Archive for Tom Stoppard

Trench Mouth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-08-14-12h29m24s125

We really enjoyed Parade’s End, a big prestige heritage BBC thing, which probably shows how middle-aged we are becoming.

It gets off to a shaky start, mind you — we found it genuinely hard to make sense of the tone, which fluctuated between broad, uncomfortable comedy and serious drama. By the end of the fifth part, this confusion has vanished, however, and director Suzanna White, scenarist Tom Stoppard and the cast can whisk you from stark WWI tragedy to a kind of CATCH 22 comedy of insanity, a transition as stark as the crosscutting between trench warfare and opulent dinners in country houses.

The going is tricky at first, though. Rufus Sewell, as a mad vicar, is creepily funny and sad, but some inappropriate comedy music nudges the scenes of British social awkwardness — the reverend is apt to shout out obscenities at the most inapposite moments — into really misguided terrain. And for a long time star Concordian Bumblethatch Bomberduck Kennydutch Benedict Cumberbatch seems quite miscast, not heavy and stolid enough to embody the wise, stout, painfully honorable protag. This leads Cumberbatch to adopt a Churchillian lower lip thrust which sits oddly on his face, making him look a bit like Beaker from The Muppet Show.

vlcsnap-2014-08-14-12h37m54s77

Since at least the time of the TV Our Mutual Friend, directors have felt obliged to show how modern they are when doing BBC “mastepiece theater” stuff, and White is guilty of some inexplicable optical effects creating a kaleidoscope of refracted images — this echoes the show’s title sequence, but otherwise feels unmotivated and show-offy. Everything else is very effective, except for a cut to a sweeping crane shot at the end of Ep. 1, which yanks us away from an affecting bit in which Cumberbatch weeps on a horse. I was just getting ready to feel all moved, and then the director had to get in the way.

vlcsnap-2014-08-14-12h27m33s47

Rebecca Hall, as the ultimate bitch goddess, tormenting wife to Cumberbatch, is magnificent from the get-go, and that’s what kept us interested. We came for Hall and stayed for Hall and everybody else. Roger Allam is extremely funny as a buffoonish general — remember how good he was as, basically, Christopher Hitchens in V FOR VENDETTA? And Adelaide Clemens, one of those Australians who can do anything, is a delight. Rupert Everett is great — the beard suits. Everyone’s great.

And the kaleidoscope effects are mainly discarded and we get one of those epic dramas that really uses its sweep and runtime to get deeper into the characters, or at least give them more body and duration and call on our affections. The miniseries might be the best form for doing this outside of the novel. Long series always end disappointingly, but minis are sustainable — somebody can cram the whole story into their head and see that it actually works.

vlcsnap-2014-08-14-12h25m06s113

Not having read Ford Maddox Ford, original author, I wondered how much Stoppard invented. I expect it’s pretty faithful. But one striking bit seemed to chime with an earlier TS project. Around episode 4 the hero is truly shafted — a series of incidents and misunderstandings and gossip and false reports have seen him blamed for pretty much everything that’s gone wrong for everyone in the story — he’s supposed to be a serial adulterer with a love child and two mistresses and dubious loyalty to his homeland. Absolutely none of it is true, but the pieces of his ruin have been carefully hidden in previous episodes. I remembered BRAZIL, how at the story’s end, Sam Lowrie (Joanathan Pryce) appears in the eyes of the authorities as a dangerous terrorist, all due to a series of administrative errors and misunderstandings. I wonder if Stoppard actually borrowed the idea from FMF. It’s beautully done, anyway.

Now Hear This

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on December 17, 2009 by dcairns

No less a person than the late Leonid Brezhnev wants you over at the Auteurs’ Notebook for this week’s edition of The Forgotten, which looks at Mike Hodges and Tom Stoppard’s political comedy-drama SQUARING THE CIRCLE.

The Vomitorium of Dr Narcissus

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2009 by dcairns

parnassus_film_0521

As a Gilliamite of yore, I was of course looking forward to THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS, despite snooty reviews in the British press (who complained that BRAZIL “lacked originality”) and despite the calamity of star Heath Ledger’s death. I like Gilliam and I like what he does, the only serious exception being THE BROTHERS GRIMM, where the constant tampering of the Weinstein Brothers grimmer could be blamed for much of the film’s tired and witless drag.

Having found a radical solution to his star’s death — replacing Ledger, when he goes through the magic mirror, with three other A-list stars — Gilliam seemed to have once more completed a film more or less the way he wanted it completed, which is the way it should be. The trouble is… or the trouble seems to be… that Gilliam needs a stronger script collaborator to funnel his gushing mind towards some desirable destination. Writing with actor Charles McKeown, who collaborated on BRAZIL and MUNCHAUSEN, Gilliam has an old friend to back him up. But perhaps its significant that BRAZIL also benefited from the dramaturgical prowess of Tom Stoppard, a man who knows a thing about structure, and MUNCHAUSEN, though far more shapeless (agreeably so, for the most part) did have the original tales to fall back on.

In DR PARNASSUS we get pretty much undiluted Gilliam creation, spilling out over the screen as if he simply unlocked his forehead and a stream of molten imagination came spewing out of his brainhole, bathing us all in its steaming ichor. As delightful as that sounds, the effect is self-nullifying because there’s no base of story to support it. There’s not even a coherent premise. Nor is there a structure, a main character (and this has nothing to do with Ledger’s demise), a theme, message, internal logic or valid satiric angle. It’s soup.

[Parnassus sends unsuspecting members of the public into a world he creates with his mind, where they have to make mysterious choices, resulting in either salvation (of some unspecified kind) or damnation (literal death and falling into the hands of the Devil). This makes Parnassus not a so terribly nice guy, in my book. But the victims of his show are one-dimensional class stereotypes, proles and toffs, and we're not encouraged to give two shits about them. And the mysterious choices made in this airless green-screen world make no sense to me: a bunch of Russian gangsters are damned for wanting to be with their mother in the Old Country. The desire for a one-night stand with Johnny Depp is considered worthy of damnation. Hell with that.]

Much of the imagery is gorgeous, and there’s a lot of it. I loved the monastery where Parnassus first meets the Devil — an impossibly sculptural Himalayan folly full of levitating monks — and the film’s use of London as backdrop is often beautiful It’s been an age since I’ve seen a London-set film which showcased it’s locations as if they were interesting (most London-based filmmakers are bored of London and bored of film — Gilliam, whatever his vices, is not). But the only times the film felt like it had any control over its own effects was (1) the Johnny Depp cameo — Depp just makes things focus, he reduces every other element to scene-setting, and blasts the clutter away — and (2) a sequence when the imaginary world of a charity ball / awards ceremony starts to break apart: the sudden rifts of black space provide abrupt and truly welcome relief from the mass of meaningless detail that’s been fighting for our attention.

It’s tempting to simply assume that the star’s death threw the project off course, and that’s certainly a possibility — it must have been an awful thing to face. But Ledger was never at the centre of the story, unless some massive rewriting has gone on. There’s no centre. Parnassus seems like he should be the key character, since he at least has a goal — saving his daughter from the devil. But he spends much of the action in a trance, drunk, or narrating unnecessary flashbacks. The excess screen time is scooped up by Ledger, who may in fact be the villain, and by young Andrew Garfield (clearly talented but trying too hard). Ledger is called Tony and Garfield plays Anton, which suggests some kind of duality or connection, but none emerges.

imaginarium011

We also have Lily Cole, an unusually structured supermodel with an apple for a head — she’s unquestionably beautiful, and gives a creditable performance, but it’s not in synch with anyone else’s. Plummer bellows and drools like Lear, Garfield is tricks and tics, and Verne Troyer delivers his lines by rote, or from the world’s smallest autocue.** Gilliam has often thrown together unlikely combinations of British and American talent (plus the occasional Italian or Australian), but this time the sense of a troupe just isn’t there. Amid all the shouting and showing off, Cole’s more muted work is very welcome.

Maybe this will play better a second time around? TIME BANDITS improved for me on reviewing, as did MUNCHAUSEN and JABBERWOCKY. But my favourites, BRAZIL and TWELVE MONKEYS, were immediately successful on pretty much every level. I haven’t seen anything this bad from Gilliam since THE BROTHERS GRIMM, where at least he had the excuse of appalling executive interference. But that misbegotten project shares with this one a glaring flaw that has nothing to do with budgetary limitations or studio supervision or behind-the-scenes tragedy: very poor dialogue.

imaginarium_of_doctor_parnassus_-11

I do think perhaps the film was more unfinished at the time of Ledger’s death than has been suggested. The movie takes ages to get going, with endless digressions into flashback and introductions of unnecessary subplots. The strange symbols written on Ledger’s forehead are never explained. I’m reminded of the John Landis episode of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, where what seems like a botched bit of writing is simply the result of a patch-up job on the available footage shot before the star’s death. In both cases, what might have made a moving and evocative fragment (Do I perhaps love fragments more than I love complete films?) has become a dead and disjointed “completed work,” made not for audiences but for the insurers.

*I’ve heard that Troyer has a bodyguard, who is also a little person. But an incredibly muscular one. I love this.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 438 other followers