Archive for Michael Caine

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.

Tontine Spirit

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2021 by dcairns

Bryan Forbes’ THE WRONG BOX, scripted by Larry Gelbart & Burt Shevelove from (very, very loosely) Robert Louis Stevenson & Lloyd Osborne’s comic novel, comes close to being really good. Peter Cook & Dudley Moore are terrific. Ralph Richardson’s delivery and John Mills’ slapstick are excellent. The strange pairing of Michael Caine and Nanette Newman (Mrs. Forbes, de rigeur in his movies) kind of works. And the thronging cast also includes startling work from Wilfred Lawson — looking like a vulture’s foot, clenched into a long, knotty fist — Peter Sellers — pure Goon Show lunacy — and a late appearance by Tony Hancock, who’s barely holding himself together, alas.

I can’t quite work out why it doesn’t exactly hang together. Forbes doesn’t have nearly enough money for what he’s trying to do — so the skits at the start showing the untimely demises of a bunch of actor friends (Leonard Rossiter should learn not to take part in duels) are mostly performed against tiny, unconvincing sets (and the gags are weak as well as grisly). We see TV aerials on Victorian rooftops. Forbes’ ludic mode isn’t as natural to him as Richard Lester’s but the art nouveau titles are nice. Some of the editing has just the right rhythm, some is jagged or random. Either Forbes hasn’t thought out his scene transitions or he’s been forced to rethink them because something didn’t work, necessitating a reordering.

Then the final chase gets terrifically poor — money trouble, I think. John Barry has contributed a lovely music-box theme but doesn’t want to get out and push with the action sequence. Maybe the Bonds had him tired out. Then there’s a kerfuffle in a cemetery with some good dialogue again and then —

VERY abruptly we’re pulling out in a helicopter shot that’s blowing everything all over the place, and without much of anything being settled, it devolves into chaos. I know it was the sixties, so maybe Forbes felt nobody wanted to see order restored… it feels like Gelbart & Shevelove wrote him a resolution but he copped out of using it. Farces depend on neatness, it’s the basis of their form. You can write countercultural farce — Orton was the master of it — but you can’t write sloppy farce. It’s the same as bad farce.

But still, Peter Cook gets to say “You realise you made me drop my grebe.”

Back Asswards

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2020 by dcairns

SPOILERS FOR TENET! !TENET ROF SRELIOPS

Lots of them.

I felt a sort of historic obligation to see TENT since it positioned itself as the Great Return to Cinema — its writer-director seemed eager to create a series of super-spreader screenings and, like his Russian supervillain, bring his medium of expression (arms dealing, cinema) to an end along with all of us. That plan was thwarted, perhaps by a time-traveling secret agent, and now, also like his Russian supervillain, his movie has bellyflopped into the icy waters of indifference, pausing only to smash its skull on a jutting section of luxury yacht, and will shortly be towed off by a motor launch, its pale and shapeless body, a Felliniesque dead mackerel, glistening with poorly-applied sun cream. Or am I stretching my simile too far?

I enjoyed this film! Maybe my favourite Nolan since THE PRESTIGE. Of course I have grumbles, but there were at least moments where I felt a kind of glee over what was about to happen, or maybe what had just happened? So hard to tell.

Of course I went in knowing that all the dialogue was exposition, and most of it was inaudible. Knowing that helped to not worry about that. Must be even tougher if you’re unused to Cockney.

Robert Pattinson’s impersonation of Christopher Hitchens may not be as dazzling as Roger Allam’s in V FOR VENDETTA, but it’s very entertaining.

About that: Sir Michael Caine appears, since this is a Nolan joint, and it’s always nice to see him. But the appearance feels valedictory. Damn you, 2020! It’s a wholly sedentary appearance, unevenly cut, and that fine actor seems to be having trouble speaking. That thing, whatever it is, when your teeth are no longer firmly rooted. Nolan gives Caine some of the best lines in the film, and drops the thundering Zimmerist music of Ludwig Göransson so we can hear him. Caine is playing Sir Michael Crosby, and when John David Washington (continuing to prove his worth as an excellent, sensitive leading man) gets up to leave he pauses, and in a specially weighted close-up, says, “Goodbye, Sir Michael.”

So there’s THAT — the only emotional moment in the film, really, and the most successful emotional beat of Nolan’s career. Maybe I’m out of line for even mentioning it. I do hope Caine does lots more films. Nolan and Caine seem to be admitting otherwise, if that moment is there for a reason.

Elsewhere, the film is a series of heists and capers and assaults. You know that thing about INCEPTION? That thing where they bend Paris, and it’s just a DEMO, to let you know the kind of thing they can do in a dream? And then they never do anything like that again? Except the Fred Astaire punch-up in the rotating corridor?

Well, TENT, sorry, TENET, isn’t quite like that, but I was waiting for them to do more with their reverse gear. I had guessed from the title that the film would go forwards for half its running time, then backwards to the beginning, but that’s not really true. They do start reversing at the halfway mark. There’s a fun backwards car chase. And a fight played first with the protagonist moving forwards, then replayed with him reversed (Nolan can’t quite shoot this expressively enough to make the masked man the hero — your eye keeps going to the unmasked one). And at the end there’s a “temporal pincer movement” in which one set of attackers are in reverse, but why?

Best bit in that attack — where a building seems to blow up twice, both forwards and backwards and there really wasn’t time why or even WHAT — is when a wall reverse-explodes and sucks a passing trooper into itself. Presumably, if we had a flashback to the construction of that wall, we’d see a couple of builders going What do you want done with these human bones? Oh just put them in the wall, it’ll be fine. Are you sure? Yeah, when somebody eventually blows up the wall all the bits will turn into a person and he’ll run off backwards it’ll be FINE.

Disappointing the film does not include that scene.

TENET contains the palindrome Tenet, and also the reversible names Sator and Rotas, and it contains a racecar (kind of) and a mom. But no kayak or madam. The LA JETEE moment when a memory is replayed only this time the person whose memory it is becomes a character seen in that memory — I saw that one coming — is, given that the character is called Kat, perhaps a visualisation of the palindromic sentence “Was it a cat I saw?”

In terms of clarity — I think the film suffers not just from everyone saying important lines through masks or cockney accents, but because Nolan is not the world’s most lucid visual storyteller. Think of the incoherent fights in his first BATMAN, then listen to him saying they were like that on purpose, then look at the later BATMEN and their fights, which are only like 25% better. So he can’t help it. I always felt THE PRESTIGE needed not just a big CITIZEN KANE shot at the end — which is easy to do if you have a big budget for man-sized mason jars — but a tracking shot that shows a reasonable sampling of WHO is in those jars. Because I value clarity. TENT has a big briefing scene (I think it’s actually in a TENT) where they explain what they’re going to do before the final battle, and it’s STILL confusing.

Some really nice location shooting. But if it had proper James Bond swooning strings and torch song vamping over it, that would have been better than the pounding, throbbing stuff Nolan always goes for. The James Bond films that inspire him are technocratic power fantasies of violence and casual sex, and when you put s. strings and t.s. vamping on top, you get wonderful IRONY. Which Nolan doesn’t do, does he? Extraordinary that you can be a Bond fan and not appreciate or aspire to an ironic tone.

But he’s quite an odd fellow, I think, Nolan, in his dry, boring way.

TENT stars Ron Stallworth; Crocker Fenway; Fleur Delacour; Rev. Preston Teagardin; Bobby J. Braganza; Harry Palmer; Mopsy Rabbit; Prince Bertie; Hercule Poirot; John Lennon; and Lilian Roth.