Archive for John Williams

Dead Duck

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2019 by dcairns

Yes — DECOY is bad, cheap, and interesting, possibly in that order.

I’d read descriptions positing it as a kind of sci-fi noir — putting it in a very small club along with KISS ME DEADLY. The fantasy element is very small, however — the plot revolves around a box of stolen loot which, thanks to the genuinely atmospheric opening sequence, does acquire a kind of Pandoraesque aura. But the fantastical element is merely a drug (methylene blue) that can revive victims of the gas chamber. In other words, the film winds up backing into another genre purely because the writers have a faulty idea of realism.

Gas chamber POV is one of several bold directorial touches.

I was chatting with a friend about composers who make their theme tunes fit the movie title, as if there were going to be lyrics. Like, James Bernard’s DRACULA theme goes “DRA-cul-la!” Called upon to score TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, he simply added four notes on the front. John Williams gave us STAR WARS (“Staaaar Wars!”), and though RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK doesn’t have a tune you can easily sing the title to, you can definitely sing ~

Indiana!

Jones Jones Jones

Indiana!

Jones Jones Jones Jones Jones…

Well, DECOY has a sweeping and romantic tune that seems to be inviting us to sing “Methyline Blue.” So I did. Methyline Blue, Dilly Dilly…

The first image after the titles is the filthiest sink I’ve ever seen (and I live in Scotland… in my home). With the director credit supered over it. A self-loathing self-assessment?

Jack Bernhard was married to his star, Jean Gillie (THE GENTLE SEX), and she’s the best thing in this. A strange performance that’s mostly just cool statement of fact, with a few uncomfortable moments of shrill hysteria. Sheldon Leonard plays the detective shadowing her plot like a man in a state of deep depression, while her patsy, the prison doctor (Herbert Rudley), who IS in a state of deep depression, plays it like a Lugosi zombie.

The movie makes herculean efforts to pad itself out to a slender 75 minutes — one can’t help wondering if coming up with a bit more plot might have actually been an easier solution. One character resorts to literally reading from a dictionary, while Gillie and Rudley engage in a seemingly endless duologue that keeps circling back on itself like a rondo.

“Despair enacted on cheap sets” is Errol Morris’s unbeatable (curse him) phrase for the Monogram aesthetic, and it fits this one perfectly. A character is raised from the dead only to instantly perish again, something that also happens in THE INVISIBLE GHOST. A Monogram trademark? A metaphor for their entire line of goods? A series of last gasps — for shagged-out actors, burned-out directors, clapped-out sets. Resurrection into eternal death.

EARTH FORCES LAID TO COSMIC IMPULSE — it IS SF!

Robert Armstrong, of Carl Denham fame, plays the unlucky stiff, and it’s incredible looking at him to think he’d live to 1973, so convincing is his bone-weary performance here, whereas poor Gillie would die prematurely after one more film.

Gloom hangs over this movie in a more prevailing, soul-sapping way than it could in a more prestigious production — maybe because Monogram are so bad at comedy relief, yet they insist on having it. DETOUR does have some laughs, but they’re all horrible. DECOY has only the sour echo of a burlesque house rimshot.

Au Hasard, Joey

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2018 by dcairns

Since WWI finally ended on Sunday, I thought I’d watch something suitable. Unfortunately, the film that leapt out at me was Spielberg’s WAR HORSE, which I’d picked up cheap on DVD and never watched. I had just been picking out clips to show students to illustrate the art of scene blocking, which Spielberg has a real gift for. So I was feeling positive, even though friends had described WH as a right load of old guff.

I have smart friends.

The Spielberg fireworks display goes full blast in this one, and there’s much to admire from a technical standpoint. But this was a children’s book, turned into a play that used technically impressive but stylised theatrical techniques, now turned into a big budget film with a Hollywood-real aesthetic. So it’s like somebody adapted Tom Sawyer into Equus and then into GONE WITH THE WIND. The qualities of the children’s story which were perfectly acceptable in a storybook — the naiveté and sentimentality and romantic implausibility — all become glaringly obtrusive on the big screen with real people (well, actors) and a real horse (when it’s not CGI).

“Don’t do it, Steve,” said Fred Schepisi when he heard Spielberg was going to make SCHINDLER’S LIST. “You’ll fuck it up: you’re too good with the camera.” An immortal line. To the extent that Spielberg did not fuck it up, we can credit his success to the decision not to storyboard and to go handheld when possible. Handicapping himself. His decision to shoot the start of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN like a documentary also helped stave off problems. But since WAR HORSE is about long-ago events more remote than the forties, he evidently decided to let himself go full David Lean. There are some beautiful images ~It is, in fact, absolutely pornographic. The famous debate about the tracking shot in KAPO is very relevant here. But imagine ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT crossed with LASSIE COME HOME and that gives some idea. But don’t forget that, on top of all that, it has a thick coating of John Williams poured all over it. And Richard Curtis on script.

(All the nice WWI art is, in a sense, sickening. The giant display of poppies (sponsored by the British weapons trade) spilling like blood from a wound was striking, but what it accomplished was the transformation of something raw and bloody into something pretty and inoffensive. As effective a pro-war statement as you could wish for. I’ve seen people saying “Dulce et decorum,” on social media, leaving out the fact that Wilfred Owen used those words with savage irony.)

Despite the skill and effort put into it, it’s insulting. Horses charge a German camp. Stylish mayhem. The machine guns open up. Charging horses. And then suddenly horses are leaping over the guns. And we realise they’re all riderless. A clever cinematic idea, but the empty horses gag simply couldn’t happen, because you can’t shoot a man off a horse whose riding right at you because the horse’s head would be in the way. Any effective shot would also fell the horse. Now, you might get away with that kind of impossible illogic in a kids’ book or play (but it’s an inherently cinematic idea, you have to give it that) but its an absurdity here. I wouldn’t accept it in an Indiana Jones movie, but it wouldn’t bother me much.There’s one scene that manages to apply a bit of restraint: Toby Kebbell and Hinnerk Schönemann (I think) underplay a scene where they rescue the titular horse from barbed wire in no man’s land. The restraint pays off and the dialogue is less on-the-nose. And in reality, soldiers did sometimes risk death for their horses… generally to put a bullet in their brains as a mercy. So there’s a basis in reality… except here the horse lives and it’s all combined with a bit of Christmas Day Armistice sentiment. Can I have an extra rum ration, sir?

To take the taste away we had to run Losey’s KING AND COUNTRY. In order to FEEL something moderately genuine. The war horse in that one is a dead donkey full of rats.

WAR HORSE stars Swanney, Jackie Du Pré, Professor Lupin, Loki, Alan Turing, César Luciani, Koba the bonobo, Inspector Lestrade and Davos Seaworth.

KING AND COUNTRY stars Dr. Simon Sparrow, Billy Liar, Gerald Arthur Otley, Klang, Bob Rusk and Dinsdale Gurney.

They Go Boom #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2018 by dcairns

Friday night turned out to be a Vilmos Zsigmond double feature* — I’d bought a second-hand disc of Spielberg’s 1941 and showed Fiona the end credits because I remembered them being funny — she not only laughed at the entire cast screaming as their credits come up —— but at every single one of the random explosions punctuating the end titles. Then she demanded we watch the film. “What else did you buy it for?” Hoist by my own petard! Well, the trouble with certain unsuccessful comedies is not so much that the laughs aren’t there, but that the irritation is. As Spielberg himself diagnosed the problem, the film is just too LOUD. He realised he was in trouble in the edit and hoped John Williams’ score would bail him out, “…but then I realised John was overdoing his score to match my over-direction of Zemeckis & Gale’s over-written script.” In tightening the film to try to save the audience from exhaustion, he took out or compressed quieter character moments, according to co-star Dan Aykroyd, hyping up the intensity even more.

The best bit — whether it makes you laugh or not, it’s spectacularly impressive as a piece of choreography — camera movement as well as people movement.

Spielberg’s favourite comedy is, apparently, IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (“One mad too many”) — which is another way of saying he should never have attempted to direct a comedy. Amid the shouting, the actors who make a good impression and even get laughs are those who take their time and underplay — Lionel Stander and Robert Stack. Aykroyd does his patented fast-talking schtick (he would have gone down great in the thirties), Belushi is a cartoon, and the cast is rounded out with members of the Wild Bunch, the Seven Samurai, and Christopher Lee and Sam Fuller. Nominal hero Bobby DeCiccio is an incredible dancer/stunt artist and I’d like to have seen him do more physical comedy.It’s gloves-off time for Spielberg — he lets his obnoxious, bratty side out, though he did modulate the script to reduce some of the real unpleasantness. Our hero no longer nukes Hiroshima. But there’s a rapey villain — played with gusto by Treat Williams — a real Zemeckis/Gale trope — see BACK TO THE FUTURE — and lots of racial “humour” — I don’t need to see Toshiro Mifune saying “Rots of ruck,” thank you. But I kind of liked that the Americans destroy a lot of their own property but DON’T sink the Japanese sub. No Japs were harmed during the making of this picture. The race jokes are bold, especially viewed with modern sensibilities, but I’m not sure the movie really knows what it’s trying to say with them. Equal-opportunities offense only really works when you have equal opportunities elsewhere.

Spielberg asked Chuck Jones for advice, and the advice was, “Don’t do it.” Jones said you need to have at least one non-crazy character or it won’t work — he cited BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI for the James Donald character — “Madness! Madness!” But 1941 does have quite a few non-mad characters. DiCiccio and Dianne Kay are more generic than eccentric — but the movie never gives us a reason to care about them. They don’t care about anyone else. Example: in the wake of the seriously impressive night-club riot, Kay thinks she’s found DiCiccio — she lifts his head, but it’s just a random sailor, so she drops his head with a thunk and moves on. Moderately funny, perhaps, except we’ve seen it too often in movies, and it’s done cold-bloodedly (OK, maybe distractedly — but if she’s not paying attention to the wounded man, she’s still cold-blooded) and it hurts her character, so it wasn’t worth doing. All the characters we’re supposed to like are stupid or obnoxious much of the time in this movie.Slim Pickens’ character is dumped at sea, last heard screaming “Which way is the coast?” They KILLED him? I really needed a shot of him trudging out of the Pacific surf in his sodden onesie, and that’s not something I say about every film.

Good old Vilmos’s William Fraker’s cinematography is beautiful, but it’s a big part of the problem — combine the 70s’ approach to period, which is tons of diffusion, fog filters as thick as Warren Oates’ glasses, with Spielberg’s love of backlighting, smoke and Fuller’s Earth, and it becomes a little hard to read the action. Forcing the viewer to strain cancels out a huge amount of the comedy and adds to the headache effect with all the screaming and explosions. I think it’s a bit too misty even if it were an Indiana Jones picture. (To shoot RAIDERS, Spielberg gets Douglas Slocombe, who can do atmospherics but who also likes things clean and crisp unless there’s a good reason otherwise. Spielberg enters the 80s leaving behind that 70s period look.

Amazing miniatures work. Only the fairground ever looks like a model, for some reason. The Death Star assault on LA looks amazing. Callback to JAWS is a little laboured. Foreshadowing of JURASSIC PARK is funnier now, though.Oh, it was also a Nancy Allen double bill… In 1941, Nancy plays a woman with a sexual fetish for warplanes — an extrapolation of Carole Lombard and Robert Stack’s business in TO BE OR NOT TO BE, possibly. If we look for traces of autobiography in Spielberg’s work, then we have to say that the character with a fetish for WWII warplanes is HIM — see also the planes in the desert in CE3K, his WWII episode of Amazing Stories, the flying wing fight in RAIDERS, the flyboy antics of ALWAYS, and the rather extraordinary sequence in EMPIRE OF THE SUN where Christian Bayle spies on a sex scene during an air raid. Spielberg is more Ballardian than you’d think.

Meanwhile one couple end up screwing in a tar pit and Treat Williams is last seen being molested while covered in raw egg. Biological sex is messy. Mech sex is clean. Clean like fire. Once we can all upload ourselves into the Oasis, everything will be great.

*Actually, no.