Archive for Mel Gibson

The Unchosen One

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2021 by dcairns

I picked up BARABBAS on DVD from a charity shop along with KING OF KINGS, £1 each, and was amazed at how good it was. I mean, this is Richard Fleischer’s widescreen period and I was pretty disappointed by 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. But Fleischer was good at widescreen and 3D and stuff, at least sometimes. I don’t quite know how to account for his patchiness.

But BARABBAS is based on an acclaimed novel by Pär Lagerkvist and adapted by Christopher Fry (The Lady’s Not for Burning) with an uncredited assist by Nigel Balchin (The Small Back Room). It has De Laurentiis’ millions behind it — but used with a winning combination of intelligence and taste and sheer vulgarity. When we first see the Coliseum, for instance, it’s a massive great set, with real extras in every row, not foosball figures rising and falling in rows, and the area is packed with brawling gladiators, some of them little people, with elephants, a tiger pit, flaming waters — absolutely crazy excess. And that’s basically just an establishing shot, though it’s about twenty shots.

This is one of those BEN-HUR jobs, biblical maginalia — take a character who’s around at the time of Christ and follow his wacky misadventures. Here it’s the thief who was spared crucifixion, played by Anthony Quinn in a boldly sullen, bovine manner — remarkable to have such an epic built around such an uningratiating figure. He’s surrounded by a good, eclectic cast that includes Katy Jurado, Silvana Mangano, Ernest Borgnine, Arthur Kennedy. Strongest impressions are made by Jack Palance as a sadistic gladiator — terrifying! — Harry Andrews, once described by Richard Burton as the world’s greatest wearer of costumes — and Michael Gwynn, building on his REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN experience by playing an eerie Lazarus.

(I bought the Burton diaries, btw. He also OUTS Harry A., thus rocking my world. NEVER would have guessed that.)

They shot a genuine solar eclipse for the crucifixion, but the jaw-dropping set pieces and beautiful compositions and lighting by Aldo Tonti (NIGHTS OF CABIRIA) make that a mere sideshow. Look at this shot (below) — the figures seem like hanging garlands dropping from the central hub, and the different skin tones of the various faces give it a floral look too.

Here we see the guy making the crown of thorns — unsung artisan of torture — and he pricks his finger making it. I said it was vulgar. They want to make you feel the sharpness of the thorns because we’re so used to the image we’re numb to it, but it’s pretty cheap. Still, I prefer it to the Mel Gibson solution which would just be to show graphic penetrative skin-ripping detail in close-up. And where would a biblical epic be without at least a bit of trivialising vulgarity?

It’s all amplified hugely by Mario Nascimbene’s score — his favourite trick is to sit down on the low notes of his piano in some reverberant cavern, creating an awesome slam. Sometimes we don’t even get the slam, just the dead echo of its passing. Spooky.

Barabbas has an encounter with the early Christians in Rome’s catacombs — it has a phantasmal quality that reminds me of Philip K Dick’s hallucinatory musings — “The Empire Never Ended” — anything taking place that far back in time should give us temporal vertigo, but so few movies pull it off — SATYRICON does, and so do bits of this.

Just when I thought I couldn’t like the film any more, for what it is, along comes the ANSWER TO A MYSTERY — beautiful depth-composed tracking shots of mass crucifixion — as used as stock footage with a lava overlay by Ken Russell in ALTERED STATES. I told you I really really wanted to know where that stuff came from. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I can die happy — I just had my second Covid jab and I want to get the benefit — but I’m absurdly pleased to have sorted that out.

The Greatest Tory Ever Sold

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2021 by dcairns

I also watched JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Easter. Doesn’t that title need some punctuation? I mean, if we don’t specify that it should read JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR (which would look good on a business card) then the filmgoer is dangerously free to imagine it as JESUS CHRIST! SUPERSTAR? (an astonished reaction to Todd Haynes’ Barbie-doll biopic).

Whatever. Studios are apparently superstitiously averse to punctuating their titles.

This being early Lloyd-Webber, the tunes are actually there. Billy Wilder, speaking of the Sunset Blvd musical, predicted it might have one or two good songs (I think one of them is a self-plagiarism from ALW’s score for GUMSHOE). Most of these numbers are toe-tappers, though the bad guy songs are the ones that escape bathos and make a virtue of their vulgarity. Tim Rice’s lyrics do resort to rhyming couplets and one-syllable words a hell of a lot of the time, except where he rhymes “messiah” and “fire,” which ought to be a crucifying offence.

I guess director Norman Jewison is considered tragically unhip, but I consider him essentially benign, and he did give us Hal Ashby. And here he’s complemented by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, in shooting on 65mm, and editor Antony Gibbs, so we have the man who shot THE LADYKILLERS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and the man who cut TOM JONES and PERFORMANCE. The shooting and cutting are terrific — and we should leave Jewison out of our appreciation of that. I guess the nouvelle vague-isms were maybe old hat by 1973, but this was never a really hip property anyway.

I recall reading about this one in a Medved Bros book — they really hated it, something I now think is more to do with their religious feelings than their film-critical faculties (which are null). They found Ted Neeley too hysterical — true, but Ted is fighting the tendency of Jesus to be boring onscreen — he doesn’t win the battle but his vocal histrionics keep him semi-watchable — ditto Carl Anderson as Judas — who moves well, his gestures midway between pantomime and dance. The Medvedi reserved special ire for Barry Dennen as Pilate, who is certainly very hissy indeed. And hissable. But somehow makes the character a serviceable embodiment of every management-class person craving the quiet life and refusing to take a stand. I’m always pleased when Dennen turns up in anything — as the desperate chemical plant scientist in SUPERMAN III, for instance.

This is one of the more incoherent renditions of the Gospels — I can’t work out why the people of Jerusalem turn against Christ — I suppose it’s as a result of him throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, but it’s not clear, really. It ought to have been possible to write this.

Despite the surname, Norman Jewison isn’t Jewish, something he pointed out, an honest man, when offered FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The studio head said that this was GOOD, he felt a gentile could make the story universal. At which point maybe Jewison should have objected to being given a Jewish project on the basis of his not being Jewish.

Ted Neely, like most screen Jesuses, is super-Aryan (and from Texas), though the movie has a nice racial mix elsewhere, and avoids making Judas the most Jewish one (see the Eric Idle & John Cleese Michelangelo sketch). It does, however, strike me as quite a right-wing — the Thatcherite Rice and Lloyd-Webber do include Jesus and Judas’ argument about spending money on luxuries instead of charity, which most adaptations leave out. Not having seen this film since I was a kid, it hadn’t struck me before that the adaptors want to side with Jesus’ “There will be poor always, pathetically struggling, look at the good things you’ve got.” It seems absurd that the authors intended the speaker to sound reasonable or virtuous. I always found Judas the more sympathetic character. And not just because I’m Scottish and thirty pieces of silver sounds like quite a lot.

The writers and Jewison also treat the healing of the sick as a zombie movie — the only time I’ve seen this done. Poor Jesus, persecuted by all these dirty poor people who want something from him!

I think Jewison was going for a Ken Russell vibe but can’t quite get there — he was, apparently, very concerned with being tasteful, which is a fool’s errand when dealing with tacky material like this (a Lloyd-Webber musical, the Holy Bible). He can’t quite attain the shade of ultraviolet required.

Yvonne Blake did the costumes for this and Lester’s THREE MUSKETEERS the same year, it seems. The film’s Big Idea, that this is a production put on by a busload of hippies, works well, and the mix of am-dram stylisation and modern props is fun. The s&m pharisees are good value. Not sure how the graphic whipping — mild by Mel Gibson standards, of course — is supposed to work if this is a theatrical performance. Not quite consistent. Plus, where’s the audience?

And the jet fighters which roar off after Judas sells out evidently continued their patrol of the Holy Land — you can hear them, courtesy of sound designer Skip Lievsay, in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST when Willem Dafoe wills himself back onto the cross at the end.

The American Problem

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2019 by dcairns

The following contains spoilers for Joe Eszterhas’s Number One Plot.

I remember thinking THE MUSIC BOX was OK, but now I’ve watched it again and it’s kind of not.

I think Costa-Gavras thought he could make intelligent political films in the US (post-producing them in France to maintain some distance) but maybe he was wrong. The most pernicious form of censorship, suggested Alexander Mackendrick, is self-censorship.

The screenwriter is Joe Eszterhas but I vividly remember that at the time most of us were not on to him. He had written FLASHDANCE (which I’ve never seen — the Wikipedia plot synopsis, however, is HILARIOUS, just a bunch of random incidents separated by dithering — I’ve been working on editing together old movie serial recaps, and this seems like one of those) and JAGGED EDGE and Costa-Gavras’ BETRAYED.

The big obvious joke with J.E. is that he always writes the same movie. Well, JAGGED EDGE (his signature work, it even shares his initials) is the exact same story as BETRAYED, THE MUSIC BOX and BASIC INSTINCT and I assume JADE. Someone is involved with someone else who may be a monster spoiler alert they totally are.

Though it was fashionable to say that JAGGED E. “kept you guessing to the very end,” I did notice, aged eighteen, that I was not guessing at all at the end. It was obvious to me that if Jeff Bridges wasn’t the killer, they would have to do a lot of tiresome explanation, SUSPICION-style, and also it wouldn’t be as dramatic. Still, let’s give J.E. (the man and the film) credit for doing a version of SUSPICION with the right, and less obviously commercial, ending.

Then he just does it again and again. In MUSIC BOX, for the first time the villain is a father, not a lover, and the crimes are historic. I recall the friend I saw it with back in 1989 saying, “The moment I saw that guy I knew he was guilty, but I was still sucked in.” Which is true. You do need to know how it’s going to turn out.

Flatly, is the answer. The very strong premise of a daughter defending her father on war crimes charges, complicated by the fact that the communist government of Hungary might be framing him because he’s a vocal anti-commie, seems like a good set-up, and it is, but they have no ending up their sleeve other than “Surprise! He’s guilty!” And since we’re not surprised, that’s not very gripping. They know they can’t trump up some kind of fight over a hunting knife and kill the guy. So they’ve got nothing.

I do like how Armin M-S’s credit appears over an animatronic likeness of him.

This being a J.E. script, all the men are inappropriately sweary or sexual, something that is more obvious to us post-SHOWGIRLS (written on the FLASHDANCE random-shit-and-dithering model) but was always a feature of Dirty Joe’s writing (JAGGED EDGE, Peter Coyote: “The guy’s got a rap sheet as long as my dick!”)

Costa-Gavras’ direction is smooth, there are some good-ish shots, but nothing breaks out of the Oscar-bait conventions of the script. When Jessica Lange walks by the Danube in search of inspiration, there are some shots of rippling water, but no cinematic poetry to lift us out of the merely photographic and suggest the emotional process the screenwriter has failed to write.

Freeze-frame ending. Ugh.

Fiona’s main observations: “This script is LEADEN,” and “That’s a really ugly dressing gown.”

Lange refuses the case because she’s too emotionally involved (mythic structure #101) then changes her mind after examining her knees in a mirror. She seems about to go full Sharon Stone. I have no idea what’s going on in this scene.

I like C-G, normally, because he weaves political considerations into rivetting stories, seamlessly, and because he is one of the best storytellers with the camera we have — he doesn’t get enough credit for his dynamic visual language. But it just feels like he has nothing to work with here. It’s like trying to sculpt soup.

And yes, Armin Mueller-Stahl is good, if a bit one-note (everyone is one-note, it’s an Eszterhas script).

Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Oscar campaign.

The best thing Joe Eszterhas wrote, a horrifying, craven piece of unintentional black comedy, is his letter to Mel Gibson. You will scream.

MUSIC BOX stars Dwan; Thronfolger; Hammett; Lyndon B. Johnson; Samuel; and Henry Portrait.