Archive for Sabrina

Brainwashed

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2016 by dcairns

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Jonathan Demme seems like such a smart and likable fellow, and for a while there his films were really something to look forward to. I can’t explain the one-two punch of remakes THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE (CHARADE recycled, confirming what SABRINA should have proven: don’t mess with Audrey Hepburn vehicles) and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in the early years of this century. Despite cameos by the likes of Anna Karina, Agnes Varda and Charles Aznavour (TTAC) and Robyn Hitchcock, Al Franken, Roger Corman and Bruno Ganz (TMC), they are weirdly UN-COOL movies, lacking the charm of the old and the freshness of the new. All the fun stuff (Karina as a chanteuse? Sure, if you’re offering!) is incidental, decorations on a dead tree.

I finally watched TMC on a whim — I picked up the DVD for £1 in a charity shop, then found to my chagrin that it was on Netflix anyway, started watching it, got bored, decided to some back to it and found it was deleted, so my disc came in handy after all. So, I freely confess, I watched it piecemeal, which is arguably not giving it a fair shot. But I think I’d have had the same problems with it regardless.

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Weird seeing Jon Voight as the liberal. But weirdly natural seeing him upside down underwater. Why is that? Then I realized: for some time now, Jon Voight ALWAYS looks like he’s upside down underwater.

I really like John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod’s original — this piece concentrates on its many flaws, but I hope succeeds in bringing out why it’s ultimately so satisfying. The 2002 version, I thought, was going to attempt to be a political update for the War on Terror, but even though Axelrod’s script for the original did not name political parties and Daniel Pyne and Dean Gorgaris’ does, the movie seemed irrelevant. Oddly, it ought to have deeper resonance now, with the idea of a puppet president, but since Demme’s Manchuria is a corporation not a foreign power, it’s the Frankenheimer that feels more of-the-moment… prophetic, even.

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Sci-fi implants just don’t have the resonance of brainwashing, something we can still somewhat believe in. So we don’t believe in the device, and the Evil Corporation feels like a standard movie trope, not an impassioned political stance. It’s like Demme’s response to the Bush administration was to come out against Webscoe, the Evil Corporation from SUPERMAN III.

Everything about Demme’s film is perfectly decent. So instead of Frank Sinatra’s moving, anguished performance, we get Denzel Washington’s perfectly decent one. Instead of Frankenheimer’s taut, surrealism-inflected visuals, we get Demme’s perfectly decent filmmaking. Where Laurence Harvey imbued his brainwashed “war hero” with that rather hateful quality Harvey always had, combined with spectacular good looks, Liev Schreiber gives an exceptional performance made less affecting because, with his odd, features, he’s much more obvious casting as a Man Without Appeal. He’s like a thin George Bancroft whittled from cork.

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Actually, maybe he’s meant to have appeal because the script makes a few changes, so that Schreiber is a vice presidential candidate who stands to get the top job, while Washington is the one who’s been programmed as an assassin. This actually makes a kind of narrative sense, or it would if it led us to a satisfying and disturbing conclusion. But a dark, scary ending would have turned this into a clone of THE PARALLAX VIEW, so it has to have a wishy-washy happy ending, making heroes of the FBI (who have received a surprising amount of positive PR from Demme’s career).

Streep is the highlight. I’ve come round to Streep, if not to her movies.

 

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It’s Official —

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2008 by dcairns

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— Columbia Pictures musicals suck. Actually, Columbia Pictures generally kind of suck. They had Capra, and then they had Rita Hayworth, and they didn’t appreciate Orson Welles, and that’s about it. (But they made MAN’S CASTLE for Borzage and no doubt a good few other great things. But nothing consistent.)

Apart from that bit in TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT, where a fey young fellow dances to a Hitler speech, I was struggling to find any musical joy in all of Columbia’s output. Fred Astaire does have some very good dances, both solo and with Rita in YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH, but the movie itself is a drag and a waste of talent. The great Fred films always had great stories and comic relief and everything else, AND sensational dancing and songs. I was moaning about all this here before and then the esteemed David E said “They made COVER GIRL, you know,” and I though, Oh. I’m stupid. And David unquestionably knows his musicals. COVER GIRL is obviously a classic.

But it’s not! It doesn’t have any memorable songs, as far as I could see. It has Phil Silvers trying to be cute, and robbed of any of the comic vices that make him funny — being a sidekick doesn’t automatically make you amusing, you know. It has Gene Kelly sort of exploring his dark side, but not enough to actually allow any drama to emerge. It has Rita Hayworth as a wimp, and a script that requires her to embark on a character journey that basically involves learning to know her place and subjugate all her desires to Gene’s. The happy ending involves her voluntarily retreating under his thumb again, while giving up wealth and fame. He doesn’t even come to get her, she has to go to him.

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There ARE some plus points. The screenplay, partly the work of Rita’s best pal Virginia Van Upp, comes to life whenever she deals with the character of “Stonewall” Jackson, played by Eve Arden. Van Upp liked writing smart-mouthed women, as demonstrated by Jean Dixon in SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (my favourite ’30s love story) and Valerie Bettis in AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD, and Arden’s character is the only one with a sensible attitude in the whole film.

Then there’s the cameo by proto-supermodel Jinx Falkenburg, which caught Fiona’s eye. Jinx acquits herself admirably, far better than many modern model-turned-actors.

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And, most importantly, the famous scene of Gene Kelly dancing with himself. This is undoubtedly very impressive, both for the dancing and the special effects — not content with double-exposing the film, with a split-screen effect, so that Kelly can dance with a transparent doppelganger, director Charles Vidor (who did Van Upp and Hayworth’s most celebrated collaboration, GILDA) does all kinds of camera movements, which should be impossible to pull off with the technology available. The only clue as to the struggle involved is when, at the end of a pan, the spectral Kelly continues to slide for a few frames, as if not firmly rooted to the ground, or gravity, or the film. It’s a technical flaw but rather a nice effect, giving his performance an extra lighter-then-air quality (and it’s not visible unless you really look for it). I was reminded of Billy Wilder’s direction to William Holden in SABRINA: “When you’re jumping over the fence, pause for a moment halfway.”

But the sequence comes out of nowhere — Kelly starts musing in internal monologue to kickstart the trick effect, something nobody’s done in the previous half of the movie, and there’s no preparation for this kind of stylised sequence elsewhere, which mostly confines its numbers to the stage. (Amusingly, when Rita moves from burlesque to a bigger stage, “at least a mile wide,” suddenly Vidor lets rip with optical effects and other non-theatrical devices, as if these are only possible in a big theatre.) The plot is mostly garbage, with lots of dramatically irrelevant bits of wartime propoganda dropped in, which feels mostly rather sinister, and definitely inefficient. Whenever we go to a turn-of-the-century flashback detailing the life and affairs of Rita’s grandmother, the “plot” grinds to a halt — plot may not be the most central point in a musical, but I feel cheated if it’s as weak and fitful as this.

There ARE some splendid images:

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Better watch out you don’t collide with Sabu going the other way.

And the colour is nicer, rich and intense but more balanced, than in most of the Rita musicals I’ve seen. But Rita kind of sucks in her dramatic bits, especially an embarrassing, lachrymose drunk scene, which is a dreadful shame because we all know how terrific she can be.  She’s lovely, of course, and dances magnificently (although Fiona finds her loveliness distracting, and would be almost as happy if she’d just stand still and let us admire her), but I do rather wish she’d been under contract at MGM. And I wouldn’t say that about many stars.

It’s strange to me that GILDA is so excellent (and GILDA is very nearly a musical, with a couple of really great renditions of “Put the Blame on Mame”) and this film, with the same star, director and writer, is so uninvolving. And listen: Glenn Ford = Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth = Rita Hayworth, turtle-like Joseph Calleia = turtle-like Phil Silvers, and George MacReady = that bland rich schnook Rita almost marries. COVER GIRL is GILDA’s shrivelled twin that’s kept in a basket.

(The scene we want is about 6 minutes in)

I use this scene a lot, to illustrate to students that you don’t always show the person who’s talking. As the scene gets going, poor old George MacReady gets shoved out altogether, so that the shots of Glenn and Rita can actually tell us the true story, which he’s unaware of. There’s only the occasional shoulder or whatnot to remind us that he’s more than a phantom purr. He doesn’t even have a reflection, poor chap. “Shoot the money,” the old directors used to say, but here it’s far more than just favouring the stars over the paid help, it’s a smooth and sly bit of storytelling wizardry.

Of course Rita’s entrance — from below — is great, and amusing, since it’s presented like a POV shot from Glenn Ford, but doesn’t realistically make any sense as such, since it would require him to be staring at empty space for a second before noticing her crouched down under it. And if we can get over how great her hair moves, and the fact that she’s framed so she appears nude, there’s the brilliance of that first line, “Sure, I’m decent,” which is in fact the truth, and the punchline of the film, but is delivered as an ironic joke and will be called into question as the story unfolds.

The other best number in COVER GIRL:

I’m giving Columbia one last chance, with PAL JOEY…

Mädchen in Uniform.

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2007 by dcairns

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With the new ST TRINIANS movie due in British cinemas on the 21st, and an article on British writer-producer-directors Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat due from me immanently, I decided to watch three of the original films last night. Having seen the original BELLES OF ST TRINIANS a few years back, I decided to jump straight into the sequels, omitting only the last, WILDCATS OF ST TRINIANS, because it is a dreadful thing and anyway I don’t have a copy.

British comedy series are an odd lot, often functioning on inertia and raw acting talent rather than anything resembling good material, and yet they inspire tremendous warmth and attachment in the public here. Take the CARRY ON films — arguably three of them are consistently entertaining, out of a total of twenty-nine. Twenty-nine.

Twenty-nine films on the theme of sexual frustration, filled with closeted gay men, hefty spinsters, and sex-obsessed nitwits apparently suffering from what Schrader and Scorsese (who, presumably, know all about it) call D.S.B. (Deadly Sperm Back-up, where the unused sperm backs up to the brain and induces idiocy).

Then there are the lesser-known DOCTOR films, which made a star of Dirk Bogarde and thus prepared the way for DEATH IN VENICE and THE NIGHT PORTER, and managed to carry on for several entries even after their star had graduated to working with Basil Dearden and Joseph Losey. That’s a common trait of these series, they outlive their stars, their creators, their reasons for existing in the first place…

Such as the CONFESSIONS movies, inaugurated by British film legend Val Guest, who had been working since the thirties and earlier brought us the excellent Hammer cop thriller HELL IS A CITY. Here he took the saucy comedy format into the seventies, where suddenly you could actually SHOW full nudity and intercourse, so he did. He complained later that if these films had been subtitled they’d have been acclaimed as arthouse smashes… but aside from Verhoeven’s TURKISH DELIGHT I can’t think of any “art film” they resemble. Actually, CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER is like the Verhoeven movie with all the serious bits removed, and yet it still manages to be more ugly and depressing.

The fact that that film’s star, Robin Askwith, was cast in BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (and he’s very good in it) probably accounts for a decent percentage of the rotten reviews BH garnered on release: sheer guilt-by-association.

Uncontrollable hellions -- excuse my French.

Anyhow, back to our rampaging schoolgirls. The first St Trins film is based on the cartoons of Ronald Searle, which are in turn derived from stories Searle heard about the real St Trinnean’s, a “progressive” boarding school right here in Edinburgh where the girls were allowed to run wild as nature intended. (Hey, listen, another Edinburgh girls’ school inspired the source material of William Wyler’s THESE THREE and THE CHILDREN’S HOUR!)

Edinburgh connection 2: that superb eccentric actor Alastair Sim stars in the first film and cameos in the second, dragging up to play Miss Fitton, the dithering, corruptible headmistress, as well as her ne’er-do-well brother. Here we see the British love of drag combined with that fondness for multiple role-playing later developed in DR. STRANGELOVE and O LUCKY MAN!

 (Sim’s very  best work for Launder and Gilliat is in the marvellous GREEN FOR DANGER, available now from Criterion).

Sim declined to be confined to a film series, and so the later films import a succession of star comedians in a vain attempt to replace him. First into the breach is Terry-Thomas, who obviously I’m a fan of, and if BLUE MURDER AT ST TRINIANS used him more thoroughly, things might have gone better. But all the sequels seem to divide their energies and plotlines to damaging effect, and the rot sets in right here. Although hearing T-T say things like “That’s a bit adjacent, isn’t it?” is never less that a pleasure, there isn’t enough rigour in integrating him into a storyline that needs  him.

Stars from the first film are back, notably Joyce Grenfell, whose entrance in the first film had established her as a brilliant film comedian and a sympathetic presence. Curiously, Launder and Gilliat seem to have fixed on the idea of mistreating her character, goody-two-shoes Police Constable Ruby Gates, as their main approach to her character. In the first film the abuse all comes from the rampaging schoolkids, which makes sense, but her two sequels tend to separate her off into unproductive sidetracks.

Better use is made of George Cole, a younger actor mentored by Sim, who appears in four of the films as Flash Harry, an archetypal fifties “spiv” character (basically, a Cockney black marketeer, a sort of Teddy Boy version of Harry Lime) who for some reason became the series’ only essential figure (he’s back in the new version, portrayed by comedian and sex god Russell Brand). Cole is very zestful, firing off malapropisms at speed (‘I don’t want to appear inhospital,’ and ‘Greek Archie-pelly-logo’) but the best thing about the character is his theme tune, a pub piano leitmotif  which strikes up with mechanical regularity whenever Harry takes more than a couple of steps, like a proletarian James Bond theme. This, and the jaunty St Trinians theme itself, are the work of Sir Malcolm Arnold, best-known for arranging the Colonel Bogey March for BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

BLUE MURDER takes the girls to Rome, where the sixth form all aim to marry an Italian prince, and the filmmakers blagged permission to shoot in the Forum and Colisseum on the grounds that they were making a “cultural documentary”.

PURE HELL AT ST TRINIANS does not take place at the school at all, it having been arsoned to oblivion, and again transports the riotous kids abroad, with the sixth form abducted into a Sheikh’s harem. One of the very strange things about the series, and about British culture generally, is the mainstream media’s use of school uniforms as fetishwear, while our moral guardians shriek about pedophiles hiding in the shrubbery. The St Trinians films mine this imagery while serving up slapstick comedy for little kids — it’s quite disturbing, or almost.

This movie includes Cecil Parker as guest star, but for some reason he’s insufficiently larger-than-life to really hold it all together. He’s perfectly good, but to see him really shine it’s  better to check out his work in Gilliat’s THE CONSTANT HUSBAND, where he’s a sports-obsessed psychiatrist treating an amnesiac bigamist… The other strongest element in PURE HELL is Irene Handl, an adored character actor who can be seen to great effect in MORGAN and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Here she’s a teacher with a background in lunatic asylums. “Soon I may be the only one around here with a certificate proving my sanity!”

With THE GREAT ST TRINIANS TRAIN ROBBERY in 1966 the series shunted into Technicolor and adopted comic Frankie Howerd as a hairdresser-turned-trainrobber. It’s a very very colourful film indeed, which proves to be a Bad Thing, and Howerd is again underused. Really Howerd isn’t a team player: he mugs and scene-steals atrociously, but the best response to this is to encourage it, since he’s so good, yet Launder seems determined to integrate Howerd into an unpromising ensemble.

Howerd’s best film scenes are usually his big public speeches: he got a great one at the start of CARRY ON DOCTOR, but there’s nothing like that here, so he mainly entertains just by presenting his impossibly large, pendulous face to the camera and squinting evilly.

TRAIN ROBBERY features a few half-hearted nods to sixties fashions, music, crime, and film-making: the speeded-up chase sequence maybe owes something to Richard Lester, but as it’s conducted back and forth over the same hundred feet of track about fifty times, it doesn’t really generate any pace and the gags are unimaginative. There’s no Joyce Grenfell in this one and the series still neglects to develop any of the schoolgirls themselves as proper characters, which is odd, really.

But there was worse to come. Described by my screenwriting friend Colin McLaren as the “you-can-see-it-going-in, hard porn version”, WILDCATS OF ST TRINIANS ups the raunch factor enough to make it a queasy experience, although Colin does exaggerate the penetrative aspect considerably. But there’s a line in the sand, or should be, between the mild seaside postcard comedy of the first films and the naked schoolgirls served up in this travesty, which actually came out in 1980, after British smut had basically rolled over and died at the box office anyway. It’s the equivalent of CARRY ON EMMANUELLE, a depressing extension of a fundamentally innocent series into more explicit territory.

I need to wash that memory away with some good old-fashioned British toilet humour:

The great Dudley Sutton (who was in my first short film).

Original Ronald Searle St Trins girls.