Archive for The Knick

Things that aren’t films: year’s end summary

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 26, 2015 by dcairns

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Finished season 2 of The Knick, the historical medical drama. Looks like that one’s finished. Some incredibly strong moments, particularly the death of a major character in the finale, but also a slight sense of a shark being jumped. It was soapier than season 1 — in one episode, a character who was definitely dead showed up again, and a character had a sudden foreign wife appear whom he definitely didn’t have before. The writers also amused themselves with in-jokes: the Laurel & Hardy line “I brought you some hard-boiled eggs and nuts,” and a product called Rough on Rats, which is an really obscure reference to the Winsor McCay cartoon THE PET.

We got hooked on Toast of London, the sitcom starring Matt Berry, written by Berry and Arthur Mathews of Father Ted fame. I’d been missing out on this comedy gold for several seasons, for no good reason. The first episode I watched seemed a bit too harsh for my tastes. It is a big negative at times, but also brilliant, in terms of visual gags, plotting, ideas, performances, and the bizarre story world, a non-period-specific vision of actors’ Soho, theatres, pubs and voice-over recording studios.

It’s interesting to me that while Mathews has gone darker, raunchier and swearier, his Father Ted co-author Graham Linehan has co-authored the BBC1-friendly Count Arthur Strong. which takes a fairly abrasive radio and stand-up character, senile music-hall comedian Count Arthur, and folds him into a gentle, at times sentimental series set in a recognizable real contemporary world (Count Arthur, like Steven Toast, formerly inhabited a timeless universe where he could theoretically have been around since the thirties). Linehan’s genius for farce plotting is still apparent — see an episode where two untrained pilots go up in a two-seater plane, each convinced the other is the pilot, and Count Arthur’s malapropisms are funnier than they have any right to be (“I have written a racist book.” “Racist? What do you mean?” “You know: Ooh, Madam!” He means ‘racy.’) While Linehan’s move is a more radical departure, Matthews’ seems to us the more successful show, tonally solid in its determination not to touch us, not to be endearing, not to mean anything at all.

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Doctor Who gave us two really strong episodes — amazingly strong! — at the end of the series, but seems unable to sustain a quality run longer than that — the Christmas special was an extraordinary misfire, festive only in the sense of including snow, strained laughter, and a lot of frenzied, pointless activity. It was also weirdly mean, which is fine for Toast of London but problematic for a show starring a noble, pacifist hero. But series head Stephen Moffat seems compelled to push at the limits of how dark he can make his lead character, a strategy that seems better suited to practically any other fictional hero in existence. This episode also showed why doing a comedy episode is unlikely to work on Doctor Who: because composer Murray Gold will crap all over it.

My reading seems to have ground to a halt, owing to being in prep for a film, and owing to my having started Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock, a slow-going but fascinating fantasy novel. It’s quite dense — it takes the world of myth and fairy tale seriously, and tries to invent the forgotten mythology of the Ice Age. Into this are plunged characters from our world. A long way from Tolkein, and more serious and interesting than I can make it sound, just a little hard to wade through when you’re distracted by other stuff.

But I did read The Writer’s Tale, while in early prep. It’s basically Russell T. Davies’ email correspondence with Benjamin Cook, editor of Doctor Who Magazine. It had the effect of making me like Davies more — some of his Who scripts would make me so annoyed, it’s easy to forget there’s an essentially well-meaning person behind it all, trying to entertain us. Davies is so funny and self-excoriating here, you feel he did his best writing in his emails instead of on the show — his best work in TV prior to Who had one foot and a few toes in reality, something the time-traveling adventurer was never going to make easy. It even made me feel sorry for Murray Gold, who was apparently reduced to tears by unsympathetic fan reviews of his music. “I don’t know how to score this show any better!” he declared, helplessly. It could stand being scored LESS, I’d have thought. Less of everything is good advice for this time of year.

At this time of year I like to watch this, obsessively —

I like looking at snow without having to touch it. And I like how the director, after choosing to shoot at dusk in Scandinavia, has made all his other decisions based on that fact — i.e. it’s fucking freezing, how can I shoot all of this with the zoom from a single stationary position so we can get indoors before bits start dropping off?

Also, do they really sing, at about 2.00, “You’ll be dancing once again / Like an angry hen / You will have no time for breathing”?

 

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A Nice, Clean Girl in a Nice, Clean World

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2014 by dcairns

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The line “A nice, clean girl” &c is sneered — SNEERED! — by Richard Widmark at Linda Darnell in Joe Monkeybitch’s electrifying thriller / issues film NO WAY OUT. It’s a movie whose liberal good intentions are easy to mock, but which are played out mainly in exciting noir situations. Widmark’s racist is suitably pathetic, stupid and inadequate, but still a convincing threat by virtue of sheer vicious malevolence and the actor’s magnetism. It’s fashionable to say that Sidney Poitier, here in his first lead role (even if he’s billed fourth, AFTER the main title and in a clump of supporting schmoes) was cast in boring, squeaky clean parts for much of his career, but he’s no more virtuous than the average leading man of 1950. Perhaps a little too noble by Mankiewicz’s high standards, BUT —

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Widmark isn’t the only one who can sneer.

You also get Ossie Morris Davis and his sexy wife Ruby Dee and Mildred Joanne Smith and Dots Johnson and Amanda Randolph and Maude Simmons too — most of them uncredited, to be sure — I think whoever decided credits at Fox was not as progressive as the director — and because Mankiewicz and co-scribe Lesser Samuels (ACE IN THE HOLE) are good writers, they play a variety of interesting people. I don’t think it’s purely a desire to be progressive, I think it’s just the good writer’s desire to avoid boring stereotypes and give the audience an interesting experience with some interesting characters. Amanda Randolph pops up as a housekeeper and nearly walks of with the film.

Also interesting is Harry Bellaver as Widmark’s deaf-mute brother. The treatment of disability is not as progressive as the treatment of race, with Bellaver treated as a stooge by all and sundry — when the doctors want family permission to perform an autopsy on the third Biddle brother, nobody even considers asking him. One wishes he had a bit more independence as a character but I guess he’s relied on Widmark all his life. It’s kind of interesting to see a deaf racist in a film — we even get the sign-language equivalent of all the racist terms used so freely by Widmark’s venomous bigot — Bellaver presses his nose flat with one hand. An ironic sign, since Bellaver already has a squashed-flat neb that looks like the impact site of a putty meteor.

Darnell has one of the best roles she ever got — Mankiewicz gave her the very best in LETTER TO THREE WIVES — where she gets a tremendous range of stuff to do and a journey from slovenly tramp to well-meaning tart with a heart to racist stooge to class victim to heroine. Stephen McNally, billed ahead of Poitier, has the genuinely boring role as the nice head doctor, and the screenplay sensibly sidelines him as early as possible and omits him from the climax entirely. See The Knick for a stronger solution to the role of the head doctor dealing with his first black M.D. — boldly, the series puts the hero in the wrong.

Eyre Turbulence

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2014 by dcairns

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Cary Fukunaga’s JANE EYRE is a cracker.

(I remember The Scotsman‘s film critic greeting BLADE RUNNER at Edinburgh Film Fest with the opening sentence, “Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a cracker,” and thinking it was simultaneously slightly cool and slightly shocking that he should jettison the dignity of his position in such an enthusiastic, fanboyish way, but there are times when that’s appropriate.)

The director of True Detective serves up a smart period film that feels modern in all the right ways. The costumes and settings take us directly into the Bronte-world, and the authentic candlelight cinematography of Adriano Goldman allows us to feel actually present in a way not possible until very recently (Kubrick’s much-vaunted candlelight scenes in BARRY LYNDON still required huge banks of candles offscreen, erasing the flicker and rendering the effect not totally realistic, while the extremely narrow focal depth forced the actors to remain rooted to the spot.) I was reminded of The Knick — though Fukunaga doesn’t go quite so far as to deploy an electronic score to show just how modern he can go. The understated Dario Marinelli piano and violin accompaniment chosen has an appealing delicacy. You don’t want to get too clever for your own good, and what works for Soderbergh wouldn’t here.

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The performances are also strongly naturalistic — Mia Wasikowski and Michael Fassbender not only speak in authentic-sounding Yorkshire accents (and for once Rochester sounds properly regional), they have absorbed the accents so that they are able to concentrate fully on each other.

I didn’t see the popular BBC version, so I mainly recall the Zefferelli on ’96, which strikes me as inferior in every way, save one. I had remembered Maria Schneider, as the first Mrs. Rochester, having a more fully-written role. I actually remembered her having dialogue. Not so — here’s the scene on YouTube.

Some of Zefferelli’s editing choices seem whimsical — there’s an unexpected high angle shot that seems inserted to protect us from the performances rather than to allow us to understand the scene — Jim Clark’s account of editing for Franco Z in his book Dream Repairman (he worked on YOUNG TOSCANINI) kind of suggests that Zefferelli will favour in the edit whoever he happens to be on good terms with that day — but Schneider’s reaction shots are vivid and articulate. It’s often the best policy to play mad people as sane (cf Wasikowska in MAPS TO THE STARS and Kathleen Byron in BLACK NARCISSUS, who is terrifying but consciously decided to play it sane in defiance of screenplay and director), and you can tell Mrs. R understands everything her despised husband is saying, though he talks as if she is a dumb animal. Schneider, the madwoman in the attic of European cinema, had a lot to draw on here.

Not that Valentina Cervi is in any way inadequate as Bertha in the Fukunaga — she has the appropriate menace — it’s just that I think Zeff pulled off a casting coup that would be hard to beat.

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Also in Fukunaga’s cast and of note: Judi Dench can’t suppress her obvious intelligence to play a silly housekeeper, but we don’t mind; Jamie Bell manages to not annoy in the most thankless role; Simon McBurney always adds a touch of the unexpected; Amelia Clarkson is a terrific Young Jane. The idea of starting in media res and exploring the story via flashbacks allows Fukunaga to intercut a child and an adult who don’t really look anything alike and make us forget to bother about that, a bit like Bunuel and his two leading ladies in THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE —

— a casting decision that came about after Bunuel fired a recalcitrant Maria Schneider, thus closing the circle here and allowing me to escape. Sound of footsteps, door slam. Mad cackle.