Month: July 2017

T2 Trainspotting (Boyle) and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Ritchie)

I often pursue the new work by familiar directors based on a minimum degree of fondness for one of their past efforts. Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie were not, until recently, high on my list of … anything, really. My youthful self’s surprise and macabre delight at the original Trainspotting has long been squandered by the erstwhile wunderkind Boyle, in misguided enterprises too thick to tell apart. (Pleading that you don’t ask me to explain, I’m quite taken with 2014’s Steve Jobs, which I’ve seen three times.) He seems now to dwell fitfully in the prestige class, having made one Best Picture Oscar winner and another that was nominated.

Ritchie opted for an alternate sustainability route, getting hired for the 2(-3?)-film Sherlock Holmes franchise, as well as large-scale projects like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the forthcoming live-action Aladdin, and this year’s King Arthur epic, starring Charlie Hunnam and Jude Law.

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Throughout Ritchie’s promoted status, having earned admission to the multimillion-dollar club with visually inventive crime films like Snatch. and his 1998 debut, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (and stumbling only momentarily in the eyes of the Entertainment Weeklys of the world with the ill-fated Swept Away, starring his then-wife, Madonna), the director has applied a sometimes enervating, sometimes thrilling restlessness to a wide range of source material.

I sided with Ritchie at a late hour: I didn’t think much of his 2009 Sherlock Holmes, but I was won over by the 2011 sequel, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (reviewed here). The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which barely earned its keep at the global box office, is even better: an indulgently lackadaisical cold war thriller that spends as much time arguing about ladies’ belts as shooting it out with the bad guys. Ritchie’s impatience with linear narratives continues unabated, pausing films midstream to rewind and re-examine scenes to change emphases and reveal new information.

Ritchie’s handiwork on King Arthur: Legend of the Sword makes for an interesting auteurist case study. Please note that I am employing “auteurist” not to suggest “because I like the director, the film is automatically good.” Rather, I’m considering how a specific personality made an imprint on a movie that would not have been made, had another director been hired in their place.

Sometimes this guessing game is easy: when William Wyler took over the 1936 film Come and Get It from Howard Hawks, the result was a movie that was 90% vintage Hawks and 10% unmistakably someone else. Or take the scenes Orson Welles didn’t shoot for The Magnificent Ambersons: they stick out like crabgrass. On other films, like 1945’s A Royal Scandal, which Ernst Lubitsch began and Otto Preminger completed, it’s not so easy.

This isn’t to say King Arthur is the patchwork result of a studio hiring a 2nd (or 3rd, or…) director to complete reshoots, as was the case with last year’s viscerally unpleasant Star Wars entry, Rogue One. But the project, which boasts a half dozen writers and twice as many producers (including the current US Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin), very strongly suggests an enterprise in which many of the design and aesthetic decisions were made in advance of hiring anyone to conduct the presumably more pedestrian duties of directing.

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A good 40% of King Arthur is Peter Jackson-inspired garbage: perfectly uninteresting visual effects reels with a handful of handsome compositions scattered throughout. This is the producer’s bailiwick – blasting the audience with smoke and lasers in the hopes that they won’t notice that nothing’s there.

The other 60-odd % is clearly given over to Ritchie to do with as he pleases: the soon-to-be King is a street punk, and the script is peppered with language that isn’t quite modern but isn’t exactly Chaucer. Ritchie presumably had a free hand in script and dialogue here, and it suits him to economize and transform large parts of Arthur’s tale into Lock, Stock, and Several Smoking Arrows.

This is a fun film that occasionally drowns in absurdly presumptuous gravity; Ritchie might be wholly defeated by one sequence, then put all his energy into the next. Sometimes there’s no division, and your heart goes all over the place. After a crushingly dull CGI finale, Arthur whispers to his foe, “You make sense of the devil” – a pretty good line. And throughout, there are suggestions of a tale told in postures and gestures, like Jude Law’s complacent slump, a foreign envoy’s shrug, and various street toughs’ “come here and push this chip off my shoulder” poses.

T2 Trainspotting isn’t exactly fun, although it sometimes signals that it’s trying, especially when it makes explicit visual callbacks to the 1996 original. Reuniting almost all of the primary, secondary, even tertiary collaborators from Trainspotting (although author Irvine Welsh’s blessing seems ambiguous and largely hands-off, from skimming the reports), T2 is nothing if not fully aware of how bleak its predecessor was, and how multiply sad it is that the four main characters end up in the roughly the same predicaments, two decades on. Surprisingly, T2 emerges as a model for continuing a long-thought-dormant story and ethos: moreso than its scrappy crime and drugs scenarios, it’s driven by thinking about itself as well as its source. It doesn’t just attempt to relive old glories, but it reflects wistfully on the folly of such attempts. If this is how you’re going to wallow in your own mythology, I have to concede, well done.

Russell Mack, on the Attack: Scandal for Sale, Lonely Wives, Night Work

Here, watch the remarkable first 30 seconds of Scandal for Sale:

The rest of the film is (for the moment) on YouTube. It’s a pip.

Russell Mack

Night Work (1930)

You figure mountain climbers pretty much know all the mountains. You meet a mountain climber, you figure they can just rattle off the major peaks on Planet Earth. You probably can’t surprise them with peaks they didn’t know about. “Mount Whitney? No, never heard of that one.” That’s not a mountain climber, friend.

Not so with movies. I’ve been in this game since the early 1990s, well over half my life. I’ve watched hundreds of movies from the 1940s and 1930s – with a recent rate increase, thanks to my ever-growing distaste for current cinema. Still, I didn’t know that Eddie Quillan was somebody. Turns out he was. Turns out he had over 200 film and TV acting credits, beginning in the silent era and ending with shows like Matlock and The A-Team. Turns out I would have seen him in up to a dozen pictures, including John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln.

Furthermore, for a time, Quillan was a comic star in his own right, expected to carry vehicles in the same manner as W.C. Fields and Laurel & Hardy. Well, maybe he was more in line with Dick Powell – a bright kid with a bright face, an actor who seemed to draw power from the Hollywood sound stage, just like the big lights.

Night Work is a pre-Code comedy mish-mash with very little to distinguish it, except its patchwork quality. It begins as a department store comedy – there were plenty of those, going back at least as far as Chaplin’s The Floorwalker. Quillan plays a low-level window dresser who serves double duty as the “fired man”; whenever a customer complains, Quillan pretends that he’s from the department that has erred, and after a little dumbshow, he’s “fired”. Nobody isn’t in on the fake-out except the customer, and he resumes his duties dressing the dummies.

Next there’s some hijinks at the orphanage, and we get something like two dozen face-pulling professional toddlers eager to pitch their talents as the next Shirley Temple, only we didn’t have Shirley Temple in 1930.

Then the orphanage stuff leads into some half-hearted adoption melodrama, which isn’t really very melodramatic.

Night Work is shaped like a string, and from that string are hung comedy and musical bits. It’s practically an anthology of audience comfort mechanisms. There’s the one where Quillan, looking to avoid getting canned for fraternizing, pretends that the girl from the such-and-such counter is a real dummy, and begins undressing the wide-eyed lady so his boss is none the wiser. The kind of thing that would show up in a Carry On movie or Are You Being Served? Waiting tables at a night club, Quillan tries to catch a few Z’s while the band plays a hot tune. He tries to silence a particularly spicy trumpet by hanging a hat over the bell, to no avail.

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Lonely Wives (1931)

Russell Mack’s movie career is dense but brief – after spending the largest part of the 1920s in theater, he joined pictures around the advent of talkies, took 2-3 directing assignments a year until 1934, then (seemingly) abruptly packed it in. He lived until the early 1970s (departing finally at the age of 79), so you can rule out a plane crash, manslaughter, drug overdose, and alcoholism, the usual culprits for a studio residency abbreviated just when it’s getting going.

Lonely Wives is a different type of comedy than Night Work. It’s one that’s hard to do well – the kind of Noises Off!-style farce where, when people run out of things to do, they scream or cry, or someone walks in with a pistol, that kind of thing. Edward Everett Horton, who acquired immortality as a supporting player for Lubitsch, Sternberg, and Fred Astaire, is the star – in a trick dual role, no less. Here he’s an uptight, married attorney who turns into a Casanova at eight in the evening. He also plays a gifted stage actor who claims he can mimic anyone, so that, once he dons a Lenin-esque mustache and goatee, he resembles the first Edward Everett Horton, who, of course, doesn’t usually have a beard in movies. Lonely Wives runs 70 minutes, and like many 70-minute movies, it seems to be made up of 10 bits of business that each take 40 minutes to explain and execute.

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Scandal for Sale (1932)

This fast-talking newspaper melodrama led me to the above to pictures, not the other way around; without Scandal for Sale, I probably wouldn’t have landed on Lonely Wives or Night Work. Mack seems to be a very minor director who can carry good material over the finish line without tripping. From the available evidence, Mack lives to serve, and recognizes the strengths of his collaborators.

Chief among the virtues of Scandal for Sale is its leading man, Charles Bickford. A genuine lifelong badass with biographical details including an attempted murder charge at the age of nine, when he shot a motorist who ran over his dog, and an unpleasant run-in with a lion in 1935 that left him heavily scarred, Bickford can be credited with the original “gravelly voice” of talking pictures. He was also gifted with a high degree of gravity and confidence – like having a jackhammer on the screen. He was made of stone and he rolled.

Bickford wasn’t long for leading man roles, but a salty/peppery 75-minute drama about getting the scoop at all costs turns out to be just the thing; he’s plugged in, and the picture moves. There was a time when movies didn’t overstay their welcome.

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