Archive for Timothy Spall

Art isn’t just some guy’s name

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2015 by dcairns

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We watched two fairly recent films in a row — I know, shocking, right?

MR. TURNER suddenly became the film everybody in Britain had to see, and our local Filmhouse did a roaring trade. I think the success was similar to that of TV movie The Gathering Storm — you have a well-known actor playing a well-known figure who is redolent of Britishness, and it somehow becomes a perfect storm. The Albert Finney Churchill impersonation was held together by a strong story. MR. TURNER had lovely cinematography — more gorgeous than I would ever have guessed Mike Leigh of his cinematographer to be capable of — begging the question why they don’t let their contemporary films look beautiful — but no story at all.

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What, in fact, is MR. TURNER about? The extremely depressing final shot seems to argue that it’s about, at heart, the painter’s exploitative relationship with his housekeeper and mistress (Dorothy Atkinson, with some striking physical comedy work). It might be about the fact that each was the most important person in the others’ life, a thing which was never acknowledged for reasons of class. But if that’s what the film’s about, we’re faced with the problem that a good 80% of the action takes place far removed from this spine of the story. I liked Turner Snr., but his declining health is a different narrative altogether. Turner’s relationship with the cash-strapped Mr. Haydon has nothing to do with anything else. Turner’s suffering at the hands of the critics, who are unreceptive to his increasingly impressionistic work, would seem like an important element in a biography of the subject, but emerge very late in the runtime and vanish again, having had no certain impact on anything.

As usual with Leigh, a better approach I suppose is to simply ask if the scenes are interesting and not worry whether they are all necessary or add up to a coherent whole. TOPSY TURVY is the only other Leigh film I’ve both seen and liked, and it gains structural rigour by being about a theatrical production. It then jettisons that rigour by trundling on past its natural ending for about half an hour, leading into Gilbert & Sullivan’s next production. What Leigh gains from this is a deeper portrayal of the theatrical life, a never-ending cycle of fresh projects that must be laboriously brought into being. What he loses is a definable shape, a clear arc that lets the audience understand where they are in the story at any given time — most films follow these structural rules simply to reassure the viewer with a familiar set of beats. I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong to reject that.

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In the case of MR. TURNER, a lot of the scenes are interesting. There’s some pleasing rhythmic interplay, some outrageous hamming (Joshua McGuire as Ruskin revives the grand old British tradition of the silly ass) and the grunting, shambling figure of Timothy Spall is curiously compelling. For some reason, the movie feels the need to punish us with some unpleasant sex and a horrible ending. That’s where I can’t go along with it. If it’s just a bag of bits loosely themed around a famous artist’s life, it doesn’t earn the right to be upsetting and/or icky.

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THE MONUMENTS MEN is an equally handsome film, from handsome director/star George Clooney, who continues to show promise but doesn’t quite resolve his skilled team, charismatic cast, and intriguing subject matter into a really good movie. The music persistently tries to persuade us we’re watching THE GREAT ESCAPE, trampling all over the actual tone of the scenes, which are often quite a bit darker than a jaunty march would suggest.

Not too dark, though — a consistent and strange error of Clooney’s directing career is the allowing of scenes devoid of drama to make it through the development process. No tension or conflict, just chumminess. Decidedly odd when you have movies about the McCarthy witch hunts, a supposed CIA assassin and game show host (I admit I haven’t seen the ones about politics and football). I think because the story focuses on the good guys, who are all in agreement more or less, the potential conflicts with the Germans, the Russians and the American brass who don’t see the point of risking lives for paintings and sculptures, get fairly short shrift. As an actor, Clooney ought to know that you don’t have a source of tension in a scene you don’t have anything, but like a lot of enthusiastic amateurs he keeps ignoring what he does know.

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I think there’s also too much intercutting, and the script is sloppy in its willingness to feed us information any old how: a narration, letters home, radio broadcasts. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov genuinely don’t seem to understand what drama is, or they think it’s OK to suspend it for minutes at a time while everybody stands around and tries to show how much they care.

But that all makes the film sound terrible — in fact, because the cast are all so affable and the basic set-up is intriguing, it’s a sometimes frustrating but generally diverting watch. It’s just not everything it might have been. Clooney is smart, talented as an actor, has good taste, and I’m certain he’s a nice guy — reluctance to allow drama to really boil over is often a trait of nice people — he just needs to take the gloves off, I think.

The Sunday Intertitle: What Ho!

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2013 by dcairns

From Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse ~

The reason why all we novelists with bulging foreheads and expensive educations are abandoning novels and taking to writing motion picture scenarii is because the latter are so infinitely more simple and pleasant.

If this narrative, for instance, were a film-drama, the operator at this point would flash on the screen the words:

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and for a brief moment the audience would see an interior set, in which a little angry man with a sharp face and staring eyes would register first, Discovery, next Dismay. The whole thing would be over in an instant.

The printed word demands a greater elaboration.

Love that “operator”. Something Fresh is the first Blandings novel, from 1915, and is surprisingly realistic and convincing — very GOSFORD PARK in its below-stairs detail, and shows a Wodehouse who is quite modern and up-to-the-minute, even referring to that latest craze,  the movies, several times.

(My reconstructed intertitle makes use of one from Lubitsch’s DAS WEIB DES PHARAO.)

Considering PG Wodehouse seems to be so hard to film, it’s interesting that so many film critics of my acquaintance are fans. It was a critic friend who got me into Wodehouse, observing that since I seemed to like this kind of thing, it was strange that I wasn’t already a fan, since Wodehouse was the apogee of this kind of thing. I’m still not sure what “this kind of thing” is — either verbal wit or intricate plotting, I guess — but he was certainly right.

Farran Smith Nehme (the Self-Styled Siren) and Glenn Kenny and I got together over a plate of fried chicken, we talked about Wodehouse almost as much as we talked about movies. My collaborator on NATAN, Paul Duane, is a fellow enthusiast. And Kristin Thompson is archivist of the PG Wodehouse Archive, which beats anything I can come up with. No doubt more bloggers and critics will be happy to declare themselves devotees of Plum.

As noted before, there are few good Wodehouse adaptations. The TV stuff I’ve seen all seems forced (Wodehouse Playhouse), miscast (World of Wooster) or violently wrong in every particular (Blandings). Even the fondly remembered Jeeves and Wooster, which boasted a fine comedy double-act in the title roles (I imagine House fans find the earlier incarnation of Hugh Laurie rather puzzling) but struggles to get the overall timing right. It was mostly directed by Ferdinand Fairfax, who has the advantage of sounding like a member of the Drones Club himself, but for a special treat you can see episodes helmed by Robert Young, director of VAMPIRE CIRCUS. Does he adapt well to this new genre and tone? He does not.

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At the cinema, things have been, if anything, worse. The first version of PICCADILLY JIM (1919) appears to be lost, while the second (1937) throws out the plot and the third is set in a BRAZIL-meets-Baz Luhrmann mixture of modern and period. While I understand the director’s point that Wodehouse stories take place in an ahistoric fantasy world — this particular novel, written and published during the Great War, has the characters steaming across the Atlantic several times, unhindered by U-boats, and the conflict that thinned out the numbers of the real-life Jim Crocketts and Bertie Woosters is nowhere mentioned — the device seems to strained and heavy to work. Anything which draws attention away from the language and zippy narrative developments seems like it would be a hindrance.

The Hollywood films of Wodehouse’s era were ideally equipped to capture his tone, since they employed a battery of stylised approaches so widely used that the audience could digest them without the slightest trouble. The studio sets, elegant lighting, impossible gowns, caricatured bit-players, rapid-fire delivery, all suited Wodehouse to a tee — it’s just tragic that the delicate Wodehouse touch never survived passage through the studio machine, except in the case of A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, when the lighter-than-air dancing of Fred Astaire proved a neat match for the nimble narrative footwork.

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An interesting case in point is THOSE FOUR FRENCH GIRLS, which has dialogue credited to Plum. There’s a lot of “What ho!” going on in it, and Reginald Denny plays a jolly top-hatted twit with a blustering uncle, so one can see that there was a genuine effort being made to supply the visiting literary titan with conducive material. This being a pre-code about three French girls, there’s a relentless sexiness to the tone which is quite un-Wodehousian, but that needn’t have been an insurmountable problem. Vulgaririzing Wodehouse is fatal — as in the regular manure jokes in the recent BBC Blandings catastrophe — but pepping him up with some girls in camiknickers might be acceptable, especially if the girls are Yola D’Avril, Fifi D’Orsay and Sandra Ravel. Interestingly, I just read an early Wodehouse story, The Man Who Disliked Cats, narrated mainly in a thick French accent, and it’s a voice Wodehouse does well. I always find his American characters amusingly bizarre — there’s an inescapable Englishness to the Wodehouse sentence structure which sits oddly with the yank slang, but that just makes the whole effect funnier. While the British characters seem completely real in their own unreal way, the Americans are filtered through the mind of an upper-middle-class Brit. Here, Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards and Edward Brophy are the ugly Americans in Paris, perhaps a bit too harsh at times, but sort of fun.

The whole film is too harsh, though. Wodehouse manages to make the odd outburst of violence — policemen getting punched in the eye, dignified gentlemen being bitten by small dogs, children being bitten by pigs — seem like part of the fun. Here, right at the start, Denny encourages the girls to drop flower pots on their landlord, which might have been OK if he hadn’t looked so much like Georges Melies. The actual sight of an elderly man cowering on the pavement in a growing mound of dirt as hard, heavy objects rain down upon his venerable head, is horribly brutal and degrading. It’s a bum note from which the movie never recovers — if we don’t like the characters, the mechanics of engineering a happy romantic conclusion can’t compel our interest.

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There is one very nice and very Wodehousian line though, as Denny describes the family estate: “The River Ipple lies at the bottom of the garden, except in winter, when the garden lies at the bottom of the River Ipple.”

The two British JEEVES movies seem to get everything wrong, or speaking very generously, they choose to go after entirely different effects from Wodehouse. Jeeves is not really a comic character, and making him a buffoon is a strange choice. Dispensing with Bertie altogether in the second film is even stranger. David Niven would be quite nice casting for Wooster, if he were allowed to play the part as written. Interestingly, he’s the only actor to have played Uncle Fred, my favourite Plum character, in a TV adaptation of Uncle Fred Flits By. I’ve been unable to obtain a copy.

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Casting is a delicate business. Take the Blandings books. I always imagine Robert greig as Beach the butler, as Beach is portly and he’s described as an archetypal speciment of the butler species, and that’s exactly what Greig was. Always buttling or valeting, from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS to UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. It’s a shock to see him do anything else. Miles Malleson played the part in a 1933 film which he also adapted. I have Claude Rains assigned mentally to the role of the Honorable Galahad, since he’s small, dapper, clearly cunning and whimsical, and with just enough iron.

I’m fascinated by the existence of various Swedish Wodehouse adaptations. Maybe that’s the tone Bergman was aiming for with ABOUT THESE WOMEN…

Although Timothy Spall, looking like a deflated balloon, was a better Emsworth than I expected, especially considering his unsuitable surroundings, in the BBC Blandings, Peter O’Toole, a better physical fit, was all wrong in an earlier TV film of Heavy Weather. Yes, he can do dreamy — he always does dreamy — but there’s a pointed quality to his every utterance as if he were scoring points. It seems to be inherent in him, from LAURENCE to MY FAVORITE YEAR: his vagueness is calculated to defeat his foes, rather being a fog through which he blunders, which is the character Wodehouse created.

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I was excited to learn that Ralph Richardson took the role in a 1967 series (Stanley Holloway was Beach and Jimmy Edwards was Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe). That just seems perfect. Even more perfect, the series was erased, so it can now stand in our minds as a Platonic ideal of Wodehouse adaptation, along with the 1919 PICCADILLY JIM — we can say with confidence that the perfect Wodehouse adaptation does not exist.

Is it just me…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 28, 2008 by dcairns

Something Wicked This Way Comes... 

…or does Mike Leigh’s new film, HAPPY GO LUCKY, look incredibly awful and annoying? If you’ve seen the trailer you surely agree.

As usual, you can tell the lead actress is actually really good and charismatic, only she’s smothering her appeal in a patina of affected “theatrical” Mike-Leighism. Horrible horrible horrible.

In an attempt to be “cinematic” Leigh has decorated this one with brightly coloured turquoise and magenta bunting. It makes me want to inject codeine into my eyeballs.

And what rough beast it's hour come round at last shambles toward Bethelhem to be born?

People keep telling me I would really like TOPSY TURVY and maybe I would, and I haven’t purposely avoided seeing it, but I refuse to give any money to the man who made all those other appalling flicks, so I’m dependant on it turning up on TV. Suspiciously, none of the people who tell me I’d really like it actually own copies they can lend me.

I hate Mike Leigh’s stuff! Rather than giving him money to make films, the Film Council or Film4 or whoever should actually send him one of Timothy Spall’s fingers whenever he releases anything. He should be allowed to do theatre, where posh people can come and see Leigh’s quaint ideas of what working class people are like, for their amusement and edification. Or else he should just run a zoo, with Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn in the cages.

Do Not Feed The Spall.

How can these terrified vague fingers push the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

I’m being mean. I don’t like to be mean. But nothing I say can harm Leigh. He will go on making films, and on, and on. Some of them will be quite successful. He will complain they don’t get good enough distribution, so people in housing estates can come and see his quaint portrayals of what life is like on a housing estate.

In case he runs out of titles, here are a few that he can apply randomly to his next projects: MUSTN’T GRUMBLE; STONE THE CROWS; DEAR ME; WHOOPS A DAISY; YOU’VE GOT TO LAUGH; A NICE CUP OF TEA.

Whew. Sorry. Just had to vent.

Like one who on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread

(Since I could not bring myself to use any images from his films, this post has been lavishly illustrated with images of actual cinema.)