Archive for Paul McCartney

All for nothing?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2011 by dcairns

Richard Lester is some kind of favourite director of mine, and his THREE MUSKETEERS and FOUR MUSKETEERS have a special place in my affections. So his last dramatic feature, RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS, is something of a problem. Haunted by tragedy, hampered by budget shortages, flawed by script problems, it can never be “a worthy successor” and most reviewers have been content to dismiss it. I love a lot of the picture, but can’t in earnest embrace it as a whole.

Lester’s final film, GET BACK, a Paul McCartney concert flick, truly does deserve rapid dismissal — to linger on its faults would seem merely cruel. McCartney was not the performer he had been, the footage is inadequate (especially the oft-repeated shot of an attractive audience member — was she the only ticket buyer under forty?) and the whole thing feels redundant and nostalgic — there’s some kind of tentative desire to do more, but the tools aren’t there for a thoughtful reappraisal of the sixties.

RETURN has much more going for it than GET BACK, although the nostalgic impulse is there also. The movie reunited all the characters who survived the first films and the intervening years, to deliver a fairly faithful adaptation of Dumas’ Twenty Years After — fortunately, Lester only waited fifteen years, so his cast were still comparatively spry, or are made to appear so. Unfortunately, their star profiles had dimmed considerably in the time since 1974, so that the presence of Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, Geraldine Chaplin and Christopher Lee (who apparently died, quite conclusively, in the previous movie, but is a specialist in resurrection) signalled “B movie” in 1989. Frank Finlay and Roy Kinnear were always character players rather than stars. So a lot depended on the new blood, and C. Thomas Howell and Kim Cattrall didn’t enhance the film’s standing — he had fallen from his brat pack heights, while she was in between the two successful periods of her career.

(But it’s a good, hearty, thigh-slapping performance from Kim, and Howell, the son of a stuntman, is a convincing swordsman.)

It’s easy to ignore all that now, but harder to deal with the effects of Roy Kinnear’s tragic death during the shoot, when his horse slipped, he fractured his pelvis and succumbed to heart failure. I remember the news reports and it’s easy to spot the scene in the film where the accident occurred, although no footage of the fall was used or exists. It’s also easy to spot the stand-in who replaced Kinnear in long shots, and the overdubs replacing lines Kinnear wasn’t around to re-voice himself. It seems abandoning the film wasn’t a legal option, or maybe it was emotionally easier for Lester to simply charge forward with production. It clearly cast a pall over the film, a non-diegetic aura of sadness and confusion that in no way helps the film’s ambition to be a rollicking romp.

Had the movie been more ambitious, like its predecessors, it might have coped better, but the focus is very much on the lighter aspects of the story. While FOUR MUSKETEERS ended with heroes and heroines tragically slain, this one has the arch-villain escape at the end, borrowing a note from ROYAL FLASH (also written by George MacDonald Fraser) which hadn’t worked too well the first time.

So why talk about the film at all? Only because the good bits are often very good — it was great seeing Oliver Reed back on the screen in something at least vaguely worthy of his talents, throwing himself into the fight scenes with sweaty intensity and authentically murderous/suicidal gusto. Frank Finlay’s ebullient delivery and silly comedy voice are as welcome as ever, and Kinnear is wonderful when he’s around — his role as Planchet, D’Artagnan’s long-suffering servant has been built up, in keeping with the film’s more consistently frivolous tone. An opening tavern brawl is an excellent showcase for Lester’s slapstick skills, as Kinnear poaches food from the rafters using a fork on a stick, eventually provoking a series of misunderstandings down below which escalate into a comic riot.

The fights are as inventive as ever, mixing balletic grace with authentic moments of clumsiness and bad luck (all of which can feel unfortunate given the film’s troubled history) and the overall idea of the first films is continued — the political backstory and the scheming royals and clerics are eyed sceptically, the romance is ironically undercut, the swashbuckling is blended with slapstick to make what must be called either swashstick or slapbuckle, but somehow all of this is kept under control so that there’s still room for excitement and character empathy. It’s a very tough balancing act. What keeps the films in line is their critique of history — like Keaton’s THE GENERAL, everything is “so real it hurts”, and the best jokes come from an evocation of poverty, violence, squalor, venality or stupidity, founded in bitter fact. This is something THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films don’t get. Michael Powell said that Lester’s first two MUSKETEERS films showed him the tone he’d failed to get with THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNELL, but the difference is that that film takes its romance and heroics seriously but its world is mere scenery. In Lester’s films the settings are three-dimensional and the characters two-dimensional, quite intentionally.

Kinnear, fleeing pursuers, jumps on planks projecting from the back of a cart, but when the cart trundles off, the planks stay put, being part of an entirely different structure — a compositional joke straight from Keaton.

Howell and Cattrall embrace passionately — Lester cuts to a ball being thrown through a hoop, with a little grunt of exertion, a bathetic parody of the sexual act.

Expressive lines that are funny not because of jokes but because of how they encapsulate character. Frank Finlay, being dragged behind a carriage as a nobleman stabs a rapier at his chest: “D’Artagnan! I am at a loss!”

Insane but convincing period detail — Finlay does some target practice by firing his musket at wooden doves on sticks held aloft by hapless servants crouched in a pond, as he rotates on a tiny carousel hand-pushed by more liveried schmoes.

Comedy overdubs — a nobleman escapes prison in extreme longshot, forced to clamber over his own men. “Use my head, sir — ouch — sorry about my head, sir.”

Cattrall traps the musketeers in a diabolical booby-trapped house, all trap doors, sliding panels and snapping manacles in chair arms — the workings are eventually exposed, a control room manned by dwarfs, all black-clad like stagehands or highwaymen.

Scot-mockery! King Charles II of Britain appears, playing golf, and he’s Bill Paterson, with Billy Connolly as his caddie.

Brit-mockery! When D’Artagnan insists that the British public will never stand for the execution of their king, Oliver Reed tells him, “The British public will put up with anything except an increase in the price of ale or the mistreatment of pack animals.” Screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser was, after all, a journalist.

The Sunday Intertitle: Carpet of Peril

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 24, 2010 by dcairns

Absolutely no silent movies watched this week, so here is my favourite quasi-intertitle from a  talking picture, HELP!

I like this one even better than the splendidly redundant “A strangled cry from the top of the stairs” in Bryan Forbes’ THE WRONG BOX, which is followed by the sound of a strangled cry from the top of the stairs, emitted by Peter Cook.

In the scene illustrated above, Sir Paul McCartney, injected with a shrink serum, is diminished to Grant Williams-like proportions, emerging naked from his own trouser leg, long before it was fashionable to do so. I suggest that any directorial career which could encompass a scene such as the one above as well as one where Sean Connery and Robert Shaw batter each other with maces, is a rich and fascinating one.

Once Upon a Time in Dreamland

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2008 by dcairns

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Last night I dreamed about Star Trek. There was a big alien who communicated by twiddling his fingers like the Rock does in SOUTHLAND TALES (okay, the Rock doesn’t actually communicate by twiddling but he does twiddle, prodigiously). I think in the end Captain Kirk or whoever shut the alien in a giant pressure cooker, baked him into a pie, and ate him. It was a very unusual episode.

But I still haven’t dreamed up a way of celebrating the one-year anniversary of this blog, which falls due on December first. Suggestions welcome. When the time comes I guess I’ll probably just drink some vodka and write something.

But I do have an idea for next year: the 110thanniversary of Hitchcock’s death. There are 52 surviving Hitchcock feature films (more or less). There are 52 weeks in the year. So I’m going to blog about each film, one a week, for the whole year.

Just putting this idea out in advance in case anyone else thinks of it (and is dumb enough to do it).

Apart from being a chance to catch up on all the early Hitchcock’s I haven’t had the pleasure of, it’ll ad some much-needed STRUCTURE to this place. Although some weeks my posting might be only tangentially related to the Hitchcock film du semaine. We shall see.

Dreams are also on my mind as I just finished a two-part class on Sergio Leone (it would have been one-part, but the first class was interrupted, DISCRETE CHARM-style, by the arrival of five hundred students demanding the use of the lecture theatre for another subject). And there’s a theory of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA that sees the entire 1960s section as a dream: Noodles (Robert DeNiro) is lost in an opium haze, having betrayed his friends, and he fantasises a future where his best friend lived, the betrayal didn’t really happen, and everything turns out differently. This is the explanation for the film’s ending, in which Noodles is seen in the opium den again, this time grinning.

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This interp kind of bugged me at first — I don’t usually like huge chunks of narrative turning out not to have happened: there’s a sense in which you can feel cheated. But the more I’ve considered it, the more it works for me, and it explains a number of oddities in the 1960s section of the movie.

1) Deborah doesn’t age. Elizabeth McGovern turns up, thirty years on, looking just as she did in the middle section of the film. I thought at first this was because the makeup artist must have thrown down his brushes in despair upon seeing McG’sperfect, smoothcountenance. He couldn’t bear to disfigure her withlatex wrinkles (Leone’s massive closeups expose the artifice of the prosthetics on Fat Moe in some shots), and he unlined expanse of face gave him nothing to work with anyway. “She looks like a beautiful balloon,” Fiona remarked. But maybe this is a dream, and Noodles simply couldn’t imagine his beloved transfigured by time. “Age cannot wither her.”

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2) Forgive and forget. Deborah doesn’t mention the glaring fact that Noodles raped her, twice, at their last meeting. But then, she wouldn’t, because this is part of what Noodles is trying to forget. It would be thoughtless of her to raise the subject during his dream. Fiona gave up the film in anger at that scene, not because of the rape itself, but because DeNiro turns up at the railway station the following day to see her off. This, Fiona contested, was rather tactless of him. I have to admit she’s right. But at least we can see that the strange scene between Noodles and Deborah is how it is due to Leone’s artful evocation of dream-logic, and not because he’s a misogynist boor whose incapable of thinking his way into a female character’s head. Certainly not.

3) Plot nonsense. For DeNiro to be unaware that a friend has risen to high political absence while he’s been hiding out “in the asshole of the world”, he would have had to have been quite literally hiding out “in the asshole of the world”. You can’t get a TV signal in there, you know. But this objection ceases to carry any force if we view the whole scenario as dream-hallucinations. Those things never make sense. I mean, Captain Kirk would never eat somebody.

So it’s definitely a way of looking at the film that reveals new possibilities, and so it’s a good tool to have when examining Leone’s vast and shallow epic. There is, however, as Columbo might say, one thing that still kind of bothers me…

If (as in the post-Viet Nam fantasy world of JACOB’S LADDER) the 1960s of OUATIA is a construct of the protagonist’s mind, it should not contain any references that would not be available to a character from that protagonist’s era, the ’30s. The political scandal DeNiro emerges into is explicable enough, since there was at least as much bribery and corruption in ’30s American life as in the ’60s.

Harder to explain is the frisbee that flies over DeNiro’s head at one point. I don’t think they had those in the ’30s, although the aerodynamic principles under which they operate were presumably already in force. Did Noodles, like Norville in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, invent this hand-held flying saucer before its time? How ironic that he should try to make his way in the world through the dangerous practice of bootlegging, when he could have made a fortune marketing his plastic disk to the children of the Great Depression!

Also, when DeNiro first arrives back in ’60s New York, he hears the Beatles song “Yesterday” playing as muzak. But, unlikely as it seems, there is a reasonable explanation for this. That song, as Paul McCartney has testified, came to him in a dream. So it’s not implausible that, floating around in the dream-stuff waiting to be discovered and jotted down by a receptive songwriter, the melody should insinuate its way into the opium-vision of a fugitive 1930s gangster.

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Is it?

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