usual striking visual quality, it’s very murkily lit and NYC looks very grimy and cold indeed. But American Gangster lacks energy, the analogy with Goodfellas practically screamed at us by the end sequence only reminds us just how dazzling Scorsese’s frenetic direction of that film really was. Such lethargy renders this film grotesquely long, the sort of running time that makes you keenly aware of absurdities, like why are all the hookers cutting Frank’s drugs topless or naked? It’s eventually lamely explained but it seems part of a drive by Scott to get as much gratuitous female nudity in to the film as he can manage. Is this Good Luck Chuck?!

Denzel Washington is as bad as he’s been in Inside Man, Out of Time, and all the other dreck he churns out while retaining a baffling reputation as a great actor. Russell Crowe, in a role with surprisingly little screen time, fares slightly better but despite playing a character of great professional integrity and personal dishevelment he looks like an actor going through the motions rather than exploring the possibilities of the part.  Josh Brolin, so good as the crazed Dr Block in last week’s Planet Terror, is much more committed as repellent bent cop Detective Trupo. The amount of police corruption portrayed in this film is really quite depressing. Scott uses it, in an effort as misguided as John Boorman’s attempts with Martin Cahill in The General, to valorise Frank Lucas. A psychopathic killer who pays lip service to taking care of Harlem while getting the whole borough hooked on cheap, potent heroin? Either pick someone else to mythologise or get a better scriptwriter.

Oscar-winning writer Steven Zaillian (an award the trailer boasts about far too much) won for a film Aaron Sorkin did an uncredited dialogue polish on while his previous film for Scott was co-written with legendary playwright David Mamet. His directorial debut, last year’s All the King’s Men which he also wrote, abundantly proved that, along with his problems with writing memorable dialogue, Zaillian has no idea of pacing. This story is just not interesting enough to sustain its bloated length while characters/plot devices like Carla Gugino’s shrill wife (divorcing Crowe’s emotionally distant cop) never convince as real people. The trailer for Charlie Wilson’s War, written by Aaron Sorkin precedes American Gangster and painfully highlights the utter vacuity of Zaillian’s dialogue in a film which all concerned obviously believe to be epic and meaningful but which is nothing of the sort.

1/5

August 9, 2019

Graham Greene Festival 2019

The Graham Greene International Festival is about to happen at Greene’s birthplace of Berkhamsted once again, and this year’s event, running from Thursday 19th to Sunday 22nd of September, is the 21st such garrulous gathering.

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it, how you always get what you pray for,” reflects Milly, beloved daughter of Wormold, the hapless intelligence agent in Graham Greene’s comic satirical masterpiece Our Man in Havana (1958). The theme for the 2019 Festival is described by Festival Director Martyn Sampson as Reflections on Greene: to give voice to the shades of reflectiveness and the reflections — and reflections on reflections — that present insights into the life and work of Greene. The programme of events could be compared to a veritable hall of mirrors, plentiful in perspectives and diverse in points of view, in which Festival-goers can pursue all manner of different leads and ideas.

Tickets will be on sale at the door for all events other than the meals, and online via the website: grahamgreenebt.org/tickets.

Season tickets, which offer a discount, are available for those who plan to attend all the talks and films. Friends of the GGBT can obtain a small discount on tickets by putting ‘Friends’ in the code box when purchasing.

 


THURSDAY 19TH SEPTEMBER

Railway Station (or Court House) and the Town Hall

Afternoon session (£5)

Berkhamsted Railway Station (or Court House)

2.15       Berkhamsted, The Greene Guide: a guided walk of approximately one hour, led by Brian Shepherd, with readings from A Sort of Life, The Human Factor and The Captain and the Enemy, by Judy Mead and Richard Shepherd. Meet outside the rear entrance to Berkhamsted Railway Station (the Platform 4 exit) for introduction. In the event of wet weather, there will be an illustrated talk with readings in The Court House.

 

Evening session

The Town Hall

(Supper and film £30; supper only £20; film only £10.)

5.15       Film Supper: 5.15 meet for drinks at pay bar, 6.00 waitress – served two-course supper with coffee; vegan/vegetarian option.      

(Please book by Monday 9 September at the latest.)

7.15       (For 7.30 start.) Film: 21 Days (London Film Productions, 1940, 72 minutes), directed by Basil Dean, screenplay by Basil Dean and Graham Greene, and starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Introduced by Mike Hill.

 

 

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FRIDAY 20TH SEPTEMBER

The Town Hall, The Civic Centre

Morning session (£16)

 The Town Hall

9.45       Greene & Sherry: The Fox & The Hound: a talk by Lucinda Cummings-Kilmer, who was research assistant to Norman Sherry, the first biographer of Greene

10.45      Break for tea and coffee

11.15      “It was our Bible”: US Vietnam War era Reporters (1965−1975) and the impact of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American: a talk by Professor Kevin Ruane of Canterbury Christ Church University.

Break for lunch

12.45      A repeat of Berkhamsted: The Greene Guide (£5). In the event of wet weather, there will be an illustrated talk with readings in The Town Hall.

 

Afternoon session (£16)

The Town Hall

2.30       Brighton Rock: Wrestling a Wonderful Story from out of a Book and onto the Stage: Bryony Lavery and Esther Richardson are interviewed by Mark Lawson.

3.30       Break for tea and coffee

4.00       The Priest in the Novels of Graham Greene: The Saint and the Sinner: A talk by Revd. Canon Emeritus Professor David Jasper of the University of Glasgow. The David Pearce Memorial Talk.

 

Evening session (£10)

 The Civic Centre

7.30       Film night: Our Man in Havana (Kingsmead Productions, 1959, 111 minutes), directed by Carol Reed, screenplay by Graham Greene, and starring Alec Guinness, Ernie Kovacs, Burl Ives and Maureen O’Hara. Introduced by Quentin Falk.

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SATURDAY 21ST SEPTEMBER

Deans’ Hall and Old Hall, Berkhamsted School (Castle Street)

Morning session (£17)

Deans’ Hall

9.45      Vicious Cities: Shadows of The Third Man in Our Man in Havana: a talk by Dr Chris Hull of the University of Chester and Dr James Clifford Kent of Royal Holloway, University of London.

10.45    Break for tea and coffee

11.15    What or who was The Third Man . . . and the vital question remains. . . .: Miles Hyman and Jean-Luc Fromental are interviewed by Dr Brigitte Timmermann.

Break for lunch

 

 

Mid-afternoon session (£17)

Deans’ Hall

2.00      The launch of the Graham Greene Film Review Competition: A presentation by Dr Creina Mansfield, Emma Clarke, Quentin Falk and Dr Jo Barnardo-Wilson.

2.30      Our Woman in Havana: Reporting Castro’s Cuba: a talk by Sarah Rainsford.

3.30     Break for tea and coffee

4.00      Politics and the Novel: a talk by Sir Vince Cable, former Leader of the Liberal Democrats 2017-19 and former Secretary of State for Business.

 

Late-afternoon session, including Birthday Toast (£15)

5.00      The Birthday Toast: by Jonathan Bourget.

5.30      Where is the line between true crime and crime fiction?: a talk by Geoffrey Wansell.

 

Evening session (£36)

Old Hall

8.00      Festival Dinner: three courses with wine and coffee; vegan/vegetarian option, with grace to be said by Revd. Canon Emeritus Professor David Jasper. (Limited to 60 tickets. Please book by Monday 9 September at the latest.)

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SUNDAY 22 SEPTEMBER

VIth Form Centre and Old Hall, Berkhamsted School (Castle Street)

Morning session (£16)

VIth Form Centre, Castle Street

9.00      A Tour of the School & Archives: including a look at the Exhibition Room, the green baize door, Old Hall and the School Chapel. Meet outside Old Hall.

10.00     Scandinavians are terribly Scandinavian: Graham Greene’s friendship with Norwegian writer Nordahl Grieg: a talk by Johanne Elster Hanson. This talk will follow an introduction by Ian Thomson.

11.00    Break for tea and coffee

11.30    Graham Greene’s Hungarian Connection: a talk by Dr Tamás Molnár and Dr Ramón Porta.

 

Old Hall Lunch (£25)

1.00      Farewell Lunch: cold buffet, wine and coffee; vegan/vegetarian   option. (Limited to 60 tickets. Please book by Monday 9 September at the latest.)

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The venues will feature exhibitions during the course of the Festival. The Graham Greene Trust Festival bookstall and Richard Frost’s second-hand bookstall will be open on the Friday and Saturday. Both will feature a large selection of books by, and relating to, Graham Greene. A free Festival brochure will be available during the Festival. It will include a full Festival programme, details of speakers and more. A Season ticket to all events, including both films but excluding meals, is available for £106. There is free admission to all Festival events (excluding meals) for under 21s. If you have any queries or problems with tickets, please email ticketing@grahamgreenebt.com or phone +44 7988 560496.

Friends of The Graham Greene Trust

You are cordially invited to become a Friend of the Graham Greene Birthplace Trust at: grahamgreenebt.org/membership

Benefits include receipt of a quarterly magazine entitled A Sort of Newsletter and a Festival discount of £2 per event (for up to five events).

September 9, 2018

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part IX

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

“No, that doesn’t track”

We now know Wes Anderson’s next film will be live-action and set in post-WWII France, immediately post-war apparently. So perhaps taking cues from Les Enfants de Paradis, Jean Cocteau and Jour de Fete rather than the 50s of Clouzot, Bresson and early New Wave. Insofar as Wes Anderson takes cues from anyone… Any excitement I might have that he’s tackling a specific culture and time is tempered by the knowledge that it will be put thru the wringer until it comes out a Wes Anderson movie. A topic of conversation arises with Paul Fennessy every time there’s a new Wes Anderson – just how much of a straitjacket his trademarks have become. One of our favourite flights of fancy finds Wes and Jason Schwartzman or Roman Coppola or Owen Wilson seated at a diner in Austin; furiously scribbling dialogue and scene ideas in yellow legal pads, and beaming at each other happily, until a shadow crosses Wes’ face, and he asks in horror and disappointment, “But wait, can we do that as a tracking shot or a series of whip-pans?” Because if not, well, there’s no place for it in the cathedral of conventions that Wes Anderson has imprisoned himself within.

Photo: Matt Kennedy

“I can’t help if it I’m popular”

Well now, that didn’t take long. Less than a month after I derided it here, the Oscars abruptly threw engines into full reverse on their wonderfully patronising idea of giving out a new token Oscar for Best ‘Popular’ Movie. It was a bold move to keep the plebeians happy and watching the bloated ceremony honouring films nobody saw. I would wager cold hard cash the decision to ‘suspend’ the new award followed almost instantly on Chadwick Boseman scotching the notion he would be happy to see Black Panther dismissed with a token gong so transparently created merely to commend his all-conquering movie without commending it. He wanted, quite rightly, to be nominated, and seriously, for the Best Picture Oscar; like previous Oscar-winning crowd pleasers The Sting, Forrest Gump, and Rocky. Right now Black Panther has made 700,059,566 dollars at the North American Box Office.  Let us be cruel and note that the combined totals of every Best Picture Oscar winner this decade; The King’s Speech (135,453,143), The Artist (44,671,682), Argo (136,025,503), 12 Years a Slave (56,671,993), Birdman (42,340,598), Spotlight (45,055,776), Moonlight (27,854,932), The Shape of Water (63,859,435); come to just 551,933,062 dollars. That is why fewer and fewer people watch the obscurantist Oscars.

The means defeat the ends

Watching Ken Burns’ incredible documentary The Vietnam War last year it was hard not to think that when someone proclaims ‘the ends justify the means’ any means thus justified actually work against the proclaimed ends.  The brutal means employed in Vietnam actually strengthened the Vietcong and thus worked against the ends of keeping South Vietnam out of their hands.  And, in a disconcerting swoop to utter banality, the shamelessness of the cash-grab of The Hobbit trilogy meant grabbing shamefully little cash. Despite featuring the same writing/producing staff as the Lord of the Rings , (with the regrettable addition of Guillermo Del Toro), Peter Jackson as director, and Andrew Lesnie as cinematographer, the first two Hobbit films (I’ve avoided the last) were nothing like it. They were shot like Janusz Kaminski had left the supernova on in the soundstage, and the greenscreen room, and the digital FX studio, bedevilled by awful acting, unintentionally funny make-up and CGI make-up work, and muddled in nearly every imaginable respect of scripting and directing, with even promising sequences descending into over the top gibberish repeatedly, and this is before we even gripe that the slim volume of Tolkien being made into three films was, as Bilbo once said, like butter spread over too much bread. They were entirely lacking the magic of the Lord of the Rings mostly because of a bewildering lack of reality. Well, not that bewildering after all. The reason that unwelcome CGI was so omnipresent was because the forced perspective practical trickery of set design used to such great effect in the Lord of the Rings would not work for 3-D. So Ian McKellen got to interact with, essentially, named coconuts on sticks, until he started crying; and wailing ‘This is not why I became an actor’. Why abandon forced perspective for 3-D? Because they had to be in 3-D to make as much money as possible! But, because this made them look so awful, on top of the sheer greed of making a trilogy from a small book, people like me, who saw every Lord of the Rings film in the cinema at least twice, and then bought them on home release, in both versions, didn’t go to the cinema to suffer this misbegotten trilogy. Indeed after slogging to the end of the DVD of the second Hobbit film, with its inane love triangle and CGI Smaug whose scale was never clear during his scenes with Bilbo, and which ended with a slap in the face to the audience by leaving his attack till the next movie, I vowed never to watch the third.  And it seems many people felt as I did. The Hobbit’s takings were 1,000m, 958m, and 956m. As opposed to the Lord of the Rings’s takings of 871.5m, 926m, and 1,100m. Note how more people flocked to the Lord of the Rings film by film, while people backed away from The Hobbit. Note also that The Hobbit’s numbers are swelled by inflated 3-D ticket prices, and a decade of inflation. Well, that backfired spectacularly. The ends (making mucho money) justified the means (making awful-looking films, and too many of them, badly). And, the ends, of making mucho money, were defeated by the means employed, an unexpected trilogy of CGI in 3-D.

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