Archive for Joe Turkel

Watney’s Red Planet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 12, 2015 by dcairns


Matt Damon as Mark Watney became the second ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS in my birthday treat movie on Saturday, which turned out to be a bigger treat than I’d expected, and quite possibly Ridley Scott’s best film since the eighties.

THE MARTIAN — filmed in all three dimensions of outer space! 3D seems to be something directors get better at on repeated exposure — Fleischer, Dante, Arnold. Scott, speaking of PROMETHEUS actually said, “The 3D was no problem at all. We actually see in 3D all the time,” which one might charitably interpret as a senior moment, but Fiona says, “Ridley would still have said that in 1979.” One worried that he hadn’t given the matter sufficient study.

In THE MARTIAN, there’s far more exploitation of the gimmick, but not in a chuck-spaceships-at-the-lens way. PROMETHEUS’s best quality was its vivid and immersive environments, and here the planetscapes are more shapes and multi-leveled, with aerial shots that let the dunes and buttes roll past the lens. But Scott also gets great value out of little sprouts poking through topsoil, and the multiple rows of screens and workstations in NASA HQ. And in the Hermes, he’s gifted us a gyroscopic spacecraft that’s a sheer joy to observe as we fly past it or through its rotating rings. The sensual pleasure of moving through a deep environment becomes as rich as the use of smoke, rain, multiple little light sources, widescreen composition, long lens ECUs, and all the other features of the Scott visual style.


The dumbness of PROMETHEUS, its bad dialogue, and its mainly dopey, inconsistent and unappealing 2D characters, have all been replaced here with an intelligent scenario by Drew Goddard from Andy Weir’s novel, full of nice people working together to help each other. It’s astonishingly positive. This, along with the NASA mission control setting, has led to a lot of comparisons with APOLLO 13, which is a very good film, probably Ron Howard’s best, so the likening isn’t an insult, but I think this one’s better, because it has the same virtues plus some extra ones, mostly audio-visual.

Scott’s always been rather good at casting, though his background in ads would seem to equip him solely to flick through Spotlight and pick out faces he liked. But look at ALIEN — every one of the Nostromo’s crew is a wonderfully quirky thesp. When ill-health forced Jon Finch to drop out, Scott replaced him with John Hurt, which shows flexibility as well as excellent taste. For BLADE RUNNER, Scott’s masterstroke was Rutger Hauer, but he also saw something in Darryl Hannah that nobody else had recognized, and was one of very few directors to have tapped the potential of Joe Turkel (basically Kubrick and Scott are his whole career).

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Here, Damon is a personable everyman, onscreen solo for most of 140 mins, and neither bland nor irksomely quirky. The quirks are left to the supporting cast, all briefly sketched in but suggesting the possibility of greater depths. For a while it feels like Kate Mara is going to do nothing but punch computer keys, but some more stuff eventually happens. Jeff Daniels, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover and of course Kirsten Wiig are often associated with comedies, which I guess equips them to be likable. Sean Bean seems like a stand-in for the director. And Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña… it’s just such lovely company to be in.


In Bunuel’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, when Dan O’Herlihy leaves the island he hears his dog bark — a dog that had died some years before. This is something I sometimes quote to students as an example of the poetic power of surrealism. Nobody needs to have the moment explained, yet it comes from a place beyond the rational. There’s nothing as elegantly imaginative as that here, but there is the power of realism. The design and performances and writing create a conviction that carries us along. We don’t need interpersonal conflict hyped up when the central situation works as a magnificent plot motor.

Robinson Crusoe is a tricky figure to make work on screen, since fictional characters feed off their interrelationships with one another to become real and engaging. Someone else has to care about them before we can. Watney is alone for ages, and we get very little interaction with his team-mates, but what makes us go with him is his relationship with US, via the vidcams dotted around his Martian “hab.” Implausibly, these all provide a 3D image, something I guess you just have to go with, but it’s worth it.

Saw the film with an actual botanist, who thought it plausible enough except that Martian sunlight would be rather weak for growing veg, and Damon should have swept the red dust off his skylight to help things along.

“…lead to the grave.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2014 by dcairns


Years ago, when I discovered Fiona hadn’t seen PATHS OF GLORY and we watched it together, she put into words something I had felt about the film but not articulated — “It’s not just a war film, it’s about really big things — LIFE and DEATH!” Indeed, for us the film really kicked into its strongest phase after the three soldiers have been sentenced to death (off-camera, in a bold elision) and have to face their mortality (calling to mind Woody Allen’s speech from LOVE AND DEATH: “Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer.”)

Like Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey and Joe Turkel, we have three choices about facing death — we can weep and pray, we can put on a brave face, or we can be unconscious when it happens. And ultimately it could be said to make little difference. “Pull yourself together — is this how you want to be remembered?” asks Bert Freed. “I don’t want to die,” replies Meeker, reasonably.


I just ran the movie for students ahead of a visiting lecture by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s producer — one remarked that it was sweet to see Turkel being so nice, since in his most famous roles, THE SHINING and BLADE RUNNER, he’s kind of sepulchral and sinister. True, he does punch a priest in the face, but that’s not too unsympathetic by this film’s lights, and to be fair the priest was a bit annoying. By casting Emile Meyer, usually a heavy, with his pugilistic, clapped-in face, Kubrick somehow mitigates the anti-clerical brutality — you couldn’t slug the padre from MASH without losing audience respect, but somehow Meyer is fair game. When Meyer protests that he wants “to help you, with all my power!” Turkel responds, “You HAVE no power!” which is true, as far as the immediate problem goes. It’s the best bit of defrocking dialogue outside of  THE GREEN ROOM, where Truffaut yells that what the bereaved want from the church is the immediate resurrection of their loved ones, and anything less is an unforgivable tease. Unreasonable, you might say, but not when you take into account the authority these dudes claim to represent.


Despite starring Chin Cleft himself (introduced shirtless, as was his wont), and being produced by his company, the film is really an ensemble piece (a fact emphasised even further by the tacked-on conclusion, in which Kirk is merely a passive witness), and everybody is really good. James Mason, impressed enought to take on LOLITA, nevertheless felt that the American accents let it down, which is objectively silly, but I guess the custom for using Brit to represent the entire non-American world was strongly established. Having gone for Yanks, Kubrick pushes it pretty far, with Meyer’s Bowery bum whine (wait, he was from Louisiana?) and Jerry Hausner’s bold reading of “What is life widout a liddle divoijshen?” and, of course, Timothy Carey.


Listening to the film’s producer, James B. Harris, in Lyon, my NATAN co-director Paul Duane picked up lots of great stuff about Carey faking his own kidnapping on location and other typical crazy shit. John Baxter cites the story of someone questioning Kubes why he kept hiring Carey. “He can’t act!” Kubrick replied that he wanted either the best actor in the world, or a brilliant type. (Exemplified by DR STRANGELOVE — when Peter Sellers dropped out of the role of Major Kong, the director went straight for Dan Blocker and then Slim Pickens, genuine examples of what Sellers was to have imitated.) And it’s true — Carey carries his own reality with him, a beat-up beatnik doziness that anchors him in every scene. If he can’t quite do everything the script calls for, and has a slight tendency to strike poses (hilarious vanity in one with his lizard-lidded zombie face), his essential Timothy-Carey-ness keeps him credible, like the way a small child, or a very old person, or a dog is always believable on-screen even if they can’t act.


Who else? Wayne Morris, a real-life WWII hero, is great as the drunken coward Roget (the script, partly written by alcoholic Jim Thompson, tends to equate boozing with vice, until the third act when everybody swears by it). My late friend Lawrie said used to drink with him– I can’t work out when this occurred, since Morris doesn’t seem to have had a British career. And the bad guys — Adolphe Menjou, whose rapid-fire delivery makes him the worst casualty of the boxy sound recording in vast halls — George MacReady, whose psychotic villainy keeps rising to new levels of outrageous hypocrisy, and that’s his arc — Richard Anderson, who probably oversells his sliminess early on and his doubt later — and Peter Capell, who plays the presiding judge at the court martial, and scores by buttering the most prejudiced and insanely unjust comments with a veneer of gentle, paternal reasonableness.

The full quote is “The paths of glory lead to the grave,” hence all those tracking and trucking shots — at the execution, SK dollies over gravel towards the posts the men are to be bound to, and the POV shots heading forwards seem to represent the rush towards Death — three wooden poles marking the end of everything.


For the first time I really thought about what the film would have been like without the musical number from the future Mrs Kubrick at the end. Ending on Kirk’s rugged face as he says, “Because you don’t know the answer to that, I pity you,” would be very strong indeed — the only note of grace being supplied by the lighting, which makes of him a lambent gargoyle-saint. What follows is a brilliantly judged attempt to soften the conclusion without softening the film, beginning with a sequence which actually makes us dislike the French troops we’ve been rooting for all along, developing into the musical montage of faces, magnificently lit again — I wonder how Kubrick got on with his German cinematographer, Georg Krause, who had been active all through the Nazi era? They do great work together. Most of the previous imagery has been figures in landscapes or interiors, Kirk’s big CU at the end of the “real film” starts this cascade of portraits. The best thing about it is it does almost nothing — it doesn’t alleviate the sense of injustice, it almost universalizes it. The final shot of Kirk leaving is pretty bleak and ugly — but isn’t even the last shot, since the end creds are a bunch more portraits.

Obviously PATHS OF GLORY is an emotional film, but it defies WWI movie convention by stirring up our sense of moral outrage rather than trying to break our hearts with the pity of it. It gives the lie to the cliché of Kubrick the emotionless. My friend B. Mite strongly argued that Kubrick was interested in “the emotions that don’t have names” — 2001 stirs up a kind of awe and terror that’s closer to the romantic poets’ response to nature than to anything in Spielberg. It’s cold in a tactile sense — all that black space and ll those white surfaces — but nobody, surely, could watch it without emotion. Even Pauline Kael felt claustrophobic.

The movie has been used by scientists testing the physiological effects of film — it has been shown to make people physically angry. Script guru Phil Parker once pointed out that injustice is a great plot engine, because it seizes and inflames everyone. As the line in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS goes, “When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair,’ the child can be believed.”

Festival Burnout

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2009 by dcairns

More Edinburgh goodies.


Some of the movies showing here are eligible for an audience award — you tear a special cardboard tab to register your vote. The lowest category is “Not My Kind of Thing.”

UNMADE BEDS — a youth film about London squatters and little else. Tempting to nickname it “UNMADE FILM” but it’s beautifully shot, and has the most madly photogenic cast of any recent Brit flick. In theory it should be very watchable, but alas it has no reason to exist, no dramatic tension, no structure, and not really any distinct point of view. Not My kind of Thing.

FISH TANK — Andrea Arnold’s slice of social realism builds on the critical success of RED ROAD and is more convincing but no better structured. It pads solemnly on for two hours without delivering a single surprise, but there are compensations in the fine photography and superb performances. Not My kind of Thing.

ANTICHRIST — Lars Von Trier’s marital horror movie is weird, which is fine, but incoherent, which is not so good. I asked the cinematographer if it was deliberately funny, and he said it wasn’t, strongly hinting that there’s something the matter with me if I find it so. Not My Kind of Thing. More later.


Regular Shadowplayer Chris B, wearing the face of Peter Greenaway upon his abdomen, stands athwart the great Joe Dante.

By contrast, Joe Dante and Roger Corman’s public appearances have been a joy, and I’ll write more on them later too.

Interviewed Bruce MacDonald, director of the excellent PONTYPOOL, for the Auteurs’ Notebook, and hopefully you’ll be able to read that soon.

LITTLE RED HOODIE — my friend Joern Utkilen’s jet-black comedy about the sexualisation of little girls in modern society covers much of the same territory as FISH TANK, but in 15 minutes. It’s sick, funny, compelling and makes a serious point. I’m not sure the point is enough to justify the very dark territory it gets into (via a modern-dress recounting of the Little Red Riding Hood story), but the film earns the right to be considered seriously.

THE ST VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE — a Corman I’d only seen a few moments of before, and hadn’t fancied, but it proved to be a dry, factual, brutal, amoral and compelling little history lesson in capitalism and homicide. Especially pleasing to get faces like Bruce Dern, Dick Miller and Joe Turkel popping up, and the essentially gentle Jason Robards and George Segal make the most of their psychopathic scenery-chewing roles. Jack Nicholson has one line, and delivers it in a comedy gangster voice.

Quote of the day came from a friend of a friend of a friend of the late David Tomlinson, who is said to have said, “Sodomy’s overrated. I mean, I’m not knocking it. It got me work at Disney.”


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