Archive for the Theatre Category

Harry Houdunnit

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , on October 24, 2014 by dcairns

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Fiona is on a Houdini kick, so she compelled me to watch the History Channel’s biopic, starring Adrien Brody (authentically Hungarian) as the Great Man.

Scripted by Nicholas Meyer (TIME AFTER TIME) with numerous fictional flourishes (Rasputin? the bullet trick?) and a tacked on voice-over which works hard to ruin everything, along with an irksome, pumped-up music score, the show is nevertheless diverting, since the facts of Houdini’s existence are remarkable enough and Meyer includes plenty of them. Brody is good, even if he is spectacularly elongated where HH was spectacularly compact. Director Ulli Edel (LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN) throws all he’s got at it, and some of it sticks, but stricter organisation of shots would have helped. It’s more like an exciting compendium of effects than a job of organisation.

The real revelation is that Houdini soars whenever it documents the magic act, even when making stuff up. And most of the tricks are followed by explanations, where available (only the vanishing elephant is left as a tantalizing mystery, and indeed the trick as presented onscreen looks quite impossible). It’s the rather clumsy attempts to provide psychological explanations for Houdini’s actions and career and life which drag the two-parter down to earth like multiple balls and chains. So I propose a new approach for the next biopic — try focussing on the career, the reason we’ve heard of the character in the first place, and skip over everything else — leave the motivation as mysterious as the dematerialised pachyderm. If your character is a showman like Houdini, there will still be plenty of drama…

 

Flub

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on October 22, 2014 by dcairns

King Lear cock-up from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I was always rather disappointed by the live TV King Lear directed by Peter Brook which Orson Welles starred in. I pretty much loathe Brooks’ film of KING LEAR with Paul Scofield too, but that’s based on my love of the play, my reading of it, and my feelings about what I’d want from an adaptation. Brooks’ film certainly has the courage of its convictions, and is almost a compelling and well-made film, if it weren’t for his ridiculous habit of cutting to the backs of people’s heads. (There are times, explained the Great Director, when you don’t want to see anything, you just want to listen to the text; but as it’s unacceptable to have the screen go black, he opted to show the backs of the heads. This, needless to say, perplexes and distracts the viewer far more than the faces of excellent actors ever would.)

The TV Lear, heavily cut to fit into a one-hour time slot, isn’t as radical a reinterpretation of the play as Brook’s later film, which strips it of emotion and nobility and tragedy and settles for a kind of lumpen, petrified grimness. What wrecks the TV play is Orson’s makeup, probably the worst he ever wore. To see his Lear, who looks like Krankor from PRINCE OF SPACE, with his cardboard beak, is to suddenly think far more highly or Gregory Arkadin’s tonsorial choices. Wearing a false beard on top of your head, matching the one on your chin, at least suggests a kind of symmetry, like a playing card. As with his regrettable IMMORTAL STORY makeup, Welles is attempting suggest old age by painting shadows on his face like a set from CALIGARI. But he’s gotten carried away, and ended up darker than his Othello, and blotchy with it. Welles as Lear is somewhat embarrassing to look at, and I love Welles too much to take any pleasure in being embarrassed about him.

The worst moment in the telecast is the best moment in the play. The reconciliation scene is the bit that moves audiences to tears. I saw a Kenneth Branagh production with Richard Briers as Lear, and THAT moved me to tears. I don’t recall feeling anything except disgruntlement at the Scofield version, mirroring the Scofield performance, but in general the scene seems almost impossible to screw up.

Welles, alas, blows his lines. Lear says to his loving daughter, Cordelia, whom he has wronged ~

Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

This refers to Lear’s casting out of Cordelia, for which she should hate him, and to his other daughters’ casting out of him, after he gave them his kingdom.

But what Welles says, unfortunately, in the last line, is ~

They have some cause ~

Here, he pauses. He has just made Lear say that his wicked daughters, who kicked him out in a storm, had good reason to do so. This makes no sense. Worse, Welles realises that if he finishes the line, he will be making things much, much worse. But the alternative is to go back and correct himself, making the mistake completely obvious to the television public. I think we can see him thinking, calculating, for an anguished second. He decides to plough on ~

you have not.

So now he’s saying that his banishment of Cordelia was justified and she’s not entitled to hold it against him. Worse, this means that Cordelia’s next line, “No cause, no cause,” is not a daughter forgiving her old father’s terrible flaws and saying that she loves him and nothing has stood in the way of that. Now it means that she’s just agreeing with him that he was right to give her the boot.

Fortunately the scene gets back on track after this and they do the lines as written. But Welles is still wearing a ludicrous great hooter.

Take My Life — Please

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on October 17, 2014 by dcairns

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TAKE MY LIFE (1948) is Ronald Neame’s directorial debut. As you might expect if you know of Neame’s background as cinematographer for David Lean, the film is often very beautiful. And as you might expect if you’ve seen other Neame directorial jobs (eg GAMBIT, HOPSCOTCH), it’s a mildly diverting thriller — though of course he had other strengths (THE HORSE’S MOUTH, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE).

What stops it from reaching the Hitchcockian heights it presumably aspires to (it’s a wrong-man thriller, after all) is perhaps a shortage of truly tense scenes, and a slightly dodgy structure, where it seems to be missing most of a second act. It’s based on a novel by Winston Grahame (MARNIE) and inventively folds its set-up into a summing-up by portly prosecutor Francis L. Sullivan with illustrative flashbacks, the last of which reveals that arrested man Hugh Williams is not the culprit — instead, joy of joys, we get Marius Goring, aged up with some grey streaks to his hair and face, as a Scottish schoolteacher secretly married to the victim. Now, Williams’ wife must investigate for herself, locating and somehow incriminating the sepulchral Scotsman.

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As lit by Guy Green, star Greta Gynt displays Norway’s most alluring complexion. Her character’s career as opera singer allows for some nice visuals early on, and her artistic temperament ultimately triggers the circumstance that gets her husband incriminated (strict structuralism demands that this temperament return to play a role in the plot later, but it doesn’t). Hugh Williams, being imprisoned for much of the plot, can only look guilty — of what, we never know, since we know he’s not the murderer, but with his oiled beetle-shell of hair and somehow untrustworthy fleshy features, he is physiognomically incapable of projecting innocence.

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After the stylish and moody opening, the film has to rely on the threat to Williams to supply all dramatic tension, since Gynt’s efforts to clear his name do not put her in peril, do not give her problems she can struggle with, and rely on a wild and lucky coincidence to come to their resolution. Only when Goring is reintroduced and comes face to face with her can some proper suspense be created (Didn’t Goring ever play a vampire? He should’ve.) Apart from the ageing makeup, which looks fine in medium shot and goofy in close-up, he seems to have elongated the shape of his face, I think just by putting the tips of his teeth together rather than clenching them. At any rate, sometimes you can’t quite believe it’s him.

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The film’s other pleasant surprise is the darkly beautiful Rosalie Crutchley, whom I normally associate with her gloomy housekeeper role in Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING. Here she gets to be a bit glam, and makes me wish she had gotten leading roles exploiting her slightly Latinate charms. An impossibility in the British film industry of the time, I fear.

 

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