Archive for Billy Wilder

The Road to Ruin

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2015 by dcairns


The only disappointing thing about Elaine May’s directing career is that you can watch it all in a couple of days without risking fatigue. If she had been working in the forties we might have gotten thirty films from her. Well, actually there is another disappointing thing — ISHTAR. Sad to report that I have to largely agree with the majority on this one. But I was intrigued rather than annoyed by the palpable sense of “This Isn’t Working” which the movie exudes.

“Why should she carry the can if her stars didn’t have the comic chops to pull off the movie?” asked a friend. Well, she cast them, of course. There’s that. Both actors had been funny in other things — though Beatty had also made THE FORTUNE with May’s ex, Mike Nichols, a movie that looks like a rehearsal for this one. Rumour has it that Nichols cut the best comedy from the script in a drive to make the film cheaply, whereas May was taken to task for spending a lot of money on a film that ended up not looking particularly expensive. (Also, Nichols immediately made another picture. May hasn’t directed since.)


It looks pretty at times (so does THE FORTUNE). Vittorio Storaro shot it, and that may have contributed to the cost but it doesn’t contribute to the comedy. Too many comedies are dull-looking. There’s no reason a comedy can’t be beautiful. But there are also forms of beauty which distract from, rather than enhancing, comedic moments. ISHTAR is the story of two untalented songwriters, and it relies on frequent cutaways of aghast audience members, as in THE PRODUCERS. The first of these is decorated with a tinted light, and the green cast on the faces is so striking that it kills the laugh — a key moment in the film.


The songwriter schtick reminded me of KISS ME, STUPID, where Ray Walston and Cliff Osmond play a struggling composer and lyricist. In that one, the songs are trunk items by George & Ira Gershwin, which is a nice joke in itself, but not one you can actually laugh at while watching the film. Most of the songs in ISHTAR are by May and Paul Williams. Only the one written by Hoffman’s character for a wedding anniversary, which dwells ghoulishly on the impending deaths of its subjects, has a strong central joke — the rest depend on moments of clumsiness or a general sense of not being good. Some of the performers’ moves are funny. But somehow the spectacle of these two movie stars playing deluded idiots isn’t pleasing.

This film may have made Beatty paranoid — he played lots of schmucks in the seventies, from MCCABE AND MRS MILLER to THE PARALLAX VIEW. After ISHTAR, he was offered GET SHORTY, but Barry Sonnenfeld reports a strange meeting where Beatty obsessed over why his character, being as handsome as he was, would still be a lowly mob enforcer instead of the godfather figure. In discussions on MISERY, Beatty opined that if his character were to lose a foot, as in Stephen King’s novel, he would be, in the audience’s eyes, a loser. He talked himself out of two succesful movies (but Travolta and Caan are better casting).


I caught a bit of SPIES LIKE US on TV a while ago. Both it and ISHTAR seem to harken back to the Hope-Crosby ROAD pictures — Landis’ film even includes a cameo for Bob Hope, mysteriously playing golf in the middle of the Afghan desert. Neither film has enough actual funny moments. But Landis’ film has comedians in the lead roles and has a jaunty, jocular tone. ISHTAR creates discomfort rather than security, which was always a feature of May’s humour. It seems churlish to get upset that her film is cruel, mocking, tonally awry — these are qualities that enliven her films when they’re at their best.

SPIES LIKE US also looks expensive — the bang/buck ratio seems under control. In ISHTAR, Dave Grusin’s score is often terrific, but seems to by trying to hype up an excitement that the visuals don’t back up. A rooftop chase is both slow and uneventful, and the roofs are only one story up. The climax is a shoot out with two helicopters which would barely keep Rambo occupied for a moment in act two. In the eighties, comedies were parodying dramas by overinflating the action and underplaying the reactions, which is why Bill Murray saves GHOSTBUSTERS from being essentially witless. In ISHTAR, two sweaty dramatic actors strain at laughs that seem like mirages, while a tiny straight-to-video action film tinkles away in the middle-eastern middle distance.

(But ALL May film are sweaty. It’s a kind of trademark.)


The film, apart from seeming to find Arabic funny in itself, makes dictators and the CIA into the bad guys, and so is defensible in its politics. A fairly accurate portrait of Reagan foreign policy (the same can be said of SPIES LIKE US). Charles Grodin is a good choice as the CIA operative, Jack Weston is good casting as the duo’s agent (first glimpsed in his office with his gloves on, so we KNOW) — and if these two aren’t finding laughs in the situation, the whole situation is wrong.

In defiance of conventional wisdom, I did find the blind camel quite funny. And Beatty and Hoffman trying to come up with songs while dying of thirst in the desert was good — a fairly perfect illustration of the principle of inflexibility that makes comedy characters what they are. Actually, all the best stuff is two guys in the desert, failing to cope. Less Hope/Crosby, more Vladimir/Estragon. And the vultures are hilarious too – groucho-walking through shot while the expensive stars huddle in parched consultation. A metaphor for the film’s reception.

The Influence of Anxiety

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2015 by dcairns


Fiona was WILDLY enthusiastic about Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE. I wasn’t quite sure if I was or not. I really like his first feature, SUBMARINE. But, just as the overt HAROLD AND MAUDE stylistic references in that film, while appropriate, don’t really help it secure its own standalone identity, the complex filmography of influences that make up THE DOUBLE sometimes made it seem to me like it was Frankenstein’s quilt or something.

BRAZIL hangs heavy over the film, although Ayoade and his team haven’t really borrowed anything specific — office cubicles are now such a universal workplace phenomenon as to be inescapable. The dystopian vision of bureaucracy comes straight from Dostoevsky’s literary source, and the only point of connection is that Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine have chosen to set their film neither in 19th century Russia nor modern Britain, but in a non-geographic fantasy conurbation mingling British and American (and Australian) accents, with a muted colour palette and a lot of retro stylings. Once you accept this similarity of approach, you won’t find many particular points of connection.


The movie manages to fold both Wilder’s THE APARTMENT and Polanski’s THE TENANT into its narrative. The titles of those films suggest an affinity, but they are in fact pretty different. The latter choice is intriguing because Polanski tried to adapt THE DOUBLE himself, only for star John Travolta to pull out over qualms about nudity — Steve Martin quickly stepped in as a replacement, at which point leading lady Isabelle Adjani (who was also in THE TENANT) fled, and the whole house of cards collapsed. Ayoade definitely isn’t setting out to make the film Polanski would have aimed for, but a recurring death leap, viewed from an opposing window, seems to have been transplanted almost intact from Polanski.

There’s business with an apartment key used to facilitate sexual liaisons — this is the APARTMENT connection. Ironic given Billy Wilder’s crude put-down — asked if he was going to see ROSEMARY’S BABY, he replied, “I wouldn’t touch it with a five-foot Pole.”

In resolving the story, a bit of FIGHT CLUB seems to have crept in — not anything specific, just a sense of “How can we make this dark yet somehow upbeat?”


Fiona howled at this shot, though: “It’s his signature image — a woman staring balefully over food! It gets me every time!”

The casting is great, if possibly too on-the-nose? Jesse Eisenberg can embody a hapless nerd in his sleep, after all. It’s when he shows up as his nasty doppelganger that the film lifts off, with a new kind of energy powering it. The horror of the completely confident man. The trouble is, this is a Zuckerberg cut in two, so both the lovelorn nebbish and the blank-eyed sociopath are slightly familiar perfs.

Mia Wasiskowski can do no wrong. It’s lovely seeing Craig Roberts and Yasmin Page (and indeed Noah Taylor), the stars of SUBMARINE again. Wallace Shawn is a bit typecast, James Fox is a big tease, it’s interesting seeing comedy people Chris Morris and Tim Key, though there’s the risk of Guest Star Syndrome setting in. But both justify their appearances by being remarkable. And Cathy Moriarty!

The Japanese pop songs are the one rogue element — you can’t pin down any specific reference that’s being made — they just add to the alien atmosphere and provide something jaunty amid the bleakness. I liked them all and would like to own the soundtrack.


Also, the film is brilliantly cut. The images sizzle against one another. This isn’t just a technical compliment, as in, “The editor has a good sense of timing/drama/comedy.” The shots are designed beautifully so that they smack together in a way that feels striking and genuinely original. Based on this alone, I’m prepared to call Ayoade one of our best and most exciting filmmakers, even if I can’t quite decide what I think of this film, a hesitation that would surely disqualify me from broadsheet film reviewing (although I get the impression some of those guys didn’t know what to make of THE DOUBLE either).


Sidenote: I recently asked Richard Ayoade to be in a film I plan to make and he was nice, considered it, and then respectfully declined. Now his agency is helping us find an alternative. Am I resentful of Ayoade for spurning me? Am I grateful to him for considering me? Which version of Jesse Eisenberg am I behaving like? Who am I?


The People Versus William Blake Crump

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on September 9, 2015 by dcairns


Why don’t I just watch DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES or BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S or something else that people like? Why do I relentlessly trawl through Blake Edwards’ worst films? It isn’t masochism — I find some pleasure hunting for truffles in his late-career garbage. An erratic talent, Edwards could get it wrong even in his prime — THE GREAT RACE is not just bloated, it’s embarrassingly hammy, with Jack Lemmon giving one of his periodical shrill performances that are all the more painful because you remember how much you normally like him. But Natalie Wood is good — not only lovely whether in Edwardian lingerie or slathered in cream pies or both — but funny, deploying a declamatory, silent-movie performance style with a lot of pose-striking, which serves the double function of embodying her character’s suffragette politics as well as a stylised, period flavour. And she does this WITHOUT being too loud or inducing cringes with over-effort.


It’s probably to the best that Edwards changed his name from William Blake Crump to become a D-list leading man before he started writing, producing and directing. Crump is a great name for a comedy director but would sit awkwardly on something like EXPERIMENT IN TERROR or GUNN.

But as the career goes on, comedy predominates. It’s comparable to Billy Wilder’s oeuvre, where a versatile filmmaker began to increasingly focus on one side of his output, perhaps because of box office concerns: if a drama flops, run for cover and make another PINK PANTHER. If that’s successful, why take a risk and jump back to the serious stuff? Depressingly, Wilder once said that when he was feeling good, he’d make a drama, and if he was a little low he would be more in the mood for a comedy. That suggests those last decades were largely kind of downbeat. I hope it’s not true.


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