Archive for Timothy Spall

An Alternative to Facts

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2017 by dcairns

denial-uk-quad

DENIAL is something we opted to watch on BAFTA screener when something else didn’t grip us (not fair to talk about the non-gripper since we didn’t finish it). We knew DENIAL would offer a good STORY, which is what we craved, and so it did.

What has Mick Jackson been doing? I know his name from L.A. STORY, which was a while ago. He’s been on TV, I see. Well, I kind of know what he’s doing here — he’s been brought in to give it a touch of cinema. It’s a BBC film, see, and written by David Hare — very intelligently written as far as the issues are concerned, occasionally clumsy as it draws in bit players to comment on the issues. But compared to much recent exposition, very decently done.

(We attempted a screener of MY WEEK WITH MARILYN once and were appalled at the leaden way characters kept explaining things to each other that they both clearly already knew. I spoofed this with the line, “As you know, I’m your father,” and after ten minutes we’d almost convinced ourselves this was a genuine bit of dialogue.)

denial-2016

The trouble is, a writer like Hare, schooled in the theatre, leaves no room for cinema or “cinema” — he gives you strong dramatic scenes of people talking to each other. A master of such stuff — and it would be lovely to see Otto Preminger getting to grips with this material — can make cinema out of just such scenes. There’s nothing wrong with Jackson’s handling of them, and he renders London in photogenic, grey, wet panoramas. Lots of frosty, foggy, atmospheric shots of Auschwitz too. It’s the bursts of attention-getting technique applied to the Holocaust that seemed a bit egregious. I’ll allow the barely audible sound of screams heard as our characters stand on the roof of a former gas chamber, since I allowed the barely audible sound of cheering in the deserted Nazi Olympic stadium in THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM — the coincidence is so striking, I have to embrace it. But the sudden horror movie plunge into a photograph of a gas chamber window, which becomes live-action and filled with distressed, clawing figures who look like ZOMBIES — that was bad, both because it belonged in a different film, and because any time a filmmaker uses such historical events to show off, I get repulsed.

den

But that is, to be fair, one tiny moment in an otherwise strong, sensitively handled drama. Rachel Weisz, who made an unconvincing librarian in THE MUMMY and AGORA, makes a convincing historian here and her accent is enjoyable to listen to. EVERYONE is doing an accent, except Tom Wilkinson, who refuses to make any compromises in the direction of being Scottish. Good for him, I say, he has the right idea. Wilkinson brings the entertainment, as does Andrew Scott as his fellow lawyer (I won’t get into the whole barrister/solicitor thing) — Scott annoyed us no end in Sherlock (he’s Moriarty — we enjoyed the show but not him) but it turns out to have been to a large extent the fault of the writing. He uses many of the same tics here, but they don’t come off as tics: he has a sort of flip, aggressive way of jumping in with a line and cutting it off short, which is helpful as he’s essentially playing antagonist to a woman who wants to talk about things. One of those Sherlock writers is here too, Mark Gatiss playing Polish — and he’s really excellent, very restrained, he makes you forget the oddness of that casting (are there no Poles in Britain? To read the tabloids, not that we do, one would think there was nothing but.)

Holocaust denier David Irving is played by Timothy Spall, and just as Weiss is technically too cute to play Deborah Lipstadt, who should look like an ordinary person, Spall is not handsome enough to play Irving, who looks like the portrait of Dorian Gray if Gray were a big rugby-playing type — traces of handsomeness in a face grown gross and harsh and corrupt. Spall has actually lost a shit-ton of fat (by the looks of things, siphoning it off into John Sessions) and now looks kind of like Tim Roth wearing Timothy Spall’s abandoned skin, something I have no doubt Roth would do, given the chance.

But these observations ultimately don’t matter — you get used to the strange accents emanating from Weiss and Spall (and everyone else) and to the fact that they’re imperfect embodiments of the personages they represent, because the actual ACTING is what counts (along with the writing, of course) and it’s very good. And it all manages to express a point that shouldn’t need to be expressed, with enough subtleties around the edges (for instance, why one shouldn’t put survivors in the witness stand in a case like this) which are far from obvious and fascinating to hear argued so well. When Scott tells Weiss that he’s not going to let her testify, I was surprised and impressed and waited for the movie to change its mind and give her a BAFTA-winning speech from the box, but it never came. Almost uniquely in a film centred on a female protagonist, her job is to remain silent, to bear witness, to not debate a man who doesn’t deserve to be debated. The film’s courage in sticking to this principle is praiseworthy.

 

Advertisements

Enfield of Dreams

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-07-27-08h27m22s401

Suddenly, it’s Enfield time. The notorious 1970s poltergeist case recently got the TV treatment with The Enfield Haunting, starring Timothy Spall, and hits the big screen with THE CONJURING 2. We watched both within days, reminded ourselves of the 2007 TV doc Interview with a Poltergeist and the 2008 one, The Enfield Poltergeist, and Fiona did a bunch of background reading on a story which had, ahem, haunted her since her teens.

Both fictional adaptations have their good points, but neither is wholly satisfactory. But one is a lot of fun.

The Enfield Haunting Sky Living Episode 1 Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Janet Hodgson Credit: Photograph by Nick Briggs

The TV drama version of Enfield has an atmospheric title sequence and a reasonably effective period feel, though there are always stray bits of dialogue in these things that don’t feel right. It’s worst moment is early on, when a shrill, REPULSION-style telephone ring breaks in on a conversation to supposedly shocking effect. The phone is then answered, and proves to be a trimphone, a model which, as anyone alive at the time knows, made a gentle, trilling sound, not the old fashioned rotary phone jangle-shriek. Unforgivable!

None of the people in this show look like their real-life counterparts, which matters more than it normally would. Paranormal investigator Maurice Gross had huge comedy sideburns, and altering his appearance was probably a good idea. Spall’s hangdog look suits the character. But the afflicted family have been normalized — what we see in the photographs is a prematurely aged, careworn mother who looks like she should be the kids’ grandmother, and Janet, the child at the centre of the occurrences, is emaciated and sharp-featured, with prominent corpse-like teeth. The kids in the show are all really good, especially Eleanor Worthington-Cox as Janet, but they’re too cute and too posh. Not many hyphens in Enfield.

The show is totally uninterested in who the family were. The absent father is never discussed, the family’s income goes unexplained (they were constantly financially stressed) and they essentially seem to have come into existence without past histories the second the cameras started rolling.

enfield-haunting-sky-still-03

The script, by Joshua St Johnson, invents lots of bogus haunting details, apparently unsatisfied with the rather peculiar and alarming true-life incidents. A kid looks through a Viewmaster-type slide viewer, and is startled by an apparition. Never happened — and mimics too obviously the BOO! YouTube videos of a few years back, further shredding the sense of period. To make room for these inventions, many authentic details are omitted.

This might be forgivable if the result was a balls-out thrill-ride, but the thing just isn’t scary. Slickly made, it nevertheless lacks any sense of how to generate terror, its most damaging weakness being the timing. It’s always in a hurry, so no suspense is generated. When something scary seems about to happen, it immediately happens. We aren’t forced to wait. There are no false build-ups without pay-off, and you can tell which scenes are going to have apparitions and which aren’t, so you can completely relax in between “shocks”. I’ve just made a scary movie which isn’t really scary (but it’s hopefully funny) so I know how difficult this is, especially when you’re trying to keep the pace up, but I was disappointed by all the supposedly creepy bits. I was never anxious that I was about to be unpleasantly surprised by something uncanny, and I never was. Some of it had to do with TV closeness, as there were moments when viewing little vulnerable figures from a distance would have helped. But mostly it was a problem of time, not space.

conjuring2

James Wan’s latest spookshow, THE CONJURING 2, hoes very close to the rut carved by his earlier works, but surprises in two ways. Firstly, it’s frequently quite a bit closer to the facts and “facts” of the Enfield case than the TV version (and, sub-surprise, it’s not notably less accurate in terms of period flavour nor Englishness). Of course, it departs wildly from history in order to have the expected POLTERGEIST style all-Hell-breaks-loose-but-in-a-localized-domestic-area ending, but it does surprising things like acknowledging the fact that little Janet was caught on camera faking manifestations. Some of the conversations with “Bill Wilkins,” the apparently malevolent departed spirit, are reproduced almost verbatim, and are scarier than anything the TV show created.

The real-life ghostbusters established in the first film, Lorraine & Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) visited the afflicted house, very briefly, out of the blue and uninvited, and this slender basis allows Wan and his throng of co-scenarists to shoehorn in most of the more evocative reported “facts” of the case.

conjur2

Secondly, Wan shows slightly more interest in the family set-up and the characters, which ought to be where British telly excels. We hear about the absent dad and get more sense of the family’s financial impoverishment. The kind of pressures that could either lead to a psychic eruption, if you believe that sort of thing, or cause a little girl who is deprived in all sorts of ways to exercise her natural cleverness in an original and naughty way.

The only point where Wan’s film falls down in comparison to the TV show is in its depiction of the family home, realistically drab and cramped in the TV version (and its very mundane reality ought to make the unheimlich occurrences more chilling), implausibly cavernous in the movie, and equipped with a ridiculous flooded cellar from which one expects Karloff to emerge. In a vain attempt to make this haunted mansion seem working-class, Wan’s art department have distressed every surface to suggest centuries of neglect. They’ve made it look like a haunted house, in fact. This should be disastrous, and it’s certainly less intelligent than the low-key authenticity of the TV show’s look. But, rather annoyingly, Wan’s film is deeply frightening and tense where the TV version just isn’t.

Conjuring-2

Wan’s camerawork is brilliantly scary. It’s at the service of a slightly dumb plot that barely makes sense, and hardline Christian propaganda (which absolutely makes no sense), but his understanding of when to go wide and when to come in close, his timing of shocks, and his willingness to withhold the expected shocks and leave the audience panting, is absolutely first-rate. Scene by scene, there are terrific creepy gimmicks and visual devices: a creepy painting looming from the shadows so that it might be a real face (borrowed either from THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR or THE OTHERS’ borrowing of it) is spun into a terrifying sequence which takes the concept to giddy new heights of suspense — and then into ridiculous, FRIGHTENERS-type realms of crazy.

Best of all is a protracted single take in which Wilson is compelled to interrogate child actor Madison Wolfe as Janet, with his back to her. Janet remains well out of focus in the background, and we stay on Wilson’s face as he asks his questions with increasing trepidation. Meanwhile, we become aware that the blurry shape of Janet in the background has imperceptibly changed… no longer seems like a little girl, in fact.

Wan also repeats the most shocking shock from INSIDIOUS, by having the ghost/demon suddenly seen over somebody’s shoulder during a daylit conversation scene — the violent rupturing of normality made Fiona scream (“Damnit! He did it AGAIN! Fuck you, James Wan!”*) and makes every subsequent neutral scene fraught with tension, because the bastard could do it again any time he feels like it.

Wan’s kids aren’t as terrific as those he had in the first film, or those in the TV adaptation. But he has a superior Maurice Gross, the elaborately bewhiskered Brit investigator, here embodied by the beady-eyed Simon McBurney, a man who creates dramatic tension just by looking at things.

CONJURING-2-b

Anybody interested in the art of suspense and horror should see THE CONJURING 2, even though the content side of it is extremely frustrating. Watching both dramatizations of the case, and viewing some of the docs (an experienced enhanced by the fact in Interview with a Poltergeist, the reconstructions feature my friend Dylan Matthew in the role of a concerned neighbour) I formed some conclusions about what the perfect adaptation would look like — so I offer the following suggestions for anyone thinking of venturing into this terrain ~

  1. Embrace the uncertain. Both TV and movie versions are in a terrible hurry to confirm that, yes, there really is a haunting. Since doubt is scary, and the feeling of not-quite certainty animates and energizes the documentary treatments of the story, I would suggest maintaining some question in the audience’s mind about the reality of the various ghostly phenomena would be a good strategy for maintaining interest and augmenting fear. Since most commercial versions of this kind of thing are going to end up affirming the existence of the supernatural (from bitter experience I can say that producers today are deathly afraid of ambiguity), you also gain a turning point which can amp up the dramatic stakes midway through. All the makers of these things seem to admire THE HAUNTING and THE INNOCENTS, but few of them seem to understand those movies, or at any rate they lack the ambition to even try to achieve the same depth.
  2. Embrace the slow. Wan understands this and the TV team didn’t — terror is a slow-burn emotion. Slam-bang stuff has limited value, and scenes that are pace like normal telly just can’t be scary at all. There’s a sort of normalizing effect when things get shaped into slots between commercials which eliminates the frissons achievable when a scene is stretched to breaking point while nothing actually happens. Slow can be the opposite of boring.
  3. Embrace the bizarre. Little Janet would speak in a terrifying ghost-voice (she had studied ventriloquism, some say), but the ghost’s utterances had a peculiarly childlike sensibility, considering he was meant to be 77 years old at the time of his demise. Fiona recalls the extravagant claim “I’ve got a hundred dogs,” though she admits she may have imagined it. But it has an uncanny, demonic, yet stupid feeling about it. The Late Bill Wilkins was also partial to knock-knock jokes. This gets us into thrillingly Lynchian territory. Fear is frightening, but fear mixed with contradictory emotions is really disturbing. Fuses start to blow in the audience-brain.
  4. Scare yourself. There’s a dull BBC show right now called The Living and the Dead. It has a beautifully evoked early twentieth century look, copying the palette of Lumiere’s autochrome photographs. But Nothing. Scary. Ever. Happens. Again, the show’s haste is part of the problem. A girl turns up bloody, having apparently self-mutilated. And the show immediately cuts to the aftermath. An efficient ellipsis, but one which leaves out all the disturbing stuff of dealing with the demented, gory teenager. The horror writer has to find themself writing stuff that actually freaks them out. As with comedy, where you perform the schizoid trick of trying to crack yourself up, you can do this by either going further than you set out to go, or by attacking the situation from a weird, unexpected direction. And, worryingly, just as there’s not much scary on Brit TV just now, there’s not much that’s funny.

*She doesn’t really mean it. She rather likes James Wan.

vlcsnap-2016-07-27-14h44m01s245

Dylan!

 

Nights at the Villa Deodati #2: Phantasmagoria

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-02-13-11h26m59s204

I saw GOTHIC at the Cameo Cinema on its first release in 1986. I went alone. I watched alone — I don’t remember another soul being there, though I suppose there must have been somebody else in the audience. If Messrs. Golan & Globus had witnessed that matinée, they might have thought twice about bankrolling Ivan Passer’s HAUNTED SUMMER, which violated the law discovered by his fellow Czech filmmaker Milos Forman on VALMONT: “Never make a movie that somebody else has just made.”

In HAUNTED SUMMER, screenwriter Lewis John Carlino “solved” the problem of the fact that nothing much is known to have actually happened during the summer when Mary Shelley hatched the idea for Frankenstein by writing a historically faithful script in which nothing much happens. In GOTHIC, Stephen Volk, a writer who has shown an admirable devotion to the fantastique throughout his distinguished career, tackles the same problem in a number of ways —

  1. He folds into the story the characters’ backstories, so that dramatic events from their pasts can inform the action. Byron’s incestuous love for his sister and, crucially, the death of Mary’s first baby, are introduced via dialogue, some of it a bit awkwardly expository, and then can be played out in the ensuing psychodrama. Whatever the merits of the execution, the idea is a masterstroke, creating a human drama behind the authorial act which is our prime reason for being here — it’s unbelievable that the other movies on the subject neglect to do this.
  2. He also incorporates glimpses of the characters’ tragic futures, seen in psychedelic visions. This is also much more satisfying than HAUNTED SUMMER’s wrap-up, where a flurry of tragic deaths is dispensed with in a few titles at the end, leaving the odd impression that we’ve been watching the wrong scenes from the protagonists’ lives.
  3. By plunging the audience into the drug-induced paranoia of a frenzied laudanum party, Volk concocts a supernatural plotline in which a kind of séance seemingly unleashes all manner of hellspawn. I don’t think this is fully developed in narrative terms, perhaps because the barely-glimpsed monster is given short shrift compared to all the onscreen psychotronics, but it certainly gives rise to lots of good images.

vlcsnap-2016-02-13-11h10m21s230

Russell was returning to British cinema after an interesting American adventure which self-destructed with the barely-released CRIMES OF PASSION, from which the MPPAA cut around 40 mins (“They cut everything to do with art,” observed Ken.) I now look rather affectionately upon this penultimate phase of his career — I still can’t get on with the home video works that followed it, but I’ll speak up on behalf of LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, SALOME’S LAST DANCE, and GOTHIC. Not so keen on THE RAINBOW, alas.

Russell was also giving interviews in which he extolled the virtues of the fast forward, saying he’d enjoyed RUMBLE FISH but that he’d watched it at double speed, which improved it. GOTHIC feels a bit like the script is on fast-forward, as if Russell couldn’t wait to get to the leaches and severed heads, and couldn’t be bothered allowing any of the characters to start breathing as human beings. A talented cast, plus Julian Sands, are left gasping for air with unformed lungs like poor Mary’s premature baby. They are ~

  1. The late, lamented Natasha Richardson. Her decision to give Mary a Scottish accent is surprising — Mary spent maybe a year and a half in Scotland, max. But alone among the cast she establishes a baseline of credibility — she doesn’t get space to develop it, but she’s always believable, even when required to disgorge implausible amounts of exposition.
  2. Julian Sands. Sands is good in some stuff. Not here. His Percy Bysshe Shelley alternates between acting as if he’s SHOUTING, while speaking at normal volume, and drawing the edges of his mouth as far back as possible, like a monkey in a wind tunnel, or a man attempting to eat a Wagon Wheel biscuit in one go. He’s supposed to become hysterical, but he’s already hysterical, and in the wrong sense of the word. Bysshe Bash Bosh.
  3. Gabriel Byrne. Naturally Byronic, but unimpressive stripped to the waist, incipient moobs aquiver. Suffers a bit from having Every Famous Thing Byron Ever Said as dialogue. Next to Sands he sounds like a genius though.
  4. Timothy Spall. Knows he’s in a Ken Russell film, so is playing it like Murray Melvin in THE DEVILS, but an MM who has been mysteriously inflated with methane.
  5. Myriam Cyr. The least-known one, and the most memorable, with her huge eyeballs. One of a harem of Russell lovelies who only made one indelible impression (Alita Naughton, Imogen Millais-Scott). Her sparse other credits include FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND and FRANKENSTEIN AND ME. The woman’s clearly obsessed.

vlcsnap-2016-02-13-11h08m40s17

Every version of this story seems to feature one surprise unknown. In HAUNTED SUMMER it was Philip Anglim, whom we’d never seen before. At his first closeup, Fiona cruelly and hilariously remarked “No.” She was already smitten with Stoltz as Shelley. Later she admitted Anglim was pretty damn good. The best of the Byronic batch, actually.

“You’re not allowed to criticise the score,” said Fiona, a Thomas Dolby fan from way back. After five minutes, she was criticising it, or at any rate saying “The score is a disaster.” When the movie is prematurely hysterical, the score is a particular problem. Russell has lost his patience as a filmmaker, and patience is a form of courage — believing you can make the audience wait for something. So the movie isn’t scary, despite throwing everything at us. It’s frequently freaky, though.

vlcsnap-2016-02-13-11h09m47s143

The last act is where it all kicks in and starts working. Since the visual stuff works better than the talking headcases, it would be easy to give Russell all the credit, but he was careful to praise Volk’s script for the fact that it served up delicious images, more valuable than words. So Russell’s hectic tempo is responsible for some of the apparent writing flaws, and Volk’s visceral writing deserves some of the credit for the film’s feast of imagery. Mary Shelley in a timewarp, glimpsing the future, encapsulates the premise of FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND in five minutes better than that movie manages in its whole runtime.

My favourite images —

vlcsnap-2016-02-13-11h04m00s254

Ken recreates his beloved Busby Berkeley’s Lullaby of Broadway sequence, only with a skull instead of Wini Shaw.

A bit of T & eye. Not frightening. But bizarre. (see top)

A simple closeup, utterly beautiful and more haunting than anything else we’ve seen.

vlcsnap-2016-02-13-11h04m55s45

To Russell, the cardinal sin was to bore, and on that basis, GOTHIC wins the Battle of the Byrons. But read on…