Archive for John Landis

The Look # 5: Tilda and Arno overdo it

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2016 by dcairns

Orlando (Tilda Swinton) and Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) in the film Orlando Scene 54 Photo by Liam Longman © Adventure Pictures Ltd

I like it when actors break the fourth wall, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this occasional series, but I do think it’s a device that should be used sparingly. It’s clever once, acceptable twice, and more than that can start to seem smug — like the filmmakers are so pleased at coming up with this clever idea, they can’t stop doing it, forgetting that true cleverness usually involves having more than one idea.

One use that irked me slightly was Sally Potter’s film ORLANDO. Tilda Swinton, who plays both male and female in the film, is perfectly cast and perfectly suited to fourth wall breakage, since her presence is often borderline uncanny, especially when she’s not wearing comedy teeth. She knows that we know that she knows… I saw a clip of ORLANDO before I saw the whole thing, and was amused by her look to camera as Billy Zane rescued her from an equestrian accident. The look seemed to say, How can I, an art film character, be caught up in such a corny situation? It perfectly took the curse off the moment, and made me want to see the film.

But Tilda does it all the bloody time. It loses its impact, its humour and its cleverness long before the Zane/horse moment. The fact that Tilda, I believe (it’s been years) also talks to the audience actually helps, since you’re allowed to do that all through a movie — that turns The Look from a spot gag into a full-fledged narrative device. But mostly it’s just the mute look, and it wears out its welcome, rather. If it doesn’t bother you, I say this: imagine how great it would be if s/he just did it three times, evenly spaced. It would pack a wallop each time.

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Image from Eye Contact: Look at the Camera, a whole tumblr dedicated to camera-gazing!

FUNNY GAMES is a movie so repulsively self-satisfied and secure in its Important Message that it would be hard to know where to begin, but for the fact that I’m writing about looking at the camera, not about being an arrogant, not very bright prig who wants to give the audience a hard time. But I shouldn’t really be writing about it at all, since I walked out part way through. Michael “Happy”Haneke, the prig in charge, says that people who walk out don’t “need” the film, apparently believing that if you can’t bear FUNNY GAMES you are already cured of your thirst for celluloid violence. You understand that violence shouldn’t be used as entertainment.

I wouldn’t say that. I definitely felt I didn’t need the film, but I didn’t need it because I felt the idea was a stupid one, and not entertaining. Since I’m fully aware that violence in real life is not fun (for the victim), but I’m further aware that movies are not real life, my attitude to movie violence is neither simplistic condemnation (Haneke) nor simplistic enthusiasm (Tarantino). If it works for the film’s purpose and I approve of the film’s purpose, I’ll be OK with it.

Haneke’s failure to accomplish what he thinks he’s accomplishing (teaching us that violence is bad) extends to the people who like the movie as well as those who don’t. One friend praised it for being a dark thriller that tortures the audience along with the central characters, a tough movie you win points for surviving. Others praise the film’s “purity” since there’s supposedly no actual onscreen violence. Which I think is nonsense — in one moment we see a character blown away by a gunshot, though psycho-killer Arno then rewinds the movie so that didn’t happen. But it did happen, in the sense that we SAW it. And does it matter if a deadly blow happens just outside of frame, or offscreen? Do we class the forcible placing of a bag over a child’s head as a non-violent act simply because it doesn’t involve a blow or a gun-blast? This is a violent movie, about as pure as THE PUBLIC ENEMY, the only difference being we’re not allowed to enjoy it.

Arno Frisch’s looks to camera are designed both to alienate and implicate us, to make us more aware of the act of watching. OK: we get it. It’s perfectly clear, and moderately startling, the first time he winks at us. By the time he’s asking us if we think the good guys will survive, it’s old. And from the film’s wearisome, puritanical attitude, we ought to be able to answer the question confidently. To hell with all filmmakers who want the paying audience to have a lousy time.

Oh, I do think John Landis overdoes it a little in TRADING PLACES. He has too many characters do it too many times. I can allow the two leads their moments, but the guy in the gorilla suit? The real problem with this is not the individual moments, but the fact that evidently Luc Besson was taking notes. All Luc Besson knows about comedy is that if you have the characters look to camera in a very deliberate way, or at each other, you can fool the slower-witted or more indulgent audience members into thinking something amusing just happened. Luc Besson actually makes me angrier than “Happy” Haneke, which is inconsistent of me, since Besson I guess DOES want us to have a good time. My problem with him is he doesn’t want to put in the work or thought to make the fun happen, he just wants to create the hollow appearance of fun.

(Also, he’s a plagiarist.)

Careering

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

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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…

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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.

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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 ~

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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

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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.)

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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.

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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).

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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.)

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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.