Archive for Miranda Richardson

The Vabina Monologues

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2014 by dcairns


To understand the title (above), you have to see the film, MAPS TO THE STARS. Trouble is, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

David Cronenberg’s latest, written by Bruce Wagner, deals with a set of interlocking Hollywood lives, and contains thriller elements, but differs from THE PLAYER in the blackness of the humour (several shades darker) and I guess in the fact that the film isn’t really interested in movies at all. Altman, who likewise dropped names and threw in familiar faces to boost the verisimilitude, really did want to talk about why movies had gotten so bad. The Wagner/Cronenberg is more about American culture in general. I guess it’s another science fiction film in the manner of CRASH, in that it extrapolates modern mores a little bit on from where they are. For all the denials that it’s satire, that’s exactly what it is.

Julianne Moore is excellent — Kidmanesque in her characters cringey phoniness. John Cusack, very good, his jet-black hair and eyeliner as bold a choice, arguably, as Moore’s nudity and mania (Fiona did wonder if it was how he really styles himself). Mia Wasikowska, weird and affecting. Robert Pattinson, not really stretched at all. Olivia Williams — always, ALWAYS excellent. Evan Bird (the kid) seems like he could play the role but needs a few more takes much of the time. He’s not helped by Cronenberg’s customary deadpan stillness, which feels stilted when applied to the teenage characters. There’s not much sense of life’s messiness and noise here, everything’s so cool and composed, but rather flat and televisual rather than making something interesting out of the stasis.

(What Cronenberg is always really good at shooting is modern architecture — Toronto, basically. But there’s not much of that glossy, alienated beauty here, though the movie could use it.)

There’s some complicated backstory (two fires in the past?) and the Gothic aspects of the story involving incest and schizophrenia did not much convince — and what point was being made by their inclusion? Surely the point of celebrity culture is that it can make you crazy even if you’re not the offspring of married siblings? Some of the gross ideas shocked, but the “shocking revelations” certainly didn’t.


And the attempts to evoke madness — curiously unchilling. Cronenberg is usually at his best when he has historical settings and bizarre imagery to punch up his laid-back shooting style, and his portrayals of insanity from the inside out have been most effective when he can show you crazy stuff and make you believe it’s real. There’s a moment in SPIDER that always really bothered me, maybe because I’d read a copy of the script before seeing it and imagined the scene a certain way. Young Spider’s mother, Miranda Richardson, has turned her back, and he hears her say that she’s killed his mother and taken her place. Now, this line is his hallucination. I felt very strongly that the line should have played over her back, from his POV. Cronenberg films it full-face. I guess he meant to give it more force, make it seem more real, but I would have felt it more from the boy’s angle.

Here, the various hallucinations — everybody seems to be having them — should have a Lynchian creep factor but just lie there. The theoretically clever idea of robbing them of sound effects, so that bathwater sloshes in silence, don’t carry any uncanny impact because of the dialogue and the Howard Shore music all over them. I can’t see Lynch making this movie, but in a way he would have been a better fit. He’d have pushes his own interests into it, which Cronenberg is disinclined to do. He’s become an adaptor in recent years, and it’s really questionable how much of his own personality he’s able to force into the material. In NAKED LUNCH, yes, and CRASH, but those works already had influenced his outlook greatly. We would like to see some full-on Cronenberg, but not a self-pastiche.

There’s a bit of CGI that’s so poor — unreleasably poor — that you think, “Oh dear, someone else has started hallucinating,” when in fact they probably haven’t. I’m still not sure though.


Still, looking back at the Cronenbergs that disappointed me at the time, I find I feel quite fondly about them now, whether I’ve revisted them or not, so maybe I’ll grow to like this one more.


Hey, producers! I went looking for stills of this film and found mainly behind-the-scenes paparazzi shots and images of Julianne Moore. Obviously, her Oscar campaign is underway, however you are also theoretically selling a movie that’s on release and Pattinson and Miakowska have fans too. Has the movie still quietly died? LET US PREY, the film Fiona & I are credited with writing, is now gearing up for an actual US release but you can only find about four images from it online (one of them depicting a major character’s death). Stills seem to me to still have use…

Puff Piece

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on July 5, 2010 by dcairns

I didn’t see PUFFBALL when it came out, put off by my lack of enthusiasm for the writer, and the reviews, which seemed to be straining not to be mean: the veteran director deserves some respect, even though the only obvious way to fashion a readable review out of such an unpromising movie would be to trash it… Then one evening, after an Edinburgh Film Festival whisky-tasting event, I put the DVD in, and was promptly seized by motion sickness — it was like my vertical hold had gone, the picture seemed to keep scrolling up before my eyeballs, unfixed in space. When I finally succeeded in watching the movie the next day, some of that residual nausea may have remained. Use that as an alibi for my underwhelmed response, if you like.

“A mistake,” is how a friend bluntly summed up Nic Roeg’s PUFFBALL, his latest and possibly last feature. And this friend was in general very sympathetic to Roeg’s vision and had been hoping he’d make another personal film (Roeg freely admits to spending years trading on his reputation, which at least explains monstrosities like his TV movie of SAMSON AND DELILAH with Liz Hurley). Apparently Roeg would have liked to spend twice as long in the cutting room on this one as he was allowed — naturally enough, he being Nic Roeg — and I do find it deplorable that none of the nine credited producers could find the money to pay for an Avid suite and an editor for a few more weeks. Or months. It’s Nic Roeg, FFS!

But very possibly the producers were not sufficiently impressed with the material they saw, and wanted to cut their losses. I can understand their attitude, looking at the “finished” movie, but still deplore their lack of faith — maybe there’s a better movie struggling to get out. Certainly ferocious pruning and intensification of the first act, of the kind Donald Cammell applied to PERFORMANCE, against Roeg’s wishes — inventing, in the process, the Nic Roeg signature style — might have helped. As it is, the movie lurches from plodding, on-the-nose dialogue scenes devoid of reaction shots or overlaps — Dragnet-style but without the verve, which lack even the rigour I’d expect from a rough-cut. Editor Tony Palmer has an association with Roeg dating back to 1970, but there’s no brilliant solo jobs on his CV — perhaps Roeg needed somebody to challenge and provoke him rather than make him comfortable?

Asides from the editing — Roeg’s old touch shows itself in flashes of inside-the-body images, floating fetuses and sperm nebulae, night-vision penetrations — but a freeze-frame dissolve from the heroine’s bloody crotch to a monolithic stone donut should’ve been squashed at birth — the movie’s big problem is its script. Like DON’T LOOK NOW (Donald Sutherland pops his head in for old time’s sake) this is a tale involving the supernatural, but it refuses to play by genre rules. But while DLN nevertheless ended up being scary and atmospheric as hell, even though the source of tension was often hard to pin down, this movie never lands anywhere so interesting — it’s not spooky, nor dramatically credible, nor tense.

I’m inclined to blame, unfairly, original author Fay Weldon, although her son Dan’s screenplay certainly compounds the problems. I haven’t read a single Weldon novel, but have always found her TV adaptations irksome, with improbable lectures shoehorned into the mouths of reluctant and threadbare characters. And I read her intro to a paperback of Dracula, where she got characters’ names wrong, which seems less than ideal. By chance, here she is in today’s (Saturday 3rd, as I type) Guardian, reviewing somebody else’s novel: “Writing a second novel is a nervy business for a writer,” — which seems to imply that the task would entail no trepidation for an orthodontist or longshoreman. So here’s my belief, for which I welcome rebuttals: Fay Weldon is quite a poor writer.

The first “act” of PUFFBALL is an interminable and passionless affair, dealing with architect Kelly Reilly’s attempts to restore a house in Ireland, while her strange neighbours, who include Miranda Richardson and Rita Tushingham, spy from the sidelines. A plot to reincarnate a dead child in a new baby is underway, and Reilly’s presence is thought to interfere with this, leading to a complicated pseudo-ROSEMARY’S BABY rigmarole of conspiracy and sorcery. But for the first half of the film (the first act seems to last this long), all we have happening is a bunch of stuff, some of it weird, none of it particularly dramatic. In the second half, the wavering plot threads attempt to weave together into a climax of some kind, but each potentially tense moment is frittered away to nought.

This does illustrate an interesting (to me, anyway) point about the spook story, which this movie structurally resembles, at least somewhat: the first act of a ghost story is frequently without dramatic tension. THE INNOCENTS begins with pure exposition, coupled with a little character self-portrait, from Michael Redgrave. Only the credits sequence’s promise of chills and drama to come keep us engaged as the plot premise is laid out in the most flat and undecorated terms. Similarly THE SHINING, where the eeriness of Kubrick’s style, coupled with our familiarity with the genre, allow us to anticipate more excitement, even as we’re spoon-fed backstory and a boring job description. The actual events — a job interview — are potentially suspenseful, as we all know if we’ve ever applied for a job, but Kubrick seems intent on burying the potential drama of the scenes in front of us, the better to raise our expectations of what’s to come.

So PUFFBALL’s flat, draggy opening might have worked if it had gotten done with it faster, and if the pay-off had been any good.


Amid all the shagging and subterfuge, there are a number of bad sex moments, such as the green-tinged genital closeup (I presume either hardcore stand-ins or prosthetics were used: can’t see Miranda Richardson volunteering for movie coitus, although apparently Roeg has privately claimed that the celebrated DON’T LOOK NOW copulation IS real), a condom fitting in which the actor has to reach so far into his jeans that one assumes he’s either not “ready” or else must be hung like a cashew, and then the condom-cam money shot (see top) where a milky load splashes the lens like a Jackson Pollock tantrum in yogurt —  “It just made me think of Woody Allen,” complained my friend — but there’s one rough sex scene that’s actually pretty intense and “interesting,” made so by Kelly Reilly’s mean, sloe-eyed performance, rather than by any dubious directorial flourishes.

As William Wyler once told John Huston, “It’s the kind of movie that, when you make one, you ought to make another movie right away.” The sad thing is Roeg isn’t in a position to do so.

(Still: last movies and late movies have a way of rising in reputation: maybe the hidden merits of PUFFBALL will assert themselves at a later time. Stay tuned.)

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.