Archive for John Landis

Flame-Grilled Whopper

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2017 by dcairns

The people in my neighbourhood — my neighbours, in fact — who have been setting off their bonfire night fireworks since before Halloween, are undoubtedly arseholes, but I guess they aren’t as big arseholes as the person in my editor friend Stephen’s neighbourhood who set off at least one big firework in broad daylight. So there’s that. Anyway, we are now properly approach Guy Fawkes’s night — time for some pyrokinesis.

I yield to no one in my admiration for the good Tobe Hooper films, and I’ll stick up, in a half-hearted and befuddled way, for the merely strange ones which can’t quite be called good. And now I must admit that even the bad ones are still redeemingly peculiar… like SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, which stars Brad Dourif and ought to be better than it is. There aren’t enough movies with meaty roles for this thespian.

Something about Hooper seems to need incoherence, and here he has plenty of it, despite a lengthy prologue and lots of exposition setting up and then unravelling a fairly clear conspiracy story in which an adorable ’40s couple are irradiated by the US army and give birth to a pyrokinetic offspring, who grows up to be Dourif. This structure was obviously too sane for Hooper’s liking, so he augments it with things like: Melinda Dillon as a German scientist who doesn’t visibly age from 1945 to 1990; a nuclear power station plot line, complete with miniature cooling towers, that doesn’t ever pay off or connect to the rest of the story; John Landis making a cameo appearance with his knee exploding; Dourif turning into a luminous puddle for no reason.

Pure liquid Dourif.

This crazy stuff is actually quite welcome — we need more of it — because there’s a creeping blandness to the characterisation and dialogue and settings, though a few lines stand out. “I heard you burned your finger. Are you OK? Should I come over?” is a great little telephonic speech. How come I never get attention like that? I’m not such a bad guy when you know me.

Hooper’s filming style is elegant and expansive as ever, despite some obvious budget difficulties — the first two key deaths happen offscreen, which seems odd for this kind of movie, and the opening desert scene is a terribly cramped and unconvincing interior set.

Question: is the worst Tobe Hooper film better than the best Wes Craven film? On the basis that Hooper is always at least dementedly distracting, always has stylistic surprises. Craven joints are certainly efficient and loaded with suspense and jumps, but never look very interesting, to my eye. His NEW NIGHTMARE strikes me as the only one with an actual idea in play, which it proceeds to worry to death. With Craven, the good stuff and bad stuff are oddly interrelated, and there are sometimes more ideas than the films can handle.

John Landis’s knee explodes.

Advertisements

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.

tumblr_ktk5l5xd9b1qaseldo1_1280

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

vlcsnap-2015-11-13-23h23m35s202

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…

vlcsnap-2015-11-13-23h29m14s17

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.

vlcsnap-2015-11-13-23h29m20s68

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 ~

vlcsnap-2015-11-13-23h28m31s102

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.