Archive for Hugh Bonneville

Bear Jams

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2018 by dcairns

Since we’re nothing but a pair of abject slugabeds, it’s taken Fiona & I this long to catch up with PADDINGTON and PADDINGTON 2. Had we realized that director Paul King was responsible for directing The Mighty Boosh on TV, we’d have gotten into the swing of things sooner. As it was, our interest took a while to get kindled.

The news that the producer of the HARRY POTTER series was making a CGI Paddington initially sparked revulsion. I have very fond feelings for the BBC series, which had a lo-tech look that seemed more charming and more in keeping with the innocent flavour of the thing. I even made this tribute. And Fiona has a history with Michael Bond’s original books — when she was very small, her teacher would end the class by having Fiona read a bit of Paddington, as she was an advanced reader. This was done for the sadistic pleasure of seeing her try not to crack up at stories she found irresistibly funny, while the rest of the class, dullards to a man, stared on blankly.Anyway, as the world now knows, the PADDINGTON movies are lovable triumphs, true to the spirit of the original while also folding in a lot of hyperkinetic action and gags and quite a bit of the cuddly Britishness of Aardman animation. But a very inclusive Britishness — the Peruvian bear may speak with an English accent (what accent would be more believable to you, smart guy?) but the films have a theme about welcoming immigrants that’s highlighted by the musical choices including a calypso band, D. Lime, who pop up whenever needed, like the troubadors in CAT BALLOU. Too bad such a message doesn’t seem to stick. How many families who enjoyed these movies also buy the Daily Mail?

Director King’s TV work had a beautiful stylised look, but the lifting of budgetary constraints have allowed him to splash out in a joyous and cineliterate way. He knows when to go all THIRD MAN ~

And a Chaplin reference — Paddington drawn through the cogs of a clock tower — ends with him wiping off a sooty mustache that neatly tips the derby to another Londoner, another immigrant ~

Like the Harry Potters, the films are jammed with the cream (or creamed with the jam?) or British and Irish acting talent, with one Aussie, Nicole Kidman. Actually, it’s the villains of the films that pose slight difficulties: the movies are so sunny and good-natured, really investing in the dream that a benevolent bear can turn hostility and suspicion into love and acceptance, that they don’t quite know what to do with their baddies. Kidman’s nasty taxidermist actually comes complete with a heartbreaking backstory — she has simply learned entirely the wrong lesson from her father’s tragic downfall. Great as NK is at playing a hush-voiced, plummy vamp (spoofing her ex’s MISSION IMPOSSIBLE stunts), I wanted to see even her redeemed by the bear’s goodwill. Her comeuppance is fittingly mild for this kind of movie — forced to work in a petting zoo is a modest enough punishment for attempted murder — but she carries in her a bitterness that’s a far darker fate than this kind of movie can bear (sorry).

Hugh Grant — doing a wicked impression of Edward Fox — goes the opposite way in the sequel. He’s not punished at all, in that he enjoys his punishment and turns it into his dream come true. Nor does he learn anything. Being a parody of an actor, other people are irrelevant to him, and he’s never cared one way or the other about our ursine hero. So the pay-off for his character, in a sense, cannot provide 100% narrative satisfaction — but it nevertheless turns into a triumphant end credits sequence that finishes the series on an all-time high.

Additional shout-outs: Ben Whishaw voices the bear with unapologetic sweetness; Hugh Bonneville is gradually establishing himself as the UK’s bestest thing; all of Sally Hawkins films will now be seen through the retrospective fish-eye of THE SHAPE OF WATER so all her swimming and interspecies activities here are hilarious; the kids, Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin, sprouting alarmingly from one film to the next; Brendan Gleason, the funniest recipient of a hard stare; national treasure Jim Broadbent; Simon Farnaby, who resurrects the comedy cliché that when men drag up unconvincingly, other straight men suddenly find them irresistible.

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Spats

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2017 by dcairns

We had an inadvertent Sam Rockwell double feature the other week. First I stumbled upon a copy of the 2005 adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s PICCADILLY JIM, in which he plays the title character, sort of, and which I’d been curious about for some time. But you can’t buy the thing anywhere — this was a charity shop discovery. So I immediately satisfied my curiosity, and then we embarked to the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s festive mystery show, which turned out to be THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, with Mr. Rockwell again.

Verdict: Sam Rockwell is a powerful force, if used responsibly. This piece is about the earlier film.

PICCADILLY JIM would make a fine film to test budding critics on. Make them read the book, then watch the 1936 film and the 2005, and attempt to say what’s wrong in each case. The novel isn’t actually prime Wodehouse, but it’s an early example of him starting to hit his stride. The budding critic might dispose of the MGM version swiftly: despite employing a lot of the right sort of people, it’s not funny and every change that’s been made to the original story, and there are many, makes it worse. Why didn’t they just film the book?

In the thirties, one feels, it might be possible to just film Wodehouse. Certainly the best Wodehouse movie by far, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, was made then, and is fairly faithful. It’s biggest departure is the addition of Fred Astaire song-and-dance numbers, a wholly forgivable infidelity since Astaire hoofing is about the one thing as lighter-than-air as Wodehouse.

Post thirties, it’s become necessary to treat Wodehouse as a period piece, and this seems to add a heaviness that’s ruinous to all adaptations. A lot of people like the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series, which was honestly faithful to the plots and characters, but I find its plodding pace, sludgy 16mm look, and respectful tracking across drawing rooms or bottles of bath essence, as if in awe of its own production design, so antithetical to the correct frolicsome spirit that I find myself doubting whether anyone who professes admiration for it actually appreciates Wodehouse at all. Which I realise is a bit extreme, harsh, judgemental.

Turgid though J&W is, it’s still miles closer to making a decent attempt at the job than most of the atrocities perpetrated, including the inane, cartoonish Blandings series shoveled out by the BBC. Again, I could defend that one in principle, because it may well have been made by parties who had noticed the problem of adaptation. But their solution — going BOING! a lot — was a dismayingly stupid one.

OK, this is quite a funny image.

Sticking a camera in front of unadorned Wodehouse seems to result in the flat champagne of the Fry-Laurie show. Some level of stylisation seems necessary. But so many attempts at this result in shrill, arch overacting, and distracting visuals. PICCADILLY JIM is almost entirely composed of these things. It’s the first Wodehouse made for the big screen since THE GIRL IN THE BOAT in 1962, which improbably starred Norman Wisdom. It’s written by arch-Tory posh boy Julian Fellowes, between his first big success with GOSFORD PARK and his second, Gosford Park Lite Downton Abbey. He ought to be a reasonable choice, being familiar with and not overawed by the ritzy milieu. And one assumes his enthusiasm for the original author is genuine. (I’d even say that a Wodehouse adaptation that played like GF without the darker notes would be about right — look at how a former Jeeves, Stephen Fry, playing the only broadly comic figure, fits right in and actually “works” better than he does in any other film.)

The director, John McKay, ladles on the stylisation (archness, shouting, cartooniness, distracting visuals). but he has an interesting concept. Wodehouse started in the early 1900s, hit his stride in the 20s, peaked in the 30s and 40s, and kept merrily going until the 70s. The world of his stories changed very little. So what we casually visualise as some sort of vaguely thirties setting is a lot less concrete and specific than that. The PICCADILLY JIM film uses this as an excuse to go all MOULIN ROUGE! on Wodehouse’s ass. Mix up the fashions, turn everything up to eleven, and have someone perform a jazzy version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! is, in my view, a very terrible thing, a cinematic Srebenica. But this approach, used consistently and moderately, need not have been fatal. Setting the film, like Gilliam’s BRAZIL, “Somewhere in the twentieth century,” makes it interesting to look at. McKay and his designers have the visual chops to produce imagery that’s amusing and pleasing, if you press mute on the sound. But let’s be clear: this is just a decorative layer laid over the story. Decoration doesn’t make things function better, and it can weigh them down.

McKay is less ADHD-chaotic than Luhrmann, but he’s aiming for frenetic from the off, and in search of the chimera of “intensity” he films things too close up and cuts too much. He and his team have noticed that Sam Rockwell moves beautifully, but they try to feature this virtue by cutting to wide shots but then jumping back in immediately. In-out, in-out, for little or sometimes no reason.

There’s some good actors in this. Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander especially (the only really funny one) and Nitin Ganatra seem able to do lightness. They’re not belabouring it. The women all go for Queen of Hearts type acting. Wodehouse does, admittedly, enjoy writing termagants, and the fear of powerful women motivates a lot of his plots. Brenda Blethyn and Alison Janney are just too much.

Frances O’Connor is a more interesting case. Most Wodehouse heroines could be seen as a little boring to play: the interesting girls are more likely to be secondary characters like Corky Pirbright, who can apply their eccentric determination to get the hero in trouble using charm and appeal rather than sheer domination. Ann Chester is a character of this variety, at least as portrayed here. O’Connor is very skilled and gets to do some surprising stuff, and she’s sexier than anyone in a Wodehouse piece has ever been, which isn’t very Wodehousian but is fine with me. But she’s playing it American, which is another level of archness and artifice, so that’s less welcome. Although a real American wouldn’t necessarily be better: Americans working in Britain sometimes manage to act like they’re American impersonators.

The exaggerated costumes by Ralph Holes are fun, but would be all wrong for a Wodehouse film that was actually working. As it is, they can certainly be enjoyed in their own right.

Which brings us at last to Rockwell, who applies tremendous energy to the part, and moves well, as noted. The fact that the film doesn’t work has something to do with him, but it’s not immediately obvious how, because he’s so GOOD, or at any rate fascinating to watch. Dynamic, inventive and kind of aggressive, but not frighteningly so. But Jim starts out as a philanderer (discovered unconscious with three girls at the outset, which isn’t very Wodehouse) and has to be converted by true love. Wodehouse always treats love with heartfelt sincerity: the storm clouds in his sunny stories are all to do with the threat of thwarted romance, and at the end romance is never actually thwarted. And we’re supposed to care.

This film never gives us a reason for Jim to fall in love with this girl after being around so many. Even though O’Connor is glamorous and dashing — the Wodehouse love at first sight never gets a moment to establish itself, and the entire edifice is meant to be built on it. Without that simple, hackneyed thing, all the clever touches and all the stupid touches (plenty of those) are meaningless, have nothing to cling to, and there’s no underlying anxiety to make the farce run — no negative outcome that matters to us is ever imminent. Fellowes even threatens to blow everyone up with a doomsday device, a rather outré development, and I wasn’t remotely worried. He’s found a whole new way to fail at adapting Wodehouse — by being TOO flip and throwaway. And of course, he combines this innovation with all the more typical ones.

Why is Wodehouse so hard to get right? True, his deathless prose can’t be transferred to the screen, but his plots are sound and hilariously complicated, his characters sweet and funny, his dialogue wonderful. But it seems the tone and style of the movie, which must substitute for Wodehouse’s writing, are maddeningly elusive. It’s not a tone anyone does naturally anymore, and the more you strain after it, the more it recedes, like a caffeinated vanishing point.

Nobody’s made a Wodehouse for the cinema since 2005, and it looks like the gap that yawned between Norman Wisdom’s attempt and the Fellowes-McKay stumble may well be repeated.

This would make an instructive double feature with another Rockwell — THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY… in which again, transatlantic casting surprisingly isn’t a problem, but a shaky grasp of tone and story and uneven jokes certainly ARE.