Movies: “Esio Trot”

February 15, 2016

Esio 1

Lucy Mangan, writing in The Guardian, had this to say about the film Esio Trot: “Just watch it. Once a week, I’d recommend, for the rest of your life.”

Some may think that suggestion is excessive, but it certainly heightened my curiosity, which had already been aroused by the fact that this BBC television movie co-stars Judi Dench and Dustin Hoffman. This movie, based on a children’s novel by Roald Dahl, first appeared on British TV in 2014 and still hasn’t been released in the United States. Nor is it available in a DVD format that will play on most American devices. But I poked around on the Internet long enough to find that the movie is available at THIS LINK. You can click on “CC” at the lower right to turn off the Dutch subtitles.

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Esio Trot concerns Mr. Hoppy (Hoffman), an introverted aging bachelor who has two passions in life—the lush garden he keeps on his apartment balcony and his lovely and charismatic neighbor, the widowed Mrs. Silver (Dench). Although he and Mrs. Silver often meet, particularly in the apartment building elevator, and although Mr. Hoppy often chats with her when they are on their respective balconies, Mrs. Silver seems to reserve all of her affection for her pet tortoise, Alfie. Mr. Hoppy doesn’t have the courage to tell Mrs. Silver how he feels about her—that, in fact, he would like to marry her—but he sees an opening when she expresses her concern that Alfie never grows any larger. She had dreamed of a more imposing tortoise to keep her company in her solitude. Mr. Hoppy determines to fulfill this dream for Mrs. Silver, and he devises an elaborate, somewhat devious, and ultimately hilarious means of accomplishing it.

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The story line in the movie departs from that in the novel, and the differences include a character who appears only in the movie—the boorish Mr. Pringle, played by Richard Cordery—who is Mr. Hoppy’s rival for Mrs. Silver’s attention. The movie is also enlivened by the presence of James Corden, who narrates the story while rushing around London.

Judi Dench, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Cordery, and James Corden are perfect in their roles. (No one is better than Hoffman at playing woebegone figures, and Dench—well, she’s Judi Dench, for Pete’s sake.) But the texture of this movie is made richer by the fact that all the minor characters, from children to shopkeepers, are perfectly cast and utterly believable in an implausible situation.

I don’t know about once  week, but I certainly recommend that you watch Esio Trot.

 

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SHELLEY BERMAN

SHELLEY BERMAN

I met Shelley Berman in 1972. He was staying in Bernardsville, New Jersey — I think it was Mike Ellis’s house — and appearing in a production of Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. Berman had become widely known because of his television appearances. His signature routine was sitting on a stool and talking on an imaginary telephone — a bit he put his stamp on before Bob Newhart used it in his own act. I had always thought of Berman as a kind of reiteration of Oscar Levant. I never met Levant, but Berman’s often dour persona reminded me of what I had read about the pianist-composer. I also think that certain points in their lives, they resembled each other physically. I found Berman to be articulate. I remember quite well the case he made about the damage critics can do to performers’ careers. It was something he had experienced himself and had thought a lot about; he could have made that argument before a jury.

JUDE LAW and CAMERON DIAZ

JUDE LAW and CAMERON DIAZ

I bring up Shelley Berman because we saw him the other night in a 2006 movie, The Holiday. I watch movie credits right to the end, and that’s how I discovered that Berman was in the movie. He had a small role, and I hadn’t recognized him. He was 82 years old when he made that film. But when I saw his name in the credits, I went back into the movie to have a look. I wouldn’t have known him, but the point is that he was a perfect choice for the part he played. And that — the casting — is what makes this movie worthwhile.

The Holiday, which was produced and directed by Nancy Meyers, is about two women who are unhappy in love. Iris Simpkins (Kate Winslet), who writes a society column for The Daily Telegraph of London, has been in love with a colleague for years. He is an affectionate and manipulative friend; he’s also engaged, and there is no prospect for him to return her passion. Meanwhile, frenetic Amanda Woods (Cameron Diaz), who owns and operates a lucrative Los Angeles company that makes movie trailers, finds out that her live-in lover has been having an affair with his secretary. Both women abruptly decide to take a holiday to assuage their anguish and, under the only-in-the-movies rule, they end up swapping houses. The outcome is exactly what you’d expect — in a movie.

KATE WINSLET and JACK BLACK

KATE WINSLET and JACK BLACK

But although the plot is obvious and implausible, the casting decisions were impeccable and the result is a very entertaining movie. Winslet and Diaz are perfect as the ingenuous Iris and the frantic Amanda. Jude Law is disarming in an unusual role for him; he plays Iris’s brother, Graham,who makes Amanda’s visit to England worthwhile. Eli Wallach, who was 90 years old when this film was shot, has a tour de force as Arthur Abbott, a retired screen writer with whom Iris develops a warm relationship that revs up the lives of both parties. Shelley Berman plays a buddy of Abbott. The most ingenious stroke of all was the choice of Jack Black as Miles, a sympathetic Hollywood composer who shares with Iris a weakness for the wrong lovers. The script was written with Winslet, Diaz, Law, and Black in mind. Any one of us could had written it, as far as the story line goes, and the reviewers had a few things to say about that, but the movie with its stable of charming characters still made money.

Dustin Hoffman has a brief uncredited cameo in this film. It occurs when Miles and Iris go to a video store and are discussing The Graduate. Hoffman appears as a customer who overhears their conversation and reacts with a whimsical smile. Hoffman has said that he noticed all the cameras and lights at a Blockbuster store and stopped to find out what was going on. He ran into Meyers, whom he knew, and she wrote him into the scene.

In this scene, SHELLEY BERMAN is the second from the left and ELI WALLACH is next to Kate Winslet

In this scene, SHELLEYT BERMAN is the second from the left and ELI WALLACH is next to Kate Winslet

Shelley Berman performed one of his telephone routines on Judy Garland’s television show. It is introduced by Garland and a short musical number. To see it, click HERE.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN

We watched the 2008 film “Last Chance Harvey” which stars Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. Apparently this film attracted some attention when it was released, but I must have been out of town, because I don’t remember hearing about it. Hoffman and Thompson both got Golden Globe “best” nominations, so somebody was paying attention.

This movie got mixed reviews, but I’ll cast my lot with the yea-sayers.

Hoffman plays Harvey Shine, a song writer and musician who wanted to be a jazz pianist but settled for writing commercial jingles. Now that that industry depends far more on digital sound than on the black-and-whites, he’s having a hard time keeping up, so much so that his job is in jeopardy — hence the title of the film.

LIANE BALABAN

Meanwhile, Harvey is due to fly to London to attend the wedding of his daughter, Susan (Liane Balaban), who is tighter with her mom and stepfather than with Harvey, her dad. In fact, Harvey feels very much in the way at the dinner on the eve of the ceremony.

Meanwhile, the film follows the life of Londoner Kate Walker (Thompson), a lonely woman who works as a survey taker at Heathrow Airport. Despite a friend’s clumsy attempts to find her a match, Kate seems almost willingly trapped in a drab existence punctuated by constant phone calls from her aged and equally lonely mother.

EMMA THOMPSON

OK, it’s obvious early on that Kate and Harvey are going to cross paths, but these characters are so well drawn by the actors, and their situations are so familiar, that it’s hard not to get interested in them. I read that Hoffman and Thompson had had a positive experience working together in a previous film and that Hoffman agreed to this role on the condition that he and Thompson ad lib some of their dialog. The relationship between them seems natural, so that strategy paid off.

Some viewers might be distracted by the age difference between Hoffman and Thompson — which is emphasized in a certain way by the difference in their heights — but there is no suggestion that their interest in each other is primarily sexual, or sexual at all, and the things that do attract them to each other make perfect sense. I, for one, am not cynical enough to dismiss the way  Harvey’s personality is rejuvenated under the influence of a timid, self-conscious, but witty and intelligent woman. If one starts with the premise that Joel Hopkins’ script starts with — that both of their lives were at a dead end — the idea that they could form a relationship is both plausible and redemptive.

Hoffman and Thompson