Archive for Michael Crawford

Only Joking

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on June 18, 2010 by dcairns

Michael Winner’s THE JOKERS may be his best film — you can see the whole thing on YouTube and judge for yourself. And in fact Winner’s rep might be higher than it is (in the UK he’s known mainly as a restaurant critic and as presenter of commercials for car insurance) if a few of his 60s films — I’LL NEVER FORGET WHATSISNAME and this one especially — were more regularly screened.

Edinburgh Film Festival comes to the rescue with a season of near-forgotten British classics from the post-new-wave era, boldly opening with Winner’s 1967 crime romp.

To be sure, the movie is probably one of the more visually ugly films shot in swinging London — many of Winner’s visual tricks are rather random, and both the photography and the dolly birds are slightly sub-par (milky, overexposed night scenes and bad skin, respectively), but the thing has a terrific pace and stars Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford are obviously under strict instructions to enjoy themselves hugely at all times. Surrounding them is a cut-price plethora of trusty character players, including but not limited to Edward Fox, Michael Hordern, Harry Andrews, Brian Wilde, Frank Finlay… the list goes on.

TV comedy legends Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais contribute a nifty script in which rich kids Reed and Crawford abduct the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London for a lark, and things take a surprisingly dark turn in the second half. Crawford does some of his usual schtick but manages to turn it a bit psychopathic in places, and Reed is just scary, the more so when he’s being ebullient and jolly. For a film by sitcom scribes, there aren’t many brilliant lines, but the situations are all good, and when Reed’s char-lady expresses histrionic grief at the nation’s loss, his insincere condolences cracked me up: “Yes, well, it’s not the money, is it, it’s the sentimental value.”

Final Festival Round-Up

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2008 by dcairns

E.I.F.F. 2008.

Today was Best of the Fest day — or “What prints are still in town?” day, to give it its informal name. But there was plenty of good stuff on, so I tooted over to Filmhouse, discovered that my press pass had officially expired, and shelled out some cash for movies for the first time in ten days.

WALL-E was first. I felt guilty about seeing something non-rare like this at a festival, but quite good about missing all the ads that will precede it when it goes on general release. I started to wonder if I was in a fragile emotional state as it went on, as I found myself having an exaggerated response to EVERYTHING. I spent much of the film close to tears. Then i decided that, no, I’m no more fragile than usual, it’s just a deeply beautiful film.

It’s kind of sweet also that Michael Crawford finds himself in one of the biggest films of the year, without actually doing anything (he appears in the clips from HELLO DOLLY, Wall-E’s favourite/only video). Opening in space, with Crawford’s voice ringing out, before descending towards a litter-strewn Earth upon with only North America is visible, Andrew Stanton’s extended C.G.I. homageto Douglas Trumbull’s SILENT RUNNING actually has a beautiful, live action, ’70s long-lens, misty, smoggy look, like the titles of SOYLENT GREEN, for all its terrestrial scenes. Roger Deakins consulted on the virtual lighting, and expressed his astonishment in Edinburgh at the joy of position virtual lights in a virtual set and not having to worry about hiding them.

Did I like all the film equally? No, but things don’t have to be perfect. Enough of this was. And it was interesting to see Fred Willard spoofing President Bush: “Stay the course!” This must make Bush the first U.S. president to have been slammed by Disney while in office, unless I’m forgetting something major.

Pixar’s hit-rate is so high it could almost get monotonous. I seriously dig how they mainly avoided dialogue here and would suggest they get even braver and make an entirely wordless feature next.


I jumped from Filmhouse to the Cameo, grabbing a sandwich, and plunged into the art deco world of MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, a ’30s farce which fails as a comedy (for me) but which seemed to just about hang together as drama. The material is far from the level of Wodehouse, although the story is acceptable. The dialogue and situations fail to deliver the expected comedy (although the audience I was with laughed kindly a few times). Director Bharat Nalluri, from high-end Brit T.V., avoids overkill and restrains the visuals, but there’s neither a refreshing, modern attitude nor any evocation of an old-fashioned film style. and the performances refuse to gel in a way that’s kind of fascinating.

McDormand and Adams.

The extras — several terribly over-eager perfs from background artistes, something you don’t often see.

The stars — well, there aren’t any big ones, which ought to mean Nalluri had the pick of non-famous thespian talent at his disposal, with no commercial pressure, but it doesn’t always work that way.

Frances McDormand — a talented comedienne, as we’ve seen before, here she can only manage to generate a few warm smiles, and most of those are snatched solo. Whenever she has to interact with fellow performers, she’s hampered by the unevenness of tone. Any scene with more than two co-stars leaves her torn between wildly different acting styles, since she’s the only performer paying close attention to her fellows. But she makes an appealing Pettigrew and that sympathy holds the proceedings together at least somewhat.

Amy Adams — plays the whole thing in a fake Marilyn Monroe voices which in 1939 had yet to be invented. Anachronistic and more than a little annoying. She’s CONSISTENT, but her tropes get shopworn fast. There’s talent there, but it lacks guidance.

Tom Payne — another terribly self-conscious British prettyboy. I didn’t like his HAIR — was any man wearing it that long? He’s ruinous to any scene of farce that requires timing. He has appeal, and may well become a decent actor, but asking him to do anything that requires precision is madness. He gets all the script’s Bertie Wooster archaisms, as if all the movie requires is one character who talks ’30s. He gets away with the “don’t you know, what?” stuff better than anyone could reasonably be expected to when surrounded by non-period-specific speakers, so he deserves some credit for that.

Lee Pace — from his first scene I thought he was a truly horrible actor. By the end I kind of liked him. Then I discover he’s American, which I hadn’t suspected. Suicidal of the filmmakers to have saddled themselves with yanks in Brit roles. They’re already attempting farce, which rarely works on screen, and ’30s screwball reconstruction, which generally dies like a dog (AT LONG LAST LOVE?) so they didn’t need to kneecap themselves before even starting. What’s odd about Pace is that although he seems awkward and out of place, he seems exactly like an awkward out-of-place Brit. He doesn’t slot into place with the others because he’s too naturalistically gawkish for the milieu. Interesting but wrong.

Ciáran Hinds — really sweet. The only actor who can talk to one character and then to another without making himself or them seem like a stray alien. His perf is so low-key and gentle it almost disappears before you, but he’s the one you remember.

Mark Strong — he was the best thing in Polanski’s (rather good) OLIVER TWIST, as the usually-deleted character Toby Crackit. Here he could actually get away with going more O.T.T. as he did there, but I don’t blame him for holding it in, surrounded as he is by erratically varying styles and pitches. He makes a good cad though — I need to check out some of his other work (SYRIANA, STARDUST).

Shirley Henderson — is a very dangerous woman. Versatile to the point of omnipotence, she can produce effects beyond the range of any earth-creature. Being fallible like the rest of us, she’s quite capable of making bad choices though, and playing them to the hilt so as to torpedo a whole movie, as in DOCTOR SLEEP. Here she does her Cruella-type villainess as if on helium, which is wildly impressive (if it were anyone else I’d assume she had computerized assistance, but NO, this is Shirley we’re talking about) as a technical feat, slightly distracting much of the time, but serves as a possible clue as to how all the other roles could have been played — with gusto, speed and sharp timing. Is this really so impossible today?

I’m usually a sucker for WWII stuff — MRS MINIVER slays me and the novels of Patrick Hamilton lay about my heartstrings with rusty saw-blades, but this fest I’ve seen two flicks set around wartime, this and THE EDGE OF LOVE, and neither really got me at all.


Out of PETTIGREW, bagel across the road, then back into the Cameo for my third helping.

ELEGY is directed by Isabel Coixet, whose episode of PARIS JE T’AIME was quite enjoyed round our place. This movie seems to relate quite closely to it in plot terms, too. But I.C. needs to wean herself off the V.O., which doesn’t add anything to this movie AT ALL.

Nicholas Meyer scripts. Remember him? As a novelist and film director he had a definite personality, tackling romps like TIME AFTER TIME (H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper in his time machine) and THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (Sherlock Holmes teams up with Freud). He also managed to make a going concern out of the STAR TREK franchise, directing entries 2 and 6 (remember, the even-numbered TREKS are the good ones). In this movie he’s adapting Philip Roth, and there’s nothing to relate this to his earlier films — but quite a lot to connect it to THE HUMAN STAIN, another Roth adaptation by Meyer.

Sir Ben Kingsley, who will always be Handhi Bendhi Gandhi to me, falls madly in bed with Penelope Cruz, whose breasts he declares, not unreasonably, to be the best in the world. A lot of this film revolves around those breasts, so it’s a good job they were able to cast such a convincing pair. There is actually a surprising chemistry between the two stars. Sir Ben is on top form, managing to be real and surprising at the same time. Why hasn’t he played Picasso? He has a big bald head and his torso, which he staunchly parades here, is a dead ringer.

Ben can’t believe his luck with P. Cruz, which leads him to sabotage the relationship. Bad Sir Ben! It probably doesn’t help that he’s getting his romantic advice from Dennis Hopper. There might possibly be better people to listen to. What’s Robert Blake up to these days?

“Do you know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fucking GUN.”

So the beautiful Cruz missiles go out of his life, only to return with a tragic twist (ouch). The perfs are exquise, the situations adult and interesting, only the cinematic qualities descend to cliché. Walks on the  beach: the couple together, then, morosely, Bendhi alone. That bloody voice-over. I have nothing against V.O., but try taking it out and see what happens. My guess: nothing. Erik Satie on the soundtrack. I was just watching Welles’ THE IMMORTAL STORY, as part of the Moreau retrospective, and thinking what a shame the Gymnopedies have been so overused since then, and here they come all over again.

Just before the festival a student asked me “What does ‘cinematic’ mean?” During the festival I heard various people debating it. Generally we agreed it was a tricky word with no set meaning. In ELEGY, Sir Bendhi quotes A.E. Houseman’s line about not knowing what poetry is, but recognising it at once when he sees it.

ELEGY is well-acted, written, and photographed, but I don’t recognise it as cinematic.

The Knack…and how to get it

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2007 by dcairns

Woodfall Films, 1965.

Okay it came out in 1965 but watching it now, November-December, there’s a definite Autumnal Pleasure that comes from the exact time of it’s filming, late ’64. There’s a Christmas tree visible in the fancy shop, and Guy Fawkes fireworks in a closing crane shot on the foggy London Embankment. Dead leaves carpet the park. Director Richard Lester had just come off A Hard Day’s Night and must have been feeling a sense of possibility in the fall air.

The “real London” of that November season bleeds into the film’s Dreaming London. Lester’s London is almost akin to Rivette’s Paris, a place of magical transformations and surprises, the mundane brushing up against the crazy, as in a dream. “This is all a fantasy,” chimes a chorus of disembodied schoolboys on the soundtrack, but it’s a fantasy where milk is delivered to the doorstep in glass bottles.

It begins: John Barry jazz stylings as we move in on a  little comic book panel which contains the house and the film. We spiral down a staircase lined with mannequin-like beauties, identically dressed, all queuing to see sex-god Tolen, dressed in black in his black bedroom. “The guestbook: please restrict your comments to one word.”

Halfway up the stairs lives Colin, lusting insipidly for the parade of dollybirds in their glowing white jumpers and pencil skirts.

SPACE 1999 sci-fi lettering zips in and out, listing the creators as we plunge in ever an faster helix down the stairs past the blur of lovelies arrayed like a TV commercial for impersonal sex, then wrench ourselves free, with screeching brakes, from Colin’s mind’s eye and into “reality”.

Girls girls girls.

Colin (Michael Crawford), “I am a schoolteacher and I have to concentrate,” lives with Tolen (Ray Brooks), “I have no first name, I never use my first name,” in this tall, narrow, odd-but-real house. Driven to frustrated discombobulation by the onslaught of glamour calling on Tolen, Colin conceives the idea to let the spare room to a “steadying influence,” possibly a monk. “There must be monks!”

And there are, a busload, bound for Lovely London, but as the coach’s headlights go full beam, Colin’s bedroom is illuminated by a brilliant idea awakening him from his narrow bachelor bed: “Or some young lady…”

And next to the monks is Nancy (Rita Tushingham), flicking through the pages of Honey.

But Tolen has other ideas. He suggests letting the room to his friend, Rory McBride, offscreen Lothario and Tolen’s near-equal in the bedroom stakes. “Share our women.”

Rendering discussion moot, Tom, a stray Irish plot function, (“small, vigorous, balanced, sensitive in his movements” — a line of dialogue taken straight from the character description in Ann Jellicoe’s original play) moves in and procedes to paint the entire front room white, including windows.

Now Tolen (black), Colin (grey grey grey) and Tom (white) will compete over Nancy, until she rebels and asserts her autonomy with a cry of “Rape!”

This turns out to be the abracadabra that disassembles all male authority, causing the boys to recede into the distance in a series of jumpcuts, or cavort off in reverse motion, while a middle-aged ZOO AUDIENCE admires their antics politely. (Best line reading in history, from one random matron: “They do look so funny.”)

This chorus of the middle-aged/classed is a constant feature of the film, as if the chattering classes have flocked into the dubbing studio and voiced their incoherent disapproval all over the soundtrack: “A bed’s place is definitely in the home, definitely,” and “I’m bound,” and “Mods and Rockers!” and “She’ll regret she didn’t wear a safety device,” a grumbling barrage of non sequiteurs and double entendres, “the heartbeat of a great nation.” This vox populi accompaniment is screenwriter Charles Wood’s finest contribution of the many he made in “exploding” the original play and gaffer-taping it together again.

These actors!

Michael Crawford, half agonized repressive, half comedy turn. His character is just a couple of year’s enforced celibacy away from becoming a gurning Carry On lecher, but he’s so shy he prefers to enter his home by the window rather than say “Excuse me,” to the flash bird in the doorway, even though he’s armed with an axe at the time.

Ray Brooks is amazing here. Posed and composed and quietly nailing every line, he could have come across as mannered if he weren’t so true underneath. There’s a real sensitivity in everything he does. He’s not obvious casting as a loverboy, but he embodies confidence and success and total self-belief, until the sexual edifice crumbles and he’s yesterday’s man, joining the grumblers as he looks on enviously at those with actual relationships. Brooks should have been bigger than Brando, but hey, it’s not too late.

Donal Donnelly brings charm and a sort of relaxed crispness to Tom, a character who was always basically the playwright talking to her audience, but none the worse for it.

Rita Tushingham is the amazing extraterrestrial presence at the heart of the film, incapable of a false note, and utterly fascinating to watch. Her face pulls a fast one on you from every angle, alternately beautiful and just weird. Her eyes dazzle, her teeth have been frozen in the act of fleeing in all directions. She is just utterly, marvellously alive at all times, and brings a uniquely feminine brand of behavioural comedy to what could be a slightly laddish film. Lester and ace cinematographer David Watkin design some astonishing shots around her freakish beauty. Reflected light supposedly isn’t flattering, but Watkin caught the most beautiful ever images of Tushingham, here, and Faye Dunaway in Lester’s MUSKETEER films.

Lester was still tracking in those days — he ditched the travelling shot later, using it less than anyone bar Bresson, but this is like his RASHOMON, and we glide with him through reality-shifts, into ambiguous POVs, and down grey and grainy London streets, where a fashion photographer plies his trade, getting in shape for BLOW-UP. (Antonioni borrowed production designer Asshetton Gorton, and quite a lot of Lester’s Pop-Art London, for his later epic of Swinging Existentialism).

Impossible to describe how dreamlike this film is…

…as Crawford walks down a school corridor, we see through a window an array of camp beds on a lawn — the sleeping children. “Kip, milk and biscuits, is it any wonder they’re screaming out for roughage?” complains the ghost of Dandy Nichols on the soundtrack.

…Colin and Tom chase Tolen and Nancy into a street composed only of doors. Most open onto an abstracted backyard space, but one leads to a narrow working class home, concealed entirely behind the single entrance.

…attempting to turbocharge his sex life with an enlarged bed, Colin buys a cast-iron sleep-armature from a scrapyard and wheels it through Unconscious London with Tom and Nancy, teleporting from street to street to Albert Hall (a recurring reference, this film’s answer to the Chinatown of Polanski), eventually sailing it down the Thames like Bohemian Huck Finns.

Lindsay Anderson was once mooted to direct this film, and comparing it to THE WHITE BUS, say, it’s easy to see how he could have brought his own, more sombre, brand of absurdism to bear on it. He thought the Lester version embodied the shift from sixties idealism to seventies cynicism, which seems a bit early and a bit harsh. The movie is affectionate, cruel, smart, silly, insistently specific about its time and place, and universal and otherworldly all at once. There’s a tight theatrical structure bound round a loose assortment of gags and blackout sketches, and if we enter this Film London (through that little comic book panel/window at the start) and walk about in it for a bit, we can emerge with some Strange Thoughts about the unexplored possibilities of film storytelling.

Buy here:

The Knack And How To Get It [DVD] [1965]


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