Archive for Oliver Stone

Gummint

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2016 by dcairns

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Uh-oh! Symbolism alert!

As Donald Drumpf oozes his way towards Republican candidacy, it seemed appropriate to watch George Wallace, the John Frankenheimer-directed teleplay about another figure who sought to give the American people what they wanted… whatever it might be. “These are my principles! If you don’t like them… I have others,” he doesn’t quite say.

Gary Sinise won an Emmy for this role the day Wallace himself died, the kind of thing you couldn’t make up, and asides from the obvious political amusement value of a Reaganite wingnut in the role, he’s very well suited to it. Obviously any actor is going to be better looking than any politician, but the snakily sexy Sinise does have some kind of a working resemblance to his subject. He also deserved his Emmy for giving much of his performance from behind some pretty awful old age makeup.

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Prosthetically enhanced nasolabial madness

Sinise later reprised this role, uncredited, in Path to War, Frankenheimer’s last major work, about LBJ’s Vietnam entanglement — sadly, this piece doesn’t have nearly as good a script — too much exposition, backstory, showing off the research, characters as mouthpieces, some good stuff but some truly awful stuff. Joe Don Baker is wasted in a role that demands he deliver exactly the same dollar-book Freud analysis of Wallace, twice, in scenes set seventeen years apart. Mare Winningham is great as Mrs. W, but her role seems sculpted after Joan Allen’s Pat Nixon in the Oliver Stone movie, whose baleful influence hangs heavily over this one (unhelpful flashback structure; meaningless fluctuations into b&w). Both women are made into that most irksome of feminine characters, the person who pleads with the an/protagonist not to do what he’s got to do. Yeah, spend more time with your family, George. That’ll make riveting television. Worse, in order to make these women “sympathetic,” both pieces avoid giving them any politics of their own — they are mutely compliant ciphers (which is the role politician’s wives play in public, but I imagine often behind the scenes they understand and agree with a good bit of what hubby is up to). So Lurleen Wallace’s only role is as Pinocchio’s conscience, but without the insights. “And if you do become president, will that finally quell the raging beast that dwells within you?” she doesn’t quite say.

(The script does manage one nice use of backstory — the Wallaces roleplaying the first time they met, which gives them a moment of sweetness while filling in some history [as always with backstory, we don’t actually need it, but in this case it pays for itself in present-tense character stuff].)

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Also along is a young Angelina Jolie, fairly melting the celluloid. The script can’t quite decide what to make of her. She’s as driven to win as George — perhaps that makes her bad? She’s sexy — perhaps that makes her bad? Whatever, it’s a fierce, animalistic performance from somebody who’s clearly going places.

Who else? Clarence Williams III is moving as a prison trustee working in the governor’s mansion, who turns out to be fictitious, a fact revealed in a final title, which kind of collapses his part of the piece like a house of cards. Where the film works, it tends to be in (a) showing Wallace’s monstrousness — his famous line about having been “outniggered” — “As God is my witness, I’ll never be outniggered again,” he doesn’t quite say. And (b) showing Wallace suffer — Sinise is chairbound again, in constant pain, and yes, we can feel some sympathy for a soul in hell even though damned if he deserves it. Where it resorts to special pleading or faking up sympathy it flounders. Williams isn’t doing a DRIVING MISS DAISY, quite (that would be too horrific), and there’s some merit in showing that Wallace THINKS he likes black people, personally, and thinks his ability to have them around the house proves he’s not bigoted, but this piece of fiction damages the film nevertheless, because it hurts its credibility.

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The Klan brings out Frankenheimer’s compositional brio

I have somewhere in the house a 70s book on Frankenheimer, probably buried in the folds of my floordrobe, with a substantial interview in which he talks about his liberal politics. Maybe nowadays anybody talking about “negros” will just seem dates and clueless, but Frankenheimer seems to have problems that go beyond just terminology — I believe he uses the expression “the Negro problem,” which is falling into a major linguistic trap. You’re saying, I believe, that there is a problem because there are some people called Negros. Back up. Try again. Try better.

But Frankenheimer’s political engagement (American liberals tend to be pretty right-wing by the standards of the rest of the world) does allow him to portray his real-life friend Bobby Kennedy squaring off against Wallace (Mark Valley is pretty good in the role, though again a shade too handsome). And the historical events and the actions of the main figure  (one heistates to use the word “character”) had us watching with our jaws hanging open. Some of the facts we knew, but it’s mostly before our time, and it’s another country, so a lot of it was new to us.

The movie takes Wallace’s reformation seriously — he asks forgiveness of African-Americans. As an audience, having watched this human bellwether flip-flop for three hours, we’re not quite willing to go with him. It would be entirely in character for Wallace to renounce his former racism just to stay fashionable. It’s good that he did it, whatever the reason, just as Drumpf’s racism is equally toxic whether he believes it or not. Political hot air has real consequences.

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JF’s signature shot, first wheeled out in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. A nostalgia for the mechnics of TV runs all through his later work.

The music in this show is not good. Orchestral synths piping presidential themes at us — John Williams could play NIXON epic because he had the musical grandeur to pull it off, and the script made enough clumsy gestures Nixon being a tragic figure — King Liar. “He doesn’t deserve this music,” said Fiona, as the pseudo-strings swelled soupily around Sinise. “He deserves, maybe, a toy piano.” Or a kazoo and a rattle. Gary Chang did some good scores for Frankenheimer, especially on the thrillers, but this isn’t good.

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And again

The problematic script is by Wallace biographer Marshall Frady and Paul Monash, whose career swings from the crappy add-on scenes in TOUCH OF EVIL, to fifties TV shows including one with Frankenhemer (I haven’t seen The Death of Manolete) to the magnificent THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.

Treacly Dicky

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2016 by dcairns

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I got intrigued to finally watch NIXON — I had always been kind of intrigued to see it but not enough, apparently, to actually see it — after hearing Oliver Stone talk about it, and seeing a lengthy — really extraordinary lengthy — clip of it during his Edinburgh masterclass.

Fiona and I were both rather taken by Anthony Hopkins’ performance, but Fiona kept getting tired out by the sheer duration of the thing, and all those names — having missing Watergate ‘s opening run, due to youth, we felt we were experiencing it in real time, with added flashbacks. So we watched it in about four parts, which is admittedly not ideal.

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Let’s be clear: bits of this film are terrible. Stylistically there’s a lot of hangover from NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which took the faux-documentary elements of JFK — switching film stocks, flash cuts, b&w and still photo inserts — and pumped them up into sheer hallucination. It’s a film whose brio I admire but whose message and attitude I despise, and which makes me feel really ill every time I see more than a few minutes of it. But I would grant it’s effective. (I don’t blame the film for inspiring actual atrocities: but there is nothing in it which would not be flattering to someone contemplating an atrocity — the serial killers are the only characters with integrity, apart from the civilians who don’t matter — Tarantino’s original draft is positively moralistic compared to Stone’s revision.)

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In NIXON, some of the techniques are flat-out awful: superimposing napalm blasts behind Nixon as he mounts the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — a new low in taste. Put it alongside the shark eating a victim filmed from inside the shark’s mouth in 3D in JAWS 3D. But with Robert Richardson lensing, this filmic atrocity abuts some truly stunning shots of the statue itself. And then comes the bit Scorsese got very excited about — Nixon goes out of sync. He says a line, pauses — and his voice continues. And then we jump-cut to a very slightly different close-up just as he finished his new line, his lips moving in time with it for the space of half a syllable. “This is new! We haven’t seen this before!” snapped Marty, and he’s right. And not much since. But it’s powerful — it’s not just Stone, stoned, mucking about in the edit, though it might have come about that way. It conveys in vivid fashion a familiar human sensation, when we find ourselves saying something. Our mouth and brain are out of sync, and there’s a belated moment of realisation when we grasp what we’ve said. Or else, we’re concentrating so hard on what we’re saying, we kind of miss the moment of actually saying it. Intense conversations have this quality.

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Dance, Nixon, dance!

Hopkins is very enjoyable — so much so, that when the movie finally shows us the real Tricky Dicky, it’s a surprise how little resemblance there is — there is, in fact, no resemblance. I think Hopkins may be wearing contacts and teeth, but otherwise the team have wisely decided not to disguise him. In HITCHCOCK, Hopkins is plastered in makeup but can’t do the voice. Here, he gets to look human, he sort of does the voice, and he gets the manner, or at any rate A manner which is fascinating and horrifying to watch.

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Best Nixon: Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s film of Donald Freed and Arthur M Stone’s SECRET HONOR. Hall doesn’t exactly look like Nixon but he is a Nixon type, if he’ll forgive me for saying so.

Worst Nixon: the poor guy in the prosthetic nonsense in WATCHMEN, a big expensive film with inexplicably terrible makeup. He looks like he’s wearing a leftover Nixon Halloween mask from POINT BREAK. A good plot twist would be to have him rip his face off and be Tom Cruise underneath.

Best possible Nixon — Walter Matthau. Only he had the scrotumnal countenance. And, if we disregard all the twinkly rogues he played in his late career and recall his charmless villains of the fifties, then it all happens. Just sharpen his nose and lighten his hair.

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Hopkins works harder than Baker to adapt his mode of performing, because he obviously HAS to. He has no genetic advantages. Very smart costuming manages to make his shoulders behave like Nixon’s shoulders, with Hopkins’ help.

Stone was amusingly scornful of most of his collaborators (in a way that makes you slightly suspect him of being an asshole) — I paraphrase: “I liked Hopkins as an actor because you always felt you could see his thinking going on behind his eyes. Having worked with him, I don’t know what he actually finds to think about…” Stone reported that Hopkins struggled terribly with the accent, and one day was riding an elevator with Paul Sorvino (transformed by makeup and performance astonishingly into a perfect Kissinger) and asked how P.S. thought the rehearsals were going. “Well, you’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Sorvino, and Stone had to either wrench Hopkins down from the ceiling or high-tackle him on the way to the airport as he tried to flee the country, I forget which.

I can report that the struggle was worth it!

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As the movie lurches from bad bit — a March of Time newsreel that’s unconvincing in itself and a lame bit of condensed exposition even in the abstract — to good bit — lots of performers we like — Madeleine Khan, Larry Hagman, James Woods, J.T. Walsh (a great actor who had somehow slipped out of mm mind altogether in the few years since his death, a terrible thing) — I started to appreciate the hallucinatory feel. Maybe because it covers a lot of the same material, the film has much in common with the far more modest SECRET HONOR, but whereas the Altman takes place in a single room which comes to feel like Nixon’s headspace, all of NIXON, wherever the action takes place, feels like Nixon’s disordered mind — or Stone’s. Some of the Deutsch tilts and extreme low angles feel forced and melodramatic, but some of the psychedelic madness works, mainly in conjunction with Hopkins’ sweaty grimacing. Nixon, we are told, was trying to appear mad to make the Russians afraid. As Nick Nolte observes in MOTHER NIGHT, “Be very careful what you pretend to be, because in the end, you ARE what you appear to be.”

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“Don’t worry, I’ll use the old Nixon charm,” says Hopkins, and then performs a wink that makes him instantly morph into Quasimodo — a role he has previously played.

I quite liked John Williams’ music. For once, it doesn’t feel on-the-nose, maybe because it’s never quite clear where Nixon’s nose is.

Oh, apart from the opening biblical quote, “What shall it profit a man…” Give Williams a hackneyed biblical quote and you know what you’ll get from him.

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Not quite sure what to make of Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover. Stone overplays the homosexual angle just as he did in JFK, and seems to be using it as evidence of moral corruption. On the other hand, acknowledging Hoover’s sexuality may be more respectful than downplaying it to nothingness, as other biopics tend to do, either by necessity or sheer discomfort (Eastwood?). Hoover’s big scene with Nixon is awkward as we have two Brits trying to out-Amurrican each other, while Stone cuts to foaming racehorses, symbolism which would certainly be lead-footed if we knew what the hell he was getting at. But I must say, the looming closeups with their lysergic sharpness and broiling intensity made for quite a scene. It’s bad AND good, much like the film.

(I miss Bob Hoskins.)

 

Thespionage

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 11, 2016 by dcairns

Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) meets with his client Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent arrested in the U.S. in DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures' dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Caught up with BRIDGE OF SPIES — on the big screen, fortunately. Nice to be able to see 35mm grain dancing about, even if it’s only a digital reproduction.

The really suffered in the cold war: every room was filled with a thin layer of smoke, and the light from the windows blasted in so brightly, you couldn’t see the outside world and had to battle your way through great shafts of smoky light. But there was nothing you could do. It was everywhere. People just had to put up with it.

Spielberg has de-ironized the Coen Bros’ script (a polish of a Matt Charman original), which is mostly a good thing — refreshing to see matters of life and death and national idealism treated earnestly. Where it comes to Tom Hanks’ home life, the Eisenhower family values schtick is a little too cloying and the attempts at humour too sweet to stave off the conservatism. Very pleasing to see Hanks’ somewhat neglected comedy chops getting a workout as he deals with the ridiculousness of the spy world, though. Spielberg, his actors, and his writers are all on the same page here, and it’s a page they know just what to do with.

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Was also looking at Oliver Stone’s NIXON and was struck by how Stone’s attempts at symbolism or authorial commentary are usually leaden and obvious (sometimes effective for all that — sheer gusto can help). Spielberg is a deft symbolist. Symbolism is an extremely dangerous weapon, apt to backfire and leave the wielder looking silly — face blackened and clothes tattered like Yosemite Sam after a mishap. Spielberg’s little grace notes, though signposted so everyone can understand their significance, are elegant enough not warp the film’s surrounding fabric, quite simply get away with murder.

In Berlin (or “Berlin, Germany”, as a superimposed title helpfully clarifies), Tom Hanks rides an elevated train crossing the wall from East to West. Glancing from the window he sees a group of three escapees attempting to cross — one has mounted the wall and is attempting to help the second up, while a third boosts her from ground level. Machine gun bullets rake the trio and they fall. All this seen from the sweeping viewpoint of the train, which hurtles relentlessly past. The world will not stop for this little tragedy.

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At the film’s end, back in New York, Hanks rides a different L-train. Glancing outside, he sees houses rushing past, and watches a gang of kids playing in their backyards, joyously climbing a fence between two properties. The same onrushing viewpoint swoops past them, crossing their barrier effortlessly and at great speed, leaving them in the distance.

Outrageous, of course: a similar action filmed in an identical way — one scene is at night, the second is daylit, by the way — the similarities point up the intended contrast between an unhappy land and a happier one. Spielberg carries it off, I think, even though you’re totally aware of what he’s up to. It’s still better than the girl in the red coat in SCHINDLER’S LIST. It doesn’t bend the film out of shape and it’s not excessive to its purpose, though like everything in Spielberg (those fuggy rooms!), it can be considered overdone.

The irony with Spielberg is, his smooth camera blocking in dialogue scenes is now a nostalgic hangover from a lost golden age of elegance. He could be invisible if he chose to.

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