22 July, 2014

Mike Leigh's Lord of the Rings

On set report, East Hobbiton
No film is shrouded in so much secrecy and anticipation as a new work from Mike Leigh.  After a much publicized slip of the tongue from a now disgraced Jim Broadbent, it was revealed that the quintessential English director would be rounding up one of the twentieth century's most popular and thoroughly English author's most beloved work.  Mike Leigh is preparing his film of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

"Some see Tolkien's achievement as a stunning work of imagination, but that is only the foreground of a complex subtext of middle class manners and working class aspirations." Leigh avers, although he is otherwise somewhat taciturn in discussing the direction of his film, preferring to focus on the process he uses with his actors.  "This has been one of the toughest films to develop, we spent nearly four months wandering around in circles in a mire in Norfolk, just to come up with twenty pages for the shooting script."

Timothy Spall, who spends nearly thirty minutes in make-up to achieve the look for Frodo, tells me that he wants people to know the real Frodo, "he's essentially repressed, he's wanted adventure, but been stuck, literally a square peg in a round hole by society.  When he has his chance, he's terrified of the responsibility."

"Galadriel, could easily just come off as one of those housewives who becomes a do-gooder out of boredom." says Imelda Staunton, "but she feels everyone else's plights deeply, leaving no time for herself.  She frets over Arwen (played in the film by Sally Hawkins) because of the relationship with Aragorn (David Thewlis), who is of a different character class."

Eddie Marsan (The Balrog) "the Balrog is mistaken for a terrible fire breathing monster, I see him as someone isolated, downtrodden, forgotten, left deep in the mines after Thatcher shut them.  He just wants someone to hear his pain.  He's just that bloke that complains too loudly in the pub and everyone ignores out of embarrassment."

Leigh discusses casting one of the key roles "I worked with Andy on Topsy-Turvy and Career Girls, and thought he just has such a rubbery face and physicality, he'd be able to do Gollum without us resorting to loads of make-up, or those special effects that no one understands and always looks a bit uncanny."  Serkis chimes in, "I wanted to give the truth of Gollum," but, sidestepping actorly pretention, he adds with a twinkle, "it don't half hurt my throat."

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24 March, 2014

Review: Under the Skin -- Green Men are From Mars, Redheads are From Venus

When did Scarlett Johansson become so sexy?  Her voice is enough to make Joaquin Phoenix fall in love with an operating system in Her.  She is the cat suited kick ass assassin Black Widow in Marvel's Avengers franchise.  In Under the Skin she crawls the streets of Glasgow seducing young men whom she literally drives to abstraction.

I'll tell you when.  It was in Match Point.  Yes, the dreadful crime without punishment thriller in which Woody Allen totally misreads the British class system as a stand in for his usually privileged New Yorkers (jarring example: they faun over a tennis player because he's read Dostoyevsky -- the exact opposite of the practically cliché pre-Thatcher product of great British education proudly well read working class Trotskyite).  Jonathan Rhys Meyers believably puts his social climbing at risk for a tortured affair with Scarlett who, for the first time for me, was fully glamorous.  Up 'til then she'd been cute, kinda pretty, kinda gawky, usually deadpan funny.  Match Point shifted her gears up to full va va va voom.  This discovery was the one intriguing element to that film.  Unfortunately, my new found appreciation of Scarlett's charms was shared by a grubby old man a few rows in front of me, who grunted lustfully every time the camera cut to her (on each and every cut, like a perverted Thelma Schoonmaker).

Under the Skin is.... hold on... I'd like to say having seen the film, I'd been told things about it I wish I hadn't... things the film itself resolutely never explains.  So... dear reader... if you fancy a film that mixes themes of death, sex and alienation, lightly plotted, opaque, but filled with a series of arresting images, and with ostensible smatterings of weird/horror/science fiction genres... or, if you just need an opportunity to grunt at Scarlett looking tantalizing in a faux rabbit fur coat and tight jeans... then read no further and go see it with my recommendation but for the caveat that it is Arty with a capital A.  You have been warned.


The Things which didn't spoil, but I'd have soon not known going in:  Under the Skin is based on the Michel Faber novel in which an alien, in a Scarlett Johansson skinsuit prowls in a van using her wily femininity to lure young men back to a stylized demise featuring nudity and black goo.   Also, some scenes were filmed with "non-actors" by hidden cameras (I didn't waste time trying to spot which ones, and difference in the end is purely academic).

The film begins with a Kubrickian sequence of lights and shapes, the 2001 monolith/stargate/light tunnel given a utilitarian re-design by Steve Jobs (and indeed it is shortly followed by a transformation sequence so filled with white light and silhouettes I thought we were briefly in an early Ipod ad). This wink to the audience (complete with the full 2001 eye close-up) is the only indication of interstellar travel.  Mica Levi's nervy box of violins being rattled soundtrack stands in superbly for Ligetti (at time of publication this link will let you stream it http://pitchfork.com/advance/384-under-the-skin/).

The fate or purpose of her victims is never revealed, although some appear to be "harvested" by the sexual encounter.  So, more Liquid Sky meets Eyes Wide Shut than The Man Who Fell to Earth meets Species.  Although, to be perfectly fair, it is thoroughly infused with that sense of "other" that liberally peppers the works of Nic Roeg.  Scarlett for her part puts this across as beautifully as Bowie did, her detachment complete as expression falls from her face each time she stops interacting with humans.

The otherness is intentionally exacerbated by the thick Gorbals accent of most of her men (amongst other Glaswegian Scots thoroughly English obscuring accents available).  She doesn't try to blend in, and sports an accent between "posh-bird" and BBC Received Pronunciation.  Apart from one conversation, hinting at a difficult to process sympathy, the sparse dialogue may as well be in an alien language.  This is a film about images and sensations, not a pithy script.  It's edifying if you let it wash over you without looking for much in the way of engagement or story.

Regardless of what you may think of director Jonathan Glazer's previous output, Sexy Beast (what's not to love? Gandhi made terrifying gangster!) and Birth (boring, preposterous, ponderous, some points for atmosphere), he does have strong visions and for better or worse carries them to fruition.  This is better.

Under the Skin may leave you perplexed, intrigued, unsatisfied, suspended in black goo, or some combination of the above, but at the very least, it will leave you wanting more Scarlett Johansson, and more Jonathan Glazer.  That's not so bad, is it?

Sidebar:  In my particular screening a woman sitting two rows behind me, perhaps believing herself to be an alien, or a spiritual cousin to the dirty old man of Match Point, made inappropriate noises throughout.  Giggles and gasps, but most strikingly, a cry of pain at the moment when a fork penetrated a slice of cake.

EXTRA CREDIT [look back at this next sentence AFTER seeing the film] : Is the hilarity of the "she doesn't always walk on water" and "so that's what that hole is for" moments intentional?


15 December, 2013

RIP Peter O'Toole -- Dean Spanley

With the passing of the wonderful actor and iconic film star Peter O'Toole, rather than adding to the plethora of appreciations of his career, I'd like to draw attention to one of his best but largely unseen performances in the light period comedy Dean Spanley.

One of O'Toole's final major roles, and the last for which he garnered professional recognition (Best Supporting Actor, a win from New Zealand Film and TV Awards, and nominations from Irish Film and Television Awards and the London Critics Circle Film Awards). He is joined in a pitch perfect ensemble by Jeremy Northam, Sam Elliot, Bryan Brown and Judy Parfitt.

Northam plays a dutiful son to O'Toole's crabbed father still in unrelenting mourning for his other son fallen in the Boer Wars. Eliot plays the titular vicar with whom Northam, abetted by convivial fixer Brown, engages in increasingly bizarre conversations.

I want to recommend this highly and could wax lyrical at length, however, there's a conundrum, I want to tell you as little about the film as possible. Its underlying fantastic conceit is so slight and delicate that it might be shattered by description. As a piece of Edwardiana, it borders dangerously on twee. The result however is a gentle comedy which speaks to the relationship between man and dog, and father and son.

Whilst the acting is brilliant all around, O'Toole's performance seals the deal, and the scene in which a dawning realization transforms his character also transforms this curate's egg of a comedy into a genuinely moving statement.  Not a bad note in this one of O'Toole's swan songs.


19 March, 2012

Back-B-Log: Catch-Up: New Forest Film Festival 2011 Wrap Up

I've gotten around to finishing all articles relating to the 2011 New Forest Film Festival, a series of events at which I both volunteered and puntered and more.   I love the idea of having this Film Festival on my doorstep in the forest, and want to help it succeed.  After an excellent taster evening in 2010, the 2011 Festival was the first with a full program, and it is an encouraging building block for the future.

It was immediately before my three week trip to the States, and much of the time since has been devoted to preparing then caring for the litter of puppies who are now four months old and, except for the lovely Anya, have gone to wonderful and loving homes (Anya has stayed in our wonderful and loving home) -- which is why this job lot are so late for completion, the puppies ate my homework.

13/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: Project Nim: Responsibility and Mind
17/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: The Americanization of Mary
17/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: Shock Treatment
18/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: The Ghost That Never Returns
18/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: Vehicle of Horrors - The Sequel!!!
18/09/11 New Forest Film Festival 2011: My Playlists

If you've ended up here because you Googled the Festival, be warned, I do go on a bit.  Of course, whether you care for my self referential musings is your problem.  Feel free to dip in and out of them as you wish.

I also was short listed (1 of 2) for this years New Forest Film Festival Critic of the Year (over 18). Here's my review as entered for The Brothers Bloom, as well as two other essays I considered submitting, a clip of the awards presentation, and my Critic's Cut of my review (including the bits that were over the submission's 500 word limit).

11/09/11 Review: The Brothers Bloom: The Sum of Its Parts
12/09/11 Fantasy Reviews: Mamma Mia! as directed by Michael Haneke
12/09/11 The Last Picture Show as Reviewed By A Critic With an Axe To Grind Over This Gimmick of Black and White
17/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: And the Winner...
19/09/11 New Forest Film Festival: The Brothers Bloom Review = The Critic's Cut

Here's a couple of tangentially related pieces, the strangely negative effect of Richard O'Brien on my existence, and why you shouldn't disabuse people of their love for a film that you patently know is wrong (which casually mentions my role in the winning team at the NFFF Film Quiz)

13/11/11 My Life in the Movies: Richard O'Brien , Unintentionally My Nemesis
13/11/11 My Life in the Movies: There Are Some Arguments You Don't Want to Win

As I perversely prefer them to be posted to the dates when either I started writing them, or more relevantly  chose to post them, this means they don't show up as the latest thing  in the arbitrarily chronological feed of this blog, hence this catch up round up.  If any of you gluttons for punishment particularly enjoy the above, you may be interested in my former festival experience, when, as a young IT consultant, I crashed the Cannes Film Festival, starting with Back-B-log 1990: Cannes - Dread And Victory (I.a.To Cannes (and hell)).

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25 February, 2012

Moviola Diary: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I recently got a part time gig as a projectionist for Moviola, a company which runs rural cinemas in village halls throughout Hampshire, Dorset, Devon, Wiltshire and Somerset. There's a nice community atmosphere at the screening as groups of friends, and old dears who'd rather not brave the throngs of sullen teenagers in town multiplexes, watch relaxed with a cuppa tea, an ice cream or a glass of wine. Most of the shows are second run, either just before or after the DVD release, but the audiences would still rather make an event of going out to see a flick rather than stay in and rent.

The last of my training sessions, then the subsequent screenings as a paid "pro" are with the 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, meticulously directed by Tomas Alfredson and boasting a best of British ensemble cast headed by Gary Oldman alongside both stalwarts including John Hurt, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Kathy Burke, and Roger Lloyd-Pack, and up and comers like Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephen Graham. Where Alfredson's previous effort Let The Right One In was about teenagers learning to trust (despite, you know, that usual teenage foible of vampirism), this is about middle aged men in distrust. You could title it "Weed The Right One Out".

As a film buff I've been used to seeing my favorites over again, although as middle age and life has crowded in, these are rarely in the theatrical run, and are mostly lazily achieved when something happens to be on telly. When I was at Annenberg as a student in Amos Vogel's superb film analysis courses, we'd watch films on an analytical projector which allowed film to be shown at slower speeds without melting the print, we'd watch two ten minute reels, then take notes at 1/4 or 1/2 speed, then re watch at normal, making our way through a film over the course of weeks, with full length showings either side; this purely academic discipline never really caught on with me.

I thought I'd make a diary of these multiple viewings, to see what if anything is gained on these repeats within such a short space of time. The observations below are both chock full of spoilers, and most likely incomprehensible if you haven't seen it. So if you haven't, piss off now and don't come back 'til you do. Even if you don't come back, if you see it, my work is done.

Harbour Lights Cinema in Southampton 15 October 2011

My first viewing, with my wife Finuala. We enjoy it immensely. I remember enough of the Alec Guiness version to be able to follow the plot.

Ringwood 08 February 2012

My second viewing four months later, mostly just reabsorbing, but I do take note of the throwaway yet significant shot at the the end of the opening credits, Smiley sat in his home staring at the small square green painting on his wall.

I begin to savour some of the more actorly moments. Simon McBurney's borderline Yes Minister civil servant, Oliver Lacon, casually punctilious scraping butter across his toast as he discusses funding the safe house for Witchcraft with Percy Alleline and Roy Bland, the inevitable bite provides the crunch that punctuates and cuts the scene. The seemingly hard to rattle hardman Ricki Tarr, Tom Hardy jumps at the sound of the meat cleaver in the Turkish kitchen. The way Colin Firth needles Smiley on his return home with his story of Ann and the painting whilst farcically slipping his shoes on, and Smiley's polite discomfort concealing the enraged cuckold.

Then, of course, there are the gems within Gary Oldman's performance. The two moments when Smiley realises that his friend Control distrusted him as well. When Oliver Lacon asks if Control had shared his mole theory, and Smiley must aver that he hadn't, and when in Control's apartment looking over the faces on the chess pieces, the flashback to the discussion of Witchcraft in the War Room, Control's pronouncement, ringing in his ears "nothing's genuine anymore," Smiley turns the last black piece around to see his own face amongst the suspected. At "that" Christmas Party, the gasp Smiley emits when he sees Ann cavorting passionately with her unseen lover. During Bill Haden's final debrief Smiley loudly upbraids him as Karla's office boy, "what are you then, Bill?" then bitterly but quietly echoes Haden's assertion that the smokescreen of the affair with Ann only worked "up to a point."

These stand out not because Oldman is underplaying the rest of the time, but precisely because he is playing the cerebral quiet of Smiley throughout, and these moments are when Smiley almost slips his façade. It's easy to focus on the know your enemy Karla monologue, he shines most obviously here, his timbre perilously close to that which Sir Alec found for the same role, but it's a mistake to think that Oldman's mastery isn't constant in Smiley's shoes. It is hugely annoying and unjust that Gary missed out on both the BAFTA and Oscar to that sincere but mugging frenchman. I hope everyone will reteam for Smiley's People, if only to give Gary another go.

I come up with two tangential thoughts. After the unfortunate owl related incident at the end of the first schoolroom scene with Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) the voice over in my head said ".... Hogwarts was very different that year...". During the coda montage under an upbeat swinging version of La Mer (ostensibly played out in the past at "that" Christmas party) as Smiley triumphantly strides back into The Circus, when he passes a grinning Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) I just want them to high-five each other. Maybe they will in the American language remake.

Brockenhurst 10 February 2012

Shamefully it has taken until this viewing to realize that the insect stuck in the car is one of Mendel's bees from the previous scene. It's a beautiful subtle character moment, Guillam swats pointlessly angrily at it, then Smiley simply rolls down his window and lets it fly out.

And though I'd fully noticed it before, I take stock of the fact that there are two moments when Smiley is a bit of a shit. First more obviously is when he sends Peter Guillam into The Circus to retrieve the logs without telling him about Ricki Tarr. Worse, the second is when Tarr asks him to get Irina out as the price for his risk in smoking out the mole, Smiley says he'll "do his utmost" knowing full well from Jim Prideaux's statement that she is already dead.

I have time to reflect again on the extreme economy of the script, when asked to introduce the film I point out that it took the BBC six hours in 1979 to cover the same ground when this clocks in at just over two. Whole relationships are left to be telegraphed by glances between the incredible cast, as the main plot churns through the hunt for the mole. There are many blink and you'll miss it moments. Control dies in the opening credits with a brief shot of him torso akimbo in a hospital bed. The fall from grace of Percy Alleline is only seen through Toby Jones haggard and defeated face as he trudges past George at The Nursery. Although a key relationship Jim Prideaux and Bill Haden aren't seen together apart from a photograph, them nodding to each other at THAT party and an assassin's distance apart when Prideaux executes Haden.

There are only three moments that seem unnecessary, two are the shots during the La Mer montage of Ricki Tarr standing in the rain and Connie Sachs smoking looking out her window, sandwiched between Jim Prideaux shedding a tear to match the bullet hole blood on Bill Haden's cheek and the god shot of Haden dead in the leaves. We don't learn the fates of many of the other characters, so, apart from filler in the montage, I'm not sure why they specifically are included. The third slightly extraneous sequence is when Peter Guillam "tidies" his personal life by breaking up with his boyfriend.

Frogham 17 February 2012

It has bothered me slightly on previous viewings, but the clunkiness of the shot of THE cigarette lighter, within the flashback from Smiley finally debriefing Jim Prideaux, just after Prideaux describes his final interrogator and THE lighter he kept "flashing about", zoom in onto THE lighter sitting on the table in the Hungarian cafe when Jim Prideaux was snatched up, ostensibly with Karla sat there. This little bit seems a little hamfisted. Why would Karla be at the meet? If he was there, how could such "Hungarian amateurs" as the "waiter" be allowed to botch the operation so badly and shoot Prideaux. Is he there in the BBC version, or the book? The other thing that has always bothered me about the whole Karla story told by Smiley is how could he possibly know that the guy he lost THE lighter to, the guy they sent back to the USSR to die, ended up becoming Karla? Smiley doesn't remember what he looked like, nor does he know what he looks like now, apart from what Prideaux can now tell him. He might have been able to deduce the guy was Karla after the conversation with Prideaux, but he knows this well before when he trots out the oft preview clipped direct to camera Karla speech to Guillam.

(I'll have to read the book now).

Bringing THE lighter up and giving us a visual reveal of what is likely an outsized prop, does make sense to the degree that it connects the whole trail of betrayal back to the relationship between George and Ann. Ann is tantalizingly conspicuous by her absence, we barely see her but for glimpses at THAT party and seated in the kitchen, her face obscured by the doorframe, returned home to George during the closing montage. THE lighter and THAT painting get more screen time than she does, we see more of the paisley party dress than we do of her face.

Stockbridge 22 February 2012

At the Christmas party, we see Ann Smiley her back is to us, she is sat across from George, she is recognizable from her purple paisley dress, she has some artificial thing like a cloth flower in her hair, one hand waves a cigarette aloft as she sings along with Sammy Davis, Jr. - The Second Best Secret Agent In The Whole Wide World.

I suspect that the carriage clock in The Circus "war room" may have disappeared during Percy Alleline's reign and has reappeared with Smiley's return, and the return of order.

When I introduce the film, with the proviso that the projection should not be blamed for the dull and muted colours as the film takes places in the "drab 1970's", a woman in the audience becomes agitated and slightly argumentative. She recalls the '70's as a vibrant, colourful time. Thinking quickly I back pedal "the 1970's as depicted by the film makers..." to get myself off the hook.

Bishopstone 24 February 2012

A slightly earlier shot of Ann Smiley at the Christmas party, a few preceding the one noted above. George is giving her a polite kiss and we nearly see her in profile, but all we get is a hint of the crescent of her cheek.

I realise that I have forgotten to confirm my theory about the carriage clock. Ahh well, I may have to see the film again.

And that's not a bad thing.

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