Archive for Michael Palin

The Strange Affair of Uncle Joe

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2019 by dcairns

I should have gone to see THE DEATH OF STALIN when it came out, as I really admire Armando Iannucci’s work — maybe I didn’t because I don’t think he’s entirely cinematic. Maybe he’ll get there. This one only becomes really satisfying visually during the end credits, which repurpose the USSR’s revisionist airbrushing to witty effect, in a way that’s funny and uncomfortable, as is the film.

I remember getting into a weird discussion on Twitter with a Russian who was offended by the film, hampered by the fact that I hadn’t seen it and he had. He was disgusted that the film gets laughs out of Stalin having pissed himself. While I suppose laughing at a sick man isn’t nice, it’s still Stalin, and if that’s the thing you single out in this movie as being unsuitable for comic treatment, as opposed to Beria’s mass murders and vicious sexual opportunism, you have a problem with your priorities and are fonder of the late dictator than you are to admit.

Beale was ROBBED of the role of Dick Cheney. Or else Beria ought to have played it.

This is certainly very black comedy indeed — the characters are all totally lost to any sense of decency or compassion or compassion. The various political animals in Iannucci’s The Thick of It and IN THE LOOP were similarly bereft, and one interesting comparison between his various works (I haven’t seen enough of Veep but it looked good, but maybe lighter?) would be that the politburo bastards here aren’t necessarily worse, at a fundamental human level, that the New Labour and Tory scum of his previous outings — it’s merely that the structures of a dictatorship deform them differently than those of a democracy. Malcolm Tucker probably can’t have you killed, directly. But if he was working for Stalin he would surely have to, and might find he got a kick out of it.

A great many striking performances to enjoy here. The mingling of British and American actors and comics doesn’t always work — maybe in the past it’s been evidence of productions too eager to turn a profit, losing track of how to achieve a unified style. IN THE LOOP of course, by its very story, had to mix the two, and did so very sensibly and effectively. Here, it’s simply a question of ignoring the accents — which you can’t totally do with Stalin being played as a bluff northerner by Adrian McLoughlin (actually a southerner). But the Americans and Brits are equally strong. Fiona observed that casting Michael Palin as a ruthless state official works just as well here as it did in BRAZIL, casting “the nicest man in the world” (as Gilliam called him) as far against type as possible. Palin and Paul Whitehouse have to grab a few moments here and there, as does Paul Chahidi, who’s REALLY good at that, but Steve Buscemi and the amazing Simon Russell Beale and Jeffrey Tambor have centre stage. Then Jason Isaacs walks in (in slow motion, as do some of the others, but he really owns it) and practically blasts all opposition aside. Remarkable — the performances and dynamics just keep getting better as the thing goes on.

Nicky Smith, who features so prominently and entertainingly in our latest podcast, was telling me about Iannucci’s forthcoming THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, which has innovative racially-blind casting, with Dev Patel in the lead and a white actor as his mother, and appearances by greats like Benedict Wong. Of course, Victorian London was full of people of different races, but Dickens largely neglected to write about them. This is something different — casting people because they’re good, not because they’re racially “appropriate.” It’ll be amusing to see conservative critics tiptoeing around this. Anyway, I wonder if Iannucci noticed how white the cast of TDOS was, and asked why, if we can sit Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin round the same table, both playing Russians, then why not Delroy Lindo or Thandie Newton?

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Three Three Mens

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2017 by dcairns

To say nothing of the dog.

So, the first of my book fair purchases to be consumed was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which proved extremely rewarding. I love the film of JKJ’s THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, and this has some of the same peculiarity. As with a lot of literary works one hasn’t read, perhaps especially comic novels, one forms a false impression of what to expect. Here, the slapstick, bickering, stupidity, falling-in-the-water stuff and the good-old-days Victorian atmosphere do make up aspects of the book, but there’s a lot of surprising material alongside it, and anyway the expected content isn’t quite how you expect it: the novel was a contemporary work, so the period detail, in a sense, isn’t; and the slapstick, being delivered by words, gains subtlety. None of the boating mishaps seem like they’d be particularly amusing to actually watch, it’s all in the telling.

And the film adaptations bear this out, dreadfully. I haven’t been able to see 1915’s HANGING A PICTURE, produced by and starring one Eric Williams, which adapts one episode of the book, nor the 1920 full adaptation, which seem interesting chiefly because they’re so close in period to the novel. As with Wodehouse, making a lot of effort to create a period look seems antithetical to the easy charm of the source. (I’m not certain if either of these films survive.)

So the 1933 film, directed by Graham Cutts, Hitchcock’s old bête noir, has a certain advantage. As the opening images unspooled — a phantom ride floating down a sun-dappled Thames — I thought, “Well, this is the right mood.” That lasted as long as the credits. In the spirit of the misbegotten JEEVES films starring Arthur Treacher, which turned Wodehouse’s super-brain into a bumbling duffer, Cutts’ film proceeds to get everything perfectly wrong.

The actors are sort of capable, but the decision has been made to make one of them the straight man hero type, always having the horse-laugh on his pals. Which isn’t like the book, but also isn’t an appealing dynamic. Jerome, democratically includes himself in most of the acts of silliness in the novel, and though he regards himself as less fatheaded than his pals, a lot of his humour is about reading between the lines, so that he can show that he’s capable of being just as foolish as his travelling companions, and also that they each have the same false sense of superiority. This is so much more wittily ironic than the movie’s approach.

The novel has no plot save its journey. The film tries so hard to have a plot, it forgets to have a journey. The hapless holidaymakers basically park their boat, get out, and have misadventures with a pretty girl, her bad-tempered uncle, the local constabulary, and the truculent locals. This all makes a liar out of the title. In fact, there isn’t much to recognise from the novel — a man sits in butter and has to have it scraped from the seat of his trousers, and there’s the bit where three fishermen claim credit for a big trout hung on a pub wall. And there’s a dog, but it’s the wrong breed, belongs to the wrong man, and is used for cuteness. The disreputable Montmorency of the book, a memorable literary dog, is nowhere to be found.

The language is interesting: George (Edmund Breon — never heard of him) says “You arse” and “stop arsing about.” When he and Harris (William Austin — nope) get on their faces, the charming leading lady (Iris March — I know, there shouldn’t BE a leading lady) says they look “like nigger minstrels.” The N word does appear in the book once, also, in one of those moments that makes you pause a bit.

Purely because it’s 1933, which nobody involved really deserves credit for, this terrible film feels a bit more “right” that Romulus Films’ 1956 version, directed by Ken Annikin. The choice of composer, John Addison, is the smartest thing about it. Let’s state the obvious: to film Three Men in a Boat, first choose your three men. With care.

So here we have Jimmy Edwards as Harris, which is the wrong man — George is the fattish one. But that doesn’t really matter, except — WHY CHANGE IT? But Edwards had his own handlebar moustache, and a sort of music-hall tang, and looks good in a blazer and straw boater. He’ll do.

David Tomlinson is cast as Jay, which again is the wrong person for him to play. He can play the silly ass just as well as Edwards, and might have made a good Harris. But he can’t suggest Jay’s soulfulness, he can’t suggest that this man might write this book. The film “solves” this by removing the book’s strangeness (the bits that mark it out as by the same author as The Passing of the Third Floor Back), its historical asides, its poetry. Everything that leavens the dicking around in boats, in fact.

And then, because it’s a Romulus production, and producer James Woolf was hopelessly in love with him, we have Laurence Harvey. Maybe the worst piece of casting in history. I can actually imagine Harvey as Jay, underplaying the soulful bit. But here he’s George, no longer fat, now an unreformable babe-hound (and the film supplies a roster of babes — Jill Ireland, Lisa Gastoni, Shirley Eaton and Adrienne Corri), and he overplays horribly, as he was wont to do when the material was unsuitable.

Chasing girls is very much not a theme of the book. Both these movies regard that as a problem to be solved. And so here’s Shirley Eaton stepping from a bath, offering a peekaboo glimpse of her sodden fleshings. You couldn’t go anywhere in Britain in the late 50s/early 60s without tripping over Shirley’s damp body stockings or her gilt breast-cones from GOLDFINGER. All of which gives hammy Laurence even more to get excited about.

So there’s a lot of shouting with these three (the book has a restful feel of “perspiring bluster recollected in tranquillity”), and a repeated tic of having them DESCRIBE whatever supposedly funny thing has just happened (“You’ve DROPPED it in the WATER!”) that certainly doesn’t help anything. And although this one reproduces several of the events of the novel, it misses the tone completely, and although unlike the 1933 film it DOES centre on a journey into the Heart of Lightness, Annikin pretty well forgets to drift downstream — that opening shot of the b&w movie is never evoked by his stodgy, static, Cinemascope shots.

(In fairness — the 1933 MEN survives only in a very jumpy, spliced print, while the 1956 one can be seen on Youtube but in a wretched pan-and-scan, which certainly can’t help.)

The best English-language adaptation (there’s a 1961 German transposition which sounds pretty bad) is certainly the 1975 BBC version, scripted by Tom Stoppard, directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Tim Curry (Jay), Michael Palin (Harris) and Stephen Moore (George). They should have chased up Vyvyan Stanshell, I feel, but this is a fine trio. Best of all, they’re all deadpan — Curry plays it like Brideshead Revisited, Palin plays it like Ripping Yarns — and he’s a marvellous actor for using the frame in comic ways, as scene in the Hampton Court Maze scene, staged properly as a flashback here. He’s also the best at falling over, and he makes sure to do this a lot.

One of the few laughs in the Annikin film is the pineapple tin bit, reproduced from the novel, but this limply rendered, based solely on the idea of three idiots without a tin opener trying to get at the sugary fruit with blunt instruments. JKJ gets FAR more comic value out of it than that ~

We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry — but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it, and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast.

There’s this odd pre-Lovecraftian sense of the uncanny in English comic writing — think of Bertie Wooster’s reaction to the cow-creamer.

And Stoppard goes still further, setting up the slapstick with a set of wonderfully precise tributes to the desirable qualities of tinned fruit ~

“Nothing quite like tinned pineapple.”

“Puts fresh pineapple in the shade.”

“It’s the juice.”

“It’s more of a syrup, really. It’s not exactly sweet. It’s not exactly bitter.”

“It’s the way it’s not exactly crunchy, and yet it’s firm, and clean-tasting.”

“Where’s the opener?”

Poignant!

The TV version isn’t perfect. It truncates a few things that would only have really worked if done whole, includes a few things it could have done without, and of course has to leave out lots. But it’s sensibly short, at just an hour — plotless things being trick to sustain for longer. And Stoppard is the only one of the various writers to have tackled the book who can not only adapt ready-made bits, but make up new material that feels JKJ-ish (while also being pure Stoppard, as when the careless heroes collide with an anachronistic Percy Bysshe Shelley). And of course he includes some of the strange bits of poetry and tonal shifts.

It’s pretty well worth watching, but not so much as the book is worth reading.

It was a glorious night. The moon had sunk and left the quiet earth alone with the stars. It seemed as if, in the silence and the hush, while we her children slept, they were talking with her, their sister — conversing of mighty mysteries too vast and deep for childish human ears to catch the sound.

They awe us, these strange stars, so cold, so clear. We are as children whose small feet have strayed into some dim-lit temple of the god the have been taught to worship but know not; and, standing where the echoing dome spans the long vista of the shadowy light, glance up, half hoping, half afraid to see some awful vision hovering there.

And yet it seems so full of comfort and of strength, the night. In its great presence, our small sorrows creep away, ashamed. The day has been so full of fret and care, and our hearts have been so full of evil and of bitter thoughts, and the world has seemed so hard and wrong to us. Then Night, like some great loving mother, gently lays her hand upon our fevered head, and turns our little tear-stained faces up to hers, and smiles; and, though she does not speak, we know what she would say, and lay our hot flushed cheek against her bosom, and the pain is gone.

 

The Zero With a Thousand Faces

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2014 by dcairns

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Terry Gilliam ought to, by rights, be exempt from criticism — he’s done enough great work and suffered enough appalling misfortune and interference to merit being left in peace — a mighty Prometheus regularly torn apart by vultures ought to at least be spared mosquito bites. Noble as these sentiments are, I’m not going to abide by them, since when was the life of the film blogger a noble one? I would place THE ZERO THEOREM abaft TIDELAND (2005), belonging in that category of undiluted Gilliam films, unscarred by tragedy or disaster (of the external kind, anyway) which nevertheless feel a bit insubstantial.

Beautiful, lively and as eccentric as you could ask for, TZT is also somewhat familiar — I remember at the time of THE FISHER KING, Michael Palin remarking that it was a little disappointing when someone as wildly original as Gilliam repeated himself even a little — he was thinking of the Black Knight — and in this case the disappointment is a little greater since quite a bit of the movie derives from BRAZIL, and even a key image that isn’t in Gilliam’s 1985 masterwork is actually the source image Gilliam had for that film — a man on a beach with a song playing. There’s a dream girl who is also real, and floats nude in the sky at one point, there’s a threatening fat-one-thin-one duo, a needy manager, a limp desk jockey hero, vast bureaucracies, plagues of commercialism, weird nuns, sideways monitors, tubing, homeless persons as set dressing, and a multinational cast that gives the movie an Everywhere quality. Welles’ film of THE TRIAL hovers somewhere between the director’s eye and his viewfinder.

Gilliam also has to contend with the generation or so of filmmakers influenced by him — when Tilda Swinton turns up, chuntering through a wig, false teeth and an extreme regional accent, it irresistibly recalls SNOWPIERCER, whether or not Gilliam’s film did it first.

And what do you do when your best film, BRAZIL, has since come true? Gilliam has suggested suing Dick Cheney for plagiarism, but that doesn’t solve the artistic problem.

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Freshening the mix somewhat are the dayglo colours, which give the movie a unique, painfully intense look, and a vein of porno sexiness/sexism which is at times difficult to make sense of. Well, in fact the whole movie is difficult to make sense of, whether because Gilliam has obfuscated the narrative with excess decoration, or because it never was clear, is impossible to say. So the pleasures have to be snatched from incidentals, or rather the incidentals become central — David Thewlis’s desperate bonhomie, Melanie Thierry’s accent (putatively French but seeming to have made a tour of every major European country and a few of the municipalities), and the way Matt Damon’s suits always match his background precisely. Also the ways in which Christoph Waltz’s home has been adapted from a church.

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Most of the film takes place in that church, which is the film’s solution to the problem of a low budget. Apart from having to confine itself to its quarters, and a slight tendency to repeat its computer animations on Waltz’s screens, it never betrays signs of cheapness. But a film stuck in one place needs some other form of momentum to compensate for the limited ground covered geographically. We never seem to be getting anywhere, in terms of narrative, character, theme or anything else. This inertia means that the movie can actually end with a sunset and still not feel like it has a proper ending.