Archive for March 25, 2008

One, Two, Three…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on March 25, 2008 by dcairns

Ghost story flick written by Sergio Sanchez, directed by J.A. Bayona, exec produced by Guillermo del Toro.

Leatherface

Heard mixed reports — one friend hated it, the British broadsheet critics liked it a lot. I generally trust friends more than reviewers, but Fiona wasn’t going to let a ghost story with Del Toro’s fingerprints on it pass her by, so off we went.

Fiona really enjoyed this. I found it a little by-the-numbers. There’s a strong sense of “Now this is the set-up,” at the beginning. But it does pay off very very nicely at the end, the construction is genuinely clever and original. There are some real scares, including one which forced a Hugh Herbert-style cry of “Woo-woo!” from an audience member.

There’s a children’s game featured prominently in the action: one kid faces a wall, or tree, and chants “One two three knock on the door!” as the others creep up behind her. They have to freeze when she turns around, but she can only turn when she’s finished chanting. I think you can all see how effective that’s going to be in a ghost story…

For reasons unknown to me, the Scottish version of this game uses a different phrase, and a very evocative one. I bet the makers of THE ORPHANAGE would have loved to have access to it.

We say, “What’s the TIME, Mister Wolf?”

Woo-woo!

The Late Billy Wilder

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2008 by dcairns

One Grave to Cairo 

Changing our Viennese directors in mid-stream, we watched Billy Wilder’s FEDORA (sadly an ancient pan-and-scanned VHS off-air recording), which prompts all sorts of thoughts about the phenomenon of the late film, especially as I was just pontificating on Otto Preminger’s last works. Older filmmakers’ output has a tendency to be neglected upon release, especially in Hollywood, where fashion is all. Wilder in particular suffered about twenty years of critical and commercial decline. After THE APARTMENT won him three Oscars in one night, Moss Hart is supposed to have said, “This is the moment to stop, Billy.” If that’s true, how those words must have rung in his ears as he released ONE, TWO, THREE and KISS ME STUPID and AVANTI! and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES to a largely indifferent or hostile public. And then, following the bloody train wreck that is BUDDY, BUDDY (don’t watch it, folks), another twenty years of enforced idleness.

That last movie is the only real disaster, for me — I find much to enjoy in the later films, though perhaps you have to be sympathetic to Wilder as a filmmaker first. Here’s Steven Soderbergh and Richard Lester on the subject:

SS: Clearly around the late sixties his view of society or his take on society became… not interesting to an audience.

RL: He had a very oblique take on a very formal structure, and then that structure was taken away and there was an empty field there and he didn’t have to become oblique. You see, there is a parallel with me. If I don’t really know what we’re doing now, how can I have that oblique take on it? I think that may come from, as you say, the coccooning of physical and financial comfort. Then you don’t take buses and you don’t know what’s going on and I listen to Oasis and say, ‘But I absolutely heard all those chords before …’

Well, he’s dead right about Oasis. And he may well be right about Wilder. Certainly Wilder developed his skills within the constraints of the Hays Code and the studio system, and when it was forced to relax its stranglehold Wilder was handed his freedom and maybe didn’t know what to do with it. If your skill is in a kind of Lubitschian suggestiveness, suddenly being able to say or show anything you like must be daunting. Voluntarily working within the PG certificate might be a solution, but Wilder had always made films aimed at adults.

And although he was an enthusiastic consumer of literary pornography (it seems likely he read the first, anonymously published Henry Millers) his relationship to sex onscreen became uncomfortable. There are little, uncertain flourishes of nudity in the later films, but they feel oddly forced and unnatural. They violate the Wilder style.

Trilby

FEDORA, from a story by actor-turned-novelist Tom Tryon, combines all the virtues and vices of late Wilder. The satire of ’70s Ho’wood is strained and inaccurate, although “The kids with beards have taken over,” is a great line. There is some awkward nudity, though by restraining the profanity to 1960s levels Wilder and IAL Diamond manage to avoid seeming like they’re either old-fashioned or jumping on a sweary bandwagon. For once in his career though, Wilder seems to have saddled himself with an ineffective structure — part one sets up a mystery: what’s with Garbo-like reclusive star of yesteryear Fedora (Marthe Keller)? And how has she remained so youthful? Fiona guessed the solution fifteen minutes in. Part two explains, in prolonged and unnecessary detail, how and why Fedora’s secret was maintained. But once the basic solution is revealed , the dramatic tension has dissipated and there’s only the mildest interest in learning the details. What’s left at this point is 45 minutes in the company of some nice actors in attractive locations, with a few excellent lines. And it’s testimony to the quality of William Holden’s performance and the sheer weirdness of Marthe Keller’s that this is very nearly enough.

It sounds like I’m down on the film, but I really enjoyed it. I was just conscious of what was wrong.

Holden plays washed-up producer Barry Detweiler (a transparent Wilder stand-in). When his voice-over starts up with exactly the same bitter tone as his V.O. in SUNSET BOULEVARD, I got goosebumps. Maybe that’s part of the trouble, the film borrows its resonance from earlier movies. Even Fedora’s breakdown reminded me of Robert Stephens’ suicide attempt during Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.

Wilder’s earlier writer-director gifts really only show in a scene where Holden searches Keller’s bedroom and one baffling discovery leads smartly to the next — empty film boxes, school jotters filled with the line “I am Fedora,” written over and over, a drawer full of white gloves, a hidden shrine to Michael York

The Shrine

Apart from Holden’s crusty, bitter presence, York’s appearance as himself adds a certain bizarre gaucherie– the one role York can’t possibly play is himself. I can’t quite say why, but the York performance style, which seems perfectly acceptable in other roles, becomes absolutely preposterous once it’s supposed to stand in for the actual person we’re looking at. In a role intended for Faye Dunaway (which would have made this a Holden-Dunaway NETWORK re-match) the normally naturalistic Marthe Heller, in white gloves and Jackie O shades, gives an expressionistic perf of terrifying eccentricity, like a strung-out elf, or a Michael Jackson puppet in drag. One could quibble, but why bother when she’s the most interesting thing onscreen?

Marthe My Dear

Fiona provides the epigram: “It’s a film about physical decrepitude that’s really about artistic decrepitude.” And consciously so — that’s exactly why Holden’s character is our guide through this curiously one-way labyrinth. Wilder is recasting the past, trying to bring it back, and yet the last exchange of dialogue puts a rueful postmodern spin on the inevitability of failure:

Countess: “I know you will keep this to yourself… for old time’s sake.”

Detweiler: “Too bad. Because this would have made a much better picture than the script I brought you.”

Countess: Yes… but who would you get to play it?”

(I found the above clip and Wilder’s grave at A. Gropius and Nana’s blog, “in dreams begin responsibility”. Only fair to link to them.)

Donkey Show

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2008 by dcairns

Say Anything 

It seems appropriate to write about my trip to Glasgow while still hungover from the experience. In brief, my great good friend Morag McKinnon is directing a feature film, ROUNDING UP DONKEYS (there are no donkeys in it), written by my other great good friend Colin McLaren, and with my other other great good friend Stephen Murphy doing makeup duties. Stephen designed my clowns for CRY FOR BOBO, made  my prosthetic uncle for INSIDE AN UNCLE, has worked on all the HARRY POTTERS and CHILDREN OF MEN and transformed Jude Law for SLEUTH.

I met Colin and his lovely partner Anita Vettesse at the home of producer and goddess Angela Murray. Stephen joined us. Absent were Morag, too frazzled from her shoot, and Fiona, who has a nasty cold.

Brian Pettifer

I promised you gossip, but as ROUNDING UP DONKEYS is classified as a Film In Production, much must be shrouded in secrecy. I can tell you that the film stars that impressive chunk of Scottish beef, James Cosmo, whose career takes in both TRAINSPOTTING and BRAVEHEART (as well as voicing Thelonius the orang-utan in the mescaline nightmare known as BABE: PIG IN THE CITY) and Brian Pettifer, who appears in all three of Lindsay Anderson’s Mick Travis films. The movie is a follow-up of sorts to RED ROAD, but is half a comedy, which lifts (or lowers) it into a different category. The scheme is intended to produce three movies about the same small group of people, slightly like the concept of Kieslowski’s DECALOGUE, but although it works from the same set of character descriptions, Colin’s script might best be considered an alternative universe version — some characters have different careers and families and sometimes personalities.

Morag met Lars Von Trier, founder of the scheme, and asked him what to do if the story evolved in such a way that not all of the characters could be included. “Oh, just use the ones you want and have the rest ride by on a bus,” he advised. Buses being expensive and this being a modestly budgeted digital short, they are having to go on foot.

Prick Up Your Ears

The shoot sounds pretty strenuous, with six-day weeks and 50% night shoots. Some scenes are being shot night-for-night purely for cost reasons — without enough funds to black out the windows of a church, the production was forced to shoot after nightfall. But — and I wouldn’t say this if it wasn’t true — it also sounds like it’s going really well. One to watch for.

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