Archive for Bruce Dern

A break from the norm

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2016 by dcairns

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I felt kind of guilty that I hadn’t hurried to catch up with Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH and TETRO when they were new. I kind of bailed on him after Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, and saw no reason to bother with JACK or THE RAINMAKER. Uncle Francis was going to get paid whether I saw them or not, so they’d served their purpose. But I intended to give him another chance when he came back with more personal films, I just… never got around to it.

But now I’ve seen TWIXT and am right puzzled. Written by FFC himself, and proudly bearing the American Zoetrope logo, it seems like a personal project. And indeed it incorporates a tragic incident from Coppola’s life, the death of his son in a boating accident (here rendered as the death of a daughter because, as Poe says here, that makes it more poetical). But what it is, is a hoaky, creaky, incoherent gothic fantasy that plays like cut scenes from a video game and feels like it was written by an eight-year-old. Now, that may sound like a knock. In fact, even as it suffers from all these problems, it has some of the dopey charm of cut scenes and children’s writing: naivety can be attractive.

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The thing starts with considerable assurance: a spooky Tom Waits voice-over will kick anything off nicely. And the images of the small town are very atmospheric without, for the most part, pushing it: visually, the film is often splendid, with digitally manipulated night scenes that evoke Bava and Freda. As the movie goes on, the stuff set in “reality” becomes more and more laughably unconvincing, but the fantastical stuff has a bit of Lynchian weirdness and, although nothing in the movie makes proper sense, there are bits that seem to link up in an irrational, dreamlike way.

It feels harsh to criticise Coppola for using a personal tragedy in his story — after all, it’s his personal tragedy. He should be free to use it if he wants to. But it felt unresolved, unconnected, and curiously unfelt — maybe because we first see a photo of the dead child right after Kilmer’s done a Brando impersonation in a (quite funny) improv writer’s block bit.

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The acting is all over the shop. Val Kilmer works hard to anchor it. It’s lovely to see his ex-wife, Joanne Whalley, here playing his current wife — but she doesn’t convince in her bitchier moments. She’s just too nice. Then there’s Bruce Dern as Sheriff Bob LaGrange, who Coppola clearly believes can do no wrong. I saw Dern in Telluride talk to Leonard Maltin about his work in NEBRASKA, and giving a pared-down performance without any of his trademark “Dernsies.” Well, I think all the Dernsies ended up in this film. It’s a performance made entirely of Dernsies. Waste not, want not. I love Bruce Dern, he is an international treasure. But when he gives his name as “BOB LaGrrrraaaange!!!” he probably could have benefited from some direction. Who gets that excited about their own name? I think you can see similar stuff going on with Anthony Hopkins in DRAC, he keeps getting more ridiculous, waiting for the moment when his director will say, “Okay, maybe that was a little too much…” but the moment never comes.

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Oh, we also get Alden Ehrenreich, a Coppola discovery. He plays a ridiculous, Baudelaire-quoting vampire goth biker called Flamingo, and is as good as anyone could be under such circs. Ben Chaplin plays Edgar Allen Poe with an English accent, an odd/lazy choice. But he looks the part. Handsome yet still strongly Poe-like. And I always feel a burst of enthusiasm from somewhere or other when this guy shows up, a bit like with Rufus Sewell, you know? A Rufus Sewell kind of a feeling.

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I’m told, and it may not be true, that when Coppola screened DEMENTIA 13, his first attempt at the Gothic, for his producer, Roger Corman, a man not given to loud displays of emotion, Corman snapped a pencil. Which would be like a bomb going off, from Corman. So he got Jack Hill to rescue it. My own pencil-snapping moment came right at the end of this one, when it became clear that nothing was going to wrap up satisfactorily, that Coppola didn’t have a clue how to end the story, that he’d been making it up as he went along and filmed a first draft. And let’s be clear — it’s OK to end a movie with text on the screen saying what happened to the characters IF THEY’RE REAL. Or if you’re being funny. Coppola is clearly being funny some of the time here, but he doesn’t seem to have made a clear decision about when.

 

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Slow Talk & Fast Driving

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2015 by dcairns

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I’d never seen THE DRIVER but was just coming around to the idea of Walter Hill, after appreciating HARD TIMES, but I couldn’t quite get along with this one. If Bruce Dern is so wired — as he clearly is — why is he talking so slow? And if Ryan O’Neal is such a tough guy, why does he look like a scared little boy except when he puts his sunglasses on? I guess that’s physiognomy rather than performance, essence rather than attitude.

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The idea of making a self-consciously Melvillean, existential crime thriller (none of the characters have names) is ambitious, but even Melville sometimes had trouble carrying off the weighty approach to crime drama, and I think pulp dialogue sounds better fast, and you need the right actors. All the leads here are slightly off, and Ronee Blakely just can’t do the role. Hill reportedly wrote all-male scripts whenever possible, and then just gender-switched one or two without changing the dialogue — this worked for his rewrite of ALIEN, and it could have worked here, but Blakely is too warm to play a Melvillean professional. She can never be all business.

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I was amused by the Hollywood conceit that a getaway driver would have an agent who sets up his jobs — maybe it’s even true. Nothing felt particularly authentic, though, it felt like other movies. Which is fine, but Melville at his best seems to be about something more than movies — probably what he’s about is his Resistance experience, which is why ARMY OF SHADOWS is so much deeper than LE SAMURAI, as stylish and impressive as that film is.

This isn’t as silly as DRIVE, at least, a movie which was equally slick and equally self-serious. But characters keep doing daft things — sometimes these things work for them, implausibly, which doesn’t make it OK. As with HEAT, I get frustrated when a movie deals with characters who are supposed to be incredible professionals, experts in their field, and they keep doing silly things.

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The stunts are good. I think, in fairness, the experience suffered a lot by the print having faded — it was pinkish, with milky blacks, a fatal condition for a movie seemingly based on crunchy shadows and neon and flourescent greens.

THE WARRIORS, by contrast, screened on DCP and looked great. A great 35mm print would have been even better (as with THE JERICHO MILE and SALEM’S LOT) but the vibrancy of the images was nothing to sneeze at. You did need a hankie, though, because the performances and dialogue were sneeze-worthy much of the time.

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The Lambada Meinhoff Gang.

“A film for 14-year-old boys,” was Fiona’s not unsympathetic verdict. The plot — a complete fantasy of street life crossbred with Xenophon’s Anabasis, is all engine, with characterisation something snatched up randomly on the way. Women are present as potential rape victims (something Hill has the taste to avoid showing overtly). This nonsense was taken seriously in both the US and UK as something which might INSPIRE CRIME — and it does make hitting somebody with a bat look enjoyable and rewarding, so I guess for the very dumb it could be problematic. I would still blame the actual person with the actual bat, though, rather than the patterns of light on a screen and the sounds emanating from speakers.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be so camp,” Fiona also observed. Hill, apparently unaware of every possible signifier of homoeroticism, has made a flamboyantly queer odyssey, with costumes, performances and dialogue all reinforcing the man-on-man vibe. While the characters frequently repudiate each other for “turning faggot,” all their threats, insults and figures of speech revolve around sodomy, including a memorable offer to shove a baseball bat up a man’s rectum to transform him into a popsicle. Nice.

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The Badder Mime-Hoff Gang.

The lead gang has a nice interracial mix, in defiance of all realism, though most of the rest are ethnically divided. We particularly liked the tough mime gang (silent but deadly) and the guys clad in dungarees with a roller skating scout. The gangs all have names like “the Riffs” and “the Electric Eliminators.” There are a LOT of gangs. I speculate that some of the other names include ~

The Sobbing Godfreys. The Jewish Mothers. The Piccolos. The Munchers. The Traveling Wilburys. The Bathmats. The Venerable Scones. The Black Krankies. The Goofies. The Laughing Pepperpots. The Pummelers. The Hairy Fauves. The Munchkins. The Astral Tucans. The Coughdrops. The Corrs. The Knights of The Iguana. The Erik Estrada All-Stars. The Gardeners. The Joysticks. The Joss Sticks. The Joss Acklands. The Emotional Cosmetologists. The Bunsen-Honeydews. The Windolenes. The Avaricious Pandas. The Nasty Boys. The Sweaty Poppinjays. The Miami Dolphins. The Shrove Tuesdays. The Gelfs. The Muffintops. The Wheedlers. The Men of Harlech. The Pooh Sticks. The Roaring Calhouns. The Toffee Apples. The Bodysnatchers. The Bandersnatches. The Cumberbatches.

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The Ho Chi Min-Hoff Gang.

In both movies, Hill has a cut revealing that twenty-to-a-hundred extras have entered the scene with malicious intent without being notices, in a few seconds while a character’s back was turned. In neither film does this work, exactly. Although it gets a laugh, so maybe…

I was pondering Hill’s weakness for wipes, and remembered that Kurosawa had a weakness for wipes too (but he grew out of it). The end of THE WARRIORS follows the end of YOJIMBO rather closely. Poor YOJIMBO, hasn’t it been plundered enough? (Apparently not: Hill was still to make LAST MAN STANDING.)

STOP PRESS — after these enjoyable follies, we ran into THE LONG RIDERS, and THAT one is seriously excellent. More on it later.

The Sunday Panty-Title: “…And That Girl Had a Wooden Foot”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 11, 2014 by dcairns

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I wanted to call my thoughts on Michael Ritchie and Jerry Belson’s SMILE (1975) by the title SMARM, in honour of one of the great essays of recent times, but Fiona insisted I use the inspirational anecdote delivered by Michael Kidd. Also, the movie is structured around the days of the week, as announced by what turn out to be Annette O’Toole’s panties.

Somehow I’d never seen this film until last week. Did I have some kind of trepidation about it? Maybe because it seemed like it would be an Altman copy. And though I love a good Altman, a bad Altman can wear out the will to live faster than a bad almost anything. Fortunately, the aspects of this which are Altmanesque (and the girl with the braces smiling at the start seems like something Altman himself lifted for A WEDDING) are really cool — the movie knows what it’s aiming at, and is scathing without being unwarrantedly vicious, altogether misanthropic, or self-important. When your subject is a beauty pageant, how outraged can you get? And even if you use that for a kind of state of the nation address, a bit of gentleness is warranted.

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Also, much of the film doesn’t play quite like Altman at all — much of the footage has a sly, caught-on-the-hop quality, as if Ritchie really did set up a scenario, leave it to play out naturally, and capture it documentary-style. But I don’t think the dialogues is  improvised — we have people like the great and insanely hot Annette O’Toole who ALWAYS seems to be behaving rather than acting, in anything she appears in. Anybody who can seem like they stepped off the street and into CAT PEOPLE or SUPERMAN III must have an in-built sense of truth, justice and the American way, a kind of faultless naturalism compass. And she smiles like Veronica Lake… sigh.

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The film’s star is Bruce Dern, in a performance that supplies the centre of his career and screen personality, something I now realize I was missing all these years I loved him. (In Telluride, I nearly got handed his luggage by mistake, suggesting a potentially awesome alternative reality where I go on to live his life and collect an Oscar nomination for NEBRASKA while he slinks back to a tenement in Leith and a pitiful existence ranting on the internet about unbelievably obscure movies.) He plays a sort of happy idiot, a used car salesman who’s SINCERE, I suppose a guy who believes all the lies, and likes it. He’s unable to help his depressed friend (Nicholas Pryor, also great) except by making him laugh occasionally, and in fact the friend manages to chisel a chink in Dern’s armour of sunshine, and the poor man nearly withers on the vine as he suddenly sees beyond the veil of acceptable optimism and into an existential abyss. Being indefatigable and all-American, he soon slams the door on THAT unwelcome insight.

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Michael Kidd plays the pageant’s choreographer — a great dancer and choreographer himself, he made intermittent movie appearances, including a star turn in the superb IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, and so this is a relatively rare chance to see him act. Great face, great voice, and the greatest portrait of a hard-bitten, essentially decent, dogged professional in any profession that I can think of right now. Just superb work. You don’t get near-heroes like that in Altman.

Oh, and Geoffrey Lewis practically doing a Pangborn, something I never expected to see.

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I think the other reason I never hurried to see this was that I got to know Michael Ritchie’s work via FLETCH (inoffensive but very minor) and THE GOLDEN CHILD (whaaaa?). One can’t judge a filmmaker by their worst projects, but it seemed from that perspective that Ritchie was minor, and already washed-up, a flash-in-the-pan kind of guy. But now I’m of a mind to try THE BAD NEWS BEARS, PRIME CUT, THE CANDIDATE, SEMI-TOUGH. From this fresh perspective, it may be that Ritchie enjoyed quite a nice little run.

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