Archive for Jack Lemmon

The Assassination of Marilyn Monroe by the Idiot Andrew Dominik

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2022 by dcairns

You’ll gather we didn’t care for BLONDE. Actually, to be studiously fair, I thought it was magnificently photographed (by Chayse Irvine) — except for the last scene, which inexplicably falls apart, looking like the worst kind of cheap student film. For all the awful choices — cervical POV shots, talking foetuses — I can give director Andrew Dominik some credit because for every three stupid decisions he’ll make at least one good, bold one. The period recreation, from a visual standpoint, is terrific, and AD has a better sense of how to do that kind of thing than David Fincher evinced in MANK. And composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, by eschewing any kind of 50s-60s sound, maybe dilute the air of authenticity but they don’t fall into the clumsy and inappropriate pastiche effects that crippled Trent Reznor’s score for that other Netflix biopic. (This duo have also scored Dahmer, and did a spectacular job.)

(By the way, I take the view that the correct pronunciation of that compound word is bi-o-pic, not bi-op-ic, rhyming with myopic, as one increasingly hears it said.)

The music, like everything else, falls apart at the ending — your temp track is showing! — it just turns into an Angelo Badalamenti knock-off, while the film itself turns into a Lynch knock-off, FIRE WALK WITH ME plus the last scene of THE ELEPHANT MAN. And, instead of being devastatingly emotional, as the original was, it’s just a transplanted hunk of dead tissue.

(I’ve heard people say the film is a horror movie, but I didn’t feel that dread Lynch always manages to foster. I felt, “Oh, that would be disturbing.” In fairness, I’ve also heard people say “You need to see it on the big screen.” But we’re paying for Netflix so we watched it on Netflix.)

Fiona remarked that the thing she was unprepared for was how little she’d feel. She claims she felt NOTHING. I had some emotional response to the early stuff with little Norma Jeane, powerfully played by little Lily Fisher. The opening firestorm is magnificent. If the nocturnal cityscapes sometimes feel two-dimensional, assemblages of flats, the effect is pleasing and maybe somehow appropriate.

It’s cinematic, one would have to say, but that need not mean GOOD. This desire to attain FILMIC ARTISTRY may be why Dominik limits his use of internal monologue, but the one scene where he lets Ana de Armas, who deserves a better film and director, occupy the soundtrack with her thoughts, is the point where we finally have access to the character, past the adeptly-mimicked vocal mannerisms and facial expressions. It’s an APPALLING scene, a fictionalized JFK blow-job with EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS anachronistically playing on TV, all erectile missiles and detumescing Washington Monument. Oh, so we’ve suddenly decided to have a sense of humour? And a Ken Russell sense of humour at that? Appalling, but oddly welcome as we get a chance to experience our main character from the inside, without the aid of a speculum (Dominik likes his prosthetic labia so much he cranks them open TWICE).

I mean, at times it feels like Dominik hates both Monroe and De Armas. Any sense of this being a feminist take on the story is trashed when a filmmaker leers “Would you look at the ass on that little girl?” (originally said by John Huston, according to later accounts, but here handed to a non-Huston type) and, instead of showing us a leering male, Dominik shows us the ass in question, inviting us to agree or disagree, not to critique the decency of the statement.

It is, I admit, hard not to hold Dominik’s Sight and Sound interview against him. He comes across as cloddish, no cinephile, and while his presumptuousness — he somehow knows Monroe intentionally killed herself — is weird and foolish, it wouldn’t necessarily stop him making a good film: you’ve got to take a view of your subject, after all, and even if your supposed “insight” is spurious, playing it to the hilt should result in drama. I’m fascinated by Dominik’s line “She was the Aphrodite of the 20th century, the American goddess of love. And she killed herself. So what does that mean?” See BLONDE, the film that fails to answer, or pose, that question.

I do kind of like the fact that the film is convincingly taking place in an insensitive, pre-feminist era. Even Arthur Miller is kind of a clod, although as played by Adrien Brody he has appealing traits too. When I watched the first episode of Mad Men I thought they missed a trick by having Jon Hamm (I think it was) intervene when a male colleague is being creepy. What makes the period different to us is precisely the fact that such a confrontation would be unlikely to occur. A friend’s mother told me, “Men weren’t very nice.”

The disjointed narrative (though surprisingly chronological — childhood, then adulthood, then death) uses lots of weirdly fantastical devices — Monroe seeing her mother in places where she couldn’t be, for instance. Tricky stuff to pull off if you’re not arguing that she was psychotic. And, oh yes, I’m calling her Marilyn Monroe. Joyce Carol Oates, in her novel, has a level of plausible deniability — it’s a fictional account of someone with most of Monroe’s attributes and biographical details. In a movie, you’re reminded in about every shot that this is someone based very precisely on the historic Marilyn, and the movie goes to all kinds of impressive effort to restage famous photographs and movie scenes (though casting Chris Lemmon as Jack Lemmon is bizarre, given that Lemmon pere was 35 in SOME LIKE IT HOT and Lemmon fils is 68 — it’s an adept impersonation, the little we see of it, but what stands out are the differences). So it’s a film about Marilyn Monroe. Does that mean we require it to be accurate? I admire a good many “true stories” that take dramatic liberties, but it has to be at the service of something. The invented stuff with Eddy Robinson Jr. and, especially, Charles Chaplin Jr. is… hard to justify. It’s dramatic, but what point does it make? I mean, I’d be happy to hear a theory.

De Armas says she went to Monroe’s grave to ask her permission to make the movie, and left a card signed by the crew. But Monroe is dead, so she couldn’t tell them all to get stuffed. We’re also told of weird poltergeistic activities on set when “Marilyn wasn’t happy with something.” We’re not told what prompted the acts of telekinetic criticism, nor if script changes were made to placate the restless visitor.

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #5a

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on July 12, 2022 by dcairns

Back to the Branagh. You love to see it.

Branagh once said he’d be unlikely to make a Macbeth, because Polanski’s was pretty fine. So I guess he was indifferent to the Olivier and Richardson versions, though as we’ll see he’s certainly seen them, and I guess he was super-indifferent to the Zeffirelli which was only six years old.

The four hours gets off to a rocky start, I can tell you: the title is chiselled in stone as part of the set. This struck me as cheesy — maybe I was being dense not to realise that it’s the inscription on the plinth of Hamlet’s dad’s statue. But Branagh could have made that clear by tracking back from the plinth to reveal the statue (CITIZEN KANE style) rather than tracking to one side which causes the sign to slide off screen right in a “nothing to see here” manner. You don’t expect to encounter it again.

I guess if Jack Lemmon had come to me and said “I want to play a spear-carrier in your four-hour HAMLET,” at first I would have probably said, “You are mistaken, I’m not making a four-hour HAMLET,” but then I might have been flattered into letting him do it. But this is plainly the kind of top-heavy casting where you notice the actor at the expense of the role. Classic John Wayne “Surely this man was the son of God.” Can you do it with more awe?

Jack Lemmon is a beloved American actor. But quite poor here. He’s elderly, it’s late at night, it’s cold, and it’s an unfamiliar idiom — that must be why he’s slipping into the cadences of Jimmy Cagney playing Bottom playing Pyramus — textbook school play robotic speech. Disconcerting and saddening.

Since Branagh is doing what a lot of stage productions do, setting his production in A period but not THE period (admittedly, one could make a case for either medieval or Elizabethan), we have to get used to quite a lot, so I suppose it’s good to have our first Black actor in this scene, Ray Fearon as Francisco. Establish the principle. But it’s rubbish the way the Black actors only play spear-carriers.

This is a scene with quite a few terrified blokes reacting to a ghost. The only important one is Horatio. And Branagh’s casting makes sure we notice Horatio less than Marcellus and Francisco.

Barnardo patrols by the gate. He looks about as he walks. Some panning shots attempt to simulate his POV though they’re taken from a stationary position.

Suddenly we’re very far away and here’s the statue of Hamlet Sr. It looks like it must be quite small (somehow you can tell with statues). Some very clumsy cutting follows, between Barnardo getting worried and a jib shot exploring the statue for reasons we cannot yet guess. None of this works, I think it’s fair to say. Then the statue draws its sword just a wee bit and —

CREAK! Blimey, the statue of Hamlet’s father is coming to life, like Talos, one thing that absolutely none of the characters say they see. That’s one of the main traits of this wordy version — things happening which in no way match what the characters say. Seems to me, if you’re doing the whole text you’d better read it and make sure you understand it.

But really what counts here most is the random angle changes. That’s what Branagh is all about — along with the meaninglessly whirling camera, the random cut to a surprising new angle is his calling card. When I see that calling card I always reply, “Mr. Cairns is not at home.”

When so many of the choices seem chosen from a tombola, it’s good to remember that Branagh is animated by some actual stylistic preferences — he likes pace and energy. So do I. But how far can you take them? Can you have Francisco tackle Barnardo roughly to the snowy ground (so what if the play clearly isn’t happening in winter? cf Ophelia’s flowers) and still have Barnardo say to him “You come most carefully upon your hour,” while the dude is lying on his back? What if he yells it? What if everybody yells, even though it’s night and the royal family probably doesn’t want blokes yelling right outside?

The two men now get up and stand unnaturally close together despite the wide (65mm!) screen, and neither makes a move despite Bernardo having been relieved and pronouncing himself really keen to get going. This is the first shot that makes it clear that they’re NOT, in fact, right next to Blenheim Palace which is standing in for Elsinore. The gate is some distance from the building. Maybe the shouting is OK, then, but it didn’t seem OK when it was happening.

Then they start power-walking at a diagonal away from the gate, towards fuck all, but luckily this brings Marcellus and Horatio into view. Our guys immediately jump and yell and point their spears. Energy!

It’s fine to have Americans do Shakespeare, it’s fine to have them do it with American accents, but “random” is never a good strategy and having one random yank spear-carrier is distracting. And Marcellus also seems a bit old for his job. A good chunk of this scene is “Is that Jack Lemmon?” and “That IS Jack Lemmon!” and “WHY is that Jack Lemmon?” I think the only way this would have worked would be if Francisco was Walter Matthau. I jest. Sadly, Branagh is in earnest.

Note the clumsy way, when they decide to go and sit by the fire, we get a special shot of JL exiting frame. That’s it. The characters are moving from one static position to another and we need a cutaway of Lemmon taking one step to help us get there. Because energy!!!

Once the three guys (Barnardo having headed for home and Horlicks) sit down, we could settle for a flat free but some atmosphere seems called for, so we’re given a genuinely nice shot of Francisco up close with his chums blurry in the b/g, which works well. So it doesn’t last long. Still, I approve of the VFX shot of the star Barnardo speaks of. I don’t approve of going back to the flat three-shot when they react to the ghost for the first time. Never repeat a master shot — words to live by, if you can.

Patrick Doyle’s music now gets very excited as —

  1. we go BACK to the side shot favouring Barnardo that we just left and
  2. we track in low angle on the ghost / statue — impossible to place where it is with regards to our character and
  3. a crane shot plummeting towards the ground as the three amigos push through the gates
  4. tracking shot rushing right to left as B, F & H flee PARALLEL TO THE HOUSE, which you might think they’d try to reach and
  5. cut into a closer view of the same (ENERGY!) and then back again and
  6. a long lens static rear view of them now running towards the house somehow and
  7. a blurry rush of motion with a brief bit of Jack Lemmon in it, maybe talking and
  8. another crane shot descending, as the boys hide behind a bit of wall and
  9. three big scared heads in a row and
  10. side view medium shot, halberds at the ready and then back to 9, then 10, then 9 and
  11. another shot of the ghost with no context and
  12. the crane shot of the wee wall again, but this time retreating and then 9 again and then more of this and
  13. the ghost/statue but now we’re tracking away from it, symbolizing that it’s going away

Whew! Eighteen shots in 35 seconds (average shot less than two seconds). ENERGY!!! And such a RANGE of shots. Big shots, small shots, some as big as your head. And absolutely impossible to work out why THESE shots. I mean, we can justify the ghost appearing. We can justify shots looking at the people who are speaking. The crane shots seem to be intended to suggest the ghost’s POV (as in EVIL DEAD) but they don’t seem to match where we assume it to be, and the actors don’t look in the right direction, so they add to the general confusion.

The Cuisinart approach to cutting has deleterious effects all round — that long lens static rear view, however short you hold it onscreen, cannot add to the “energy” because it’s so undramatic — it’s wide, static, flat, and filmed from the rear — it’s eating up time that could be taken by one of the tracking shots, but I suppose it’s needed because it’s the only shot showing the characters running in a sensible direction.

Shakespeare doesn’t have his characters run away, but this is acceptable. Closing the gate on it is an issue, though, because we’re never shown what the ghost does in response to this. It keeps coming, apparently, but we’re not shown HOW. I don’t think we really WANT a visual effect of it passing through the gate, but the way things are shown it’s kind of needed.

The big big problem is the lack of connection between the ghost and the peeps. They never share a frame, which is already a problem (this COULD be used expressively to make the ghost’s reality open to question, and insofar as the sequence is animated by an idea, I think this may have been KB’s intent). The lack of a clear POV/reaction structure renders it all incoherent and unconvincing. The shots of men looking don’t clearly connect to the shots of the ghost. The “possible ghost POV shots” don’t connect to the movements of the ghost we see. It’s like everything else: some decent, sometimes bold shot ideas in search of a sequence.

This frenetic montage starts two and a half minutes into the film, which is, as I may have mentioned, some four hours long. It constitutes a pretty good warning that our director is flying blind without a space helmet.

But there’s more to come!


Mad in Craft

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2022 by dcairns

Why? Why did I watch Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET?

Apparently I was curious about it. But not so curious that I watched it in 1996. That would have made sense — I could have seen in in 70mm. I watched it this week.

I was curious about it being the full four hour unexpurgated play, but I came to believe that by not cutting, Branagh had given up a big part of the adaptor’s toolkit — directors typically choose what parts of the play to emphasise, they focus in, by cutting. And, while I can see doing it uncut on the stage makes sense, any uncut Shakespeare text on the screen is likely to suffer from redundancy as the characters take their time describing things we can SEE. Oh boy did that happen here.

I should give Branagh credit where possible: he makes the thing go at a fair lick. And when ones’ eyes and ears have not actually gone blurry, you can still tell what the people are saying. Sometimes, it is true, you wonder why everyone is in such a frenzy when there’s not so much happening, and often, it is true, you feel that a momentary dramatic pause would bring out a lot more meaning than the relentless jabber.

The film is cast in a racially-blind manner, before it was fashionable or popular, and this is good. Hamlet is totally a play you can do this with, and any call for realism can be dismissed outright since the characters are (a) speaking blank verse and (b) not speaking Danish. There are no important Black characters, but there are quite a few minor ones, and one of those is the excellent Don Warrington.

Branagh has a certain boldness. My friend Paul Duane calls him “the worst director who has ever lived,” and he is, essentially, correct, but Branagh does things which are wrong in surprising ways, not just in boring ways, so I can still find him preferable to, say, Richard Attenborough. Who turns up here, because, of course he does.

OK, I think I’m done being nice. It wasn’t a very impressive display of positives, I admit.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore Collection/REX (1596346a) Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh Film and Television

Branagh’s boldness is manifest in the uncut text, in the 70mm format, in a certain gusto with which he throws the camera around, and in the chaotic mix-and-match approach to casting. The guiding aesthetic principle here is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Branagh swirls the Steadicam around his cast, goes into slomo, cuts furiously, because he does, at least, know he CAN, but doesn’t know whether, from moment to moment, he should or should not. We’re on random.

Similarly, Branagh throws together the classically trained theatrical knight, the movie star, the sitcom actor, with gay abandon — it’s admirable in theory — you can see it being exciting — but everybody is playing the wrong part. Brian Blessed — fruity ham — is the ghost. Charlton Heston — grim-visaged axiom of cinema — is the player king. Swap them around and you’d have something.

Jack Lemmon — a potentially fine Polonius — is Marcellus, essentially a random spear-carrier. You wonder why he’s the only American spear-carrier. And whether he’s a bit old for active duty. Richard Briers, a good sitcom actor, is Polonius. And it’s true that Polonius is the most sitcomlike character, and also true that Briers suppresses his natural affability to play the man as a more creepy and august figure, it doesn’t always work.

All the play’s double-acts are mismatched: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two interchangeable doofuses, are Timothy Spall and Reece Dinsdale, a grotesque and a normie. The two gravediggers are Billy Crystal and Simon Russell Beale, Borscht belt and Stratford. Crystal is possibly my favourite performance in the thing: he isn’t funny, his stuff with Beale is a snooze, but there’s a provocative sense of challenge when he’s matched with Branagh. One is a movie star and the other only thinks he is because he has no sense upon which to base his judgement. The result is tension, and the only place where the cutting back and forth between characters adds any excitement.

How badly cast is this film? We are asked to believe that Derek Jacobi has stolen Julie Christie away from Brian Blessed.

Jacobi — always cast as men called Claudius, is miscast as Claudius here. He’s not an impressive opponent. He does OK.

Branagh has realised one thing, I think, but he’s realised it in the edit: the shot/countershot cuts only work when we see who’s talking. It must have been discovered that reaction shots make you lose the thread of the speeches. Or else it was assumed. The result is a Dragnet approach to cutting, where every cut is on the end of a speech, cueing up the reply. I love Dragnet but it has a deliberately inexpressive cutting pattern, suitable for procedurals.

What Shakespeare needs, I suspect, and could very well get in a 70mm film, is dynamic blocking and long-held wide shots where everyone can act together in real time. There’s very, very little of that here, though there are plenty of scenes where the camera just circles the actors for no good reason. This is Branagh’s third Shakespearean adaptation so you would think he’d have a working theory of montage and mise-en-scene.

Olivier went into HENRY V with a plan: he knew that Shakespeare’s more rousing speeches seem to necessitate a certain building to a climax by the actor. The traditional approach to long scenes in the movies is to move closer. Olivier sussed that this would result in us looking right up his nose just as he was really getting into it with the yelling and gesticulating, so he reversed the pattern, very consciously: as Henry builds to a climax, the camera pulls back.

Actual saliva bubble

Branagh never realised that when he made his own HENRY V, so the film is a spittle-flecked shoutfest in which the King spends a lot of time screaming right in our ear. It’s distracting when you see saliva blasting forth in great gobs: it’s only appropriate to do spit if that’s the only thing you want the audience to notice.

Here we are, after MUCH ADO, and Branagh is still drenching the scenery with his face. He gets started early, when he meets the ghost. This is very bad: we have about three and a half hours to go at this point. How’s he going to top this? Shit, what happens when he goes/plays mad?

Plenty. The Dane froths, simpers, screams, and his voice goes comically high to suggest strong emotion. One of my favourite out-of-control performances is Alan Arkin’s last scene in LITTLE MURDERS. It’s huge and manic and (bouncing) off-the-wall. But it’s one scene. He builds to it, and then he stops. Branagh does have quiet moments — the only scene I’d seen excerpted from this was, predictably, “To be or not to be,” which is perfectly OK, and calm. But he spends about an hour running about doing full loony.

Kate Winslet, at least, is only wildly over-the-top for one scene.

As the film trundled on, I found myself no longer able to notice how badly directed it was. I had lost the aesthetic sense. I was in Branaghworld. But the opening scenes really pop and zing with ineptitude, and cry out for close analysis. I think it’d be fun to look at scenes from the Branagh, Olivier and Richardson HAMLETs, as I previously did with three varied MACBETHs.

But not this scene. This scene I just include because it made me giggle. I’m not even sure why. Do you find it funny? I’ve written before about how certain actors should be put at the tip of an A composition because they can’t help but distract from the big foreground heads. Turns out Jack Lemmon is one. Everything he does is more interesting than what Hamlet and Horatio do, even when he’s just titling screen left so Horatio won’t block him from view (00.13).

But the funnier stuff is inside. Partly it’s weird because we see a normal door, and then Branagh cuts back and forth between two groups in the narrow doorway, and they both have the same background. Despite the fact that the camera angles must, presumably, be at least 90 degrees apart. This is called “cheating” and I generally approve of it — to hell with continuity, make the shots effective. Here it becomes subtly discombobulating and hilarious.

(Louis Malle said he was fond of shooting the closeups in a shot/countershot sequence against the exact same background, but I haven’t looked out examples to see how he gets away with it. He mentioned it in connection with ZAZIE so he may have been after the exact dizzy effect Branagh stumbles upon here.)

But there’s just something about the Dragnet cutting-on-dialogue that becomes hysterical to me when the actors build up a froth and the cutting gets faster. Thespian tennis. What do you think?

HAMLET stars Hercule Poirot; Martin Beck; Petulia Danner; Young Iris Murdoch; King Vultan; Sir Robert Peel; Smee; Airey Neave; Miracle Max; Lavrenti Beria; J.M.W. Turner; Sherlock Holmes; C.C. Baxter; Lenin; Cyrano de Bergerac; Dr. Satnam Tsurutani; Judah Ben-Hur; Aunt May; Johnny Rotten; Philip Smith; Popeye; Iris Murdoch; Lord Raglan; Sid Luft; Pinkie Brown; Captain R.F. Scott R.N.