Archive for Dustin Hoffman

A Labyrinth of Pans

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2018 by dcairns

I recently read J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the novel version, for the first time. My, it’s good. I was struck by how none of the films capture its bizarre humour, or its strange and melancholy conclusion. And the character of Peter himself, arrogant and “heartless” but insistently attractive (or so Barrie keeps telling us), is never really attempted.

There’s three films that work on their own terms ~

The silent PETER PAN (Herbert Brenon, 1924) is really lovely. At times, it feels like a record of the play, an opportunity to time-travel back and see what Edwardian audiences saw. But has enough cinema to it for this not to become a drag factor. We get the best of both worlds (stage/cinema, London/Neverland). And the cast is ideal.

The Disney version of 1953 ruthlessly homogenizes Barrie’s vision, as the silent did before it, but the visuals are attractive (those blue night skies!), the animation superb and the voice casting pretty fine, with even the Americanization of Peter working to its advantage — Bobby Driscoll is the elated Yank showing the stuffy Brits how to live/fly. The ending isn’t Barrie’s bleak last chapter, by any stretch, but in its way it’s poetic and magical and odd. The image of the flying ship is introduced here — Barrie doesn’t have it.

(I haven’t seen the belated [straight-to-video?] sequel, RETURN TO NEVERLAND, but I assume I’d hate it: imagine suddenly being shown a reproduction of your childhood only all your friends and relatives are being played by impostors with painted faces.)

FINDING NEVERLAND is pretty satisfying, though I’m not a fan of the director. It skirts around the more awkward questions, but it works, I think. Johnny Depp’s accent isn’t exactly a realistic Scottish accent but he isn’t exactly a realistic actor. It works too. And the outtakes of Kelly Macdonald as the stage Pan, flailing about on wires crashing into the set walls are fantastic — buy the DVD for those alone.

Oh wait, YouTube. Got to 2:17 and it all happens.

How, then, to explain the three monstrous, bloated and charmless renditions of Barrie’s work?

HOOK (1991) is probably the first Spielberg film I truly hated on sight. I remember getting stupidly annoyed at the plastic frost decorating the windows — they had all the money in the world to make this, why couldn’t they do convincing frost? I just rewatched forty minutes, in a kind of gaping disbelief, and this time focussed myopically on a really bad cut in the opening children’s play. Peter’s daughter seems to teleport. The disruptive continuity howler — some things really DO pull you out of a movie — occurs in front of an entire audience of potential cutaways, so there is no conceivable reason for it except sloppiness or exhaustion.But these focal points barely even qualify as symptoms of the big-picture rot. Our old friend James V. Hart, of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA fame, scripted. I’m in two minds about his high concept premise — “What if Peter Pan grew up?” Part of me thinks the answer is, “If that happened, you would lose your USP.” And this is what in fact happens – you get a Peter Pan film without a Peter Pan.

There are compensations, if you forget about why you came. The idea that Peter would forget who he is ties in with his infantile amnesia in the book — Peter forgets everything unless it’s actually active in his life — this leads to the final chapter where he can’t remember Hook, or Tinkerbell, or even Wendy. So Hart’s treatment is a little more faithful to the story than I used to give him credit for. And there’s a good nightmarish anxiety to the situation he then finds himself in — abducted to this fantasy land he can’t remember, and expected to play a role that’s no longer him. (They should have made something of a kid in the opening play being unable to remember the lines.)It’s just that the way it all plays out is gaudy and vulgar and ugly. The sets are simultaneously massive and expensive-looking yet horribly bright, clean and cheap-looking. They want to get some kind of theatrical stylisation going but it all has to look epic and belaboured. There’s not quite enough cartoon expressionism in the shapes to give a sense of lighter-than-air fantasy. And yet, squinting hard, I can’t put my finger on why this stuff feels forced while an MGM musical could pull off the same sort of look. I think it probably has more to do with what’s going on IN the sets.

Robin Williams ought to be a good adult Peter, if anyone ever wanted to see such a thing, at the end, when he acquires what I suppose we must call Panhood. But there’s such a struggle to use his manic, improvising persona in the early scenes, where he’s supposed to embody the worst aspects of adulthood (from the perspective of a disappointed son or a millionaire fantasist) that the glee is spurted out prematurely and we never get the melancholy Barrie clearly felt about growing up, which is what the movie desperately needs. The Depp of FINDING NEVERLAND would have been a better fit here. And I think Williams could have aced it, if they hadn’t kept trying to force him to be his usual self.

The idea of a violent Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) playing Three Stooges routines with the fortysomething Peter is lifted from the battering Carol Kane gives Bill Murray in SCROOGED, where it was also quite out of keeping with the source matieral but at least was an original take. And funny.Then there’s Dustin Hoffman. Spielberg had apparently been really keen to work with Dustin Hoffman. I guess maybe this cured him. But he didn’t really get any of the benefits of working with Hoffman — you know, the skilled, credible performance. All he got was a putrid Terry-Thomas impersonation, plus the downside of working with Hoffman, which is having to hang out with Dustin Hoffman.

Bob Hoskins embodies Smee beautifully. Hoskins was pretty much always good, and Smee is the character who always seems to work. Barrie sketches him in lightly, but the suggestion that Smee is a lovely, sweet man who thinks he’s a terrifying pirate, and even Hook doesn’t have the heart to disabuse him of this notion, always seems to emerge somehow.I also remember being offended by the multi-ethnic Lost Boys. It’s a nice thing that Spielberg wanted to get some diversity in. But why, then, are they all American? Why are they all boys? If they’re boys because we’re being faithful to Barrie, then they shouldn’t be American. They can be any ethnicity, his descriptions don’t preclude that, but he’s clear about how they talk. America is quite a big problem in this film — the whole opening has to set up a world the film will then abandon, in favour of London, which it then has to abandon ALSO. Oh, and the kids have basketballs and skateboards. They are all Poochie from The Itchy and Scratchy Show.

And Peter has to rediscover who he is to be a better father — except that Barrie’s Peter would make a TERRIBLE father, seeing as he’s totally self-centred.The film is full of evidence of Spielberg’s skill, and cinematographer Dean Cundey emits some gorgeous lighting — the real beauty seems to emerge from unexpected places, while the stuff the movie NEEDS to make beautiful tend to be leaden, garish or puddingy. Like Stevenson’s description of Mr. Hyde, the movie somehow imparts an impression of deformity without having anything you can really point to as proof of disfigurement.

Spielberg had a kind of Peter Pan obsession for a while, and talked about doing a version starring fellow enthusiast Michael Jackson, but I never heard any realistic plans for how they were going to make that work. A black, or originally-black Peter, sure. A Peter played by an adult who THINKS he’s a kid, maybe not. I believe Jackson tried to sue Spielberg when he made HOOK instead.

But look at these pretty things! I particularly admire the map markings on the actual geography of Neverland.

P.J. Hogan’s 2003 PETER PAN is also pretty repulsive. The cinematography is actually pretty tasteful as long as there are no special effects involved, but the long shots of Neverland, the skies etc, are all lurid monstrosities, Maxfield Parrish with the chroma turned up until your retinas catch fire.

Ever time a cherub vomits, a cloud is formed.

The departures from Barrie are striking,and pointless. The kids have acquired a meaningless auntie, and though it’s always nice to see Lynn Redgrave, she doesn’t get to have any fun here. Jason Isaacs plays both Captain Hook and the kids’ dad, which might make a kind of sense if he were the slightly oppressive, comic patriarch of Barrie’s opening chapters (the Disney film probably captures that guy best, and there Hans Conried voiced both Hook and Mr. Darling, and it DID work), but here he’s a milksop clerk, so there’s no resonance in the stunt casting. I guess Hogan just really likes Jason Isaac,Richard Briers is Smee. Works like a charm, though there’s nothing SURPRISING about it — except for the always pleasant surprise of finding Briers in a film. (The real Briers loved nothing better than SWEARING HIS HEAD OFF, and I wish there were a movie that indulged this. But I know of none.)

My assumption on reading Barrie is that the viciousness in the book would be toned down in movie adaptations, but this is not really so. We first meet Isaac with his hook off, and he’s sporting a graphic, scarred-up stump. Unlike in Disney, where Hook is humourously chased over the horizon by the crocodile, here he gets the demise Barrie planned for him, though having the kids taunt him for being “old” is a fresh bit of nastiness, and I couldn’t work out what benefit we were meant to derive from it.A book about being a kid, and staying a kid versus growing up, morphs into a film with teenage stars, which makes a kind of commercial sense, though I think you’d only get smaller kids and their parents going to see this. Rachel Hurd-Wood is an extremely toothsome Wendy, and Jeremy Sumpter is another American Peter, with an impressive young bod and a tendency to overdo the character’s crowing (which Barrie reports faithfully but winces at) so that he seems at times like a gloating bully.

Alan Moore always talked about doing an erotic Peter Pan, which eventually evolved into The Lost Girls, a graphic novel exploring the grown-up sex lives of Alice (of Wonderland), Wendy (of the Neverland) and Dorothy (of Oz). He was convinced, before it became fashionable to say so, that the Barrie book was laden with unconscious sexuality, which may be true. There was something that fascinated me as a kid in the Disney film and comics — something polymorphous and kinky. Hogan’s movie has a lot of arse jokes and lighthearted child nudity that’s quite eyebrow-raising now, and tries to concoct more of a teen romance than is really there, but leaves out the heartbreak which could have really made it worthwhile. It could have worked for teenagers the way Baz Luhrman’s souped-up, soaped-up ROMEO + JULIET clearly did, if there had been anything to get weepy over.

The visual effects, apart from being nauseatingly gaudy, do allow Peter to dart about in the air just as Bobby Driscoll’s cartoon avatar did. No need for the ponderous bobbing of an actor on wires — or rather, Peter and Wendy can float weightlessly, but then flash from one side of the room to another, like humming birds, which we suddenly realized we always wanted them to be able to do. Disney’s flying ship is back, and looks quite lovely at times. It’s a relief to escape back to London and get away from those chocolate box skies.

Joe Wright’s PAN is probably the most annoying of this trio although, to be clear, they are all absolutely INFURIATING. It has some of the same ugly visuals, although again it does better on London. WWII London, oddly enough. A story positioning itself as a prequel to Barrie’s Peter Pan for some reason sets itself historically afterwards. Why? It’s not really clear. It allows them to have flying galleons (Disney again) and Spitfires in the same scene, but this doesn’t in any way impact the wider plot. I have a theory for this madness, but I have to save it up until the end…Levi Miller makes a very beautuful Peter — we first encounter him as being bullied and starved by nasty nun Kathy Burke in an orphanage during the Blitz . We get a bit of what the BBFC quaintly calls “mild language.” Then flying pirates start abducting kids, and Peter follows them through space (the Hogan movie also includes a bit of interplanetary zooming, although Barrie’s Neverland is obviously an island, not an alien world). Then Peter is enslaved in a fairy-dust mine by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, giving it his all), and meets James Hook, who isn’t a pirate, but rather an Indiana Jones/cowboy type played by Garrett Hedlund.

There’s so much wrong with all this that I can’t even begin to sum it up, but let’s start by agreeing what the Neverland is supposed to be. In Barrie, Wendy and her brothers all know the Neverland from their dreams. It’s the place of adventure that children dream about, so naturally it’s a whole incongruous mixture of genres. The only justification for Barrie mixing pirates, Indians, fairies and mermaids in one story is that he’s recreating the Jungian collective unconscious as a kind of children’s theme park. One thing he omits to include, and I suspect it was intentional, is slave labour. You don’t start your awfully big adventure by getting shackled in a salt mine, especially if you’ve just escaped from a Dickensian orphanage,

Peter discovers he can fly around this point, but then loses the ability and doesn’t remember how he did it. An earthbound Peter who lacks confidence isn’t the Peter Pan we know at all, but I guess we’re here to find out how he becomes the legend. But it’s a bit like HOOK, a story designed especially to deprive us of the expected pleasures.If I wanted to do screenwriter Joseph Fuchs’ job for him, I would suggest starting either with a Victorian orphanage (so that the story would actually predate the novel), or else the background of child evacuees (so that the story is actually specific to WWII). But for all I know he thought of all that and the execs forced him to Fuchs things up. But since Peter doesn’t age, I’d be tempted to start him out in an even earlier period, perhaps contemporary with Hook, who should be a proper pirate.

As I realised that Peter’s brief burst of flight was going to be followed with an hour of performance anxiety, I suddenly flashed on DUMBO. That’s where this story idea comes from. Fuchs is going full Joseph Campbell on us, mashing up bits of familiar stories in the hopes of capitalizing on their resonance. It’s like he read the Umberto Eco piece on CASABLANCA and didn’t bother to fact-check it, took it all quite literally. So Hook, who is already Indiana Jones, makes a last-minute redemptive return EXACTLY like Han Solo in the first STAR WARS; Peter is the son of the Fairy King and a human mother, EXACTLY like Jesus. And so on. In fairness, Barrie was doing a kind of mash-up of his own, but he seems to have been having a lot more fun.

A prequel to Peter Pan that casts Peter and Hook as buddies, it seems to me, should end up by telling us how they became enemies. It’s not like we ever had a burning desire to know how they MET. And yet, this crucial scene is not included, as if the makers hoped for a sequel. Hmm, a sequel where the hero is betrayed, lops of his friend’s limb and leaves him for dead? Sounds like REVENGE OF THE SITH. Which did OK box office, I believe.The crocodile does appear, but doesn’t get fed Hook’s hand (Barrie’s most grisly and amusing idea, the great reptile enjoying the taste so much that it follows Hook doggedly from then on, hoping to snaffle the rest of him). Tinkerbell appears, but doesn’t get to do anything to distinguish her from the swarms of other humanoid fireflies. The mermaids appear, a shoal of Cara Delevignes, but do literally nothing. There are Never Birds, which are usually left out: they all look like THE GIANT CLAW. Tiger Lily is whitewashed into being Rooney Mara. Too old for Peter, too young for Hook: this makes the film completely sexless. I’m guessing that, if the previous PP was aimed at girls, this violent and dour Neverland is boy’s own territory.

So, everything is either neglected, absent, or all wrong. At the end, it’s Hook who says “Second star to the right and straight on till morning,” only he leaves out the word STAR, rendering the line both prosaic and meaningless, which sums up the whole enterprise.Oh, there’s a very characterful fellow called Adeel Akhtar, who is the Ideal Actor to play Smee. Who is now for some myterious reason Sam Smiegel. To get in a bit of LORD OF THE RINGS “resonance”? Akhtar is great, though, maybe the greatest Smee in a long line of great Smees. Smee alway works. He’s like Renfield and Goebbels. You can’t go wrong.

In fairness to all those who have tried and failed, what Barrie does is strange, hard to pin down, and difficult. Nearly all his considerable wit is contained in the descriptions of characters’ thoughts, and therefore not directly filmable. (A movie’s narrator can only do so much: they have to shut up eventually.) His plotting is loose, to say the least: he spends a lot of time setting up Hook’s poisoned cake plot, and then throws it away with a single line. He implies a near-infinite array of stories, almost impossible to choose from, and doesn’t traffick in satisfying pay-offs, preferring to pull dramatic rescues out of his ass whenever required. Deus ex anum. And all of this serves him very well on the page. The trouble with the screenwriters trying to fill his shoes is that they display all the same faults, which are much more destructive in a movie, and have none of his virtues. Hart, Hogan and Fuchs seem all curiously devoid of humour, to the point where I really wonder what would attract them to this material. (I know PJ Hogan had a background in comedy, but it’s deserted him here. He’s trying for laughs, but without being amused himself.)

Somebody should do Peter Pan again: it’s worth getting right. They will need to remember it’s a children’s story; that Peter and Wendy are children; that the Never Land is children’s dreams of adventure; that the book is funny both ha-ha and peculiar; that the brighter the colours, the more taste you need to apply. Have fun!

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Scaramouche / Scaramouche

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2016 by dcairns

Can you do the fandango?

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All the fops love me. I am down with the fops.

I watched both versions of SCARAMOUCHE, the Metro silent and the MGM talkie. Fiona bailed on both after ten minutes apiece. You have to be in the right mood for fencing and foppery.

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Rex Ingram helmed the 1923 version, starring his discovery Ramon Novarro and his wife Ellen Terry. It’s apparently more faithful to Rafael Sabatini’s novel, which one senses while watching because the plot makes sense and doesn’t depend on outlandish coincidence. Not so the remake.

Lewis Stone (below, left) is in both versions. I like when that happens. He’s the big baddie in the Ingram but is demoted to a lesser Frenchman in George Sidney’s 1952 swashbuckler. (It was seeing and enjoying Sidney’s KISS ME KATE that got me onto this SCARAMOUCHE kick.)

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In the remake, the title character is actually a drunken, disfigured actor who wears a mask to perform. Stewart Granger steals his identity and we never see him again. The makeup, we are told, is created by William Tuttle. “Created,” you note. Not just slapped on. CREATED. Tuttle does that weird thing he does (his brushwork is very recognizable) where the lines of the face seem like whorls, layers of liquid solidified in the act of pouring on like thick cream.

The role is played by Henry Corden, and he’s uncredited. In the title role! Poor bastard. He actually IS Scaramouche. Granger just takes his name and costume, the cheeky sod.

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The leads: in the silent, the cast are all equally decent and equally a bit miscast. Novarro reminds himself to laugh cynically upon occasion to remind us he was born with a sense the world was mad. In the Technicolor talkie, Stewart Granger is required to play the hero as a total dick for quite a lot of screen time. He does it with aplomb. Mel Ferrer is his opponent, and the plot has been rejigged to make their backstory suitable for contemporaries. Now, Ferrer’s character is also a dick, and one notices that he’s more than usually appealing in the role. In fact, either of these guys could have played the baddie, but neither is right for the hero. They have a kind of charisma but not a likability. I never really noticed Ferrer’s charisma anywhere else because the prevailing feeling was that I didn’t like him. Being a villain liberates him.

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Kudos to those two lugs also for committing to the really terrific duels, which Sidney shoots like musical numbers, sweeping crane shots broken up with a few static compositions that pop in contrast. The business looks physically exhausting and a little risky. The final sword fight is supposed to be the longest ever, but doesn’t feel protracted, just satisfyingly thorough. PRINCESS BRIDE fans may notice a bit of business.

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Much of the deforming of the storyline seems to be intended to favour Eleanor Parker as “Lenore,” a role seemingly created especially for her (note the name). The equivalent role in the silent is a fairly small bit by comparison. But the real female lead is Janet Leigh (above), the only American cast who doesn’t bother trying to change her natural accent, and as a result the most natural player in the film (Nina Foch does wonders, though, as Marie Antoinette). Best scene is probably Granger hitting on Leigh and then discovering she’s his long-lost sister. Well-played, Jimmy! (Granger’s birth name was Jimmy Stewart, which for obvious reasons he had to change, but everyone still called him Jimmy. Why didn’t he choose Jimmy Granger?)

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Both movies showcase dramatic glass shots.

As mentioned in comments earlier, the MGM movie surprisingly omits the French Revolution, which is built up to and then dropped as an apparently still-hot potato. Structurally, this is acceptable because it allows the movie to climax with the splendid duel, but it does seem to imply that the (off-screen) King’s democratic compromises were successful in appeasing the people. The Metro version takes the more mature line that the Revolution was good but the Rein of terror bad, but this means that it kind of lacks a strong ending, fizzling out with the hero and his new-found family simply running away. But it finds a more satisfying fate for its bad guy (whereas Mel Ferrer simply evaporates, an odd result in a film driven entirely by the hero’s thirst for revenge).

A new version could be interesting. Neither movie quite joins the dots between the hero’s politics, his revenge quest and his career as a clown, whereas the first sentence of Sabatini’s book already gives me confidence that he’s working on a Unified Theory of Revolutionary Swashbuckling.

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In the 70s, when Richard Lester was having a lot of success with, broadly speaking, this kind of material, Dustin Hoffman, of all people, approached him with the idea of a remake. Part of his obsession with playing superannuated students, I guess. Lester met him and they got on well, but politely declined the job, feeling that Hoffman’s perfectionism and we might call his own kick-scramble-bollocks approach were ill-matched and bound to end in heartache or nervous breakdowns.

 

Buyer’s Remorse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2015 by dcairns

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Finally caught up with THE HEARTBREAK KID after meaning to see it for years. Father Ted creators Graham Linehan & Arthur Matthews rate this one as a favourite, which marks it out as above the general run of Neil Simon movies, and it’s almost unique among NS films in that it has a recognized director, Elaine May. The one other auteur collaboration in Simon’s oeuvre is THE SLUGGER’S WIFE, a collaboration with Hal Ashby which ended with the director booted off the film after turning in a first cut which featured no dialogue for the first half hour. An approach better calculated to alienate the king of the one-liners could hardly be imagined.

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May was a lot better at handling Simon, In his wonderful memoir It Would be So Nice If You Weren’t Here, Grodin talks about how Simon briefly wanted to fire him (after the first read-through) and constantly wanted to fire Jeannie Berlin, complaining that she wasn’t attractive enough. May graciously accepted Simon’s criticisms, soothed his feathers and carried on, never letting him know that Berlin was in fact her daughter.

May is so good at the comedy of conflicted response, and that area seems so alien to Simon’s work, that I find myself wondering to what extent she’s subverting the material — with the author in the room. From what he says in his book, Grodin was clearly aware that his character could easily be seen as “creepy and hateful” –and those qualities played a part in my reading of him, though maybe ultimately “pitiful” is a better word — this guy, who runs out on his wife on their honeymoon because he meets Cybill Shepherd, is never going to be happy, and he’s going to leave a trail of human devastation behind him. Grodin was slightly surprised at the number of men who told him they identified deeply — and uncritically — with the character, which suggests he and May succeeded in balancing the portrayal so that people with the same character flaws as Grodin would see him as entirely reasonable. I wonder if those guys found it funny? Fiona likened it to a comedy version of THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY.

Still, Simon did give it that title. He must’ve known what he was doing. He must.

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Jeannie Berlin gets a lot of the best laughs, though it’s teamwork all the way. Fiona loved her inability to behave like a dream girl. A lot of her behaviour WOULD work with some men — getting her boobs out on the freeway, for instance, which Grodin reacts to with hilarious, infantile panic. An exactly similar moment occurs in May’s previous A NEW LEAF, in which Walter Matthau emits a plaintive “No, don’t let them out!” and runs away. Maybe the reason Isabelle Adjani’s boob flash in ISHTAR seems to upset so many people — really, so many of the bad reviews focus on this moment — is because Dustin Hoffman doesn’t deliver a clear and exaggerated comic reaction to justify it. It becomes sexposition.

Berlin’s last scene is HORRIFIC and DISTRESSING! And then she disappears from the picture and we’re supposed to root for Grodin on his quest to get the girl. While this last fifth — the traditional three act/four part structure doesn’t seem to apply here — has some good laughs but is governed by a gnawing uncertainty and tension (Where is this GOING?) — it’s as if the bigger dramatic problem was not “boy gets girl” but “boy gets rid of previous girl” and with Berlin out of the way a strange calm descends, as Grodin’s character impresses by his rather astonishing determination. Romantic comedy sociopath.