Saturday, November 24, 2007

Long post on movies

Yesterday was a bitzer movie day. I managed to miss the beginning of a British wartime film that had everybody and his brother in it so that the second half seemed a bit odd; I missed bits and pieces (and the ending) of The Children’s Hour, that film about lesbians that isn’t a film about lesbians; and then I saw almost all of The Talented Mr Ripley, which seemed to be a film that wasn’t quite sure what it was saying: it was almost a film about gays that wasn’t about gays.

The British movies was The Way Ahead, originally made as a training film. In it, a bunch of ordinary blokes from various backgrounds are gradually given the chance to pull together as a unit. It has a very odd ending, in which the remaining members of the group walk through the smoke of battle into….? Well, we’re not quite sure. Are they about to be shot? Who knows. Anyway, the best bit of the movie was when the troop ship they were on was torpedoed. The fire on board and the hoisting over the side of army vehicles was very well done. (The only peculiar thing about it was that the captain of the ship that rescued them was presented as a bodiless voice, speaking in a way that sounded like he wasn’t actually watching the movie, but was sitting in a studio somewhere reading his lines on cue.)

David Niven played David Niven; Peter Ustinov played a strange innkeeper; everybody else who was available at the time (even Trevor Howard in a brief uncredited role that was his first in movies) appeared: Stanley Holloway, James Donald, John Laurie, Leslie Dwyer, Hugh Burden, William Hartnell, and so on. Carol Reed directed, and Eric Ambler and Ustinov apparently wrote the script.

Seemingly the film was still being used for training (in Australia) two or three decades later. Good grief.

The Children’s Hour had a talented cast: Audrey Hepburn (not being whimsical for the most part), Shirley MacLaine (not being in the least bit daffy), James Garner (being very earnest) and Fay Bainter. Miriam Hopkins, who played the MacLaine role in the earlier version of the movie, also appeared.

William Wyler directed it in an earnest fashion too. Because of the climate of the times, the subject matter was more obvious than it had even been allowed to be in the earlier version, but it was still skirted around a good deal. John Michael Hayes, who wrote some of Hitchcock’s great films, was the scriptwriter, but he seemed hampered somehow. The whole thing had an air of keeping-things-steady, as though no one quite wanted it to get too passionate.

Karen Balkin played the nasty little girl who causes most of the trouble. It would be interesting to know what happened to her. She made only three movies and then seems to have vanished. Even the IMDB.com site has no information. (There’s a Karen Balkin who’s edited or written a number of non-fiction titles listed on Amazon. Could it be the same person?)

And finally to Mr Ripley.

What is it about Matt Damon? I don’t much like him in the Bourne films, even though he’s regarded as highly bankable by the producers. He seems to have a dullness about him that allows no subtlety to come through. It’s the same in Ripley. Sure, the character is a mystery, and is a more interesting character than Bourne, but we’d like to know a bit more about why he does what he does, and to have some idea of what’s going on in his head. My suspicion is that neither the scriptwriter nor the director nor Damon himself knew. The result is a film with a bit mystery in the middle and it’s not related to a whodunit.

Personally I think he’s miscast. And would anybody mistake him for Jude Law? Yet we’re expected to believe this for much of the second half of the movie. Changing your fringe from one side of your forehead to the other doesn’t really do the trick.

Jude Law is excellent. His character is meant to be over the top, vicious, mean, sunny, optimistic, hedonistic and various other things, and Law shifts from one to the other without blinking an eye. He’s the best thing in the movie, and when he’s murdered, the film starts to slumber.

Gwyneth Paltrow gets another one of those odd roles that doesn’t really give her the chance to do anything. Certainly she has some emotional moments, but she never affects the course of the action. She’s just there. Equally Cate Blanchett seems wasted in a role that doesn’t make any sense. By the time Damon has explained that he’s not Law but himself, (or is it the other way around?), the audience has completely lost it. You begin to think: oh for goodness sake, give it up. Nope, the whole thing is dragged on for another sequence at the end which seems just an excuse for another murder, one which in this case seems pointless.

Lastly, Philip Seymour Hoffman breaks into the movie at odd points, like a fart in polite society. His demise is another loss to the film’s momentum.

And then there’s all the hedging around the homosexual stuff. Being a superstar, Matt Damon can’t be shown to be a homosexual, so it’s all hints, and hard work. Jack Davenport, who plays a gay character, has to circle around Damon over and over to show that there’s actually something going on.

It all seems as though Anthony Minghella, who directed the movie, wanted to back off from anything that would involve his audience too deeply. I found The English Patient the same. And now I see he’s just directed The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I don’t think I’ll be going to see it.

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