Archive for the Politics Category

War Stars

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2021 by dcairns

Then There Were Giants is a thing I picked up back when the charity shops were open. I was attracted to it because the director is Joseph Sargent and I like his THE FORBIN PROJECT and THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 a lot. It’s also shot by John A. Alonso (CHINATOWN) and I was certainly intrigued by the casting of John Lithgow, Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine as Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.

The disc presents itself as a film, but is really a miniseries originally called World War II: When Lions Roared, an equally bad title.

It’s a product I guess of the reckless early days of HD video. It’s extremely cheap-looking. The impulse is to give a history lesson disguised as drama, with famous actors playing famous leaders, with a lot of stock footage to fill in the blanks. Splitscreen is used wildly to link the action occurring in Washington, London and Moscow. I don’t hate splitscreen but it combines with that cheap video look to create something you really can’t watch — like THE HOBBIT in Higher Frame Rate. Well, you can watch it, but only in the same way that you can gnaw your own leg off.

Lithgow is delightful as always but the show’s hagiographic approach, broadly winked at in both titles, robs Franklin D. of some useful humanity. Bob Hoskins tries hard at being Churchillian and does better than you might expect, but not well enough to make you stop seeing and hearing Bob Hoskins, and Michael Caine has never been exactly a man of a thousand voices…

He proves to be a ludicrous Stalin, I regret to say. Since Uncle Joe would have been speaking Russian, doing him in English with a Russian accent is a silly approach, but doing him Cockney would have been, I guess, unacceptable. So he tries his hand at something vaguely Russian, which blends with his undisguisable and familiar tones to summon up the shade of an East End immigrant from Sir Michael’s dim youth, and suggests that it would be lovely to see Caine play such a character, but not Stalin, whose spirit remains stubbornly unchanneled.

Sargent and Caine also did JAWS: THE REVENGE together so maybe their collaboration was jinxed. Maybe if Caine had played “Hoagie” in the JAWS sequel as Stalin, and vice versa, it would have worked better. I assure you it couldn’t be any worse.

The worst of it is, everybody’s THOUGHT about this thing. Stalin is introduced silently, to allow you to get used to the idea. Caine has noted the impassive affect Stalin presents in film footage, and mimics it accurately, his face becoming a mask, as inexpressive as his moustache. Alonso has attempted to subtly differentiate the different continents with lighting. All the good choices look bad and make the bad choices look worse. Blame it on HD, miscasting, and Rio.

The solution for this show would be at the same time easy and impossible — claw back some of the budget by hiring cheaper, less famous actors (maybe Ed Begley Jr and Jan Triska could be promoted). Spend it on celluloid and better sets: don’t waste it on stock footage, unless you have a plan as weird as HOW I WON THE WAR’s to integrate it. Go for stylisation rather than unsuccessfully attempts at authenticity (the House of Commons is basically some tables in this one). I guess they ARE attempting to achieve stylisation with the splitscreen and stock footage, but what they’re achieving is just cheapness.

Play it on empty, black sets.

Stay in closeup as much as possible. Embrace the televisual!

But the makers of this piece probably had to cast big, inappropriate actors in order to get the thing made. After all, I picked up the disc because I recognised the star names.

The Greatest Tory Ever Sold

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2021 by dcairns

I also watched JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Easter. Doesn’t that title need some punctuation? I mean, if we don’t specify that it should read JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR (which would look good on a business card) then the filmgoer is dangerously free to imagine it as JESUS CHRIST! SUPERSTAR? (an astonished reaction to Todd Haynes’ Barbie-doll biopic).

Whatever. Studios are apparently superstitiously averse to punctuating their titles.

This being early Lloyd-Webber, the tunes are actually there. Billy Wilder, speaking of the Sunset Blvd musical, predicted it might have one or two good songs (I think one of them is a self-plagiarism from ALW’s score for GUMSHOE). Most of these numbers are toe-tappers, though the bad guy songs are the ones that escape bathos and make a virtue of their vulgarity. Tim Rice’s lyrics do resort to rhyming couplets and one-syllable words a hell of a lot of the time, except where he rhymes “messiah” and “fire,” which ought to be a crucifying offence.

I guess director Norman Jewison is considered tragically unhip, but I consider him essentially benign, and he did give us Hal Ashby. And here he’s complemented by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, in shooting on 65mm, and editor Antony Gibbs, so we have the man who shot THE LADYKILLERS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and the man who cut TOM JONES and PERFORMANCE. The shooting and cutting are terrific — and we should leave Jewison out of our appreciation of that. I guess the nouvelle vague-isms were maybe old hat by 1973, but this was never a really hip property anyway.

I recall reading about this one in a Medved Bros book — they really hated it, something I now think is more to do with their religious feelings than their film-critical faculties (which are null). They found Ted Neeley too hysterical — true, but Ted is fighting the tendency of Jesus to be boring onscreen — he doesn’t win the battle but his vocal histrionics keep him semi-watchable — ditto Carl Anderson as Judas — who moves well, his gestures midway between pantomime and dance. The Medvedi reserved special ire for Barry Dennen as Pilate, who is certainly very hissy indeed. And hissable. But somehow makes the character a serviceable embodiment of every management-class person craving the quiet life and refusing to take a stand. I’m always pleased when Dennen turns up in anything — as the desperate chemical plant scientist in SUPERMAN III, for instance.

This is one of the more incoherent renditions of the Gospels — I can’t work out why the people of Jerusalem turn against Christ — I suppose it’s as a result of him throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, but it’s not clear, really. It ought to have been possible to write this.

Despite the surname, Norman Jewison isn’t Jewish, something he pointed out, an honest man, when offered FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The studio head said that this was GOOD, he felt a gentile could make the story universal. At which point maybe Jewison should have objected to being given a Jewish project on the basis of his not being Jewish.

Ted Neely, like most screen Jesuses, is super-Aryan (and from Texas), though the movie has a nice racial mix elsewhere, and avoids making Judas the most Jewish one (see the Eric Idle & John Cleese Michelangelo sketch). It does, however, strike me as quite a right-wing — the Thatcherite Rice and Lloyd-Webber do include Jesus and Judas’ argument about spending money on luxuries instead of charity, which most adaptations leave out. Not having seen this film since I was a kid, it hadn’t struck me before that the adaptors want to side with Jesus’ “There will be poor always, pathetically struggling, look at the good things you’ve got.” It seems absurd that the authors intended the speaker to sound reasonable or virtuous. I always found Judas the more sympathetic character. And not just because I’m Scottish and thirty pieces of silver sounds like quite a lot.

The writers and Jewison also treat the healing of the sick as a zombie movie — the only time I’ve seen this done. Poor Jesus, persecuted by all these dirty poor people who want something from him!

I think Jewison was going for a Ken Russell vibe but can’t quite get there — he was, apparently, very concerned with being tasteful, which is a fool’s errand when dealing with tacky material like this (a Lloyd-Webber musical, the Holy Bible). He can’t quite attain the shade of ultraviolet required.

Yvonne Blake did the costumes for this and Lester’s THREE MUSKETEERS the same year, it seems. The film’s Big Idea, that this is a production put on by a busload of hippies, works well, and the mix of am-dram stylisation and modern props is fun. The s&m pharisees are good value. Not sure how the graphic whipping — mild by Mel Gibson standards, of course — is supposed to work if this is a theatrical performance. Not quite consistent. Plus, where’s the audience?

And the jet fighters which roar off after Judas sells out evidently continued their patrol of the Holy Land — you can hear them, courtesy of sound designer Skip Lievsay, in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST when Willem Dafoe wills himself back onto the cross at the end.

Mossop

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2021 by dcairns

John Mills’ excellent turn as Willie Mossop in HOBSON’S CHOICE is a terrific bit of physical acting and character design. He has two hairstyles, one of which is spectacularly disfiguring — both of which seem to be real, so they must have shot the later scenes first, before barbering him into grotesquerie.

Mills’ other uglified role is in RYAN’S DAUGHTER, where he’s just hideous. Strange to think he won an Oscar for it — if he’d repeated his Early Mossop performance in that context it would have been too much — instead, he goes even further, beyond Mr. Laughton’s Quasimodo. I guess it’s an interesting choice to make the “village idiot” uncharming and unphotogenic, where such characters are usually sentimentalized, but Mills’ choices plunge him into the unpleasant domain of caricaturing the afflicted, an error of judgement, to put it mildly, that lands him in the same camp as Alec Guinness’ whole look in OLIVER TWIST (a film made three years after the Holocaust, if you need reminding).

Mossop, on the other hand, is a wonderful creation. Any discomfort felt about laughing at this ill-educated and ill-dressed man is joyously dissipated as the film shows him blossoming in confidence and erudition, a Galatea sculpted by his partner Maggie (Brenda de Banzie, also wonderful).

Costume designer John Armstrong has collaborated with the actor to subtly deform and distort his trim chorus boy’s body. A little pot belly has been added — I assume it’s prosthetic. The trousers hang in a strange manner, suggesting scrawniness and waste beneath, as well as an ill fit.

Mills enhances the effect by doing a lot of QUALITY ass-work: he sticks out his backside to suggest poor posture rather than pugilistic sauciness, and this seems to do unwelcome things to the clothing. There’s a perfect storm in those trousers — pants and stance in total disharmony.

Kevin Brownlow’s magisterial book David Lean tells us that originally, Robert Donat was cast, and had to shoot a test to convince himself he could do it. He went down the trap door a prematurely aged asthmatic, then came up as Willie Mossop. But he failed the medical, the stress bringing on an attack of wheezing. (Movie medicals, made to satisfy the insurance people, were generally a bit lax. Roy Kinnear said of PIRATES, “A number of us were quite long in the tooth. We all had to do a physical examination. You went in a room and got on a couch, and you could manage that, you were in.”)

Losing his co-lead days before the shoot, Lean had to deal with a rebellious Laughton, who felt betrayed — Korda basically blackmailed him into doing it — “If you go to the scandal sheets, so will I.” Which is… wow. But it certainly helped Lean that his producer was prepared to play the bad guy. Lean and Laughton then enjoyed a good relationship. Lean recalled Mills, on a boat outing, feigning seasickness, and realised what a good physical comic he was. He had imagined Mossop as hulking, but the physical contrast between Mills and Laughton plays brilliantly: Lorre and Greenstreet in Lancashire.

Original author Harold Brighouse wasn’t heavily involved in the film version, but he did advise Lean that he could play the wedding night scene where Mossop tremulously prepares for bed “as long as you like” and it would bring the house down. As with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and Omar Sharif’s long approach, Lean lost his nerve, as he put it, and so Mossop’s preparations are truncated by an awkward dissolve. If only he’d test screened it… that kind of thing can give confidence as well as shatter it. He was able to go back and extend Sharif’s approach for the LAWRENCE restoration, but alas HOBSON’S never got that treatment and no doubt the footage was swiftly disposed of.

But still… HOBSON’S is a fascinating case of the duties of a main character being split among three superb players. Laughton brings the lion’s share of the entertainment, a bumptious and sodden Lear, but he never learns anything, he’s simply reduced in power until his mean spirits can’t hurt anyone. De Banzie’s Maggie is the hero who makes things happen — a bit of fancy footwork by Brighouse allows her to triumph due to a complete accident — Hobson falling down a hole — that she could never have anticipated. But she’s unchanging. Mossop is manipulated and coerced every step of the way, a character lacking any form of proactive self-determination, but he’s the one with the arc — more than his circumstances change, he grows in stature and becomes master of the house, albeit one put in that position and kept there by a strong woman who is the real power in the relationship. Mossop knows he’s a mere figurehead, but Maggie gives him confidence at every turn by praising his skill as shoemaker. I’ve seen productions of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW where they’ve tried to make Kate and Petrucchio partners in a role-playing game put on for the benefit of society, but I don’t think you can make that entirely convince as Shakespeare’s intent, but Brighouse was a suffragist and the feminist underpinnings of his play are strikingly modern (see also Stanley Houghton’s oft-filmed HINDLE WAKES) — Maggie and Willie agree to play the roles of strong man and supportive wife, while both know that the reality is more the other way around.

Anyway — we raise our glasses to John Mills and Willie Mossop. He may never have gotten another role like it, but it opened up the range of parts he could be considered for and gave him a new lease of screen life, which he certainly ran with.

Next must-see Millses are ICE-COLD IN ALEX and TUNES OF GLORY.