Archive for July 27, 2008

War of the Colossal Midgets

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2008 by dcairns

The producer of VALMONT was asked if he’d learned anything from its commercial failure, following in the wake of Stephen Frears’ DANGEROUS LIAISONS, which had successfully tackled the same book. He said yes, as a matter of fact he had learned something. “Never make a film somebody’s just made.”

The only exceptions I can think of to the rule that the first film out of the trap in a movie-race wins, are ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, which was unharmed by following on the heels of a cheaper, more sombre ROBIN HOOD (“You do know this isn’t the Kevin Costner film?” concerned staff would ask customers buying tickets for the Patrick Bergin version) and the ANTZ / A BUG’S LIFE and DEEP IMPACT / ARMAGEDDON face-offs.

And so to INFAMOUS, a fine little film by Doug McGrath, which came and went with little fuss, all its tremulous thunder stolen by CAPOTE. Apart from coming first, CAPOTE had a star of sorts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had paid his dues and was ready for Oscar appreciation. You may have heard people say that INFAMOUS is a better film, and I’d like to add my voice to that small hubbub of approval. INFAMOUS is not only livelier, funnier, more moving, more erotic and more intelligent, it is better cast.

It may have hurt McGrath’s film that people hadn’t heard of its star, but there’s no arguing he chose the right man (though I wouldn’t mind seeing Zelda Rubinstein, the little woman from POLTERGEIST, play Capote). Toby Jones, son of the unique Freddie Jones, a Shadowplay favourite, has two crucial advantages over the somewhat bear-like Hoffman. (1) Jones is a little guy, like Capote. This turns out to be more important than you’d think, allowing references to Capote’s smallness and accompanying toughness. (2) Jones has a much better script to work from. McGrath’s writing flows more smoothly than that of CAPOTE scribe Dan Futterman (this may be to do with the direction also), traversing the story in a pacy but unhurried fashion, where CAPOTE seems slow, threatening to stall altogether at times. McGrath seems bolder in his handling of artistic license, too. It’s ironic that both films take Capote to task for fictionalising reality, and both films are forced by necessity to invent their own versions of the truth. McGrath embraces this and concentrates on telling a good dramatic story.

My least favourite thing about CAPOTE, which had good acting and a strong picturesque feel for Kansan landscapes, was its attempt to create some kind of comparison between the crimes committed by the killers Capote chose to write about, and Capote’s supposed moral crime in exploiting their story. I simply can’t see any justification for making a comparison at all. Whatever Capote’s behaviour may be, it is in no way comparable to snuffing an entire family. Let’s be sensible. INFAMOUS manages to avoid milking this tempting comparison, detailing Capote’s dishonesties and betrayals without suggesting that his guilt has any equivalence to that of the cold-blooded murderers he woos.

McGrath’s brightness has other advantages too. While CAPOTE’s highlight is the author giving a public reading of In Cold Blood, which showcases Hoffman’s skill and command of our attention, but reveals the weakness of the script in comparison to Capote’s prose, INFAMOUS doesn’t quote the book at length but does provide a higher standard of wit throughout.

CAPOTE is a decent TV movie with an outstanding central performance from a superb actor who does everything possible to overcome a physical inappropriateness to the role.

INFAMOUS is a modestly conceived but very smart and interesting movie with an outstanding central performance from an equally superb actor who is able to fit the role perfectly, and I hope we’ll be hearing a lot more from him.

And then there’s Richard Brooks’s film of IN COLD BLOOD, which is a BLOODY MASTERPIECE, and Capote’s book itself, which is even better.

Pouncing Lady

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2008 by dcairns

So, here’s the set-up: Clark Gable has fallen asleep, drunk, in a nightclub. He awakens, woozily, to see the kindly countenance of –

AAAAAAAAAHHH! Shit! Get it away from me!

This is DANCING LADY, from an unimaginable bygone age when M.G.M. didn’t know how to make musicals. So they borrow Fred Astaire from R.K.O., concoct some faux-Busby Berkeley visuals in the manner of Warners, and apply them both to a backstage story likewise lifted from Warners.

The reckless randomness of the musical numbers actually make you appreciate Busby Berkeley for his LOGIC.

Robert Z. Leonard directs, showing a lack of aptitude for framing dance that basically sinks the terpsichorean aspects of the production, but on the plus side we have Slavko Vorkapich on montage, linking nearly every sequence with peppy visual effects, swish-pans and wipes. “A wipe up Joan’s legs!” exclaimed Fiona. “They probably needed it,” I rejoindered. We decided that Slavko was the film’s true auteur.

Clark Gable, whom I regard as kind of a nightmare from which the world has finally awoken, is actually pretty good as the brusque and rowdy musical director. Franchot Tone is the Other Man, in the film and in real life: Joan was bigamously engaged to both Tone and Tom Neal, who beat the crap out of Tone when he found out. Ted Healy, he of the Stooges, gives the best performance, hovering in some strange hinterland between dyspepsia, blind panic and incipient homosexuality. He’s a fascinating case study in something-or-other.

Incidentally, why, in these putting-on-a-show things, does the show never have a graspable plot? Gable is supposed to be staging a musical epic on the Spanish-American War (co-written by a hissily “artistic” Sterling Holloway), but rejects the old-hat concept for something “modern”, concerning factory girls and city life — but what we see in the end is Fred and Joan on a flying carpet, landing in Bavaria and drinking beer. WTF?

“Here in Bavaria / They take good care o’ ya.”

And at last I find something Joan Crawford can’t do. I was a little wary of her for years, then finally gave in. I had assumed that, given her air of terrifyingly sincere, demented fakeyness (especially in interviews — ugh, creepy!) she wouldn’t be able to convince or move me in drama, but she proved me wrong. I still felt I would never find her actually sympathetic, but then found I did. I was positive she wouldn’t be able to do comedy, but in SUSAN AND GOD she manages it, and seems to be parodying herself (fakey, humourless and egomaniacal), with too much skill for it to be entirely unconscious.

But. She. Can’t. Dance.

I know she WAS a dancer, but now that I’ve seen her effortful, heavy, gangling perambulations in this movie I know they mean that the way they say “Oh, but Richard Gere was a chorus boy for years,” as if that proved the silhouetted figure glimpsed in two-second shots in CHICAGO was (a) Gere and (b) dancing in a way that we could actually SEE. I mean, Joan Crawford dances better than I do, but so do Robby the Robot, Herbert Marshall and Manoel de Oliveira.

People who dance better than Joan: Lionel Barrymore, Donovan’s Brain, and Baragon.

Still, she’s pretty awesome at everything else.

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