Archive for Michael gambon

The Furry

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2009 by dcairns

fantastic-mr-fox-3

Wes Anderson’s FANTASTIC MR FOX is as good as they say. Not only a free-yet-faithful adaptation of the Roald Dahl source, but a very satisfying Wes Anderson film, with all the trademarks (dysfunctional extended families, flat compositions, “offbeat2 comedy, a created world at several removes from our own). And in fact it’s Anderson’s best film for some time. His irritating tendency to undermine any credible emotional development — seen at it’s worst in THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, where Bill Murray spends the whole film slowly engaging with his son, reaches an apparently genuine tragic crisis, then pisses it all away for the sake of a cheap joke — is suspended here, maybe because it’s a kids’ film.

I have to admit to some inconsistency here. When I saw the first TOY STORY, what I admired most about it was the way it delivered the emotional requirements of a dramatic story without stopping being funny. For instance, Buzz Lightyear’s traumatic realization that he is, after all, only a toy, is comedically undercut by the TV ad that’s responsible for the revelation. The toy Buzz is pictured jetting through the air, and a caption superimposed beneath reads “Does not fly.” This is both cruelly funny and oddly moving.

On the other hand TOY STORY II departed from this approach with the heartrending song “When She Needed Me,” which is totally serious and utterly affecting, no ironic underlay required. Both techniques are valid.

I think what had been bugging me in Anderson’s films is that they were, at base, always all about emotions, but the filmmaker seemed embarrassed by the idea of resolving emotional knots, committing himself to a view of the behaviour he presented, or allowing the characters to grow and face their difficulties (full disclosure: still haven’t seen THE DARJEELING LTD). The very real problem to be faced by the maker of comedy-drama being that characters are funny when they have blind spots and stubborn areas where they cannot adapt to circumstance — they insist on being themselves at the very times they should change. And that change, very welcome in a drama, kills the laughter. So there typically is a problem to solve — some comedies successfully do without any character arc, generating laughs from the inflexibility of a character, but such films must be about something other than emotions — there must be plot. And Anderson’s stories tend to be character-driven, so there’s a requirement to deliver some kind of redemptive change or realisation, but can that be made funny? Well, if it happens late enough in the story, maybe it doesn’t have to be funny…

George Clooney is a magnificent Mr Fox, capitalizing on that air of self-satisfaction that can be his undoing in buddy fluff like the OCEAN’S films. We expect George Clooney to be glad he’s George Clooney, anything less would be ungrateful and strange, but he has to modulate away from smugness. Here, Mr Fox’s total self-belief and amoral opportunism are the very character flaws that are addressed in the adventure, so Clooney’s casting is a triump, using to the full his skills as light comedian, even if he’s apparently present only as a voice (we know that’s really him under the fur, amid the stuffing, within the puppet armature, somewhere in there). And pairing him romantically with Meryl Streep is delightful, and the kind of thing which, sadly, might be deemed impossible in a live-action film.

fantastic_mr_fox_001

I love the way the long-shots make everything look like crap toys, too. Anderson’s Keatonesque flatness is finally used to serve up visual gags, as it always should’ve been, and his penchant for designing alternative universes is taken to a new extreme in a film where even the landscapes are unreal.

fantastic_mr_fox_000

If some of these stills have the quality of roadkill taxidermy, it’s because they lack the alchemy of animation and voice-work. The cast, featuring several of Anderson’s usual gang (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson) underplay in the usual Anderson manner, creating a feeling quite atypical to the world of the animated film, and it all works marvelously. And Michael Gambon, as the No. 1 villainous human, gets to apply his characterisation from THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER to a puppet seemingly modeled on Rupert Murdoch (with a wife who looks not unlike Camilla Parker-Bowles).

Now, since there’s no real way to type the finger-point, whistle and click-click which is Mr. Fox’s trademark, you’ll just have to use your imaginations.

Heckle and Hype

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2008 by dcairns

For reasons perhaps related to the ideas dished out in a previous post, Stephen Frears decided to set his version of the Jekyll and Hyde story, MARY REILLY (based on a pretty good book by Valerie Martin) in a version of Edinburgh… I say a version, because in this Edinburgh everyone has an English accent (Glaswegians might argue this is quite accurate) and the city is populated by distinguished English character actors such as George Cole and Michael Gambon.

Nevertheless, the fogbound metropolis is surmounted by a recreation of the Greek Parthenon (tricked up in the studio) and Frears and his unit decamped to the actual Edinburgh for a week of location shooting. Basically none of this material made it into the movie, which is mostly studio-bound and none the worse for it.

But due to the Edinburgh connection, and the fact that Scot producer Iain Smith oversaw the production, I gleaned a little on-set gossip.

Brown was called to Julia Roberts dressing room one day. It seemed her then-husband Lyle Lovett (remember THAT beautiful affair?) was going to be in New York that weekend. “Isn’t that great?” beamed la Roberts. “So he’s going to be in New York, and I could fly out and meet him, and we could spend the weekend together! In New York!”

Brown replied that this was indeed great, although he couldn’t quite see what it had to do with him. He left. By the time he got back to his office, his phone was already ringing. It was a sweary agent. “You are ****ing going to ****ing buy Julia Roberts a first-class ****ing plane ticket to New York, you ****ing ****!” he swore. “Fuck!” Sorry, he sneaked that one in past the asterisks while I was talking to you.

Brown refused, the agent swore at some more producers, and eventually the studio caved and met her demands, which she never had to actually even personally voice…

Anyhow, the shoot goes on. John Malkovich is playing Jekyll and Hyde (with resulting confusion as to which is which) and he’s not getting on too well with the Roberts. Malkovich has been known to be difficult himself, in fact — hold everything — here’s a story about him –

This one’s from DANGEROUS LIAISONS and it’s literally too good to be true – ie it’s probably made up. But not by me. Malkovich is doing DANGEROUS LIAISONS for Frears, and Frears visits his dressing room.

“John, I want to talk to you about your character.”

“Well, sure. Valmont is a very complicated guy –”

“No, John, you don’t understand. I want to talk to you about YOUR character.”

Flashforward back to whatever I was talking about. Oh yeah. MARY REILLY wraps, and Malkovich approaches Julia R. “I just wanted to say…” and here he tells her, essentially, that she’s an arrogant, stuck-up bitch, no professional, and he’s by no means enjoyed working with her and looks forward to never having to meet her again.

Three months later they’re back, re-shooting the climactic scene where she weeps over him as he dies in her arms…

The film itself? Some good work, the feeling of unease at the start is effective, suggesting that Frears could make a genuinely scary horror movie if it didn’t cost $50 million, but the novel’s conceit — the story told from the point of view of a chambermaid — is somewhat resistant to visualisation, since her POV is so limited: she misses the most dramatic events of the book. It could probably be done, but it would need greater talents. Christopher Hampton did a fine job adapting DANGEROUS LIAISONS but his subsequent films tend to the disastrous.  He seems to embody the more deleterious effects of the literary-theatrical tradition on British film. The fact that three endings were shot gives a sense of how lost the filmmakers became.

Worse, Frears usual intelligence seems to have operated only fitfully. There are bizarre mismatches of word and image. When Roberts describes her brute of a father as having an odd walk, “not quite a limp,” it’s a surprise to then see Michael Gambon hobble wildly up like Long John Silver on a pub crawl, walking on one ankle.

Sing Out

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2008 by dcairns

THE WARBLING GUMSHOE

THE CROONING SHAMUS

THE DESCANTING FLATFOOT

THE ULULATING DICK

Yes, all synonyms for THE SINGING DETECTIVE, but which one?

Songdick

This one. I had a mixture of high hopes and mild trepidation regarding Keith Gordon’s film of Dennis Potter’s adaptation of his own BBC series. The movie sort of fulfilled both.

Gordon is somebody who should really be in demand. He’s bright, gifted, and his films do things that other people’s don’t. Instead, he’s working in TV. Of his films, MOTHER NIGHT is a terrific piece, I’d say the best film adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut novel — and a relatively dull Vonnegut novel at that. Personally, I’d like to make THE SIRENS OF TITAN.

Somewhere in the flat is a copy of his highly-rated war movie, A MIDNIGHT CLEAR, which I must watch. Just added his 1999 noir WAKING THE DEAD to my rental list. So I guess I must have been impressed.

Why was I anxious? In part, because Potter’s series didn’t really follow a clear narrative path, not because it mingled fantasy, reality, memory and fiction, but because the reality part didn’t really round itself off in a satisfactory fashion. What made the series special was the quality of the protagonist’s dialogue, the authenticity of his plight, and the performances of everybody but especially Michael Gambon.

Bob Down

The plot — a crime writer crippled by severe psoriasis (a disease attacking the skin and joints) tries to work through his tormented feelings about life, love and sex. Though he is largely confined to his hospital bed, his mind roves freely through his memories, his pulp fiction, and his fantasies, until all these separate worlds cathartically collide.

Apart from the sheer difficulty of the job of adaptation, there was the fact that Dennis Potter is no longer with us. This gives the adapters a relatively free hand to mess about with his creation, safe from attack from the irascible author. It’s a bit like how, after decades in development hell, A HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY was suddenly in production, a relatively short time after Douglas Adams had passed away. While that film isn’t a complete disgrace, there are clearly things in there that Adams wouldn’t have tolerated, and for all everybody’s burbling on about how this was the film Adams had dreamed of, it notably has another writer’s name on it, and some of Adams’ time-honoured gags have been messed about with until they no longer work.

In absolute fairness, I think some of the filmmaking is very good, some of the off-the-wall casting really works, and some of the new gags and story elements are decent enough. But only SOME.

The Dark Corner

Gordon’S THE SINGING DETECTIVE is largely successful. It has Robert Downey Jnr instead of Michael Gambon, which is quite a big change, but obviously Downey is a superb actor so it totally works. One odd thing: since Downey is younger than Gambon, and the movie is being made decades after the TV show, they can no longer flashback to a ’40s world of childhood for the hero (and connect it to a ’40s world of noir fiction and cinema). So the movie is set in the ’80s, with flashbacks to the ’50s, leading to a completely different soundtrack. Some of these new songs are undoubtedly great, but I prefer the original. But I don’t actually mind. It actually took us about 45 minutes to realise this WAS the ’80s, since the music is all ’50s and the film takes place in a hospital environment with few obvious signifiers of period.

Gordon’s direction, along with Tom Richmond’s super-saturated cinematography, is stylish and stimulating, without intruding on the talk, which is the point of the thing. We get cartoony turns from Adrien Brody and Jon Polito as gangster/FBI men, adrift from Downey’s pulp potboiler and wandering through his memories and his reality like Vladimir and Estragon in snap-brim fedoras, with side-arms. The idea is funnier than the writing, maybe, but the “spirited playing” boosts it back up again. We particularly enjoyed the noir characters’ instinctive fear of sunlight and open space:

Bright Light!

Bright Light!

And there’s Robin Wright Penn, whose performance is, in its way, as detailed and compelling as Downey’s.

AND there’s an almost unrecognisable appearance by tiny racist Mel Gibson, who’s shaved his head and donned coke-bottle glasses to play Downey’s shrink. I guess he thinks he’s way too handsome normally to play a humdrum psychiatrist, so he has to disfigure himself. But the result is quite funny, and the performance is genuinely amusing. It might be the best bit of acting Mad Mel’s ever done.

(My friend and fellow director Morag McKinnon served him a burger at the BRAVEHEART launch party. “He’s a wee wrinkly man,” she reported.)

The Passion of the Dick

AND and AND there’s Jeremy Northam, one of the most versatile and unusual players working today. Here, Jeremy performs some intricate and filthy SEX ACTING, for our delectation.

Fiona: “That’s some of the best sex acting I’ve ever seen!”

Me: “I taught him everything he knows.”

Jeremy cher ami

We cut from the shag-shot to Downey’s face, strained in angst-ridden concentration as he imagines his enthusiastic cuckolding by the thrusting dirty Northam and then, doubtless because they’re playing Downey the tape on-set in order to show him what he’s supposed to be thinking about, Downey laughs uproariously. It’s great.

The Laughing Policeman

The original series featured a prominent supporting role for Patrick Malahide’s heaving buttocks, which are pale, wobbly things like unhappy jellyfish. I felt Northam was an improvement in purely aesthetic terms.

The biggest change from Potter’s original is the bit that was probably essential to get the film made, and which I’m still uncertain about. As I intimated, the TV series doesn’t really wrap up into a neat ball. The character’s contradictions and agonies don’t resolve, he recovers from his physical illness and appears to make peace with his wife and, perhaps, himself, but it’s not absolutely clear how he’s solved his psychological problems.

The movie has everything wrap up neatly — a new detail in Downey’s past dovetails with the plot of his book, and he’s able to achieve a Freudian breakthrough with his shrink which is absent, as I recall, from the series. It makes things neater and clearer, but it also turns the story into an ad for Freudian psychoanalysis, which the original was not. It’s the kind of story turn that would have been at home in a ’40s psychological drama like POSSESSED or THE SEVENTH VEIL. This new development arguably works better than the TV show, but I couldn’t altogether love it — it smacks of propaganda.

But this is a quibble, as is the fact that some of the new dialogue is not QUITE a sharp as some of the old dialogue. As memory serves, Gambon’s internal monologue of boring things, frantically called up to stave off sexual excitement as nurse Joanne Whalley applies cold cream to his aching body, was funnier and more un-PC than the version in the feature: for one thing, Gambon named names: John and Yoko were in there, as I recall. Downey doesn’t, and while his nurse, Katy Holmes, is pulchritudinous enough, she lacks Whalley’s down-to-earth reality: you don’t really believe Holmes should be entrusted with anything as challenging as smearing cream around a patient’s penis.

Asides from these nagging little insect-points, I think the film is actually DAMN GOOD.

Am I right?

“Am I not wrong, or am I not wrong?”

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