Archive for Dan Stevens

The Cabinet of Sr. Del Toro

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2022 by dcairns

I wasn’t sure I’d love Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities — I’ve been disappointed by his recent output — but four episodes in I’m impressed.

The weird decision, to me, was to open with the weakest of the four, Lot 36 — I was taught you should start with your strongest episode, and put the other best ones in second and last place. Here, regular Del Toro cinematographer Guillermo Navarro directs a lackluster spookshow from a story by the man himself, but I would barely call it a story. It’s an EC Horror comic — nasty man meets nasty fate.

In effect, we get Tim Blake Nelson being a one-note pig-man for forty minutes or so and then a supernatural comeuppance. The shambling monster is quite good. But the idea of a horror story being a long character study (with only a couple of BAD characteristics to study) followed by a horrible death is surely dated now.

Vincenzo Natali’s Graveyard Rats, from a story by Henry Kuttner shows the same tropes done with zest and imagination. It has terrific production design (though it suffers from some very familiar Toronto warehouses being repurposed as residential streets) and a very colourful central performance by Natali’s favourite actor, David Hewlett. Unlike Nelson, his graverobber character given just enough attractive/sympathetic qualities to carry us through (he’s educated, uses language with glee, is an underdog). There’s a lot of gross-out stuff and some crawl-out-of-your-skin discomfort.

The tone is black comedy with a lot of sadism — it made me realize that viciously tormenting your protagonist is weirdly more acceptable if he’s undeserving — part of why I like EVIL DEAD II better than ARMY OF DARKNESS (Ash seems better as a victim of fate than as an asshole). There’s a very slight disconnect in the approach — if comedy is bad things happening to someone else and horror is when they happen to YOU (and this is a hugely reductive set of definitions), comedy-horror needs to be able to somehow be in two places at once, or shuttle nimbly back and forth between distant and close-up.

(Maybe, if tragedy is close-up and comedy is long shot, comedy horror is extreme close-up with a wide-angle lens, the distortion creating a sense of distance out of the uncomfortably close.)

What’s very odd is that episode one and two, grouped under the heading Scavengers and dropped on Netflix on the same night — tell exactly the same story. It’s just that Del Toro and his collaborators (including writer Regina Corrado) tell their story leadenly and Natali tells his with skill. A horrible man with a morbid profession is threatened over his debts and seeks buried/hidden treasure, gets entombed with a predatory menace, the end. They both try to freak us out with severed fishheads.

You can sort of see how, having accidentally made two versions of the same thing, Del Toro would choose to pair them up. It kind of draws attention to the mistake, though. It’s harder to see how you could actually let this happen in the first place. It reminds me of one of my favourite clangers — Terry Gilliam’s THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN and Terry Jones’ ERIK THE VIKING both have their protagonists’ ships attacked by whales, which are then induced to sneeze them to freedom. Not only does the scenario derive from Disney’s PINOCCHIO (the literary Munchhausen merely gets swallowed by a fish, I think), and not only were the two Terries Monty Python colleagues, but both films were produced by Prominent Features, the Pythons’ movie company. Yet nobody spotted the repetition. HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN?

Moving on: David THE EMPTY MAN Prior’s The Autopsy makes things as up-close-and-personal as you could wish for, with deeply sympathetic performances from F. Murray Abraham and Glynn Turman (star of J.D.’s REVENGE, my favourite fantasy blaxploitation movie). How up-close? Significant portions of the action take place inside the hero’s body and mind.

David S. Goyer adapts Michael Shea’s story in a way that’s consistently intriguing — where it could have plausibly played out as a much shorter, tightly contained one-room grand guignol tragedy, it seems to benefit from its peculiar, fragmented structure. There’s MORE tentacular unpleasantness (Cthulhu makes an indirect cameo in Rats) but the extreme body horror is part of the story and the story is very satisfying. Amazing music and sound design, including I think a trick I’ve never encountered, where the mechanical throb of a colliery exterior gradually morphs into a piece of suspense music.

Luke Roberts finds a way of playing a space vampire that’s remarkably credible.

Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Outside, scripted by Haley Z. Boston from Emily Carroll’s story, is another black comedy, this time a satire of the cosmetics business and I guess you could say toxic femininity. Terrific performances from Kate Micucci, Martin Starr and Dan Stevens (channeling Matt Berry’s unique phrasing through an Americanized German accent) and a deft use of the wide lens grotesque style — this eccentric coverage doesn’t always cut well, as we see in AMSTERDAM, but here it really works.

This one made me feel really ill, in a scene where violence erupts and Starr’s deeply likable, innocent performance seems to inhabit the realms of comedy and tragedy at the same time. I think there’s a missing bit of character development — it SHOULD come out in the closing shot, a tour-de-force sustained reaction from Micucci (more usually hired as a voice actor, now we discover that she is of course a stunning physical performer) — I think she needed one more note to hit the undertone of self-awareness gnawing at the edges of delusion just a touch more.

But even if I’m left feeling the episode doesn’t entirely come off, it feels like a remarkable set of experiments packaged together.

Lovecraft episodes drop today. My view is that Lovecraft has never been filmed in a way that feels remotely like Lovecraft or is good. So, everything to play for.

Year of the Rat

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2022 by dcairns

It wasn’t much commented upon back in 1984 but the advent of breakfast television in the UK — incredible to think we were so late in adopting it, but also incredible that anyone would want to watch television while getting ready for work — and if you were going to watch television, why would you watch GARISH and NOISY television full of IDIOTS?

Hang on, I’ve gone off the rails.

Start again: 1984, the year Orwell wrote about, was marked in the UK by the advent of breakfast television, and two of the stars of that new phenomenon were the Green Goddess, an exercise instructor straight out of Orwell’s book, and Roland Rat, a puppet rodent straight out of Orwell’s book. And it was the Chinese year of the rat. Not that Roland R actually ate anyone’s face off. THAT WE KNOW OF. But as O’Brien might have said, it’s the thought that counts.

I was at school. Thatcher was in power. I kept thinking, Why does nobody else see this?

Thirty-eight my god years later, the BFI has a Blu-ray out of Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier’s teleplay NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (no numerals for the BBC), which should have been out eight years ago but the Orwell estate is rather funny, which is why we never got a Bowie musical version of the book (but we did get Diamond Dogs so on the whole we won that round).

Trailers for this release made it seem like the greatest feat of restoration in human history, but inspection of the actual article clarifies the achievement: the play went out live but bridging sections had been shot on film to enable scene changes. It’s these bits that look as if they could have been shot yesterday. The live portions are your typical kinescope haze, but looking about as good as they ever could. It feels like we’re watching the action from inside Winston Smith’s little snowglobe.

Film and tube camera, side by side.

The double aesthetic is fascinating — both styles work in their distinct ways. The locations for filming are mostly BBC buildings so, like in The Goon Show‘s parody, 1985, Airstrip One and the British Broadcasting Corporation are conflated. The stark lighting of BBC corridors and post-WWII London makes for bold and striking imagery. Only the addition of Orwellian signposts makes it science fiction. Whereas Mike Radford’s film version, made in 1984, strove for the look of 1948, the year the book was written, this version is perfectly clear that 1984 is RIGHT NOW. Mainly I suppose because they couldn’t afford to make it anything fancier.

The one big special effect is an unfortunate affair. The painting — not a matte, not a backdrop, just a static painting — is technically decent enough to pass under the circumstances, but why does the Ministry of Truth have windows the size of office blocks, and why, when we see Winston Smith looking out one of them, is it suddenly a tiny porthole.

But that’s the only stupid bit.

The interior sets are strictly from poverty, and this works nicely. “Despair enacted on cheap sets,” as Errol Morris is always saying. The Ministry of Truth canteen is a bit of backcloth. The walls of Winston’s flat don’t even meet, so that the most felicitous nook in all English literature is compiled of a series of flimsy-looking flats you could post a letter between.

The show is so cheap it had Kneale himself as the voice of the televisor and production designer Roy Oxley is Big Brother. And a very effective BB he is too: he looks stern and noble, rather than shifty and sinister which is the dumb way of portraying him. Obviously BB would be from Central Casting and would look like an inspiring leader. Or, I suppose, like a cuddly clown. That could work…

In the leads we have Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell — a few years later he would inaugurate Hammer Horror while she introduced kitchen sink drama with WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN. Cushing is amazing in this — like Karloff, he exploits a physical advantage, removing a dental plate to portray Smith in his final decrepitude.

“So much face-crime!” Fiona enthused. Cushing just can’t help showing us what he’s thinking.

As O’Brien we have the excellent Andre Morell, who was also a Quatermass for Kneale, also a Watson for Cushing’s Holmes, and his tormentor (again) in CASH ON DEMAND. Morell has a bluff, matey quality that works nicely in counterpoint to O’Brien’s more obviously vicious aspect. He’s cold, but superficially clubby, chummy. Affable. When the Thought Police come for us, they will be wreathed in smiles.

Donald Pleasence is Syme, and I don’t have to tell you how much entertainment HE brings — a warm-up for similar turns in the CIA-backed 1956 version (where he plays Parsons) and THX 1138. Parsons is an extraordinary gremlin called Campbell Gray, who looks, sounds and acts just like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s P.R. Deltoid, Aubrey Morris, so much so that I thought it could be him under an assumed name. Which would make this some kind of dystopian trifecta.

Also: Wilfred Brambell (in two small roles) and a pre-beard Sydney Bromley.

Highly recommended. I find the desaturated eighties version drab and dull, whereas this one delivers its moments of horror with a lipsmacking relish more in keeping with Orwell’s grand guignol tendencies. Instead of speeding up at the end, it slows down, delivering a series of grisly blackout sketches whose recurrent punchline is the death of hope.

Almost the best thing on the disc, however, is the original continuity announcer, a plummy gent (unidentified) who welcomes the people of Aberdeen to the BBC, regrets that the Scottish comedy they’d hoped to present has been postponed, worries a bit about what they’ll make of this offering, muses aloud that perhaps the people of Aberdeen have never SEEN a play, and sums up the thematic concerns of the work in a remarkably sophisticated manner. There we have it: the Reithian vision of the Beeb, to inform and educate as well as entertain, coupled with a good dose of condescension. It’s real time travel, quite a fitting epitaph for the British Broadcasting Corporation now that the government has finally decided to destroy it.

Meanwhile, actor Dan Stevens has appeared on the BBC’s The One Show (a wonderfully Orwellian name) and shocked the nation by uttering an actual political THOUGHT not sanctioned by universal consensus. The palpable terror in the room!

Block and Tackle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2020 by dcairns

Other directors had tackled the work of Lawrence Block before A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, but it hadn’t gone well. Hal Ashby was shut out of the edit on 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE, and Nic Roeg was fired after five days on NIGHTMARE HONEYMOON. Block also served as screenwriter for Wong Kar-Wei on MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS, which I haven’t seen.

AWATT was also a bit jinxed, since Harrison Ford bailed on it (too violent, perhaps) and it collapsed. When it sprang to life again, screenwriter Scott Frank was in charge and Liam Neeson was the lead, and the result is very violent indeed. It also fits snuggly into that rather unproductive and creepy subgenre Neeson seems now irrevocably associated with, the female kidnap drama where Neeson says bad-ass things into a phone in a husky voice.

We watched this purely because the writer-director’s two Netflix miniseries, Godless and The Queen’s Gambit, are absolutely sensational. You’ve probably sought out the latter if you have Netflix, but go after the former too. Both are much better than AWATT, which is a decent thriller. The banter and relationship between Neeson and Astro (yes, that’s his name), defrocked cop and homeless kid, is really good. There’s what they call “strong support” from Dan Stevens (Frank seems to get half his casts from Downton Abbey) and Boyd Holbrook, and a good turn from Ólafur Darri Ólafsson.

It just doesn’t seem to add up to more than a really horrible situation that gets resolved with a substantial body count. What have we learned? I mean, I don’t require a message. But maybe the problem is that Neeson’s character, Scudder, is the star of a whole series of books, so he’s a bit unchanging. At any rate, at the end of this one he seems substantially the same lumpen brute as at the start. There’s a sense in which, if Stevens’ character were the protagonist, the stakes would escalate markedly.

Very snazzy cinematic use of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps, though.

Scott Frank is a big fan of seventies US films like DOG DAY AFTERNOON. He just doesn’t want to ever take things that far, it seems. As he himself puts it, he’s “always looking for a safe place to land.” But he’s a huge talent and The Queen’s Gambit is still the best new thing I’ve seen this year apart from THE LIGHTHOUSE.

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES stars Oskar Schindler; Hellboy; Gatz Brown; Pierce; David Haller; Alma Wheatley; Calvin Walker; Ragnar the Rock; Hiram Lodge; Jesse Edwards; and Ptonomy Wallace.