Archive for Blood Simple

Exposition Blvd.

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , on April 16, 2014 by dcairns

veronica-mars-movie-poster

There’s a famous saying that goes something like “Be careful what you want because you won’t get it but something might fall and hit you.” Perhaps it was to test that theory that we went to see the VERONICA MARS movie.

Fiona and I discovered the show on the recommendation of a good friend who discovered binge-watching before us, maybe because he’s American. Possibly all our UK friends were doing it already, but we were too busy watching pre-codes to notice. This was in the early stirrings of the Golden Age of TV when Lost and Battlestar Galactica seemed like a good idea and Breaking Bad probably hadn’t even been thought of. I don’t know, I’m no TV historian. But Veronica Mars had a lot going for it, as we recognized after two or three episodes. True, the actors were a bit uniformly good looking in a Lois & Clark kind of way, only juvenile. Thank heavens for the adults, who were good and schlubby. But the series had a lot of merits, which we looked forward to seeing carried over to the big-screen crowd-sourced version.

1) Plot. This is a major one — usually plot can be downgraded to the status of a series of hooks that keep us watching while the more important stuff is going on, but, to paraphrase Martin Scorsese at the start of THE COLOR OF MONEY, “With some players, plot itself can be an art.” Showrunner Rob Thomas would typically have a main plot and a subplot played out to satisfactory conclusions in each short episode, as well as keeping in the air the overarching series mystery (in series 1, this is the murder of Veronica’s best friend). All this made the show incredibly satisfying to watch — you got a lot — while also keeping you hungry for more. The teasers were irresistible.

2) Nice people. Even the deeply flawed characters, like Logan, were appealing. While we’re used to the Manichean nature of much western drama, it’s rare that I find myself touched by the goodness of a character. It sounds corny just to say it. But Veronica, though comprehensively traumatized before the pilot even starts, and confirmed in her cynicism by her evening job as assistant P.I., was always admirably decent, in a way that was impressive. The series tested her, and found flaws alright, but a good heart.

3) Class. I don’t mean just that the show is classy, I mean that’s about class, in a way that’s surprising and way beyond your basic “girl from the wrong side of the tracks” formulation. Series Two even had a major plotline about zoning. Being a Brit, I didn’t even know what zoning was, but I was fascinated to learn.

Veronica-Mars

Would the series’ charm survive expansion to feature length and the big screen? It was with a mixture of hope and trepidation that we attended a late night screening at the Cameo along with four friends who are also fans. And would the results please anyone other than fans of the show? Given that fans literally paid for the movie (in advance, rather than the more usual afterwards), the filmmakers (series creator Rob Thomas partnered with regular series screenwriter Diane Ruggiero) would be under more pressure than usual to satisfy their core audience.

We all enjoyed the movie — as fans. Not having watched it since the third series finished, I couldn’t always remember who the minor characters were, but enough of the rest of the audience obviously did to produce laughs of familiarity. The storyline is perfectly comprehensible to anybody, regardless of whether they ever saw the series — the ways in which it renders itself comprehensible are perhaps questionable, though: a big recap at the start and Veronica’s VO (a device used in the show, admittedly). I’d love to have seen the info delivered more in action and dialogue, both of which the film handles well. That show always had sensational zingy talk, and the movie does too — I’d like to see Thomas & Ruggiero write a screwball comedy.

Does it look like a movie? Well, it’s handsomely lit — but then, everything is these Thomas is definitely a TV director though. His modest budget goes on gloss, and his technique is basically coverage. There’s a suggestion of a LONG GOODBYE kind of drifting camera approach to the wide shots, but the editing tends to cut those angles off before they start paying for themselves, interrupting the camera movements just as they open their mouths to speak. It’s a film of fast-cut closeups — some hinky continuity but some very nifty emotion-tweaking storytelling. It’s just that it’s stylistically somewhere between too much and not enough.

But hey — the TV series succeeded on content, and by and large so does the movie.

The plotting is smooth as ever (at one point, an address is humourously given as “Exposition Blvd” but plot info is always successfully integrated into dramatic argument) and one consequence of the movie catching up with its characters after such a gap is a new focus on social media — I can’t recall seeing the cyber-age reflected so clearly in a film since KICK-ASS. Like Sherlock and House of Cards, the movie features onscreen txt msging as a narrational device — the return of the intertitle, or an appropriation of the speech bubble? It’s such a useful method I can see it being here to stay.

The cast are all great. Kristen Bell is adorable as ever, Enrico Colantoni as her dad (that relationship was the heart of the show) is delightful, Krysten Ritter (Pinkman’s tragic girlfriend from Breaking Bad), who I’d forgotten was in the series at all, is fun, all neurotic twitching, and the stand-out is obnoxious ass-hat Ryan Hansen, who was a good heavy in the show but has evolved into a stunning comic relief. The banter with Bell is vintage screwball. Some of the cast has got curvier, some skinnier, but all are great on the big screen. Maybe the movie strains too hard to give all the series’ regular and semi-regular cast bits, but the fan audience appreciated that.

I got worried that the climax was going to swipe TOO much from BLOOD SIMPLE — it borrows just about the maximum allowable dose. In the end, the problem is more that the ending isn’t quite big enough, and the subplot (yay! a subplot!) is left hanging for a potential continuation. The agreement afterwards was that we’d all love to see a continuation — especially on TV.

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Grease Monkey Business

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2012 by dcairns

The Coen Brothers, back when BLOOD Simple was new, were asked about modern noir and in particular the new version of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson. Not yet having learned the form of good manners that seems to prevail in the film industry, whereby filmmakers rarely badmouth each others’ work (in this, as much else, Ken Russell was un vrai enfant terrible), they remarked that Pauline Kael’s criticism of the film seemed to them dead right.

Kael had basically said that the scene in James M. Cain’s book when a man is murdered just as he sings out into a valley, and his voice echoes back after his death to alarm his murderer, was pure cinema, and that nobody with an ounce of cinematic sense could possibly omit it from a movie adaptation. Now, Bob Rafelson, that film’s director, showed considerable cinematic sense, or at least flair, in his work —

But he must bear some responsibility for leaving out that compelling detail, and for truncating the book’s grimly ironic ending. (Though in fairness, his film delivers on some other key moments.) But if we have to point the finger of blame, I’d sooner point it at David Mamet, who does seem to me to display an anti-cinematic impulse in nearly everything he touches. An exception can be made for THE UNTOUCHABLES, where Mamet’s speechifying and DePalma’s showy excess hold each other in a kind of goofy equilibrium.

Anyhow, both Cain’s murder scene and his ending are intact in the FIRST version of Postman, which might not be the version you’re thinking of. Check it out at The Forgotten.

Clint and Toshiro in Poisonville

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2008 by dcairns

” I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.” ~ Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest.

The Man With No Name

Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is a book with a weird and pervading influence. The only official film adaptation is ROADHOUSE NIGHTS, a 1930 travesty starring Charles Ruggles and Jimmy Durante — which sounds like as good an example of Hollywood lousing up a great book as the preposterous feelgood MOBY DICK of the same year. But despite the dearth of faithful and official versions, Hammett’s grisly pulp nasty has dug its talons deep into cinema history.

Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO (THE BODYGUARD) of 1961, is the next step on our journey. Kurosawa borrows the central conceit of Hammett’s book, in which an “operative” (detective for Hammett, samurai for Kurosawa) destroys the competing gangsters of an utterly corrupt no-horse town by hiring himself out to the highest bidder and provoking all-out warfare among the crooks. I’m not aware of A.K. actually acknowledging the source of his material, but what clinches it for me is that one scene of YOJIMBO is swiped not from Red Harvest but from another Hammett, The Glass Key. In fact, I think Kurosawa’s inspiration here derives specifically from the 1942 Stuart Heisler film of Hammett’s novel, starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.

The Prisoner

Toshiro Mifune / Alan Ladd has been rumbled by one set of mobsters. Beaten to a pulp, he awakens imprisoned in a back room with two gamblers for jailors — one a slimey weasel type guy, the other a hulking pituitary case. Staggering towards the exit, Mifune / Ladd earns himself another skull-rattling haymaker from the watchful colossus.

Thugs with ugly Mugs

Of course, Kurosawa’s framing and blocking (using his usual multiple-camera filming technique, with long lenses and widescreen framing) is not reminiscent of Heisler’s Academy Ratio film noir, chiaroscuro, wide-angle lens approach at all. But the content of the scene is almost identical. The fact that Kurosawa clearly drew on another Hammett source in making YOJIMBO clinches the argument that he was consciously drawing on the American writer’s work. As far as I know this small point is an original observation and I’m branding my initials on it.

It also makes A.K. seem slightly cheeky for suing the makers of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, Sergio Leone’s unofficial remake of YOJIMBO, released just three years after the samurai refit. The story goes that Leone’s Italian and German producers were supposed to buy the remake rights but somewhere along the way they just kinda sorta forgot. The movie is certainly a bare-faced retread and some scenes are actual shot-for-shot reconstructions. Leone extradites Hammett’s operative out of Japan and back to the United States (or anyhow the Tex-Mex border as recreated in Spain) but also transports him back in time to the wild west and makes him a gunslinger.

While Kurosawa’s film marks a key moment in the advance of cyncical attitudes into the samurai genre (as Kurosawa began to lose faith in humanity), its jet-black humour resurfaces in slightly milder form in the Leone film and helps give birth to the whole modern action genre. While James Bond had made his big-screen debut two years before Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name (known more prosaically in the movie as Joe), the central motif of the action blockbuster — Sudden Violence Followed By A Quip — was cemented into place by Eastwood’s sexual cowboy (whose first quip is a paraphrase of a Mifune line). Not only that, but the whole spaghetti western genre was abruptly inflated from a tiny exploitation ghetto into a genuine INDUSTRY. The hills of Almeria were hotching with imported buckaroos.

One peculiar footnote to the above is that Walter Hill’s updating of the Red Harvest format from Wild West to depression-era dustbowl town, LAST MAN STANDING with Bruce Willis, which enacts Hammett’s story in pretty much Hammett’s original setting, came and went in a blur of sepia-tinged dust and left no lasting impression on anybody.

Another oddity is that the Coen brothers, who derived the title of their first feature, BLOOD SIMPLE, from a line in Hammett’s book, reversed the terms of Kurosawa’s pilferage by unofficially adapting The Glass Key into MILLER’S CROSSING, avoiding a straight plagiarism suit by adding a soupçon of Red Harvest to the stew.

Based on this track record I would argue that Red Harvest is possibly the most influential book never to have been filmed under its original title or with its author’s name attached, except for that first version, ROADHOUSE NIGHTS, on which Hammett is credited, but which bears no resemblance to his book whatsoever…

“Don Willson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.” ~ Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest.