Archive for the Television Category

A One-Way Ticket to Pakulaville

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2018 by dcairns

THE PELICAN BRIEF (1993), Alan J. Pakula’s second-last film isn’t interesting in itself. It shows its director revisiting the past glories of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, with Washington locations, crusading reporters, underground car parks, conspiracies. It’s very glossy and well shot and cut, but John Grisham’s book, at least as adapted by screenwriter Pakula, is diffuse and ineffectual. Splitting the action between Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington’s characters for the first half undercuts any forward thrust, and we keep cutting away to other characters on top of that. The movie also begins way too soon, with the assassination of two supreme court judges… it then has to tread water for half an hour before the assassination of another character who’s actually a character, as well as being someone connected to one of our protagonists.

The comparisons to ATPM just show up how unexciting the thriller became in the nineties (I don’t think it’s recovered, either). Here’s a movie where we know exactly who will be alive at the end, who will be dead, and who will be disgraced (Robert Culp, I’m looking at you). You don’t know that for a second in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, even though it’s a true story and you literally know how it turns out. It feels full of uncertainty and possibility.It’s nice that Pakula was still working at this stage, but unfortunately the cinema of the era didn’t tend to allow the interesting choices that enlivened his ’70s work (THE PARALLAX VIEW would surely have been impossible), so he was walled in by artificial genre and commercial constraints. I’m looking at my cat right now, who is lying very happily in a shoe box that’s much too small for him. Cats like confined spaces. Artists, not so much.

The plot gets underway with Supreme Court justices being murdered. President Culp doesn’t really want to the truth to come out (Culp is culpable) and tells his intelligence men to lay off — the scene with the most contemporary relevance. Law student Julia Roberts cracks the case with a bit of research (in fact, all she finds is a possible motive). She’s sleeping with her professor (Sam Shepherd) — and this is quite normal and OK in the world of this film — so she tells him, he tells a friend in DC, and is promptly assassinated. Julia goes on the run and has to enlist crusading reporter Denzel Washington to help.

The story is a bit implausible, but also a bit boring, which is a terrible combination. It’s all very well made, with the occasional nice touch, but it can’t transcend its Grishamite limitations. But here’s a nice dissolve from assassin Stanley Tucci leaving the site of one SCOTUS killing, disguised as a jogger, and entering a porno theatre disguised as a big old gay homosexual to kill another SCOTUS ~ Later, Robert Culp gets maybe the best closeup of the year 1993 ~Features Erin Brockovich, Malcolm X, Chuck Yeager, Alex Cutter, Frank Boggs, Caesar Flickerman, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Dr. Emilio Lizardo and Death.

I’ve never seen Pakula’s CONSENTING ADULTS but for some reason I saw PRESUMED INNOCENT at the cinema when it was new. It seemed sexist, and Pakula seemed to be stuck making John Grisham and Scott Turow adaptations, which seemed slightly worse than directing episodic TV. I feel he could have had more fun on The X-Files, which he practically invented with ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.THE DEVIL’S OWN got terrible reviews in the UK (Hollywood films always get Irish political things horribly wrong; Pakula’s late works, being generally inoffensive, got fairly forgiving notice usually, but not this one). Like TPB it has an overblown, schmaltzy James Horner score, where early Pakula benefited massively from the subtlety of David Shire and the aptly-named Michael Small.

When this came out, we’d just had the embarrassing BLOWN AWAY (how’s that for a tasteful title for a movie about a mad Irish bomber?) and the critics reviewing TDO reminded us that the Guinness in BA looked like weak tea, which was a bit unfair because the stout in TDO looks approximately like stout. There were also reports, I seem to recall, of bad behaviour from the film’s stars, particularly in the form of jealousy from Harrison Ford over his young co-star, Brad Pitt. This certainly seems to have left its mark on the film.Pitt plays an IRA man with an enthusiastic go at a Belfast accent. Having seen his father murdered as a boy, and being a fugitive in his homeland after a gigantic, ludicrous gunfight, he’s sent to the US to purchase guns for the cause from gangster Treat Williams. His political sponsor has him billeted as a houseguest of Irish-American cop Ford, on the grounds that this will make great cover. It also irretrievably makes Ford look a sucker, which may have started the trouble with him.

For the next HOUR of screentime, Pitt’s plotline fails to proceed while Ford gets a series of action set pieces showing his unbelievably exciting life as a cop. These don’t progress the narrative, of course, because they have nothing to do with the narrative. Something showing Pitt in danger of being rumbled by his host would have been more to the point. And something showing a developing bond between the characters was surely needed. We do see them play pool and exchange light-hearted racist taunts with some Italianamericans, but that’s all.It’s only when Pitt’s cover is blown and his criminal activities endanger Ford’s family that the film finds its feet again, at which point it promptly shoots both of them, as well as everything else in sight. “I told you before,” says Pitt, soulfully, “this isn’t an American story, it’s an Irish one.”

It bloody is an American story, though. Look who’s alive at the end.

Stars Han Solo, Tyler Durden, Mary Boleyn, Mickey Nice, Critical Bill and Arthur Dent.

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Two Deaths

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2018 by dcairns

Bernardo Bertolucci evidently hoped to make more films before getting the cancer that killed him. Nic Roeg, after writing his autobiography, had grown frail in mind and body, and would not have been able to. Still, we wish it were otherwise. The fact that Roeg was unable to make his own projects for so long is deplorable, an extraordinary tragedy to add to the more mundane fact of death. (“This isn’t the worst,” Von Stroheim is said to have lamented on his death-bed. “The worst is that they stole twenty years of my life.”)

To a friend, Roeg freely admitted to trading on his reputation with nonsense like SAMSON AND DELILAH (with Liz Hurley! On the basis that Baby Spice hadn’t been discovered yet, I suppose). He clearly wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who could be a gun-for-hire and still bring his distinctive sensibility into play. His work was cerebral, and if the underpinnings weren’t there, you couldn’t expect a gloss of Roegian affect. Bertolucci was lucky enough never to have to make a biblical epic for HBO, though he’d probably have been a better choice for the task.

I first caught a glimpse of Roeg’s work when Barry Norman, presenting Film 83 on the BBC, showed us what the programme (and he himself) had looked like when it started ten years earlier, and there, startlingly, was a clip of a sodden Donald Sutherland screaming in slow motion, holding his drowned child, a trail of droplets raining from her toe, as a slide of a church dissolved into a lurid phantasmagoria of colours. I immediately knew I had to see this film, even thought (or BECAUSE) I had no idea what the images meant.

I looked the film up in Halliwell’s Film Guide, and surprisingly, if you know Halliwell, he actually managed to capture some of the strangeness I had felt, though I think he also managed to (a) spoiler the ending and (b) render the plot garbled and meaningless in a single two-line synopsis.

   

Then there was a Guardian lecture at the NFT, broadcast by the BBC again, where we saw clips from other Roeg movies including his latest, EUREKA!, which I was able to rent on VHS a bit later. I may need to revisit it to see if I still feel that the beginning is great and the rest, progressively less great. By the time INSIGNIFICANCE came out, I think I’d caught up with the earlier films and been blown away. Even if I didn’t always enjoy or understand the experience first time round, some blowing-away always took place. I used to alternately hate and then love BAD TIMING each time I watched it, and even though half the time was no fun, I couldn’t stop watching it. On VHS!

ARIA screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival but I can’t actually recall if Roeg took to the stage for the intro. Ken Russell was there with a plastic cup impaled on the end of his golf umbrella and that rather stole all the thunder, I’m afraid.

I think the first one I was able to see on a first run at the cinema was CASTAWAY (maybe that’s worth revisiting? It was one he really wanted to make). Barry Norman previewed it, saying he’d seen a rough cut with the director sitting right behind him muttering, gloomily, “It is what it is, I suppose…”

A guy I know worked on a script for Roeg. He said a lot of the script notes were just muttering, really, but then you would get these blinding flashes of brilliant insight. And Roeg would turn up on TV interviews, muttering quite dreamily to himself, the words sometimes completely indecipherable, then snapping into sharp focus. Kind of like what my developing mind would experience when struggling through the denser passages of his films.

Another guy I know worked for years and years to get another Roeg movie made, and he was absolutely certain Roeg was still a master, powers undimmed, if only the right project could be launched. This was a kind of Jekyll & Hyde story, and when the idea of an octogenarian Roeg helming the whole thing came to seem unduly optimistic, the plan became to have one, younger director for Jekyll while Roeg handled Hyde, or maybe it was the other way around. Donald Sutherland was up for starring, and when scheduling conflicts intervened, Ruther Hauer was slotted in. But the financing never came together.

I don’t have such a clear image of when Bertolucci impinged on my mind, but Paul Schrader discussing him on The South Bank Show (ITV this time) would have brought THE CONFORMIST into my ken. I hadn’t even seen TAXI DRIVER at this point, I think, and the interview made me rent that and RAGING BULL and probably AMERICAN GIGOLO but Bertolucci had to wait until BBC2’s Film Club, I think, screened THE CONFORMIST, and then there was THE LAST EMPEROR at the cinema, and LAST TANGO IN PARIS at the University Film Society (but maybe at one of the Cameo’s late-night double features first, with something unsuitable like BETTY BLUE).

Channel 4 (see how television used to play such an active role in cinephilia) showed 1900 over two nights, and I watched it with my parents, treating it as a big miniseries, and my dad summed up the weird, allegorical ending with a quite literal interpretation that turned out to be exactly what BB had in mind. I can only assume that screening was censored at least a bit, because there are SO many WTF images in there that I can’t imagine my parents lasting ten minutes. Fiona’s face nearly fell off when I ran it for her.

While the experimental arm of commercial cinema in which Roeg had been able to work — the very fag-end of British sixties cinema — sputtered out and left him to waste his time on hackwork — Bertolucci was somehow able to keep making personal films. What hurt him, I think, was the end of the arthouse cinema he’d come out of, and the end of the hope for a particular revolutionary change in society which had animated his vision. The man who made STEALING BEAUTY and BESIEGED was still talented, but I think he’d lost key elements of his relationship to the world, so that his talent didn’t know quite where to go. He gamely kept at it.

We saw him in Bologna a few years ago, in his wheelchair with the Mondrian wheels. I was going to say “I love your wheelchair” and then I realized who he was and would have added “and your work!” but he had a big guard standing over him making sure nobody interrupted his chat with the guy from Variety. So I didn’t get to have an encounter as charming as the one I heard about from a friend of a friend on the internet, who had approached him at a cafe and asked, “Those colours in THE SHELTERING SKY… was that what the desert was like, or were they created?” to which BB replied, “They were created… for you.”

The Legend of the Haunting of Hill House on Haunted Hill

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2018 by dcairns

Binge-watch! Fiona got a migraine devouring six (or was it seven?) episodes of the new Haunting of Hill House series on Netflix. But it was very more-ish.

It reminds me of when we got into True Crime, which also featured an epic long take and built up accretions of horror and misery before attempting, less convincingly, to end in sweetness and light.

Good jump-scares. Arguably too many of them. But impressive the way the thing keeps the creepy scenes coming, even if a lot of them are dreams. They managed to make me not resent that too much, perhaps because the narrative structure is so ingenious. We have two timelines unfolding, but not altogether chronologically, and from various points of view so that some scenes get replayed in new contexts, with extra background. Add to this the facts that the entire cast of the earlier timeline, except someone who dies then, get replaced by adult/older surrogates, and that the central family have five damn kids, and it should be confusing (every woman on this show seems to have long brunette hair; every man talks in a throaty, husky voice) but it very rarely is.

Not only is the show out of sequence, so are the characters’ lives, with ghostliness used for a kind of time travel. Too complicated to explain but impressive to see play out in gruesome/tragic ah-hah moments of revelation.

And match-cuts! Many many match-cuts, which suggest the whole project has been PLANNED, which is a nice feeling to get.

I will say the thing began unpromisingly, with the amazing opening passages of Shirley Jackson’s book crudely doctored for length and… for no reason, sometimes. With a real brute insensitivity, as of someone who has no idea the clumsy violence he’s doing. Mind you, even the excellent 1960 film is guilty of a bit of that.

The series includes many nods to the book and film, and a couple to Richard Matheson’s rather close homage, The Legend of Hell House, book and film. But it’s a whole different animal. The movie remake Spielberg produced, apart from being lame and stupid, suffered horribly by comparison with the original because every point of comparison was proof of inferiority. The new series benefits from striking out on its own, so I didn’t like the way it appropriated character names and a few characteristics (a lesbian called Theo, an anxious Nell) from its esteemed forbear. But it’s always nice to see Russ Tamblyn.

Not Russ Tamblyn! A much, much taller man.

One thing still bothers us, like Columbo. Were the parents meant to be so incompetent? It arguably makes sense. This show is about a traumatised family, and families often get that way in part due to parental mistakes. But these people make unending screw-ups  with their kids, and while we hear a lot of complaints from the offspring when they grow up, it’s not entirely clear showrunner Mike Flanagan is aware how bumbling his character are. And how did Timothy Hutton get to be so wise in the final episode when he was such an idiot when he was Henry Thomas? Years bring wisdom, I guess. Apparently I’m still in my Henry Thomas phase.

Featuring Elliot, the Silk Spectre, George Stark, Daario Naharis and Tom Thumb.