Archive for Misery

The Road to Ruin

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-10-23-09h03m42s191

The only disappointing thing about Elaine May’s directing career is that you can watch it all in a couple of days without risking fatigue. If she had been working in the forties we might have gotten thirty films from her. Well, actually there is another disappointing thing — ISHTAR. Sad to report that I have to largely agree with the majority on this one. But I was intrigued rather than annoyed by the palpable sense of “This Isn’t Working” which the movie exudes.

“Why should she carry the can if her stars didn’t have the comic chops to pull off the movie?” asked a friend. Well, she cast them, of course. There’s that. Both actors had been funny in other things — though Beatty had also made THE FORTUNE with May’s ex, Mike Nichols, a movie that looks like a rehearsal for this one. Rumour has it that Nichols cut the best comedy from the script in a drive to make the film cheaply, whereas May was taken to task for spending a lot of money on a film that ended up not looking particularly expensive. (Also, Nichols immediately made another picture. May hasn’t directed since.)

vlcsnap-2015-10-23-09h07m23s97

It looks pretty at times (so does THE FORTUNE). Vittorio Storaro shot it, and that may have contributed to the cost but it doesn’t contribute to the comedy. Too many comedies are dull-looking. There’s no reason a comedy can’t be beautiful. But there are also forms of beauty which distract from, rather than enhancing, comedic moments. ISHTAR is the story of two untalented songwriters, and it relies on frequent cutaways of aghast audience members, as in THE PRODUCERS. The first of these is decorated with a tinted light, and the green cast on the faces is so striking that it kills the laugh — a key moment in the film.

vlcsnap-2015-10-23-09h07m01s109

The songwriter schtick reminded me of KISS ME, STUPID, where Ray Walston and Cliff Osmond play a struggling composer and lyricist. In that one, the songs are trunk items by George & Ira Gershwin, which is a nice joke in itself, but not one you can actually laugh at while watching the film. Most of the songs in ISHTAR are by May and Paul Williams. Only the one written by Hoffman’s character for a wedding anniversary, which dwells ghoulishly on the impending deaths of its subjects, has a strong central joke — the rest depend on moments of clumsiness or a general sense of not being good. Some of the performers’ moves are funny. But somehow the spectacle of these two movie stars playing deluded idiots isn’t pleasing.

This film may have made Beatty paranoid — he played lots of schmucks in the seventies, from MCCABE AND MRS MILLER to THE PARALLAX VIEW. After ISHTAR, he was offered GET SHORTY, but Barry Sonnenfeld reports a strange meeting where Beatty obsessed over why his character, being as handsome as he was, would still be a lowly mob enforcer instead of the godfather figure. In discussions on MISERY, Beatty opined that if his character were to lose a foot, as in Stephen King’s novel, he would be, in the audience’s eyes, a loser. He talked himself out of two succesful movies (but Travolta and Caan are better casting).

vlcsnap-2015-10-23-09h01m52s115

I caught a bit of SPIES LIKE US on TV a while ago. Both it and ISHTAR seem to harken back to the Hope-Crosby ROAD pictures — Landis’ film even includes a cameo for Bob Hope, mysteriously playing golf in the middle of the Afghan desert. Neither film has enough actual funny moments. But Landis’ film has comedians in the lead roles and has a jaunty, jocular tone. ISHTAR creates discomfort rather than security, which was always a feature of May’s humour. It seems churlish to get upset that her film is cruel, mocking, tonally awry — these are qualities that enliven her films when they’re at their best.

SPIES LIKE US also looks expensive — the bang/buck ratio seems under control. In ISHTAR, Dave Grusin’s score is often terrific, but seems to by trying to hype up an excitement that the visuals don’t back up. A rooftop chase is both slow and uneventful, and the roofs are only one story up. The climax is a shoot out with two helicopters which would barely keep Rambo occupied for a moment in act two. In the eighties, comedies were parodying dramas by overinflating the action and underplaying the reactions, which is why Bill Murray saves GHOSTBUSTERS from being essentially witless. In ISHTAR, two sweaty dramatic actors strain at laughs that seem like mirages, while a tiny straight-to-video action film tinkles away in the middle-eastern middle distance.

(But ALL May film are sweaty. It’s a kind of trademark.)

vlcsnap-2015-10-23-09h00m52s252

The film, apart from seeming to find Arabic funny in itself, makes dictators and the CIA into the bad guys, and so is defensible in its politics. A fairly accurate portrait of Reagan foreign policy (the same can be said of SPIES LIKE US). Charles Grodin is a good choice as the CIA operative, Jack Weston is good casting as the duo’s agent (first glimpsed in his office with his gloves on, so we KNOW) — and if these two aren’t finding laughs in the situation, the whole situation is wrong.

In defiance of conventional wisdom, I did find the blind camel quite funny. And Beatty and Hoffman trying to come up with songs while dying of thirst in the desert was good — a fairly perfect illustration of the principle of inflexibility that makes comedy characters what they are. Actually, all the best stuff is two guys in the desert, failing to cope. Less Hope/Crosby, more Vladimir/Estragon. And the vultures are hilarious too – groucho-walking through shot while the expensive stars huddle in parched consultation. A metaphor for the film’s reception.

Advertisements

Spy Fight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2010 by dcairns

I have a bit of a problem with Philippe de Broca. I keep going back to his films, drawn by their several significant virtues, and I keep getting kicked in the teeth by a sense of misogyny that doesn’t add anything in the way of complication or pleasurable malaise to what are generally intended, it seems, as light, frothy romps. It’s weird and discomfiting.

Those virtues:

[1] The films are generally dazzlingly pretty, to the point where one might say the achieve actual beauty were it not for a certain emptiness. But the colours and design and eye for feminine charm do a lot to make one abandon one’s curmudgeonly insistence on some form of overall purpose, some sense of a world-view to be communicated. Film as summer holiday.

[2] Since the movies are often pretty fantastical, and don’t inject any bracing social satire or anything like that to relieve the frothiness, they have a hard job being actually funny — there’s no grit to abrade the comedy neurons — but nevertheless, the movies are inventive as heck, so there’s plenty of delight even if there’s not so many laughs.

[3] The films all have generous budgets, so that Broca, with his great eye and restless imagination, can indulge his fancies to a high degree of professional polish. It may seem crass to praise movies for being big-budget, but considering how samey and repetitive and cinematically ugly most big films are these days (in modern spectaculars the photography is generally elegant but the wooden blocking and mixmaster editing makes a hash of that), it’s refreshing to find somebody who can spend large quantities of cash and wind up with something attractive for us to look at. If you’ve never seen any PDB but you’ve seen Tariq’s THE FALL then you can still picture the kind of high-gloss location-porn I’m talking about.

Given all that (and if it seems like faint praise, it isn’t meant to — when it comes to movies I’m as much a foppish aesthete as I am a slob when it comes to personal grooming), it’s odd that I usually find PDB’s movies rather unpleasant on some level.

In L’INCORRIGIBLE there are off-colour jokes about rape and domestic violence which are unpleasant not just in themselves (a film-maker with something to say might be able to use such subjects comedically without leaving a meaningless sour taste behind) but for the sense that Broca, inherently a jocular entertainer, regards these subjects as just as amusing as everything else.

THE MAN FROM RIO, which inaugurated the image of Jean-Paul Belmondo as a contemporary daredevil man of action, doing his own stunts in a manner evoking Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd and, on the French side, Roland Toutain, is far less obnoxious, but something about the slapstick tone doesn’t gel with the action movie high body count. For me, Spielberg, who was heavily inspired by this movie when he gave us INDIANA JONES, got the mix to work better.

KING OF HEARTS is pretty much devoid of unpleasantness, and I enjoyed Alan Bates’s Scottish accent. The killing of pigeons seemed out of keeping with the lightness elsewhere, and the background of war and madness was problematic because Borca of course has nothing to say about either. He  just about manages to be consistent with his dumb “war is bad, madness is quite nice” slant, but even that disintegrates amid the gags. The movie is “charming” if you can really turn your brain off.

LE MAGNIFIQUE might be the best and worst of the Broca movies I’ve seen. It starts as a James Bond spoof. A spy is abducted when the phone booth he’s in is yanked into the sky by a helicopter with a claw hanging from a cable. They drop him fifty feet into the ocean. He’s still alive! Waiting on the ocean floor is a shark in a cage. Evil frogment connect the cage to the phone booth and the man is eaten, his sunglasses floating comically above his nose as he vanishes in a cloud of red ink.

The gore in this movie is startling — most of the spectacular gags dissolve in a welter of stage blood. It’s so excessive to the genre being parodied that it becomes a bizarre fascination on its own. Anyhow, we’re introduced to Bob Saint-Clair, secret agent, a man who vaults into sports cars in slow motion (for some reason this is always genuinely hilarious, the main funny gag in the movie, and I have no idea why it works so well). BSC is super-cool and infallible and accompanied by the gorgeous Tatiana, who’s played by Jacqueline Bisset. Wow.

After twenty minutes of this, we suddenly cut to an unshaven Belmondo slouched over a typewriter, and realize that he’s Francois Merlin, author of the Bob Saint-Clair series of pulp thrillers, and his lief is a dispiriting mess of unpaid bills, killer deadlines, faulty plumbing and electrics, and a variety of other ailments.  Coming so late in the film, this is pretty amazing stuff — the one thing you’d think was unworkable would be to extend the fantasy part of the film to fill most of the first act, leaving no time to introduce a compelling real-world plot. But this proves to be one of the film’s best ideas.

From here on, we intercut between Bob and Francois, as Francois meets Christine, a girl who’s just like Tatiana, only she’s a sociology student interested in the cultural-psychological meaning of his books. Francois tries to act like Bob to get the girl, with deplorable results, plus he has to compete with his sleazy publisher boss.  At one point, two keys on his typewriter start malfunctioning (shades of Stephen King’s Misery), causing everybody in his story to talk with a lisp. He finally takes to sabotaging his own work-in-progress, heaping indignities upon Bob Saint-Clair, upon the Albanian master-villain he’s based on his boss, and upon Tatiana. This stuff, with Bob suddenly turned into a Clouseau-esque nincompoop infected with mumps, is dumb yet still enjoyable.

Up until now, the movie’s malaise has been the inappropriate levels of graphic violence, presented in a slapstick style. At one point, Bob literally blows a bad guy’s brains out, and we get a brief shot of a fakey cardboard head exploding and then a shot of the severed brain landing plop on a plate on a restaurant table inexplicably adorning the bad guy’s lair (inside an Aztec pyramid, naturally). This is seriously disturbing in about eight different ways. I guess to a nation which regards sheep’s brains as something that actually belongs on a dinner plate, that particular shot is amusing rather than blindly horrific (as a Scot I only regard the contents of a sheep’s skull as edible if they’re mashed up with its other innards and boiled in the stomach lining. It’s called a haggis. Civilized values must prevail.) But the exploding cardboard head is disconcerting all by itself, actually reminding me of the head-splitting scenes in Riccardo Freda’s horror flicks HOMICIDE OBSESSION and TRAGIC CEREMONY. In fact, the violence is irrelevant to the freakish effect of the sudden false head. If Freda had wanted to truly disturb an audience, he could have dispensed with bloody setpieces altogether and just filmed 90 mins of elegant, Whit Stillman style chat, randomly cutting every few minutes to a cardboard face which has inexplicably replaced one of the characters. We’d all have nightmares for the rest of our lives.

So, I was sort of hoping Broca would settle for upsetting me with this stuff, and let the rest of the film be lightweight and appealing. But oh no. In the closing minutes, the Tatiana character is subject to a variety of unpleasant and unfunny abuses as Francois avenges himself upon Christine’s supposed infidelity. Now, Tatiana is a fictional character, even within the terms of the film. But it’s still unpleasant. This isn’t charming Gallic violence towards women, like an apache dance, or IRREVERSIBLE. It’s not shown graphically, but Tatiana is raped, whipped, gang-raped, thrown in the mud, and beaten with a crutch. It’s really, really not funny.

And yet, Broca doesn’t seem overall to hate women. He has superb taste in beautiful actresses, and clearly loves photographing them, dressed or otherwise (Jackie Bisset manages to stay mostly covered. The wonderful Genevieve Bujold and the very perky 21-yr-old Catherine Zeta-Jones both disrobed.) I’m not a good enough feminist to condemn him for his love of semi-gratuitous semi-nudity. But what is going on with this? Why does he want to spoil my enjoyment of his inappropriately blood-soaked self-referential Bond spoof with this offensive shit? It’s not like he’s Alain Robbe-Grillet! If he hadn’t died in 2004 I’d really want to slap him.

In fact, I might still do it.

Fog. Fog. Fog.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2008 by dcairns

We went to see THE MIST. When we came out, it was slightly misty. Uncanny.

I get the impression this film came out ages ago in the States, but here it’s just opened, and was only showing at 5.15pm on one screen in Edinburgh. Not a big hit Stateside, presumably. Why that should mean it shouldn’t get a big release here is puzzling to me, since possibly what stopped it working on its home turf is its politics, and political perceptions are different here.

But what ARE the politics of the film, a Frank Darabont adaptation of a Stephen King short story? Well, it certainly has things to say about crazy religious zealots (a favourite King bugbear). I don’t disagree with King’s assessment of God-bothering wingnuts, but it’s a little depressing that he always writes them the same way. Marcia Gay Harden in THE MIST is almost exactly the same character as Kathy Bates in MISERY and Piper Laurie in CARRIE. And they do always seem to be women.

“Another failed attempt to make Christians look bad” says somebody on the IMDb. I dunno, I thought they  looked pretty bad, the ones in the movie. I suspect that if you’re a Christian and you think this movie is about you, it is.

The drama of the film is divided in an interesting way. As the titular dry ice descends on King’s usual community of Castle Rock, a disparate crowd of shoppers shelter in a supermarket (if it were Britain, they would doubtless head for the pub, as in nearly every U.K. apocalypse movie, but Americans have a tendency to gravitate to larger outlets, as in DAWN OF THE DEAD), struggling to fend off the savage alien ecosystem that lives in the fog.

While all the action sequences revolve around battling the extra-dimensional creepy-crawlies (C.G.I. tentacles and skull-faced insects etc), much of the drama comes from the conflicts among the humans, with Harden’s crazy bat forming her own doomsday cult with tendencies towards human sacrifice.

The movie stumbles in a couple of ways with this approach. Firstly, it sacrifices the atmospheric chills of fog-blind panic for sheer monster-osity. There’s no “unseen” in this film, the beasties are all over the screen, FLAUNTING THEMSELVES. Secondly, it robs the cult of screen time and the chance to build convincingly.

Still, most of this is entertaining. The bugs are genuinely horrible, even more so than the excessively nasty critters in Jackson’s KING KONG (advice: better to get killed by the BIG ones, it’s much quicker) and there are some good actors at work. Thomas Jane does OK with the boring hero part, and the wonderful Toby Jones (son of the beyond-wonderful Freddie) gets to be an action star. Which has to be good. There aren’t many short action stars with outsized baby foreheads. Bruce Willis need no longer be lonesome.

Oh, and it’s always terrific to see the authoritative and adorable Frances Sternhagen.

The characters are a bit stupider than necessary, I have to say. Trapped in a building with a glass front, they set about sandbagging it with doggie chow sacks, rather than simply withdrawing to the loading bay with a lot of provisions. They have three army guys from the military base where the problem started, but it takes ages before anybody thinks of asking them what happened. And so it goes.

Darabont starts in his usual staid fashion, then adopts a Battlestar Galactica kind of shaky-cam crash-zoom approach when the biting starts, which didn’t really work for me. If you’re trying to simulate documentary roughness, it should be consistent. In reality, it’s almost as hard for a camera operator to smoothly follow somebody going to the fridge to get some Weightwatchers Carrot and Swede Mash as it is to follow somebody fighting an alien pterodactyl in Walmart. And I can say that with total authority, because I’m a strange, strange man.

Oh yes, politics. The other area where these surface is the disputes amongst the survivors. There’s some pithy barroom (or supermarket) philosophy here: “As a species, we’re fundamentally insane. Put two of us in a room, we pick sides, and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. That’s why we invented politics and religion,” opines Toby. And as always with monster movies, its tempting to read this one as a metaphor for Our Present Mess. “We’ve got to cut and run!” declares Jane.

But things are pretty complicated. The monsters are explained, rather lamely, as the results of a military experiment in extra-dimensional jiggery-pokery (what I’d call a video game explanation). So military intervention got us into this. But then at the end —

VAGUE SPOILER ALERT!

— the army take care of the problem. And the hero would appear to have been wrong in giving up hope. If this IS a metaphor for the Iraq war, the message would seem to be “Trust in the military, they will take care of these inhuman bad guys if we STAY THE COURSE!”

I sort of think Darabont probably didn’t intend that message, although I don’t know much about his views. Which would make it a failed ending, I think, although I did respect its very un-Hollywood negativity. It’s an ending that may well follow you around for a bit, bothering you, whether you like it or not.

“I regret nothing!”