- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (11/12/2020)
(Reviews of One Way to Moscow; Landline; and More, Please!)
The majority of cinemas may be closed during these enduringly dismal days. And who, in all honesty is that big a film fan that they would risk contracting a contagious disease just to see something on the big screen as part of a well-spaced crowd? There are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release during Lockdown 2, however. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
ONE WAY TO MOSCOW.
In November 1989, it was discovered that the Swiss Bundespolizei had been keeping illegal files on 900,000 people. Many were from Eastern Europe, but numerous Swiss citizens and organisations had also been under secret surveillance, with the majority having a left-wing affiliation. The scandal provides the background for Micha Lewinsky's One Way to Moscow, an droll, if somewhat parochial comedy that sees the German director return to features following a spell in television following The Friend (2008), Will You Marry Us? (2009) and A Decent Man (2015).
On 19 October 1989, Zurich detective Viktor Schuler (Philippe Graber) is monitoring Claude Bachman (Stefan Schönholzer) broadcasting on Radio LoRa when he learns that the Switzerland Without an Army group will be protesting outside the Schauspielhaus. He takes a leaflet from costume designer Margot Piszek (Eva Bay) and convinces his superior, Hans Marogg (Mike Müller), that everyone in the company led by director Carl Heymann (Michael Maertens) has connections behind the Iron Curtain. As he has a fortnight's leave, he is encouraged to audition as an extra in a production of Twelfth Night and shaves off his moustache and buys a leather jacket to transform himself into sailor-turned-thespian, Walo Hubacher.
Despite his cunning disguise, Margot thinks she recognises him when leading lady Odile Jola (Miriam Stein) spills coffee on him during a table read-through, However, fellow extra Reto (Fabian Krüger) proves welcoming, as Schuler snoops around backstage and types up his findings in reports that speculate about cast connections and dismiss notions of any threat posed by someone named Stanislawski (one of many witty theatrical jokes). Schuler also develops a crush on Odile, who is sleeping with Heymann, even though she is informed that he is married by her father, Colonel Lehmann (Peter Jecklin), who doesn't want his position within the army compromised by his daughter's involvement with subversives.
Marogg is certain that Heymann is using Odile to obtain information about Lehmann and the army and persuades Schuler that it's a last desperate throw of the Warsaw Pact to cause chaos in the West before the Berlin Wall falls. In fact, it tumbles the next day and, as Schuler had spoken up for her when Heymann had insisted that she played a scene naked, Odile confides in him that their director is a coward, whose socialist facade is a sham. She is charmed by Schuler's naive charm, but Marogg is furious with him when he gives LoRa an off-the-cuff opinion on the situation in the East impacting upon the forthcoming referendum on the future of the Swiss army.
This brings Lehmann to the precinct, where he threatens to make life difficult for Schuler for conducting an unauthorised investigation unless he helps keep Odile out of trouble. She is due to perform at a dinner for Lehmnn's guild and he is worried that she'll cause a scene. But Schuler is preoccupied with the fact that he has been promoted to play Antonio after a backstage accident and Margot again thinks she recognises him when she adds a moustache to his new costume. Odile thinks he looks hilarious and she is delighted he's there to watch her follow a rendition of `Gilberte de Courgenay' at her father's dinner with a parodic speech calling for all enemies of the Swiss state to be rounded up in the local football stadium and gunned down.
Just as Schuler is summoning the courage to tell Odile the truth about himself, Marogg calls at his flat to cancel Operation Curtain. When he refuses to step down, Marogg abducts Schuler and locks him in the basement archive. He apologises for having placed a respected cop's son in danger and refuses to let him go to the theatre for the premiere. Having been left alone in his flat, Odile has learned the truth about Walo Hubacher and is astonished to see him arrive as the play is about to begin. He stumbles on to the stage in his underwear when Reto refuses to surrender Antonio's costume and delivers a speech of apology to Odile. But, while he brings the house down, she refuses to forgive him and he is distraught.
A coda shows Claude (who has been unable to find work because he has been blacklisted) breaking the news of National Councillor Moritz Leuenberger discovering the 900,000 files. We also learn that the plebiscite went overwhelmingly against the army. As for Schuler, he finds himself out of work when the play closes. But Odile forgives him and the film ends with her suggestion that they blow the cast party and go for a drink alone.
The happy ending is something of an inevitability, but Lewinsky and co-scribes Plinio Bachman and Barbara Sommer might have taken a risk in leaving Schuler in the lurch. However, this is nowhere near as savage a satire as Nicolas Wackerbarth's Casting (2017), which took us behind the scenes as an audition reader is suddenly given his chance to become a star in a TV remake of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). Indeed, it's closer in tone to Petra Volpe's The Divine Order (2017), which chronicled the campaign for women's suffrage in Switzerland in the 1960s, although there's also a faint hint of the Czech New Wave thanks to the passing similarity between Philippe Graber and Václav Neckár, the hapless anti-hero of Jirí Menzel's Oscar-winning wartime saga, Closely Observed Trains (1966).
Graber is suitably woebegone as the cop discovering he's been infected with the wrong kind of Stockholm Syndrome, while Mike Müller is splendidly cynical as his fascistic superior. However, Miriam Stein is sold short as Odile and the scene in which Schuler protests when she is forced to go nude is rather undermined by the medium shot of a topless Stein in her underwear. Otherwise, Lewinsky directs steadily, with Tobias Dengler's camera creeping through the bowels of the Schauspielhaus. But the creative highlight is composer Ephrem Lüchinger's canny use of a cimbalon, as it recalls `A Man Alone', the theme that John Barry wrote for Sidney J. Furie's adaptation of Len Deighton's The Ipcress File (1965).
It probably won't come as a surprise to learn that, until 2017, none of the major sporting leagues in the United States had licenced a film focused on LGBTQ+ characters. That is until first-time writer-director Matthew Aaron persuaded the National Baseball League to get involved with Landline, a gay romcom that explores the extent to which personal contact is under threat in what should be a golden age for communication. Made for just $250,000, this is an admirable achievement that should be commended on many levels.
Having been arrested for disturbing the peace in a small Illinois town, thirtysomething Ted Gout (Matthew Aaron) tells world-weary cop Don Garett (Nick Searcy) how his life fell apart. Happily married to Jack (Patrick Hartigan), Ted is set to land a big promotion at the PR agency run by his old friend, Fiona (Betsy Brandt). But, despite Ted being a big Chicago Cubs fans, he is passed over for the plum account in favour of Barry (Chad Michael Singer), a young thruster who makes him look like a tech and social media dinosaur.
Convinced that gadgetry is the root of all evil by eccentric stranger Norm (Lee Kepraios), Ted swears off the Internet and installs a landline in the trendy loft he shares with Jack. Sensing he's becoming a loose cannon, Fiona fires Ted in front of legendary second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who is co-ordinating the Cubs campaign. When he breaks the news to Jack, he dismisses the suggestion they find their dream house and retire and is hurt when Ted accuses him of cheating on him with his old friend, George (Avi Roque).
Ted heads off on a camping trip with Larry (Jay Washington) and Norm, whose revelation that he has a phone tips Ted over the edge and he winds up in Garett's custody. He releases him with the recommendation that he sorts his life out and Ted enlists the help of his gabby father, Chuch (Tom Arnold), and equally garrulous uncle, Steve (Jim O'Heir), to help him film a clip at Wrigley Field that promotes the idea of the Cubs bringing the generations together. All ends well, with Ted getting Barry's job after he is fired for an indiscretion with Fiona. However, Ted has to apologise to George, who is transgender and had merely been seeing Jack for some much-needed support.
Replete with positive messages, this is a genial rite of passage that keeps the audience onside without ever being particularly amusing. Despite being impeccably groomed, Aaron is not your typical romcom lead and the odd gag stresses that he's batting out of his league with Patrick Hartigan. But a lack of chemistry emphasises the fact that Jack is as underwritten as the majority of the secondary characters. This isn't an impediment to Betsy Brandt, who revels in hamming up as Ted's highly strung boss, while Tom Arnold and Jim O'Heir should be snapped up for a film of their own as the bickeringly competitive siblings forever finding Ted wanting in the ways of Chicago manhood.
Technically, the film has the look and feel of a sitcom. But cinematographer Will Brunker conveys the special atmosphere of the sequence filmed on the sacred turf of Wrigley Field. And therein lies the reason to celebrate this pioneering picture, as it got to tread new ground in shattering taboos that are still all-too-prevalent in the world's leading spectator sports.
The world is full of untold stories, as Nick Pourgourides muses in the opening chapters of More, Please!, the first-ever biography of that fine actor, Kenneth More. Frustrated by the fact that he could unearth so little information about the grandfather he had never known, Pourgourides channelled his need to commemorate into keeping alive the memory of one of Britain's most distinctive film stars.
Initially, this took the form of a website and, in the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that this critic has twice contributed to that noble enterprise. Pourgourides also persuaded the splendid people at Talking Pictures TV to host a special Kenneth More Day, while he also got to discuss his career on Radio Four's The Film Programme. But the grandfather factor convinced Pourgourides to pay tribute to him in a book about one of the most famous figures of his generation.
As he had befriended More's widow, Angela Douglas (who has written eloquently about her life in Swings and Roundabouts, 2012), and his daughters, Jane and Sarah, Pourgourides was able to access family records and keepsakes. Moreover, having found a handwritten note stating `Over to you!' in the papers held by the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford, he also secured the estate's permission to use extracts from the second of More's volumes of autobiography, More or Less (1978). Consequently, Pourgourides shrewdly uses his subject's voice to relate the key events of his personal and professional life.
And what a life it was. The son of an engineer who turned down a partnership with motor manufacturer, William Morris, More had been sent to boarding school at the age of six. However, he had largely been raised on the island of Jersey, where he did his first acting at Victoria College. Keen to try his luck in show business after failing to make a go of being a fur trapper in Canada, he landed a job as a stagehand at the infamous Windmill Theatre in Soho. Manager Vivian Van Damm had warned him that nothing good would come of treading the boards. But More was soon serving as second banana to comedian Ken Douglas and he realised he had been bitten by the bug.
Despite taking tentative steps on stage and screen, the Second World War prevented More from pursuing his acting ambitions. However, his duties as Watch Keeping Officer aboard the cruiser HMS Aurora saw him refine his declamatory techniques while describing enemy action to shipmates below deck. Having come close to calamity a couple of times at sea, More certainly never lacked confidence while performing and his jaunty blokeishness was the secret of his appeal to postwar audiences needing someone to rely on during the uncertainties of Austerity and the Cold War.
Whether guffawing like an overgrown schoolboy as Ambrose Claverhouse in Henry Cornelius's Genevieve (1953) or encapsulating the national spirit as Douglas Bader in Lewis Gilbert's Reach For the Sky (1956), More proved both affable and authentic. He may not have been as handsome as Rank stablemate Dirk Bogarde - he described himself as `a short-arsed nobody who got lucky' - and, ultimately, became so identified with a certain kind of character that producers were reluctant to cast him in arthouse or social realist features. But More was once called the closest thing that British cinema had to a Marlon Brando and he demonstrated his versatility in the roles he took on television, notably Young Jolyon in the BBC's classic adaptation of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga (1967) and as GK Chesterton's dog-collared sleuth in ITV's Father Brown (1974).
In truth, Pourgourides doesn't go into a lot of detail about the films, as he is confident that readers will feel compelled to seek them out once they have got to know the man who made them. His selections from More's engaging memoir are adroit and deftly used to capture the personality delighted millions at the height of his powers. He also laces the text with thoughtful reflections in doing full justice to both his grandfather and his childhood hero with a perceptive and poignant book that - to borrow a phrase from More's previously unpublished poem, `Ode to a Theatre' - has quite clearly been compiled `with love and care'.