Archive for Ron Howard

Cars

Posted in FILM, Sport, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2014 by dcairns

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As a kid I remember seeing some clip from the documentary show Whicker’s World — I can’t remember in what context — and I was shocked — SHOCKED! — to see the late James Garner of Rockford Files fame being aggressive on a film set. Years later I watch John Frankenheimer’s GRAND PRIX and then the extra feature documentary on the disc and there’s the same clip, and Garner’s disgruntlitude is entirely understandable — he’s just spent half an hour freezing his ass off in the sea while a Monacan shopkeeper holds the production to ransom to get more money for the inconvenience of the street being closed.

Nevertheless, I understand why Garner’s demeanour discomfited me so — I think it was my first real clue that movie and TV personalities weren’t always the same in real life as onscreen. Nobody has a bad word to say about Garner, of course, and like I say, what the clip shows is that he was a three-dimensional human being with an occasional, justifiable temper. He wasn’t Jim Rockford, whose response to the most diabolical situations was to become querulously reasonable. Then he’d leave the scene of the crime undisturbed and make an anonymous tip-off call to the cops.

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GRAND PRIX is an impressive logistical feat, and not such an impressive film — the classic bloated Sunday teatime movie of my childhood in front of the box. Lots of drab scenes — the Yves Montand/Eva Marie Saint romance was especially turgid — the Garner/Jessica Walter one is pretty interesting by comparison, at least in places — they’re attracted but don’t actually like one another very much. Toshiro Mifune is wasted in the English language.

The action is super-impressive though, and Saul Bass’s montages are often beautiful. Frankenheimer created a sort of sizzle reel out of his early Monte Carlo footage and got Enzo Ferrari onboard with that. You can see why.

Also — Frankenheimer’s camera car was driven by champion Phil Hill, who would’ve been  the main character in David Cronenberg’s Formula One movie RED CARS if that had ever gotten off the ground. Everyone in the doc reckons that 1966, when JF made his movie, was the last time such a film could’ve been made, because after that the sponsorship interests plus the whole event got too big. Ron Howard’s recent movie solves that with CGI. But the main thing the Frankenheimer movie has in its favour is our knowledge that everything we see is physically real. An amazing helicopter shot that snakes along with the winding street below as the ant-like racers speed along would become essentially meaningless if animated. There’s a kind of unwritten law about what kind of things are worth faking. It would be interesting to try to work out what the rules are…

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Frankenheimer, interviewed by Alan Whicker in the sixties and by the doc-makers in the early noughties, is curiously attractive — volcanic levels of ebullience and a simmering fury that ripples the surface of even the calmest conversation. The sheer speed of his responses suggests that Jerry Lewis quality of being about to snap your head off at any moment. And yet, like I say, somehow appealing. A macho dinosaur.

UK: Grand Prix (1966) – Official Warner Blu-Line HD Region B Bluray (2.2:1 Anamorphic Widescreen)

US: Grand Prix (Two-Disc Special Edition)

In-flight insights

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2009 by dcairns

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In-flight movies used to provide the very definition of the term “captive audience”. I remember reading that there are always a million people in the air, flying to various destinations, and it’s fun to picture them all being forced to watch Kurt Russell in Disney’s THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD as they scream through the stratosphere in their jet-propelled passenger tubes. Of course, they had the option of not watching anything, unless they had the misfortune of flying Air Ludovici.

Today the options are wider, so I got to pick from a range of recent product. BENJAMIN BUTTON felt like a transatlantic journey when I saw it in an earthbound auditorium, and it seemed possible that MARLEY & ME might have me tearing open the emergency exit or attempting to detonate my shoe within seconds of the opening credits, so I gave both a wide berth and started in on Clint Eastwood’s GRAN TORINO. This seemed not bad, although the caricaturing of Clint’s family was overdone: Clint’s face creasing into that ever-so-familiar moue of distaste at the sight of his granddaughter’s pierced navel was extremely funny, but when the kid turned out to be an incredibly spoiled, insensitive brat, it seemed to let some of the wind out of the humour. Clint’s legendary hard-line stance, applied to domestic drama, is a promising trope, epitomised by his beautiful Harry Callahan line-reading, “Get off my lawn,” but it’s more effective if the stuff he’s pitted against starts very small and petty. When the grand-daughter openly laughed at Clint’s wife’s funeral, I sort of felt he’d be justified in reaching for the Magnum right there and then.

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But I can’t actually critique this film because an aeroplane isn’t the place to watch it, and I started to feel restless. Maybe you just need distracting crap when you’re hurtling about the upper atmosphere. I put on QUANTUM OF SHIT-TITLE, the latest James Bond. I’d heard that the opening car chase epitomised what I shall henceforth call the New Incoherence, that tendency of action movies nowadays to serve up ten minutes of motion-blur and impact FX and call it a brilliantly choreographed set-piece.

The film begins, with chase in media res, and I thought, “No, what’s happening here is that they’ve reduced the chase to the abstract, details and moments, and it will settle down and become specific soon.” It seemed like a nice way to start a chase.

But not, I would submit, a nice way to continue and end it. Who’s driving which car? Which car is in front? A police radio voice, obviously dubbed in to add a vestige of clarity, says something about a grey Aston Martin, so I started looking for the familiar Bond car, latest model. But Bond’s car is black, like all the other cars (a fairly basic mistake, surely?). Then the titles, full of CGI sand-storms, which are the one thing CGI can’t do at all (see THE MUMMY and sequels) and the worst Bond theme song ever, and I turn off.

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FROST/NIXON. Fiona had been keen on seeing this, and I’d poo-pooed it. Didn’t want to see no stinkin’ Ron Howard film. Fiona like Michael Sheen and Frank Langella and Toby Jones, and while I do too, I felt it would be wrong to let that sway me.

Fiona was right, in that the film is very entertaining, and perfect for those parts of your journey when the craft is buffeted by what they call “rough air” and I call GUSTS OF DEATH.

Howard is genetically bland, but skilled. He knows how to serve up his performances, catching an expression just as a door closes. He’s tasteful to the point of translucency, but the plus side of that is he didn’t slather the movie in retro-details or an oldies soundtrack. I was waiting for the one ’70s song to come in a the end though, and it did. Donna Summer.

Michael Sheen at times resembles one of his previous roles, Tony Blair, as much as he does David Frost, perhaps because he’s trying to avoid caricature, and Frost has plunged into self-caricature these days. When a member of the public accosts Sheen’s Frost with the catchphrase, “Hello, good evening, and welcome,” the presenter remarks, “I don’t actually say that.” But Frost today does. He has embraced the one-dimensional image people have of him. (Anybody can impersonate Frost by shaking there head violently from side to side as they speak; Frost doesn’t actually do this, but he sounds as if he does.)  Frost, at least in this movie, resembles Blair in that he’s an over-confident idiot who faces the world from behind a protective grin, raised before him like a Roman legionary’s shield.

Frank Langella as President Dracula is a welcome relief from the ludicrous Spitting Image Nixon puppet seen in WATCHMEN. He’s not quite as magnificent as Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s SECRET HONOR, but he’s good. His slurring is authentic, although in his drunk scene it threatens to jam the film in the projector. He sounds like a man going back in time underwater.

It turns out I’ve seen Rebecca Hall in three different things now, and liked her in all of them, but her range of accents and mannerisms is so rich I never realised it was the same person. I wonder if this will actually hinder her career. It doesn’t seem to be doing so.

Matthew Macfadyen is good as John Birt, although not to mention that he later helped destroy the BBC seems a wasted opportunity (neverwaste an opportunity to kick John Birt)  and Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt actually become the characters you care about. Impossible to really root for Frost. And I certainly hope nobody wants me to root for Tricky. Toby Jones is hilarious as Swifty Lazar, Nixon’s agent. The whole performance is reduced to a sneering expression, plus Jones’s startling appearance: bald, round, shiny and beautiful, like a woman’s knee. A woman’s knee emerging from a shirt collar. My God, that’s an arousing image.

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Oh, and Kevin Bacon is playing Clint Eastwood, although for some reason his character is called Jack Brennan.

Peter Morgan’s script is very entertaining, serving up chucklesome moments with the regularity of a tennis champ. It simplifies and distorts, of course. I liked the description of Nixon as having “an anti-democratic personality,” but the movie, like Frost, doesn’t really bring home the enormity of the man’s crimes. There is a good bit about the bombing of Cambodia, but nobody actually comes out and informs the modern audience (whom they’re otherwise quite concerned about) that it was illegal. You could walk out of this movie believeing, as Nixon wants Frost to accept, that it was simply a bit of policy that went wrong. Next to that, the film’s most obvious central lie, that the Frost-Nixon interviews made riveting, dramatic television (they were mostly a snooze) is unimportant.

Still, emboldened at my success in actually watching a film in mid-air, I decided to try something cinematically more stimulating. MILK.

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Great film, and an instructive contrast to FROST/NIXON. There’s more period flavour, much of it thanks to Harris Savides’s beautiful grainy photography. More of a melange of pop music, but some interesting and erratic choices to stop it becoming a tedious array of chart-toppers. While some critics found the film too conventional to satisfy as a Gus Van Sant movie, apart from the too-familiar device of Milk recording his testament on a tape deck, I found the narrational strategies pretty interesting: it’s a mix-and-match approach rather than a “pure” style, with mocked-up home movies, titles on screen, close-ups of campaign posters, split-screen — whatever works.

At the eye of the storm is Sean Penn, giving one of those rare performances which deserve awards and get them. It’s a major transformation without announcing itself as one. His Harvey Milk is lovable, which is something I’ve never felt about a Penn characterisation before. Those aspects of Penn that can seem unappealing — vague aspects I can’t even put a finger on, apart from his obvious unhandsomeness, which are deployed extremely well when he’s playing sleaze-bags and creeps — become endearing vulnerabilities here. His observation of the man he’s playing seems acute, and he’s not pussyfooting around trying to avoid caricature, he just goes for the essence and trusts that will stop any of the outward aspects appearing too outre.

The film I thought of most apart from FROST/NIXON (which, after all, I’d just watched) was PHILADELPHIA, which always seemed like a chickenshit movie to me — well-intentioned and anemic, and paralysed at the thought of its historical import. Jonathan Demme, a nice fellow and a skilled filmmaker, in trying to make a film that would convert homophobes, converted himself into a cartoon Stanley Kramer. Just comparing the Demme and the Van Sant in their approach to the male-on-male kiss, which seems to petrify everybody concerned with PHILADELPHIA, but which is treated in MILK just as it should be — as no big deal. Because if you see it as a big deal, it becomes one. You can’t kiss well under such pressure. And if you’re worried that your audience can’t handle this image… who is your audience? And why do you want to pander to such idiots? MILK, for all its greater “explicitness” (only the playful butt-slap might raise an eyebrow in a “straight movie”)  contains nothing that could shock a sentient human not deeply entrenched in prejudice. I think it’s about context.

Maybe on the return trip I’ll try GRAN TORINO again.

Fiends Without Faces

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2008 by dcairns

A Fever Dream Double Feature

Without any conscious planning, we watched George A. Romero’s BRUISER and Robert Florey’s THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK in quick succession, two films feature blank-faced masks transfiguring criminal heroes. Both heroes also spend a bit of time standing around the docks of New York too, but that’s less significant than the thematic idea, expressed most articulately in Paul Verhoeven’s otherwise inane HOLLOW MAN: “It’s amazing what you’re capable of when you no longer have to look at yourself in the mirror.”

BRUISER was Romero’s comeback film, in a way, a small-scale and simple project that got him back in the game and led to the enjoyable and political LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD. He’s making another zombie film now! So the film is a success purely in terms of delivering a valuable filmmaker back to productivity. But is it an artistic success?

BRUISER, which takes its name from the glamour magazine the hero (Jason Flemyng) works for (and that DOES seem rather an improbable name for a mag), as befits its style-mag subject, is possibly Romero’s mostly slickly handsome film. Lots of macro closeups of the hero’s appliances, like product shots in TV ads. Attractive, but also apt.

Flemyng, sporting a transatlantic accent that doesn’t quite gel, but suits his nonentity character, plays a put-upon shmoe who fantasises about killing his rivals and enemies (a repeat of the homicidal Walter Mitty motif from CREEPSHOW), then one day wakes up to find his face replaced by a white, blank mask. A lovely bit of acting from Flemyng — on discovering this facial erasure, he paws and tugs at his new white visage, then attempts to brush his hair. Cause that’ll fix things, yeah.

Going on a killing spree, as any of us might under such circs, our hero eventually wins back his identity by destroying everybody who’s made his life miserable (plus his Mexican maid, who’s stolen a few bills from his wallet). The whole theme seems somewhat corrupt and sinister.

Flemying’s house struck Fiona: “It’s like the house Petrocelli was building. It’s got that horrible ‘new house’ feeling. It’s like HIM! All characterless facade.” Especially after Flemyng’s metamorphosis moment. Trying to “blend in”, he applies his cheating wife’s makeup (he will kill her), which still looks weird. Then he puts on a cap.

And turns into Ron Howard.

The movie survives the transmogrification for a little while, but soon the paucity of plot becomes painfully apparent. All the movie has left to do is to kill the obnoxious supporting cast, led by the super-obnoxious Peter Stormare. I mean, he’s meant to be vile, like the psycho military leader in DAY OF THE DEAD. We’re meant to crave his destruction. Not the noblest of emotions to encourage in your audience. But Stormare is so full-on that he’s impossible to enjoy on any level —  he’s been giving persistently horrible perfs since FARGO. Remember THE BROTHERS GRIMM? I could not believe he was still alive at the end of that one, I assumed the only excuse for his performance would be to gratify the audience by giving his character a lingering demise.

Weirdly, BRUISER also lacks memorable mayhem — the characters build up to their deaths by acting spectacularly vile, then pfff. Nothing. A little hole in the head. Is it hypocritical of me to decry the film’s viciousness and then complain it’s not violent enough? I think I’m just trying to judge it on its own level.

Another layer of obnoxiousness is added by the gratuitous nudity, which almost manages to be embarrassing in Romero’s films. He has a very glam bitch-goddess in Nina Garbiras, whose body is worth celebrating in song and skin-flick, but he ruins things with self-consciousness and a sense that flesh is being SERVED UP to a moronic public (this means us, and we resent it).

Much more fun, and much more honorable, was THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK. Perhaps not on the same level of ecstatic delirium as THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, the other great Florey-Lorre collaboration, but fun. Peter Lorre plays a cheerful immigrant in New York (yes, Lorre can be cute) who is disfigured in an Improbable Hotel Fire of the kind which once plagued the metropolis, this one caused by a roomer stashing his illicit cooking in a chest of drawers. This is the film that dares to say “Don’t stash your illicit cooking in a chest of drawers! What are you, nuts?” 

His face a hideous, convincing burns makeup, which Florey withholds from view apart from a few glimpses, Lorre turns to crime so he can afford surgery (which later proves hopeless), Lorre buys a fancy rubber mask for four hundred bucks. When worn, it gives a remarkable impression of being Peter Lorre’s real face with a little makeup on it. With this new persona, the embittered Lorre joins a gang of hoodlums, turning his mechanical skills to safe-cracking.

This being a 1941 movie, Crime Must Not Pay, and Lorre pays a terrible price, losing the impossibly chirpy blind girl (Evelyn Keyes, startlingly perky) whose heart he has won — this was in the days when Hollywood matrimonial agencies did storming business pairing lugubrious mutants with visually-impaired optimists — when his former cronies try to off him with a car bomb. Unlike Jason Flemyng’s wimpy Jacobean antics, Lorre’s revenge is dramatically satisfying and achieved at the cost of his own life, so nobody profits from the criminous misdeeds on view, except the audience.

Worth seeing because it’s a better version of DARKMAN than DARKMAN, because Florey is a suave director, especially paired with a glossy cameraman like Franz Planer, and because Lorre is never less than insanely compelling. In his rubber mask he’s just BEAUTIFUL.

Screenwriter Paul Jarrico was run out of town by the blacklist, and had an itinerant writing career in Europe for some time. His credits have now been restored to films he wrote pseudonymously during the McCarthy era.

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