Archive for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Life after Mars

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , on July 27, 2019 by dcairns

Just finished Veronica Mars last night. Really dug it. Always liked that show.

Am going to avoid really specific spoilers but probably watch it with fresh eyes if you haven’t already.

It never had a really great visual style, and outside of the snazzy credits, it still doesn’t, though there’s one nice long Steadicam take reintroducing a great supporting character… but that fizzles out in a standard set of shot-countershot cuts. I’m always of the view that the longer a shot lasts, the more important its ending should be.

No, the appeal of the show was always, in no particular order, plotting, characters, dialogue, performances. I was in awe, during the first two seasons, of how Rob Thomas and his gang managed to cram into each episode one fully-developed mystery plot, one mystery subplot, and one development for the overarching series-long central mystery.

As with Nancy Drew, the key relationship was always between Mars (Kristen Bell) and her dad (Enrico Colantoni) and I hope that’s going to continue if the series continues (and it seems harder to destroy than its unstoppable, battered-about protag). The love-hate story with boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) was one for the ages.

These virtues survive intact into the new series, along with the political pessimism (the town of Neptune works even better as a microcosm for the US now — the show has the nerve to draw out plotlines about zoning laws). The eight episodes of season 4 explore one convoluted mystery which spirals off into sub-mysteries, all rounded off in satisfying finishes, but introducing characters perhaps susceptible to further investigation. The dialogue is as snappy, and saltier, than ever, since the original teen audience has grown up with the show. There were always old-timers like us watching, since we’re around the age of the series creators (and only a little younger than Keith Mars) so we felt in tune with a lot of the references.

So we really enjoyed it. Then we looked at the online reaction and Holy Shit. Rob Thomas, shrewdly, is avoiding Twitter. He fully expected an explosive reaction to the final episode’s tragic conclusion.

To me, this feels like the inevitable result of an audience reared on focus-grouped pap — you can’t feed them tragedy because they have no stomach for it. Every time a character they care about is killed, they get resurrected. Audience surveys ask “What was your least favo(u)rite scene?” and everyone cites the scene where something bad happened, and the market survey idiots don’t realize that that scene is where the audience FELT something — “pity, fear and catharsis.”

I could relate this to the audience response to the end of Game of Thrones, except we couldn’t take that show seriously and only watched one episode. Tolkein with tits. But it seems like a similar phenomenon. Social media gives fans the power to talk to creators and they feel ownership of the show. How dare the people who create the show do something that they don’t like? Does this also tie in with all the millennial-bashing stuff about how kids these days are hypersensitive and can’t handle touchy material? Well, that isn’t universally true — I find my students just as hardy, on the whole, as those I taught nearly thirty years ago when I first started — but to the extent that squeamishness and inability to deal with moral complexity or scenes of an adult nature may be on the rise, I would connect it to the feeding of market-tested pablum to the audience.

There are objections to Veronica Mars S.04′s ending that seem to make sense — “It wouldn’t happen, the police would have stopped it” — but are the same as the objections to the ending of SE7EN. The fact is, both endings WORKED in that they caused the audience to have a strong emotional reaction, one apparently intended by the creators. (David Fincher said that he persuaded the key producer to allow the bleak-as-hell ending by asking him to imagine some random TV viewer of the future catching the movie one night, and being forever unable to shake it off.) Quibble s are certainly possible but they don’t take away from the rightness of the overall concept.

I am disturbed at the idea that the media is evolving an audience that can’t bear strong emotion. That’s what you get if your diet is Marvel adaptations, I’m afraid.

I was reminded of this movie’s ending, the only really human moment in a Bond film, and one that would be inconceivable today.

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Naval Gazing

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2015 by dcairns

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When I was a kid, the big military entertainments didn’t really mean that much to me — I don’t even remember for sure if I’ve seen WHERE EAGLES DARE. But the naval films were probably the worst, though not as noisy as air ones. So although Britain produced endless naval films both during and after the war — re-fighting the old battles all through the white heat of the technological revolution, I have seen David Lean’s IN WHICH WE SERVE and Michael Powell’s THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE and little else. And those are two of my less-favourite Lean and Powell films.

GIFT HORSE (1952) dates from a time when at least some of the US war pictures were starting to take a more considered, less triumphalist view of the conflict, now that the need for propaganda was over. Britain, feeling less secure, kept on flag-waving — but director Compton Bennett had a gift for melancholy and the five writers include the talented William Rose, whose THE LADYKILLERS conceals an iconoclastic sensibility. The film’s best moments have to do with the malfunctionings of the leaky tub gifted to embattled Britain by the US before America entered the war, and the malfunctionings of Trevor Howard’s rustbucket of a face. He’s a broken-down captain hauled out of mothballs for the war and given one last chance to salvage his holed reputation. Joining him for the voyage are numerous trusty supporting players, the kind of people these films always throng with —

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There’s no Jack Hawkins, whose involvement in RIVER PLATE was considered essential by the Admiralty — they simply couldn’t imagine taking seriously a sea picture without him, Here we benefit from less stalwart faces — a great slab of Bernard Lee, jug-eared and limpid-eyed, and the equally soulful Richard Attenborough, the babyish features that turned up with eye-glazing reliability. Here he’s amusingly cast as a former trade unionist turned “sea lawyer” — a sailor who knows his rights, knows the regulations, knows when he’s due overtime, and ends by lecturing his German captors on the Geneva Convention. His appearance is ever-predictable in these things but he always gives value for money.

The surprise bit by Hugh Williams had me rubbing my hands with glee — his oiliness always gives satisfaction, and results in an amiable surprise when he turns out to be a decent chap here. The weirdest casting is James Donald as a free-and-easy Canadian. It’s not just that he can’t do the accent, can barely suggest it in an embarrassed way, it’s that nobody was ever less free and easy than James Donald. If you want someone to stare wide-eyed at carnage and mutter “Madness. Madness!” James Donald is your man. But if you want someone with the gleam of gaiety in his eye and a devil-may-care sparkle in his smile, then please hire him and make him stand in front of James Donald. What James Donald projects is the cares of the world, boring out of his eyeholes with a soft whimper.

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Asides from the movie’s bracing melancholy — the ship fails to perform at every turn, and so do the crew, and their final victory is achieved by ramming a port, using the ship as a cudgel, then blowing her up — it also has a startling fight scene, a bar brawl in Sid James’ pub. Like the man himself, the character is an ex-pugilist, the walls of the house decorated with photographs of his past fights — the pub as metaphor for British cinema? But look what Bennett does with it ~

The Sid James Centre from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Something between COLONEL BLIMP’s jump-cut trophies and Richard Lester.

Then I turned to SINK THE BISMARCK, a 1960 Fox production in ‘Scope, but still British to the core. Doughty, doughy Kenneth More takes the Jack Hawkins part this time, playing an entirely fictitious commander parachuted into the true story because, presumably, the real sea lord didn’t want to be made into a Boy’s Own hero, or to be played by Kenneth More.

Sea battles aren’t close-quarters, which is probably why the young me didn’t care for them. They have the quality of board games, but with added death by immolation and drowning. Here, More never even gets his feet wet, directing operations from deep underneath Trafalgar Square with the beauteous Dana Wynter at his side, while the heroic death-blow at sea is struck by, of all people, Michael Hordern. In a long and varied career I doubt he had that privilege very often.

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Journeyman director Lewis Gilbert keeps the thing trundling along relatively briskly, and the only painful bits are the hackneyed scenes with Admiral Lutyens, played by Karel Stepanek, who can do nothing with the boilerplate Nazi they’ve written for him. In a misguided attempt at expressionism or something, Gilbert introduces the character (left of frame, above) with his back to us, head apparently ablaze. We sense that he’s smoking some evil brand of National Socialist tobacco, but the illusion that his scalp is on fire is inescapable and inappropriately amusing.

The other interesting bit of weak direction comes when More gets the news that his son is lost at sea (and the production, to their credit, did manage to find an actor with the same cuboid head as More). Hearing the tragic news on the phone, More closes his eyes in silent grief.

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Later, hearing on the phone that his son has been rescued, More closes his eyes in silent relief.

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Calling Comrade Kuleshov! Ken More makes the same face for grief and relief! Since the rest of More’s face is just a frowning thumb, I wondered what other choices were open to the filmmakers, and remembered Billy Wilder’s advice that you should always try to film actors getting bad news from the back. And then I remembered Werner Herzog listening to that guy getting eaten by bears in GRIZZLY MAN, and how he instead filmed someone else simply watching him listening to it, without being able to hear it, setting the snuff recording back by about three removes from the eventual audience. So I figured Gilbert should have cut to Dana Wynter, who has a far lovelier and more expressive face than More, and watched her watching her, capturing her reaction as she realizes what’s happened.

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SINK THE BISMARCK! is edited by Peter Hunt, a very talented cutter who helped set the pacey style for the Bond series, and directed one of the very best, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. But I think his talent was more for the action stuff than for scenes or emotion.

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Both movies cope mostly with real ship manoeuvres filmed specially, closer views of crew taken in the studio against variable cycloramas, and stock shots from the war, but both have occasionally to resort to special effects, and these sometimes get a bit psychedelic (above), though not as surreal as those watery explosions in DAMBUSTERS. Bennett and Gilbert both favour a stationary camera, which does the action no favours — I’m not calling for Paul Greengrass but a bit of sway would help things — but at least Gilbert has good model shots to work with — even the sea, usually a dead giveaway in model shots, looks convincing.

John Barry, RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on January 31, 2011 by dcairns