Archive for Mars Attacks!

Another fine messiah

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2012 by dcairns

GOD TOLD ME TO — a great title, and a film that actually stands behind that title! Which I hadn’t expected, to be honest, since it’s a Larry Cohen picture, and experience has taught me that Cohen’s films generally fall down on craft, even as they struggle to put over interesting story ideas. THE STUFF is such a nice high-concept, political sci-fi horror movie in principle, that it’s a shock to see how badly made it is. THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER is so ahead of its time in the way it portrays its subject, you can almost overlook the fact that they’ve got sixty-six-year-old Broderick Crawford playing Hoover in his twenties. But still, I don’t suppose he’s any less convincing than Leonardo DiCaprio playing Hoover in his sixties.

Cohen works cheap, and shoots on location without permits — this kind of guerrilla film-making has aesthetic consequences, which is fine. A certain necessary roughness in some way suits Cohen’s authorial personality. But he’s never worked out a way to create a consistent feel out of the practical constraints he operates under. So he shoots with a tripod when he can, then goes handheld when circumstances dictate it, resulting in a patchy look, where a wholly vérité style might have worked.

BUT — Cohen has great taste in subjects (who else would plant a Mexican winged serpent god in Manhattan, swooping down to decapitate window cleaners?) and in actors — here he scoops Sylvia Sidney, waiting in a nursing home from whence she would eventually defeat the invading Martians in MARS ATTACKS! His leading man, Tony LoBianco (from THE HONEYMOON KILLERS) makes a convincing cop, which I guess is why he plays one so often, he also gets one of the most chilling final looks I’ve ever seen.

And this is a very scary room.

Cohen still has his camera placement set on random, so visually things are a bit frustrating at times, but the few effects shots are satisfactory, the location shooting (with accompanying sound problems) does add grit, and the searing orange glow in certain key scenes anticipates CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Gaspar Noe wants to remake this… I sort of doubt he could improve it.

So, people are going on killing sprees, announcing “God told me to,” with their dying breaths. Andy Kaufman plays a cop at the St Patrick Day’s Parade who starts plugging bystanders with his revolver. This is not only startling to see, it also seems like the kind of thing Andy might do, if pressed. He could always claim afterwards he was extending the bounds of comedy.

Just like in JAWS, the hero tries to stop the disaster, but is told he can’t interfere with the celebrations: “The Irish have been looking forward to this all year!” Because that’s all they have to do, seemingly.

This intriguing set-up is exactly the kind of ball I’d expect Cohen to drop, but instead he passes it — the killers are connected to some hippy messiah kid, who may have been a virgin birth, may have been born intersex, and may be the child of an alien abductee — Cohen gets into the kind of alien abduction scenario, complete with tractor beams, lost time, and intrusive medical procedures, that have been widely reported but hadn’t made it into movies yet (did the movie cause a spike in UFO reports?). And it keeps getting weirder — there are enough crazy plot twists for three conventional films. And it doesn’t wrap up into a neat little bundle, it sprawls out, spreading tendrils all over the place. Don’t get any on you!

Richard Lynch plays the space messiah. “I know who that is!” said Fiona. “It’s that guy! He’s in lots of stuff!” Don’t you just hate that? But then she was able to be more specific: “He’s that guy with the I’ve-been-in-a-fire face.”

He is!

The other strange thing about this film (well, one of them) is the space Jesus’s vagina. We first see this, in big latex close-up, during Sylvia Sidney’s alien encounter flashback (a younger actress plays the naked twenty-something Sylvia, which seems inconsistent with the sensibility that gave us Broderick Crawford as a boy detective, but let’s not carp). He just cuts to it. It’s impossible to tell where it is or why Cohen is showing it to us at this point. It’s a bit like the closeups of Marilyn Chambers’ armpit penis in RABID (which this predates) — no context, just an ECU of a rubbery thing quietly doing stuff.

“It’s a c- It’s a FANNY!” declared Fiona, strangely impressed.

In another scene, space Jesus lifts his robe and shows off the mangina, so we know it’s his. But we don’t know where it is. I thought maybe it was on his side, like Christ’s spear-wound. “That makes sense,” said Fiona, tolerantly. But maybe I was just resisting the idea that it was exactly what it appeared to be. How did Cohen get this image into a commercial release? By arguing that, since it’s an alien genital, it can’t be obscene? It’s like Rin Tin Tin’s penis. And nobody would dream of censoring that. On the other hand, nobody would ever think of shooting a giant ECU of it, either.

No one but Larry Cohen.

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Paralysis in Wonderland

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2010 by dcairns

Nineteen-year-old Charlotte Henry as Alice in 1933. She also appears in the similarly demented BABES IN TOYLAND.

I love Lewis Carroll, and maybe as a result I’m generally iffy about filmed versions of his stuff. I like Jan Svankmajer’s ALICE, although it’s not funny, which seems to miss a lot of the point, and Jonathan Miller’s TV adaptation is beautiful and sometimes amusing, and strange, all of which is good, but it does have a very self-absorbed and unappealing central perf.

(WHY is Alice always at least five years too old?)

It’s fashionable to be snooty about the Disney animated ALICE, but I still remember how weird it made me feel as a kid, which must be a good thing. Although it seems that the kind of “zaniness” embodied by Ed Wynn’s voicing of the Mad Hatter is entirely wrong for Carroll’s queer, concussed mindscape.

A grin without a cat — played by Richard Arlen.

The Paramount ALICE IN WONDERLAND which William Cameron Menzies co-wrote (with Joseph Mankiewicz) is in all kinds of ways a fairly stupid travesty of the books — Alice doesn’t really need to go through a looking glass AND down a rabbit hole, does she? — not if we have any understanding of these moments as signifying a passage into Dream — and cluttering the thing with chess pieces AND playing cards seems likewise misguided. But the design is beautiful and the thing does have a trippy, floaty, fizzy-facky feeling throughout.

Tim Burton’s new ALICE IN WONDERLAND can’t really claim anything like that. Alternately slack and inappropriately boisterous, generic and completely broken-backed, it’s his biggest mess since, depending on your taste, BIG FISH or PLANET OF THE APES. Reading Burton’s interview in this weekend’s Guardian, it’s hard to work out what appealed to him in the material, although one might think his taste for surreal fantasy would make him a natural choice.

(It’s always dubious using a filmmaker’s own words against them, since one can’t be sure that anything said while promoting a film is sincere anyway, and the author, as they say, is dead. But Burton can be bracingly franker than most, replying to a question at the premier of APES as to whether he’d direct a sequel, with the words, “I’d rather jump out of an open window.”)

“I’ve always hated Alice on screen. She’s a very annoying, odd little girl. I wanted to make her into a character I could identify with: quiet, internal, not comfortable in her own skin, not quite knowing how to deal with things, being both young and having an old soul.” Drivel, that last stuff, but it does make me wonder if he’s read the damn book, and why he’s gone for an older Alice, making his version just like every other movie.

I’ve read reviews that name-checked Walter Murch’s disturbing, brilliant film maudit RETURN TO OZ (which is better that Burton’s film) and Spielberg’s HOOK (and even that chocolate-box infarction may be better than this mess) which both seem apt comparisons, given the new film’s device of having an older Alice return to Wonderland during a teenage crisis. (Incidentally, tiny Mairi Ella Challen is very good as the six-year-old Alice.) The remarkable thing is that Alice’s previous visit to Wonderland has no bearing on the plot, and making her older is purely a device to sell her as a Disney princess, a ghastly commercial commodification of a classic story. When you warp an already hugely successful property in order to sell toys, well, you might as well put Ewoks in it.

Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, a name he will later bestow upon John Qualen in HIS GIRL FRIDAY (HGF director Howard Hawks had a fondness for referencing his star’s previous roles — John Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY evokes just about every famous role he ever played on screen).

Shit, screenwriter Linda Woolverton actually wrote for the Ewoks TV show. She also wrote THE LION KING, a rare Disney original, and I don’t want to knock her too much because this seems like a film which has been much messed-about with. Does the Jabberwocky need to talk? No, he has nothing useful to tell us, it’s just an excuse to get Sir Christopher Lee in there as a voice. Welcome as Sir Chris is, it adds to the sense of redundancy and bloat which characterize the film. Watching is like stilt-walking through an ocean of trifle — occasionally pretty, quickly exhausting.

Johnny Depp tries hard, but the Mad Hatter as hero is such a crass misconception of the character (a bit like when Groucho and his brothers turn noble in the MGM Marx Bros. films, although at least there it was only in the final reel) that he’s left with no role to play. Helena Bonham Carter is generally fun, and it’s nice whenever the film slows down long enough to allow a bit of acting in — the performances provide the only wit here — but she should be paying royalties to Miranda Richardson, who originated this entire characterization in Blackadder II. (Incidentally, Rowan Atkinson’s turn in that show owes an enormous debt to Michael Kitchen’s interpretation of Edmund in a BBC version of King Lear, directed by… Jonathan Miller.)

Edward Everett Horton is a divinely mad Mad Hatter, with strong supporting madness from Charles Ruggles as the March Hare.

But acting honours go to Anne Hathaway, channeling the spirit of Lisa-Marie (whose presence in Burton’s films I kind of miss), particularly her weird physical acting in MARS ATTACKS! With very little to work with, she manages to create some actual fun, and her playing of the White Queen as hideously self-absorbed and uncaring actually subverts the whole good-versus-evil plot, which is one of the screenplay’s lamest inventions.

Look: Alice is a sensible little girl stuck in a nonsensical world. What’s difficult about that? It is, in fact, something all little kids can identify with, hence the need for her to be, like, little.

By the way: Burton hasn’t got any consistent angle on what to do with 3D. The opening stuff in reality was originally shot flat, and then converted at great expense, but it doesn’t look particularly deep. The trip down the rabbit hole should be an explosion of colour and depth, but it’s just loud and incoherent, not because of the 3D but because of lousy filming. Some possibly-interesting props fly past, but we don’t get to register ANY of them. And what made the fall magical and weird in the book is that it was slow — this breakneck descent isn’t actually any different to what Burton could shoot for BATMAN or PLANET OF THE APES.

The editing, apparently completed just in time for the premier, is astonishingly sloppy, especially in the opening sequences. The real-world stuff makes no sense (China was opened up for export long before this — and what’s Alice going to be trading, opium?), although it’s nice to see Frances De La Tour. Her dotty old maid is the only character in the real world who seems both happy and honest, so naturally Alice advises her to get therapy.

There is also a “comedy dance” which I find deeply offensive.

“Here I am!” — perhaps my favourite line in the film.

I’m illustrating this piece with stills from the Menzies-designed film because I don’t think I could bear looking at any more images from Burton’s garish soup. It’s 108 minutes! That’s too long for ANY film of Alice, since without a narrative spine (Carroll doesn’t feel the need for one and Woolverton fails to graft one on) you’ve got to be really good to keep the audience focussed across the various episodes. Fellini managed it in SATYRICON, but even Svankmajer’s ALICE is only 86 mins.

Here’s one reason I think people get Alice wrong so much — many of the jokes, situations and characters are very familiar and it’s easy to take them for granted or else mess with them without a clear idea of why they are the way they are. But here’s a less familiar bit —

‘Crawling at your feet,’ said the Gnat (Alice drew her feet back in some alarm), ‘you may observe a Bread-and-Butterfly. Its wings are thin slices of Bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.’

‘And what does it live on?’

‘Weak tea with cream in it.’

A new difficulty came into Alice’s head. ‘Supposing it couldn’t find any?’ she suggested.

‘Then it would die, of course.’

‘But that must happen very often,’ Alice remarked thoughtfully.

‘It always happens,’ said the gnat.

I think that’s funny, anyway. Burton’s film includes Carroll’s Rocking-horse-fly and Dragon-fly, which are usually left out (along with the poor Gnat), but neglects to include any funny lines. I don’t want to be melodramatic and say “This will kill 3D!” But it’s not going too far to say that if anything could, this would.