Archive for Johnny Depp

Leth, Fletch, Flynn

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2017 by dcairns

We had that Jørgen Leth fellow up at the Art College, talking about his work. Wonderfully immodest fellow. If his interlocutor, fellow documentarist Emma Davie, complimented him on the effectiveness of a moment in 66 SCENES FROM AMERICA, he would respond, “Yes, I think it’s excellent.” Refreshing, in a way.

Mr. Leth, who was charm itself, stated that he was a big fan of American crime fiction, naming Hammett and Chandler as influences. So after the talk, I introduced myself and said I’d been reading Gregory McDonald. “Ye-es?” he asked, looking uncertain, so I switched back to Hammett and told him his shots were like Hammett sentences, terse but poetic. He agreed.

But I HAVE been reading Gregory McDonald, damnit. So I’ll tell you about it. There’s a movie connection, of course.

Third ID down — apparently, non-ironic blackface was still cool in 1984.

I picked up Confess, Fletch and Carioca Fletch in the Thrift bookshop, thinking, “My, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Fletch book in the flesh,” and also thinking they were probably quite good if there were lots of them, a dubious logic, I know.

It turns out that McDonald had a kind of genius for plotting, exercised to its full in his first Fletch books. But he did kind of paint himself into a corner early on. Fletch is an investigative reporter, which allows him entry into storylines of crime and intrigue, but at the end of the first novel the slightly amoral (or unconventionally moral) hero absconds with a huge amount of cash, so he never has to work again. But McDonald has to work that much harder, concocting situations which can ensnare his gentleman of leisure and force him to do some investigating. Thus Confess, Fletch has our hero framed for murder, and Fletch’s Fortune (I was hooked, I bought more) has him blackmailed into gathering evidence for the intelligence service (a murder is swiftly committed). These first three books are excellent, though I have some issues with the Fletch character, and maybe with McDonald’s character. Hey, it was the seventies/eighties…

At a certain point, McDonald evidently threw up his hands and decided to write prequels, since Fletch the overworked and underappreciated investigative journalist was far easier to insert into unfolding narratives than Fletch the rich bum. But oddly, going by Carioca Fletch and Fletch and the Widow Bradley, McDonald’s plotting skill diminished at some point, so these books are far less satisfying. I haven’t finished them all yet though, and I’m curious to see whether Fletch’s Moxie, which I think is the last of the original run, is good.

No, I’m not re-watching FLETCH, Michael Ritchie’s reasonably faithful film of the first book. I enjoyed it when it came out, when I believe I was rather young. I’ve glanced at it. There’s a problem with Chevy Chase being served up to us in tennis shorts with an implied assumption that this is something we want to see. McDonald has a bit of a narcissistic thing going on with his creation, the more witty and handsome version of himself (OK, the wit is all his, since he writes it, but he also gets to write the feed lines) and it’s disconcerting to see this embodied in Chase. Apart from his odd, unhandsome face, Chase has the problem that we’ve now seen him age, and all the signs are there in his youthful prototype. To watch him is to see his hairline creeping up and his waistline expand, if only in one’s imagination. It’s too much like looking in the mirror for me.

Otherwise, though, he has the smugness right, I must say.

It’s weird looking at the film and seeing a lot of the same stuff from the book, but rendered in a high-gloss, plastinated style that’s a lot less real than the pulp paper and print version. The best thing about it, apart from a perpetually surprised-looking Gina Davis (she just looks amazed to find herself in a movie — it’s adorable) is the smart casting of Tim Matheson as villain. Admittedly, Matheson should have Chase’s role so it’s not THAT smart to dangle him before our eyes, but he DID get Chase’s role in ANIMAL HOUSE, when Chase demanded too much money or something, so casting him as a man who (heavy spoiler alert, skip to next para if concerned) wants to swap places with Chase as part of a DIABOLICAL SCHEME, is a really nice touch.

I don’t really detect much of Michael Ritchie’s undoubted directorial talent in this, just as I don’t in THE GOLDEN CHILD (spits).

Haven’t looked at FLETCH LIVES. It’s not based on a McDonald book. Which makes the filmmakers stupid — I think Fletch’s Fortune would have provided Chase all the necessary opportunities to do his thing.

McDonald also wrote The Brave, source of an ill-fated movie directed by Johnny Depp. Has anyone seen it?

An early McDonald book was filmed by David Hemmings. The film is now ALMOST lost, but it did give us this, the worst movie poster ever drawn. 

The best thing about Fletch, though, is it introduced me to Flynn. Flynn is a much more lovable character than Fletch. He’s the Irish-born detective who plays cat and mouse with our hero in Confess, Fletch, and either McDonald liked him so much he ran with him into his own set of four books, or he designed him from the start as a character he could introduce to his readers via the Fletch series and then branch off with. McDonald’s banter is always great, and Flynn’s use of it to bamboozle and annoy suspects, subordinates and his bosses (only Fletch and Flynn’s spymaster Zero and Flynn’s expansive family really “get” him) is a joy.

McDonald writes a kind of stage Irish pretty well — it’s consistent, anyway. I don’t know if my Irish friends will find him embarrassing.

Flynn is the one who should have been in the movies, not Fletch. Ach, isn’t that always the way?

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The Abuses of Enchantment

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2016 by dcairns

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So, yes, Fiona is in a dark place — each morning we don’t know what level of anxiety and/or depression to expect. Good days are not as good as they ought to be, but are very welcome because the bad days are almost unendurable. This can make film viewing strange and risky — we both hugely enjoyed the John Cromwell PRISONER OF ZENDA but the teary conclusion was difficult for Fiona: “It’s too horrible!” she cried, a reaction the Ronald Colman swashbuckler has probably not often provoked.

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INTO THE WOODS is something I just clicked onto on NetFlix because I saw it was there and I’m trying to get a decent amount of use out of Netflix as long as I’m paying for it. (I did the same with Jonathan Demme’s pallid remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and was watching it in short bursts when the bastards deleted it on me.) I should have been warier but my main experience of Sondheim’s musical was decades ago when I watched a televised stage version. This was sort of diverting but of course I had the feeling of being too far away from the action all the time. Televised stage stuff has gotten a lot better and if it helps subsidize the theatre then it’s nice I suppose, but it’s not the real thing.

Still, this is, in principle, the sort of thing I ought to enjoy — what had put me off was not liking CHICAGO much. A friend had said “It’s brilliantly cut,” but it turned out he meant “There is a lot of cutting in it,” which is not the same thing. Some of the transitions are clever but the dances were slashed into an incoherent fruit salad, impossible to tell who was where and if it was really them at all. (Richard Gere, I’m looking at you — or am I?) Maybe Harvey Weinstein is to blame.

Anyhow, I missed out on the intervening films — except now I realise I didn’t, because Marshall did a fairly anonymous job on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES, which I saw for my sins. I’m cheered to report that INTO THE WOODS is pacey without being frenetic, shots are allowed a chance to make their mark and sometimes do more than one thing, and the design is lovely in a fairytale way, never quite breaking with convention but then maybe it shouldn’t. Letting this Disney film look like a Disney film is the best way to allow the play to be subversive.

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Script is credited to James Lapine but he is surely not responsible for the VO, which is clumsily written (subject and object get jumbled) and which mainly just describes what we can already see. You don’t do that: that’s Page 1 of the Billy Wilder rulebook. Narration is for things we don’t see. It’s being used as a kind of glue here, to unite the fragmented stories, and to replaced the character of the storyteller deleted from the stage version, which is fine, but it just needs to be good English and to serve some purpose other that descriptions for the visually impaired. I suspect it’s been added by a producer or director, since I certainly hope nobody gets paid money to write this badly. If someone at the top wrote it, nobody would be able to say “This is not good, clear English and it’s not saying anything we need to hear.”

If Lapine DID write the VO, he wrote it in half an hour during post-production while in a very bad mood.

The cast is generally good. Johnny Depp is basically a cameo, in wacky mode, giving it a kind of imprimatur since he was Sweeney Todd. Meryl Streep is really good (apart from a strangely underpowered rendering of “I was just trying to be a good mother,” a killer line which everyone seems to have decided, inexplicably, should not be funny), and it’s the song where we see a sympathetic side to the witch that set Fiona off. Controlling mothers… something perhaps Fiona and Sondheim have a shared understanding of. Emily Blunt is pretty amazing, getting unexpected laughs and being a real human in the midst of all this make-believe. Agony, rendered by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, is properly hilarious.

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Some of Marshall’s ideas don’t work. Using a time-stop device so Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) can sing On the Steps of the Palace, moving about while she’s supposed to be stuck in tar, is more confusing than helpful. The palace itself is a dingy stone medieval edifice, a slab of masonry with no Disneyland about it, not what the situation seems to demand.

What I only vaguely remembered from my viewing of the stage/telly version is the bold way Sondheim and Lapine weave disparate stories together and create a great pile-up of happy endings at the halfway mark, then methodically smash them all to bits like a bratty child with a toy box, working out some issues. Which is what INTO THE WOODS is about, really. The compromises the play has gone through in reaching the screen are essentially formal, and the challenging refusal of fairytale happiness is, unexpectedly, intact and potent. Disney has actually decided not to Disnefy.

Darkness Lite

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Painting, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2012 by dcairns

David Wingrove, being a big fan of the TV Dark Shadows, and a fan of Tim Burton (he even liked ALICE IN WONDERLAND, gah!), went to see Burton’s DARK SHADOWS with an open mind — and found it inspired a number of intriguing observations, which he has assembled into the following piece (writing as David Melville) —

Darkness Lite

Afternoons in my childhood were a strange and dangerous world. School over, my parents still at work and my grandmother busy in the kitchen boiling dinner, I would sneak into the living room and pull the curtains shut against the light. Creeping on tiptoe towards the TV – remotes (in our house, at least) were not yet invented – I would turn the switch softly to ON. Thrill to the wail of a theremin; a black-and-white seascape of waves crashing onto rocks. Then the magic words would fill the screen: DARK SHADOWS.

For the next half-hour or so, I was transported. Away from school and suburbia, and into a hidden world of dreams. Girls in filmy white night-gowns wandered alone through graveyards, bathed in moonlight and swathed in mists of dry ice. Tall and dark and lethally handsome men would rise, abruptly, out of coffins. Loom over the girls, resplendent in their dark capes, and sink their teeth – lovingly and ever so gently – into their soft, pale throats. Portraits of long-dead ladies would shiver and come to life. Drift about in unlit corridors, transparent ghosts of crinoline and bone. Wolves would wail and howl. Lurking always, conveniently, just off camera. It was, in a word, paradise.

I took care, on those far-off haunted afternoons, to keep the sound turned low – almost silent. My middle-class Canadian family was vigilant against anything ‘unsuitable’ or, worse, ‘unwholesome’ and Dark Shadows was the one show I was flatly forbidden to watch. My mother was convinced – with good reason, I suppose – that it would scare me and give me nightmares. I was a sensitive and impressionable child, frightened of many things. School, with its uniform of grey shorts, ugly red blazer and matching cap. Science and arithmetic, both totally beyond me, as was – horror of horrors! – sport. Teachers with gunmetal eyes and barking voices. Bicycles, on which I could never balance and always fell off.  Assembly, where we sang ‘God Save the Queen’ and my throat seized up with fear so I could barely speak.

Yes, life at six years of age was full of terrors. But Dark Shadows with its setting, Collinwood Manor, was the least frightening and most beautiful place I had ever seen. The one world, perhaps, where I truly felt I belonged. Clearly, a whole generation of misfit kids felt the same way. The original soap opera, created by Dan Curtis, ran every weekday from 1966 to 1971 and spawned two big-screen movies – House of Dark Shadows (1970) and Night of Dark Shadows (1971) – neither of which I have ever seen. Unsuccessfully revived as a TV series in the 90s, it has now become a mega-budget screen epic directed by Goth maestro Tim Burton.

By any regular cinematic standard, this is fantastically good news. Like any other Tim Burton extravaganza (leaving aside the perplexing Big Fish) the 2012 Dark Shadows is slick, smooth and uniquely compulsive entertainment. Johnny Depp, alluring in black eyeliner as vampire Barnabas Collins, adds one more to his list of camp Gothic grotesques. Michelle Pfeiffer, in full-on diva mode as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, wears her eye-poppingly hideous 70s outfits with commendable aplomb. Eva Green is more expressive, and Helena Bonham Carter less annoying, than past experience gives us any right to hope. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (whose other recent film is Alexander Sokurov’s Faust) has images inspired by – indeed, worthy of – such Romantic painters as Henry Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich. The visuals, as always in a Burton movie, are several quantum leaps ahead of the script.

Had I not made the mistake – forty-odd years ago, I admit, at an age when I was far too young to know better – of watching and loving the original Dark Shadows with such passion, I might well be wholly thrilled with the Burton remake. Yet somehow, there was something not quite right. So wrong, in fact, that I went on Amazon and ordered the newly reissued Dark Shadows box set. (Don’t worry, not the whole series – just three discs and twenty episodes, which introduce the lead vampire, Barnabas Collins.)  This was something I felt obscurely afraid to do. Revisiting the past could only expose my childhood dream as the cheap, shoddy mirage that it undoubtedly was. Like a fairground Haunted House with the lights on. Black paint peeling, and sawdust and chewing gum piled up in the corners.

It took me one episode – well, perhaps two – to see where and how Tim Burton had slipped up. The original Barnabas Collins (played by the craggy-faced Canadian actor Jonathan Frid, whose one film of note is Oliver Stone’s 1974 debut Seizure) is a ruthless bisexual seducer who preys, both physically and psychologically, on other main characters. Rising out of his coffin, he latches onto the resident beefcake Willie Loomis (John Karlen, later the hero in Harry Kümel’s 1970 Daughters of Darkness) and revives by draining his bodily fluids. Willie is the protégé of a camp older gentleman named Jason McGuire (Dennis Patrick, whose name is the author of Auntie Mame, only backwards). Jason is blackmailing Elizabeth (played by film noir legend Joan Bennett) for the murder of her husband – who may also have been (we can’t help but wonder) his lover. He and Barnabas swiftly form a gay triangle around Willie. Everything hinges on who gets to suck what from whom.

After resuscitating himself with the blood of a man, Barnabas turns his attentions to a nubile young woman (Kathryn Leigh Scott, as local waitress Maggie Evans) but keeps Willie on as his factotum and blood bank. (This is the same pattern – Dark Shadows was nothing if not derivative – as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s original novel, feasting initially on the hero, Jonathan Harker and only later on Mina, his wife.) Willie seems, at once, protective and obscurely jealous of his female rival. His relationship with Barnabas grows ever more twisted. Towards the end of the episodes I saw, Barnabas gives him a sadomasochistic thrashing with a huge carved metal walking stick – an heirloom the vampire proudly shows off to Maggie, and which she greatly admires.

The implicit queerness of the original Dark Shadows was, of course, never spelled out in the script. But it is expunged, ruthlessly and systematically, from the 2012 remake. The cutesy Barnabas Collins played by Johnny Depp seems to feed exclusively on extras. At no point does he pose a threat to the Collins family, or to any of the other major characters. (His killing of Dr Julia Hoffmann, the psychiatrist played by Helena Bonham Carter, is done purely in self-defence.) The film’s Willie is no sexy young stud, but a shambling grotesque out of The Addams Family. His older male protector is, of course, nowhere in sight. A menage so relentlessly heterosexual, it is more Little House on the Prairie than Collinwood Manor.

In de-gaying and de-fanging Dark Shadows, Burton has made his vampire only slightly less innocuous than Robert Pattinson in the Twilight saga. Barnabas, as played by Johnny Depp, embodies not good old-fashioned Eros and Thanatos – the way a vampire should – but squeaky-clean 21st century Family Values. “The greatest wealth of all is family,” Depp intones as he revives the Collins fortune and saves his mortal relatives from the brink of ruin. Legions of Born Again Republicans across America would doubtless agree. Tim Burton, who was hailed two decades ago as the Great Dark Hope of Hollywood, is now looking more and more like a Gothic Steven Spielberg. Yes, he’s still a unique film artist but – as the TV Barnabas so memorably quipped – “Uniqueness is not necessarily a good thing.”

David Melville