Archive for Michael gambon

The Andersonville Horror

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2015 by dcairns


John Frankenheimer dragged himself from live TV in the fifties and sixties to feature films, through alchoholism and bad movies to a kind of commercial comeback with more, slightly better, bad movies — and then went out on something of a high, with two TV pieces (and an extended car commercial written by Andrew Kevin SE7EN Walker which is not at all bad). THE PATH TO WAR is a dynamic study of LBJ’s floundering into Vietnam, a compassionate but critical study of a man sinking deeper into a war he never wanted, propelled on by wishful thinking, snaky advice (Alec Baldwin is a glacial, sinister Robert McNamarra) and a slow accretion of the need to save face. Michael Gambon is BIG, but very good, in the role. Frankenheimer’s full array of KANE-like deep focus groupings make the talking scenes pop and crackle and punch.


ANDERSONVILLE is less showy, perhaps because the subject is more epic and visceral — a Civil War prisoner-of-war camp in the South becomes a prototype for the Nazi death camps, due to overcrowding, lack of supplies, and the indifference of the authorities. The movie tends to follow conventional historical accounts by blaming Colonel Wirz, played by Czech actor Jan Triska with a fairly strong suggestion of raving lunacy. Wirz was undoubtedly guilty of monstrous abuses, but his complaint that lack of resources caused much of the problem could be seen as partially justified. The movie leaves out his Famous Last Words: “I know what orders are, Major. And I am being hanged for obeying them,” which has a pretty strong resonance with Nuremberg, but Frankenheimer and his writer/producer, David W. Rintels, don’t really need to stress the connection since they already have trains, watchtowers, walls, bodies lain out on the grass, and an encampment of starving men.


Andersonville was different from the Holocaust in many ways, of course — the camp’s purpose wasn’t death, that was merely the irrelevant by-product of starvation, brutality, disease and neglect. It was more like the Japanese POW camps of WWII, with the fascinating difference that there was no real direct element of racial difference. There were black prisoners, and in fact its the refusal of the South to exchange black soldiers that led to the breakdown of the exchange system (surely, if you regard black people as subhuman, exchanging one for a white person ought to be considered a good deal? But useless to look for logic when the illusion of race comes into play). But in the main, white Americans were hideously torturing other white Americans based on political difference and a couple of points on the compass.

Of course, all movies fail when it comes to portraying the kind of historic horrors we’re dealing with here — at best they offer a suggestion and a bit of education, but though Frankenheimer has assembled an impressive array of rake-thin background artists, and there’s some striking makeup artistry, there’s nothing with the simple impact of the photographs of survivors. Now, I guess, we have the technology to convincingly portray extreme emaciation onscreen (we also have Christian Bayle, but Fiona is convinced he’s going to die young from what he’s already put himself through). Nobody has had the bad taste to do CGI prison camp inmates or famine victims, YET. All of this kind of thing gets the filmmakers close to obscenity. Praising Meryl Streep for losing a bit of weight for SOPHIE’S CHOICE just seems wrong. Though it’s better than Rod Steiger as the world’s heartiest Auschwitz prisoner in THE PAWNBROKER, a good film whose reconstructions can’t help but let it down. There’s a depressing number of cinematic death trains transporting curvaceous glamour models — and not just in Italian holocaust-porn flicks, either. The terrible problem is, we need films on this subject, but cinema is always inadequate to it.


Frankenheimer, by focussing on a more historically distant atrocity, gets permission to fail at the impossible aspects of the task, and extra credit when he succeeds at the difficult ones. Apart from Frederick Forrest and Cliff DeYoung and William Sanderson, who aren’t big names, his prisoners are basically unknowns. They give terrific performances, committed, agonizing, moving, period-credible, and charismatic. Jarrod Emick, in his screen debut, is terrific in the lead, and should have had a big career. We do get William H. Macey inspecting the camp, but Macey in 1996 wasn’t a star yet. Can’t blame Frankenheimer if one of his actors became a star.The lack of familiar faces helps us experience the piece as a glimpse of the terrible past.

The Furry

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


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.


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.


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.


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