Archive for the 'film' Category

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.

Moment#5: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

7 May 2017

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Moment # 5 The Coen brothers always make their films with a smile on their face and a knowing nod in the direction of Hollywood’s history and genre conventions, and Intolerable Cruelty is no exception. It is a modern version of a screwball comedy, as I realised watching the smartly plotted final act, which I’m not going to spoil for you here.

George Clooney plays Miles Massey, a divorce lawyer at the top of his game (the creator of the best and most ironclad pre-nup agreement in the business, and the President, we later discover, of his industry body, N.O.M.A.N)1 while Catherine Zeta-Jones is Marylin Rexroth, a woman who is trying to divorce her way to enough money to be financially independent. Both characters are compelling, though neither is particularly likeable. When he says to her over dinner, “I assume you’re a carnivore”, she laughs and replies, “Oh, Mr Massey, you have no idea.”

In another age this might have paired Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck, or maybe Claudette Colbert. And I think they would have made more of Marylin’s background: given the spelling of the name, we can probably assume she started out on the wrong side of the tracks.

Arguably the film’s a little too knowing for its own good (Roger Ebert wanted the Coens to lay off the ironical detachment and just enjoy what they had created). But there is much to like, including  the way they love their minor characters, including, for example, Zeta-Jones’ second husband, Howard Doyle (Billy Bob Thornton) and –mild spoiler– the reverend who marries the pair of them at midnight in Las Vegas. “Love your minor characters” happens to be one of Robert McKee’s screenwriting rules.

So the moment is about minor characters. It is the only time in the film, a film about law and lawyers, when we see Clooney on his feet in a courtroom. Zeta-Jones’ case is going well until he calls Heinz the Baron Krauss von Espy, the concierge at an exclusive Alpine resort, who arrives in court with his dog. You can see it here:

 


1. National Organization of Matrimoney Attorneys, Nationally. The strapline on the screen at their annual conference is, ‘Let N.O.M.A.N put asunder.’

Moment#4: How to get ahead in advertising (1989)

3 May 2017


Moment #4 How to get ahead in advertising teamed up writer-director Bruce Robinson with actor Richard E. Grant after the cult success of Withnail and I. In truth, I don’t think it has aged well: the story of a successful adman, stuck on a brief for a boil cream, who grows a talking boil that represents everything dislikeable about advertising. (It’s slightly more complicated than that, but spoilers.)

Nothing about it is subtle, though Grant’s performance is mesmerising. But it is a product of its time, released a couple of years after the hubris of Saatchi and Saatchi’s absurd bid for Midland Bank, when for a thankfully short moment in the dog days of the Thatcher ascendancy ad executives were treated like rock stars.

The moment: Other people might have chosen the moment when Grant, naked but for an apron and a shower cap, decides to rid the house of all products that bear the mark of advertising. But, given the time it was made, I think it’s actually the moment earlier in the film  where we see his office for the first time, a huge corner affair full of awards, career-defining ornaments, a statue of a horse, and expensive leather armchairs, with a view across the Thames to the Houses of Parliament and along the river to Lambeth Palace. There’s a large telescope trained on the Palace of Westminster: the designer has had fun. Much of the scene is in this youtube clip:

The film is a satire, and in its way the location, the advertiser looking down on the institutions of government and religion, makes the point as well as anything else in the film.

The poster at the top of the film is via the blog Random Rambings.

Moment#3: The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

2 May 2017


Moment #3 Barefoot Contessa is a movie about movies. It was written and directed by Joseph Manciewicz, who had a long and successful Hollywood career, and stars Humphrey Bogart as a writer-director working for a business magnate who has decided to go into moves, and Ava Gardner as Maria Vargas, a Spanish dancer who becomes the “face” of those movies. The film is told in flashback from her funeral, although we don’t know how or why she dies until the end of the film.

There are some curiosities; the flashback sequences are narrated consecutively by Bogart, by the magnate’s PR flack Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), by Gardner’s husband, and finally by Bogart himself. Some scenes replay from the different perspectives of these protagonists. As in Casablanca and Gilda, we don’t see the female star until quite a long way in (about 12 minutes), although the second scene of the film watches the audience as she dances unseen on camera. And, as in Gilda, we hear plenty about her before she appears. The film is also interesting because Bogart doesn’t play the romantic lead. His relationship with Maria Vargas is strictly platonic, more a protector and a confidante.

Along the way, Mankiewicz gives us a unsympathetic picture of the rich at play, especially in the voice-overs, and the relationship between wealth and poverty, though for my money the Cinderella metaphor was laid on with a trowel. I also hoped that the argument about the meaning of the Faust story, which plays out in the long early scene in a Madrid nightclub, might be more woven into the screenplay, but I was disappointed.

At the start of the film, magnate, PR guy and Bogart have gone to a Madrid club to watch Maria dance. They’ve missed her, and eventually manage to persuade her to come to their table to talk to them. It doesn’t go well, Maria leaves, and Bogart is despatched to find her. It’s worth noting how poor Spain was in 1954, still making a slow recovery from the Civil War.
The moment: the scene where Bogart arrives at Maria Vargas’ house (a tenement flat) to ask her to come to Rome for a screen test. Bogart doesn’t go in, and we watch the scene in one continuous shot through the door looking into a cramped front room; her mother denying that she’s here at all, her brother saying she is, her father sitting in the corner of the room, the radio blaring, Maria herself arriving in the room, and a furious argument breaking out between the four of them, mostly in Spanish with subtitles.

MOTHER (in Spanish, to BROTHER): What does he want with Maria? (Beat) Miguel, the radio!

BROTHER: Maria is going to America, to be a star.

MOTHER: I won’t let her. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone all my life, Now it’s her turn. Miguel, the radio!

BROTHER (to BOGART, in English): You don’t understand my nother. Is liar.

MOTHER (to MIGUEL, in Spanish): I won’t tell you again!

BROTHER (to MOTHER, in Spanish): Since she was a child, you made her dance for men and kept the money. Now she’ll keep it for herself.

BOGART (in English): Why don’t you fight this out later, I haven’t got much time… Every minute counts.

MOTHER (walking across the room to the husband, in Spanish): You deaf? I told you to turn down the radio. (And she turns it off)

Maria appears from the back room.

MARIA (still in Spanish): He can play the radio as loud as he wants. (And she turns it on again).

MOTHER: You won’t go to America.

MARIA: I’ll go where I please.

And she sashays across the room towards the door and towards Bogart, touching her brother’s scheek affectionately as she passes him and closing the door behing her.

MARIA (in English): I think we can talk better outside.

The door immediately reopens, and he mother appears in the doorway:

MOTHER (in Spanish): Over my dead body!

MARIA (in Spanish): One more word, and I’ll go even if I don’t want to. Whether you live or die.

It’s a fabulous scene, and the blaring Spanish music on the radio makes it seem even more intense, as does the single two minute take. I suspect the use of subtitles was unusual in a 1954 big budget film, but the scene, and the use of Spanish, manages to convey in an instant the cultural gap, the claustrophobia of her family, the poverty that she’s escaping from, and also a milieu that in different ways she returns to throughout the rest of the film, most notably in the sequence where her husband-to-be, an Italian count, sees her for the first time.

One other curiosity. Bogart doesn’t trust the business magnate he’s working for, so he surrepitiously invites three other big-noise producers to watch the screening of Maria’s first screen test. Their names:ack, Mr Brown, and Mr Blue. Now, I wonder where I’ve heard that before?

Moment#2: High Fidelity (2000)

17 April 2017

High_Fidelity_poster

Moments No. 2. Stephen Frears directs a version of Nick Hornby’s novel, relocated to Chicago with John Cusack as Rob, the owner of the struggling record store, breaking up with his girlfriend Laura (played wonderfully by the Danish actress Iben Hjejle). The Chicago version of the record store is still called “Championship Vinyl,” which can’t translate well across the Atlantic. Although set in a nominal 1990s present, High Fidelity is more an elegy for a lost 1970s and ’80s world of vinyl records and small independent stores run by fans. At heart, film and book are about growing into adulthood and accepting the pleasures of commitment.

Formally, the film’s interesting: the novel’s interior monologues are translated into speeches direct to camera; Bruce Springsteen pops up to give advice (shades of Woody Allen); some scenes replay several times in Rob’s head. Some critics found this irritating but it worked for me. No reason why mainstream cinema shouldn’t break the fourth wall.

Two moments: number one, when the neighbourhood skateboarders shoplift some records, but when they’re noticed they leave a skateboard in the shop in their rush to escape. There’s a standoff and the skateboarders put the stolen records down on the pavement. “I think you have more”, says Rob. One of the skateboarders throws down a dogeared copy of “The musician’s guide to home production.” It’s a visual gag, yes, but it’s also a joke that turns out to be a plot point.

Second: after Laura leaves, Rob rearranges his record collection. His record store colleague Dick drops by to invite him to a gig:

Dick: It guess it looks as if you’re reorganizing your records. What is this though? Chronological?

Rob: No…

Dick: Not alphabetical…

Rob: Nope.

Dick: What?

Rob: Autobiographical.

Dick: No fuckin’ way…

Rob: …If you want to find “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac you have to know that I bought it for someone in the fall of 1983 and then didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.

Dick: That sounds- –

Rob: –Comforting.

Though I’m not sure that Rob would actually have Rumours in his record collection. Joan Cusack–who also lights up The Runaway Bride–is terrific as Laura’s fried Liz.

Script courtesy of Springfield Springield

Moment#1: The Runaway Bride (1999)

16 April 2017

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Moments #1. I keep forgetting which films I see, so here’s a small project. In the spirit of the film critic Manny Farber, who thought that film was about moments, I’m going to try to do a short post about a particular moment in the film when I watch something. Think of it as a deliberate strategy to try not to write too much.

The Runaway Bride teams up Richard Gere and Julia Roberts nine years after Pretty Woman, borrowing the plot of a 1947 Ginger Rogers’ film, It Had To Be You.

He’s a columnist on a big city paper. She’s the woman who keeps ditching her would-be husbands at the altar (three and counting). He knocks up an inaccurate column about her, she complains (in the sort of witty letter-to-the-editor you only get in movies), he gets fired, he decides he needs to go and meet her to find out the truth. It’s not a great film, by the way. As the vastly lamented Philip French put it, “Scene after scene falls flat, and promising situations are set up only to expire like deflating balloons.”

It’s a romantic comedy, so you can fill in the rest of the plot right from there.

The moment (and massive spoiler alert): She’s about to marry him (like I said, you can fill the rest of the plot right there) but she runs away from the church and gets a lift from a FedEx van.

“Where’s she going?” asks a guest.

The reply: “I don’t know, but she’s guaranteed to get there by 10.30 tomorrow morning.”

Shooting the past

26 March 2017

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There’s a scene in Mark Herman‘s 2008 film The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas in which the concentration camp commander plays for his family and officers, by way of an after-dinner entertainment, the Nazi propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City. It is a fabricated account of Theresienstadt which portrays life in the camp as a kind of Butlin’s with a dash of Mittel European cafe culture. (23 minutes of rushes survive; there is an extended sequence on youtube.)

In the context of The Boy it is a moment in which a half-fiction is wrapped inside a half-fiction in pursuit of a greater truth. Theresienstadt was briefly converted into a model camp in 1944 as a result of political and diplomatic pressure by the Danish government, which wanted assurances about the well-being of Danish citizens sent there. With hindsight it is interesting that diplomatic pressure by the government of an occupied state had such an effect on the German government during wartime.

Most of the prisoners who did the work of sanitising the camp were shipped out immediately to Auschwitz, including the director of the film Kurt Gerron, a Theresienstadt inmate, and his family, who were murdered on their arrival there. The Nazis thought about distributing the resulting film, but decided against; it’s not clear, at least from some brisk online research, how the rushes were found.

When Herman decided to use sequences from the Theresienstadt film as part of his version of John Boyne’s novel, he found (unsurprisingly) that the surviving prints were old and scratched, and would not have looked good cut into a modern feature film. So they set about re-shooting the Nazis’ propaganda film. There are scenes from this modern shoot on the DVD of the movie. Mark Herman said that re-making it made him feel uncomfortable. I bet it did.

The image of the crew shooting The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a Village is a public domain image via Wikipedia.

One of Our Aircraft is Missing

13 July 2016

OneOfOurAircraftIsMissingHS

One of Aircraft Is Missing is not one of Powell and Pressburger’s great films—it’s better thought of as a sighting shot. It is the first film made under the Archers’ banner. But watching it again when it popped up on television, there are already resonances with later work. If there is a theme in The Archers’ films, it is of cultures trying to understand each other—one thinks immediately of Colonel Blimp, but also of the laird teaching “highland economics” in I Know Where I’m Going or the great Anglo-American set piece in A Matter of Life and Death. Or even the failure of the Himalayan convent and the nuns’ departure from India in Black Narcissus.

This might also be a metaphor for the partnership between Powell and Pressburger itself: the patrician Englishman and the polyglot emigré.

So, specifically, my interest in One of Our Aircraft is in the scene about 45 minutes in where the airmen from the bomber crew are waiting in the front room while the Dutch villagers debate what is to be done with them in the dining room next door. The airmen are a social melange, largely for dramatic purposes, though perhaps for propaganda purposes too. They are indignant that the Dutch do not take them at their word, and they start to worry that they might be turned over to the Germans (although, as one of them observes, no-one has left the house.)

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Els Meertens (Pamela Brown) explains they’re going to church.

Of course, the villagers are right to be careful, for they are taking all the risks. If the airmen are caught, they will be dispatched to a prisoner of war camp; if the villagers are caught helping them, they are likely to be deported to a forced labour camp, or shot. Actually, we’re reminded of the risks they’re taking even in a pre-credit sequence.

Eventually, the airmen offer a cutting torn from yesterday’s Times (what else) as proof of identity. As the Dutch schoolteacher (played by Pamela Brown, who appeared in several Archers’ films) takes it back into the room where the villagers are debating, she says:

ELS: I thought airmen had better eyesight than that.

Another look around the room identifies the codes of those Dutch opposed to the Germans: orange blossom above the lintel, and a concealed portrait of the exiled Queen.

Pressburger’s cultural fencing continues as the Dutch formulate the escape plan, which involves cycling in disguise to the local church, which is 6 miles closer to the coast, and for which they already have the necessary papers. Of course, it is a Catholic church and two of the crew are “chapel.”

ELS: But it’s our only plan.

EARNSHAW: If this gets back to Halifax, I’ll never hear the last of it.

ELS: We will dress you in Dutch clothes. Nobody will know.

EARNSHAW: You don’t know chapel folk.

The sequence where they disguise the airmen for the journey is also a wonderful piece of film-making: the actor in the aircrew is put into drag, in a shot that tilts rapidly down the RAF uniform, dissolves from his boots through to the clogs now on his feet, and then tilts back up just as quickly to take in the new outfit, along with some crisp luvvie banter.

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Frank Shelley (Hugh Williams) gets into his disguise.

In his biography of Pressburger, Kevin Macdonald observes that the screenwriter was “immune to cliché.” A quotidian phrase from the news bulletins (“one of our aircraft is missing”) that probably floated past native English speakers, stuck with the Hungarian Pressburger, now working in his fourth language. The choice of Stuttgart as the target of the bombing raid was deliberate:

The references to the girls in Stuttgart and the song ‘I Kiss Your Little Hand, Madam’ (“The composer was a Jew, I believe”) certainly have a personal resonance… [H]e had so disliked the town as a student—it was the place where he had first experienced anti-Semitism.

It is also one of the few Archers’ war stories in which we don’t see a “sympathetic German.” In fact, we barely see the enemy: “We only see their shadows,” writes Macdonald, “or hear their clipped voices shouting orders, the demonic screeching of their vehicles shattering the peace of the countryside, and the clicking of marching boots.” Macdonald exaggerates, but only slightly.

The film is also formally interesting because it has no score. The soundtrack, from the drone of the plane’s engine in the first sequences, to the noise of the Dutch villagers and their British escapees cycling to church, to the canal water lapping the boat and the crowd at the football match, is all “natural” sound. Shades of the 1930s documentary movement. And perhaps because of this influence, the Germans speak German, the Dutch characters speak Dutch (except to the aircrew), and the English mostly speak English. Our confusion as to what is happening matches that of the aircrew; their confusion is often part of the story.

Within this “natural” soundscape there are a couple of moments when the Dutch national anthem plays an important part in the plot. The first time, more low key, in the church, when the organist uses it to distract a German soldier; the second (no spoliers, but more critical to the narrative, and a clever plot device) when some German soldiers are tricked into playing it on their mess gramophone. One of Aircraft is almost an exact contemporary of Casablanca with its famous rendition of “La Marseillaise”; both films were likely borrowing from, or paying homage to, the singing of the French anthem in La Grande Illusion.

Pressburger’s time working for UFA in Berlin weaves its way into the script in his play on cultural stereotypes. Jo de Vries, the woman who engineers the crew’s final escape is thought by the Germans to hate the British because her husband was, apparently, killed in a British air-raid on Haarlem.

I never heard that we bombed Haarlem.

ELS: The Germans want us to believe it, so Jo de Vries obliges them. They like her, because they believe she hates the British. That is what she wants, so everyone is happy.

In fact, her husband is broadcasting anti-Nazi propaganda from London.

As both Macdonald and the film critic Ian Christie observe, the film is the inverse of The 49th Parallel, in which a German U-boat crew has to abandon their craft a long way from home. The German crew, in a hostile environment and a hostile society, falls apart, with one member shot for desertion when he tries to join a German-speaking religious community they encounter in northern Canada.

The British crew in One of Our Aircraft, helped by a sympathetic population who have learned to play on German sensibilities, hangs together and escapes. But the two films have this in common: the heroes, in both films, are the people of the country; Canadians in one, Dutch in the other.

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Jo de Vries (Googie Withers) helps the aircrew reach a boat to escape

Looking for Ida

22 June 2015

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The first dialogue in Ida, Pavel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning film, comes about two-and-a-half minutes in, after a series of shots that establish the life of the convent where Ida is a novitiate in 1960s Poland. It runs like this:

MOTHER SUPERIOR: Her name is Wanda Gruz. She is your aunt. We wrote to her many times asking her to take you. But she never did.
IDA: Maybe she never got the letters?
MOTHER SUPERIOR: She did. Because finally she replied that she couldn’t come. You should meet her before you take your vows. She is your only living relative.
IDA: Do I have to, Mother?
MOTHER SUPERIOR: Yes, Anna. You will go and see her and stay there for as long as necessary.

And in this brief exchange we know almost as much as we need to about the dynamics of the plot. Ida is going on a journey, she doesn’t want to, but if she doesn’t do it she won’t be able to become a nun. And we also know that time doesn’t matter. So this isn’t going to be one of those stories where the plot is driven by a deadline.

Watching the film reminded me of a paradox I learnt in my short and unsuccessful career in the film business: you’re more likely to produce a film with global appeal by writing something that visits a small and intensely local world.

This was 25 years ago, and at the time the favoured example was Cinema Paradiso, which had become an international smash. But it doesn’t just apply to period films. The Bill Forsyth film, Gregory’s Girl, also fits this bill, set in the Scottish new town Cumbernauld, made largely with unknown actors, and released in the United States with subtitles because of alleged thickness of the Scottish accents. You can probably think of your own examples.

For Pawlikowski, the subject matter of Ida is perhaps an unusual choice. Despite his name, he has spent most of his film career working in Britain, having come to the country in his teens. He is as British as he is Polish,  although he returned to live in Warsaw recently following the death of his wife.

And this may be one of those films that could only be made by a culturally-connected outsider, who sees the place through fresh eyes, with new questions. And perhaps also the Poland in Ida is a country remembered: remembered as an idea, or remembered as an affect, from his childhood.

No spoilers, I hope, but the film’s impact also comes through its use of genre. It has the form of a road movie, as Ida and her aunt drive deep into rural Poland, and deep into the family’s past, to find the secret of how Ida came to be orphaned.  But in using genre it also plays against it.

The car, in ‘60s Poland, is a status symbol (the aunt is someone in the Party) and not many people have them, but it is also pretty clapped out.

Most road movies have at their heart a dream of freedom, albeit a dream that is often dashed. But watching Ida one knows from the start of the film that this is a journey back into a closed and claustrophobic world, a world which the aunt has kept at bay for twenty-plus years with alcohol.

ida_still_12But it’s not completely closed. The Poland of Ida is on the edge between an old Poland, still dominated by wartime secrets and wartime legacies, and a new one, seen best in the milieu of the jazz sub-plot, which represents a side to the Eastern Bloc countries that is rarely seen.

Pawlikowski’s portrait of it is every bit as affectionate as Josef Skvorecky’s neglected Czech novellas in The Bass Saxophone, along with his introductory essay. With the benefit of hindsight we also know that the Catholic church, which seemed to be part of the old Poland, turned out to be crucial in shaping the new one as well.

Anyway, I promised no spoilers, so I hope this is elliptical enough. It turns out that the freedoms that might be open to Ida are just another kind of prison. Having reluctantly gone exploring at the instruction of the Mother Superior, at the end she knows the place for the first time.

The stills are courtesy of the film-makers: there is a wonderful gallery here.

 

 

 

Hollywood on Hollywood

25 May 2014

Of course, if you want to win an Oscar, making a film about film-making is a pretty good way to do it. The Artist in 2012 and Argo in 2013 are only the latest in a line going back to A Star Is Born in 1937. Argo, no spoilers, is a film about the CIA pretending to make a film, and therefore gets all the upside of telling jokes about Hollywood while also having Hollywood as one of the good guys. And a bit more upside, since the story is mostly true.

John Goodman plays John Chambers, the make-up specialist who is enrolled in the plan to set up a fake movie to rescue six American Embassy staff who are in hiding in Tehran out of the country after the Embassy was seized by Iranian revolutionaries in 1979.

When the CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) goes to LA to meet Chambers, there’s some inevitable smart, knowing, writing:

Tony Mendez: I need you to help me make a fake movie.
John Chambers: Well, you came to the right place.
Tony Mendez: I wanna set up a production company and build a cover around making a movie.
John Chambers: That we’re not gonna make?
Tony Mendez: No.
John Chambers: So you wanna come to Hollywood and act like a big shot…?
Tony Mendez: Yeah.
John Chambers: Without actually doing anything?
Tony Mendez: No.
John Chambers: You’ll fit right in.

And just a bit later, it gets better, almost all because of the way that Goodman delivers the lines.

John Chambers: Look, if you’re gonna do this, you gotta do it. The Kominiacs are fruit loops but they got cousins who sell prayer rugs and 8-tracks on Le Brea. You can’t build cover stories around a movie that doesn’t exist. You need a script, you need a producer.
Tony Mendez: Make me a producer.
John Chambers: No, you’re an associate producer at best. If you’re gonna do a $20 million dollars ‘Star Wars’ rip-off, you need somebody who’s a somebody to put their name on it. [BEAT]

Somebody respectable, [BEAT]

with credits, [BEAT]

who you can trust with classified information, [BEAT]

who will produce a fake movie, [BEAT]

for free.

And CUT to Alan Arkin.

In other words: set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ set-up/ payoff. And almost all of it done through the timing.

Thanks to Movie Quotes and More for the extracts.