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Posts Tagged ‘Michael York’

I love a really famously bad movie, me, but the problem is that a lot of the actual famously bad films don’t turn up on TV a lot. There’s a class of bad movie which has become celebrated for its badness – the much-discussed ‘so bad it’s good’ type of film, usually made on a low budget and often belonging to a disreputable genre – but the real stinkers of years gone by tend to vanish into obscurity. Luckily, the rise of the high-number movie channel means that obscurity isn’t as obscure as it used to be. Which was how I came to happen across a screening of Charles Jarrott’s 1973 movie Lost Horizon. I think I must have heard hushed, shocked whispers about this film, but the reality of it still came as rather a shock.

I think I must have read James Hilton’s hugely popular original novel, many years ago, but it’s the 1937 version of this story (directed by Frank Capra) that I’m most familiar with. The 1973 version opens in a broadly similar manner: there is unrest on the cards in the remote Asian city of Baskula, with everyone trying to get the hell out of Dodge before some guerrillas arrive. This includes a bunch of foreigners, most prominent amongst them being Richard Conway (Peter Finch), who is some sort of diplomat or trouble-shooter for the UN. Conway manages to get on the last plane out of Baskula, along with the kind of mixed-bag of fellow travellers that puts one in mind of a disaster movie of sorts – there’s gruff engineer Sam (George Kennedy), jaded journalist Sally (Sally Kellerman), out-of-place vaudeville comedian Harry (Bobby Van), and Conway’s own brother (Michael York). Little do any of them suspect that their pilot has been replaced by a mysterious stranger…

(I suppose the 26 year age difference between the two Conway brothers is just about explicable – maybe they’re not full brothers, or one of them is adopted. But you do wonder that nobody took one glance at Finch and York together and said ‘Father and son, I could maybe believe, but brothers? You have to be kidding me.’ Then again, as we shall perhaps see, whoever was in charge of preventing bizarre missteps and misjudgements on Lost Horizon seems to have been asleep on the job, or possibly even to have died there.)

Soon enough the refugees notice that their plane, rather than heading east to Hong Kong, is going the other way, and eventually crash-lands somewhere in the Himalayas. But Conway is clearly the kind of chap who gets kidnapped in planes that then crash all the time, and stays remarkably cool. This is justified when a group of locals in thick furs turn up, led by the enigmatic Mr Chang (John Gielgud, whose preparation for playing someone Asian basically extended to sticky-tape on the eyelids).

Chang leads them all back to his home in an idyllic valley, protected from the snow and ice by circling mountains, and the location of Shangri-La, a lamasery devoted to the creed of kindness and politeness. Shangri-La is almost totally isolated from the outside world and so the party will have to stay there for a while at least. So far, as noted, the film has vacillated between seeming like a low-rent disaster movie and a somewhat tepid adventure film, but the middle section of the film gets underway with the first of many songs. In amongst all the singing and dancing, various subplots play out for most of the refugees, while Conway Major discovers that they were kidnapped and brought here: the current boss of Shangri-La, who is two hundred years old and has one leg, is trying to recruit him as a successor. Meanwhile, Conway Minor has fallen in love with a local (Olivia Hussey) – well, given she looks and sounds European and is called Maria, you have to wonder exactly how local she is, but I digress – and is keen for them all to leave. Will Conway Major choose the outside world or Shangri-La?

Now, normally, Lost Horizon would have ended up as just a fairly bad movie, because this is one of those stories that’s very much of the era in which it was written. The film is shot through with problematic attitudes and assumptions that, even worse, it doesn’t even seem to be aware of. Viewed as a film of its era, the Capra version is still charming and engaging entertainment, but for a Hollywood movie from the early 1970s to treat the whole of Asia basically not as a place but as something that happens to westerners – well, as I say, problematic doesn’t really begin to cover it. We have already touched upon the issue of Gielgud playing someone called Chang; we should probably also mention that all the genuinely Asian characters in the movie are basically obliged to stay in the background – when the westerners require love interest they either find it with each other, or conveniently European residents of Shangri-La turn up. Perhaps one should not be surprised, for the fabled lamasery of Shangri-La resembles a second-rate resort hotel more than anything else; I can’t imagine the place getting an especially good score on TripAdvisor though.

What raises, or more accurately lowers, Lost Horizon to a whole different level of badness is the decision to do it as a musical. Now, I’m not saying that grafting songs onto an existing story is a necessarily bad idea – that’s basically the principle of opera, after all – but the way in which it is done here is compellingly horrible. For one thing, the pacing is just plain weird: there are no songs at all for the first forty minutes of the film, then about eight in the space of an hour. It’s a disconcerting shift in emphasis. The closing section of the film is likewise resolutely non-musical, leaving all the numbers sandwiched together in the middle. But there is more, much more than this. It is rather noticeable that most of the cast can’t sing: there is extensive use of dubbing for the actual songs. They can’t dance worth a damn, either: the film’s big numbers are mesmerisingly cack-handed in their staging.

As I mentioned, all the songs are crammed together in the middle section of the film, and the fact that most of them are genuinely grim (working on this movie split up Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and nearly put Bacharach into retirement) makes this a peculiarly gruelling film to watch. The succession of blandly upbeat songs essentially espousing hippy virtues – peace, love, family – could almost drive a person to violence, even without watching some of the accompanying routines – often, these do not resemble choreography as much as people undergoing rehabilitation after joint replacement surgery, while at one point ‘Living Together, Growing Together’ is paused while a large group of men in tangerine nappies perform massed rhythmic gymnastics. The overall effect is extraordinary: just a few seconds of ‘The World is a Circle’ or ‘Question Me an Answer’ and I find the will to live starting to leave my body. It may be best not to watch Lost Horizon without a defibrillator on standby.

Perhaps the most positive thing I can say about Lost Horizon is that I don’t really see how it managed to lose the $51 million ascribed to it by one website (it only cost $6 million to make in the first place), but this is more about basic mathematics than any intrinsic quality of the film. It is dim-witted, patronising, weirdly paced, very variably acted, consistently badly sung and danced, poorly directed, and has nothing to say for itself that doesn’t feel trite and obvious. Apart from that, though, I suppose it is not all that bad.

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I almost feel the need to apologise for the recent tendency of the writing here or hereabouts to dwell on some fairly repugnant topics: there has been quite a lot about prejudice and particularly anti-semitism, of one form or another, in the last couple of weeks. Weirdly enough, I think this may be linked to the fact that I have been looking at a lot of film musicals recently. As I have said in the past, while you might automatically assume that musicals are the most frivolous and escapist of forms, the fact is that it’s often these films that allow us to consider the most serious ideas and darkest material in an accessible way.

So, on to some more anti-semitism set to a catchy tune, in the form of Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret, which I am tempted to describe as coming at the tail end of the era of the classic Hollywood musical (even though this film was made in Germany with a largely local cast). This seems to me to be a slightly peculiar film in many different ways – it was, for example, the first musical to receive an X certificate from the censor (hard to believe these days), and, in terms of the Oscars, the most honoured film not to receive the award for Best Picture.

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The film is set in Germany in 1931, towards the end of the Weimar Republic. Arriving in the city is the diffident and reserved English academic Brian Roberts (Michael York), studying for his PhD and teaching English to make ends meet (well, it can’t be a vocation for everyone, I suppose). Lodging in the same house is another expat, the American Sally Bowles (Liza Minelli), who dreams of stardom while performing as a singer and dancer at the decadent and sleazy Kit Kat Klub. After a few false starts, the two embark upon a relationship, but Sally’s ambitions, unrealistic though they perhaps are, continue to be an issue. Meanwhile, in the background, German society becomes harsher and darker as the Nazi movement grows in strength and influence.

The thing you first notice, watching Cabaret, is that it is practically the antithesis of the sung-through musical (a production like Evita or Les Miserables featuring no spoken dialogue whatsoever) – I might even go so far as to describe this as a drama with occasional songs, rather than full-blown musical in its own right. The second thing is connected to this, and it’s that Cabaret is, for want of a better expression, a diegetic musical. Virtually every other famous musical is non-diegetic (they are, to quote my mum, ‘where’s the orchestra?’ musicals) – characters spontaneously burst into song as they go about their lives, and no-one seems especially surprised by this (indeed, the supporting artists often join in the choruses and dance routines). Cabaret has a different approach and a different structure, for – with the exception of the chilling ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ – all the songs are staged as musical performances at the Kit Kat Klub, and are mostly either character songs by Minelli, or reflections of or commentaries on the plot by the Klub’s Master of Ceremonies (a remarkable performance by Joel Grey). As a result, Cabaret is surely the only musical where the leading man doesn’t sing a word (although Michael York’s brand of fresh-faced, impeccably-cheekboned earnestness is effectively deployed), while the main male singer (Grey) doesn’t really participate in the main plot at all.

The result is that the musical routines have an unsettling, almost claustrophobic quality, tinged as they are by the atmosphere of the club: smoky, decadent, reeking of moral turpitude. If we’re going to look for a metaphor in this film (and why not?), it could be that the collapse in values on display in the club is intended to reflect that of wider German society at the time, thus creating a dangerous moral vacuum in which the Nazi ideology was able to establish itself.

Possibly somewhat at odds with this interpretation of the film is the fact that Sally herself is a fairly amoral character herself, and yet we are supposed to connect with and care for her as the story proceeds. If this happens at all, it’s because of Liza Minelli’s enormous vulnerability and heart as a performer, as well as her chops as a singer and dancer. It may just be that I’ve met a few too many real-life Sally Bowleses – vivacious, charming individuals, whose hedonism and self-centredness nevertheless mean they often leave emotional devastation in their wake – and this made me slightly wary of the character to begin with. Certainly, I found the personal drama of the relationship between Brian and Sally and the various other people they encounter – most prominently Helmut Griem as a wealthy playboy who initiates an odd love triangle with the couple – to be less compelling than the subplot about the gradual encroachment of Nazism.

Then again, I suppose that one of the points the film is trying to make is that the Nazis were able to seize power largely because people either didn’t pay them much attention or didn’t take them seriously if they did, being much too concerned with other things. The film is generally understated in this area, though still effective, and the moment when the increasingly-malevolent MC’s performance of a seemingly absurd comic song (‘If You Could See Her’) is revealed to be a repugnant piece of anti-semitic propaganda is genuinely shocking.

I’ve watched Cabaret a couple of times and while I think it’s a well-made and thoughtful film, I find it quite difficult to warm to. Perhaps this is because of its studied amorality and cynicism, in comparison to the genuine emotion and sympathetic characters to be found in most other musicals. As I say, I’m not sure it’s really a true musical, but the presence of the songs means it’s hardly a conventional drama either. Still, it’s an iconic movie with many effective moments in it.

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After all the arc-related, format-shifting stuff going on in the second quarter of Babylon 5‘s third season, the sudden appearance of a Wandering Loony episode feels a bit like the return of an old friend. I should probably have made the most of this, as this may well be the very last one .

Having already treated us to visits to B5 from Jack the Ripper, Sugar Ray Robinson, and an ex-accountant searching for the Holy Grail, in A Late Delivery from Avalon JMS gives us his take on Arthurian mythology, as someone claiming to be King Arthur of the Britons turns up on the station. (Not surprisingly his sword and chainmail set off the metal detectors in the customs area.) A fight is averted when – oh dear – Marcus turns up and starts humouring the guy and talking the same cod-mediaeval argot.

Now, given that King Arthur is played by Michael York, best-known these days for playing Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers films, and Marcus is played (as usual) by Jason Carter, you would expect the results to be unwatchably embarrassing. And they nearly are. But at the same time the naive silliness of it is rather charming.

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Oh, behave!

Eventually King Arthur decides to go all Charlie Bronson and clean up the crime-infested areas of the station (the revolution and declaration of independence doesn’t seem to have made any difference down here), and finds himself assisted in this by the newly-philanthropic G’Kar. We even get the start of a fight scene in which the duo take on some crooks, Arthur waving Excalibur about and G’Kar doing the angry-kitty-cat Narn martial art I have occasionally commented on in the past.

It gets a bit more serious in the end, and turns into a story about idealism and guilt: it turns out King Arthur is actually a bloke called Dave who accidentally started the Earth-Minbari War and then had the poor manners not to die in it. It’s an okay idea, but the presentation is very stagey – just a couple of actors in a set, often monologuing at each other. Then again, Michael York is a fine actor, even when required to perform straight down the camera lens, and there’s certainly some imagination in the writing and direction.

It’s a very odd episode, not toned down much by a housekeeping B-story about Sheridan and Ivanova put together a new defensive alliance for the station, and a comedy C-story about Garibaldi falling out with the Post Office. Speaking of the station defenses, exactly how big is a Minbari war cruiser? The ones in the establishing FX shots pass behind the station and stay visible, which (given that Babylon 5 is five miles long) means they must be enormous, much bigger than they were implied to be in the first season.

Oh well. Walter Koenig and his possible-you-know-what return in Ship of Tears, a much darker, mildly horror-inflected episode in which the achilles heel of the Shadows is finally revealed. Well, sort of. The exact details of when the Shadows woke up and why, and how they infiltrated the government of Earth, remain rather murky and possibly even become more confused; I’ve stopped keeping track of all the references. Koenig is always fun though; I thought I remembered a concluding scene where he gets a big soliloquoy he delivers to his popsicle lover, but either it’s been cut from the DVD release or it’s in a different episode.

The next episode, Interludes and Examinations, follows on virtually directly, with the Shadows finally on the march, and desperate measures being required to stop them. It all goes a bit bish-bash-Kosh in the end, but the demise of a character who’s basically a strange confluence of curtains, Christmas lights and a plastic bucket is oddly moving when it comes. Elsewhere Morden gets up to some skulduggery involving Londo’s old girlfriend from the first series – the way Londo falls for this smacks of melodrama, to say nothing of Peter Jurasik’s wracked-by-grief acting – and the Frankin’s-drug-habit plotline rumbles on. If Richard Biggs wasn’t such a good actor this would really be a slog, but possibly JMS is mainly including this thread to give Biggs good material.

And so to the main event of mid-to-late season 3, War Without End. This is the other end of the story we saw bits of in season 1’s Babylon Squared, as the gang – or selected members of it – go back in time to steal Babylon 4 and send it back to the last Shadow War. Along for the ride is Jeffrey Sinclair, and if you thought Michael O’Hare’s performances were restrained when he was in charge of the station you ain’t seen nothing yet. You might expect a scene with both O’Hare and Bruce Boxleitner in it to be vaguely reminscent of two men fighting over a parachute in free fall, but it’s not too bad, and JMS wisely keeps them apart a lot of the time.

You can’t fault the ambition of the series for attempting such a complex and challenging story, but the problem is that towards the end one gets a definite sense of this being an exercise in connecting the dots rather than telling a story per se. There are obvious places where Babylon Squared and War Without End just don’t match up, which surely defeats the object of the exercise. The scope and barely-suppressed craziness of it – past, present, and various alternative futures all whirl around each in mildly confusing style – make it a novel change of pace, though.

(JMS-Dialogue-O-Meter Roundup: After a quiet few episodes things perk up in this batch: we have a Get The Hell… in Ship of Tears after Bester pinches Sheridan’s seat, and another Straight To Hell in War Without End, referring to the alt-future Garibaldi gets a message from. They’re still less common than it felt at the time.)

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