Archive for Harry Potter

Schnooks on a Plane

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2011 by dcairns

In-flight movies — perhaps these are the ultimate justification for Hollywood pabulum. Anesthetic for the tense traveler. When you’re cramped in your seat and anxious about your untenable position hurtling through the stratosphere, it would be nice to be rapt out of yourself by dramatic catharsis, but it AIN’T HAPPENING (although I would welcome with keen interest and incredulity any stories of mid-air catharsis you have to offer) so you settle for the numbing tedium of badly thought-out genre bullshit —


Not only have they made a Harry Potter rip-off based on a rip-off novel, they’ve got Christopher Columbus who made the first two HARRY POTTER films to direct it. That’s just like stamping the word SAP on the forehead of every child who buys a ticket, isn’t it?

Terrible dross, and all I can say in my defense is that I’m working on a project with some mythological elements so I wanted to see what the kids are thinking about myth these days. Some cute moments — using an i-phone camera to observe the Medusa without getting petrified is neat. Uma Thurman has gone from Venus in BARON MUNCHAUSEN to Medusa in this — a pithier charting of the leading lady’s career arc than even Sondheim has given us.

There’s something irresistibly hilarious about the idea of Pierce Brosnan as a centaur, something the film is completely unaware of. None of the actors playing gods make much impression except Steve Coogan, doing what he does. Zeus is Sean Bean, who made Tolkien sound credible but is screwed when he has to say “You have done well,” as opposed to “Well done.” Look, it’s Kevin McKidd — as with 300, you can’t do ancient Greeks without casting a Scotsman. Now, I’ve never seen a real ancient Greek but I’ve seen the modern variety, several times, and none of them looked like Scotsmen. “It’s the magic of the movies!” you cry.


Perfectly adequate up to the two-third mark: this Chris Evans fellow is quite sweet, and the wimp-to-ubermensch narrative is engaging, the action lucid (oh, you mock Joe Johnston, don’t you, but in his fight scenes you can SEE WHAT’S HAPPENING — feel the nostalgia!) and the supporting players mainly do what they’ve been contracted for. Tommy Lee Jones is gruff, Stanley Tucci is solemn, Toby Jones is short. For a while, Haley Atwell is suitably prim, but when called upon to restage the start of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, her inability to pull off anything else except pulchritude punctures the pathos. Hugo Weaving provides the entertainment with a Werner Herzog impersonation and hilarious little facial reactions, soon subsumed in a splurge of CG as he rips his own face off to become The Red Skull.


Continental Air likes to provide a couple of oldies and a couple of indies to its transatlantic clientele, so we get this recent-ish Soderbergh (it was this or GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? and I was actually up for that, but then I felt that I wanted to actually do it justice). Matt Damon always seemed kind of a schlub-in-the-making, and here he gets to play an actual Philip Seymour Hoffman role, and he’s splendid. I haven’t followed Soderbergh religiously — asides from his Spalding Gray bio last year, AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE, I haven’t seen anything since half of THE GOOD GERMAN (it wasn’t good) and bits of OCEAN’S TWELVE. I should catch up sometime, this was funny and clever. Soderbergh’s ludic side (cf SCHIZOPOLIS) is allowed just enough room to breath by the quietly demented voice-over, a calm recitation of delusions, non-sequiturs and stray pub facts.

Harry Potter and the Mother of Tears

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2009 by dcairns


Imagine it: you are horror maestro Dario Argento (this might be a stretch of your empathic faculties, but try to imagine it anyway). Everybody agrees that your violent set-pieces are zesty, cinematic and imaginative. They also agree that your scripts are embarrassing and your direction of actors pitiable. It takes a rare kind of anti-talent to make even a suave devil like Tony Franciosa look uncomfortable onscreen. What do you do?

Well, oddly enough, you don’t seek out talented script collaborators (apart from a one-off pairing with Polanski’s agoraphobic pal Gerard Brach, who was never going to crack your dialogue problems), you settle for the kind of lame hacks who have a sorceress offer her assistance with the words, “Call me anytime. It’s no bother.”

No bother.

Also, you dismiss complaints that your stories don’t make sense with claims that they are “non-Cartesian,” and invoke Poe. True, Poe could single-handedly keep every university English department running for years with the crazy ambiguities of his involuted yarns. But then, he didn’t specialise in dagger-wielding psychos in black gloves in every damn story. And that “logic of nightmares” rigmarole barely washes either, Dario — your films aren’t dreamlike, they’re just lurid. Operatic (although Verdi wasn’t quite as dependent on Satanists and disemboweling), maybe, but pretty much lacking in the uncanny qualities to be found in David Lynch, who can be genuinely scary in a way you can only, well, dream of.

And you don’t seek out the best actors, either. Bridget Fonda, a fan, practically begs to act for you, but you replace her with your daughter, because actors ask too many questions. For some reason you prefer to film your own daughter in the nude, shagging Julian Sands or getting raped by psychopaths. I know you kind of cultivate the “weird” thing, but really…


MOTHER OF TEARS, we can probably say, is a return to form, but unfortunately it’s a return to the dreadful form of PHENOMENA, rather than the sort-of great form of SUSPIRIA (whose appalling dubbing and glazed perfs does actually unwittingly evoke the oneiric, or the badly concussed) — it’s good enough to watch, but only barely. The luminous greens and reds and blues (a palette supposedly leeched from Disney’s SNOW WHITE) are back, Asia Argento’s hungover pre-Raphaelite glamour still radiates a seedy allure, and her mum Daria Nicolodi is back for old time’s sakes. Udo Kier appears, hams endearingly, dies.

vlcsnap-1434717The ghost of Nicolodi past.

Here’s another thing, Dario, my cadaverous chum — this misogyny rap. If I were you, I might still shoot a murder scene in which a lesbian witch has a pike shoved up her tuppence until it bursts from her mouth (after all, I’d have a reputation for ground-breaking splatter to maintain), but I’d be sure to frame it in some kind of meaningful context, to express some kind of idea with it. What’s odd about you, Dario, is that you started as a critic but seem painfully uncomfortable with thought of any kind. Explaining that, since you really love women, you’d rather see a beautiful woman killed than an ugly man, might just be a perverse joke, but everything else in your work is on a similarly dumb level. I’m beginning to think you really are that stupid.


Our subject is witches. Unlike in legend, these witches are all female. They provoke civil unrest, dress like Goths, are loud and rude in public places. Are you becoming a grumpy old man, Dario? Do you worry that society is going to wrack and ruin? I’m not sure that’s really a tenable position for the king of slasher gore. The witch-plague is really an excuse for lots of protracted violence, and the beauty of it is that you can film women being killed by witches, and when the witches are killed, well, they are women too. It’s win-win. I notice too that in Italian horror films, whenever women suffer horrific sexual assault with bladed weapons, it’s always performed or instigated by other women (in WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? or that real piece of trash, THE NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS). I even saw this device in an episode of Cracker on TV. This has nothing whatsoever to do with real psychopathic practice, but instead seems to be a kind of alibi-ing: the unacceptable act is attributed to the other gender so that the guilty male filmmaker can escape censure. Not that this actually works.

Anyhow, we need some light relief amidst all this recrimination, so it’s pleasing to point out that in THE MOTHER OF TEARS, the third film in a trilogy-of-sorts begun by SUSPIRIA and INFERNO, Asia Argento plays the daughter of a white witch who gave her life fighting the terrible Mater Lacrimosae, injuring that demoness in the process. Perhaps only Asia can defeat the returning witch-queen. In other words, Dario has basically nicked the plot of Harry Potter and thrown in some tits and gore.


“Isn’t it a bit old-hat?”

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2008 by dcairns

Kenneth Branagh usually comes up with some interesting directorial strategies. The trouble is, they usually don’t work, and neither do the films. He’s inventive, ambitious, and courageous, but I somehow never feel he’s a natural film-maker.

Nevertheless, some critics were perhaps too nasty about SLEUTH. The film unites an interesting bunch of people, looks very handsome, and is easy enough to watch. There are good bits. Harold Pinter’s reworking of Anthony Shaffer’s play is often amusing.

JL: “Maggie never told me you were… such a manipulator. She told me you were no good in bed, but she never told me you were such a manipulator.”
MC: “She told you I was no good in bed?”
JL: “Oh, yes.”
MC: “She was joking. I’m wonderful in bed.”
JL: “I must tell her.”

As in the original, a successful thriller writer confronts the much younger man who has made off with his wife, and a variety of vicious mind-games are played. Pinter dispenses with Shaffer’s critique of the English mystery novel tradition, leaving the piece as simply another Pinter power-play of pauses. Even the title becomes irrelevant.

One can’t escape the fact that the gimmick casting — Michael Caine returns from the original Joe Mankiewicz version, but playing the other part, Jude Law, who’s already played a Caine role in the ALFIE remake, plays Caine’s part from the original —  is a titillating concept, but not necessarily the best way to fill the parts. Olivier, in the original film, stood boldly for the English establishment, and Caine was the working-class upstart — it was almost too perfect. With cockney Caine as the rich author and the vaguely classless Law as his romantic rival, the distinction is lost. But more important is what Branagh can get out of these actors in the way of acting.

Caine starts off like he’s trying for poshness, perhaps imitating Alan Bates (a fine interpreter of Pinter), which is a bit queasy. The it starts to feel like he doesn’t know his lines well enough — little hesitations and bodging of the difficult bits are either methody additions or genuine screw-ups, and either way they’re harmful to Pinter’s rhythms. But gradually Caine’s undiminished charm and inexplicable authority work their spell, and he becomes enjoyable.

Law is fine when he underplays, and rather embarassing when he tries too hard. He’s a star when he just holds the camera’s gaze. Some insecurity forces him to spoil it by doing stuff, and the effort shows. He’s probably most useful when he’s being tormented by Caine, since some evil part of this viewer derives some pleasure from seeing Law having a hard time. Later, he will do foolish things with a loaded pistol, much like the detective in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Nobody would call this prime Pinter. Although the Great Man has written screen thrillers successfully in the past (THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, under-valued) here there are odd, damaging implausibilities. Why does Caine have an automated rope ladder in his stately home? Why does Law take his gun from his holster for no reason, lay it on the bed for no reason, thus allowing Caine to grab it at the climax? That’s quite bad playwriting, or direction.

What makes the film watchable? The set, designed by Branagh’s regular collaborator Tim Harvey, is very nice, all shiny surfaces and disco lighting, and the photography of Haris Zambarloukos serves up innumerable great widescreen close-ups. But the James Bond lair doesn’t make much sense, and is part of the overall watering-down of Shaffer’s original concept, the conflict between tradition and progress. The Bond vibe is both apt and ironic, since original Bond designer Ken Adam created the look of the original SLEUTH,

The stylised environment is doubtless meant to provide a comfortable setting for the stylised talk, but Pinter’s verbal gymnastics are defiantly archaic, and sound more so amid these glossy surfaces and pointless hi-tech appurtenances. I’m reminded of the grand staircase in FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA’S KENNETH BRANAGH’S MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (I think that’s the full title), which has no bannister and makes you nervous to look at it. It’s quite an interesting effect, but you can’t help wonder WHY would anybody have a stair like that in their house?

This next is a bit spoilerific — if you’ve read the above and still plan on seeing SLEUTH, skip this last stuff.

Full disclosure — Stephen Murphy, prosthetic makeup artist for Jude Law, did the make-up on my clown film and is a good friend. He’s been working on HARRY POTTERS and stuff, turning ex-porn dwarfs into goblins, working his way up, and this is is his biggest job yet. Oddly, the transformation reminds me of another make-up creation, even though Stephen didn’t design the Law job.

It’s the Ringo Starr/Mexican bandit look Stephen created for Alice Bicknell in my film CLARIMONDE using mainly liquid latex and wet tissue paper. I’m also reminded of another makeup creation, Reece Shearsmith as Geoff Tipps in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN:

I am a man

Even the voice is the same! The transformation works OK until Law starts overdoing it again, which makes him more recognisable. Stephen reports that Law was a very nice chap to work with, which is about what I’d expect, actually. Hitting the odd paparazzo doesn’t make him a bad guy, in fact I give him points for it, even though I’m anti-violence.

In the original SLEUTH, make-up artist Tom Smith, required to transform Michael Caine completely, executed a self-portrait, changing Caine into a Smith clone. I asked Stephen if he’d been tempted to do the same, but alas, he hadn’t known. What might have been REALLY interesting would have been if the remake’s make-up DESIGNER, Eileen Kastner-Delago, had given Law a sex change and made him over in her own image.

Made Up

Sexual ambiguity does enter the picture in the last act, with both Caine and Law suggesting bisexual sides, a motif borrowed from Sidney Lumet and Ira levin’s DEATHTRAP, the low-rent version of SLEUTH — Caine, having kissed Christopher “Superman” Reeve, now kisses “Sky Captain”. But this additional twist leads to no new dramatic suspense, and certainly doesn’t carry the mild shock value it did in 1982 (“But it’s so juicy,” Lumet pleaded, when Reeve objected to the kiss). As with the despised DIABOLIQUE, the re-makers try to preserve the twist surprise by adding a further wrinkle to the already-creased story, but it does nothing but drag the film long past its emotional climax… which is about half an hour in.

For all that, the film is diverting, short, and at least it has a different set of flaws from the ones we’re used to seeing all the time. Any bets on what the next Michael Caine remake will be?