Archive for Went the Day Well?

Slop

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2020 by dcairns

Feeling like a grumpy old man. So, I had to show students the 2016 British movie THEIR FINEST as part of someone else’s class. I did not like this movie.

It’s about women — but actually, one woman, played by Gemma Arterton — working in the Brit film industry in WWII. The premise is that the war opens up opportunities for women in cinema. I’m not sure that premise is true — who are these women whose careers were helped, and does a comparison of figures of female crew pre-war and during-war bear out this premise? My impression is that there were always women and they were always the exception in any job except actress…

Still, I think you could make a decent film about that even without a solid underpinning of documentary fact. Certainly the general point that a lot of previously restricted jobs were opened up to women during the war has a very solid basis, and transposing that into filmmaking, or wizardry, or taxidermy would be a legitimate fictional conceit.

But, from its truncated title on down, this isn’t the right film. It’s based on Their Finest Hour and a Half, a novel by former TV producer/director Lissa Evans, which has a title that actually works and means something. Evidently somebody thought it was too long, so we’re left hanging. Their finest WHAT? There’s a rule, or anyway almost a rule, that if you throw out a good title for a bad reason, you’re going to end up with a really terrible title. And since nobody in film development ever UNDOES a decision, you’ll never get the moment of clarity where someone holds up the two titles side by side and says, “Waitaminute…”

This FEELS like a script that’s been “in development” — the book came out in 2009. Screenwriter Gaby Chiappe hasn’t found, or been allowed to find, a strong throughline of the cinematic kind. Since the film is mainly about a screenwriter, there’s a horrible irony that we can’t answer the questions “What does the heroine want?” or “Why isn’t the film over?” I was forced to ask the second question about three times, as it kept trundling on.

It looks very nice, though its vision of a 1940s film crew — about six people and a tiny Technicolor camera — what happened to the “magic cottage”? — where’s the sound crew and equipment? — no continuity girl? — is pathetically unconvincing. And director Lone Scherfig never seems to move her own camera. Maybe she should have used the little blue Dinky toy from the film.

There’s a very good glass painting gag. I have to give them that. I was trying to explain glass paintings to an actor friend recently and this film did a far better job in five seconds of imagery than I could manage in a minute or so of babbling.

Jake Lacey is very funny as the token American, a pilot drafted in as actor, who can’t act, doesn’t even know what acting IS. When the movie and the actors know what joke they’re supposed to be telling, they can do it quite well. But confusion has set in on the macro level and it seeps down.

Gemma Arterton, who we KNOW is really good, is wasted as a smiley cipher. The scenes with Bill Nighy and Helen McCrory don’t really need to be there at all, but they bring the entertainment, with one character trait apiece. One-dimensional characters are fine, in their place.

“Slop” is the male filmmakers’ word for the kind of emotional stuff you need a woman to write. Weirdly, that’s the weakest component here. It’s a NICE — sloppy, sappy — film, without emotional fire. In telling the story of a Welsh woman screenwriter, they must have encountered, surely, the story of Diana Morgan, the actual Welsh woman screenwriter in WWII. I suppose her story was probably the inspiration. Morgan was known to the blokes at Ealing as “the Welsh bitch.” And that was at EALING — sweet, cosy Ealing. There’s no sense in this film of how obnoxious men could really be, pre-liberation. You get a slightly handsy Jeremy Irons for one scene (he’s good value) and a sarcastic Sam Claflin (I think I will call him Sarcastic Sam Claflin from now on). Nobody has the courage to actually be shocking. There are no actual bastards (in a film about moviemaking??!)

Somebody at the top doesn’t know what a story is, or what a scene is, and they haven’t done their research. And the edit seems concerned mainly with overdubbing lines so we’ll understand, rather than care or believe.

“Have you ever met Robert Donat?” Cut to back view. Overdub: “The famous actor?”

More offensive than that is the film’s patronising attitude to the films of the period. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP is so much more sophisticated as film art than THEIR FINEST, there’s just no comparison. But this movie looks smugly back at what it perceives to be naivety and cookie-cutter storytelling. It’s as if a daytime soap paused to congratulate itself on being better-written than King Lear. Hell, the real Diana Morgan contributed to WENT THE DAY WELL?, a genuinely horrifying film about the effects of war on ordinary British people.

Not anybody’s finest 117 minutes.

THEIR FINEST stars Tamara Drew; Finnick Odair; Withnail; Karl Marx; Jack Kerouac; Duchess of Sutherland; Minister Rufus Scrimgeour; Paul Wolfowitz; Narcissa Malfoy; Beverley & Elliot Mantle; Richard Semco; Brynden ‘Blackfish’ Tully; and Ethel Huggett (archive footage).

The Taking of Studley Constable

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2015 by dcairns

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One could wish that author Jack Higgins had invented a Norfolk village with a less silly name than Studley Constable as the setting for his war adventure The Eagle Has Landed, or that Tom Mankiewicz, adapting it, had switched the location to somewhere with more dignity. Scratby, perhaps, or East Runton.

The John Sturges movie based on the book must have seemed a bit old-fashioned in 1976, but as I recall there was a certain market for that kind of thing at the time, as an alternative to the prevailing direction of Hollywood cinema — the IMDb’s list of ten “most popular” films for that year doesn’t feature a lot of romance — things tend to end as they do for Kong and Dwan, or Travis and Betsy, or Sissy Spacek and bucket guy — making Jenny Agutter and Donald Sutherland — the English rose and the ungulate Casanova — the screen’s sexiest couple of ’76. She even consented to do clothed scenes, but only because they were essential to the plot.

They genuinely are good together. Sutherland plays one of those sympathetic IRA men beloved of Hollywood (in a film crowded with sympathetic Nazis), and Agutter is twenty-five playing “almost nineteen,” a village girl smitten with the romantic newcomer. And she sells it. I don’t know if that was a difficult task — maybe she just defocussed her eyes and imagined chocolate eclairs — but she seems to be spectacularly interested in everything that dribble of a face is doing. Fiona finds Sutherland devilishly attractive, in a deeply weird way. The scene where he orders a bartender to suck his thumb had her all a-tremble.

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While Sutherland has never really mastered an accent in a film, and essays an extreme and wonky brogue here,  he does have fun in the role, grinning satanically and boozing a lot. He’s the only one with good dialogue. And he’s the best Irish Nazi since Stephen Boyd in THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS. Michael Caine (Jewish Nazi) tries to talk in a slightly clipped way suggestive of being German, and Robert Duvall (another no-hoper when it comes to accents, except for a rather good blue-collar New York which I was surprised to discover wasn’t his native idiom) lays it on thick, though not as badly as he would playing Watson in THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION the same year. I would love to see a movie where Sutherland does his FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY English, and Duvall does his Watson, but I think I should go mad watching it.

Caine has a line near the end about no longer driving events but being driven by them, and it’s very apt indeed, but it could apply to everything that happens in this movie from the start. Plot dictates every move, and people keep shifting out of character to allow the plot to get done. Jenny Agutter becomes a murderer — WHAT? Larry Hagman (very amusing) is at least set up as a knucklehead desperate for glory, but that’s an example of a character being machine-tooled and dropped into position to fulfill a narrative function. Spectacular accidents occur in order to move things along more briskly.

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The whole thing is swiped from …WENT THE DAY WELL? which is a much better movie. Higgins even began his novel in a post-war English graveyard, like Cavalcanti’s film, though fortunately the movie dispenses with this pilfered prologue. What Higgins added is the Churchill kidnap plot, which makes it high-concept, and the idea of the Germans as heroes, which is dicey at best. Proving that Caine’s character isn’t anti-semitic in an introductory scene smacks of special pleading, and the efforts to make Duvall’s Colonel likable count for nothing — he would have been just as effective as a bastard, since what the audience cares about is What Will Happen? We aren’t, after all, rooting for the Nazis to win, we are merely concerned by a scheme.

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Higgins reports (in his foreword to the book) that he did encounter resistance to the idea of Nazis as leads, but says that his dealings with German soldiers in the fifties had made it clear to him that “most of them were just like us.” That should worry you, Jack!

Studley Constable (that name!) cemetery is full of gravestones that wobble when anyone touches them.

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The real studly constable (right).

The Sunday Intertitle: L’Herbier Goes Bananas

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2011 by dcairns

Thanks to La Faustin for recommending ELDORADO, a truly scrummy self-described melodrama from Marcel L’Herbier. The title refers to a house of dance/pleasure, where the glamorous Eve Francis is star attraction. Francis made several films in the twenties, a few in the thirties, and then retired from the screen for decades until cast by Patrice Chereau in 1975 in THE FLESH OF THE ORCHID, his twisted James Hadley Chase adaptation (kind of a sequel to NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH).

As so often with L’Herbier, decoration wins out over sense, and BECOMES sense. I couldn’t quite figure out why this brothel/tavern employed a clown, for instance. Doesn’t seem the best way to get the customers in the right mood. But there he is, looking very splendid, so how could I object? This makes the second L’Herbier production I’ve featured to include a scary kabuki clown.

Director of last week’s romp, LA GALERIE DE MONSTRES, Jacque Catelain, plays the young hero in this picture, and as La Faustin pointed out, costumes are by Alberto Cavalcanti, a man whose talents seem without limit — a child genius who studied law at 15, he switched to architecture, then interior design — I’d previously been wowed by his elaborate and fanciful sets for L’Herbier’s L’INHUMAINE (English translation THE INHUMAN WOMAN is unfortunately hampered by a clunky rhyme). Becoming a director he made a stupendous city symphony, RIEN QUE LES HEURES ~

~ and several more shorts, before LA CAPITAINE FRACASSE, a striking period feature film with a young Charles Boyer as villain. In England he designed the innovative sound montage for seminal postal documentary THE NIGHT MAIL ~

~and became a leading light at Ealing where he helmed the ventriloquist section of DEAD OF NIGHT, the staggering WENT THE DAY WELL? about an invasion of German fifth columnists in a sleepy English village, before returning to Brazil and helping launch the country’s film industry.

Also, he talked like the big cat in CREATURE COMFORTS ~

In ELDORADO, Cavalcanti’s stylings aren’t always flattering to Francis, but they’re beautiful creations in their own right. Likewise, her kiss-curls border on the grotesque, but help us take us into L’Herbier’s loopy hispanic daydream.

The film combines striking interiors — Catelain helped design the guest-house his character stays in — with impressive location photography (the Alhambra reflected in a pool, shot upside-down so the reflection becomes the building itself). As Catelain, an aspiring painter, stares at the ornate buildings, a foggy distortion warps the columns and arches, showing how he sees them with his painter’s eye. At the end of shots, patterned veils or stenciled cut-outs descend over the image…

As a sign of the film’s weird stylistic unity (despite having two cameramen, multiple designers, location and studio shooting), check out how Catelain’s jumble of tourist postcards echos the constructivist/futurist mash–up of the top intertitle ~