Archive for John Frankenheimer

The Animal Kingdom

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2017 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2017-02-05-22h34m55s114Finally caught up with Kent Jones’ HITCHCOCK TRUFFAUT which is excellent, as you’d expect. I probably suffer a bit from overfamiliarity with the subject, but there were still new things to notice, and Fiona threw at me a hitherto unknown fact too — “Mrs. Bates,” upon ripping open the shower curtain, is in blackface, since it was the only way to make the silhouette dark enough. A blackface Mrs. Bates is an even more terrifying thought!

(At this point, Fiona looks over my shoulder as I’m typing and says, “You’d better check. I *think* that’s correct.”)vlcsnap-2017-02-05-22h35m16s708We also saw LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, a documentary by David Gregory which paints a sympathetic, even-handed portrait of the eccentric Brit’s attempt to make an extreme but faithful-to-the-spirit adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel. Famously, Stanley was fired by New Line after just a couple of days’ shooting, and John Frankenheimer finished the film in typically combative style, wrangling Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer and pissing off everyone else.

The best-known stories are all present and correct, though weirdly there’s no mention of David Thewlis and how he came to replace Rob Morrow in the lead, though we hear all about the near-miss involvement of Bruce Willis and James Woods. Thewlis doesn’t take part, though he’s spoken about the film in the past (“I just hated, hated, hated the director,” he said, meaning JF nor RS, who he probably never even got to meet). Fairuza Balk, Marco Hofschneider and various Aussie cast and crew make very affable guides to the madness, along with the now quite phlegmatic Stanley. Fiona went on a night out with friends once which included Stanley, who she thought was a very nice chap, and one can’t escape the feeling that he was rather shat on by this production.

My trouble is I like the resulting farrago a lot more than I like any version of Stanley’s HARDWARE and DUST DEVIL, which have nice things in them but also truly terrible things in them which seem wired deeply into the sensibility behind them. So I’m not sure I’d have preferred his version of MOREAU, even though it sounds like it had some really nifty ideas.

The MOREAU we have lacks key elements like the House of Pain, but it does have —

The Smallest Man in the World playing a tiny grand piano (can something be tiny and grand at the same time? Well, the SMITW can…) on top of a full-size grand piano played by an identically dressed Marlon Brando, in a moment designer Graham “Grace” Walker justifiably claims as one of the greatest in all cinema. he’s laughing when he says it… does that matter?

Val Kilmer dries, corpses, and walks off camera without finishing his line. I think he was in the midst of explaining how Moreau invented Velcro, a promising story angle left undeveloped…

Brando is sitting next to the SMITW when the SMITW puts his feet on the table. Brando breaks off in mid-line to say “No no no,” to the little fellow, and you can see the SMITW’s shoulders SHAKING in helpless mirth at this unexpected ad-lib.

David Thewlis has a fight with genetically-enhanced mice. Fiona also met one of the army of scriptwriters helicoptered in to vivisect Stanley’s material. “I *told* them that was a bad idea,” he said.

Thewlis has decided, according to his mood, to read every line with passionate intensity, or else completely flatly, as if off the plate in front of him (that dinner scene again).

Brando has decided to play it as the naughty vicar from The Dick Emery Show, only fat and painted chalk-white. When Thewlis asks for an explanation of the inhuman manimals surrounding him, Brando’s Moreau thinks he’s talking about his own alabaster features and launches into an explanation of his sun-block. “Look at these people!” clarifies Thewlis at the top of his voice. “Look at HIM!” he cries, voice rising to a hysterical falsetto as he gestures at the inoffensive SMITW.

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It’s not surprising that Thewlis, Balk and Hofschneider had a terrible time, since Frankenheimer evidently decided his job was to indulge Brando, Kilmer and the SMITW in their madness while venting his frustrations on everyone else. Brando et al could have fun mucking about, and those who felt a responsibility to embody their characters struggled to maintain credibility. Brando flat-out refused to discuss character with Balk. It’s not in the film, but Fiona got an anecdote from her screenwriter contact — when he wanted to talk to Brando about the film, Marlon responded with, “It’s NOT a film, it’s a PAGEANT.” Which it became, in truth.

The thing flat-out can’t survive the disappearance of Brando midway, and kind of lumbers to a halt like a speared mammoth, though without making the earth shake.

Frankenheimer used it to get a three-picture deal, then died two films later.

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Brainwashed

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2016 by dcairns

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Jonathan Demme seems like such a smart and likable fellow, and for a while there his films were really something to look forward to. I can’t explain the one-two punch of remakes THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE (CHARADE recycled, confirming what SABRINA should have proven: don’t mess with Audrey Hepburn vehicles) and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE in the early years of this century. Despite cameos by the likes of Anna Karina, Agnes Varda and Charles Aznavour (TTAC) and Robyn Hitchcock, Al Franken, Roger Corman and Bruno Ganz (TMC), they are weirdly UN-COOL movies, lacking the charm of the old and the freshness of the new. All the fun stuff (Karina as a chanteuse? Sure, if you’re offering!) is incidental, decorations on a dead tree.

I finally watched TMC on a whim — I picked up the DVD for £1 in a charity shop, then found to my chagrin that it was on Netflix anyway, started watching it, got bored, decided to some back to it and found it was deleted, so my disc came in handy after all. So, I freely confess, I watched it piecemeal, which is arguably not giving it a fair shot. But I think I’d have had the same problems with it regardless.

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Weird seeing Jon Voight as the liberal. But weirdly natural seeing him upside down underwater. Why is that? Then I realized: for some time now, Jon Voight ALWAYS looks like he’s upside down underwater.

I really like John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod’s original — this piece concentrates on its many flaws, but I hope succeeds in bringing out why it’s ultimately so satisfying. The 2002 version, I thought, was going to attempt to be a political update for the War on Terror, but even though Axelrod’s script for the original did not name political parties and Daniel Pyne and Dean Gorgaris’ does, the movie seemed irrelevant. Oddly, it ought to have deeper resonance now, with the idea of a puppet president, but since Demme’s Manchuria is a corporation not a foreign power, it’s the Frankenheimer that feels more of-the-moment… prophetic, even.

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Sci-fi implants just don’t have the resonance of brainwashing, something we can still somewhat believe in. So we don’t believe in the device, and the Evil Corporation feels like a standard movie trope, not an impassioned political stance. It’s like Demme’s response to the Bush administration was to come out against Webscoe, the Evil Corporation from SUPERMAN III.

Everything about Demme’s film is perfectly decent. So instead of Frank Sinatra’s moving, anguished performance, we get Denzel Washington’s perfectly decent one. Instead of Frankenheimer’s taut, surrealism-inflected visuals, we get Demme’s perfectly decent filmmaking. Where Laurence Harvey imbued his brainwashed “war hero” with that rather hateful quality Harvey always had, combined with spectacular good looks, Liev Schreiber gives an exceptional performance made less affecting because, with his odd, features, he’s much more obvious casting as a Man Without Appeal. He’s like a thin George Bancroft whittled from cork.

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Actually, maybe he’s meant to have appeal because the script makes a few changes, so that Schreiber is a vice presidential candidate who stands to get the top job, while Washington is the one who’s been programmed as an assassin. This actually makes a kind of narrative sense, or it would if it led us to a satisfying and disturbing conclusion. But a dark, scary ending would have turned this into a clone of THE PARALLAX VIEW, so it has to have a wishy-washy happy ending, making heroes of the FBI (who have received a surprising amount of positive PR from Demme’s career).

Streep is the highlight. I’ve come round to Streep, if not to her movies.

 

Gummint

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2016 by dcairns

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Uh-oh! Symbolism alert!

As Donald Drumpf oozes his way towards Republican candidacy, it seemed appropriate to watch George Wallace, the John Frankenheimer-directed teleplay about another figure who sought to give the American people what they wanted… whatever it might be. “These are my principles! If you don’t like them… I have others,” he doesn’t quite say.

Gary Sinise won an Emmy for this role the day Wallace himself died, the kind of thing you couldn’t make up, and asides from the obvious political amusement value of a Reaganite wingnut in the role, he’s very well suited to it. Obviously any actor is going to be better looking than any politician, but the snakily sexy Sinise does have some kind of a working resemblance to his subject. He also deserved his Emmy for giving much of his performance from behind some pretty awful old age makeup.

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Prosthetically enhanced nasolabial madness

Sinise later reprised this role, uncredited, in Path to War, Frankenheimer’s last major work, about LBJ’s Vietnam entanglement — sadly, this piece doesn’t have nearly as good a script — too much exposition, backstory, showing off the research, characters as mouthpieces, some good stuff but some truly awful stuff. Joe Don Baker is wasted in a role that demands he deliver exactly the same dollar-book Freud analysis of Wallace, twice, in scenes set seventeen years apart. Mare Winningham is great as Mrs. W, but her role seems sculpted after Joan Allen’s Pat Nixon in the Oliver Stone movie, whose baleful influence hangs heavily over this one (unhelpful flashback structure; meaningless fluctuations into b&w). Both women are made into that most irksome of feminine characters, the person who pleads with the an/protagonist not to do what he’s got to do. Yeah, spend more time with your family, George. That’ll make riveting television. Worse, in order to make these women “sympathetic,” both pieces avoid giving them any politics of their own — they are mutely compliant ciphers (which is the role politician’s wives play in public, but I imagine often behind the scenes they understand and agree with a good bit of what hubby is up to). So Lurleen Wallace’s only role is as Pinocchio’s conscience, but without the insights. “And if you do become president, will that finally quell the raging beast that dwells within you?” she doesn’t quite say.

(The script does manage one nice use of backstory — the Wallaces roleplaying the first time they met, which gives them a moment of sweetness while filling in some history [as always with backstory, we don’t actually need it, but in this case it pays for itself in present-tense character stuff].)

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Also along is a young Angelina Jolie, fairly melting the celluloid. The script can’t quite decide what to make of her. She’s as driven to win as George — perhaps that makes her bad? She’s sexy — perhaps that makes her bad? Whatever, it’s a fierce, animalistic performance from somebody who’s clearly going places.

Who else? Clarence Williams III is moving as a prison trustee working in the governor’s mansion, who turns out to be fictitious, a fact revealed in a final title, which kind of collapses his part of the piece like a house of cards. Where the film works, it tends to be in (a) showing Wallace’s monstrousness — his famous line about having been “outniggered” — “As God is my witness, I’ll never be outniggered again,” he doesn’t quite say. And (b) showing Wallace suffer — Sinise is chairbound again, in constant pain, and yes, we can feel some sympathy for a soul in hell even though damned if he deserves it. Where it resorts to special pleading or faking up sympathy it flounders. Williams isn’t doing a DRIVING MISS DAISY, quite (that would be too horrific), and there’s some merit in showing that Wallace THINKS he likes black people, personally, and thinks his ability to have them around the house proves he’s not bigoted, but this piece of fiction damages the film nevertheless, because it hurts its credibility.

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The Klan brings out Frankenheimer’s compositional brio

I have somewhere in the house a 70s book on Frankenheimer, probably buried in the folds of my floordrobe, with a substantial interview in which he talks about his liberal politics. Maybe nowadays anybody talking about “negros” will just seem dates and clueless, but Frankenheimer seems to have problems that go beyond just terminology — I believe he uses the expression “the Negro problem,” which is falling into a major linguistic trap. You’re saying, I believe, that there is a problem because there are some people called Negros. Back up. Try again. Try better.

But Frankenheimer’s political engagement (American liberals tend to be pretty right-wing by the standards of the rest of the world) does allow him to portray his real-life friend Bobby Kennedy squaring off against Wallace (Mark Valley is pretty good in the role, though again a shade too handsome). And the historical events and the actions of the main figure  (one heistates to use the word “character”) had us watching with our jaws hanging open. Some of the facts we knew, but it’s mostly before our time, and it’s another country, so a lot of it was new to us.

The movie takes Wallace’s reformation seriously — he asks forgiveness of African-Americans. As an audience, having watched this human bellwether flip-flop for three hours, we’re not quite willing to go with him. It would be entirely in character for Wallace to renounce his former racism just to stay fashionable. It’s good that he did it, whatever the reason, just as Drumpf’s racism is equally toxic whether he believes it or not. Political hot air has real consequences.

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JF’s signature shot, first wheeled out in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. A nostalgia for the mechnics of TV runs all through his later work.

The music in this show is not good. Orchestral synths piping presidential themes at us — John Williams could play NIXON epic because he had the musical grandeur to pull it off, and the script made enough clumsy gestures Nixon being a tragic figure — King Liar. “He doesn’t deserve this music,” said Fiona, as the pseudo-strings swelled soupily around Sinise. “He deserves, maybe, a toy piano.” Or a kazoo and a rattle. Gary Chang did some good scores for Frankenheimer, especially on the thrillers, but this isn’t good.

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And again

The problematic script is by Wallace biographer Marshall Frady and Paul Monash, whose career swings from the crappy add-on scenes in TOUCH OF EVIL, to fifties TV shows including one with Frankenhemer (I haven’t seen The Death of Manolete) to the magnificent THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.