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?

April 13, 2020

Any Other Business: Part L

As the title suggests, so forth.

Modern Family goes big

11 years is a long time for a sitcom to run, Cheers and MASH did it, but they didn’t have child actors built into the premise of the show like Modern Family did. Modern Family is the only American network sitcom that I would stand beside Arrested Development, and for much the same reasons. The faux docu-format, the lack of a soundtrack, and the delight in absurdity made it stand out in a world befouled by Chuck Lorre crudities. What made Modern Family so great for so long was the sheer variety of comedy in play: cross purposes, mistaken identity, sight gags, slapstick, word play, parody. Its weakest moments came in seasons that wobbled towards parody in the way that the final Naked Gun movie seemed to run out of comic invention and leaned too heavily into parody and ex nihilo zaniness. The triumph of the show is that it managed to course correct, perhaps as the maturing of the child actors into adults opened up new realms for the writers to explore. As a result this final season, now airing on Sky One, has had episodes; in particular ‘The Prescott’; that have been dizzying in the sheer number of plates kept spinning for twenty minutes, while the ‘Paris’ special feels like a North by Northwest moment as the writers grabbed one last big chance to do stuff they’d always wanted to but never got to.

Supernatural returns

E4 have finally got round to airing season 14 of Supernatural, two years after season 13. Since then RTE2 have shown the second revival of The X-Files, which seemed at times to be directly pitting itself against its spiritual descendant. Supernatural is not the show it was back in 2005, not least because someone turned on the lights in season 6 after creator Eric Kripke left and they’ve never been turned off again since, which has changed the goriness and mood of the show. But starting season 14 now is an odd moment, because you can’t but be aware that season 15 is coming to an end in America, and its final episode will be the finale for the entire series. Supernatural began in 2005, first aired in Ireland on TV3 in summer 2006, and will likely finish its run on E4 in 2021 or 2022 depending on their dilatoriness. That is an incredible amount of time to have spent with the characters of Dean and Sam Winchester, and their treasured Chevy Impala – which as we know from Chuck turned out to be the most important object in the history of the universe.

The democratic revolution continues

Today is the first day of a further three week period of what feels rather like martial law, imposed by a government rejected by the people but which has refused to leave office – and nobody in the media seems to want make a fuss about that. Far from all being in this together the Garda Commissioner has been actively encouraging people to inform on their neighbours. That feels a bit too much like Soviet Russia for my liking, and, it should be noted, comes just months after Drew Harris wanted access to everyone’s business on their phone ‘to fight serious crime’. That was before the pandemic. As the idea of testing and tracing for a relaxation of lockdown in Germany involves accessing data on phones it’s not hard to see Drew’s snooping being double downed as ‘for the sake of public health’. And yet… a temporary crisis is always a perfect moment for doing away with civil liberties on a permanent basis. By all means lockdown the country for public health, but let’s have more discussion. And if a national crisis needs national unity then form a national government. The refusal to do so should be seen for what it is, and discussed for what it is, a shameful attempt by Fine Gael to profit politically from a pandemic. Their failed election campaign centred on scaremongering that only they could handle the crisis of Brexit. And now they cling stubbornly to power to … make their point that only they can handle a crisis…? Remember Varadkar blustering he wanted to go into opposition? What exactly does it take for Fine Gael to leave government when they lose an election? Must we send the entire Cabinet abroad for St Patrick’s Day and change all the ministerial locks?

January 13, 2020

From the Archives: The Kite Runner

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Gruelling is the best word to describe this film. Indeed it’s hard to fathom how such an unrelentingly depressing story could ever have become a world-wide best seller. But then maybe Troy screenwriter David Benioff has sprinkled his own peculiar variety of anti-gold dust over the original novel. After all German-Swiss director Marc Forster has a much better track record than Benioff having brought us Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland and Stranger than Fiction. Forster is almost physically incapable of making an uninvolving film and The Kite Runner grips like a vice throughout. However that’s not because you’re emotionally engaged with the characters, it’s more that you’re scared, rightly wary of what new horror Forster intends to visit upon the audience.

The story centres on the relationship between two young boys, Amir and Hassan, in 1978 Afghanistan. Amir’s father is rich and Hassan is the son of his loyal servant Ali. Hassan thus shows fanatical devotion to Amir but asserts this loyalty to the wrong bullies and gets raped by a gang of older boys. The terrifying villain of the piece Assef is (like the infamous Fascist Captain in Pan’s Labyrinth) just too many kinds of evil all rolled into one, without any redeeming features or quirks, to actually convince as a character. Assef in 1978 is a racist despising Hazzara Afghans, a rich snob who exults in his wealth and Pashtun breeding, and a homophobe who rapes Hassan to teach him a lesson. Assef in 2000 is a Taliban official who is now a bisexual paedophile, when he’s not stoning women to death for committing adultery. If you’ve managed to sit through the rape, you have a graphic stoning to death of a woman for committing adultery and a bloody slingshot to the eyeball still to come…

The Kite Runner fails because Amir is so incredibly horrible to Hassan after the rape. Nothing he does can achieve redemption as Hassan has the patience of a saint in all his scenes while Amir is never likeable. In addition despite the laudable use of subtitles and Afghan actors this film arguably falls into the old trap of using an ‘American abroad’ approach by having Scottish born Khalid Abdalla play the adult Amir. If this is an attempt to focus our sympathies with the San Francisco dwelling older Amir then it doesn’t work. Amir cannot find ‘a way to be good’ as the trailer so pompously promises. While it is interesting to see the Western influence in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion and the realities of life under the Taliban it’s not enough to make the misery worth while. You would not recommend this to friends.

2/5

June 23, 2019

Notes on Brightburn

A disappointing piece of counter-programming was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

What if Superman did not grow up to be the embodiment of Kansan farm-grown decency? It’s not a bad premise, but this is a bad exploration of it. While I was twitching thru 80 minutes in the cinema I was thinking about Mark Millar’s Red Son in which Kal-El landed in 1938 Ukraine not Kansas and grew up with very different ideas about Truth, Justice, and the American Way. I was thinking about Mark Millar’s Chosen, in which a small-town American teenager realises he has powers, and thinks he may be the Second Coming. As this teenage dark Superman mucked about I began to think of Smallville, when it had descended into total gibberish. I thought of Damien in The Omen as Elizabeth Banks and David Denman struggled with their adopted son’s growing menace. And I thought a lot about Chronicle, and how Dane DeHaan’s character turned to the dark side once he acquired powers because he’d been subjected to such bullying by his peers. Regrettably the Gunn family didn’t give these as much thought.

Listen here:

October 26, 2018

At least we still have… : Part V

Filed under: Talking Music — Fergal Casey @ 10:49 pm
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The fifth in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, Leningrad. As performed tonight by the RTE NSO under a Russian conductor.

The spirit of Russian resistance to the Nazi war machine, as delivered by the oft in trouble with Stalin composer.

As the Bolero like melody grew in orchestration and volume I suddenly thought of Germans outside the besieged city becoming aware of this melody, louder and louder, until trumpets playing a tune that could only be Russian blare out in a show of defiance.

May 12, 2018

Conspiracy Cinema at the IFI: Part II

The IFI presented a season of post-Watergate conspiracy cinema in June 2011, and now it’s having another conspiracy cinema season with a more European flavour. It’s rather appropriate that this German-flavoured season comes just as the GDPR comes into effect, as the GDR experience of surveillance and paranoia (that isn’t actually paranoia because they really are watching you) informs both the regulation and the season. These films reflect a time of political violence internationally by guerrilla groups and government militias, a feeling that anyone could be assassinated at any time, and the continual intrusion into private lives of shadowy forces.

 

Z

Saturday 12th May 2018
16.00

Costa-Gavras’ third feature made his international reputation, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1970; and more importantly making it onto Barry Norman’s 100 Best Films of the Century. It was inspired by the killing of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963 and was a defiant artistic gesture against the Generals in Athens. “Any similarity to actual events or persons living or dead is not coincidental. It is intentional” it proclaims in its credits.

127 MINS, FRANCE, 1969, DIGITAL, SUBTITLED

THE DAY OF THE JACKAL

Sunday 13th May 2018
16.00

A right-wing paramilitary group plots to kill French President General De Gaulle in response to his belated granting of Algerian independence. There is only one man for the job, Edward Fox as the professional assassin known as The Jackal. Learning of the conspiracy, police inspector Lebel (Michael Lonsdale before Moonraker) is given emergency powers to conduct his investigation and a game of cat and mouse ensues, with Cyril Cusack playing a memorable part. High Noon director Fred Zinnemann’s amps up the tension in this suspenseful adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel, which was itself inspired by an actual 1962 attempt on De Gaulle’s life.

143 MINS, UK-FRANCE, 1973, DIGITAL

THE FLIGHT

Wednesday 16th May 2018
18.15

Dr Schmidt (Armin Mueller-Stahl) has had it. He’s had with the GDR, he’s had it with the Stasis, he’s had it with the bureaucracy that pretends to be running a functioning Communist state by its own lights but sets the price of grain based on the market prices reported from Kansas. So he seeks the help of an underground faction to escape to the west. Incredibly Roland Gräf’s film was actually made in East Germany,  bankrolled by the state-owned DEFA studios. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 1978 Karlovy Vary Film Festival, it was the last film Mueller-Stahl made before, in a touch of life imitating art, he bolted from East Germany to West Germany in 1980.

94 MINS, EAST GERMANY, 1977, DIGITAL, SUBTITLED

INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION

Saturday 19th May 2018
16.00

Director Elio Petri surfed the same zeitgeist as Dario Fo’s play Accidental Death of an Anarchist with this stylish black comedy of endemic police corruption in Italy. Gian Maria Volontè plays a respected police inspector who murders his mistress and then, oh joy, handles the investigation of the murder himself. Like a more satirical riff on Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window he begins to drop ever-more obvious clues that he dun it, but nobody wants to know… This won the 1917 Best Foreign Film Oscar, but more importantly it boasts a terrific Ennio Morricone score.

115 MINS, ITALY, 1970, DIGITAL, SUBTITLED

THE PARALLAX VIEW

Sunday 20th May 2018
16.00

Alan J Pakula’s 1974 thriller sees Warren Beatty’s journalist investigating the possibility that powerful corporation the Parallax Organisation was behind a political assassination allegedly carried out by a conveniently dead lone gunman, and then murdered all the witnesses to the truth. Production was affected by a writer’s strike, and it shows, but there is a notable use of sound, as well as a scene where Gordon Willis allegedly cast a huge shadow over Beatty’s hammy breakdown to stop him embarrassing himself. The dazzling and famous highlight comes when Beatty is subjected to a test to see whether he fits the criteria for maladjusted misfit that Parallax likes to use for its lone gunmen. You know, people like say Lee Harvey Oswald, or James Earl Ray…

102 MINS, USA, 1974, 35MM

STATE OF SIEGE

Wednesday 23rd May 2018
18.30

Costa-Gavras again, this time his follow up to Z in 1972 in which he drew attention to US meddling in the internal politics of their near neighbours. Yves Montand is Philip Michael Santore, a CIA agent advising an unnamed Latin American government on the best method of dealing with terrorists. Enhanced interrogation the euphemism is now. Kidnapped by the very leftist guerrillas he’s been training the state to subdue he gets a taste of his own medicine, as he’s used as collateral in a prisoner swap. Media hysteria ensues, and Costa-Gavras critiques the brutality of Kissinger’s realpolitik, propping up right-wing dictatorships to prevent the emergence of left-wing dictatorships.

120 MINS, FRANCE-ITALY, 1972, DIGITAL, SUBTITLED

THE LOST HONOUR OF KATHERINA BLUM

Saturday 26th May 2018
16.00

Released just a year after Willy Brandt was forced to resign as Chancellor, following the explosive revelation that one of his closest advisers was a Stasi agent; undercover for 20 years!; this spoke to West German fears of being completely destroyed by unwitting association. Angela Winkler is Katherina Blum, a maid who sleeps with an attractive man. And also a suspected terrorist, and so she finds herself accused in private and public of being a terrorist too. Not based on BILD, for legal reasons, this was an indictment of media rush to judgement, aided and abetted by out of control forces of law and order.

106 MINS, WEST GERMANY, 1975, BLU-RAY

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR

Sunday 27th May 2018
16.00

Sydney Pollack shamelessly muscled in on Alan J Pakula territory with this post-Watergate slice of paranoia. Robert Redford is an unimportant CIA researcher Joe Turner who goes to lunch one day and is thankful that he did and had a long lunch because when he finally returns he finds everybody else in the office got shot. Kidnap a cute hostage (Faye Dunaway), fend off a European assassin (Max Von Sydow), unravel international global conspiracy that he’d accidentally stumbled on? All in a day’s work for a CIA desk jockey. Okay, maybe more than just a day, but still not bad for one unused to the field.

117 MINS, USA, 1975, BLU-RAY

KNIFE IN THE HEAD

Wednesday 30th May 2018
18.30

Angela Winkler again, this time playing the estranged wife of Bruno Ganz; who is Hoffman, another victim of wilful state character assassination. Hoffman is looking for his estranged wife when he gets caught in the suppression of a left-wing rally. He wakes up in hospital, partially paralysed and with severe memory loss. The police accuse him of killing one of their number, the left-wingers hail him as a victim of police brutality, he hasn’t a clue what happened. His attempts to figure out the truth lead to clashes with the authorities, and a grand metaphor for a country haunted by its violent past.

108 MINS, WEST GERMANY, 1978, 35MM

November 25, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg returns with a true Cold War spy story that’s thankfully imbued with far more energy and clarity of purpose than his meandering Lincoln.

ST. JAMES PLACE

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a deep cover Soviet spy apprehended in Brooklyn in 1957, who is assigned as his counsel insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); after some arm-twisting by Donovan’s boss Thomas Watters Jr (Alan Alda). Watters, and Donovan’s wife Mary (Amy Ryan) are soon surprised by the bond that develops between wry Abel and the stolid Donovan, and Donovan’s dogged determination to demand the rights promised by the Constitution be granted to an illegal alien from an enemy power. The Donovan children Peggy (Jillian Lebling), Roger (Noah Schnapp), and Carol (Eve Hewson) are as uncomprehending as Joe Public of their father’s actions. But when U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in May 1960 Company man Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) brings Donovan to Allen Foster Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to be entrusted with a secret mission.

First off, history… English playwright Matt Charman’s screenplay was polished by the Coens, but in a BBC Radio 4 interview Charman didn’t mention Giles Whittell’s 2010 book Bridge of Spies. Perhaps it’d raise uncomfortable questions; like why Hoffman and Dulles tell Donovan their intelligence suggests the GDR is about to wall off East Berlin when the CIA, despite Berlin crawling with so many spies Willy Brandt derided it as grown-ups playing Cowboys and Indians, had no idea till secretly stockpiled barbed wire went up overnight. Also master spy Abel (Willie Fisher during his British adolescence) perfected his Brooklyn cover, as a retiree taking up painting, at the expense of actually spying. Despite prosecutorial fulminations he wasn’t charged with acts of espionage, because there was no evidence of any. And the arrest of Yale doctoral student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is total melodramatic fiction; the Stasi were simultaneously extremely sinister and blackly hilarious. Their ineffectual interrogations of Pryor were True Kafka.

There are three moments in this tale spun from historical elements; a polite mugging, a pompous phone call, and a fake family; that are pure Coens, but this is Spielberg’s show. His visual storytelling is concise and expressive; especially the opening FBI pursuit of Abel, where we recognise Agents by glances, and Powers’ dismayed expression at his Moscow show trial, where a craning pull-out emphasises his isolation. Janusz Kaminski mostly reins in his diffuse supernova lighting to showcase Adam Stockhausen’s decrepit design, while Thomas Newman stands in for John Williams with orchestral flavours akin to Williams’ JFK score. Donovan’s line, “It doesn’t matter what other people think, you know what you did,” is the moral of the film, emphasised visually twice over. And his bloody-minded defence of the 4th amendment seems extremely pertinent when the 1st amendment is equally beleaguered.

Twitter lynch-mobs wouldn’t appreciate the nuance Donovan tries to impart to Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) but Spielberg’s film is a call for decency over outrage that is alarmingly timely.

3.5/5

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