Archive for Olivia Williams

The Vabina Monologues

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

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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.

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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.

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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…

Ghost Writing

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2010 by dcairns

What to call Polanski’s latest? In America it’s THE GHOST WRITER, a rather pedantic and factual title with nothing evocative or provocative about it. Here in Britain it’s THE GHOST, a title it shares with Robert Harris’s novel, a title reflected in the film, where the nameless hack played by Ewan McGregor refers to himself as “your ghost.” So the shorter title should be the preferred choice, right? But it’s obvious from the film’s artful end credits that THE GHOST WRITER is the name it’s been produced under, and the tacked-on main title at the start betrays Polanski’s obvious intent to start the movie without any titles at all.

Whatever we decide to call it, it’s a very fine film. I’m not sure Polanski would see it as a political film, although the backdrop is politics and it takes a jaundiced view of certain very recognizable real-world figures. Certain qualities, like the savage joke of an ending, can be seen both as evidence of the director’s earnestness or his flippancy. Certainly the behaviour of the hero at the end, and the readiness of the antagonists’ response, do not promote a view of the film as fundamentally realistic, but a movie can enter the paranoid mindset of the genre thriller without abandoning political engagement… I’m just not sure.

None of which hampered my enjoyment of the film, especially the playing. McGregor is having a very good year, and Olivia Williams should rise to preeminence on the back of this. Pierce Brosnan has always been a funny guy, and he’s hugely enjoyable as the intellectually lazy former PM, avoiding any hint of impersonation (we have Michael Sheen if we need a precise copy) and insisting on his character’s reality within the film, rather than depending on Tony Blair’s outside it. None of which is intended as any disrespect to Sheen.

“Don’t grin,” says Williams to Brosnan’s image on TV, and I can imagine Polanski saying the same thing to McGregor, a likable thesp who has tended to fall back on his shiny teeth a bit too much. Actually, Brosnan on TV is the only wrong note: he’s slurring his words strangely, in what must be intended as his “statesman” voice, perhaps meant to sound like Albert Finney as Churchill in The Gathering Storm, but coming off more like Albert Finney in THE DRESSER. Weird.

The other weird notes I thought were quite good, really. When McGregor finds some old photos of Brosnan at university, the images are pathetically photoshopped and deeply ludicrous, but it seemed sort of apt that Tony Blair should have a past constricted via Stalinist revisionism, retouched photos of a retouched life, something from 1984. And it’s his world we’re living in, so the digital sky replacements, adding smudgy watercolour greys to every background, not quite convincingly, added something too. Blair/Brosnan has brought the English weather with him.

Of course this Blair is called Adam Lang, and the movie begins with a nice swipe from THE TESTAMENT OF DR MABUSE, a single unmoving car among many mobile ones signifying the death of its occupant. But generally Polanski avoids Langian flourishes, maintaining the more relaxed, fluid and unshowy style he’s inhabited since THE PIANIST. His actors and slow trickle of conspiracy plot are more than enough to hold the attention.

Back to those actors: an amusing scene with Scotsmen McGregor and David Rintoul both pretending to be English. Irishman Brosnan plays Scottish, Tom Wilkinson plays American (as a sort of sinister Robert Osborne) and the only person who’s unconvincing is Kim Cattrall, playing English — despite the fact that she IS English. I quite like KC, but she does sometimes mismatch the pitch of her perf to what’s going on around her: BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES was another case where she was a notch or two more shrill than everyone else, which was a seriously bad idea in that movie. Keep your head down and hope nobody spots you, would be my advice.

Rintoul, who was in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, is further evidence of my theory that Polanski casts Brits he remembers from 60s/70s horror movies. This probably started with Jon Finch in MACBETH, and Finch’s VAMPIRE LOVERS co-star Barbara Jefford was in THE NINTH GATE. Not a coincidence, since she makes so few films. Add Peter Copley (OLIVER TWIST / FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED), Frank Finlay (THE PIANIST / TWISTED NERVE) and Roy Kinnear (PIRATES / TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) and it starts to look like some kind of strange plan

Other welcome faces this time: Timothy Hutton, Jim Belushi and Eli Wallach. Wallach is a special joy. When viewing a very elderly actor, especially one as explosive as he, I generally have two slight fears: that the actor will overplay uncontrollably and embarrass us both, or that he’ll just kind of keel over in mid-sentence. Neither happens here. Result! Better yet, Wallach reminds us how exhilarating and intensely focused a performer he is.

Meanwhile, this is a very fine film, with interesting connections to CHINATOWN (Lang’s oriental servants, the drowning death of a witness…) and a measured control of pace that continually pays off in viewer fascination. My favourite little moment was probably when McGregor pauses midway through the intractable manuscript, looks out the window, and sees the Asian help loading beach debris from the porch into a wheelbarrow, while the wind blasts it out as soon as he turns his back. A perfect analog for the creative process on a bad day.

Language

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2010 by dcairns

Despite the fact that of the two popular music biopics currently on release, NOWHERE BOY clearly has the stronger cinematic credentials, we went to see SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL, the Ian Dury story as written by actor-turned-scenarist Paul Viragh and directed by TV helmer Matt Whitecross. Possibly because Fiona likes Ian Dury a lot, and possibly because she likes Andy Serkis, who plays Ian Dury, a lot.

What a remarkable figure Dury was: his music combines punk, funk and music hall, and he comes over on stage as a sort of sweary Essex Noel Coward, filtered through the wraith of Gene Vincent. Bizarre. And then there’s the wastage of half his body, caused by polio, giving him a marked limp. “On stage I try to sort of hover,” he says in the movie. “You’re putting that on,” someone once told him. “I thought I was trying to cover it up,” he replied.

The film is pretty creditable in many ways — the high-water mark for this kind of thing was set most recently by CONTROL, whose familiar structure of struggle, success and dissolution is echoed unavoidably in S&D&R&R, but the stylistic approach couldn’t be more different. In the film’s zanier scenes, deploying animation designed by the artist Peter Blake, and in its not-quite chronological structure, the movie is perhaps more influenced by 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (which also featured Serkis), although it substitutes music video japery for the more interesting cod-Brechtian antics of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s witty script. While Michael Winterbottom apparently had no clue how to use the Factory Records music in that film, Whitecross does at least find room to let Dury’s songs register, via sustained concert sequences and linking montages. The concerts, though ridiculously hyped-up in their cutting, are effective, and provide a semi-fantastical framing structure whereby Dury appears to introduce and wrap up the movie, but the montages reveal a certain desperation to be interesting, which shouldn’t be a problem with such a colourful central character.

The film is a lot like the trailer, hectic and eager-to-please but with something interesting oozing through. Except the trailer leaves out a lot of the best bits for censorship reasons.

Serkis as Dury holds the movie together, more or less overcoming a central indecision in the script — is this Dury’s story or his son’s? It’s a very effective impersonation of Dury’s singing, his manner, his disability (Dury is an almost unique example of a disabled pop star), his charm and his self-destructiveness. Dury’s main musical collaborator, Chas Jankel, produced the film’s soundtrack and reported that working with Serkis was liking attending a seance.

Supporting cast is very fine, with young Bill Milner impressive as Dury’s son (a strange effect is created by the fact that Dury’s kids never seem to age, but why let that bother us?) and Toby Jones enjoyably snarling as an underwritten villain. The women in Dury’s life present a problem, falling into the same stereotypes as those in CONTROL, long-suffering wife and fun, faintly annoying girlfriend. One has our sympathy but we don’t especially want to hang out with her when the fun is elsewhere, the other can’t really hope for sympathy and is too much of a hanger-on to be compelling on any other level. The problem is endemic to the material: philandering musicians write uninteresting roles for the women in their lives. Still, that’s no excuse to show Olivia Williams hurling crockery at her husband, a wretched cliché forty years ago, and something unworthy of inclusion in the film even if it happened. Important note to filmmakers everywhere: just because something happened, that’s no reason to put it in a film. Or as Dury himself says, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

The biggest success is the consistently entertaining dialogue — at least as long as Dury is around — a lot of Dury’s witticisms are hoary old jokes, but he has an endless supply of them and no shame about trotting them out whether the situation demands it or not. His joy in the English language is evoked in a scene where he trades synonyms for “penis” with his son (although, I note sadly, there is no English synonym for “synonym”), but really illustrated by the songs themselves.

I was pleased to find a couple of my students at the same screening, and even more pleased to learn that at least one, the excellent Oliver, was already a fan. When Dury died ten years ago the student I mentioned it to had never heard of him. Progress!

Movie lovers can see the real Dury in THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER and PIRATES.