Archive for James Franco

How the West was Not

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2018 by dcairns

So, I got Netflix for THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, which of course meant we could watch THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, so we did. I used to indiscriminately like all Coen Bros movies, with a slight preference for the early, funny ones. The tendency towards emptiness did start to nag at me a little as early as MILLER’S CROSSING and BARTON FINK. The nasty sense of humour didn’t — I have a fairly dark S.O.H. myself. But then came INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS which I disenjoyed so thoroughly it made me retroactively question even my favourites, and proactively question subsequent films.

I suspect the following will make David E. impatient, since he was onto the Coen’s combo of snark and misanthropy from the start.

Here’s my run-down of the episodes in this latest western compendium. Not too many specific spoilers, but plenty of comparisons with the Bros’ earlier offerings, good, bad and ugly.

1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The ballad itself is practically a proper musical, except that, as with OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? the songs are all sorta diegetic. We have the welcome return to the fold of Tim Blake Nelson, and the unbelievably crisp cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, who they got acquainted with on PARIS JE T’AIME and used again to even better effect on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, a flm with a unique look in the Coen oeuvre. It’s fascinating to see iconic western imagery shot in an ultrasharp digital way. When people start by telling you they liked the photography it reliably indicates they hated the film, and I hated this episode. The “humorous” violence is mean and squicky: the severed thumb from THE LADYKILLERS is back. Remember how funny it is when Travis blows the guy’s hand off in TAXI DRIVER? That’s how funny the mutilation gag is here. The saving grace is Carter Burwell’s music: this whole movie is the best showcase he’s had for a while.

2. Near Algodones. Or, One Damn Thing After Another. A pretty good Leone imitation in places, this is nevertheless just as pointless and unpleasant as Part 1. James Franco as a bank-robber is given no appealing qualities, so his Really Bad Day is neither a nightmare we can empathise with nor even a justifiable punishment. These two episodes look to have been written in an afternoon. Both end, kind of, with The Last Sight You’ll See, harking way back to BLOOD SIMPLE’s grotesque yet kind of poetic plumbing close-up final shot.

3. Meal Ticket. Here’s where I start to wonder if the ordering of the stories is a problem. As soon as we meet the armless, legless “protagonist” of this one, we expect that something terrible will happen to him. Which means viewing the whole film in a queasy suspense, and not being surprised. The wintry, nocturnal look is really gorgeous and the reason for the story being told, as with the previous installments, is inscrutable. Shit happens, you say? No shit. Fiona was on the point of bailing at this point… but got drawn back in.

4. All Gold Valley. Things take a turn for the better here, maybe in part because we have a story by Jack London. It’s no TO BUILD A FIRE but it’s good. All the episodes are magnificently cast from both a dramaturgical and a physiognomic point of view, but here Tom Waits is actually given sympathetic traits, and though we suspect we may be being set up for a fall, this is not entirely true. This was the first yarn that didn’t make me feel horrible, and the nature photography ascends to new heights of loveliness,

5. The Gal Who Got Rattled. Another adaptation, this time from Stewart Edward White. whose stories have been used by the movies a fair few times, but not since 1941. A really grand evocation of a wagon train. Likeable characters. “I’m really worried about this girl,” said Fiona of Zoe Kazan’s nervous young frontierswoman. There’s a cute dog. This one’s a proper story, very strong, strikingly presented. It would play even better if it weren’t following a trio of sick joke blackout sketches: we need to believe the Coens are sincere here, for the yarn to play emotionally. It COULD be taken as another set-up/punch-line bit of cynical manipulation, and of course if we can give the Coens more credit than that and actually embrace the apparent warmth of feeling and sympathy, the film will play MUCH better. It’s a great little film: Kazan is terrific, and Bill Heck and Grainger Hines ought to be stars.

Also, by this point, the use of pages turning in a book of wild west yarns, with coloured illustrative plates, is really paying off. It’s something I don’t believe we’ve seen before in a film: the illustrations pluck a moment from the narrative, often from near the end, and then we wait for it to turn up and make sense in context. It can add a little extra touch of inevitability to a tragedy, an added twist of irony to a joke.

Also also, it’s nice to finally meet a girl. I know westerns have traditionally been male-dominated, but watching this one’s like going to prison (if you’re a man). Only with less sex.

6. Mortal Remains. OK, Tyne Daly is here so you’ll get no complaints from me. Well, maybe a few. This is DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS only on a stagecoach instead of a train. I mean that literally. I liked the misty cut-out buildings that nod both to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and the whole history of the western movie set. A bunch of facades with nothing behind them seems an apt metaphor for something or other, but what? Oh yeah.

The garrulous English character is hard to process as anything other than a riff on THE HATEFUL EIGHT, and it does feel like the Coens have been treading familiar ground: Tarantino already gave us a western full of talk, with epic iconography but an oddly intimate, enclosed locale, and a lot of unpleasant characters doing horrible things we cant possibly care about. The mysterious, even mystic quality the Coens aim to evoke here certainly adds a new flavour, but as this one fades out I realize why anthology films usually have a framing structure. It’s hard for one episode to deliver an ending satisfying enough for all six.

Maybe the Coens need to stick to adaptations. Their two strongest films, the ones that feel most like they have a reason to exist, are NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and TRUE GRIT. The brothers are experts at pastiche, and their delight in language, both verbal and cinematic, is a kind of redeeming feature (they do care about SOMETHING), but what they get from an original author with world experience and an interest in people seems to be something they struggle to achieve by themselves.

Dissenting views are welcome.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS stars Delmar O’Donnell, Harry “Oz” Osborn, Ruby Sparks, Oskar Schindler, Dudley Dursley, R.M. Renfield, Mary Beth Lacey, Colonel Oates and Alastor ‘MadEye’ Moody.

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Don’t Frighten the Vultures!

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2018 by dcairns

David Wingrove returns with another of his Forbidden Divas, dealing with a film that somehow completely passed me by on its release. He was worried that this piece might be too mean. But I think we have to be able discuss plastic surgery and performance in films… but let us know what you think.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS 

Don’t Frighten the Vultures!

 “A silly bitch! A chattering windbag! A conceited, gushing, heavy-chested

man-woman! A globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass!”

–          A male co-star describes Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert

I make no apologies for adoring Nicole Kidman. In a world of drab nonentities, she is a star who looks and behaves like a star. Her ten-year marriage to Tom Cruise was one of the outstanding acting triumphs of the 90s. Since divorcing Tom, she has had to act on the screen, not off it. But she did so brilliantly in The Others (2001) and Dogville (2003) and Fur (2006). She has kept on going in The Paper Boy (2012) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). There was an Oscar for one of her less effective roles – as Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002) where she suggests a supermodel impersonating a batty Bohemian bag lady. But she made up for it with the gloriously camp royal extravaganza Grace of Monaco (2014). Mind you, she is far more beautiful than the real-life Grace Kelly, not to mention a vastly superior actress.Her career has been one of odd and wayward choices – but seldom, if ever, a dull or a lazy one. So news that Nicole was teaming up with globe-trotting megalomaniac auteur Werner Herzog was something of a cinephile wet dream. She has the blonde hair and the vaguely manic blue eyes to become a female Klaus Kinski, who – under Herzog’s guidance – went mad in exotic locations in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982). The role chosen was Gertrude Bell, a sort of female Lawrence of Arabia who explored and mapped the Middle East in the early 20th century and drew up the borders of present-day Syria and Iraq. Given that both countries are in a state of ongoing meltdown – beset by ethnic, religious and political wars – Bell now looks like a meddlesome amateur of the very worst kind. But however politically ill-timed it might be, Queen of the Desert (2015) had the potential to be a full-blown exercise in movie madness.It begins promisingly enough at an opulent stately home in England’s green and pleasant land. The young Gertrude is just down from Oxford and railing against her life as an upper-class debutante. There is nothing new in a movie asking us to sympathise with the woes – real or imagined – of absurdly entitled and over-privileged folk. Our disquiet is focused squarely on Nicole or, rather, on the ever-changing work-in-progress that is Nicole’s face. She is meant to be in her early twenties but looks at least forty. Her features have the glazed and plumped-up look of the 45-year-old Lana Turner, cast as a virginal bride in the opening scenes of Madame X (1966). We must take it on faith that the still-lovely Jenny Agutter is playing her mother. She looks more like a wise and well-bred elder sister who has opted for the natural look.Soon enough, her long-suffering parents grow fed up with her whining and pack her off to Tehran – where a distant cousin is head of the British Legation. Surely now is her chance to open herself wide to the mysteries of the Orient. Instead, she opens herself wide to a dashing junior diplomat played by James Franco. The kindest thing one can say is that his English accent is only slightly less convincing than Robert Redford’s in Out of Africa (1985). (Redford, famously, did not attempt an accent at all.) He climbs with Gertrude to the top of one of the mythic Towers of Silence, where the Zoroastrians leave their dead to be eaten by vultures. The lone vulture in residence takes unkindly to their presence. Jutting out its neck, it emits a loud squawk at the camera. This is by far the most expressive piece of acting we have witnessed so far. The intruding lovers retreat and consummate their passion elsewhere.Inexplicably, Gertrude’s parents baulk at this chance to get rid of her. It seems her suitor is socially déclassé and given to gambling. She goes home to England to nag them into changing their minds. Some months pass and Franco stages an abrupt exit by drowning himself in a river. Despairing of ever finding another man whose acting is worse than hers, Gertrude resolves to spend her life roaming the Middle East in his memory. She becomes – so the closing credits tell us – the leading expert of her day on Bedouin tribes and their culture. On screen, she displays all the cultural acclimitisation of Dorothy in her travels through the Land of Oz. Entire decades slip by with Nicole looking bored on top of a camel or wandering through an Arabian souk, in wafting white draperies on loan from Marlene Dietrich in The Garden of Allah (1936). The desert sands blow very prettily indeed. But whoever suspected that a trek lasting several months, through places quite devoid of human habitation, could possibly be this dull?!The dramatic high point of Queen of the Desert is not hard to pinpoint. It happened when our cat Toby found a cork that had rolled off the table during dinner. He rolled it deftly around the room, with the flair of a feline Lionel Messi. I’m honestly not sure what country Gertrude was meant to be in at that point. The film was shot on location in Morocco and Jordan – where Nicole, as any reader of Hello! will tell you, is a close personal friend of Queen Rania. There is a tentative – and even more tedious – affair with a second British diplomat (Damian Lewis) and an encounter with T E Lawrence, played as a cameo role by Robert Pattison of Twilight. In all fairness, his performance is no better than anyone else’s. But it is, at least, enthusiastically and energetically bad. He is a refreshing contrast to Nicole, who seeks to absolve herself of bad acting by not acting at all. Or is she just resting her facial muscles for their next encounter with the surgeon’s knife?I realise I have said nothing at all about Queen of the Desert’s place in the wilfully eccentric oeuvre of Werner Herzog. There is, frankly, no indication that Herzog or anyone else directed this movie. Still, I suppose somebody must have.

David Melville

Room for Improvement

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 16, 2017 by dcairns

Fiona dragged me to see THE DISASTER ARTIST. I’m blaming her. She’d read the book by Greg Sistero (co-star of THE ROOM) & Tom Bissell, and watched THE ROOM, which she described, accurately, as “like investigating an artefact created by an alien who has only been observing the human race for a few hours.”

We were both kinda disappointed. James Franco’s film does get some strong laughs, usually by drawing from the facts in the case of the production of Tommy Wiseau’s cult oddity THE ROOM. But Fiona was disappointed that the movie departs from the truth in numerous ways, and in every case the movie version is less funny, less strange and less deep and disturbing than the reality. And I was disappointed for similar reasons, despite knowing almost nothing of the true story. You can TELL when the movie is bullshitting.

Seth Rogen plays a script supervisor, but he performs the role of assistant director, which I could believe, and also the role of director, which I guess I could believe because Tommy Wiseau was acting in his own film… but I refuse to believe that the script supervisor was telling Wiseau, his employer, to modify his performance, or pointing out all the famously odd things about THE ROOM. Rogen’s role becomes, basically, to explain all the jokes. ED WOOD didn’t need that. (OK, ED WOOD was occasionally guilty of that, a wee bit.)

The best thing about the experience was that we saw it at 10.30pm at the local monsterplex and the only other audience members were a young couple who came in late. Fiona engaged them in conversation afterwards and we found out they were high. Like, they maybe didn’t really know what film they’d seen. The guy seemed to think he’d seen a film called THE ROOM, about the making of the world’s worst movie, called THE DISASTER ARTIST. They were on Tommy’s planet.

Weirdly, the episode of The Deuce we saw that James Franco directed was more cinematic than this.

Weirdly, Franco has cast his little brother as Sistero. wearing a fuzzy felt beard, and looking a lot like James Franco’s little brother. This seemed a Wiseau-like odd decision, since Greg Sistero is not Tommy Wiseau’s little brother.

At the end of the movie, a number of stunts are pulled — there’s a THE END, but the best stuff in the movie happens after this point. Stay past the end credits. There’s a suggestion here that with more nerve, there could have been a MAN IN THE MOON quality to this movie — a touch of Pirandellian daring. As it is, Franco’s strong performance as actor, not director, is the whole show.

Our fellow viewers missed the post-credits sequence but we caught up with them outside. “Yeah my dad said there was this movie, back in the sixties, THE DISASTER ARTIST, that was so bad the audience would throw spoons at it…”