Archive for the Television Category

Dead Mann Running

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2015 by dcairns

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I was all set to see something called KAFKA’S THE BURROW, but first I saw BRAND NEW-U, a new science fiction arthouse thriller thing, which rather exhausted my will to live — not bad, exactly, but devoid of tension, which made it tiring. I wasn’t sure I could face Kafka after that, so I did a ticket swap and opted for THE JERICHO MILE, an early Michael Mann TV movie released in UK cinemas in 1979 and screened at Edinburgh as part of the retrospective of vintage TV movies. I figured that even though I usually don’t like Michael Mann, this would at least by basically engaging.

(My Michael Mann history: walked out of THIEF at school film society, aged 17 — been meaning to give it another try. I think THE KEEP tricked me into staying for the whole thing but then I felt cheated. Like quite a bit of MANHUNTER but it goes utterly wrong in the last third. THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS screws up its story and makes the wrong call on every single photographic decision. HEAT is extremely silly, the more so for being so serious. THE INSIDER has an appalling soundtrack assembled apparently at random. ALI is quite watchable but doesn’t quite add up. Skipped a couple, and then PUBLIC ENEMIES is a snooze.)

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Answering his critics.

But THE JERICHO MILE is now my favourite Michael Mann film. I could be all backhanded about it and argue that the stylistic constraints of the television format kept Mann from making erratic stylistic choices of the kind he loves, but actually by filming in Folsom with real inmates as supporting cast, he’s pushing the boat out about as far as any network would allow. His big stylistic idea this time is to interweave documentary footage into the melodrama, and it works like a charm. The movie looks and feels like a proper product of 70s New Hollywood, except the inmates don’t swear. And this doesn’t seem to matter — although the proceedings do get corny in places, quite a few places in fact, the story is compelling and the performances are mostly very fine — we get Brian Dennehy and Geoffrey Lewis and Ed Lauter and in the lead, Peter Strauss is excellent.

Strauss plays a man doing life for shooting his father (multiple times — but with extreme provocation). It turns out he can run a four-minute mile, and the prison authorities bend over backwards to get him to the Olympics. I hate films about sporting activity. Sporting activity is the worst kind of activity there is. But like all good sport films, this isn’t really about sport. The possibility of an inmate succeeding in something energizes and ultimately unites the prison populace, and then the straight world steps in to shut this down. The movie can’t allow itself to be quite as depressing as that sounds, but it still makes its point. And I like films with grim messages that don’t actually depress.

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Geoffrey Lewis turned up again after I’d seen part of MAGGIE (Arnold Schwartzenegger has a zombie daughter) — the 11pm film was SALEM’S LOT, in the chopped-down theatrical release version, which doesn’t entirely make sense but goes like a train. Lewis is magnificently creepy, as is everyone who gets vampirized. Found myself intrigued by David Soul’s acting — very much School of Shatner, which is both good and bad, I dug how SCARED Soul looks at the climax. Reggie Nalder, of course, is a brilliant living special effect, wearing more makeup than he actually needed. James Mason is delightful, especially sharing a scene with Kenneth McMillan. When Humbert met Harkonnen.

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This must be the gayest Stephen King adaptation ever. Most movies exist in order to partner up the hero and heroine — this one disposes of the heroine (a lovely, if bony, Bonnie Bedelia) offscreen (in this cut) so David Soul can drive off with a teenage boy. A teenage boy escapologst who keeps urging his dad to tie him up. And the whole plot is kickstarted by the arrival in a small town of two antiques dealers, Mason and his “partner” Nalder, who cause a plague of unusualness to strike down the citizenry. Mason flaunting his Very Queer Gentleman status in front of a baffled McMillan is a treat. There are no Chris Lee type scenes of vampiric male-female seduction, but lots of man-on-man and boy-on-boy action.

There was plenty of evidence that straight-up traditional vampires in a modern setting can’t be made to work — David Soul making a crucifix out of tongue depressors streteches the concept as far as it can safely go. But there was also surprising evidence that vampires are hardier creatures than you might think, despite their vulnerability to light, running water, wood, cruciform structures, garlic and rational analysis — a set of allergies that ought to land them all in oxygen tents.

Every scare came with its own bad laugh, but Tobe Hooper clearly knew how to SOME stuff really well, so that there were more alarming moments and stylish scenes that were ever the case in other US shows. A man jumping out to surprise David Soul in his bedroom made Fiona squeak in terror. She reports that when this screened in the UK in 1980, kids at her school were so freaked they took to wearing crosses round their necks.

Now we have to watch the full-length version to find out what the hell happened to Bonnie Bedelia.

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I’m pretty sure whatever it was, wasn’t good.

 

Hatchet Job

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2015 by dcairns

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Sam Peckinpah’s TV play, Noon Wine, based on the short novel by Katherine Anne Porter, occupies a legendary position in his oeuvre, because it turned his career around when he was at a low ebb, making everything afterwards possible (although it’s THE WILD BUNCH which created his unstoppable momentum in the next decade), and also because it’s been almost impossible to see.

After being shut out of the editing room on the troubled MAJOR DUNDEE (Charlton Heston wondered why Orson Welles and Sam Peckinpah, so charming to their actors when they wanted to be, could not turn that charm on the moneymen; Peckinpah wrote to his producer, “You are a well-poisoner, Jerry, and I damn you for it”), and after being fired from THE CINCINATTI KID after allegations that he tried to shoot hardcore pornography on the MGM lot (screenwriter Terry Southern claimed, plausibly, that it was his idea of adding an interracial love scene that freaked out the suits; but see also Susan George’s allegations about Peckinpah’s initial plans for the rape scene in STRAW DOGS, which tends to support suspicions about the director’s enthusiasm for what might be termed “sexual realism”) — anyhow, after all that, nobody was willing to touch Peckinpah.

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This low-budget TV play demonstrated that Peckinpah could be trusted to turn up, shoot to schedule, and get great reviews. What’s weird is how shonky Noon Wine is. Admittedly, the source material screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival, supplied by UCLA, may not have shown the film at it’s best — though this may be the best surviving material. It looks to have been shot on tape, filmed off a TV screen, and then dumped back onto digital, but it’s hard to be sure. The colour is streaky, the image sometimes displaying a tubular edge distortion, and the resolution is low, and there’s also the unpleasantly smooth, HOBBIT-like video movement, though one soon gets used to that.

The piece is obviously cheap as chips, with laughable production design in the courtroom scene — blank stage flats painted in streaks to try to add a spurious sense of detail. But much low-budget TV still impresses, due to story and acting and framing. Noon Wine is erratic in all of these aspects.

Technically, the piece is below the standard of most TV of the period, with music unconvincingly papering over gaps in the soundtrack where Peckinpah seems to have shot mute. The only visual sequences which don’t look flatly televisual are the frequent montages, layerings of lap dissolves to show time passing. Generally, whenever Peckinpah mucks about with lap dissolves, wipes, freeze frames, ripple dissolves or accelerated motion, I cringe. These examples aren’t outright offensive, but they get a little embarrassing sometimes.

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Olivia DeHavilland is good, naturally. Jason Robards SHOUTS all the time, just like Steve Martin in THE JERK. Per Oscarsson is outstanding. Whenever I see him, I always think, Who is this strange man, where did he come from and what’s he doing here? I even saw him in a Swedish film, DR GLAS, and thought the same thing. So he’s perfect to play what the script calls “a stranger in a strange land.” Theodore Bikel essays a range of characterful tics including a Magoo chortle, and seems to have strayed in from another, more amusing but far worse film.

The story seems predicated upon an ambiguous event (an unseen axe murder) like the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India, but Peckinpah struggles to make the unclear clear. His use of monologues, internal monologues, expository dialogue and more montages is frequently awkward. I realized that Peckinpah’s movies are almost never solo writing jobs, though his work on The Rifleman and The Westerner on TV showed he could get the job done OK when he had to. But he never had to solve all the narrative problems of a feature script without help.

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It feels almost ungrateful to get a rare chance to see something like this projected, and not like it better. But that leaves the enduring mystery of how Peckinpah’s career got rebooted by a tiny TV play that isn’t very good. The most interesting thing about it, to me, was that the film, so little seen but so significant in its repercussions for Peckinpah, is like the offscreen murder itself — it is responsible for everything that happens afterwards, but in itself it is unknowable, unseeable and impossible to understand.

I was just thinking, “Now all we need is Nick Ray’s The High Green Wall” — and then I thought to check YouTube and here it is! Hope it’s good.

These Aren’t Films

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2015 by dcairns

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More things that aren’t films…

Donald Westlake’s Kahawa, about a coffee heist (!) in Idi Amin’s Uganda, is a rip-snorting adventure yarn, more serious and brutal than the author’s usual light capers. It could make a great movie, like Jack Cardiff’s DARK OF THE SUN, but I guess LAST KING OF SCOTLAND “did” Idi Amin for a generation at least. Don’t get me started on the narrative failings of that movie. Except maybe to note that in order to facilitate the hero’s eleventh hour escape, Amin personally drives him to the airport, before having him suspended in the duty-free section by guards who then wander off so he can get rescued (Overdubbed line: “He will still be here when we get back.”)

Westlake of course machine-tools his plot to perfection, but also throws in more convincing local colour and local horror. I suspect the darkness infected his subsequent thriller, The Comedy is Finished, in which, basically, Bob Hope is kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. It sounds like it should be wickedly hilarious but it’s bleak, intense, gory and profane.

Favourite line in Kahawa deals with a British diplomat meeting a charming African girl: “Then I’m delighted,” Sir Denis said, smiling down upon her from his greater height and age and sex and race.

Favourite line in The Comedy is Finished describes a naive revolutionary trying to explain how the world works: He was trying to make a necklace, using some real pearls, some fake pearls, and imaginary string.

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“Look at him. Look at Geoff Wode.” Morrison’s WITHNAIL obsession burns on.

Enjoying Grant Morrison’s comic book Annihilator, drawn in lambent cosmic hues by Frazer Irving, but what the hell has happened to the last episode? It’s an apocalyptic black comedy in which a Byronic rake from beyond our reality abducts a dying screenwriter whose brain tumour may be a corporeal manifestation of a black hole in another dimension. The comic book industry is weird, in that release dates apparently mean nothing, so the gap between penultimate and final episode has now gone on longer than the series ran when it was actually appearing.

Also good: Nameless, an occult thriller in space that excels whenever it gets really distressingly trippy. There’s a quite straight narrative about a killer asteroid filled with Lovecraftian horrors but the story keeps disintegrating under a barrage of repulsive and terrifying imagery — it’s the sense of What The Hell Is Going On? which makes it scary. Chris Burnham’s art has always had an affinity for the grubby and icky, and Morrison exploits it with glee.

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It’s ridiculous that Hollywood hasn’t managed a Morrison adaptation yet, but I fear his stuff is too smart. Whereas anytime Mark Millar coughs into a hankie they buy the screen rights.

The BBC’s adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell certainly has cinematic scope. I never even imagined it would make a good adaptation as I devoured the book, but Peter Harness has the skill to shape it into tight episodes without leaving out the crucual moments or dwelling too long on the diversions. The cast is absolutely splendid, with pitch perfect lead perfs from Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan (cast very much to type, but brilliant at it). My mate Brian Pettifer is delightful in a supporting role, and week by week we await the appearance of Niall Greig Fulton (of CRY FOR BOBO and LET US PREY and NATAN) as John Uskglass, the Raven King.

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I want to specially mention Claudia Jessie out of the excellent cast, because I’m afraid nobody else will — she plays the small role of Mary the maid in the Strange household. In her stand-out scene, she’s quizzed by her mistress (breathy, magnificent Charlotte Riley) about something she may have learned from her beau — so first she has to ask about her beau. It’s like a bottle is uncorked and slowly tipped: Mary starts to reluctantly admit that she is attracted to this young man, and then it all spills out in an embarrassing erotic confession — she can’t help it, possibly nobody’s ever asked her about her love life, and suddenly she finds she NEEDS to tell. The actor not only nails this, she makes it her own, and then she exceeds expectations about what might be done with such a scene. The show is full of such grace notes. (Does Claudia self-google? Hi, Claudia!)

A confession of my own. When I read the book, Fiona was very ill with depression: she had vanished into herself so that only a tiny wisp of her life force remained visible, like the wick of a candle. I became fixated on the character of Mrs. Pole, sold to the fairies by Mr. Norrell, half her hours spent in the alarming palace of Lost Hope, her waking days an exhausted, distracted blur, unable to even speak of her plight due to an enchantment. I very much needed Mrs. Pole to get rescued. When Fiona got better I gave her the book to read but I’m not sure I explained why, asides from its excellence, it was important to me.

The book and show use magic not as a straight allegory but in all kinds of allusive ways. Ultimately it’s a feminist novel about the excesses of men granted too much power. The fairy victims who cannot even tell of their sufferings could be seen as abuse victims, who find they cannot accuse their persecutors (“There is a rose at your mouth,”) and must instead babble meaninglessly when all that matters cannot be uttered. But the richness of the work lies in how it can be read all sorts of ways.

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I picked up a library edition of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s The Fantastic Four; Marvel Masterworks, and had the odd sensation of finishing a strip I must have started forty years ago. And I was reading it with a mixture of awe for Kirby’s punchy, wacky visuals — William Blake on steroids — and shock at Lee’s scripting. In reality, Kirby wrote the stories straight onto the page, in the form of pictures, and Lee’s job was literally what a lot of people think comic book writers do — he filled in the speech balloons. Actually, his verbose, stilted and inane dialogue, while on the one hand a perfect complement to the characters’ epic pose-striking, and a way of breaking up the space opera solemnity with occasional slangy zest, could be compared to an act of vandalism. Underneath all those unnecessary captions is MORE ART, damnit. Every time Reed Richards opens his prolix, stretchy yap, more penmanship is obscured. I know Kirby always left space for speech bubbles (thereby telling Lee who was talking and how much), but Lee always goes that extra wordy mile to cram as much guff in as possible. Hilariously, Ben “the Thing” Grimm’s contributions are usually to tell everyone else to shut up.

Also hilarious: the maniacal despots. The first two strips in this volume BOTH feature evil rulers bent on conquering the world with their hypno-rays.

I like how Kirby always drops in a clue to some mysterious new crisis developing elsewhere while the foursome are in the midst of their present adventure. Even when this week’s galactic punch-up is brought to a successful finish, a further cliffhanger is on the boil, forcing the fanboys and true believers to grab the next issue, even if it does take them forty years to get around to it.

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Slightly ashamed to be looking at Marvel’s Agent Carter, but my excuse is I’m preparing a 1940s fantasy project of my own. First episode contained a pleasing in-joke (above), and one excellent exchange. Carter, disguised as a blonde, enters the office of a villainous night-club owner.

“Is this a bad time?”

Him, grinning, “We won’t know that until afterwards.”

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