Archive for John Landis


Posted in FILM, They Live with tags , , , , , , on November 16, 2015 by dcairns


Caught up with LE COUPERET ~ Costa-Gavras adapts Donald Westlake, translating the blackly comic crime novel The Ax to French soil with a good bit more fidelity than Godard used when casting Anna Karena as Parker in MADE IN USA, a version of Westlake’s The Jugger. The film is faithful enough to win a came from the author. This is followed by a more surprising cameo by John Landis. I realized Landis must have had a cameo by C-G in one of his films, and the favour was being returned — then I looked into it and realized C-G has been in THREE John Landis films. It’s an obsession.

Anyway, Costa-Gavras was kind about my film with Paul Duane, NATAN, so now I have to explain that, in the interests of full disclosure. I’m not biased in favour of the genius auteur of Z and MISSING…


The trick for C-G, when he’s pursuing his usual calling as a maker of political thrillers, is to find a thriller narrative which can serve as a way into an important subject without cheapening the issues or getting weighed down by them. LE COUPERET is a razor-sharp, fleet-footed black comedy murder tale about the economy — Jose Garcia loses his job as a paper company exec due to downsizing and outsourcing. After two years unemployment, he’s acquired an angry edge and is no longer the kind of person companies want to hire. Also, his marriage is breaking up and he’s on the verge of losing his house. Curious about the competition, he plays a fake job ad and sifts through the applicants, deciding that there are only five people out there for him to worry about. Bingo — all he has to do is assassinate those five men and one job-holder, and he can get hired.

We might not believe anybody would do this, but we can’t escape the logic that this is the kind of behaviour society actively encourages. The hero is smart enough to know that the innocents he’s bumping off are not his true enemy, but the people who have caused his problems are beyond his reach and punishing them wouldn’t improve his current position at all. It’s the people with the same problems as himself, people he can easily empathize with, who have to go.


This is a very black comedy indeed, played more or less completely straight and all the more wickedly amusing for it. The film-making is deft, rapid-fire and intense, with lots of tight shots, POVs that reframe rapidly as our man calculates each perilous situation, and, courtesy of the masterful Westlake, no shortage of tense situations to get that camera jittering.

Costa-Gavras adds only one flourish of caricature, decorating the streets with a series of chic, sexy, slightly sinister advertisements for unnamed products, hinting at the world of consumer pleasure the hero is no longer part of. Some of these images are mildly murderous in themselves ~


But they’re used subtly enough (OK, maybe not that one) to make us initially unsure if they were set dressing or actual found material. Only their slow, deadpan accretion tips the filmmaker’s hand. I thought of THEY LIVE.

Tip-top stuff. Dynamic, tight as a drum, dryly hilarious and meaningful to boot. My shame at not having seen that many non-US Costa-Gavras films is mitigated at my glee at having so many to look forward to.

The Road to Ruin

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2015 by dcairns


The only disappointing thing about Elaine May’s directing career is that you can watch it all in a couple of days without risking fatigue. If she had been working in the forties we might have gotten thirty films from her. Well, actually there is another disappointing thing — ISHTAR. Sad to report that I have to largely agree with the majority on this one. But I was intrigued rather than annoyed by the palpable sense of “This Isn’t Working” which the movie exudes.

“Why should she carry the can if her stars didn’t have the comic chops to pull off the movie?” asked a friend. Well, she cast them, of course. There’s that. Both actors had been funny in other things — though Beatty had also made THE FORTUNE with May’s ex, Mike Nichols, a movie that looks like a rehearsal for this one. Rumour has it that Nichols cut the best comedy from the script in a drive to make the film cheaply, whereas May was taken to task for spending a lot of money on a film that ended up not looking particularly expensive. (Also, Nichols immediately made another picture. May hasn’t directed since.)


It looks pretty at times (so does THE FORTUNE). Vittorio Storaro shot it, and that may have contributed to the cost but it doesn’t contribute to the comedy. Too many comedies are dull-looking. There’s no reason a comedy can’t be beautiful. But there are also forms of beauty which distract from, rather than enhancing, comedic moments. ISHTAR is the story of two untalented songwriters, and it relies on frequent cutaways of aghast audience members, as in THE PRODUCERS. The first of these is decorated with a tinted light, and the green cast on the faces is so striking that it kills the laugh — a key moment in the film.


The songwriter schtick reminded me of KISS ME, STUPID, where Ray Walston and Cliff Osmond play a struggling composer and lyricist. In that one, the songs are trunk items by George & Ira Gershwin, which is a nice joke in itself, but not one you can actually laugh at while watching the film. Most of the songs in ISHTAR are by May and Paul Williams. Only the one written by Hoffman’s character for a wedding anniversary, which dwells ghoulishly on the impending deaths of its subjects, has a strong central joke — the rest depend on moments of clumsiness or a general sense of not being good. Some of the performers’ moves are funny. But somehow the spectacle of these two movie stars playing deluded idiots isn’t pleasing.

This film may have made Beatty paranoid — he played lots of schmucks in the seventies, from MCCABE AND MRS MILLER to THE PARALLAX VIEW. After ISHTAR, he was offered GET SHORTY, but Barry Sonnenfeld reports a strange meeting where Beatty obsessed over why his character, being as handsome as he was, would still be a lowly mob enforcer instead of the godfather figure. In discussions on MISERY, Beatty opined that if his character were to lose a foot, as in Stephen King’s novel, he would be, in the audience’s eyes, a loser. He talked himself out of two succesful movies (but Travolta and Caan are better casting).


I caught a bit of SPIES LIKE US on TV a while ago. Both it and ISHTAR seem to harken back to the Hope-Crosby ROAD pictures — Landis’ film even includes a cameo for Bob Hope, mysteriously playing golf in the middle of the Afghan desert. Neither film has enough actual funny moments. But Landis’ film has comedians in the lead roles and has a jaunty, jocular tone. ISHTAR creates discomfort rather than security, which was always a feature of May’s humour. It seems churlish to get upset that her film is cruel, mocking, tonally awry — these are qualities that enliven her films when they’re at their best.

SPIES LIKE US also looks expensive — the bang/buck ratio seems under control. In ISHTAR, Dave Grusin’s score is often terrific, but seems to by trying to hype up an excitement that the visuals don’t back up. A rooftop chase is both slow and uneventful, and the roofs are only one story up. The climax is a shoot out with two helicopters which would barely keep Rambo occupied for a moment in act two. In the eighties, comedies were parodying dramas by overinflating the action and underplaying the reactions, which is why Bill Murray saves GHOSTBUSTERS from being essentially witless. In ISHTAR, two sweaty dramatic actors strain at laughs that seem like mirages, while a tiny straight-to-video action film tinkles away in the middle-eastern middle distance.

(But ALL May film are sweaty. It’s a kind of trademark.)


The film, apart from seeming to find Arabic funny in itself, makes dictators and the CIA into the bad guys, and so is defensible in its politics. A fairly accurate portrait of Reagan foreign policy (the same can be said of SPIES LIKE US). Charles Grodin is a good choice as the CIA operative, Jack Weston is good casting as the duo’s agent (first glimpsed in his office with his gloves on, so we KNOW) — and if these two aren’t finding laughs in the situation, the whole situation is wrong.

In defiance of conventional wisdom, I did find the blind camel quite funny. And Beatty and Hoffman trying to come up with songs while dying of thirst in the desert was good — a fairly perfect illustration of the principle of inflexibility that makes comedy characters what they are. Actually, all the best stuff is two guys in the desert, failing to cope. Less Hope/Crosby, more Vladimir/Estragon. And the vultures are hilarious too – groucho-walking through shot while the expensive stars huddle in parched consultation. A metaphor for the film’s reception.

Lost in Time and Lost in Space… and Meaning

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2013 by dcairns


I was impressed by a shot in Adam Curtis’s free-form documentary found-footage mash-up IT FELT LIKE A KISS in which Doris Day closes a hotel room door in our face and the room number on it is 2001. Curtis uses this to evoke thoughts about the events of 9:11 and the more innocent-seeming world we dream existed before that act of unscheduled demolition opened the  war on abstract concepts. I became convinced that it might also be possible to draw connections between Kubrick’s film 2001 and the actual events on September 11th of that year. If, as ROOM 237 shows, THE SHINING can be bent this way and that to support an apparently unlimited range of unrelated theories, surely the even more open text of 2001 can act as a lens through which to view events which were still in the almost-unimaginable future when Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke conceived their space odyssey?


Kubrick begins with a desert landscape populated by aggressive cave-dwellers. Al-Qaeda? Racist to conflate arabs and ape-men, but in a way we’re only following the racist logic of much media reporting to see where it leads. 2001 begins with a land that doesn’t need to be bombed back to the stone age because it’s already there. The simians are visited by a shiny rectangular artifact, which we’ll spuriously claim represents the Twin Towers. Gazing at it in awe, they are inspired to discover weapons and kill.

Of course, the connection between apes and the World Trade Center is really made by the DeLaurentiis KING KONG, in which Kong scales one of the towers before leaping to the other, driven by some primal urge (he apparently relates the towers to a geographical feature of Skull Island). Attacked by helicopters, Kong (like the 2001 man-beasts, an uncredited actor in a costume) is shot down. KING KONG is directed by John Guillermin, who had considerable skyscraper experience, having just made THE TOWERING INFERNO. Thus Kubrick’s film, without containing any shots of large-scale destruction, calls to mind the events of 9:11 in a variety of ways in its very first sequence.

In Steve Bell’s newspaper strip in The Guardian, entitled If…, George W Bush was always portrayed as a simian. And IF… is also the title of the film starring Malcolm McDowell which got Little Malcolm the lead role in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. (CLOCKWORK ORANGE can be seen as a black parody of 2001: a barbaric savage is reprogrammed by a higher power. In both cases, the primitive being is shown a film accompanied by German classical music — Moonwatcher the apeman perceives this with his mind’s eye, whereas Malcolm watches it on a traditional screen. The protagonists of both films end up in bed, transformed.)

In a justly famous transition, Kubrick match-cuts from a hurled bone to a spacecraft, cementing the notion of flying vehicles as weapons. Later we will meet spacecraft identified as belonging to Pan-Am Airlines, confirming that spacecraft are just evolved aircraft (and both are just evolved ape-weapons).


Now we meet Space Station V, an orbiting base composed of two wheels, each constructed like a skyscraper swallowing its own tail. Parts of the station are apparently as yet incomplete, exposing red girders. To a Strauss waltz, we watch as a spacecraft flies directly into the station, but rather than causing destruction it is simply swallowed up. Like the twin towers of the World Trade Center, this space base has a restaurant and an unbeatable view. The WTC boasted of its top floor “observatories” and its “Windows on the World” restaurant and “Cellar in the Sky” bar. The SSV actually does feature windows on the world, through which the Earth can be seen, apparently spinning below.

On board, things are seething with international tension — in Kubrick’s vision of the future, Perestroika never happened so the Russians are still the threat. There’s also news of a strange discovery on the moon —


The floodlit excavation sight is almost a dead ringer for New York’s Ground Zero, only with a skyscraper (the monolith) still rising out of it, impossibly. It’s existence causes another flight, this time to Jupiter (and beyond the infinite), which incidentally is one of the dozen places President Bush was flown to after the towers collapsed.

Now we find ourselves on a spacecraft on a secret mission, hijacked by a terrorist which started out disguised as a legitimate passenger on the craft (the shipboard computer). HAL kills the crew members in order to take over the ship, but he does it because “this mission is too important to allow you to jeopardise it.”


Repeated image of a body tumbling through space.

Like the passengers on the hijacked planes, Kubrick’s astronauts can phone home. One receives the message “See you next Wednesday,” a line quoted in every John Landis film. Landis’s career has been marked by fatal aerial catastrophe. His movie SPIES LIKE US deals with a team of idiots deployed by corrupt commanders to distract attention while a war is started. His first movie, SCHLOCK, features numerous parodies of the apemen from 2001.

Like the passengers of United 93, Dave Bowman destroys the hijacker, resulting finally in his own death — but this is played in stylised form, first as a flight through distorted, psychedelic landscapes, then as an accelerated aging process, then with the traditional death-bed. In a white room whose floor is illuminated panels like the sides of a skyscraper.


But at the foot of that death-bed, the monolith appears yet again, and once more we move inexorably towards its smooth surface, repeating yet again the collision with the WTC, an event which killed, among thousands of others, the sister of Marisa Berenson, who starred in Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON. She was also the wife of Anthony Perkins, best known for playing a knife-wielding killer who struck in disguise, and who appeared in Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE, which shares with 2001 a climax in which a passage through a space portal leads to a mysterious spiritual experience.

From the impact with the monolith, something new is born, but the movie is vague about what, exactly, can be expected from it…


In a way this is a thought experiment, to see how many meaningful-seeming coincidences can be drawn between an event and a film which actually preceded it by decades and could not have been influenced by it in any traditional cause-and-effect way. In a way it’s a parody of such academic exercises. It’s also inspired a bit by the fancy footwork in this remarkable piece.



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