Archive for Christopher Plummer

A Star is Burned

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2018 by dcairns

Inside Daisy Clover from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I’m extremely glad I never watched the pan-and-scan copy of INSIDE DAISY CLOVER I used to own, so I could appreciate the proper super-wide-screen version I have now acquired. That said, there’s only really one scene in it that really comes alive, but BOY does it come alive.

Producer Alan Pakula and director Robert Mulligan (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) tackle Gavin Lambert’s novel (with the author himself adapting the screenplay), effectively a Judy Garland roman a clef, with a perfectly cast Natalie Wood as the waif-starlet abused by the system. There’s good, creepy work from Christopher Plummer as her studio boss (though no thirties studio boss was remotely as handsome — you were lucky if you got Darryl Zanuck, “he of the air-conditioned teeth,” as Orson Welles unkindly but accurately remarked) and Katharine Bard as his sinister sister wife. Ruth Gordon plays the crazy mama, a more benign figure than the monstrous stage mother in Natalie’s own life, and Roddy McDowell is rather wasted as a studio factotum.

Robert Redford is intriguingly cast as a dashing drunk, a Flynn/Barrymore composite who also turns out to be gay, something one can’t imagine Redford playing later. Since reading Peter Biskind’s gossip-fest book Down and Dirty Pictures, which characterises RR as, essentially, a passive-aggressive jerk, I can’t help see his characters as passive-aggressive, and it’s definitely a suitable filter for this one. Weird how an actor who’s been criticised for being bland and always playing sympathetic golden boys can be realigned as the movies’ biggest and best portrayer of arrogant jerks.

But the movie fails to catch fire. Wood is energetic and effecting as she always was, but the story’s progress is full of mysterious lacunae. Is it a problem that, in charting this aspirant screen goddess’s rise to fame and heartbreak, we never see her first day on set, meet her co-stars or directors, or see her actually notice her fame or meet her public? It might not have to be, if the lacunae were bridged by consistent narrative development. But Daisy is introduced as a girl who wants to sing, and then her singing drops out of the picture altogether. Sure, there are a couple of musical numbers staged by Herbert Ross, who, as his later PENNIES FROM HEAVEN shows, could certainly pastiche 30s style, but here seems to have been ordered to keep it vague as to period. Edith Head and team’s costumes likewise eschew anything smacking too strongly of the depression, and try to touch lightly on sixties styles. The movie’s planting its feet three decades apart makes for an uncomfortable pose.

It’ a strangely underpopulated film — giant studio barns, inside and out, a deserted boardwalk, a motel in a literal desert, a yacht at sea (always uncomfortable to see Natalie in such a setting, but Redford is there and he’s Mr. Boat) — scene after scene is stripped of extras and period detail, perhaps making a point about the loneliness of stardom, but not as vividly as showing the uncaring mob would.

Then comes the scene quoted above. Outstandingly edited by Aaron Stell, with a really creepy drone from André Previn on the soundtrack, and striking choices with sound editing that make the whole thing modernistically unsettling. There just weren’t Hollywood films evoking this kind of European unease at the time, or damn few: how many American directors really gave the impression they’d seen Godard, Fellini and Antonioni? Mulligan sure has.

I guess this is the pay-off to the character’s initial love of singing, the thing that makes her feel the world isn’t as crappy as it seems. Even that’s been taken from her. But there’s no real middle to that journey. Still, it gets a powerful ending.

The movie ends happily — either a cop-out or an act of mercy. Give Daisy the triumphant escape so few of her real-life counterparts achieved, why not? We also get perhaps cinema’s first instance of what is now a tiresome cliché, the Walking Away From An Explosion moment. Astonishing. Without Natalie Wood, no Wolverine.

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Dialogical Exhaustion

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2017 by dcairns

Oh no! Kevin Spacey has been accused of sexual assault! It’s OK, though, he didn’t do it, not in Alan Parker’s last film, the 2003 death-house drama THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE.

This piece will be all about the spoilers, and the film has a twist ending that’s almost as good shit as ANGEL HEART, so stop reading now if, like me, you’ve been vaguely meaning to catch up with this one for the last twenty years.

This is not only Alan Parker’s last film (to date), it will also end up being Kevin Spacey’s because when they get around to digitally replacing him with Christopher Plummer in all his movies, this is the one they’ll stop at because Plummer won’t want to do it.Spacey with Rhona Mitra, the student who’ll do ANYTHING to get a pass. When your character has to actually apologise for being a retrograde cliché, it may be a sign that your character is a retrograde cliché.

One has to respect Parker, I guess, for announcing his retirement and sticking to it, something so few filmmakers can bring themselves to do. When Bergman announced that he was packing it in after FANNY AND ALEXANDER, he’d just made a masterpiece and also a really good Christmas film which would have fitted perfectly into this blogathon, but then he went on to make more than a dozen further works — OK, it’s nice that we have them, but those I’ve seen aren’t as good. Kieslowski announced he was through making movies, then changed his mind, then dropped dead. Parker has stuck to his guns.

And a good thing too, going by this. Parker bowed out with a movie that alternates between the sclerotic and the desperate-to-be-with-it. The latter tendency is apparent mainly in the awful flash-cuts of punchy words, taken from letters, emails, etc, jabbed into the edit as the camera turns upside down. By this means, Parker gets us into his flashbacks.

Scroll rapidly between these two images while blinking a lot.

The turgid stuff is actually a lot better. Because Spacey is/was a fascinating presence, and he has Laura Linney to bounce off of some of the time. Kate Winslet’s performance is less satisfying as she falls into Parker’s cliches too readily. Also, her character name is “Bitsy.” No excuse for that. Melissa McCarthy turns up briefly as “Nico the Goth Girl.”

“I’m sinking to my knees in slow motion! NOOOOOOO!”

(I like BUGSY MALONE by the way, I liked BIRDY back when it was new, THE COMMITMENTS, and, on TV, The Evacuees made a huge impression on me. And Parker was always an interesting, bolshy, curmudgeonly commentator on the British film scene.)

I knew the film had a big twist, and that most of the reviewers hated it. It’s kind of the starting point of late Fritz Lang movie BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, the idea of a man faking up evidence so he can prove that it’s possible for someone to get wrongly convicted of murder. Parker and screenwriter Charles Randolph (THE BIG SHORT) take that idea up to the next level, and don’t cop out as Lang and his scribe Douglas Morrow did. But their twist is pretty obvious (and Louis Cyphre’s cage elevator turns up at the end to remind us that Parker has form here) and the second twist doesn’t really add anything with emotional impact. And the whole scheme is pointless because a killer, a victim and a patsy collaborating to set up the frame is a sufficiently uncommon, nay, ludicrous occurrence that the lethal-injection-happy Texas governor need have few qualms that this sort of thing is going to happen a lot.

Kubrick pointed out that the trouble with anti-lynching movies is they always focus on innocent men being hanged. Since lynch mobs always think they’ve got the right man (or else they don’t care, so long as he’s the right/wrong race), they’re not going to be put off by this. In a way, Tim Robbins’ DEAD MAN WALKING is a much better anti-capital-punishment tract because it argues that even when a man is guilty of a heinous crime, maybe there’s a case against the state taking his life. But both TLODG and DMW are the movie Richard E. Grant is pitching in THE PLAYER. I remember an embarrassing interview where a journalist speaking to Robert Altman attempted to flatter him by saying he would be the man to make the uncompromised version rather than the happy ending travesty with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts. Of course, Altman wouldn’t have touched either version, though I guess he did make THE GINGERBREAD MAN.I can see that it’s dated, and overheated, but I sort of miss Parker’s eighties pomp — blue or sepia-tinged images, every room full of smoke for no reason except to create shafts of light blasting through every window, every road slicked with rain. Only the last touch is present in TLODG, despite the fact we’re in Texas and we only see it rain once. Stripped of his ad-man’s imagery, Parker becomes rather a flat, boring filmmaker, who apparently hasn’t noticed he’s making a deeply silly film which would benefit enormously from outrageous stylistic brio if it were applied consistently. He could have his dreadful flash-cuts, if he must, if only he’d surround them with equally ebullient directorial pyrotechnics. This movie thinks it’s a deep and meaningful political drama, when by rights it ought to be THE COLOR OF NIGHT or FEMME FATALE.

Aptly, Spacey’s David Gale is the author of a supposedly brilliant book on philosophy called Dialogical Exhaustion. Which sounds very deep dish but translates as Running Out of Things to Say.

Theory: just as TLODG (why the unnecessarily boring title?) is about a man who tries to justify the abolition of the death penalty by willfully getting himself convicted of murder, Parker’s swan song could be interpreted as him trying to justify his contention that film is a young man’s game by willfully making a movie which is both tediously disengaged and frantically desperate to be exciting and “cinematic.” So we have no choice but to applaud the old bastard for stopping.

Couldn’t escape if I wanted to

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2015 by dcairns

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Hey, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on Thursday, so the Edinburgh International Film Festival decided to show Sergei Bondarchuk’s remarkable epic WATERLOO in 35mm anamorphic, with a certain amount of side-trumpery from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard (well, some of them) and an introduction from an affable, well-informed and frightfully posh retired brigadier.

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My only real prior knowledge of this movie was an anecdote recounted in the 1978 Scorsese profile documentary MOVIES ARE MY LIFE. Although Ennio Morricone is quoted as saying “Brian DePalma never smiles,” and that ties in with Fiona’s experience of the Great Man, the DePalma who appears onscreen to talk about his friend is a giggling, rolly-polly figure, just coming out of his improv comedy phase, I guess. DePalma the wacky funster. And he launches into a “hilarious” anecdotes about seeing WATERLOO with Scorsese on a double date, where Marty’s girl became distressed at the tripwired horses onscreen tumbling head over hooves in the dust. The tripping of horses is now outlawed as its very dangerous. As you see in old westerns, most tripped horses get up, but some can’t. They don’t show you that.

“So Marty’s telling her to shut up and she won’t and so he starts hitting her and because of that we miss the whole reason Napoleon lost the battle,” concludes the chortling Brian. Which tells you a lot about his sense of humour. One likes to think the story is at least heavily exaggerated. I discussed it with a friend.

“Well, hopefully Scorsese couldn’t really hurt anyone, he’s small and frail.”

“But energetic,” my friend replied grimly.

Disturbing that in 1978 that story could go into a documentary and nobody apparently worried about it. The past is a nightmare.

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WATERLOO shows some of that aspect of history.

The battle scenes, deploying 16,000 soldiers from the Russian army (plus some actual dragoons) are astonishing, of course. “Impressive” is too weak a word. But director Sergei Bondarchuk excels before then with his staging of TALK — he’s obviously in love with Rod Steiger’s performance as Napoleon, jumping in on the beady eyes or the obscenely wriggling sausagey little fingers. I’m not sure he’s RIGHT to be in love with the performance, which is very tricksy and big and elaborate, but having accepted the Steiger challenge, Total Commitment is the only option that makes sense. So sit back and enjoy the ham.

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And so generously sliced! The movie also sports Orson Welles (puffing his cheeks for two scenes), Jack Hawkins, a veritable shooting gallery of Toby Jugs. Christopher Plummer is a splendid Wellington — the lady next to me remarked afterwards, “I felt Wellington suffered from his dialogue consisting of every famous thing Wellington ever said. A man who speaks entirely in aphorisms.” And it’s true, he does come across as a sort of battlefield Oscar Wilde. But this is a kind of gigantic historical pageant, so it’s kind of appropriate.

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Shot in the Ukraine, apparently. Well, it was probably good practice.

REALLY impressed by the editing by Richard C. Meyer, who had just moved to the bigtime with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID after years on smaller films like the superb MEN IN WAR. But let’s give Bondarchuk credit too — he stages dialogue and action alike in long takes abruptly broken by short, aggressive cuts, faces, eyes, flickering flags. We get the grand sweep but we’re also kept on our toes. This is one epic that doesn’t lumber. Admittedly, the blasting and roaring and bellowing can exhaust the ability to appreciate — and I saw the damn thing with a hangover, for God’s sake — but if one overlooks the rather shoehorned antiwar moment (maybe a soldier really did freak out on the battlefield and run about shouting “Why must we kill each other?”, his blond locks waving in the breeze poetically, in which case I’m an idiot and forget I said it), this is true cinema. It just happens to be writ very, very large.

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Of all the movies I’ve seen at the Fest so far, this is the only one where I was struck by the size of people’s heads. Rod Steiger’s head was twice my height. I expect it was in life, too. But in the movie I saw right before, in the same auditorium, the people’s heads, though frequently framed in extreme closeup. seemed no larger than a chihuahua’s. Charisma, people!