Oct. 4, 2015

Thoughts on Movies I’ve Recently Seen

      I’ve now seen 4,992 films. Eight more and I’ve reached 5,000, and then what happens? I either see the face of God, spontaneously combust, or, more than likely, I just move on to the next 5,000. However, since it’s taken me fifty-seven years to see the first 5,000, I’ll have to live to be 114 to see 5,000 more. It’s possible, I suppose, but if I’m serious about it I probably ought to stop smoking.
     The film that has grabbed me the most is the past few months is Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, that I’ve now seen three times. I think that Mike Leigh is one of the very best writer-directors working, and I believe that he has had a lot of influence on Woody Allen—to the extent that the star of Happy-Go-Lucky, the wonderful Sally Hawkins’, next film appearance was in Woody Allen’s best film in many years, Blue Jasmine (she’s better in Happy because it’s a better part). In Happy-Go-Lucky Hawkins plays Poppy who is indefatigably upbeat and nothing in life can bring her down, although Mr. Leigh tries, particularly with her severely downbeat driving instructor (perfectly played by Eddie Marsan) who, as Mike Leigh is an expert at creating, is a walking open wound—or driving, in this case. Leigh specializes in characters like this, and I just re-watched his film Naked, which I didn’t like at all when it came out in 1993, and now I truly appreciate, even if it didn’t get much easier to watch. David Thewlis (one of Leigh’s ensemble actors, along with Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall, among others) plays Johnny, an almost complete asshole and a jerk to nearly everyone he meets—but not completely—and he’s also shockingly, and annoyingly smart, but still doesn’t give two shits about anyone but himself. Johnny and Poppy are direct opposites. Poppy likes everybody, even people who don’t like her or who are just plain unpleasant; Johnny is unpleasant and most people don’t like him. The fact that Leigh can alternate back and forth between characters as opposite as this, as well as dire, desperate drama and lighthearted uplifting comedy, without losing his perspective or his tone, not only amazes me, it greatly inspires me (Woody Allen has always been an inspiration to me and remains one, but I think he has always struggled with serious drama, and I don’t care for his whimsical films, which he seems to make more and more often). Mike Leigh entirely understands his characters—who often have thick cockney/ Manchester/Irish accents, which poses its own challenge—and he knows that people are neither wholly good nor entirely bad, and that’s where the real interest in the human condition lies.
     I just saw a fine, in-depth documentary about Ingmar Bergman called Bergman Island made by Marie Nyreröd. In his later years Bergman lived alone in a big house on Fårö Island off the coast of Sweden where his only interests were writing, watching movies, listening to music and thinking (this film was made four years before he died). Bergman is completely open and candid in all the extensive interviews conducted by Nyreröd, and at 80 years old, he clearly has nothing to hide, although I’m not sure he ever did. I know that Bergman had a big influence on Woody Allen, and I would have to believe he was highly influential to Mike Leigh as well. Even though I saw quite a few of Bergman’s movies when I was young, he didn’t mean all that much to me until late in his career with Scenes From a Marriage, which I found deeply moving and I wasn’t even married. His ability to dig deep into his own emotions, give them to his characters, then splash them all over the screen isn’t something that has ever become a trend, nor will it ever because it’s too difficult to do. Upon reflection, the only other filmmaker I can think of who took this emotionally raw approach to filmmaking was John Cassavetes. The fact that Bergman was married five times, had nine children, and didn’t give the slightest damn about family life I found shocking in its candid honesty. When he was asked if he ever felt bad about ignoring his children, Bergman stated, “A bad conscience is vanity.” It was highly amusing to see his behind-the-scenes 16mm footage of some of his films, where you get to see the generally dead serious Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Bibi Anderson and Gunnar Bjornstrand goofing off and mugging for the camera. Since I saw most of Bergman’s films as a teenager and young man, and the films are clearly not intended for the young, I now feel that I must reassess them.
     But getting back to Mike Leigh for a moment, I also recently saw his newest film, Turner, about the famous maritime painter of the late 18th and early 19th century, J.M.W. Turner, starring Timothy Spall. I’d would term this lesser-Mike Leigh, even within his sub-genre of historical dramas. It was very interesting, and certainly an odd subject, but why he chose the late part of Turner’s life to focus on, as well as a lengthy portion of the film about him dying, I don’t know. Spall, as always, is great, and Leigh’s long-time cinematographer, Dick Pope, creates colorful, extremely appropriate images of many sunsets over the ocean, but if one were going to start with Mike Leigh’s historical films, I’d recommend Topsy-Turvy, then Vera Drake. And since I’m recommending Mike Leigh movies, please see: Life is Sweet and Career Girls, if you are of a mind.
     Having seen 4,992 movies, I can name only four casting directors: Marion Dougherty, Lynn Stalmaster, Juliet Taylor and Wally Nacita (and I only know her name because I grew up with someone named Nacita, and I only know that she’s a woman from having seen the movie I’m now about to discuss). Casting directors getting very little press or recognition, and until not all that long ago, didn’t even get credit. Thankfully, the wonderful 2012 documentary, Casting By, directed by Tom Donahue, attempts to correct this oversight. This is the story of Marion Dougherty who almost singlehandedly completely changed the way movies and TV shows were cast. As John Huston once said regarding casting, and I paraphrase, “I can spend two years writing a script, preparing a production, choosing a crew and locations, and the second I cast Humphrey Bogart in the lead, it’s now a Humphrey Bogart movie.”
     In my opinion, next to having a good script, a rational director, a reasonable budget, and a not entirely incompetent producer, next comes casting. Many, many films have been killed dead when they had everything else—including enormous budgets—but were stupidly and inappropriately cast with the wrong actors. This happens more often than you might imagine, and it happens even more frequently of recent times. Until the late 1940s and early ‘50s, movies were cast internally by the studios based on which actors they had under contract. Occasionally, if it was entirely necessary—like David Selznick getting Clark Gable for Gone With the Wind—a studio would “loan out” an actor, meaning they’d charge an exorbitant rate, only pay the actor their contracted fee, then pocket the rest. But for the most part the studios didn’t stretch too much when it came to casting, nor were they necessarily looking for the “best” actors. As this movie points out, studios were trying to create stars, or keep their stars viable. Searching for new actors was a whole other can of worms. What Casting By doesn’t go into was that most of the big stars of the 1930s, ‘40s and into the ‘50s, had all, luckily and thankfully, come from Broadway in the late 1920s and early ‘30s due to the advent of talking pictures since most of the silent actors couldn’t cut it when they suddenly had to deliver dialog. And so we got the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Paul Muni, etc. who were actually trained, experienced actors, but not necessarily gorgeous, which was the main attribute of the earlier movie stars (excluding comedians). However, as the power of the studios began to fade, and most television production was suddenly located in New York, everything changed.
     First of all, TV couldn’t afford most stars, and most stars wouldn’t even consider appearing on TV in the old days (although it’s difficult to believe at this point, big stars wouldn’t even do TV talk shows). So new, young, cheap actors had to be found. And this was where Marion Dougherty stepped in. She began casting the early TV show Kraft Theater in the late ‘40s and began really searching for talent—not attractive people, per se, but talented actors. Marion Dougherty combed the acting schools, Broadway and off-Broadway productions in search of talent. And she was responsible for so many actors getting their first parts it’s almost ridiculous: James Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, Jon Voight, on and on and on. Not only that, but she always hired female assistants, and almost all of them went on to be big-shot casting directors—like Juliet Taylor (who has cast every Woody Allen movie for the past 40 years, having taken over from Dougherty) and Wally Nacita, among many others. Quite a few of these actors and casting directors appear in the film and seem incredibly pleased to discuss Marion Dougherty and the impact she had on their careers.
     Beyond all of that, something I found very interesting was that by the late 1970s the studios and producers had for the most part lost their interest in finding really talented actors, and had resorted to the old studio ways of searching for attractive stars; which is sadly where we are now. Attractive has replaced talented. There’s no reason to believe that there aren’t throngs of talented actors running around, but they’re just not pretty enough to be cast anymore, and that includes males, and pretty is the correct adjective. I particularly miss masculine-looking men, like Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, all of whom could also act. In any case, I found Casting By to be terrifically interesting, informative, and in the case of Jon Voight’s first part on Naked City, very funny. Even the title has a specific meaning, but I’ll let you watch the film to find out for yourself.
      I personally have loved all of the casting directors with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. The casting director takes the misery out of casting for the director. They audition 100 actors and cull it down to the best five to ten, then I choose. The main casting director in Auckland, New Zealand, Diana Rowan, who cast Hercules and Xena, and I had a game, which I instituted so I don’t know if she played it with any other directors. She always had lists for me and her of all of the actors I was going to watch on DVD so we could both keep track of who we were watching and what we thought, although at that point it was strictly up to me, unless there was someone she thought was really good, in which case I usually took her word for it. But our game worked like this: I asked her to mark which actor she thought was best, but not to show it to me or tell me. Then we’d see if I chose the same one, which in every single case I did. Di and I were looking for exactly the same thing—who was the most talented, although and in some cases we were also searching for a look, like a broken nose, a scar, piercing eyes, something striking. But the best actor always won, and the one with the most talent is almost always obvious. Unfortunately, talent doesn’t get doled out in large portions all that often, so anyone who’s got some generally sticks out.
      But I digress.
     I’ve recently seen three of Ridley Scott’s films: The Counselor, Kingdom of Heaven and the “extended cut” of Gladiator. My favorite film of his is his first film, The Duellists, which I’ve seen many, many times and I consider it a perfectly realized film, and there certainly aren’t that many of those. Next comes his second movie, Alien, which I’ve also seen many, many times, and it’s a great sci-fi/horror film, but the last fifteen minutes searching for the cat stink. From there on out his prolific career for me has been one big disappointment—he hasn’t made a really good, let alone great, movie since 1979, and that’s a long time. Most of his films are just plain old bad. I don’t intend to get into a discussion of Blade Runner here, but like many of Scott’s movies, it’s a beautiful production with a completely illogical, idiotic script which does a great disservice to Philip Dick’s story. And that’s the crux of my contention—for a visual director of such high merit, I don’t think that Ridley Scott understands the basic elements of telling a story.
     I actually started watching two other Ridley Scott’s films, A Good Year and Prometheus and bailed out on both of them within fifteen minutes. I watched all of The Counselor, mainly because I hoped that the screenwriter, Cormac McCarthy, might have something up his sleeve, but he didn’t. It may not be plain old bad, but neither is it very good, and Javier Bardem with yet another bad haircut can’t come close to saving it.
     Mr. Scott has a very short disclaimer at the beginning of the “extended cut” of Gladiator wherein he states that this isn’t the “director’s cut” of the film, that was the one released to the theaters; this is the “extended cut” which “may have some scenes you’ll find of interest.” Well, I didn’t like the original cut when it came out, and this cut didn’t improve anything for me. As with many of Scott’s films, it’s a big, beautiful production, but as William Goldman importantly points out in his seminal book on screenwriting, “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” it’s a bad idea to start with an action scene—distributors and executives may think it’s a good idea, but it isn’t. As Goldman says, if an audience is ever going to be patient with you it’s at the beginning, and though they may not be able to actually state it in words, they want, nay demand, that you set up and introduce the characters. This is the time to get the audience to care about these people, and if you fail to do that you’re screwing the whole rest of the film. And that’s what Gladiator does in a big way. The opening scene is an enormous battle with the Germans that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story. Yes, it’s a cool scene, and well-staged, but what good does it do me? I don’t yet know, let alone give a damn about the lead character, Maximus (Russell Crowe). Nor do I know or give a damn about the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). What I do know after this big scene is that A. Maximus can fight, and B. Ridley Scott cuts his action scenes so fast that you can’t really get a grasp of what’s happening. Now we’ve got hours and hours ahead of us here, and what does Maximus want or need? Well, he wants to retire and spend the rest of his days with his wife and son, whom we haven’t met.
     The emperor wants Maximus to be the new emperor (sort of), instead of his dipshit son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix in a severely one-note part where he spends most of his time glaring insanely up past his eyebrows). Maximus doesn’t care at all about being the emperor, but hesitantly agrees. Commodus somehow gets word of this (or not), is extremely upset, then in a fit of pique somehow manages to squish his father to death with his bare hands—not strangle him, but hug him so tightly that his bones crack and he promptly dies—which was where I mentally, emotionally and logically bailed out on the film the first time I saw it. Why not just take a pillow and smother him? Anyway, Maximus won’t swear loyalty to Commodus, even though he knows that it will bring the wrath of Hades down on his head, which it immediately does—he’s arrested and his wife and son are brutally killed, but since we don’t know them, it means nothing to us. Maximus escapes, rides back home like the wind, but he’s too late. So the only thing this character wanted in life, which was to spend the rest of his days with his wife and kid, he can never have. The story is now dead, except in this extended cut there are at least two more hours to go.
     If there were any logic in the world—even the ancient world—Commodus would have Maximus killed and that would be that—except then why would the film be called Gladiator? We haven’t even seen a gladiator yet. Through pure idiotic plot machinations Maximus improbably gets knocked out, then transported to the Middle East where he then becomes the greatest gladiator in Oliver Reed’s stable. Thank goodness Oliver Reed, in his last performance (the film is dedicated to him) gives a fine, spirited performance, which saves the movie from being nothing more than a weary retread of the first act of Spartacus, the film that Gladiator desperately wishes it was.
     Well, Maximus doesn’t want to be a gladiator any more than he wanted to be emperor, but he now fights a number of gladiator fights looking pained and weary that Scott over-cuts so that they’re not even exciting. And meanwhile, back in Rome, Commodus goes crazier and crazier, to the consternation of his sister (Connie Nielsen, a pretty, though uninteresting actor), and a senator named Gracchus played by the fine British actor , Derek Jacobi, who played the emperor Claudius in the terrific BBC TV series, I, Claudius, many moons ago.
     OK, on and on and on, in an extended sort of way. Great sets and costumes. Russell Crowe gives it the yeoman’s effort, and got an Oscar, as did the film, but not Scott.
     Kingdom of Heaven is an even more problematic film than Gladiator. Once again, a big sprawling epic, which Mr. Scott (“I need that power!”) is a very good at holding together, but there are even more story problems, and one severe casting problem. Orlando Bloom plays a blacksmith in, whatever it was, 1250 AD, and his wife has just committed suicide out of depression due to the loss of their infant. Suddenly, up rides a crusader and his men heading for Jerusalem played by the legitimate movie star, screen presence, and fine actor, Liam Neeson, who informs Bloom that he’s actually his father and would he like to come along on the crusade to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims? Well . . . OK, sure, because all he wants out of life, now that his wife and child are dead, is “forgiveness from God,” and maybe that’s more available in the Holy Land than in the tiny little shit-hole where he’s making horseshoes. So off they ride. This is the first ten minutes of yet another three-hour movie, and the main motivation is forgiveness from God? Whatever happened to looking for the treasure of the Sierra Madre? Freeing the fucking slaves? Defeating an acid-drooling alien? Something tangible that you’ve actually got a chance of achieving? Oh, well, off we go to Jerusalem, but at least we’ve got Liam Neeson to play attention to, even if he’s on the thoroughly asinine mission of restoring the Holy Land to the Christians, who stole it from the Jews, who stole is from the poor slobs who already lived there.
     However, twenty to twenty-five minutes into the movie Liam Neeson gets killed, and now we’re left with Orlando Bloom for the next two-and-half hours. And this is why Marion Dougherty retired from casting. Orlando Bloom? Who the fuck is he? OK, I looked him up. His claim to fame was co-starring in three or four Pirates of Caribbean movies and co-starring in a half-dozen Lord of the Rings movies. Maybe he’s all right in those movies as a co-star—I saw one of each and there was no way on earth I was going to see any more—but this fellow is not a lead actor. He’s attractive, has a British accent, and can remember his lines. But if he’s on-screen with any of his co-stars: Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Brenden Gleeson or David Thewlis (everything connects), poor Mr. Bloom disappears, or perhaps the bloom wears off. In any event, he can’t carry a picture, and certainly not a big one.
     If they’d skipped Bloom’s character entirely and just shown the story of Liam Neeson as a crusader off to free Jerusalem, the story could’ve worked out exactly the way it works out and it would’ve been a much better movie, although it never had any hope of being great because it’s an idiotic cause. And if history has taught us anything, Jerusalem is not a Christian city or a Muslim city or a Jewish city, it’s all of the above.
     If you really want to see a movie about the crusades, and I can’t imagine why, I recommend Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades from 1935. It has all of the spectacle of Kingdom of Heaven, is a half-hour shorter and oddly stars Henry Wilcoxon, a ruggedly handsome British actor who almost made it as a movie star with this and DeMille’s Cleopatra, where he played Marc Antony, but for whatever reason couldn’t hold on and quickly slipped into character roles in A-films and leads in B-films. He also became DeMille’s associate producer on a number of his films. But beyond that, the real reason why The Crusades is a better movie than Kingdom of Heaven is that it has a legitimate story motivation and a goal—the wily Muslims kidnap the beautiful British queen, played by Loretta Young at her most gorgeous, and they have to get her back—it’s as simple as that. Saving a queen from infidels is achievable; getting forgiveness from God because your wife killed herself when your baby died is unachievable, no matter how valiantly you fight the infidels. Why Ridley Scott, who obviously understands a lot about filmmaking, can’t get that simple concept down befuddles me.

 

 

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