Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Groggy On Hiatus

Groggy is going to take a break from blogging. I hate to do it, but there's too much going on right now: work is tough, I'm searching for a new apartment, which causes all kinds of stress and aggravation, and Sound on Sight takes up most of my creative energy. I just haven't had time for movies lately - at least, not new movies.

Hopefully this will only last a few weeks, until my life sorts itself out. Until then, tell me where you're blogging tomorrow night - and I'll come and read YOU.

Monday, March 9, 2015

New Flashman movie

 
A long, obnoxious Monday capped with great news:

Fox is going back to the 1830s and is developing “Flashman,” a movie based on the period novels by George MacDonald Fraser and setting it up with Ridley Scott’s Scott Free and Peter Chernin’s Chernin Entertainment.

The series was first published in 1969 and centers on Sir Harry Paget Flashman, who first appeared as the bully in the influential 1857 novel “Tom Brown’s School Days.” The Flashman character appeared in a dozen of Fraser’s novels and was portrayed by Malcolm McDowell in the 1975 film “Royal Flash.” The character is an antihero who often runs from danger but usually winds up being acclaimed as a hero.

So long as it's better than that Malcolm McDowell thing, I'm a happy man.

Now, who to play Flashman himself?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Sound on Sight Article: John Osborne on Film

Why no posts this week? I've been working on a new Sound on Sight piece, discussing John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. We've discussed that play and film here before, so this article largely talks about Anger's impact on English theater and the differences between stage and film versions. Hopefully it's the first in a series of articles on Osborne adaptations.

Not that writing for another site solely accounts for my lack of posting. Real life has been exceedingly busy; without going into details, a major life change is in the offing soon. Between that and various writing projects, there hasn't been much time for movies.

In particular, I feel bad for missing the deaths of Leonard Nimoy and especially Daniel Von Bargen. But really, I don't like writing obituaries unless it's someone (like say, Peter O'Toole) I know enough about to say something substantial.

Since it's the weekend, I'd like to have some new posts soon. We'll see if time allows, though; my near-future offline looks to be really busy.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hitler: The Last Ten Days

An Anglo-Italian co-production, Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) is an uneven revisiting of Nazi Germany's destruction. Alec Guinness gives a good impersonation of the Fuhrer, but the movie's awkwardly positioned between talky drama and black comedy.

With the Red Army approaching Berlin, Adolf Hitler (Alec Guinness) encases himself in a bunker with his staff and confidantes. Oblivious to impending defeat, he plots Germany's resurgence while threatening vengeance on his less-loyal colleagues. Mistress Eva Braun (Doris Kuntsmann) is too self-absorbed to challenge him, yet even she feels the Fuhrer's wrath. His generals and followers desert him, with only Joseph Goebbels (John Bennett) and Martin Bormann (Mark Kingston) remaining loyal. Trapped between, the Fuhrerbunker becomes a living tomb for everyone.

Based on Gerhardt Boldt's memoir, Hitler: The Last Ten Days desperately wants to convince viewers of its realism. Journalist Alistair Cooke opens with a tedious narration of Nazism's rise and fall, while historian Hugh Trevor-Roper provides a signed statement of authenticity! To further convince viewers, director Ennio de Concini frequently incorporates documentary footage for context and ironic contrast with the Fuhrer's otherworldly rantings. The renderings seem accurate, yet Hitler has a lifeless feel it only fitfully transcends.

De Concini competently revisits scenes familiar from Downfall and a million history books. Hitler directs imaginary armies on maps and broods over Albert Speer's futuristic city, oblivious to the enclosing Red Army. We have the familiar scenes of suicide, reckless decadence and eleventh-hour treachery: Hitler's aides Goebbels and Himmler betray him, SS Major Fegelein (Julian Glover) deserts, and even Eva disappoints Hitler. The difference is De Concini's darkly humorous tinge, playing scenes like Hitler and his staff debating suicide methods as a ghastly joke.

Another difference is the film's emphasis on Hitler's almost banal humanity. While given to self-pitying rants and megalomania, Hitler makes cheery small talk with Eva Braun and his followers. Between explosions he's almost likeable, an odd but effective treatment. When aviatrix Hannah Reitsch (Diane Cilento) makes a last-second visit, she's struck learning of his attachment to Eva, having thought him above sex. Indeed, Hitler: The Last Ten Days makes the Fuhrer approachable.

Alec Guinness matches this with a wonderful performance. Typically chameleon-like, Guinness affects the raspy timbre (oddly enough) of his Fagin while bearing surprising resemblance to Hitler. He's equally effective as raging madman, deluded dreamer and friendly confidante. It's a characterization few could pull off: where Bruno Ganz's Hitler is a force of nature, Guinness's is a subdued man fighting impinging reality, the actor finding relatable shades even in this monster.

If Guinness impresses, he's a one-man show. Hitler's international cast is stuck enacting ciphers. Simon Ward (The Three Musketeers) plays the nominal hero, an adjutant trapped in the Fuhrerbunker, but he's so bland we don't care about him. Dora Kunstman is a boring Eva Braun. Italian stars Gabriele Ferzetti and Adolfo Celli appear among Hitler's General Staff; Joss Ackland, Julian Glover and Mark Kingston impersonate other figures. Only Diane Cilento (Hombre) makes an impression as the starry-eyed Hannah Reitsch.

Thanks to Alec Guinness and unexpected humor, Hitler: The Last Ten Days surpasses swastika schlock like The Bunker, with its ghastly Anthony Hopkins performance. But it's still slow-paced, stiff and ultimately unsatisfying.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cromwell

 
One of the traditional epic's last gasps, Ken Hughes's Cromwell (1970) flattens a fantastic story. Alec Guinness and a game supporting cast struggle against an awful script and Richard Harris at his scenery-gobbling worst. The English Civil War becomes a stiff tableaux, vivid but empty-headed spectacle.

Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris) organizes Parliamentary resistance to King Charles I (Alec Guinness), disliked for his heavy-handed management and Catholic sympathies. Negotiations fail when Charles dissolves Parliament; Cromwell organizes supporters, the "Roundheads," into resistance against Charles' men (Cavaliers). After several military defeats, Cromwell reorganizes a New Model Army which trounces Charles. Cromwell becomes Lord Protector after Charles' execution, but finds governing post-monarchial England a laborious task.

Cromwell is a holy mess. Hughes can't keep his characters coherent: Cromwell whipsaws between angry traitor, reluctant rebel and despairing idealist - sometimes within the same scene! King Charles is a prudent ruler inexplicably manipulated by hot-headed advisers and a shrewish Queen (Dorothy Tutin). They act less out of personality or historical imperative than story requirements. In the last act, Cromwell changes direction so often he becomes a manic-depressive plot pawn.

Worse, Cromwell's script overflows with stilted epic speak and flaccid plotting. Between battle scenes and interminable debates we endure clunky homilies, with Cromwell explaining his ideal England to the King: "Such an institution is known as democracy, My Lord." We learn that both sides invoke God when Hughes cuts from Cromwell shouting "God damn this King!" to Charles at prayer. Hughes thinks this irony so clever he revisits it a half-dozen times. Everything's underlined by Frank Cordell's pompous score, all moaning chorus, rattling percussion and whooping brass.

At least Cromwell delivers good spectacle. Hughes and photographer Geoffrey Unsworth conjure widescreen battle panoramas worthy of Spartacus or Waterloo. But Cromwell's more interesting focusing on tactics: Cromwell and the King negotiate a battle's start time (which Cromwell violates), while Charles' cousin Prince Rupert (Timothy Dalton) sabotages Cavalier victories through recklessness. The technological divergence, with muskets and cannon alongside pikes and broadsword, stands out more than the rows of expendable extras.

Richard Harris starts at fever-pitch and never relents, each line pompously shouted or angrily growled. In a career not known for restraint, Harris's hamminess still shocks. Alec Guinness wisely chooses restraint, earning sympathy through subtle gestures and halting vocal delivery. Michael Jayston (Nicholas and Alexandra) fares well as Cromwell's right-hand man; Patrick Wymark (Where Eagles Dare), gleefully wicked as Charles' chief adviser; Timothy Dalton steals each scene as the dashing Prince Rupert. Robert Morley, Nigel Stock, Frank Finley, Patrick Magee, Charles Gray and Jack Gwilim inhabit smaller roles.

Since Cromwell treats its subject so superficially, our investment is threadbare. Once the vivid pageantry fades, we're left with an empty costume drama with nothing to say.