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The Time Tunnel

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , on July 26, 2019 by dcairns

Yes, we are enjoying Dark, since you ask.

A German Netflix show about time travel, it so far, two out of three promised seasons in, shows every sign of being meticulously planned, so that it might be one of those rare shows that not only compels binge-watching, but leaves you satisfied at the end.

It’s set in the fictitious town of Winden, where it’s always raining and everyone’s miserable, so as Scots we related. As with any good small-town soap opera, everyone has a secret, too, which in this case translates into nearly everyone having a small package buried in the woods.

Timelines multiply — we meet the characters in 2019 but are soon time-traveling back to 1986. Then 1953, and so on — the number 33 is significant (yay! my favourite number, because in French it sounds like a fanfare). One of the amazing accomplishments is to have found so many sets of three German actors who can play the same characters at three different times in their lives. They use a few tricks like stick-on moles, an impressive cauliflower ear, and heterochromatic eyes to help you follow who is now who. But the line “Confused? You will be,” is still an apt one.

I instinctively distrust things without humour, and Dark is quite remarkably free of laughs. However, it doesn’t seem to be making many mistakes. One of the questions raised by the narrative is whether time travel precludes free will, as a way of preventing paradoxes, and the conclusion seems to be that it does. We even get Appointment in Samarra type instances of characters attempting to alter events, and their interventions become the springboards that CAUSE those events. The downside of this is a couple of scenes where the pre-determined plot causes characters to do things you can’t quite believe they WOULD do (like acquiescing to a loved one’s suicide, based on no proof that this is necessary, on the say-so of a character they have no reason to trust), or suddenly act stupidy because the plot demands it, despite being otherwise smart and capable (“Let’s go to the place where you’re supposed to die today, even though I’m trying to prevent that!”)

These are missteps, but they don’t cancel out the otherwise strong presentation (particularly gorgeous nocturnal establishing shots), performances (although humour could lift these even further), or twisty, moreish plotting. They’re the only indications that the showrunners, director Baran bo Odar and his writing partner Jantje Friese, might not be equal to resolving their tangle of timelines (a temporal wormhole thingy central to events fittingly resembles a ball of black wool having an epileptic fit). Oh, and a scene where three nice characters basically torture a friend, get what they need from him, and are then all friends again. Not wild about that.

The show is probably successful in part because it’s not WILDLY original. It takes time travel seriously and applies it to a soap format, and otherwise it borrows from other places in rather direct ways — the showrunners perhaps don’t even know they’re doing it. “It’s happening again,” says a character early on, straight-up quoting the Giant in Twin Peaks. The recurrent, cyclic spates of child abduction/murder echo Stephen King’s It. A mysterious, windy tunnel is right out of BEING JOHN MALKOVITCH, though its destination is not the inside of a famous actor’s head (unless that’s a plot turn being held back for Season 3). When Matt Groening created The Simpsons, he says, he tried to keep certain elements mundane — the domestic setting, the two point four kids — so the audience’s heads wouldn’t explode from all the other crazy stuff. This seems to work, but you have to be really good to pull it off.

The Dark team seem to be really good.

More TV stuff shortly — we’re halfway through the new Veronica Mars.

Trying too hard

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2018 by dcairns

A fast-talking saleswoman (not Fiona) persuaded me to get the Sky movie channels, which means we’ve been able to catch up on a bunch of things we couldn’t be bothered seeing at the cinema. The generally unsatisfactory nature of the product discovered would allow me to congratulate me on my good judgement in giving it the go-by, except now I’ve gone and seen it, haven’t I?

What’s the name of the latest Ridley Scott sequel? — I want to say ALIEN VS PROMETHEUS — I will admit it doesn’t have P’s awful dialogue or nonsensical/stupid behaviour by characters. It just about makes sense as narrative. Except why open with a long, tedious discussion about the origins and purpose of human life — the central concern of the previous film, you may recall — if you’re never going to bring it up again? The ending is memorably horrible, I have to give them that, but the big silly fighting on a spaceship action climax doesn’t belong in this genre at all. What is this film supposed to be?

A friend asks: “Are the bodybuilders back?” I get a sudden false-memory flash: an arena full of the musclebound hearties, all furiously pumping iron. Why not?

But MAYBE I regret not seeing this on the big screen because Scott’s use of 3D, already assured, improved radically in THE MARTIAN (a terrific film, imho) and I can’t help wondering what it was like third time around.

ATOMIC BLONDE is dripping with style, but shall we say, somewhat overdone? As in, the titles identifying time and place (eighties Berlin) are not only in a dayglo spray-can font, but they spray on to the screen via animation, and there’s a spraying SOUND as they do so. Big long take fight scene which is really multiple takes stitched together digitally but impressing nonetheless. Charlize Theron essays sexy English accent and speaks in a whisper throughout. But has no opportunity to hit the emotions as she does in FURY ROAD. Nor does anyone else. The emotional flatline means that nothing feels surprising — we sure don’t care about the mission, and though there ARE plot twists, they carry no weight. The punch-ups are seriously ouchy, but there seems to be one every ten minutes, and they don’t lead to anything that feels like a development or paradigm shift. That’s as near as I can define what makes this slick thing seem so pointless and ugly.

IT has a similar problem. Set-piece after set-piece with almost no forward momentum. One of those films where an interesting director (Cary Fukunaga) quit ahead of shooting. Funny how creative differences always lead to creative sameness. The kids are all really good. Some dread is created, or it was for us, before repetition sets in. Yes, we get it, it’s about fear, but WHAT about fear? A lot of the problems may be in the source novel, but its the filmmakers’ job to solve them — they can’t be accused of being over-faithful to the letter of Stephen King’s doorstop (described by one critic at the time as five tons of crap in a three-ton crate). What insight into fear does the movie want to give us? And what supernatural rules does Pennywise the Clown follow? And what made anybody think having him turn into a giant spider was a good idea?

My personal aesthetic analysis: clowns can be scary, as we know, and if you take them out of the circus you get an added dissonance because they’re all dressed up, sureally inappropriate to their setting. A man looking out of a storm drain is scary, if he acts like he has a perfect right to be there. A similar kind of eerie out-of-placeness is created. He could be the modern equivalent of one of Magritte’s bowler hat guys. BUT — a clown in a storm drain is, again, trying too hard.BABY DRIVER is undoubtedly the best thing we saw. Edgar Wright reminds us that his stylistic paintbox contains more than just fast cutting — really lovely long take credits sequence. “You can see why they hired a choreographer,” exclaimed Fiona. The cast is terrific. Ansel Elgort (literally, Ansel the Gort) should be a star, although THAT NAME. Was there already a Captain McGlue in Actor’s Equity?

Only quibble is the ending, which literally takes five years to happen. One doesn’t like protracted endings. I somehow felt something problematic coming during the climax — a built-in indecision about who is the baddie (there are two candidates with better claims than the guy the settle on for their climactic confrontation), whether this should be a tragedy (I just don’t think the story has any weight if it isn’t) and if so, what is the hero’s tragic mistake (it seems to have happened before the movie starts, which isn’t the best approach)?But there’s such a wealth of film-making brio on display — maybe on a re-watch the ending won’t bother me so much. Why it bothers me now is partly because the rest of the film is so strong, and partly because it’s so symptomatic of the focus-grouped narrative soft-soaping that holds illimitable dominion over modern Hollywood. Like, we will never again have an ending that takes things further, or hits harder, than we expected.

To prove me wrong — what new films SHOULD I be seeing on cable?

Carnival of Latex

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2012 by dcairns

The red balloon.

7 FACES OF DR. LAO, an uncategorizable western fantasy from George THE TIME MACHINE Pal, achieves some of the grand, poetic, mysterious beauty it aims for, despite inexplicably looking like an episode of Star Trek much of the time — low-horizon prairie cyclorama sets alternating with overfilmed scrubland locales.

(Fellini claimed he felt surprise at seeing the Trevi Fountain still standing after he’d filmed it: like all sets, it should have been torn down after serving its purpose. And the camera is known to steal souls. By that logic, Bronson Canyon ought to have been erased by now, swept away by the camera pans restlessly caressing its boulders.)

I’m inclined to blame the cinematographer, Robert J. Bronner, an experienced MGM pro who did fine work on musicals like IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER and SILK STOCKINGS, but he employs the same bright, colourful look here — everybody else involved seems well aware that this is not, despite advertising to the contrary, a kids’ film*. What it needs are shadows, both to enhance mystery and to hide the cheapness of the sets. Few films would have benefitted more from black & white.

Pan pipes.

Or from Orson Welles behind the camera. George Pal is no Welles, but I don’t want to be harsh about him, because he got this made, and he occasionally pulls out just the right shots — as in the mad spinning of the Pan sequence. Sweaty, gasping Barbara Eden emotes hotly as the camera burls round her, and her POV is an incessant pan, following Pan, whose goat-legged prance is wonderfully antic and teasing but wouldn’t amount to anything were it not for the brazen eroticism of her performance…

I dream of Eden.

Whew. That’s one of the centrepiece good scenes, the others being the incredible, brutal demolition of a fading widow by the fortune-teller Appollonius, and the Giant Serpent’s take-down of bad guy Arthur O’Connell is equally harsh and memorable.

This is the original of what became Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (and then Stephen King’s It) but Charles G. Finney’s book (titled The Circus of Dr Lao) is sharper and weirder, since Lao’s circus is neither straightforwardly benign nor malign, it inhabits a Willie Wonka Wonderland of rather cruel magic working in the service of … what? Humanity? Or Dr Lao’s private amusement? Charles Beaumont, that excellent scribe of Twilight Zones and Corman Poes, softens Lao considerably and gives him a more linear mission statement, but traces of the original remain. In the most intriguing adaptations, not all the nails are knocked flat.

Pal’s performers are rather excellent. Eden does the buttoned-down librarian act rather well, but really throws herself into the unbuttoning. The Pan scene is about eroticism in a way that seems distinctly unusual, not just for a kid’s film, but for any mainstream Hollywood product. Sex is generally part of something else, love interest or plot point, to give it plausible deniability: this is about lust and frustration and how good/bad frustration feels.

THAT’S why I think of  Star Trek — the snowman could be the Salt Vampire’s twin!

Of course, Tony Randall is “the whole show.” With a series of excellent William Tuttle makeups (WT won an Oscar for this before the make-up Oscar actually existed) he plays Lao first as a crudely stereotyped “old Chinaman,” then with a standard American accent, suggesting that Lao is actually taking the mickey out of his listeners’ expectations, then with a series of disparate and mostly quite terrible accents — his Scottish one starts out sort of identifiable, at least, before morphing into (I think) Irish and (I think) Welsh. Rotten accents aside, it’s a terrific perf, or series of perfs: his abominable snowman is just a man in a suit; his Medusa is a memorable drag act, but basically just a single facial expression, Joan Crawford green lips parted in wickedness; but the sombre Apollonius, insinuating serpent (voice-work for a combined glove puppet and stop-motion creation), dithering Merlin and Lao are all exceptional characterisations. And we get a glimpse of the real T.R. too —

Holy crap, just realized that the shallow widow is Lee Patrick, Effie from THE MALTESE FALCON. (Somebody should write a series of detective novels about Effie. Well, they shouldn’t, but I’m surprised they haven’t.) We also get John Qualen, Miser Stevens from THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, doing one of his Yumping Yiminy turns.

Leigh Harline’s Chinese-Western score is very nice, and he finds, at last, a good use for the bagpipe: it makes the perfect sound to simulate the Loch Ness Monster inflating from minnow to plesiosaur — a combination of mass air-pumping, alien drone and screeching horror. Harline also scored Disney’s SNOW WHITE.

Nessie, animated by legend Jim Danforth, is a splendid creature, even if the optical work enabling her to interact with Royal Dano (who’s also in SOMETHING WICKED, oddly) and Tony Randall is distinctly sub-par, resulting not only in shimmering matte lines, but wild fluctuations of colour. Seems like rear projection would have worked better, but I don’t know if this problem was always apparent, or was caused by the film aging. Perhaps somebody out there can tell me? The other animation, on the Great Serpent, is remarkable for how smoothly integrated it is — most of the time, the serpent is a glove puppet, but for particularly tricky bits, like catching a cigar in his mouth, sucking it in and reversing it, he’s stop-motion.

And then there’s THIS psychedelic weird-out —

Young minds were warped… but then, that’s what they’re there for.

***

*It totally enthralled me as a kid, but that was because of its adult feeling, the sense of being let in on secrets normally forbidden to kids. Jan Svankmajer is very much opposed to the whole idea of films for children, feeling that they stifle imagination and infantilise us. His dream of an all-adult cinema is impossible, commercially, of course: the poor parents need something they can safely dump kids in front of without the momentary expectation of screeching trauma at the stuffed rabbit with the real tongue. What I’d settle for is kid-friendly films with adult themes — NOT a few adult in-jokes thrown in to divert the moms and dads, but actual issues dealt with in exactly as subtle and intelligent a way as we’d expect in good mature films. “But the kids won’t understand!” Yet kids cope with reality, on a day to day basis, without understanding that, either.

Let Lao explain it —

“The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you’re tired, comes up when you want to be on the move. That’s real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it. Oh, my boy, that’s… that’s circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand. Every time you stop and think, “I’m alive, and being alive is fantastic!” Every time such a thing happens, you’re part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.”

Kid: “I don’t understand.”

Lao: Neither do I. “