Archive for Lone Scherfig

Slop

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2020 by dcairns

Feeling like a grumpy old man. So, I had to show students the 2016 British movie THEIR FINEST as part of someone else’s class. I did not like this movie.

It’s about women — but actually, one woman, played by Gemma Arterton — working in the Brit film industry in WWII. The premise is that the war opens up opportunities for women in cinema. I’m not sure that premise is true — who are these women whose careers were helped, and does a comparison of figures of female crew pre-war and during-war bear out this premise? My impression is that there were always women and they were always the exception in any job except actress…

Still, I think you could make a decent film about that even without a solid underpinning of documentary fact. Certainly the general point that a lot of previously restricted jobs were opened up to women during the war has a very solid basis, and transposing that into filmmaking, or wizardry, or taxidermy would be a legitimate fictional conceit.

But, from its truncated title on down, this isn’t the right film. It’s based on Their Finest Hour and a Half, a novel by former TV producer/director Lissa Evans, which has a title that actually works and means something. Evidently somebody thought it was too long, so we’re left hanging. Their finest WHAT? There’s a rule, or anyway almost a rule, that if you throw out a good title for a bad reason, you’re going to end up with a really terrible title. And since nobody in film development ever UNDOES a decision, you’ll never get the moment of clarity where someone holds up the two titles side by side and says, “Waitaminute…”

This FEELS like a script that’s been “in development” — the book came out in 2009. Screenwriter Gaby Chiappe hasn’t found, or been allowed to find, a strong throughline of the cinematic kind. Since the film is mainly about a screenwriter, there’s a horrible irony that we can’t answer the questions “What does the heroine want?” or “Why isn’t the film over?” I was forced to ask the second question about three times, as it kept trundling on.

It looks very nice, though its vision of a 1940s film crew — about six people and a tiny Technicolor camera — what happened to the “magic cottage”? — where’s the sound crew and equipment? — no continuity girl? — is pathetically unconvincing. And director Lone Scherfig never seems to move her own camera. Maybe she should have used the little blue Dinky toy from the film.

There’s a very good glass painting gag. I have to give them that. I was trying to explain glass paintings to an actor friend recently and this film did a far better job in five seconds of imagery than I could manage in a minute or so of babbling.

Jake Lacey is very funny as the token American, a pilot drafted in as actor, who can’t act, doesn’t even know what acting IS. When the movie and the actors know what joke they’re supposed to be telling, they can do it quite well. But confusion has set in on the macro level and it seeps down.

Gemma Arterton, who we KNOW is really good, is wasted as a smiley cipher. The scenes with Bill Nighy and Helen McCrory don’t really need to be there at all, but they bring the entertainment, with one character trait apiece. One-dimensional characters are fine, in their place.

“Slop” is the male filmmakers’ word for the kind of emotional stuff you need a woman to write. Weirdly, that’s the weakest component here. It’s a NICE — sloppy, sappy — film, without emotional fire. In telling the story of a Welsh woman screenwriter, they must have encountered, surely, the story of Diana Morgan, the actual Welsh woman screenwriter in WWII. I suppose her story was probably the inspiration. Morgan was known to the blokes at Ealing as “the Welsh bitch.” And that was at EALING — sweet, cosy Ealing. There’s no sense in this film of how obnoxious men could really be, pre-liberation. You get a slightly handsy Jeremy Irons for one scene (he’s good value) and a sarcastic Sam Claflin (I think I will call him Sarcastic Sam Claflin from now on). Nobody has the courage to actually be shocking. There are no actual bastards (in a film about moviemaking??!)

Somebody at the top doesn’t know what a story is, or what a scene is, and they haven’t done their research. And the edit seems concerned mainly with overdubbing lines so we’ll understand, rather than care or believe.

“Have you ever met Robert Donat?” Cut to back view. Overdub: “The famous actor?”

More offensive than that is the film’s patronising attitude to the films of the period. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP is so much more sophisticated as film art than THEIR FINEST, there’s just no comparison. But this movie looks smugly back at what it perceives to be naivety and cookie-cutter storytelling. It’s as if a daytime soap paused to congratulate itself on being better-written than King Lear. Hell, the real Diana Morgan contributed to WENT THE DAY WELL?, a genuinely horrifying film about the effects of war on ordinary British people.

Not anybody’s finest 117 minutes.

THEIR FINEST stars Tamara Drew; Finnick Odair; Withnail; Karl Marx; Jack Kerouac; Duchess of Sutherland; Minister Rufus Scrimgeour; Paul Wolfowitz; Narcissa Malfoy; Beverley & Elliot Mantle; Richard Semco; Brynden ‘Blackfish’ Tully; and Ethel Huggett (archive footage).

Because There Are No Donkeys In It

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2012 by dcairns

At last — DONKEYS, written by my friend Colin McLaren and directed by my friend and fellow alumni Morag McKinnon, hits the streets today in DVD form. Order it via the link below.

The follow-up film to RED ROAD has taken so long to secure a release that Morag has almost completed her next feature, BREATHING, a documentary co-directed with the mighty Emma Davie, about which more soon. Two years between first festival appearance and DVD. Almost as if someone weren’t quite sure how to sell it.

That trio on the DVD cover provides one clue. Brian Pettifer was in IF, O LUCKY MAN! and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL. Martin Compston was in SWEET SIXTEEN. James Cosmo was in TRAINSPOTTING. So DONKEYS is like SWEET SIXTEEN crossed with O LUCKY MAN! and TRAINSPOTTING. Kate Dickey, recently seen as a mop-topped space doctor in PROMETHEUS, is also a key character. And Brian Pettifer was also in AMADEUS. So maybe it’s AMADEUS meets PROMETHEUS. But that would imply that it featured an old man with a rubber head. It doesn’t.

Look: James Cosmo was the voice of the orang utan in BABE: PIG IN THE CITY. Martin Compston is in STRIPPERS VS WEREWOLVES. You do the math. Any way you look at it, this is a must-buy.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been an advertising copywriter after all. Although I submit that had anybody used my slogans “Goodness Gracious Great Bolognese!” and “Lurpak Spreadable: it’s so spreadable, it’s incredible!” I would be able to retire and live on the moon in a palace made of diamonds and chocolate.

In DONKEYS, compulsive liar James Cosmo learns he’s dying and tries to make up with his estranged daughter (Dickie) while avoiding owning up to his unacknowledged son (Compston) by trying to convince his not-very-bright best friend (Pettifer) that he is the lad’s father. If farce is tragedy played at double speed, DONKEYS is farce played a two-thirds speed. They don’t have a category for that yet.

Contains mild peril.

The concept behind Sigma and Zentropa’s “Advance Party” scheme is that different filmmakers make up their own stories about a group of characters created by Lone Scherfig. A loose concept allowing for considerable freedom of movement — but my chums still recast actors, rewrote life stories, and reduced some roles to walk-ons. Good luck squaring the events of DONKEYS with the events of RED ROAD — it’s fun coming up with theories to make sense of the lacunae. But more fun just to watch DONKEYS, which is as THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ is to EL: crazier, funnier and plottier.

Colin writes:  “Donkeys is a heartfelt look at the human condition, containing Brian Pettifer’s (to date) sole outing as Mahatma Gandhi. Well, now you can own it. And him. It’s out on DVD on Monday. One pence from each purchase goes to keeping me in pens. £1.49 would buy me pens for up to six months. Please give what you can, as long as it’s nine pounds, the cost of the DVD. Thank you.”

Oh wait, I’ve got a slogan for it: “As funny as cancer! No — funnier!”

To continue the supernatural blaxploitation theme, limericks on BLACULA by Hilary Barta, the lord of limerwrecks, are here and here.

Buy DONKEYS here —

Donkeys [DVD]

Morag and Colin’s BAFTA-winning short HOME is included on this —

Cinema 16 – British Short Films [DVD]

Roadkill

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2008 by dcairns

On the Road 

I’ve been sounding people out about my treatment of RED ROAD (in brief, watching it in episodes over an entire week and sorta live-blogging the experience). I was worried that I wasn’t being fair to it. I was much meaner about THE COTTAGE (and somebody, perhaps the director, has objected to this in the Comments section) but at least I saw that one in approved conditions, at the cinema and in one go.

Generally, friends said things like “You’re being quite even-handed about it, but the fact that it’s taking you a week to watch it…one can read between the lines.”

Well, without my even noticing, I managed to watch more that 24 minutes of it last time — in fact, it was more like 30! So I knew I had only one short burst left in store, but somehow I couldn’t quite settle down to it last night. I spent the evening making screen grabs of Anton Diffring’s arse exploding instead, which somehow felt more, I dunno, rewarding.

An angle on my shoulder

But, with Jaffa Cakes to the ready I finally completed my epic slog through the film. I was pleasantly surprised! As I had suspected, the long-delayed revelation that explains Kate Dickie’s erratic behaviour through the whole film was kind of a damp squib in dramatic terms, failing to exceed what I’d already imagined. And in the aftermath of her LADY VENGEANCE-style attempt at gaining retribution (a completely half-arsed scheme that could never have worked — does Andrea Arnold have any idea how appallingly hard it is to secure a conviction for rape?) the pace slows to a crawl, to the point where you expect it to start replaying backwards, like that bit in FUNNY GAMES. Kate’s in-laws make tea. We watch three cups being carefully poured, in real time. A biscuit is selected. Will her dad-in-law have a biscuit? No, he’ll not bother.

BUT! A happy ending. How surprising. Not overwhelmingly happy, but redemptive. Joy Division drone rapturously onto the soundtrack, just to stop us getting TOO excited, and this is accompanied by a high-angle shot that might as well have “The End” stenciled across it — the combination of song and locked-off composition rupture the carefully-preserved aesthetic of the rest of the film, but it’s arguably appropriate to do so. It seemed kind of wrong, though. Maybe making the shot a security camera view would have justified it.

This is the first in a three-film scheme originated by Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa Films, who have been drawn to Scotland by the preponderance of gloom. Like moths to a flame, only a flame that somehow makes the room darker. Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen created a core group of characters (a not-too-diverse bunch of working-class whites, alas) who are to feature in all three films. As I always say, it seems a screwy justification for making films, but if the films are good they won’t need any justification. I’m dining with the writer of the second film this evening, so expect GOSSIP.

RED ROAD seems to struggle slightly with the imposed form. At least one major character, Natalie Press, has no storyline of her own and no real involvement with anybody else’s. Martin Compston is only slightly more integrated. The film apes REAR WINDOW’s construction to a moderate degree, with Kate Dickie’s surveillance job affording her a window into numerous lives, but this isn’t exploited the way Hitchcock did it: there’s really only ONE supporting character, a man with a dog, and his “story” is extremely slight (dog dies, is replaced, a distant echo of one strand from the Hitchcock film). The surveillance work is smoothly woven into the central plot, but other elements, such as Dickie’s van-driving, premature-ejaculating lover, have no real narrative function and seem to occupy space that could be better filled.

Blue in the Face

My feeling is that the film’s constant hugging of its central enigma to its chest is a neurotic mistake. If we opened with the background tragedy, all Dickie’s behaviour would carry more emotional weight, while still being intriguing and baffling. The story overall has a decent heft to it, but it’s drawn out to staggering lengths, and what might help would be a bunch of supporting stories using the other characters. At present they don’t serve any purpose except to pad out a thin plot.

RED ROAD is a superior Scottish film. That’s my problem — it exemplifies an approach to filmmaking that ignores the need for complex narratives and replaces it with nothing but nice photography. It’s well shot, well-acted, well-scored (but some actual TUNES would have helped), but it seems parsimonious, refusing us subplots, tonal variety, changes of pace, fun. It’s the kind of film people abroad might expect from the Scots: dour and tight-fisted.

Behind the Screen

I don’t need each Scottish film to fulfill every possibility of cinema, but I’m tired of the sameness. A filmmaker as able as Arnold ought to separate herself from the herd by making something genuinely different for her next project. Scottish cinema needs a change.