Archive for the 'moments' Category

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

mu-691x1024

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

BRITISHQUAD154-2

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.

Moment #15: Show Boat (1951)

15 July 2017


Race washes lightly through the 1951 second remake of the musical Show Boat without ever touching the sides. At the start happy black people leave their cotton bolls to run down to the jetty to greet the boat. The mixed-race Julia (Ava Gardner) is sent packing for her marriage to a white man, illegal in the state, which clears the stage, literally, for the romance of Howard Keel‘s Gaylord and Kathryn Grayson‘s Magnolia, and starts her own spiralling decline. And by way of a shadow from the 1936 version, Stevedore Joe, played here by the black baritone William Warfield, appears briefly to sing Ol’ Man River against the early morning light as the show boat readies to leave without Julia. The song–by some distance the best in the film–is reprised at the end. It’s colour, in effect, for the slightly breathless showbiz story that populates the rest of the film. 

I don’t want to make too much of this: Show Boat was always a light musical. The 1936 film reduced the role of Stevedore Joe from the stage version, and Paul Robeson, who made the song and the role famous both on stage and in the earlier film, was criticised in a review by one militant black magazine for using “his genius to appear in pictures and plays that tend to dishonour, mimic, discredit and abuse the cultural attainments of the Black Race.” The publicity material for that version described Stevedore Joe as a “lazy, easy-going husband.” (Robeson’s biographer, Martin Duberman, also notes that the dancer Bill Robinson wrote to Robeson’s wife Essie, “Tell Paul that we saw Show Boat twice: just to hear him sing and to get the new way of shelling peas.”)  

By 1951, Paul Robeson was effectively unavailable to sing the part. He had been blacklisted by Hollywood and the State Department had banned him for travel, because of his pro-Communist political activities. The mood in the country on race had changed as well, in ways that were good, bad and just plain ugly, pre-figuring the surge in civil rights activism a decade later. It made sense, in other words, to remove some of the more stereotypical elements from the story. 

What’s left–and this is the moment–is almost a film within a film, with a different mood and a much darker colour palette, as Warfield’s version of Jerome Kern’s fine song gives the film some air, and maybe a little context, as the river just keeps rolling along.

Moment #14: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

25 June 2017

I’ve puzzled about the bicycle sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ever since I first watched it. The bicycles seemed like an anomaly. Maybe it should have been more obvious to me. Anyway I stumbled across the film on television on a recent holiday weekend, which sent me back to the chapter that its screenwriter, William Goldman, wrote about the film in Adventures in the Screen Trade. Suddenly it became clearer.

Butch Cassidy is set in the last days of the Old West, a short period that lasted from the postbellum to the turn of the 19th century. As E.J. Hobsbawm reminds us, it wasn’t particularly violent, either. The film has some of the trappings of a Western, but it is a buddy movie about two men who find themselves out of time, because their skills as bank and train robbers are no longer useful. It is set right at the end of the period.

So Butch Cassidy and Sundance spend the film trying to escape towards the past, first literally, during the long sequence in the middle of the film as they are chased by the Superposse, sent by Pacific Railroad owner E.W.Harriman to track them down and kill them. The second time, metaphorically, as they head for a new life in Bolivia.

The bicycle was a huge American craze in the 1890s, and this is a captured in the film quite early on by a bicycle salesman.

SALESMAN: Soon the eye will see nothing but silk-ribboned bicycle paths stretching to infinity.

The bike becomes a motif of this new world they are running from, first innocently, then more ominously as they leave for Bolivia. 

The moment is not the bicycle scene above, but the way in which the film prefigures its ending. The first time is when the two men are on the run from the Superposse and try to get Bledsoe,  a magistrate they know, to enrol them in the army. He spells out the limited choices they face:

Screenshot 2017-06-09 21.56.23

The second time is a few pages later, when Butch and Sundance decide to go to Bolivia. Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place, agrees to go with them, but on one condition:

ETTA: I’ll go with you, and I won’t whine, and I’ll sew your socks and I’ll stitch you when you’re wounded, and anything you ask of me I’ll do, except for one thing; I won’t watch you die. I’ll miss that scene if you don’t mind.

And as they leave the house for good, on the next page, Butch hurls the bicycle outside, shouting:

BUTCH: **The future’s all yours, ya lousy bicycles.**

Script extracts courtesy of Dailyscript.com.

Moment #13: Mr. Holmes (2015)

11 June 2017

Mr._Holmes_poster

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

 

MV5BMTc0MTQ3NzE4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzA4NDM5OQ@@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_

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.

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.