Archive for Watchmen

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.

grantorino

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.

Family Viewing Time

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2009 by dcairns

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How are we getting on with our teen-supervision activities, you ask?

Films watched with Louis this week include THE WRESTLER (which I didn’t see, but which Fiona found pretty old-fashioned, like a marginally more disfigured version of King Vidor’s THE CHAMP — “I like his scary fridge film better,” says Fiona, referring to REQUIEM FOR A DREAM), HEAVENLY CREATURES, and THE PUMAMAN, a bizarrely homoerotic Italian superhero movie about ancient Incan space technology which gives the hero the powers of a puma: sensing danger, achieving a death-lke trance, flying — you know, just like a puma. “I always seem to end up watching something really weird with you guys,” Louis observed affably.

Best of all, we watched George Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE, which gives new pleasures every time I see it.

While Pal’s best pal couldn’t argue that he’s particularly sophisticated as a director, he has a very smart script to work with here, and has obviously been looking around and drawing inspiration from some pretty cool sources. When intrepid chrononaut Rod Taylor (marvellous perf!) goes for a walk in the Eden-like future forest, Pal throws in a variety of tracking shots suggesting that he’s been impressed by Kurosawa’s RASHOMON. The giveaway shot is the one looking up at the sunlight blinking through the branches.

Later, when Taylor discovers that the savage Morlocks (paunchy blue guys with unsightly body hair — the Scots of the future?) have a Gremlin-like aversion to bright light, he dazzles them for a moment by lighting a match, and Pal steals from the Master, with an orange glare of POV dazzle filched from REAR WINDOW. This struck Louis as implausible: “Just how bright IS a match, anyway?” Since the Morlock’s have Jawa-style glowing eyes, do they not get equally blinded whenever they look at each other?

As a fan of TV’s The Mighty Boosh, Louis has a fine eye for absurdity, and enjoyed such moments while still appreciating the beauty and craft of Pal’s special effects sequences and the sweep of the story, which must have made some impression: when I loaned him my battered copy of the Watchmen graphic novel later in the week, warning him that it might crumble to dust, he sagely remarked, “Like the books in THE TIME MACHINE.”

Yvette Mimieux: a bit too Paris Hilton for Louis’ taste.

Another weird coincidence: on Monday morning I was lecturing on Orson Welles, doing his whole film career only in reverse, and mentioned the amazing moment in the MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS screenplay, deleted from RKO’s edit of the film, where the voice-over suggests a future time when George Amberson Minafer’s shade might be seen, kneeling, its head and shoulders disappearing through a partition wall that wasn’t there in his era (you really have to read it to make sense of this). That evening, as Rod Taylor fired up his elegant steam-punk time-sled, Louis speculated about what would happen if he materialised halfway through a yet-to-be-constructed wall…

“This is Sparta — we’ll just set aboot ye.”

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2008 by dcairns

Watched “300″ at last. I’d been wary of it and reluctant to spend money on something I expected to disapprove of. But a friend loaned us a copy with the suggestion that it was more politically nuanced and ambiguous than we thought, and since it was free, we thought, “What the hell.”

Leave your head at the box office

The ambiguity was supposed to stem from the portrayal of Sparta as a nation funded on institutionalized child abuse — but I’m not certain how much weight to give this. On the one hand, the film is literally about a historical conflict, and that aspect of Spartan society is pretty well-known. In a populist film, you don’t ignore the one thing your audience might remember about the subject from school. Then again, the film’s attitude to infanticide and child abuse, via its narrator, is broadly approving — so I think we have to see a level of irony at work (or else get really angry that Frank Miller and Zak Snyder are pro-child abuse). If we DO see the film as a right-wing tract (and a glance at Miller’s comic The Dark Knight Returns should be enough to clear up any questions about his stance, though it also shows that he likes to mix things up and add some questioning liberalism here and there) then the ritualised brutalising of Spartan children can be read as metaphor: “a nation must be tough (not quite like this but you get the idea) to protect itself.”

Snyder's Oracle in 300

Bava's Oracle in Hercules and the Haunted World

Snyder’s Oracle in “300″. Bava’s Oracle in HERCULES AND THE HAUNTED WORLD.

The plot: Xerxes of Persia (eight-foot tall mutant) leads an army of millions to attack Greece, and demands that King Leonidas of Sparta kneel before him. But Leonidas – a Scotsman – refuses to bend the knee. Hampered by a corrupt senate and other political/religious forces, Leonidas leads an illegal mission of three hundred crack troops to defend his borders.

I think this reads as a fanciful replay of Iraq: instead of invading, Sparta is defending itself. Instead of being a bullying giant, Sparta is cast as the underdog. Persia stands in as a good geographic substitute for modern Iraq, and the Persians are portrayed as inbred mutant subhuman orcs, or else as very very ethnic. (And anybody who’s “ugly” or “weird-looking” in this film is automatically a bad guy.) The VO, most of which is badly written, badly delivered and unnecessary, constantly stresses their “darkness,” even referring to Xerxes’ “dark will”. Even as a portrait of ancient Persia this is offensive, leaving aside any modern connections.

(It doesn’t matter if the comic book source predates the present conflict. Tolkein likewise predates the Iraq mess, and Peter Jackson’s Frodo franchise looks irresistably like the heartwarming fantasy of good versus evil that GW Bush tried to sell the world.)

And the language of the film implicitly implies that the Greeks are modern and reasoning, their religion akin to Christianity (“Tonight we dine in Hell,” not Hades) and the Persians are mystical, superstitious, pagan, with all the western value judgements that implies.

Caged Wheat

There is quite a bit to be said in favour of the film-making, when you ignore politics (or better, when you keep politics in mind but look at the other aspects). From the trailer I expected to find the constant CGI and digital retouching claustrophobic and airless. In the movie I didn’t. It is what it is, but the constant magic-hour lighting (it’s always either dusk or dawn in Greece, apparently) smears everything into a misty Impressionist glow, which is much more effective and attractive than the pin-sharp greeting card look of BEOWULF. We accept that nothing is real and nothing exists outside the frame, or even in it, but that goes with the territory. The fight scenes are impressively coherent — Snyder entertains himself nicely with visual tricks and impossible stunts, but we don’t lose out on spatial awareness, we can see who’s hitting whom (unlike in GLADIATOR, BATMAN BEGINS etc) and even when figures are knocked flying through the air like skittles, they maintain a believable sense of heft and meat– there’s none of the obviously-rendered, weightless digital maquettes we’re used to. And the filmic choreography of it all, with time slowing down and speeding up in spurts of violence, is beautiful in itself.

There’s even humour. Although Leonidas is annoying from his odd beard to his drawn-on six-pack to his constant ROARING, he has a certain dry wit, delivered by Gerald Butler with a touch of Sean Connery’s wryness (and a Greek King with a Scots accent echos Connery’s turn as Theseus in TIME BANDITS. Listening to Butler is like being tickled all the time from an unknown direction.) It’s much more effective than the stabs at comedy in Zemeckis’ BEOWULF, or the LORD OF THE RINGS films. There Peter Jackson, by nature a humorist, struggled to find any light-hearted expression that wouldn’t render his whole myth-cycle absurd. Lame jokes about cow-pats and dwarf-tossing violated the pompous tone and derailed the movies from their inescapably simplistic route.

Seven inches of plastic pleasure

Where “300″ does create ambiguity, or at least confusion, is in its sexual politics. While the only prominent female characters are shown nude, both are politically powerful. While Queen Gorgo (Gorgo? Really?) is sexually humiliated by a corrupt senator, she gets to avenge herself in a punch-the-air “feminist” moment.

And while the Spartan males are all bred to be dead butch, and speak scornfully of the “boy-lovers” in Crete, they are portrayed in a blatantly homo-erotic fashion. The innate contradiction has the same amusing quality as the queer sexuality of Italian peplum films. Something that seemsintended to be read as super-straight comes across as inescapably super-camp. The climactic massacre looks like the death of Saint Sebastian re-staged as a Busby Berkeley number. Even the fact that Leonidas screws Gorgo (his other beard?) from behind, seems suggestive of sexual ambivalence. This aspect of the film is what caused many critics to sneer, but it’s actually the most interesting and nuanced thing on offer.

An 'arrowing experience

It’s quite possible that Snyder doesn’t consider his film right-wing or allegorical or possessed of any particular meaning at all. Defenders on the IMDb talk of how it’s “a shame” that people have to “spoil things” by looking for racism or politics or, like, meaning. Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake, which also had very good bits, was remarkable for the way it stripped the Romero mythos of any subtext or resonance whatsoever (while Romero’s own films have been getting more and more strident and direct). And his next film is an adaptation of the seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which was written by Alan Moore, an anarchist of the left. But politics tends to creep in, whether a director intends it or not. I won’t be altogether surprised if Ozymandias, the super-rich industrialist who manufactures a fake war on terror, emerges as hero of Snyder’s WATCHMEN.

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