Archive for John Huston

Bette Noir

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

Had been meaning to get around to IN THIS OUR LIFE for ages — John Huston’s largely despised follow-up to THE MALTESE FALCON was being discussed on Facebook by Dan Callahan, Farran Smith Nehme and others, and Fiona listened in and got excited. Not quite to the degree you see in the above image, but close.

Initially, I was intrigued, alright. There are some very fancy shots early on, suggesting that Huston may have still been storyboarding at this stage. And Bette’s doing something interesting with her voice, softening it, I think. It’s the opposite of her grating tone in ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, where you feel the strain.

Huston felt the story was too much soap opera to suit his tastes, and clashed with Warners over Bette’s performance: he wanted to “unleash her demon.” Huston wrote that audiences can judge for themselves, but Jack Warner wrote that they retook all the scenes where Bette was judged to be overacting, so maybe we’ll never know.

Bette and Olivia de Havilland play sisters — one good, one evil! — Charles Coburn plays one of his rare but effective nasty roles, as a rich, racist uncle. Dan Callahan was pointing out how overt it is that his relationship with Bette is incestuous. I guess the Breen Office alibi would be that it’s merely flirtatious — that’s all we actually see. And the alibi for the alibi would be that she manipulates the old goat by acting like a little girl, since she’s his favourite niece. But it’s shockingly icky to modern eyes, and there seems no other plausible way to interpret it. He molested her and she uses the power over him in gives her. Brrr. Hard to imagine a modern film portraying the victim of incest so unsympathetically. And yet, since she’s already been established as a little psychopath, this didn’t even occur to me until afterwards.

Huston was proudest of the character played by Ernest Anderson, a black kid who wants to be a lawyer. Davis frames him for vehicular homicide and again the movie is shockingly explicit about the legal system’s racial bias. In Hollywood movies, when characters sink into hopeless despair, they’re always shown as weak or wrong, but here the movie takes his part: he sees more clearly than the white protagonists that he hasn’t a chance. Hattie McDaniel as his mother also gets a very strong scene of depressive realism, explaining to De Havilland just how the white world works. It takes a lot of effort from the good characters plus a fair but of luck and the self-destructiveness of the bad guys to make things come out OK.

The film’s composer, Max Steiner, is in a particularly literal-minded mode, even for him, actually scoring the jail scene with a lugubrious rephrasing of Swannee River. He must be stopped!

Pretty interesting stuff — Huston was probably right that he shouldn’t have been the one to take charge of it (I imagine the Michael Curtiz of FLAMINGO ROAD would have taken to the material) but his liberal sensibilities preserved some of it’s most rewarding aspects.

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Ape Crisis Centre

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by dcairns

Sorry for the tacky title, but somebody already reviewed KONG: SKULL ISLAND with the tagline I LOVE THE SMELL OF APE PALM IN THE MORNING, better than which it is impossible to do. It wasn’t the famous Anonymous Wag, it was somebody real with a name, I just can’t recall who and can’t be bothered checking. but well done, Nonymous Wag.

I didn’t see KK:SI but I did see WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, slightly dragged by Fiona, and it has just probably as many APOC NOW refs as the big gorilla one. There’s even a graffita reading APE-POCALYPSE NOW, so I couldn’t use that as my header either. The Vietnam stuff is a little heavy-handed and dumb, though in a war with the apes Americans surely WOULD call their enemy “the Kong” so I have to grant them that one. (They called their enemy that in ‘Nam, too — I know you know that, but did you know it was actually a made-up name? There was no such group as the “Viet Cong,” the US made the name up because they wanted something that sounded cool and sinister. NOTE: see correction in comments section.)

So, I was glad I saw this in the end — we’d seen  films one and two in the trilogy, and this one does its best to actually be a concluding episode, though I’m sure there’ll be pressure to do more — a reboot, or some kind of sequel that also serves as a remake of the original Chuckles Heston apetacular (still the best in the series/serieses).

DIGITALLY RENDER UNTO CAESAR

The first half hour is nicely directed, though the 3D didn’t add as much as I expected — maybe because the sinuously moving camera does all the 3D’s work for it. But I wasn’t really engrossed dramatically. Caesar (Andy Serkis and his army of animators) is quite chatty in this one, despite Noam Chomsky’s firm stance on ape language, but he apparently has never learned to use contractions. So talks like Data from Star Trek, or like a man in a biblical epic. This is obviously as deliberate as the ‘Nam refs, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. (Notice how Data’s robospeak gradually infected the rest of ST:TNG‘s cast as the writers forgot how people talk).

I guess the biblical epic aspect has always been there, from the casting of Heston to all the talk of a “Lawgiver,” echoing Heston’s role as Moses and eventually embodied by John Huston, director of THE BIBLE (and portrayer of Noah, another man who conserved species from an environmental disaster) in BATTLE FOR, the last of the original series. That movie is referenced here just enough (a single teardrop!), and there are lots of other clever harkenings to the earlier films, which the reboot has always been nicely respectful of.

But the first half hour is also terribly uninvolving. No effort is made to remind us of the personalities of the lead apes from the previous installments. One fellow only gets a little character grace note five minutes before being offed, which retroactively makes said grace note seem like a cynical plant. Inexplicably, the film’s baddie, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson as Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz with a side order of Robert Duvall’s Kilgore) shows up out of nowhere to kill some apes and set Caesar on a mission of revenge, then vanishes back to his hideaway — Caesar falls off a waterfall, very dramatically, but in the next scene is back in his (compromised, unsafe) base camp, making plans. It feels muddled, and the emotion is dampened by confusion.

Fiona points out that the film is still afraid of female apes: none of them talk in this film, and they don’t fight, contrary to nature. They don’t have big purple behinds, so the movie resorts to having them wear little hair braids so we know who’s a girl. They make little feminine grunts, the way real apes don’t. I think the rot set in with Tim Burton’s appalling POTA movie, with Helena Bonham Carter and Lisa-Marie as sexy ape-babes. Ugh. That’s the only bit of wrongheadedness from that abomination which has kind of survived and mutated, as if exposed to an experimental gas canister (Burton is getting to resemble an experimental gas canister more and more).

BAD TIME FOR BONZO

There’s also, I would say, a problem with the first half’s post-apocalyptic landscape. Unlike the crumbling cities of DAWN OF, there’s nothing specially evocative about, say, a Snow Cat lying abandoned in a snowy forest. It looks like quite a normal site. I love post-man settings in the same way I love empty set photographs — I’m all about the defining absence, me. So this was disappointing.

But it was in the midst of the snowy rural stuff where the film is aiming to be THE SEARCHERS with even more sign language that it starts to get good. There’s a quite brilliant scene of Maurice the orang (Karin Kanoval and her animators) and a silent little girl (Amiah Miller) which is LOOONG, wordless, quiet, tender and hypnotic. Really unexpected in a summer blockbuster. And the film starts improving right now.

Next we meet Steve Zahn (and his Zahnimators) as the comedy relief chimp (his “Oh nooo…” sounds very Scottish, somehow). Comedy relief characters are primarily needed by films with no sense of humour, or films afraid that a sense of humour will deflate the pomposity that sustains them. Both certainly factors here — any film with a lead who can’t use contractions must be afraid of humour. Get it safely contained in one character and you’ve quarantined it. But Zahn & co create a rather adorable figure here. So appealing, I worried he was being set up for a moving death scene. But the film doesn’t ALWAYS do what you expect.

EMOTION CAPTURED

Now the movie becomes a prison camp flick, and the Colonel shows semblances of another of his rank, Saito in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. But it’s a wall he’s building. Yes, this feels like the first anti-Trump blockbuster (or the first I’ve seen — I don’t see many). And it will feature an ape swinging from a Stars and Stripes which is also inscribed Alpha Omega and is also on fire. An image for our times. (Also prefigured by John Huston, this time in WINTER KILLS.)

Science fiction films never accurately predict the future (except BRAZIL, which has all come true) but one hopes this does, just so we can have Don Jr. lose the power of speech and his dad shoot him. Oh, come on. It’d be interesting.

But the movie isn’t as dark and vengeful as that, after all. It has a much more nuanced take on vengeance than, say THE REVENANT, which proved remarkably dumb and unsophisticated. And it even redeems the somewhat fascistic ending of RISE DAWN, which had Caesar depriving his enemy of apehood so he could kill him without breaking the “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” rule. That climax, which seemed like it was meant to be just cool and bad-ass, is back-engineered to seem genuinely proto-fascist, something that must be atoned for and which leaves trauma for the perpetrator, or maybe this was always part of their plan (the writers of the first film are execs on this, granting a sense of cohesion and trilogic world-building). Caesar feels guilt for killing Toby Kebbell as Koba the bonobo (I just like writing that) and gets a chance to act differently this time.

APE PLURIBUS UNUM

So maybe because I like apes or because I don’t like concentration camps, this movie got quite emotional for me. I seemed to continually have something in my eye (mayve it was the 3D). It wasn’t profoundly moving, because torturing animals always gets a reaction (my friend Alex makes fun of the bit in RISE OF where Malfoy shows up with girlfriends to abuse apes — “No matter how evil you are, it’s unlikely you’d think that torturing chimps would be a good way to impress the girls,” — but in fact, animal abuse is a staple of entertainment, since drama depends on a good bit of unpleasantness to work its magic). Arguably, it was all too easy. But it worked. And it didn’t become so manipulative and Von Trieresque that I resented its effect.

It’s nice to get a proper trilogy. The middle one is the darkest. The first and third are the best. This is as it should be.

 

Napster

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 25, 2016 by dcairns

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Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON gives us five-and-a-half hours on France’s smartest, bravest, sexiest, tallest man.

I’m not sure if star Albert Dieudonné was actually tall — in one of two shots there are other actors who out-heighten him. But more often, Gance gives him screen prominence that makes him seem to tower over his surroundings, and his bony, sharp features and slender frame create an impression more of tallness than its opposite. Basically, nothing about him really evokes the historical figure he impersonates, but like Chaplin, Napoleon can be reduced to a hat and a stance, and so anybody can stand in for him.

Dieudonné’s great advantage is his intensity, which he seems to carry with him at all times and which makes itself felt even if he just sits there. You believe he must be a military genius because of his presence and how Gance frames him. Kubrick believed Jack Nicholson would make a good Napoleon because he felt intelligence was the one quality that can’t be acted. I’m not sure that’s true. If the actor is bright enough to understand something, they can play the person who invented it. While there are certainly cases like Denise Richardson playing a nuclear physicist which seem to insult OUR intelligence, for the most part, a moderately sentient thespian can play a brainbox by hard work. John Huston was ultimately impressed by the way Montgomery Clift convinced us in FREUD that he was having original thoughts, when in fact the poor man’s brain was basically burned out. What convinces us of genius is the one quality Nicholson and Dieudonné both share — that mysterious quality called presence.