Archive for the 'film' Category

Films and music

20 September 2017

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I found a note on film music in an old notebook on an interview with the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, perhaps still best known for his work with Krzystzof Kieslowski. Here are a couple of extracts.

The question is why should we use music at all. The connection between the film and the music is completely metaphysical because you never see the music; you only feel it, and in my opinion the best music for a film is total silence. Most American films use a composer like John Williams, when there is music all the time to tell you what to think and how to feel. A bit of danger: some scary horns. A love scene: romantic strings. But the French writer Baudelaire was right when he said that the matter for the artist is not to describe what he sees, but what he feels.

And this. It explains in part why, despite his reputation, he has only worked in European cinema. The other part of the explanation is about what Hollywood economics does to artistic endeavour.

When I see most American movies, I think they are providing instructions for terrorists. I was in Poland when I watched September 11 on television, and at first I thought it was a movie. Sure, Independence Day is fun, but films like this are wishing for something to happen, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And here, to troll the Brexiteers who are busy hating my recent Medium post on Brexit, is his ‘Song for the Unification of Europe’, from Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue.

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Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942) 

18 September 2017


I watched Sherlock Homes and the Secret Weapon because that series of films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes were a bit of a mystery to me. They certainly banged them out: 14 were made between 1939 and 1946, and updated to the present, often with the lightest of nods to the Conan Doyle canon.  

Rathbone plays Holmes, Nigel Bruce plays Watson, Moriarty appears, and is killed off a couple of times. But, as in the original, of course, Moriarty never dies. 

In 1942, in Secret Weapon, Holmes has to spring a scientist from Switzerland under the eyes of watching Gestapo agents, and once in London spring him once again from the clutches of Moriarty. Of course, it is a propaganda film. The MacGuffin is a bombsight that the scientist has designed that is far more accurate (yes, I heard it as “bombsite” in the film until I saw it assembled).  

The Conan Doyle reference is to the Dancing Men code, used by the scientists for a critical plot point. Watson is bluff. Lestrade is a comic plodder.

The moment is certainly a spoiler: yes, Holmes foils the plot and saves the scientist and the RAF gets its bombsights. This is from the very end of the film, when Holmes and Watson are watching squadrons of bombers equipped with the sights heading for Germany. (The usefulness of that is for another post on another day). Shakespeare is invoked. But unlike Nolan’s Dunkirk, when audiences first saw this film, in 1942, they didn’t know how things were going to turn out. The TV version I saw had left an advertisement for war bonds on the print they screened, after the credits.

Film Moments #22: Love Affair (1939)

17 September 2017


Director Leo McCarey made Love Affair twice, with almost the same script. The first time, it starred Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, a big ’30s star who has now slid from view. He remade it almost two decades later as An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr to considerably more acclaim, but there’s lots to like about this first version.

Same script, same plot. A couple fall in love on a transatlantic liner, but are each engaged to someone else, so can’t be together; they agree to meet on the viewing tower of the Empire State Building in six months; tragedy strikes; but (spoiler) they are reunited right at the end of the film. Yes, it’s one of those stories that would be so much simpler now they’ve invented the mobile phone. It’s a while since I’ve seen An Affair to Remember, but memory says that it laid the melodrama on with a trowel, partly through its score, which is probably why it is so popular. Love Affair seemed to have a lighter touch.

Love Affair is out of copyright, so can be found on the internet. There’s an elegant bit of visual design. On the boat, both are in white or cream clothes, until close to the end of the voyage. Once in America, both are predominantly wearing black. Right at the end of the film, when they meet again, the two colours are reunited through a payoff that has been set up in the first part of the film.

The moment is a visual one that would only work in film. The two are on the boat as it docks in New York, scanning the crowd for their respective fiance(e)s. She is far left, he is far right of shot. As they see them, they indicate them, wordlessly, to the other. After that there’s some business on the gangway that’s also worth looking out for. And listen for the nod to Gershwin.

Film moment #23: Dunkirk (2017)

14 September 2017


I might as well acknowledge from the start that I’m suspicious of Dunkirk, just as I’m suspicious of this year’s Churchill film and suspicious to the point of despair about the about-to-open Victoria & Abdul, no matter how well Judi Dench plays Victoria, again. I’m not sure that the world needs any more cultural objects right now that are basically rehashes of Britain as world power, even if, as Churchill said of Dunkirk at the time, “an evacuation is not a victory”, and, come to that, Christopher Nolan is a consistently interesting film-maker.

Having seen it quite reluctantly, I’m not with those critics who were gushing, or come to that the British writer who hated it

So, on the upside, it is technically interesting, in that Nolan refuses almost all of that tedious backstory stuff that usually clutters up films, especially films in which the characters have a risk of death, and which allows us to attach judgmental labels to them. The illusion he is creating for us is that he is putting us face-to-face in the moment with the characters (although unlike them, we know how it turned out.) This also means it must have one of the shortest scripts of a modern full length film. And Nolan refuses to use CGI, which is laudable, since CGI is clearly the drug that has destroyed Hollywood’s imagination. 

Except: that in telling a story that involved evacuating 50,000 people a day from a beach for a week he clearly hasn’t got enough extras to convey the scale of the operation, and one of the things that attracted Nolan to the story was the scale of the operation. (There are ways around such things. I’m thinking of the visual innovation Edward Dmytrk brought to Crossfire when the shooting schedule didn’t allow for proper lighting set-ups, but Nolan doesn’t opt for this.)

On the downside, I hate films where the music tells me blatantly what I’m supposed to feel. Hans Zimmer’s score plays with the chords of ‘Nimrod’ from the moment it looks like the evacuation plan is going to work, and by the time he’s got to the end he’s gone full Elgar (“Variation 15”). Like I said, enough of that age of empire stuff.

The moment. Nolan sees the film in an elemental way, as being earth, sea and air. The earth is the ‘mole’ or beach area of Dunkirk, protected by two long breakwaters, and as he introduces these elements (pun intended) he adds a caption with their ‘time’ attached to them. The mole is a week–which is how long they have before the Germans overrun the defences. The sea is a day–how long it takes the boats to go there and back. And the air is an hour: the flying time of a Spitfire across the Channel before they run out of a fuel. I’ve never seen a director share with the audience the way their film thinks about time in such a straightforward way. 

   

Film moments #21: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

1 September 2017

You watch Ridley Scott’s version of Robin Hood and it turns out to be a gateway drug to Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  It’s a genre spoof, like Blazing Saddles, which gets a nod here. The Producers, it ain’t. What that means in practice is lots of gags that were of the moment, along with the hopelessly anachronistic (the Godfather is hired to arrange Robin’s assasination), but it does hit all of the correct mythical moments.

We get Robin earning his spurs with the merry men, the daring escape from the castle, the archery competition, Marian, King Richard’s return (Patrick Stewart gets to do his Sean Connery impersonation.) In other words, it is a kind of bastard child of the Prince of Thieves, as evinced by Robin’s black sidekick–no, I’m not going to get into that argument here–and also Errol Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood.

Anyway, the moment. I’ve talked in one of the other Moments about exposition, and Men in Tights does a neat job of getting people up to speed with the Robin Hood story. First, there’s a musical version, immediately after the credits, telling the tale in a (mostly) hiphop style:

Prince John and the Sherriff, they were running the show

Raising the taxes because they needed the dough…

The second is when the Sherriff of Rottingham has to break the news to Bad King John that Robin is back from the Crusades. The screenwriters’ trick? John only likes to hear good news.

Film moment #20: Robin Hood (2010)

19 August 2017


The Robin Hood story is such a familiar myth, and such an open one, that film-makers can fill it with anything they want to. And they do. Wikipedia lists more than 70 film and TV versions.

The 1938 film with Erroll Flynn, even allowing for the anti-Nazi subtext, is more or less the “official version”, with the noble-born Robin of Locksley cast into the woods with his outlaw band, down with the common people under the greensward, with narrow scrapes involving the Sherriff of Nottingham, the Lady Marian, archery and a ton of swordplay. And the returning King Richard, the deus ex machina that fixes the plot. This is the version parodied so brilliantly in Time Bandits.

And, later, of course, by Mel Brooks:

There’s a “one last job” version, with Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn as the ageing Robin and Marian. In Prince of Thieves Kevin Costner plays it as class war with a diversity twist, Saxons-plus-Moor against Normans in the mud and rain, if memory serves. I’ve seen a 1950s cross-dressing version (spoiler) where they send for Robin Hood’s son and he turns out to be his daughter.

Ridley Scott’s telling of the story feels like the post-financial crisis version. It was much rewritten over a period of five years. He gave up on the idea I read about online of having Robin of Locksley and the Sherriff of Nottingham be the same person, and ends up more or less writing Locksley out completely. Instead an ordinary soldier (Russell Crowe) picks up Locksley’s sword after he is ambushed by the perfidious French on the way back from the Crusades, returns it to his family, and ends up being asked to impersonate Locksley by his family to help ensure their safety. Locksley and his death become the inciting incident, and the film ends up being the prequel to the myth.

This whole plot device deals quite elegantly with one of the big problems of the Robin Hood story. How do you exactly explain the aristocrat who ends up living in the woods, robbing the rich? ( (This works as myth, but not so much as plot). Screenwriter Brian Helgeland fixes this by turning Robin Hood into Everyman. And fabulously, being the post-crisis version of the story, Everyman Hood ends up inventing both the Charter of the Forest and the Magna Carta as part of the plot. At the start of this sequence he even drops a hint to Shelley as well. This is the moment.

I’m not with those people who say that Russell Crowe’s accent is all over the place. It is, by modern standards. But one of the things we know about the early English is that accents were all over the place. And don’t mess with Cate Blanchett, who plays the Marian role here. I love her as an actor, and the way her character develops through the film is well done. Here she is explaining to Russell how things are, after her father has suggested that they need to share a bedchamber to convince the servants that Robin Longstride really is Robin of Locksley.

Film moment #19: The Boss Baby (2017)

7 August 2017


Sometimes you watch films more or less by mistake. That was definitely the case with The Boss Baby, which my son had bought on iTunes to watch as mindless background while he got on with a university project. As mindless background, it worked. As a film, not so much. It is an animated movie, produced by Dreamworks, which features a baby who is like an old style 1950s manager who drops in on a household for reasons that I think were explained in the narrative sometime after I had lost the will to live.

In fact, once you know the premise, you can pretty much fill in both the plot and all of the jokes. And the main problem with such films is that Pixar has raised the bar so high on the animated film, in terms of depth of story and richness of storytelling, that something like The Boss Baby careens straight under it. 

Almost the only amusement was playing spot-the-reference on the chase sequence. Toy Story, Mary Poppins, ET (well, the chase involved a bicycle, so we were waiting for that) and what definitely looked like an unsubtle nod to Battleship Potemkin‘s Odessa Steps sequence. Again, The Simpsons has upped the game for everyone on this stuff, and I wished they’d put the energy into making the story better. 

So, don’t waste your time watching the film. 

But rules are rules, and I need to find a moment here. I’m going to go for the intro sequence of the babies being processed, because wittingly or not director Tom McGrath had managed to recreate the spirit of the great pre-war dance musicals directed by Busby Berkeley. It never recaptures that brief moment of promise.   

Here’s the babies sequence in The Boss Baby.

And here is something from Busby Berkeley.

Film moment #18: Man Up (2015)

4 August 2017

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Sometimes you watch films more or less by mistake. I happened to be in the front room prepping a presentation while my wife was watching *Man Up**, a 2015 British rom-com that owes more than a little to Richard Curtis. (Man Up was like watching the bastard child of Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary, with Rory Kinnear, of whom more in a moment, playing the manic equivalent of Rhys Ifans‘ character Spike. I’ve just had the grim feeling that it might have been pitched like that.) Even the location has a Curtis-like nod to London’s South Bank.

The premise (slight spoiler): Nancy (the American actress Lake Bell, with an entirely credible English accent) ends up on a blind date with Jack (Simon Pegg) because she happens to be in the right place at the wrong time with the right book. Rom-coms have their own rhythm: the couple have to be suspicious of each other, then they have to like each other, then they have to be exasperated with other, and then they have to end up together.

Aristotle

The Observer‘s Jonathan Romney hated it, but there are things to like about Man Up. The characters aren’t that young, or that glamorous (this is not One Fine Day). The film gets more edgy as it goes along, driven by Lake Bell, who does kooky very well. There’s something pleasing about the fact that the action unfolds in almost exactly 24 hours, since you don’t get many films that observe any of Aristotle’s unities. The script moves along quickly.  And the jeopardy gets worse as they end up bumping into Jack’s ex-wife and new boyfriend in a favourite restaurant.

Crisis

This leads to the moment: the film’s midpoint. In his book Into the Woods, which I’m reading and enjoying at the moment, John Yorke talks about the midpoint as “the point from which there is no going back… A new ‘truth’ dawns on our hero for the first time. But… at this stage in the story they don’t know how to handle it correctly.” 

Jack ends up crying in the (men’s) toilets after seeing his ex-wife, and Nancy goes after him. It’s a surprisingly tender moment, but it also has something of the Greek chorus about it. This extract is from Tess Morris’ screenplay, which is online.

JACK: I’m 40, divorced and crying in a toilet.

NANCY: You’re just an emotional jigsaw at the moment. You’ll piece yourself back together again. (She squeezes his hand.) Just start with the corners. Look for the blue bits. (Jack smiles, squeezes Nancy’s hand back.)

JACK: And where do I find these blue bits?

(They lock eyes. Oh my god, are they going to kiss? Maybe? Yes? Nearly)

TOILET MAN 1 (O.S.) Took me 3 years to get over my ex.

(They look up to see TOILET MAN 1, looking down at them from the next cubicle.)

TOILET MAN 1 (to Jack and Nancy) Jungian Therapy. Two hours, every day, for six weeks.

(Suddenly, another man pops up next to him)

TOILET MAN 2 (madness in his eyes) I burnt her clothes. Twice.

(Jack and Nancy’s ‘moment’ is over.)

This is how it plays on screen. It’s the moment when she wrests control of their relationship from him, and stops being on the defensive.

Oh yes, Rory Kinnear. He plays a barman, Sean, who happened to have been at school with Nancy, and has had a crush on her all these years. You should love your minor characters, says the screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, and Tess Morris poured a lot of love into Sean. Rory Kinnear plays him just this side of obsessive danger. As in this clip, towards the end of the film, when Jack realises that Sean is the only person he knows that might be able to help him find Nancy again.

Film moment #17: Monkey Business (1952)

30 July 2017

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I’m not sure if Monkey Business quite counts as a screwball comedy, since there’s not really enough about money in it, and the plot lacks the relentlessness of the true screwball, in which each turn tightens the storyline.

But it is certainly an oddball comedy. It is directed by Howard Hawks, and stars Cary Grant as research chemist Dr Fulton, Ginger Rogers (in an acting role) as his wife Edwina, Charles Coburn as the boss, Mr Oxly, and Marilyn Monroe as Oxly’s not-completely-competent secretary, Miss Laurel. As Oxly says, “Anyone can type.” The screenplay is by Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, and I. A. L. Diamond.

Fulton is working on a formula that makes people younger again, and pretty much all of the jokes in the film are variations on this. Maybe there’s something of the era in this plot, since it was made just as the idea of the “teenager” is about to transform post-war American society. As he explains to Edwina after he’s tried it out on himself:

“I took a dose of the formula and within twenty minutes I started behaving like a college boy.”

Anyway, the moment: having taken his own experimental formula, Fulton has to go out and buy a jacket and a new car. Sure, there’s a lot of back projection here, but it’s a fine sequence, with some good truck-based gags and a sense of jeopardy, and reprised shortly afterwards, with more jeopardy, as the formula wears off.

Rogers turns out to be a comedienne with good timing, as when she enquires about the lipstick that Miss Laurel has planted on her husband’s cheek during their afternoon away from the plant:

EDWINA: By the way, who’s lipstick is it?
FULTON: What’s her name’s, you know, Oxly’s secretary.
EDWINA: Oh, you mean that little pinup girl? Very cute.
FULTON: Sort of, but half infant.
EDWINA: Not the half that’s visible.

The whole film is online here.

Film moment #16: Grease (1978)

18 July 2017


I stumbled across Grease on TV this week, and didn’t realise until I started to watch it again how much I hated it as a film. There really is nothing there. It is an empty shell propped up by American High School film cliches inserted to connect a string of songs and dance sequences (some, admittedly, not too bad). It is an utterly cynical piece of film making.

First day of term? Check. Girlie pajama party? Check. Cheerleaders and sports jocks? Check. The diner? Check. High school dance? Drive-in cinema? Check. Check. Drag race? Of course. Last day of school. ZZZZZ. You get bored just typing the list, and I bet I’ve missed one. Not that it would matter.

And nothing in the writing. No flash, no flair, no wit, no irony, not even a complicit knowing moment with the audience where writer and audience can agree that what they’re watching is a piece of nostalgic tosh and get on with it. The plot, if that’s what it is, is utterly predictable story-by-numbers stuff.  (According to Wikipedia, the original stage musical was tougher.)

I mean, even that moment when bad girl Stockard Channing thinks she might be pregnant and suddenly everyone in the year knows, well, y’know, it turns out five minutes later she’s not and everything’s just fine. Flat, flat, flat. (Stockard Channing, who is a terrific actor, is wasted in Grease. Go find her in the admittedly obscure Sweet Revenge if you want to see her at her best.) And while I’m at it, “Thunder Road” as the name of the drag strip? Three years after Bruce Springsteen released Born to Run?

The only saving grace: at least John Travolta can dance and Olivia Newton John can sing.

But there’s a deeper story as well. By 1978, America had been buffeted by failure in the Vietnam war, the turmoil of the civil rights movement, Watergate, and the ’70s oil shock. The story in Grease airbrushes 20 years out of American history, harking back to an idealised moment before all that bad stuff happened. Idealised for some. For although late-’50s Rydell High School looks at first sight like anywhere in the USA, it’s not: it’s anywhere white in the USA. In other words, it’s part of the same rhetoric (“Make America great again”) that propelled Reagan into the White House by both pretending that the past 20 years never happened, and then ensuring that nothing like it ever happened again. (I could go further, and riff on how formally conservative films are also politically conservative, but not today.)

The rules here on the Film Moment series are supposed to be that no film is so bad that it doesn’t have one moment that’s worth watching. I’m supposed to mention that moment. I can barely bring myself to do it, but here’s Stockard Channing just after word gets out that she’s pregnant, an actor making something out of nothing. If you want to see John Travolta dance, go and watch Saturday Night Fever, altogether a richer, darker, and better film.