Archive for Jan Triska

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 Andersonville Horror

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2015 by dcairns

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John Frankenheimer dragged himself from live TV in the fifties and sixties to feature films, through alchoholism and bad movies to a kind of commercial comeback with more, slightly better, bad movies — and then went out on something of a high, with two TV pieces (and an extended car commercial written by Andrew Kevin SE7EN Walker which is not at all bad). THE PATH TO WAR is a dynamic study of LBJ’s floundering into Vietnam, a compassionate but critical study of a man sinking deeper into a war he never wanted, propelled on by wishful thinking, snaky advice (Alec Baldwin is a glacial, sinister Robert McNamarra) and a slow accretion of the need to save face. Michael Gambon is BIG, but very good, in the role. Frankenheimer’s full array of KANE-like deep focus groupings make the talking scenes pop and crackle and punch.

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ANDERSONVILLE is less showy, perhaps because the subject is more epic and visceral — a Civil War prisoner-of-war camp in the South becomes a prototype for the Nazi death camps, due to overcrowding, lack of supplies, and the indifference of the authorities. The movie tends to follow conventional historical accounts by blaming Colonel Wirz, played by Czech actor Jan Triska with a fairly strong suggestion of raving lunacy. Wirz was undoubtedly guilty of monstrous abuses, but his complaint that lack of resources caused much of the problem could be seen as partially justified. The movie leaves out his Famous Last Words: “I know what orders are, Major. And I am being hanged for obeying them,” which has a pretty strong resonance with Nuremberg, but Frankenheimer and his writer/producer, David W. Rintels, don’t really need to stress the connection since they already have trains, watchtowers, walls, bodies lain out on the grass, and an encampment of starving men.

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Andersonville was different from the Holocaust in many ways, of course — the camp’s purpose wasn’t death, that was merely the irrelevant by-product of starvation, brutality, disease and neglect. It was more like the Japanese POW camps of WWII, with the fascinating difference that there was no real direct element of racial difference. There were black prisoners, and in fact its the refusal of the South to exchange black soldiers that led to the breakdown of the exchange system (surely, if you regard black people as subhuman, exchanging one for a white person ought to be considered a good deal? But useless to look for logic when the illusion of race comes into play). But in the main, white Americans were hideously torturing other white Americans based on political difference and a couple of points on the compass.

Of course, all movies fail when it comes to portraying the kind of historic horrors we’re dealing with here — at best they offer a suggestion and a bit of education, but though Frankenheimer has assembled an impressive array of rake-thin background artists, and there’s some striking makeup artistry, there’s nothing with the simple impact of the photographs of survivors. Now, I guess, we have the technology to convincingly portray extreme emaciation onscreen (we also have Christian Bayle, but Fiona is convinced he’s going to die young from what he’s already put himself through). Nobody has had the bad taste to do CGI prison camp inmates or famine victims, YET. All of this kind of thing gets the filmmakers close to obscenity. Praising Meryl Streep for losing a bit of weight for SOPHIE’S CHOICE just seems wrong. Though it’s better than Rod Steiger as the world’s heartiest Auschwitz prisoner in THE PAWNBROKER, a good film whose reconstructions can’t help but let it down. There’s a depressing number of cinematic death trains transporting curvaceous glamour models — and not just in Italian holocaust-porn flicks, either. The terrible problem is, we need films on this subject, but cinema is always inadequate to it.

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Frankenheimer, by focussing on a more historically distant atrocity, gets permission to fail at the impossible aspects of the task, and extra credit when he succeeds at the difficult ones. Apart from Frederick Forrest and Cliff DeYoung and William Sanderson, who aren’t big names, his prisoners are basically unknowns. They give terrific performances, committed, agonizing, moving, period-credible, and charismatic. Jarrod Emick, in his screen debut, is terrific in the lead, and should have had a big career. We do get William H. Macey inspecting the camp, but Macey in 1996 wasn’t a star yet. Can’t blame Frankenheimer if one of his actors became a star.The lack of familiar faces helps us experience the piece as a glimpse of the terrible past.