Archive for Guillermo Del Toro

Cornier Transplant

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2011 by dcairns

“Like all deaf people, I don’t much like the blind.” ~ Luis Bunuel.

LOS OJOS DE JULIA / JULIA’S EYES is from Guillem Morales, who brought us and the producers of THE ORPHANAGE, with Guillermo del Toro as exec prod again. It’s not quite as good as THE ORPHANAGE, which wasn’t quite as good as a Del Toro, but it’s still a fun, old-fashioned shock-thriller. Morales folds together two old warhorses, the blind girl in jeopardy and the identical twins plot — the first scene change, which implies that the death of one twin is felt by the other, miles away, establishes the blend of pseudo-science and folk superstition he’s working with. The heroine’s surname is Levin, a nod to Ira Levin, whose novel A Kiss Before Dying, filmed twice, uses the sister act murder detection ploy as plot motor.

What stops this being as effective as THE ORPHANAGE is the soupy music, chipboard husband character, and a plot which doesn’t quite add up: the death of one major character is left pretty well unexplained. Morales heaps on plot twists to cover the fact that several of his key twists are easily forseeable, but the fact that, during the longish section of the film where the heroine’s eyes are bandaged, all the other characters are framed with their heads out of shot, has an eerie and oppressive tension to it quite beyond its mere functionality to keep a secret from us.

Stylistic flourishes are the film’s strong point — inevitably, some version of WAIT UNTIL DARK’s climactic blackout must be attempted, and Morales delivers, fusing that swipe with a bit of REAR WINDOW for good measure. Recombining borrowed elements is a form of originality, I suppose, and when its done with this level of skill and confidence it can be exhilarating.

In common with Bruce Robinson’s JENNIFER 8, there’s also a queasy assumption that sighted children raised among blind people are going to be somehow marked or twisted by the experience. This isn’t anything the films insist on, it merely comes as baggage with the plotting which seeks to “explain” the killer’s obsession with the blind.

Since Fiona’s written a screenplay with a degenerative eye condition as part of the plot, she was worried that Morales might have pipped her to the post with the medical details in his film, but no worries: this is strictly movie medicine, with no evidence of even basic research to bolster the conviction. A shame: even a rather minor suspenser like BLINK shows the value of digging up obscure info on your subject, and the film’s credibility is already slightly stretched by the way the plot keeps hurling the heroine into darkened corridors, cellars, power blackouts etc. Still, as an old-fashioned twister with giallo style but minus the misogyny, this is a diverting ride.

Advertisements

Straight to Hell

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2008 by dcairns

A few spoilers ahead.

Guillermo del Toro with cast. I like Abe Sapiens’ posture here.

Fiona’s a massive Guillermo del Toro fan, and I generally like him. Our favourite is THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

So it was with some excitement we sloped off to a preview screening of HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, but with disappointment we sloped out afterwards. The excellent reviews seemed as if they were written under the spell of PAN’S LABYRINTH, which got the raves that DEVIL’S BACKBONE deserved.

While HELLBOY suffers from too little variety on the monster front, but is somewhat redeemed by a genuinely sweet love story (a complete departure from Mike Mignola’s endearingly simplistic comic book) and some imaginative visuals, the sequel has more monsters than you can shake a Fist of Doom at, but the emotional side is distinctly lacking, while the plot is pretty thin too. It reminds me more than anything of Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED, a film so packed with monsters as to boggle the mind. Beautiful monsters. But the moviemakers don’t have the slightest idea what to DO with them all.

It all leads me to consider the difficulty of the action movie. The supposed formula of delivering some kind of action every ten minutes (does anybody really do this? I think maybe they do, although the action needn’t be a huge set-piece) creates particular problems for this kind of cinema, since rarely does the action progress the plot or develop the characters, so that the film takes twice as long to tell what’s probably a simple enough story. BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT may be complicated as these things go, but it could probably accomplish its narrative goals in 90 minutes if it didn’t have to keep suspending the plot for another spot of rubber-clad judo.

Extreme examples: Anthony Waller’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, which kind of sank his briefly-promising career, features an extended escape sequence with a chase, a  fight, and a recapture, resulting in the character back where they started, absolutely no further forward in the story; Peter Jackson’s KING KONG, in which the character who can’t shoot a gun can suddenly shoot brilliantly, the goddamn screenwriter is a vine-swinging super-Tarzan and the chubby film director can outrun a raptor.

It’s perfectly possible to use an action sequence to move the plot forward, by having the characters progress towards a goal. And it’s not only possible but NOT HARD to have them stay in character while they do it. One positive thing about HELLBOY is how good Ron Perlman is at doing superhuman stuff in a human way (but the catchphrase “Oh crap,” needs to be retired).

An action movie can obey the rules of basic narrative and still not be particularly good, but it certainly helps if attention is paid to human nature and storytelling and those things. The only alternative would be a kind of playfulness, as attempted in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS films, which are actually kind of radical in the way they ignore all but the most basic story concerns and try to get by on variety: colour, sexiness, jokes and music. But that is hard, almost impossible to sustain over feature length, and even if you manage to pass the time there’s a danger that the audience won’t feel it’s really experienced anything.

HELLBOY II’s weakest scenario may be the fight with the elemental, a giant Miyazaki-like abstract tree spirit, conjured by bad guy Luke Goss (!) for no real reason, and killed by Hellboy without affecting the outcome of anything else. The sole purpose of this expensive set-piece seems to be to show the public turning on Hellboy, an X-Men / Spiderman trope that was, incredibly, handled better in both those series.

There’s also a lot of slightly crude “humour”, much of which is jarring and unfunny. Throwing in “schwanstucker” references after the story’s quasi-tragic denouement just seems crass. New guy Johann Krauss has an interesting look (del Toro’s sketches have been transformed into great costumes by Sammy Sheldon) and a cool backstory (not given in the film), but basically becomes the pretext for a bunch of lame German jokes.

Probably the most foolish decision was to announce a major character’s pregnancy and then do nothing with it. Watching Hellboy deal with the prospect of fatherhood is all very well, but can’t compare to the fun we could have seeing the actuality of Red as a proud pop. Del Toro is obviously saving this up for the putative threequel, which seems a parsimonious approach to this paying customer. If you’ve got a better story to tell, TELL IT.

It doesn’t help that the direction seems lacklustre. Wipes are usually a sign of a film in trouble — here they’re a development of that cutting pattern deployed in PAN’S LABYRINTH, where the camera passes behind something dark and emerges in a new scene, but the device has been amped up to the level of nervous tic. Del Toro does it so often I started to expect a slick digital transition whenever anybody walked past the lens.

Being overpraised for weak work can be as damaging to a filmmaker as being slated for good work. My best hope for del Toro is that he abandon series-based films (his next project, THE HOBBIT, fills me with foreboding) and settle down to tell some complete stories again.

Thimble Theater

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2008 by dcairns

He yis what he yis

Popeye the sailor’s first appearance in E.C. Segar’s newspaper strip Thimble Theater is fairly well documented. In the space of weeks the character had evolved from a grotesque walk-on part, to lead character and all-purpose superhero, displacing Olive Oyl’s beau, Ham Gravy, to boot.

(A note on names: when you’re called Elzie Crisler Segar, you probably think nothing of naming your characters Jack Snork, Glint Gore or Battling McGnat.)

The early Popeyes are now reprinted as part of a mammoth project to republish all of Segar’s ten-year run from the 1930s, daily and Sunday strips both. I had just started reading the first volume when I was struck down by my recent flu, and I found it an excellent companion in times of illness — buy it, it could work for you too.

Anybody who enjoys ’30s Warner Bros films and Dashiell Hammett novels and the like is going to enjoy the arcane slanguage paraded between these (deluxe, hard) covers. While Popeye’s garbled English (“I got personal magnecism an’ sex repeal.”) is one source of pleasure, the depression-era badinage from the other characters is at least as amusing. “Everything is hotsy-totsy.” ”

Oyl!

Popeye himself may be one of the most complex comic characters ever. Noble-hearted and fearless, he is also dishonest and opportunistic (like everybody else in the strip). Simple (“I thinks with me fisks.”) and superstitious (“I ain’t afraid of nuthin’ ‘cept evil spiriks.”) he can still outsmart his “emenies”. Introduced into a whodunnit, he socks the butler in the jaw on general principles, only to discover, pages later, that (spoiler alert) the butler did it. When he vows (about once every couple of weeks) to quit fighting for Olive’s sake, he is generally sincere, and will maintain that unassailable sincerity even while slugging some yegg in the breadbasket a panel later.

Magnum Force

At first, Segar’s fondness for repetition is a little disconcerting. But as with Laurel and Hardy, a certain familiarity with the characters, a certain predictability, can add to the comedy. There’s generally a variation in the way a gag is delivered, even if it’s the same old gag. And Segar’s glee at repeating a favourite joke is infectious — swimming instructions to an enemy, “Lie back and open your mouth, there’s nothin’ to it!” is even better the second time around, since it has the familiarity of an old friend.

Guns in the Afternoon

This being the ’30s, there’s a sense of danger to the constant political incorrectness. Guns are blasted left right and centre in a way that might cause concern to modern editors. Olive is both victim of violence from bad guys (Popeye even slaps her at one point) and perpetrator, shooting thirteen cattle rustlers in the shoulder, one after the other. “I’m too kind-hearted to blow his head off,” she remarks of one fallen foe. “I’ll drop him into the cellar — maybe he’ll break his neck.” Golliwog-like cannibals are seen to menace our heroes, and animals are enthusiastically assassinated.

The Hospital

Throughout it all, Popeye displays the near-invulnerability of the superman, which Segar is able milk for a surprising variety of comic and dramatic situations. When Popeye hits a man so hard he breaks his own arm, it’s further proof of his own toughness. The other characters always react as if Popeye was normal, cringing and blanching as he is hit with furniture or plugged with slugs. “Pour lead into him till he sinks to his neck in the desert sands,” instructs John Holster, bad man. But Popeye ignores bullets.

With his gambling, drinking and fighting, not to mention a surprising emotional vulnerability, Popeye still has plenty of weaknesses, and part of the strip’s interest comes from putting him in the wrong and watching him struggles his way to the right.

Eat your greens

The Popeye of the Fleischer bros’ animated cartoons is altogether less complicated. It’s a strange feature of the movie-comic relationship that when cartoon characters are adapted for the big screen, they’re generally simplified. Movie snobs would expect them to require the addition of depth and nuance, but this is more usually subtracted. “I think most comic book movies are made by people who don’t read comic books and despise those who do,” says Guillermo Del Toro.

Olive and Let Die

Despite the fact that there’s really only one plot (Popeye must eat spinach and rescue Olive from Bluto) in the Fleischer toons, they are things of beauty in their own right, due mainly to the sheer artistry of the animation and the pitch-perfect vocal perfs of Jack Mercer and Mae Questel (also Betty Boop). With moving images at his disposal, Popeye could also partake of more strenuous forms of knockabout, with more elaborate consequences. I was always wowed as a kid by the way the hero could punch an offensive building so hard it would breaks into pieces, fly through the air, and reassemble in some new and more innocuous form. It’s no accident that the Fleischer studio was also behind the early SUPERMAN cartoons.

Given his violent, profane, anti-social nature, it’s an oddity that Popeye should be adopted by the Disney Corporation in 1980. But everything about Disney at that time was rather odd. They would make dark, disturbing films (SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, DRAGONSLAYER, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS) and then not know what to do with them. Only an essentially headless entity, or a brilliantly mad one, would hire Robert Altman to make a childrens’ film.

For some time, I think, POPEYE has been considered a low point in Altman’s career, and it did lead more or less directly to his ten years in the wilderness (ten very productive years, it should be stressed) before his mainstream “comeback” with THE PLAYER. These days, POPEYE is regarded with some affection, I think, cemented by PT Anderson’s use of the song “He Needs Me,” on the soundtrack of PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. At the time, the film was seen as a commercial and artistic disaster.

‘To begin with I thought, “This is great, this is going to be my SUPERMAN. By the end I was thinking, “Please God, get me out of here,”‘ said Robin Williams, right around the time the film was opening. Maybe he just didn’t like Malta, where the movie was shot (you can still visit the crumbling hamlet of Sweethaven. I wonder if its wintry opposite number, the town of Presbyterian Church from MCCABE AND MRS MILLER still stands?)

Sweethaven 

With Williams, Robert Evans and Don Simpson involved, it must have been a pretty coked-up shoot. Evans lost a suitcase full of drugs and claims he called his evil crony Henry Kissinger to rescue the lost luggage and transport it to safety in the diplomatic bag. Simpson proved himself a prize asshole by objecting to Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl — the best casting decision in human history. “I don’t want to fuck her, and if I don’t want to fuck her she shouldn’t be in this movie,” he is supposed to have said. Altman’s response to Simpson’s early drug-related death on the toilet: “I’m only sorry he didn’t live longer and suffer more.” (Stories come from Robert Evans and Peter Biskind and therefore may be untrue.)

Shelley Winters and Robert Duvall no wait that's wrong

POPEYE’s greatest asset is a script by Jules Feiffer, a playwright, novelist screenwriter (CARNAL KNOWLEDGE) and cartoonist (Tantrum is a great thing) who admired Segar’s creation and had no truck with any subsequent incarnations. Added to his respectful evocation of the strip-cartoon universe Segar created, we have unanswerably correct casting — Williams becomes the character, with the aid of a little prosthetic enhancing of the forearms; Duvall is absurdly perfect; ditto Paul L. Smith as Bluto (whatever happened to Smith?); and Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy, a character reportedly invented by Segar in response to calls to make Popeye less abrasive — Pappy does just that, being even more ornery than his son. “I remembers when I was lickle how he used to throw me in the air,” Williams’ Popeye  reminisces, “only he was never aroun’ when I come down.”

Bound

Wolf Kroeger’s Sweethaven design is worthy of a Terry Gilliam film and then some — beautifully wonky and dishevelled. The idea of hiring Fellini’s cameraman, Guiseppe Rotunno, seems inspired. While nothing in the C.V. of Altman’s regular costume designer, Scott Bushnell, would indicate an aptitude for this kind of stylised work, his character designs are crucial in transforming the familiar players into their pen-and-ink counterparts. I would stand that man a pint just for creating Olive’s boat-like boots.

The Lovers

Also: Harry Nilsson’s music and songs. Pretty remarkable! Here we have the lyrical equivalent of Segar’s obsessive repetition. Hmm, maybe they’re a bit TOO repetitive? Still, they’re beautiful.

Altman said of Nilsson, “Everyone said ‘You’ll get in trouble with him — he’ll get drunk; he won’t do it; he’s all washed up.’ As a matter of fact I said all of those things about Harry to Robin myself one day. Then I went home and thought about it and said to myself, ‘Jesus, that’s what some people are saying about me!’ So I called Harry Nilsson, because I had never met him in my life, and we got along terrifically.”

Altman’s biggest handicap as director might be his love of muddle. Slapstick comedy tends to require absolute clarity to work, which translates either into a long-take style that observes the action in a simple long-shot composition of maximum simplicity (Keaton) or a hyperbolic action-movie approach that divides each unit of movement into a brief but legible shot. Altman likes to have everybody talking at once, in a cluttered, busy environment, and his cutting deploys angle-changes almost haphazardly: if the first angle doesn’t show the gag to perfection, the second will allow you another view, from which you might be able to figure out what’s happening. You feel like a reaction shot of a dog cocking its head at some inexplicable human behaviour.

This has the effect of flattening some of the well-staged slapstick, as far as laughs are concerned, but it’s not in itself a displeasing thing. What contemporaneous audiences couldn’t appreciate is that POPEYE isn’t really a children’s film or a comedy or anything normal like that. It’s purpose is not laughter so much as wonderment — it’s a Heath Robinson / Rube Goldberg contraption whose pleasure derives from its beauty and fussy complexity, rather than from anything it actually achieves.

infink

Sadly, such films have a history of under-performing at the B.O.