Archive for John A Alonso

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.

Reversible Mayonnaise

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2021 by dcairns

PETE ‘N’ TILLIE, directed by Martin Ritt, scripted by Julius Epstein, from the novel Witch’s Milk by Peter de Vries, has some of the feeling of one of those Neil Simon films Walter Matthau made so many of but which Carol Burnett, his co-star here, somehow avoided. Even though it’s shot by John A. Alonso of CHINATOWN fame so the Frisco locations look nice. The material just doesn’t seem to permit any striking stylistic choices, unless we count the late Rene Auberjonois’ impersonation of Tillie’s gay best friend. Based on this and the casting of Michael Hordern as a “queer” in THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, I don’t think Ritt had highly developed gadar.

The main stylistic departure from reality lies in Matthau’s jokes about his job in “motivational research.” He describes this as a business of finding out what the public “is looking for in the way of an automatic contaminator or an aftershave mint.”

Burnett barely smiles. “Anything else?”

Deadpan: “Well, we’ve just completed a survey for a dietetic shampoo and are now helping to launch a reversible mayonnaise.”

Burnett remains equally deadpan.

“Maybe you could help us out,” continues WM, “There’s a new men’s cologne that’s coming out, they’re looking for a name. I suggested ‘Armpit.'”

Not a titter. And I think these are GOOD JOKES. Does Tillie lack a sense of humour, does she just not relate to these particular jokes, is she really good at holding it in and doesn’t want to give Pete satisfaction of laughing at his quips (she has him pegged, not incorrectly, as a bit of a chauvinist lout)? If the couple-to-be don’t share a sense of humour, I wouldn’t have expected the relationship to last out the running time of this movie, which, spoiler alert, it at least comes close to doing.

Oh stylewise: to prove this is a proper movie, Alonso makes the car interiors seriously dark. Although the lighting suggests a fairly brilliant dashboard light. Gordon Willis would have just sat them in total darkness except when another car passes going the other way.

PETE ‘N’ TILLIE is pretty good — tragic bits, comic bits. Pete and his son play a prank on neighbour Henry Jones by secretly siphoning fuel into his gas tank to give him impossibly good mileage, which reminds me of the fantastic gag with the incredible expanding tortoise I may have told you about previously…

They Go Boom

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2013 by dcairns

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More Frankenheimer thick-ear for your questionable delectation. BLACK SUNDAY is a latter-day Robert Evans production, and it’s shocking to see how pointless Evans’ cinema got, how fast, after he stopped being the big man at Paramount. The movie, based on a pre-Hannibal Lector Thomas Harris thriller, deals with a plot by Palestinian terrorist Marthe Keller, in cahoots with deranged Vietnam vet Bruce Dern (typecasting is a wonderful thing, sometimes) to blow up the superbowl using the Goodyear blimp, some plastic explosives smuggled Stateside as plaster madonnas, and a lot of rifle darts, making the world’s biggest nail bomb.

It’s slick, kind of meaningless, very violent (the Japanese sea captain getting his head blown off by a telephone is an early highlight) and made with Frankenheimer’s trademark professionalism and dynamism, but all that rather counts for nothing. John Alonso’s photography is very fine but this isn’t CHINATOWN.

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dead bang

Leading man/growling muscle Robert Shaw plays a Mossad agent nicknamed “the Final Solution,” which gives you some idea of the taste level. Much of the story is a paean to the efficacy of torture and intimidation in getting people to do what you want, and it isn’t very convincing. But Shaw does get the film’s only laugh when he sticks a gun in a man’s mouth and demands his assistance: “Nod for ‘yes’, die for ‘no’.”

Pretty corrupt stuff, even by the standards of modern action movies and things like the unlamented 24. Frankenheimer was often characterised as a liberal, but that gives you plenty of rope in America. I do remember one interview in a short study of his career where he kept referring to “the negro problem.” What he said about this issue wasn’t overtly offensive, or even very meaningful, but the phrase struck me as deeply problematic, not because of the lesser N word (it was the sixties, that was the preferred term) but because the construction implies “there’s a problem because there are these people called negroes”… it’s a bit like saying “the Jewish question”, isn’t it?

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Aside from Shaw’s scowling menace, Bruce Dern is fun (when is he ever not?) and Marthe Keller confirms the impression I received from CARLOS — forget Hollywood, all the really hot chicks are in international terrorism. She also plays it like she’s the heroine rather than the villain, which is a shrewd choice.

Suddenly remembered that in his self-serving autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture, Evans puts the blame for all the less inspired decisions made at Paramount on Charlie Bluhdorn, head of Engulf & Devour Gulf & Western, Paramount’s parent company. In particular, the studio’s failed attempts to make a star out of Serbo-Croatian hunk Bekim Fehmiu are attributed to Bluhdorn alone. And yet here’s Fehmiu, quite effective as a Palestinian bad guy.

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Frankenheimer, who cameos as a sweary TV director, (almost as bad type-casting as Dern’s deranged Nam vet) brings to the pointless carnage his usual dogged professionalism, dynamism, and eye for nasty detail. Unfortuntely the special effects team aren’t quite up to rendering the blimp climax in a photorealistic manner — some striking shots are let down by lame process work elsewhere, and the frenzied montage is a dead giveaway that cinematic jiggery-pokery is being deployed. Poor Frankenheimer would once again have to base a film around an impossibility when he made mutant bear movie PROPHECY. How much drink did he have to put away to survive that one?