Archive for Bob Balaban

Dog Zero: Unleashed

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2018 by dcairns

I think ISLE OF DOGS is one of the best things I’ve seen in a while, on the big screen. Half an hour in, Fiona whispered to me, “I like this better than FANTASTIC MR. FOX.” Don’t worry, nobody was sitting nearby to be disturbed. I remember we loved FANTASTIC MR. FOX so I would have to see that one again to compare more freshly. But this one is pretty great, and may show advances in the Wes Anderson emotional lexicon. (In brief: there are a lot of crying dogs and people in this one, and not all of the emotion is smothered under a thick layer of irony. This may mean Anderson is about to become a rank sentimentalist, but for now it means he’s opened up a little, the possibilities have become wider. It’s a process we’ve seen hints of for some time.)

I’d like to dispose of the whole cultural appropriation question quickly. I think this is a pretty clear example of the GOOD kind of cultural appropriation. It’s obviously born of a deep love of Japanese culture; it displays, and shares, relatively nuanced knowledge of that culture; I find it preferable to the bored tourist’s eye view of LOST IN TRANSLATION. I see lots of American indie films in my work as submissions viewer for Edinburgh International Film Festival, and one thing there isn’t enough of in American cinema is interest in other parts of the world. Sure, this is set in futuristic comedy Japan, but little kids aren’t going to be seeing Ozu just yet. Fiona wondered if the film was too strange and too dark for little kids. I don’t care: it’ll be SOME strange, dark little kid’s favourite movie.

If there are clear (but shifting) limits on the extent to which Anderson’s films engage with other cultures (Colourful Backdrop in THE DARJEELING LIMITED; Ruritanian Allegory in GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL), it’s still impressive here how much of the film plays as anti-Trump. I mean, the orange blob has only been squatting in office a year, and how long does it take to make an animated feature? The movie is obviously more broadly anti-dictator though, and I guess they’re all somewhat alike (Trump’s incoherent Twitter bellowing is down to the fact that he’s an aspiring dictator whose found himself in charge of a democracy, and doesn’t understand why he can’t make things happen just by shouting). But the executive order signing seems like a specific jab.

There’s a conspiracy plot — power-grab using manufactured plague — which dates back to AIDS conspiracy theories (the truth about Reagan-administration indifference to the “gay plague” is horrifying enough without need for germ warfare elaborations) and which is a repeat of a story point from an earlier agit-prop fantasy: the Wachowski-scripted V FOR VENDETTA, which went after G.W. Bush with very internet-era Hitler comparisons. (I liked that film a fair bit despite some egregious flaws. Here’s the nonsensical timeline: government builds concentration camps and experiments on prisoners, creating virus it uses to decimate populace and seize power. Wait, seize power? Aren’t they already IN POWER, powerful enough to set up concentration camps? It’s not just a tangled web, it’s a moebius strip… or a script by people who aren’t as smart as they think they are.)

Tilda as “Oracle”

Brief summary of what I liked in this film: resonant Bryan Cranston voice (his first great movie role); Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel and Tilda Swinton are the Anderson regulars who work best as voice artists (some of the others maybe aren’t distinctive enough*); the beautiful imagery you’d expect; Alexandre Desplat’s score, snagging quotes from THE SEVEN SAMURAI and Prokofiev’s Troika, and reminding me of AKIRA and YOJIMBO in places; deaths of sympathetic characters; no deaths for unsympathetic characters; everything seen on TV screens is animated in 2D, anime-style; I laughed; I cried; it has lots of dogs in it.

Fiona didn’t like that the bad guys are cat lovers: but she liked the fact that jailed evil people got to keep their cats in prison.

*Voice acting for cartoons is strange. In the anaemic ANTZ, Sylvester Stallone’s distinctive mush-mouthed delivery makes him far more effective that Gene Hackman, who just sounds like some dude, despite being self-evidently the superior actor.

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I Like Ike

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on December 22, 2011 by dcairns

Going into the peculiar TAKE A CHANCE I was already a big Lillian Roth fan. Coming out of it, I’m a big Ukulele Ike fan. He’d somehow passed me by until this moment, apart from his work as Jiminy Cricket. Of course, Ike (AKA Cliff Edwards) was uncredited in that, along with the rest of the voice cast (such strange, distant days those were — now, voice actors are cast not for their voices but precisely for name recognition).

But I read the name in Bob Balaban’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary, since Spielberg had previewed his big UFO movie with the song at the end, to horrible reactions from the audience. Columbia stock dropped so fast they had to stop trading. The power of song…

Of course, Ike’s rendition, which is beautiful in its own right and works like a charm in the Disney, would have been fatal in Spielberg’s wide-eyed conspiracy thriller, unbalancing the thing and undoing all the credit it gets for having edgy seventies actors and cinematography, turning it into the big load of baloney it secretly wants to be but is ashamed of owning up to. Balanced on that knife-edge, it never quite becomes total kitsch, and is something I’m really quite impressed by, despite my cynicism about it.

(The live radio version heard 3.50 into the above clip is much preferable, I think, to the soupily orchestrated movie version — when vocals are as emotively quavery as these, you don’t need syrupy strings.)

Anyhow, for my reactions to TAKE A CHANCE, and for two Lillian Roth numbers and one Ukulele Ike, skip over to The Daily Notebook for the penultimate Forgotten Pre-Code.

Tanked

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2011 by dcairns

Our teenage friend Louis seemed ripe for introduction to the oeuvre of the late Ken Russell, so we showed him ALTERED STATES. His father thanked us for this afterwards, so it seems it was a good move. I think he viewed it as something like the young fellow’s first trip to a bordello — a necessary stage in his development.

(William Hurt experiments with isolation tanks and hallucinogens, experiencing a physical regression to a pre-human state. Along with DAY OF THE DOLPHIN, this is the second film based on John C. Lilly’s experiments — he sued the makes of the former film… but apparently this one was OK with him.)

Fiona had been wanting a Ken Russell tribute ever since the Great Man left his body, but she was particular that it should be this film, and I thought our only copy was on loan, but then I found a spare, and so we DID IT. Ken’s first American-shot film and his last major studio film (VALENTINO was shot in the UK, CRIMES OF PASSION was an indie for New World) seems to have allowed him considerable freedom — a big budget and license to cast unknowns like first-timer William Hurt. He’s excellent, though Ken found his need to discuss everything slightly wearing. “I knew he’d marry a deaf woman.”

ALTERED STATES is full of Dick Smith bladder effects. Chief among them is William Hurt’s face.

I once met a chap from a deaf school who had dealt with Hurt on CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD. “He had an interesting time,” said the guy’s dad, and the guy immediately did a full-body clench of anger at the mere memory of Hurt: “He’s – a – very – difficult – man,” he gritted.

I may never forgive Pauline Kael for sniping that all Blair Brown displayed here was the small of her back — she gives a moving and intense performance, dealing with Paddy Chayefsky’s decidedly tricky script. She does, it must be admitted, look great in her nude scenes, but that hardly seems something that should be held against her. She’s credible as an anthropologist and as a woman in love, which is not a combination everyone can pull off. Plus, she delivers two of my favourite facial expressions in any movie — the first is her Sphinx Face, which she deploys when playing the in-between to a gila monster and a sandstone sphinx in a hallucination. It’s appropriately both sphinxlike and lizardlike, full of cold-blooded mystery.

The second is her very convincing and frightful going-into-shock face. In GOTHIC, Julian Sands has a very similar scene in a very similar shot, but his version is rubbish because he’s Julian Sands and not Blair Brown, as any fool can see.

About that tricky dialogue — the one area where Russell didn’t have freedom was the script. Chayefsky had earned the right to control his productions to the point where nobody could change a line of his dialogue without his consent, which is fair enough considering his status and the level of his success with NETWORK etc. But here, his writing does somewhat cross the boundary from florid and theatrical to ridiculously over-explicit and jargony. Russell thus proves how far a director can subvert a script without rewriting it — pretty far, it seems: to the point where Chayefsky took his name off the screenplay.

Russell’s main weapons are speed and overlap, allowing the dialogue that didn’t interest him to rocket over the viewer’s head in a cataract of projectile verbiage. Having the character spout psychological insights with their mouths full of food also adds much-needed naturalism. And actors like Bob Balaban and Charles Haid, with their cool, moist and hot, dry delivery respectively, manage to make this stuff sound believable and human. Haid gets the best rant ever, as Hurt slides to the floor laughing in his face (which, believe me, is the best reaction if anybody ever does start furiously ranting at you — try it, it makes them crazy).

The only downside of sliding so quickly over the incessant monologues is that this stuff is where Chayefsky sets up the crazy Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations that come later. This must be my sixth viewing of the film at least, but it’s the first time I’d taken particular note of a stray observation about schizophrenics almost trying to modify their bodies to suit their schizophrenic self-image. The idea of Cronenbergian psychoplasmics, where mental states take on physical forms, is a crucial one to prepare the audience for the TERRIFIC APE-MAN, who otherwise may seem a bit of a stretch.

Although, a friend said he had no trouble with the ape-man, what he found a little tricky was the weird cosmic shit, which really only gets set up quite late in the day. Of course, for Ken, the image was of singular importance, so what mattered was not establishing these concepts through science-talk, but hitting the audience right between the eyes with them as forcefully as possible, in actual scenes of violent physical action. Here, he delivers. Nothing could be more compelling that the non-verbal adventures of Hurt’s monkey self, rampaging through the streets followed by Jordan (BLADE RUNNER) Cronenweth’s dynamic, roving camera. Just beautiful!

The late Miguel Godreau, a Puerto Rican dancer, plays “primal man” with aggression, gusto, grace, and a surprising quality of choreographed grace — rather than simply running wild, he strikes poses that seem as much physical theatre as wildlife documentary, an unusual choice which shouldn’t work but does, aided by the 80s lighting, which is all smoky shafts of toplight and overwhelming Spielberg godlight. Ken’s sensory overkill needed the kind of budgetary support he got up until CRIMES OF PASSION, and the later films suffer by having insufficient resources to barrage the audience with their effects.

Attention To Detail — here are two shots from near the beginning and near the end, melodramatically lit and mirroring each other cutely. Note also the statue in image one — barely noticeable in the film, where one’s eye flashes to the silhouette of Hurt, but amusing when you spot it. Note also the image at the top of this post: I never spotted, until I went looking for frame-grabs, how the face of the schizophrenic patient bleeds through Hurt’s face during one of his trips. The amazing actress, Deborah Baltzell, tragically died of a heart attack, aged just 25, a year after the movie came out. Everybody use this as your Facebook avatar, NOW.

John Mcdonald’s production design, like most of the film, straddles a line between realism and theatricality. Everything has real-world solidity, and insists on its authenticity via texture and age, but the room with the metal grid floor, lit from below, makes very little sense if you think about it. It’s a hard balance to get right: see EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC for an example of production design that crosses that line first define by David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, between clever and stupid.

As Ken happily pointed out, what contemporary audiences really responded to was the crazy trip scenes. Ken’s crew discovered that what he responded to best was actual on-set physical effects he could see happen live, through his camera, although by the time things reached the screen he had manipulated them in all kinds of ways with the optical printer and splicer. The combination is both visceral and cosmic, which it needs to be. John Corrigliani’s score, with its Stravinskian assaults, is a great help.

And who’s this guy? Small role, but he’s AWFUL good.

“Well, they seem like agreeable people.” — classic example of the kind of fellow you wouldn’t want supervising your peyote trip!

(Apparently he’s Thaao Penghlis, and no, I didn’t just collapse face first on my keyboard, that’s his name. And he’s been in 1,053 episodes of Days of our Lives, which I guess is better than dying young, but how much better I’m not sure. Still, he’s GREAT.)