Archive for April, 2010

Good Directors Made Small / Vox

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , on April 28, 2010 by dcairns

Struggled with whether to call Franco Zeffirelli a Great Director, and decided I couldn’t. But I’ll allow “good.” Above is an eight-year-old Zeff in Pagliacci whiteface.

The image comes from FZ’s autobiography, imaginatively entitled Zeffirelli. Actually a pretty fun book, with the man’s pomposity amusing rather than hateful, and some interesting stories. Like how he visited Egypt in the 70s to prepare a film of AIDA. After touring the pyramids he stopped to buy some stamps for his postcards, and was struck by the large, colourful yet ominous images of Nasser in front of a burning city. “What is this?” he asked.

“Tel Aviv,” said the shopkeeper.

“Did all this happen while I was away looking at the pyramids?”

“Ah no, this is what’s going to happen.”

FZ, struck by what he viewed as a premonition (which I think is putting it too strongly), got on the next plane out, which turned out to be the last plane for some time, as the Six-Day War broke out, “though it was certainly not Tel Aviv that burned as a result of it.”

Also striking is a passage where Z manages to explain how he squares his Catholicism with his “sinful lifestyle,” which almost makes sense and goes some way to explaining how he can hold his homosexuality and his right-wing Catholicism in his head at the same time without the cognitive dissonance detonating inside his skull and blowing his chin off.

Most interesting to me is the but which intersects with my fascination with famous but anonymous voice artists, as detailed in The Vox Project. The scene is the post-production of his pretty good production of ROMEO AND JULIET (shown in UK schools during my youth, whereby Olivia Hussey became responsible for the first stirrings os sapphic passion in several women I know) ~

One by-product of the filming was my first chance to work with Laurence Olivier. While we were shooting, he was working on a neighbouring sound stage making THE SHOES OF THE FISHERMAN with Anthony Quinn as the Pope. Naturally he felt an almost proprietary interest in any film of a Shakespeare play. The contrast between the rather boring film on which he was working and the glorious text we had at our disposal obviously affected him. Eventually he asked me if there was any way he could join in, and I, delighted at the chance, asked him if he would voice the prologue.

‘Of course,’ he said, ‘But isn’t there anything else?’

I think he would have played Romeo if he’d thought there was half a chance. In the end I got him to dub Lord Montague, who’d been played by an Italian with a thick accent. By now unstoppable, Larry insisted on dubbing all sorts of small parts and crowd noises in a hilarious variety of assumed voices. The audiences never knew just how much of Laurence Olivier they were getting on the soundtrack of that film.

Really makes me want to see it again!

Buy here (US): Romeo & Juliet

Ghost Writing

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by dcairns

What to call Polanski’s latest? In America it’s THE GHOST WRITER, a rather pedantic and factual title with nothing evocative or provocative about it. Here in Britain it’s THE GHOST, a title it shares with Robert Harris’s novel, a title reflected in the film, where the nameless hack played by Ewan McGregor refers to himself as “your ghost.” So the shorter title should be the preferred choice, right? But it’s obvious from the film’s artful end credits that THE GHOST WRITER is the name it’s been produced under, and the tacked-on main title at the start betrays Polanski’s obvious intent to start the movie without any titles at all.

Whatever we decide to call it, it’s a very fine film. I’m not sure Polanski would see it as a political film, although the backdrop is politics and it takes a jaundiced view of certain very recognizable real-world figures. Certain qualities, like the savage joke of an ending, can be seen both as evidence of the director’s earnestness or his flippancy. Certainly the behaviour of the hero at the end, and the readiness of the antagonists’ response, do not promote a view of the film as fundamentally realistic, but a movie can enter the paranoid mindset of the genre thriller without abandoning political engagement… I’m just not sure.

None of which hampered my enjoyment of the film, especially the playing. McGregor is having a very good year, and Olivia Williams should rise to preeminence on the back of this. Pierce Brosnan has always been a funny guy, and he’s hugely enjoyable as the intellectually lazy former PM, avoiding any hint of impersonation (we have Michael Sheen if we need a precise copy) and insisting on his character’s reality within the film, rather than depending on Tony Blair’s outside it. None of which is intended as any disrespect to Sheen.

“Don’t grin,” says Williams to Brosnan’s image on TV, and I can imagine Polanski saying the same thing to McGregor, a likable thesp who has tended to fall back on his shiny teeth a bit too much. Actually, Brosnan on TV is the only wrong note: he’s slurring his words strangely, in what must be intended as his “statesman” voice, perhaps meant to sound like Albert Finney as Churchill in The Gathering Storm, but coming off more like Albert Finney in THE DRESSER. Weird.

The other weird notes I thought were quite good, really. When McGregor finds some old photos of Brosnan at university, the images are pathetically photoshopped and deeply ludicrous, but it seemed sort of apt that Tony Blair should have a past constricted via Stalinist revisionism, retouched photos of a retouched life, something from 1984. And it’s his world we’re living in, so the digital sky replacements, adding smudgy watercolour greys to every background, not quite convincingly, added something too. Blair/Brosnan has brought the English weather with him.

Of course this Blair is called Adam Lang, and the movie begins with a nice swipe from THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE, a single unmoving car among many mobile ones signifying the death of its occupant. But generally Polanski avoids Langian flourishes, maintaining the more relaxed, fluid and unshowy style he’s inhabited since THE PIANIST. His actors and slow trickle of conspiracy plot are more than enough to hold the attention.

Back to those actors: an amusing scene with Scotsmen McGregor and David Rintoul both pretending to be English. Irishman Brosnan plays Scottish, Tom Wilkinson plays American (as a sort of sinister Robert Osborne) and the only person who’s unconvincing is Kim Cattrall, playing English — despite the fact that she IS English. I quite like KC, but she does sometimes mismatch the pitch of her perf to what’s going on around her: BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES was another case where she was a notch or two more shrill than everyone else, which was a seriously bad idea in that movie. Keep your head down and hope nobody spots you, would be my advice.

Rintoul, who was in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, is further evidence of my theory that Polanski casts Brits he remembers from 60s/70s horror movies. This probably started with Jon Finch in MACBETH, and Finch’s VAMPIRE LOVERS co-star Barbara Jefford was in THE NINTH GATE. Not a coincidence, since she makes so few films. Add Peter Copley (OLIVER TWIST / FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED), Frank Finlay (THE PIANIST / TWISTED NERVE) and Roy Kinnear (PIRATES / TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) and it starts to look like some kind of strange plan

Other welcome faces this time: Timothy Hutton, Jim Belushi and Eli Wallach. Wallach is a special joy. When viewing a very elderly actor, especially one as explosive as he, I generally have two slight fears: that the actor will overplay uncontrollably and embarrass us both, or that he’ll just kind of keel over in mid-sentence. Neither happens here. Result! Better yet, Wallach reminds us how exhilarating and intensely focused a performer he is.

Meanwhile, this is a very fine film, with interesting connections to CHINATOWN (Lang’s oriental servants, the drowning death of a witness…) and a measured control of pace that continually pays off in viewer fascination. My favourite little moment was probably when McGregor pauses midway through the intractable manuscript, looks out the window, and sees the Asian help loading beach debris from the porch into a wheelbarrow, while the wind blasts it out as soon as he turns his back. A perfect analog for the creative process on a bad day.

“What bitch?”

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2010 by dcairns

Even though I am and will always be a huge Richard Lester fan, I would have to say that Rita Moreno is the principle reason for watching THE RITZ, directed by Lester in 1976 from Terrence McNally’s play. Not that it’s a bad film at all, it preserves the tight farce structure of the play, apart from a redundant opening-out at the very start, which does at least give us a George Coulouris cameo in which his character’s dying words set the plot in motion — at last George gets a CITIZEN KANE of his own, only his KANE plays in a gay New York bathhouse.

Jack Weston is a Cleveland businessmen (“I’m in garbage.”) on the run from his mobster brother in law (Ben Stiller’s dad Jerry) who hides out in what should be the last place anybody would look for him. The Ritz is a grand, multilevel set by Philip Harrison, projecting an aura of splendour even if the windows are boarded up and the partitions fall down at embarrassing moments. The movie’s action plays on the potentially off-colour idea — a comedy of mistaken identities in a gay sauna — while keeping all actual sexual activity offscreen/stage, with the only kiss being a hetero-on-hetero Italianamerican family bonding moment, given a spicy undercurrent and then swiftly undercut. So there’s a curious innocence about it all, which also comes from the movie’s pre-AIDS environment, where jokes about weekly blood tests and lines like “You’re lucky if that’s all you catch,” are meant to amuse rather than chill. The posters of young, departed movie stars, carry an air of melancholy which the strenuous knockabout does its best to dispel.

I had half an idea worked up about this being an interesting double feature to play with DIE HARD, but I was actually dreaming when I had the notion, so I’m no longer sure how it went. I guess the way Weston talks to himself as he flees from one level of the building to another is part of it. He has an excuse: he’s in a play and he almost knows it. I always choked slightly on Bruce Willis’s first monologue.

There’s also the progressively more disarrayed appearance of both characters, with Willis’s iconic darkening vest paralleled by Weston’s disintegrating disguise (Lester, bald since the age of 19, is always amused by toupees: Weston’s gets ripped in two early on) and steam-shrunken suit. Fiona declared several times that he looked like a cartoon, and he gets more and more cartoonish as the film strips him of his certainties.

I guess both protags are displaced blue-collar guys thrust into an effete multistorey world and imperiled by organized hoods. But there’s no equivalent of F Murray Abraham’s splendid camping, Treat Williams’ falsetto-voiced detective, or of course Rita Moreno’s delusional cabaret singer, Googie Gomez. On the other hand, Lester’s film has fewer explosions.

Gomez was a party piece worked up by Moreno who inspired the whole play/movie. Her total conviction of her own megatalent, and her multiple inadequacies as a performer combine to make her a very likable and funny grotesque. And she’s funny in specifically female ways which should do a lot to eradicate any arguments about “why women aren’t funny,” which still surface occasionally although nowadays generally spewed from the mouths of repulsive contrarian dipshits like Christopher Hitchens. Moreno is hysterical.

The old lady doing the accounts is Bessie Love, silent star (INTOLERANCE, THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH.)

Lester, so far as we know a confirmed heterosexual, could have been on shaky ground here, like Donen directing STAIRCASE, but fortunately he lets McNally guide him, and anyhow the play is entirely devoid of self-loathing, self-flagellation and self-abuse. Casting British comedy faces like Peter Butterworth and Leon Greene is potentially dodgy, as they remind us that we’re on a sound stage at Twickenham Studios, but they’re welcome presences anyway. Is the movie is perhaps a little too afraid of letting any actual eroticism into the mix? Perhaps, but then it has a Felliniesque affection for the hopefuls and hopelesses of low-grade entertainment, and their inability to project the kind of sexual charge they aim for (Moreno is  mistaken for a drag queen; “those now you see it, now you don’t, go-go boys” are pale and hairless geeks) is observed with unstated pathos.

THE RITZ  is a nice way to pass an hour and a half, even if it never even tries to transcend its stagebound origins.

The Ritz

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