Archive for Willem Dafoe

Grand Hotel

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2014 by dcairns

The Grand Budapest Hotel

My friend Stephen Murphy worked on the makeup for the aged Tilda!

To the 100-year-old Cameo Cinema to see THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. They were also showing INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. You wait ages for a movie with F. Murray Abraham in a roll-neck sweater and then two come along at once.

I liked MOONRISE KINGDOM more than any other Wes Anderson film (though I still haven’t caught up with BOTTLE ROCKET which some people like best of all, considering everything subsequent to be an ever-downward spiralling into bloodless mannerism, which is a point of view) and I liked FANTASTIC MR FOX before that more than everything before that, so there was evidence that he was on a roll. I didn’t like this one as much as those but I enjoyed it. There was a slightly uncomfortable quality though.

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The art direction and look are as finicky and perfectionist as ever — I don’t dislike that so that’s fine. And he does vary the screen ratio, the font and even the lens I think on this one (unless all those zooms are all CG fake, which is possible), so in a superficial way we have to say he’s progressing artistically. I’ll come to the more thematic progress in a moment.

More good stuff: Ralph (it’s pronounced “Ralph,” by the way) Fiennes is extremely funny and a little bit endearing, doing his Leonard Rossiter impersonation which he always does when asked to be light. No bad thing. I can’t decide if it IS an impression or if it’s just his natural comic mode. Weirdly, Peter Serafinowicz’s impersonation of Ralph Fiennes as Leonard Rossiter seems to predate IN BRUGES, the first film I saw in which he got his Rossiter on properly. Maybe he was inspired by it.
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The whole rest of the cast is very fine. It’s deliriously overdone, like everything with Anderson. Is this role a good use of, say, Harvey Keitel’s remaining time on earth? He mainly seems to have been employed to jiggle his pectorals. Couldn’t somebody who needs the money and exposure more be given a chance at that? But it was nice to see Jeff Goldblum, who doesn’t seem to do enough movies, and who should still be a top leading man, not some kind of guest star. Nobody else can do what he does.

This is really the first Wes Anderson film with proper villains, it seems to me. Adrien Brody is not really heavyweight enough compared to Willem Dafoe, who does all the nasty stuff anyway, so there’s a slight problem of dramatic priorities in terms of dealing with those characters and their evil schemes. The violence was startling for an Anderson film. Sure it’s cartoony but it leaps out at you in this flat, pastel, artificial world. I felt it was a problem that (a) Anderson concocts his own version of European history, with a Ruritanian central setting (which is fine in itself) menaced by a fictional version of Nazi Germany (which was fine for Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR but doesn’t make such clear sense here) and (b) gives almost all the violence to some scheming aristocrats — in other words, Nazi Germany, present by proxy, has almost no role in the story. I didn’t get the sense that the personal perfidies of Brody and Dafoe were there to be compared to the encroaching political darkness, either in terms of “These minor villainies are insignificant compared to what’s coming” or “These minor villainies are a microcosm of what’s coming.” I felt Anderson was actually uncomfortable dealing with the politics at all. He’s said that the kind of politics he likes in films is the kind you get in DUNE — fictional factions whose movements add to the reality of the created world, rather than saying anything about this world or making any kind of point. I mean, there are NO politics in DUNE — there are good guys, bad guys, and different factions, but there is no sense that the Atreides clan, the Harkonnens or the Emperor desire any different kind of constitutional set-up. It’s similar in GBH.

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The natural comparison would be with Lubitsch and TO BE OR NOT TO BE. How do you stage a comic operetta narrative against a backdrop of fascism? The difference is, Lubitsch had a compelling reason to do it and he knew what the reason was, and he clearly thought deeply about all his choices. I mean, for all I know Anderson had reasons and thought deeply too, I just don’t see the evidence onscreen. I think the film falls short of that part of its ambition which is serious, which is why I don’t feel reminded of the work of Stefan Zweig.

One thing that was fun about MOONRISE KINGDOM was that it didn’t have any bad guys but still managed to function as a peculiar kind of action movie, making quite enthusiastic use of Bruce Willis as an icon of that genre. GBH has a chase through a museum seemingly inspired by the one in Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN (a lovely scene in a darkened hall full of suits of armour, each picked out of the enveloping blackness by its own personal spotlight, is the film’s most striking visual development — it doesn’t violate Anderson’s ironclad aesthetic, but it doesn’t look like anything else he’s done either) and a toboggan chase that comes either from ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (an influential film, these days) or THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, though the figures’ movements in longshot have the speeded-up zaniness of FANTASTIC MR FOX.

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I would like another animated Wes Anderson film, please.

Bible Studies

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Spectacular split-focus diopter lens shot, one of many…

KING OF KINGS, the Nick Ray version, really is a good film, it just doesn’t have a very good Jesus. A shame, since everyone else in it, apart from a few dubbed Spaniards, brings something interesting to the feast. The array of bad guys are amazing fun, rather like in DUNE (in epic cinema, only the villains get to enjoy life) — Gregoire Aslan and Frank Thring make a smutty brace of Herods, Hurd Hatfield and Viveca Lindfors are a smooth Mr and Mrs Pilate, and Brigid Bazlen a red-hot jail-bait Salome. Also Rita Gam from SIGN OF THE PAGAN — and Orson Welles’ VO mentions “the sign of the pagan” being nailed to the temple walls, in straight-faced homage to the Sirk cheesefest.

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The clothes-line of evil.

Harry Guardino, though apparently determined to give us his best Burt Lancaster impersonation, is awfully good as Barabbas, and Rip Torn (unrecognizable in his svelte and vulpine youth) is an ace Judas. Flawed is interesting.

Of course, people like Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, or Royal Dano as Peter aren’t allowed to play flawed (except in Peter’s denunciation scene), but both manage some good scenes. RR is just such a powerhouse. I bet even when they cut his head off he was still the tallest man in Judea. Not sure about his caveman costume, but you can’t have everything.

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“I found his casting offensive at the time.” ~ Martin Scorsese.

As everybody already knows, Jeffrey Hunter as J.C. is the weak link in the Super-Technirama chain. It’s American Epic Acting at its most lifeless, without the muscularity of a Charlton Heston to give it basic dynamism. When Ray stages the Sermon on the Mount on the move, it’s terribly effective (one of the things Scorsese borrowed for his LAST TEMPTATION was the idea of Jesus in action, rather than posing for a stained glass window as in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD), but doubly hampered by the facts that Hunter is a poor orator and walks awkwardly.

The best thing I can say about Hunter is that his smug smirk when he’s being all mysterious adds a bit of irritation to the character, which is something few actors have pursued (well, maybe Ted Neeley in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR). You’re not supposed to want to slap Jesus. The sensation is surprising, and therefore interesting, and so the movie starts to breathe.

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Thring enthroned.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems to be drowning under the waves of Miklos Rosza music. I love M.R., but he does tend to do the expected thing, especially in epics. It’s schmaltzy, and that’s fine in BEN HUR but it’s not the effect Ray’s aiming for here, mostly. One the other hand, the Welles VO, scripted by Ray Bradbury from an original idea by God, rarely lets up but gives the film the grandeur and religious emotion Hunter lacks. Welles may not have been the greatest actor ever, but he had a terrific gift for evoking awe and terror in his voice — hammy, perhaps, but effective, like the film.

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The production design  and costumes by Georges Wakhevitch are incredibly imaginative, convincing and distinctive. Not quite as monumental as some other Bronston productions of the era, though certainly not skimping on grandeur, but the use of patterns, wall paintings, and even graffiti creates a unique world that recalls Fellini’s call for his SATYRICON to be “a science fiction film set in the past.”

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What nobody seems to talk about is the film’s intent. The assumption may be that a Bronston film has no intent, beyond spending the Hollywood money trapped in Franco’s Spain, creating something that could be exported and profitable. But a Ray movie does have a cause, or at least a personal angle.

The first things that struck me was the this was a truly post-Holocaust bible movie. The opening features Rabbis executed by firing squad, and bodies being slung into a pit and burned on mass pyres. Accordingly, the film plays like the antithesis of Mel Gibson’s antisemitic sermon of hate THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST — here, it’s stressed that Herod is not Jewish, and Pilate, rather than being portrayed as a struggling politician trying to make the best of a rotten assignment, as is often the case, is a hissy, sadistic oppressor, and an idiot who stirs up political foment against Rome by his insensitive response to local traditions. The scene where the mob is offered Jesus and chooses Barabbas happens off-screen — we hear about it along with Barabbas (“Your supporters yelled loudest”) and the dramatic point being made is that Barabbas is moved by the greatness of Christ, not that the durn Jews killed Jeebus.

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The other shift of emphasis is away from the miraculous. Ray shows healings, some of which are staged to look as if Jesus might be raising the dead, but we don’t get any unambiguous statement that he does so. The drooling maniac is healed in a way that doesn’t look supernatural so much as spiritual or even psychological — Jesus embraces him and brings him to his senses. The walking on water and feeding of the five thousand bit is only described to us in a report to Pilate — the strong impression is that these wacky tales may be merely mass hysteria and rumour-mongering.

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THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST similarly tried to soft-pedal the magic-working, showing Jesus using herbs and stuff in his healing (though Willem Dafoe does cure one guy using a Thelma Schoonmaker jump-cut to vanish his deformity). You can’t altogether strip the wizardry from the New Testimony without upsetting the very people who are likely to buy tickets, but Ray’s shift of emphasis confirms that he’s not particularly a religious artist, but definitely one involved in humanity — violence, sexuality, politics and psychology are his daily bread.

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This impressive closing shot, by the way, was merely a test Ray did to see if the idea had legs. The producers, who had abruptly tired or pouring money into the mega-production, refused to let him reshoot it, and stuck the temp version in. Another compromised Ray ending — if you have the DVD of REBEL, you can see the last shot the movie was supposed to have — one of the best widescreen closing shots ever executed. The day somebody decided not to use it (after Ray had walked off the picture in post), Warner Brothers must have been home to the largest concentrations of human stupidity anywhere in the world.

The Face on the Barsoom Floor

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2012 by dcairns

I was trying to recall what the poster reminded me of…

JOHN CARTER in 3D and Imax — I never actually saw an Imax feature before. When our local hydraplex first got an Imax screen, all they had to show was a couple documentaries. I saw the one about Everest. When the snowslide hit the camera lens, as rendered on a screen the size of Burt Lancaster’s grin, I jumped — something 3D pretty much never makes me do (except in Joe Dante’s THE HOLE)… I didn’t experience such an extreme reaction this time, maybe because we sat further back, in deference to Fiona’s nerves. Excessive scale can be alarming to her — for instance, she has a morbid fear of the Eiffel Tower.

…and then I remembered this Tim White paperback cover, BUT…

So, JOHN CARTER, a movie which is underperforming ENTIRELY, I submit, because some halfwit at Disney decided to omit the words “OF MARS” from their $250 million epic, thereby making it sound like MICHAEL CLAYTON or JACKIE BROWN. Low-key, in other words. The decision reeks of stupidity not just because it miss-sells the product (I guess the ads made most of us aware what kind of film this really was) but because it gave off a whiff of panic, and the press bloodhounds were all over that. So the movie emerged sheened in flop sweat, before a skeptical rather than an enthused populace.

But I think they should have thrown subtlety to the winds, like Frazetta.

What’s the movie like? Imperfect, but fun. It had me almost convinced that the improbably-named Taylor Kitsch is a leading man, and slightly more convinced by Lynn Collins. Then, a long way in, James Purefoy comes in with a better-drawn character and breathes so much life into his moments of screen time that you realize what’s been missing. There are some very good actors in this — Mark Strong seizes his moments too, and Ciaran Hinds does his angst-ridden gravitas thing that earns him the big bucks. Dominic West is almost positioned as the main bad guy, but his character is so outclassed by Strong’s that he can’t register. Also, he doesn’t get to do anything really nasty. I mean, he kills lots of people, but so does everybody in this film. You can’t judge the characters by the same standards you’d apply to the people at your local Tesco. I mean, that’d be ridiculous. What West, a thoughtful actor, does, is play his character for all he’s worth as a man promoted hopelessly beyond his range of competence. That’s all the script has given him, so he just goes for it. I think it’s the only choice of any integrity available to him, but it doesn’t help the film the way some good bad-guy business would.

“My name isn’t a problem as I shall appear only in the most classy. high-toned works.”

I’ve read a lot of reviews saying the movie is badly designed, which I don’t wholly agree with. The earthly stuff looks great. Everything involving the four-armed tharks looks beautiful: the tharks, the thark city (Tharksville?), the thark animals like the bullfrogdog, Woola, even the thark bunting in the thark arena is quite lovely.

Meanwhile, in Zodanga and Helium (I know! But still better than Taylor Kitsch, right?) people wear ridiculous tufts of fake fur on their shoulders, elaborate fretwork lattices, and the kind of fantasy fiction garb that tends to look better in a Frank Frazetta painting than on a moving human being with the ability to convey embarrassment. Busy, busy, busy, as Bette Davis says in WHALES OF AUGUST. *I* say, if you’re going the Frazetta route, you probably want to show more skin just to distract from what they’re actually almost wearing. But it’s a Disney film. Is that why it doesn’t have a Traci Lords cameo, which it so clearly REQUIRES? Is there some crazy Disney ruling against employing former porn stars? But Traci is a born-again B-movie queen, and this movie could use her services.

The impractically  incomplete, but fetishistically pleasing suits of armour reminded me of Just Jaeckin’s GWENDOLINE, but they just needed to go that extra mile, or few inches.

Action: mostly clear and impressive, sometimes too frenetic and ugly.

Dialogue: some funny lines, some “How does a pharaoh talk?” awkwardness.

Emotion: Andrew Stanton’s films thrive on sentiment, and here the main source is Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton’s relationship, which is a distant second in importance and screen time to the leads’. I still enjoyed it though — just wanted more.

Structure: the framing device REALLY pays off — a clever bit of writing, and I don’t automatically expect smarts in films of this kind. Some damage has been done, however, by an inane decision to open on Mars, rather than forcing the audience to wait and be rewarded. In early interviews Stanton seems to hint that he’s going to unfold his plot in a patient and carefully planned manner. Some Disney exec has forced him to splurge. The good news is, if it’s the same guy who changed the title, they only need to fire one person. It’s not Stanton.

Originality: is this movie massively preempted by all the films and shows influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books over the years? Well, I never felt I was watching something rendered redundant by STAR WARS. I *did* feel that the spirit of FLASH GORDON was very much in the air, and the race to interrupt a wedding at the end, while familiar from many shows from THE PRINCESS BRIDE to THE GRADUATE, seemed particularly reminiscent of Mike Hodges’ camp FXtravaganza. That comparison shows two things — that JOHN CARTER could and should have pushed things further, made itself more outrageous and distinctive — and that Taylor Kitsch, even if he doesn’t quite dominate the film as he should, still has the edge on poor old Sam J. Jones.

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