Archive for Bryan Cranston

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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Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , on September 26, 2016 by dcairns

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For some reason we’ve started looking back at The X-Files. Partly this was a result of the revival of the series, which yielded two interesting episodes and a lot of really awful waffle from creator Chris Carter, whose indigestible exposition-dumps of mythos/backstory/conspiracy were the reason we stopped watching in the first place.

CC’s best show was probably the pilot, in which Fox Mulder (that name! that impossible name!) is much more eccentric and interesting, something they stamped on later. Then you had a season of the show being a bit too cheap and a bit too repetitive, before they learned that Dan Scully couldn’t always be skeptical and wrong without learning something (Mulder is always right) and then things started to get better, particularly when Darin Morgan was writing and the show could spoof itself while still being itself.

While Morgan’s latest episode drew fire for being TOO silly (and was cannibalized from an abortive effort to revive Kolchak: The Night Stalker), we rather enjoyed it, and got a lot of pleasure out of revisiting Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (Emmy-winning per by the great Peter Boyle), War of the Coprophages (a plague of killer roaches — but each incident comes with its own debunking, with a real alien invasion lost in the shuffle) and Jose Chung’s From Outer Space (a RASHOMON of nested unreliable narrations).

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Then we moved onto Vince Gilligan’s episodes, all of which happened after we’d moved on, so they were all new to us. Gilligan didn’t bother deconstructing the show on a weekly basis, which probably allowed him to be more prolific. You do get more of a sense of the stories falling into a format which gets predictable, but on the other hand his specific twists usually still surprise even if you know when they’re coming. And here’s Bryan Cranston, showing what he can do as a racist conspiracy nut with an inner ear condition that will make his head explode if he stops driving, in Drive (basically SPEED, but with an actor’s head instead of a bus). And here’s Diana Scarwid being good and scary as a psychic who can make people do whatever she wants, and SEE whatever she wants.

Nice to see Gilligan addressing the kind of characters conspiracy theories actually appeal to — I mean, apart from everybody. The casual anti-Semitism of Cranston’s character is really surprising, and too complex to resolve in a 45-minute essay (or in a few thousand years of human civilisation, apparently).

Unfriendlied

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2016 by dcairns

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TRUMBO breaks new ground, as a dramatic film about the blacklist, by featuring an actual communist as its hero. When Irwin Winkler was preparing GUILTY BY SUSPICION, he worked with Abraham Polonsky as screenwriter for a spell, but the partnership broke up over AP’s insistence that the protagonist had to be a communist and Winkler’s insistence that he couldn’t be. Prior to TRUMBO, only the BBC TV film Fellow Traveller had the guts to take an actual leftie as lead.

Put it this way — do you prove that the blacklist was an injustice by demonstrating that some people who were not communists got blacklisted? Would you be proving that the law against murder is wrong by making a film about an innocent man wrongly accused of murder?

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So director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara are to be congratulated for not making the million-dollar mistake, especially in a time when right-wing pundits in America have been attempting to restore McCarthy and HUAC to favour. They do offer excuses for those who were tempted by the Party — perhaps a stronger, simpler defense would be the one used in THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT — we don’t like what these people do, but in a free society they have a right to do it.

The film has been greeted by quite a lot of grumbling, not for its politics, but for its quality. I would group it along with movies like KINSEY and THE NOTORIOUS BETTY PAGE (though it doesn’t rely on musical montages to popular, on-the-nose hits, thankfully) — a biopic which struggles to craft a solid dramatic story out of its subject, or to find a satisfying cinematic style.

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A film on this subject cries out to be a film of ideas, since a writer’s life usually entails little action, certainly when he’s at work. To McNamara’s credit, he includes useful discussions illustrating the slippery moral slope one embarks on when trying to cooperate with HUAC, to the extent that Edward G. Robinson, chosen as main example of the friendly witness/traitor, can still seem somewhat sympathetic — he made the wrong choice, is all.

What’s rather lacking is strong emotional, dramatic scenes. Trumbo’s HUAC testimony is rather rushed through, which is unfortunate since it’s one of the rare occasions where he comes up against his enemies. Instead we have many, many short scenes in which he argues with friends, notably Louis CK, excellent in the role of a combination of various members of the Hollywood 10. Balking at crowding the screen with nameless pinkos, the screenplay is probably wise to conflate a few of them, but by name-dropping Dmytryk and other offscreen personae to no particular effect, and making the point repeatedly that there are ten of these guys whom we never get to see, the film is guilty of failing to have its cake and failing to eat it. There’s a feeling the real drama is happening elsewhere.

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As director, Roach is… OK. He was on surer ground with the AUSTIN POWERS films. He makes a terrible misstep in beginning Trumbo’s HUAC testimony as a newsreel, hauling us a way from what should be the most dramatic moment yet and putting the thing into the past tense before it’s happened, and the genuinely moving moment when Trumbo sees his name on the credits of SPARTACUS after years of enforced anonymity gets a flashy reflection shot it really doesn’t need.

That should be a simple moment for letting the actors act, which Roach is otherwise quite happy to do — whatever the consequences. Bryan Cranston’s mannered perf may reflect Trumbo’s real personality, but it still feels forced, especially, as Fiona pointed out, when Louis CK and Diane Lane are being completely natural opposite him. I wonder if what was needed was a more naturally flamboyant personality, or at least a character actor with certain built-in quirks, so that the eccentricity would seem innate rather than assumed. I love Bryan Cranston, and I worry that he’s painted into a bit of a corner — any TV show he does is bound to be compared unfavourable with Breaking Bad, which means he’s pushed into movies at just the time when the smart talent i heading the other way. And movies haven’t found the best use for his talents.

(Actually, if he took part in an ensemble piece like the magnificent American Crime Story, I don’t think there would be any negative comparisons with BB.)

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This movie also features some odd lookalikes and sortalookalikes and lookunalikes. The Edward G Robinson surrogate, Michael Stuhlbarg, bears zero resemblance to the man he’s playing, except when turning up with a beard in old age, when it’s rather too late. Perhaps wisely, he doesn’t try to sound like Robinson either. Dean O’Gorman seems to be putting all his efforts into sounding slightly like Kirk Douglas, which doesn’t help him sound like a human being or give a performance, and he still fails to call the star to mind with the force of a Frank Gorshin TV impersonation. Berliner Christian Berkel makes a good fist of the Viennese Otto Preminger, though my Facebook friend Matthew Wilder thinks the role should have been his. What that says about Matthew I leave to your own judgement.