Moment #13: Mr. Holmes (2015)

11 June 2017

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It is always interesting watching films about the very old, not least because there are relatively few of them. Mr Holmes, made in 2015, has Ian McKellen playing the 93-year old detective in post-World War II England. He is long retired to a house on the south coast, looked after by a housekeeper, Mrs Munro, and her son, Roger, wrestling with the details of his last case, some thirty years previously. He is trying to work out why the case, “The Adventure of the Dove Grey Glove”, made him retire.

Through some makeup magic by Dave Elsey, the film tells two parallel stories. The ageing and forgetful Holmes looks after his bees, obsesses with things (like Japanese prickly ash) that might postpone his death, while trying to write his own story of the case of the dove grey glove. In flashback, his 60-something self investigates the case, or perhaps reinterprets it. John Watson’s version of the story makes him appear a hero, but he can’t ask him, for Watson is long dead.

As he tells Roger:

SHERLOCK HOLMES; I’ve decided to write the story down; as it was, not as John made it. Get it right, before I die.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, of course, were stories inside stories, apparently written by Watson, and as with the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock, on the BBC, the film plays off Watson’s invention of the character of Holmes. In Japan, while he is collecting the prickly ash, Mr Umezaki asks him:

MR UMEZAKI: My mother, she wonders if you have brought your famous hat.
HOLMES: Oh, the deer stalker. That was an embellishment of the illustrator. I’ve never worn one.
MR UMEZAKI: And the pipe?
HOLMES: I prefer a cigar. I told Watson, if I ever write a story myself, it will be to correct the million misconceptions created by his imaginative licence.

In similarly recursive mode, the McKellen character goes to see a Sherlock Holmes film in Mr Holmes. It seems to be a film based on the “Dove Grey Glove”, which before you ask is an invention of the novel the film is based on.

The moment. The film is built around a triangle; Holmes, the young Roger, whom he’s taken under his wing, and his mother, the housekeeper, who is worried about what will happen to her and her son when Holmes dies. She’s heard about a position in a hotel in Portsmouth. Her son doesn’t want to go. Unknown to the viewer, she’s been to visit the hotel owner that day. After she returns her son asks Holmes to “do his thing… where he tells people who they are and where they’ve been, just from looking.” The ageing detective demurs, then summons up his powers and does his thing.

HOLMES: I’m sure your mother doesn’t need to be told where she’s been.
MRS MUNRO: Let’s not bother Mr Holmes with any foolishness.
ROGER: It’s not foolishness. Here. You come and stand in front of Mr Holmes. Just like that. And he will tell you where you’ve been. Do it.
[to HOLMES] You want her to turn in a circle?
HOLMES: No, that won’t be necessary.
ROGER (to mother): Turn in a circle.
HOLMES: You’ve been away most of the day. The soot on your dress attests that you went by train to Portsmouth, as all other nearby rail lines which might accommodate a return trip of this length are under repair or beyond it. In Portsmouth, you met the couple who run the hotel. Your hair and nails are evidence that you wished to make a favourable impression. They made you an offer, you accepted. You declined tea, and did not see the sister for whom you have no particular fondness, using my indisposition as an excuse to hurry back.
MRS MUNRO: It wasn’t an excuse.
ROGER: You accepted?
MRS MUNRO: Start a week Monday.
ROGER: Both of us?
MRS MUNRO: We’re both going.
ROGER: She wants me to be a bootblack!

One of the things that scriptwriters are taught is to “make your exposition argument”. But this revelation seems, to me, to be done far more cleverly.

The script extracts are from Springfield! Springfield!


Moment #12: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

4 June 2017

 

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Knowing nothing much about Saving Mr Banks, the film of how Walt Disney persuaded P.L.Travers to make a film of her Mary Poppins novels, I’d expected it to be more sentimental than it was. She had agreed because she was running out of money; book sales had dried up. But she was suspicious of everything that Disney had in mind: the songs, the animation, the casting of Dick van Dyke. (Indeed, she thought she had an agreement that there would be no animation in Mary Poppins).

Saving Mr Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock, is largely set in the two weeks that Travers spends in Los Angeles with the writers and composer team on the studio lot, as Walt Disney cajoles her into allowing the film to be made, but with flashbacks to her difficult childhood in Australia, a childhood largely effaced by her very English public persona. Emma Thompson is outstanding as Travers, the best I have seen her; Tom Hanks is a credible Disney.

The character of Mr Banks, the father in the novels, is partly based on Travers’ own father, an alcoholic who died young; Mary Poppins on her mother’s aunt, who came to look after her and her siblings after his death.

At its heart, this is a film about film-making, maybe never more so when Disney flies to London after Travers, believing that she has been deceived, has suddenly gone home. The scene has one of those speeches that actors die for. Here’s an extract:

WALT DISNEY: Mrs. Travers, trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won’t disappoint you. I swear, every time a person walks into a movie house, from Leicester Square to Kansas City, they will see George Banks being saved. They will love him and his kids. They will weep for his cares. They will wring their hands when he loses his job. And when he flies that kite… Oh, Mrs. Travers, they will rejoice. They will sing. In movie houses all over the world, in the eyes and heads of my kids and other kids, and mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Now, maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.

My moment from the film is slightly earlier, when Travers finally lets go in the rehearsal room as the composing team (the Sherman brothers) play ‘Let’s Go Fly A Kite’ to her. At one level, this is a nod to the whole tradition of ‘Let’s do the show right here’ of the MGM musicals of the ’50s, such as The Bandwagon. But it’s also another reminder that film does redemption better than any other medium.

Travers was never reconciled with Hollywood after her experience with Mary Poppins, although it solved her financial crisis. When Cameron Mackintosh approached her in the 1990s about a stage version, she agreed, on condition that only English-born writers be involved—and no-one involved in the making of the film.


The dangers of snap elections

2 June 2017

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Stewart Wood worked with Gordon Brown in late 2007, when as a new Labour party leaders, and therefore a new but unelected Prime Minister, he dithered about calling a General Election, and then decided against. The financial crisis evaporated his poll lead, and he never recovered politically from that.

Wood posted a series of tweets reflecting on that moment through the lens of the difficulties Theresa May is having with her equivalent election, which are worth sharing so they don’t get lost in the Twitter firehose.

Five years on from Brown’s decision not to call with an election, Brown’s spin doctor Damian McBride wrote up the day-by-day inside story (in the Telegraph) of how an apparently inevitable decision to go to the polls became a decision not to.

On the other hand, we all should be grateful that Brown was Prime Minister in 2008; he held his nerve, and used his knowledge of economics and history, to make sure that the British banking system didn’t collapse, and helped stiffen the resolve of the  world’s leaders at the height of the crisis. People forget that we were hours away from a collapse of the banking system.

As Aditya Chakrabortty wrote:

What sticks out about that period is how Brown and Alistair Darling were not only acting without a roadmap, they were driving with Cameron and Osborne right on their bumper telling them to do a U-turn. The diagnosis that British banks were dangerously low on capital was correct – but it was the opposite of what most bankers were saying.

Had Brown called an election, and not won, the thought of Cameron trying to make those decisions is frankly terrifying.

The image at the top of the post shows Brown arriving at No. 10 as new Prime Minister in 2007.


Moment #11: North by Northwest (1959)

29 May 2017

Before the invention of VHS, it was an act of dedication to find and watch classic films; sometimes you would catch a ‘live’ TV screening, otherwise it was a trip to a cinema that cared enough about film to show them. Now, a film like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, with advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) on the run and all at sea, can be found everywhere.

The theme of the “wrong man” who ends up on the run, both tying to solve the mystery and to clear his name, recurs in Hitchcock’s films. Think of The 39 Steps. But in North by Northwest, in a way that is both more plausible,and more sinister, he’s being left out there as a decoy.

Most of its big set-pieces are well-known; the murder at the United Nations; the attack by the crop duster plane; the final set-piece among the American Presidents on Mount McKinley.

The moment: the sequence before the attack by the crop duster plane, which builds the suspense, and oh, so, slowly.

It’s worth breaking it down a little to see what Hitchcock did.

The sequence starts with a high static fixed shot, probably from a crane, looking back along the road. The bus that Thornhill/Grant is on appears in the distance, and the shot allows it to drive all the way, to the bus stop at the bottom, where Grant gets off, and the bus leaves again. We get the picture: this is the middle of nowhere. It runs for 48″.

There’ then a series of shots, also static, that intercut between Grant by the side of the road, the few cars passing on the road, and the flatness of the Plains. We (spoiler) still think that he’s here to meet “Kaplan”. This sequence runs through 27 shots and lasts 1’52”.

Now something happens. A car appears from a side road (more a track), and stops at the junction, on the other side of the road, where a man gets out. There’s a fabulous shot of the two men, on opposite sides of the road, the  horizon no more than a quarter of the way up the screen. Grant, eventually, eventually, walks across the road towards him; there’s an immediate contrast between Grant’s expensive grey Manhattan suit and the man’s cheap brown suit and hat. Ernest Lehmann’s dialogue is laconic, as we hear the plane for the first time.

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The scene ends as it began, with a bus heading away along the highway, and Thornhill/Grant standing by the roadside. It is also worth mentioning the sound design, although it wouldn’t have been called sound design in 1959. The audio during this whole sequence is “natural” sound; the cars on the road, doors being opened and closed, Grant’s shoes clicking on the dirt as he looks around. No music. In fact, there’s no music until after the plane has hit the truck.

The sequence lasts for just over five minutes; longer, in fact, than the scene in which the crop duster plane attacks Grant. When we call Hitchcock the master of suspense, it’s because of sequences like this, which signal to the audience a sense of foreboding and makes the action more intense when it starts.

Most of the sequence is here.


Moment #10: Love Happens (2009)

28 May 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The kindest thing that can be said about Love Happens is that it’s functional. An eight year-old movie, more romantic drama than rom-com, that washed its face at the box office and now fills out the Film Four schedule.

In brief: Aaron Eckhart is self-help guru Burke Ryan, who runs workshops on dealing with death, in the aftermath of his own wife’s death in a car crash three years ago. Jennifer Aniston  is a florist, Eloise, whom he meets in the lobby of the hotel in Seattle where he is running this week’s workshop.

You can more or less join up the dots from there, though for a whirlwind romance–the film plays out over the three and a half days he’s in town to run his workshop–there’s not much chemistry between the leads.

Anyway, the moment: She takes him for a drive in one of those trucks with a lift in the back, having dropped off her VW van at her mum’s house (“Are you trying to dodge the FBI?”, he asks her.) It turns out that top (fictional) group Rogue Wave are playing in town that night, tickets have been sold out for weeks, and she’s borrowed the truck so the pair of them can watch the gig over the wall from its elevated platform.

Actually, this moment works a little bit harder than this description makes it sound. One of the things the Burke Ryan character talks about in his workshops is overcoming fear; he still walks up the stairs rather than taking the elevator. So in a small way, the scene also reinforces that story arc.


Coping with pressure

23 May 2017

In his book Etape, Richard Moore revisits stages of the Tour de France through the eyes of the protagonists. The first chapter in the book is about Chris Boardman’s win in the Prologue in Lille in 1994, which made him only the second Briton to wear the race leader’s yellow jersey. Boardman’s route into the professional peleton had been an unusual one; he turned professional relatively late, at the age of 25, after winning the individual pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and then breaking the world hour record in Bordeaux in 1993–a record attempt that took place just as the Tour went through the city.

Boardman was invited onto the Tour podium the day after his ride, although not all of the Tour riders were impressed. Luc Leblanc, then the leading French rider, said publicly that most members of the Tour peleton could better Boardman’s distance if they put their minds to it.

Boardman was always quite anxious about his performance, and before Barcelona, he went to see John Syer, a leading sports psychologist.

Prior to the Barcelona Olympics, Boardman spilled out his fears to John Syer. “What if this goes wrong? What if I can’t go fast enough? What if the other guy’s faster? What if I puncture.”

Boardman expected Syer to offer words of reassurance. Instead he said: Yeah, well, those things could happen.” Boardman was puzzled. “I said, ‘Hang on, aren’t you supposed to be helping me here?’ But he said, ‘No, this is the deal, mate–elation and despair are two sides of the same coin, in equal and opposite proportion. If you want to risk the big win, you’ve got to risk the big low. So instead of trying to deny that, why don’t we stare it in the face?'”

John Syer was the first well-known sports psychologist in the UK. He was a former international volleyball player and coach, who came to prominence from working with the Spurs first team in the early 1980s. His book Team Spirit, one of a string of books he wrote or co-wrote to explain his methods,  was published in 1986.

A story I remember well from that book was of his work with the forward Steve Archibald, a talented player who needed a certain amount of anger to play well, but didn’t need it in the rest of his life. Syer helped him deal with this by having him visualise letting a bear(Archibald’s own image) out of a cage before the game, and then returning it to the cage after the game.


I remember the story because I tried a version of this myself in the early 1990s. I had taken a job in a new role that brought me into conflict with some of the engineers in the television company, and the head of department and his deputy proceeded to try to undermine me in every way they could. Nothing was too little trouble for them. Every day–for the better part of a year–was a sea of passive aggression.

By the time I went home each day, having absorbed the best or worst they threw at me, I always felt terrible. Remembering Syer’s story, I found a box and put it in the bottom of my filing cabinet. Before I left for the night, I would go through a ritual of visualising removing their hostility and leaving it in the box, in the office. It worked well enough.

As for Boardman, in that famous Prologue win, where he rode faster than any Tour rider before or since, he caught his ‘minute man’, the rider who left sixty seconds ahead of him, which shouldn’t really happen to professionals in a ride that lasts for eight minutes. His minute man? Luc Leblanc. What goes around, comes around.


Moment#9: The Glass Bottom Boat (1966)

21 May 2017

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The technical name for a film like The Glass Bottom Boat is a “confection”. It is a vehicle for Doris Day to play Jennifer Nelson, a kooky and accident-prone youngish widow who gets a job in the PR department of a space lab that has developed a gravity simulator called GISMO. Day was 44 at the time, but looked 30-something thanks to the wonders of Hollywood. The boffin/genius (Bruce Templeton, played by Rod Taylor) who runs the lab falls in love with her, at which point she is suspected of being a Russian spy. Is is a spy spoof? Is it a romantic comedy? Frankly it’s impossible to tell, as you can see from a quick look at the trailer at the end of the post, or the poster at the top.

It was directed by Frank Tashlin, a well-regarded comedy director, towards the end of his career, and it made a profit.

What it definitely is, is of its time. In 1966, we’re only four years on from Kennedy’s “we choose to go to the moon” speech, and a couple of years after a British Prime Minister had won an election on a slogan about the “white heat of technology”. We’re still in a moment when people can believe in the meaningful advance of technology, before the internet closed down our horizons.

This means that the boffin’s house has the kind of paleofuturist automated kitchen that used to come with a breathless Pathé voiceover, he has a motor boat driven by remote control (of course the remote control ends up in the water, with hilarious consequences), and the lab itself provides opportunities for some good gags and some excitable 1960s gee whizzery. And since it’s a vehicle for Doris Day, a couple of songs are shoe-horned in: the whimsical title track, and a quick reprise of her calling card, ‘Que Sera Sera‘.

The moment: a neat bit of set-up/pay-off in a slapstick sequence involving a cake and a waste bin. Man fixing the PA system at Templeton’s house for a big party accidentally steps on a big cake that Day has brought over. Trying to minimise the mess. she inserts his shoe and the remains of a cake into a waste bin, where it gets stuck. And then the ladder he’s standing on topples over. There follows some comic physical business as she tries to get his shoe back out again.

MAN (in overalls, with foot stuck in wastebin): You know something? You’re irritated with me, I’m irritated with myself [as Nelson/ Doris Day helps him to his feet]. It’s just a good thing that I didn’t fall into the pool, with my cold, that’s all.

At which point you know that sooner or later he’s going to end up in the swimming pool. And he does. But not until we’ve had a bit more slapstick involving some physical comedy, cake icing, and Day getting her foot stuck in the bin as well.

There’s a terrific visual gag at a party where the man from U.N.C.L.E.  Napoleon Solo pops up at a party, and then vanishes again. Blink and you’d miss it. As you also would if you’re younger than about 50.


Moment#8: Easy Living (1937)

15 May 2017

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The writer-director Preston Sturges is best known for a string of edgy comedies during the war years that somehow managed to run rings around the Hays Code; Easy Living—not to be confused with the 1949 film of the same name—is one of the screenplays he wrote that persuaded Hollywood to give him the opportunity to direct as well.

It plays off the genre conventions well; women against men, rich against poor.

The film has one of the great “inciting incidents”–the event that kicks off the plot. The third richest banker on Wall Street, in a fit of rage at his wife’s extravagance, hurls a fur coat that she has just spent $58,000 on from the roof of their townhouse, and it lands, literally, on the head of Mary Smith, a clerk at a magazine business (played by Jean Arthur), who is going to work on an open-topped bus.

Comedy is often about a fish out of water, and Sturges is brilliant at this in his films, most notably in Sullivan’s Travels, in which rich and successful film director John Sullivan is granted his wish to discover what it’s like to be poor in 1940s America.

Easy Living, which was directed by Mitchell Leisen, is also a fish out of water story, but Mary Smith gets to discover what it’s like to be rich and influential.

The moment: Mary Smith has the $58,000 coat, and a hat to match, and is living in a suite at an expensive hotel, all for perfectly credible reasons as far as the story goes, but she’s also been fired from her job and is down to her last nickel. She’s at the Automat, where New Yorkers used to get budget food before MacDonalds was invented. And there she runs into the banker’s son, who is clearing tables, trying to prove to his father that he can get by without the family money.

This is quite a long sequence–the whole scene runs for about eight minutes–but I love how it starts low-key (and about the lives of the rich) and ends up in slapstick mayhem (and much more about the lives of the poor). The way the hungry Jean Arthur looks longingly at the plates of the other diners could have come straight out of silent movies. And the whole thing is full of wonderful detail: there’s a lot going on.

There’s pretty much a scene-by-scene breakdown of the film by Cameron at her blog, The Blonde at the Film. And the whole film is on youtube, with some interruptions for ads.

 


Moment#7: An American In Paris (1951)

10 May 2017

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Moment #7. Everything that can be said about An American in Paris has probably been said already. With On The Town and Singin’ In The Rain it represents the apogee of the American musical, and in particular of the work of Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM. It pushed the Hollywood dance sequence to new limits1–the 17-minute “American in Paris” ballet sequence, created by Gene Kelly, cost almost half a million dollars to make, in 1951 money–and the film won a hatful of Oscars.

I watched the film on DVD again at home in a back-to-back American in Paris multi-format experience immediately after going to see the latest stage version in London, which is a trumphant reimagining of the film.

The moment: the sequence early in the film when Henri Baurel, played by Georges Guétary, describes to the musician Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) the delights of Lise, (Leslie Caron), the young woman he’s in love with, and we see Caron perform a series of balletic routines. I’ve chosen this because it’s doing several things all at the same time.

It’s introducing the 19-year old Leslie Caron, spotted by Gene Kelly dancing in a French ballet company, to the Hollywood audience for the first time.

It’s showing us that she’s a proper dancer, and doing so without her having to talk (at the time her English was only serviceable).

It shifts the film from the realism of the narrative, and the browns of that narrative palette, into the colours of the dance musical.

And I think it does one more thing as well. It maybe conveys to us, quite early in the film, that Henri Baurel is maybe in love with an idea of Lise, rather than the actual person, which helps explain (spoiler) why he’s willing to give her up right at the end.

Here’s the clip.

Arthur Freed had tried to buy only the rights to the American in Paris Suite from Ira Gershwin (George had died in 1937) but Ira shrewdly insisted that all the songs in the movie should be Gershwin songs. I think Freed got lucky here, since it gives the musical a coherence and quality that a patchwork of songs by several composers would not have provided. And Kelly’s dancing shimmers in this smart adaptation of ‘I Got Rhythm’.


1. Although, of course, Powell and Pressburger’s British film The Red Shoes, made three years earlier, also had a long ballet sequence in it. Kelly screened the film for MGM executives before An American in Paris was greenlighted, according to imdb.


Moment#6: The Awful Truth (1937)

8 May 2017

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Moment #6: Still on the screwball trail, this is one of the BFI’s ‘ten great’ screwball comedies. It won its director, Leo McCarey, an Oscar, leading woman Irene Dunne an Oscar nomination, and established Cary Grant as a leading man. And watching it, you can see why: it’s wonderfully written, sharply plotted, moves along at pace, is packed full of fine comic moments, several involving their dog, and it takes you, eventually, to the place you want to be. As a scriptwriter I once worked with observed, you need to take the audience where it wants to go, but not by the route they expect to get there.

The film is set, mostly, in the ninety days from the date of the divorce. I could have picked any one of a dozen moments or more from the film, but the sequence that sets up the plot is a sublime piece of staging. Jerry Warriner, played by Grant, has been away, apparently but most likely not in Florida, and he returns home with some friends to find his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) away. Well, he finds out that she’s away quite slowly.

First, one of the women in the group scans the table with the mail on it and observes that there are some letters on the table for Lucy, some from yesterday.

JERRY: That’s the trouble with most marriages today. People are always imagining things. (Beat) The road to Reno is paved with suspicions. The first thing you know is they all end up in a divorce court.

GUEST: The broad-minded man from the Rio Grande.

JERRY: If you think I’m going to get a chance to prove my broadmindedness any minute you’re crazy. No, Lucy’s really up at her Aunt Patsy’s cabin, I’ll bet on it.

And Jerry’s on a roll, extolling the virtues of Aunt Patsy’s cabin as we see Aunt Patsy arrive in shot behind him, seen by everyone in the room except for Jerry.

AUNT PATSY (her first words): Any idea where Lucy is? You know she invited me to this…

At which point Lucy arrives, looking stunning in white, followed a moment or two later by her singing teacher, and a long story about how they’d been on their way home from a concert when the car broke down and they’d had to spend the night in “the nastiest little inn you ever saw,” insisting of course that it was all completely innocent.

LUCY: Can’t have a happily married life if you’re always going to be suspicious of each other.

JERRY: Right again […]

LUCY: But I don’t know why I’m boring all of you with private matters.

GUEST: Oh, we’re not bored.

LUCY: No one’s interested in mine except for Jerry, and he knows it’s innocent, just as he knows (pause), well, that he just got back from Florida.

Part of the ambiguity is probably to dance around the restrictions imposed on what films could show or say about sex, under the Hays Code, but the effect is to make the film funnier.

One of the moments I could have chosen is the scene in which Lucy and her new fiance, Dan Leeson, played by Ralph Bellamy, run into Cary Grant at a night club. This clip gives a sense of both the film’s dialogue and the comedy, and a version of this scene plays out in a different way later on in the film at a decisive point in the story.

Intolerable Cruelty riffs off The Awful Truth in several places, and I couldn’t also help wonder if Marilyn’s iconic scene in The Seven Year Itch borrowed from it. Its director, Billy Wilder, would certainly have been familiar with The Awful Truth, and in their way the two films have a similar theme.