Archive for Brazil

The Strange Affair of Uncle Joe

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2019 by dcairns

I should have gone to see THE DEATH OF STALIN when it came out, as I really admire Armando Iannucci’s work — maybe I didn’t because I don’t think he’s entirely cinematic. Maybe he’ll get there. This one only becomes really satisfying visually during the end credits, which repurpose the USSR’s revisionist airbrushing to witty effect, in a way that’s funny and uncomfortable, as is the film.

I remember getting into a weird discussion on Twitter with a Russian who was offended by the film, hampered by the fact that I hadn’t seen it and he had. He was disgusted that the film gets laughs out of Stalin having pissed himself. While I suppose laughing at a sick man isn’t nice, it’s still Stalin, and if that’s the thing you single out in this movie as being unsuitable for comic treatment, as opposed to Beria’s mass murders and vicious sexual opportunism, you have a problem with your priorities and are fonder of the late dictator than you are to admit.

Beale was ROBBED of the role of Dick Cheney. Or else Beria ought to have played it.

This is certainly very black comedy indeed — the characters are all totally lost to any sense of decency or compassion or compassion. The various political animals in Iannucci’s The Thick of It and IN THE LOOP were similarly bereft, and one interesting comparison between his various works (I haven’t seen enough of Veep but it looked good, but maybe lighter?) would be that the politburo bastards here aren’t necessarily worse, at a fundamental human level, that the New Labour and Tory scum of his previous outings — it’s merely that the structures of a dictatorship deform them differently than those of a democracy. Malcolm Tucker probably can’t have you killed, directly. But if he was working for Stalin he would surely have to, and might find he got a kick out of it.

A great many striking performances to enjoy here. The mingling of British and American actors and comics doesn’t always work — maybe in the past it’s been evidence of productions too eager to turn a profit, losing track of how to achieve a unified style. IN THE LOOP of course, by its very story, had to mix the two, and did so very sensibly and effectively. Here, it’s simply a question of ignoring the accents — which you can’t totally do with Stalin being played as a bluff northerner by Adrian McLoughlin (actually a southerner). But the Americans and Brits are equally strong. Fiona observed that casting Michael Palin as a ruthless state official works just as well here as it did in BRAZIL, casting “the nicest man in the world” (as Gilliam called him) as far against type as possible. Palin and Paul Whitehouse have to grab a few moments here and there, as does Paul Chahidi, who’s REALLY good at that, but Steve Buscemi and the amazing Simon Russell Beale and Jeffrey Tambor have centre stage. Then Jason Isaacs walks in (in slow motion, as do some of the others, but he really owns it) and practically blasts all opposition aside. Remarkable — the performances and dynamics just keep getting better as the thing goes on.

Nicky Smith, who features so prominently and entertainingly in our latest podcast, was telling me about Iannucci’s forthcoming THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, which has innovative racially-blind casting, with Dev Patel in the lead and a white actor as his mother, and appearances by greats like Benedict Wong. Of course, Victorian London was full of people of different races, but Dickens largely neglected to write about them. This is something different — casting people because they’re good, not because they’re racially “appropriate.” It’ll be amusing to see conservative critics tiptoeing around this. Anyway, I wonder if Iannucci noticed how white the cast of TDOS was, and asked why, if we can sit Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin round the same table, both playing Russians, then why not Delroy Lindo or Thandie Newton?

Advertisements

Spats

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2017 by dcairns

We had an inadvertent Sam Rockwell double feature the other week. First I stumbled upon a copy of the 2005 adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s PICCADILLY JIM, in which he plays the title character, sort of, and which I’d been curious about for some time. But you can’t buy the thing anywhere — this was a charity shop discovery. So I immediately satisfied my curiosity, and then we embarked to the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s festive mystery show, which turned out to be THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, with Mr. Rockwell again.

Verdict: Sam Rockwell is a powerful force, if used responsibly. This piece is about the earlier film.

PICCADILLY JIM would make a fine film to test budding critics on. Make them read the book, then watch the 1936 film and the 2005, and attempt to say what’s wrong in each case. The novel isn’t actually prime Wodehouse, but it’s an early example of him starting to hit his stride. The budding critic might dispose of the MGM version swiftly: despite employing a lot of the right sort of people, it’s not funny and every change that’s been made to the original story, and there are many, makes it worse. Why didn’t they just film the book?

In the thirties, one feels, it might be possible to just film Wodehouse. Certainly the best Wodehouse movie by far, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, was made then, and is fairly faithful. It’s biggest departure is the addition of Fred Astaire song-and-dance numbers, a wholly forgivable infidelity since Astaire hoofing is about the one thing as lighter-than-air as Wodehouse.

Post thirties, it’s become necessary to treat Wodehouse as a period piece, and this seems to add a heaviness that’s ruinous to all adaptations. A lot of people like the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series, which was honestly faithful to the plots and characters, but I find its plodding pace, sludgy 16mm look, and respectful tracking across drawing rooms or bottles of bath essence, as if in awe of its own production design, so antithetical to the correct frolicsome spirit that I find myself doubting whether anyone who professes admiration for it actually appreciates Wodehouse at all. Which I realise is a bit extreme, harsh, judgemental.

Turgid though J&W is, it’s still miles closer to making a decent attempt at the job than most of the atrocities perpetrated, including the inane, cartoonish Blandings series shoveled out by the BBC. Again, I could defend that one in principle, because it may well have been made by parties who had noticed the problem of adaptation. But their solution — going BOING! a lot — was a dismayingly stupid one.

OK, this is quite a funny image.

Sticking a camera in front of unadorned Wodehouse seems to result in the flat champagne of the Fry-Laurie show. Some level of stylisation seems necessary. But so many attempts at this result in shrill, arch overacting, and distracting visuals. PICCADILLY JIM is almost entirely composed of these things. It’s the first Wodehouse made for the big screen since THE GIRL IN THE BOAT in 1962, which improbably starred Norman Wisdom. It’s written by arch-Tory posh boy Julian Fellowes, between his first big success with GOSFORD PARK and his second, Gosford Park Lite Downton Abbey. He ought to be a reasonable choice, being familiar with and not overawed by the ritzy milieu. And one assumes his enthusiasm for the original author is genuine. (I’d even say that a Wodehouse adaptation that played like GF without the darker notes would be about right — look at how a former Jeeves, Stephen Fry, playing the only broadly comic figure, fits right in and actually “works” better than he does in any other film.)

The director, John McKay, ladles on the stylisation (archness, shouting, cartooniness, distracting visuals). but he has an interesting concept. Wodehouse started in the early 1900s, hit his stride in the 20s, peaked in the 30s and 40s, and kept merrily going until the 70s. The world of his stories changed very little. So what we casually visualise as some sort of vaguely thirties setting is a lot less concrete and specific than that. The PICCADILLY JIM film uses this as an excuse to go all MOULIN ROUGE! on Wodehouse’s ass. Mix up the fashions, turn everything up to eleven, and have someone perform a jazzy version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! is, in my view, a very terrible thing, a cinematic Srebenica. But this approach, used consistently and moderately, need not have been fatal. Setting the film, like Gilliam’s BRAZIL, “Somewhere in the twentieth century,” makes it interesting to look at. McKay and his designers have the visual chops to produce imagery that’s amusing and pleasing, if you press mute on the sound. But let’s be clear: this is just a decorative layer laid over the story. Decoration doesn’t make things function better, and it can weigh them down.

McKay is less ADHD-chaotic than Luhrmann, but he’s aiming for frenetic from the off, and in search of the chimera of “intensity” he films things too close up and cuts too much. He and his team have noticed that Sam Rockwell moves beautifully, but they try to feature this virtue by cutting to wide shots but then jumping back in immediately. In-out, in-out, for little or sometimes no reason.

There’s some good actors in this. Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander especially (the only really funny one) and Nitin Ganatra seem able to do lightness. They’re not belabouring it. The women all go for Queen of Hearts type acting. Wodehouse does, admittedly, enjoy writing termagants, and the fear of powerful women motivates a lot of his plots. Brenda Blethyn and Alison Janney are just too much.

Frances O’Connor is a more interesting case. Most Wodehouse heroines could be seen as a little boring to play: the interesting girls are more likely to be secondary characters like Corky Pirbright, who can apply their eccentric determination to get the hero in trouble using charm and appeal rather than sheer domination. Ann Chester is a character of this variety, at least as portrayed here. O’Connor is very skilled and gets to do some surprising stuff, and she’s sexier than anyone in a Wodehouse piece has ever been, which isn’t very Wodehousian but is fine with me. But she’s playing it American, which is another level of archness and artifice, so that’s less welcome. Although a real American wouldn’t necessarily be better: Americans working in Britain sometimes manage to act like they’re American impersonators.

The exaggerated costumes by Ralph Holes are fun, but would be all wrong for a Wodehouse film that was actually working. As it is, they can certainly be enjoyed in their own right.

Which brings us at last to Rockwell, who applies tremendous energy to the part, and moves well, as noted. The fact that the film doesn’t work has something to do with him, but it’s not immediately obvious how, because he’s so GOOD, or at any rate fascinating to watch. Dynamic, inventive and kind of aggressive, but not frighteningly so. But Jim starts out as a philanderer (discovered unconscious with three girls at the outset, which isn’t very Wodehouse) and has to be converted by true love. Wodehouse always treats love with heartfelt sincerity: the storm clouds in his sunny stories are all to do with the threat of thwarted romance, and at the end romance is never actually thwarted. And we’re supposed to care.

This film never gives us a reason for Jim to fall in love with this girl after being around so many. Even though O’Connor is glamorous and dashing — the Wodehouse love at first sight never gets a moment to establish itself, and the entire edifice is meant to be built on it. Without that simple, hackneyed thing, all the clever touches and all the stupid touches (plenty of those) are meaningless, have nothing to cling to, and there’s no underlying anxiety to make the farce run — no negative outcome that matters to us is ever imminent. Fellowes even threatens to blow everyone up with a doomsday device, a rather outré development, and I wasn’t remotely worried. He’s found a whole new way to fail at adapting Wodehouse — by being TOO flip and throwaway. And of course, he combines this innovation with all the more typical ones.

Why is Wodehouse so hard to get right? True, his deathless prose can’t be transferred to the screen, but his plots are sound and hilariously complicated, his characters sweet and funny, his dialogue wonderful. But it seems the tone and style of the movie, which must substitute for Wodehouse’s writing, are maddeningly elusive. It’s not a tone anyone does naturally anymore, and the more you strain after it, the more it recedes, like a caffeinated vanishing point.

Nobody’s made a Wodehouse for the cinema since 2005, and it looks like the gap that yawned between Norman Wisdom’s attempt and the Fellowes-McKay stumble may well be repeated.

This would make an instructive double feature with another Rockwell — THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY… in which again, transatlantic casting surprisingly isn’t a problem, but a shaky grasp of tone and story and uneven jokes certainly ARE.

 

Ape Crisis Centre

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by dcairns

Sorry for the tacky title, but somebody already reviewed KONG: SKULL ISLAND with the tagline I LOVE THE SMELL OF APE PALM IN THE MORNING, better than which it is impossible to do. It wasn’t the famous Anonymous Wag, it was somebody real with a name, I just can’t recall who and can’t be bothered checking. but well done, Nonymous Wag.

I didn’t see KK:SI but I did see WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, slightly dragged by Fiona, and it has just probably as many APOC NOW refs as the big gorilla one. There’s even a graffita reading APE-POCALYPSE NOW, so I couldn’t use that as my header either. The Vietnam stuff is a little heavy-handed and dumb, though in a war with the apes Americans surely WOULD call their enemy “the Kong” so I have to grant them that one. (They called their enemy that in ‘Nam, too — I know you know that, but did you know it was actually a made-up name? There was no such group as the “Viet Cong,” the US made the name up because they wanted something that sounded cool and sinister. NOTE: see correction in comments section.)

So, I was glad I saw this in the end — we’d seen  films one and two in the trilogy, and this one does its best to actually be a concluding episode, though I’m sure there’ll be pressure to do more — a reboot, or some kind of sequel that also serves as a remake of the original Chuckles Heston apetacular (still the best in the series/serieses).

DIGITALLY RENDER UNTO CAESAR

The first half hour is nicely directed, though the 3D didn’t add as much as I expected — maybe because the sinuously moving camera does all the 3D’s work for it. But I wasn’t really engrossed dramatically. Caesar (Andy Serkis and his army of animators) is quite chatty in this one, despite Noam Chomsky’s firm stance on ape language, but he apparently has never learned to use contractions. So talks like Data from Star Trek, or like a man in a biblical epic. This is obviously as deliberate as the ‘Nam refs, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. (Notice how Data’s robospeak gradually infected the rest of ST:TNG‘s cast as the writers forgot how people talk).

I guess the biblical epic aspect has always been there, from the casting of Heston to all the talk of a “Lawgiver,” echoing Heston’s role as Moses and eventually embodied by John Huston, director of THE BIBLE (and portrayer of Noah, another man who conserved species from an environmental disaster) in BATTLE FOR, the last of the original series. That movie is referenced here just enough (a single teardrop!), and there are lots of other clever harkenings to the earlier films, which the reboot has always been nicely respectful of.

But the first half hour is also terribly uninvolving. No effort is made to remind us of the personalities of the lead apes from the previous installments. One fellow only gets a little character grace note five minutes before being offed, which retroactively makes said grace note seem like a cynical plant. Inexplicably, the film’s baddie, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson as Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz with a side order of Robert Duvall’s Kilgore) shows up out of nowhere to kill some apes and set Caesar on a mission of revenge, then vanishes back to his hideaway — Caesar falls off a waterfall, very dramatically, but in the next scene is back in his (compromised, unsafe) base camp, making plans. It feels muddled, and the emotion is dampened by confusion.

Fiona points out that the film is still afraid of female apes: none of them talk in this film, and they don’t fight, contrary to nature. They don’t have big purple behinds, so the movie resorts to having them wear little hair braids so we know who’s a girl. They make little feminine grunts, the way real apes don’t. I think the rot set in with Tim Burton’s appalling POTA movie, with Helena Bonham Carter and Lisa-Marie as sexy ape-babes. Ugh. That’s the only bit of wrongheadedness from that abomination which has kind of survived and mutated, as if exposed to an experimental gas canister (Burton is getting to resemble an experimental gas canister more and more).

BAD TIME FOR BONZO

There’s also, I would say, a problem with the first half’s post-apocalyptic landscape. Unlike the crumbling cities of DAWN OF, there’s nothing specially evocative about, say, a Snow Cat lying abandoned in a snowy forest. It looks like quite a normal site. I love post-man settings in the same way I love empty set photographs — I’m all about the defining absence, me. So this was disappointing.

But it was in the midst of the snowy rural stuff where the film is aiming to be THE SEARCHERS with even more sign language that it starts to get good. There’s a quite brilliant scene of Maurice the orang (Karin Kanoval and her animators) and a silent little girl (Amiah Miller) which is LOOONG, wordless, quiet, tender and hypnotic. Really unexpected in a summer blockbuster. And the film starts improving right now.

Next we meet Steve Zahn (and his Zahnimators) as the comedy relief chimp (his “Oh nooo…” sounds very Scottish, somehow). Comedy relief characters are primarily needed by films with no sense of humour, or films afraid that a sense of humour will deflate the pomposity that sustains them. Both certainly factors here — any film with a lead who can’t use contractions must be afraid of humour. Get it safely contained in one character and you’ve quarantined it. But Zahn & co create a rather adorable figure here. So appealing, I worried he was being set up for a moving death scene. But the film doesn’t ALWAYS do what you expect.

EMOTION CAPTURED

Now the movie becomes a prison camp flick, and the Colonel shows semblances of another of his rank, Saito in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. But it’s a wall he’s building. Yes, this feels like the first anti-Trump blockbuster (or the first I’ve seen — I don’t see many). And it will feature an ape swinging from a Stars and Stripes which is also inscribed Alpha Omega and is also on fire. An image for our times. (Also prefigured by John Huston, this time in WINTER KILLS.)

Science fiction films never accurately predict the future (except BRAZIL, which has all come true) but one hopes this does, just so we can have Don Jr. lose the power of speech and his dad shoot him. Oh, come on. It’d be interesting.

But the movie isn’t as dark and vengeful as that, after all. It has a much more nuanced take on vengeance than, say THE REVENANT, which proved remarkably dumb and unsophisticated. And it even redeems the somewhat fascistic ending of RISE DAWN, which had Caesar depriving his enemy of apehood so he could kill him without breaking the “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” rule. That climax, which seemed like it was meant to be just cool and bad-ass, is back-engineered to seem genuinely proto-fascist, something that must be atoned for and which leaves trauma for the perpetrator, or maybe this was always part of their plan (the writers of the first film are execs on this, granting a sense of cohesion and trilogic world-building). Caesar feels guilt for killing Toby Kebbell as Koba the bonobo (I just like writing that) and gets a chance to act differently this time.

APE PLURIBUS UNUM

So maybe because I like apes or because I don’t like concentration camps, this movie got quite emotional for me. I seemed to continually have something in my eye (mayve it was the 3D). It wasn’t profoundly moving, because torturing animals always gets a reaction (my friend Alex makes fun of the bit in RISE OF where Malfoy shows up with girlfriends to abuse apes — “No matter how evil you are, it’s unlikely you’d think that torturing chimps would be a good way to impress the girls,” — but in fact, animal abuse is a staple of entertainment, since drama depends on a good bit of unpleasantness to work its magic). Arguably, it was all too easy. But it worked. And it didn’t become so manipulative and Von Trieresque that I resented its effect.

It’s nice to get a proper trilogy. The middle one is the darkest. The first and third are the best. This is as it should be.