Archive for Roger Corman

They’re Young, They’re in Love, and They Bore People

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2009 by dcairns

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Johnny Depp fulfills a lifelong ambition by having his name printed laterally across the shaft of his penis.

Sometimes I wish I were just an ordinary audience member (not that I’m removed from that by anything other than conceit and a WordPress account), so I could look at Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES and just say “Blah… what a tedious film.” For in many ways that would be the correct response, and such is the film’s deadening aspect that one does wonder if any critical analysis can produce anything worthwhile from this flat spectacle.

Johnny Depp is John Dillinger, celebrity bank robber, who says things like “You can either be a live coward or a dead hero,” and “I like baseball, fast cars, whisky and you,” which is nice. But Depp is somewhat muted, the way he was in THE NINTH GATE: an actor dedicated to flamboyance, he’s at sea in Mann’s world of low-talking hard men. And Mann is at sea with the showbiz side of Dillinger. He’s a stranger to gusto.

Here’s one problem: how is this film different from HEAT? If you like HEAT, I guess you won’t care, but for me, both films are long, unexciting films about low-affect thugs who talk a lot about how professional they are, and then act like idiots. In HEAT, DeNiro decides to kill a guy who’s threatening him with exposure, so he attacks the guy very publicly in a car park, using only blunt instruments, such as his fists and wits. One of those situations where I always think, “If a witness shows up and spoils things, I’ll be annoyed. And if a witness doesn’t show up and spoil things, I’ll STILL be annoyed.”

A witness shows up. DeNiro stops kicking the guy, acts innocent (he doesn’t quite rolls his eyes up and hang his mouth open like Harpo Marx looking innocent, but it’s similar) and when the witness (I think maybe a COP CAR) drives off, he gets set to resume the beating, but his prey has somehow crawled off and vanished. Even though he was right there.

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Christian Bale lost 63 pounds, and then put them on again, to play Special Agent Melvin Purvis.

In PUBLIC ENEMIES it’s the Bureau of Investigation guys who do the stupid stuff, disobeying direct orders and getting killed, repeatedly letting Dillinger go by — Christian Bayle’s college-boy agents let him down continuously. So he gets some veterans from Texas, and the ignores their advice. Dillinger escapes again. It’s one of these combat-hardened vets who actually plugs Dillinger at the end, and he’s one of the few good characters in the film: Stephen Lang is steely-eyed and magnetic, and his character is actually competent, amid an ocean of assholes.

Mann could have used the factual catalogue of blunders to poke fun of the formative FBI, or he could have used the scenes of torture and reckless trigger-happy public endangerment to condemn them, but he doesn’t seem to want to say anything. I felt like yelling through the film at him, using it as some kind of Hi-Def ear-trumpet, quoting Graham Crowden in IF… — “Do You Have An OPINION???”

All this might pass if the film had an appealing aesthetic, but I struggled, I really did, to find anything worthwhile about it. Mann has spoken about how he tested the digital cameras for a lark, and found that on film, his test scene looked like a movie set in the ’30s, whereas on digital it looked like he’d gone back in time and was IN the ’30s. Which sounds nice, but it doesn’t play that to me. To me it looks like a YouTube video in fancy dress. Digital has advanced to a point where you often need expertise to tell it from film, but Mann succeeds in making it look fuzzy and dead.

(Full disclosure: my local gigaplex, the Vue Ocean Terminal, underlights its projectors, has disfigured screens, and lets light spill onto the screen from the exit. So the film wasn’t looking its best. But I still think this is one that’ll look better on DVD.)

Mann juggles oddball angles looking up under machine guns at faces, uses handheld shots to create a sick-making motion blur whenever he can, and cuts things into what Roman Polanski has called “that fruit-salad style…” The art deco locations are often dazzling, but the camera is never in synch with their cool splendor.

The “great romance” aspect of the film, not really borne out by history, is shot dead execution-style by the limp playing of Depp and Marion Cotillard (all her concentration is going on not sound too French) and by Mann’s total disinterest in women, which also results in the pathetic wastage of Lilli Taylor. Since Mann, like Cotillard’s character, is completely unconcerned with any moral view of what Dillinger does for a living, you’d think he’d have more identification with her.

(Roger Corman, in BLOODY MAMA and THE ST VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, both of which I saw recently, is likewise uninterested in preaching or taking sides, but he IS ripping the veil from off the American capitalist dream. You can’t accuse him of not having a point of view. All Mann has is a viewfinder, generally aimed up at somebody from under their armpit.)

Thing about MM is, he has lots of ideas, but they generally work better in his head than on the screen: the jump-cuts in MANHUNTER, the long-lens confusion of LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Of course, nobody with Mann’s sense and budget could make this movie without hitting some good points: the phone-tapping room, a constellation of little glowing lights; and Dillinger’s last night with his girl, in a barren moonscape lit by chill morgue-rays — such moments suggest that a ’30s digital movie COULD look beautiful.

And Dillinger’s sly visit to the offices where his case is being investigated — which I assume to be at least partly poetic license, since we never see him tell anyone about it, so how would the screenwriters know it happened? — is a nicely mythic and romantic moment, like Dillinger’s last words… a few moments of this kind impress, late in the day.

Oh, there’s another impressive actor in the thing: Peter Gerety as Dillinger’s lawyer. I wonder if his dialogue in court is straight from the historical record, because he sure talks better than anybody else in this film. Maybe such able thesps as Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Marion Cotillard and Giovanni Ribisi make such little impact because of the weedy dialogue, which is devoid of all period zing (in the zingiest slangiest era in American history!), stranding the cast in a neutral zone of slow, emphatic delivery. (I know pastiche is the last thing on Mann’s mind, but folks in ’30s flicks talk FAST, and that would be a wonderful thing to offer modern audiences.)

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Got home and slung an authentic 1930s crime-flick, THE BEAST OF THE CITY, in the old Panasonic, and within minutes was exulting in lines like ~

Cop: Mind if I ask you some questions?
Jean Harlow: Sure, if you don’t ask them in Yiddish.

And ~

Jean Harlow (embracing cop): Are you going to reform me?

Cop: What for?

EVERY line in that film seemed to sparkle and crackle with lust, malice and wanton throwaway wit. By contrast, the verbiage emanating at snail-speed from the kissers of Mann’s barely-dramatis personae cuts about as much mustard as a hash-slinger with hooks for hands. See?

Still, Mann’s usual stumbling-block is music — I recall with rising nausea the synth-pop atrocities of MANHUNTER, the smorgasbord of ethnic stylings in THE INSIDER (“The most heterosexual movie ever made! It’s nothing but angry men shouting into HUGE PHONES!” – Ben Halligan) and the somnolent Tangerine Dream drones of THIEF. Here he does about as badly as you could do in a rich musical decade, but not half as badly as he normally does. The bluesy humming is actually quite nice, although it’s diluted with lots of other effects which don’t mesh into a whole, and every time the radio is on its Billie Holliday, which is fine but limited.

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As in ALI, Man shows an interest in resurrecting history but never illuminates it. Dillinger appears to have escaped from prison in Indiana by carving a gun from a bar of soap, blackening it with shoe-polish, and holding up the guards. Woody Allen parodied this in his first film, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, where Allen’s home-made side-arm dissolves into a lather during a rainstorm. But Mann includes the incident without explaining the fake gun at all. (An alternative theory, from cult author Robert Anton Wilson: Dillinger meditated real hard, and teleported out of his cell. I’d watch THAT movie. Twice!)

Likewise he shows a judge taunting J. Edgar Hoover for never actually arresting anyone, without showing the punchline, which is included in Larry Cohen’s THE PRIVATE FILES OF J EDGAR HOOVER: Hoover stage-managed an arrest and turned up to snap the cuffs into place, a troupe of tame news cameramen in tow. Mann exposes himself as a filmmaker with no sense of humour — or storytelling.

A closing title tells us that (predictably dead-eyed) Christian Bayle’s real-life character resigned from the Bureau a year after Dillinger’s death, and killed himself in 1960. And I wondered, why tell us that? The movie hasn’t done anything to explain such actions, we barely even know this guy, so what’s the point of telling us?

Festival Fizzle

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 29, 2009 by dcairns

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Edinburgh. Photo by Chris B.

Essentially a limp rag, I contemplate the end of this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival largely from outside. I head that Johanna Waegner, a student from my film department at Edinburgh College of Art, has won the Scottish Short Documentary Award supported by Baillie Gifford, for her film PETER IN RADIOLAND, which is excellent news. The last day of the event is also The Best of the Fest, which translates into “what prints do we still have knocking about that we can show again?” But sometimes these films really ARE among the best, so don’t think I’m knocking any.

I’m feeling a bit silly because I slagged off the science in MOON, and it turns out there really IS something called Helium3 which you use for fusion power, and it’s to be found on the moon in great abundance. We could potentially power civilisation for thousands of years, cleanly, if we could harness it. I do slightly blame the filmmakers for inspiring my disbelief with the line “the energy of the sun, harvested from the dark side of the moon,” which does seem rather counter-intuitive. Helium3 is created by the impact of the sun’s rays on the lunar surface, so the dark side isn’t where I’d go look for it. I suspect that the director, who is the artist formerly known as Zowie Bowie, just wanted to have the phrase “dark side of the moon” in his film.

Weather was outstanding, in a weird way, throughout the fest. Intermittent showers were nuked by brilliant sunshine that had me slapping the old factor 30 0nto my pallid Scottish skin. The heat became so intense even festival director Hannah McGill bared her legs, as beautifully slender and white as noodles. Then a fog descended with a thump, making the city look like a glass that had been breathed on.

Shadowplayer and filmmaker Paul Duane passed through town, very briefly, and we touched base over chili at the Filmhouse. Paul told me an excellent ALIEN story which I must remember to pass on to you.

5106_562076749371_284001094_3678668_6856870_nThe back of my neck gets to meet Roger Corman, who signs my copy of How I Made A Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, one of the finest movie-making books ever committed to paper. Unfortunately, in an understandable hurry (he’s 83) he signs it “Pen Emm”. Still, it was extremely gracious of him to do that much, and I’ll now treasure my first edition even more.

Corman’s tribute ended with a screening of the explosive BLOODY MAMA. It had been rumoured that the festival heads hadn’t realised Corman had been here before, with the same film, in 1970, but on this occasion a brochure from the 1970 show was produced, along with two tickets, and presented to the Great Man.

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Interviewed Joe Dante the same day, which was an utter pleasure, and will be editing our conversation down this week to produce a consumable literary good out of it. Shadowplayer Chris B was houseguest for the week, and he snapped me and Joe together, smiling blurredly.

Attendance was UP this year.

Went back and saw PONTYPOOL a second time, enjoying Bruce MacDonald’s Q&A, the audience’s extremely vocal enthusiasm, and Fiona’s pleasure at the film, which I’d avoided telling her anything about (except, “It’s not Welsh. It’s Canadian.)

After that, we grabbed a cab with filmmakers Jamie and Talli and Johanna and managed to gain access to the closing party, held in a huge abandoned church. Had time for one drink and some quality mingling before being ushered out onto the street, where a man kept falling over. I’m no expert, but drink may have been involved. It’s generally best if I don’t stay long at these kind of things, since the concept of free drink appeals to two aspects of my Scots makeup, the thrift and the alcoholism. I remember one party in Portobello Funfair which degenerated into a FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS trip-out sequence, ending in myself being adopted by a tribe of fire eaters. At one point I found myself arm-wrestling a man covered in gold paint. It’s quite an experience to arm wrestle someone without actually touching them (we were at opposite ends of a five-foot table), but it made for a vivid memory.

Today the only films really calling to me are CRYING WITH LAUGHTER because I know and like the people involved, and GIALLO, because Argento is Argento, even if he’s not really anymore. But I have quite a bit of life to catch up on so I don’t know if I’ll make it. By the time I post this, today will be yesterday anyway…

Out Where the Buses Don’t Run

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2009 by dcairns

(Please consider this your Intertitle of the Week, since I haven’t seen any silent movies this week, and anyway the film does feature intertitular chapter headings, saying things like CHAOS REIGNS and PAIN. I don’t have frame grabs of them though.)

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Well, I let you down. Enjoying my ass off with Roger Corman’s crimson-soaked social commentary flick BLOODY MAMA, I missed the Anthony Dod Mantle interview conducted by Seamus McGarvey (one master cinematographer interrogated by another) so I’m still none the wiser about the current location of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s prosthetic clitoris. I had dreams of uniting it with Nicole Kidman’s leftover nose from THE HOURS (now in McGarvey’s possession). Eventually, we could have assembled an entire artificial woman (“That should be really interesting!”) We could call her Kate Bosworth.

But I did see Mantle’s latest film as DP, Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST, and took part in the Q&A afterwards.

The movie begins with stars Willem Dafoe and Gainsbourg coupling in the shower, extreme closeups of their body doubles’ genitals interlocking as water droplets fall in mega-slo-mo and Handel plays on the soundtrack. The love scene morphs into suspense as their little son heads for the window, and the whole sequence resembles a TV advertisement crossed with a Brian DePalma set-piece. “Parts of it are extremely beautiful, but it’s beauty on the level of kitsch,” critic Jonathan Romney had told us. Yet I might give Lars the benefit of the doubt here: as we find out later, all is not well in this family, and this is not the story of happy normality shattered by tragedy, it’s more like the tragedy unlocks a pre-existing malaise. So using the imagery of commercials seems like an interesting way to suggest a false surface. The nature of the malaise, unfortunately, remains completely obscure and incoherent.

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As the film goes on, the opening b&w stylisation is replaced by another version of LVT’s dogme-esque “trashed aesthetic,” with harsh cutting and handheld movement, interrupted by more lush and lyrical landscape scenes. Therapist Dafoe tries to cure his wife’s grief, and if you can overlook the banal and idiotic dialogue (I know it’s not Lars’ first language, but he really needs help from a native-speaker) this first half is a reasonably dignified and interesting study of grieving and therapy and love. The fact that Dafoe has completely submerged any grief of his own sews some seeds of anxiety, and certainly at some level the film is an attack on psychotherapy, which is something the neurotic LVT actually knows about.

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Retreating to their cabin in “Eden,” (although dedicated to Tarkovsky, the film might as well own up to the influence of Sam Raimi’s first two EVIL DEADS as well) this modern day Adam and Eve work through the early stages of grief, anger, and pain — and then the movie takes off into horror-trash carnage. Dafoe finds his wife’s psycho-gallery, where she’s stuck dripping images of witchhunts to the wall, and Gainsbourg abruptly gets medieval on his cock, battering that helpless organ until it shoots blood, then drilling a hole in his leg and bolting a large whetstone to it. Poor Willem spends the rest of the movie dragging a Flintstones wheel around on his shin. It’s all very MISERY, with a bit of HOSTEL’s hardcore horror.

The torture porn vibe is augmented when Charlotte snips off her clit in graphic closeup (reviewers always mention the rusty shears, but I didn’t actually spot any rust and I wonder where they’re getting that from). Lars cuts to a startled deer.

Willem makes good his escape, dragging his stone shin, and Charlotte freaks out. “Where are you? You bastard!” she shrieks, about eighteen times. I think I’m the only one who laughed at the deer, but a few of us are laughing now. Charlotte is too posh to swear convincingly, and there’s something absurd about her resenting hubbie for running, or rather crawling, away.

Willem hides in a foxhole where he digs up a crow, of all things, which caws at him, repeatedly (Lars is always big on repetition), threatening to give him away. Willem punches the crow. Several times. It keeps cawing. He keeps punching. It stops cawing. Then it starts again. He punches it some more. This goes on for, I don’t want to exaggerate and I don’t have accurate timings, but I want to say about two minutes.

I think there’s something inherently comic about a man punching an animal. A small animal is arguably funnier than a large one. And I’ve tried, but I can’t think of an actor/animal combination that’s devoid of comic potential. Ed Asner thumping a llama would be amusing. Ashton Kutcher bitch-slapping a gerbil would be hilarious. Sam Neill karate-chopping an anteater would at least raise a smile.

Now I did ask — I did ask — the cinematographer if any of this was meant to be funny. Mantle swears it isn’t. Lars was suffering from depression before and during the shoot — here I sympathise, that illness is a horror — and was not his usual cheeky self. Perhaps that meant he was ill-equipped to judge if something might be a bit ridiculous. Mantle more or less accused me of using humour to disengage from the film, and while I don’t think I did that as a conscious or unconscious tactic, I have seen that happen and I don’t totally discount the possibility.

In EXCALIBUR, director John Boorman seems willfully blind to the fact that Monty Python had only recently done their own version of Arthurian lore, and that his film often resembled the pre-existing spoof. And he doesn’t seem to care that some of his costumes, notably Helen Mirren’s Flash Gordon breast-plate and Nicol Williams’ tinfoil skullcap, have a kitsch quality that invites amusement. There’s actually something commendable about a filmmaker pursuing their own particular brand of beauty and not caring if anybody laughs. It’s courageous.

I do think there may be a point where that becomes folly, and that if we allow humour to have a role in our lives at all, there are some occasions when the only response possible is laughter. If a filmmaker presses those buttons unintentionally, he or she is making a mistake, however brave.

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That’s probably secondary to the major problem, which is the film’s shrill, empty-headed incoherence. There’s some debate about grief, therapy, and misogyny, but none of it goes anywhere. LVT has spoken of using his dreams in the film, and purposely avoiding story logic, plot and resolution, but the trouble is what we have is an unsatisfactory narrative rather than a non-narrative experimental film. Bergman’s PERSONA might hint at what’s being aimed at here, and Altman’s THREE WOMEN similarly took its cue from the director’s dreams, but wisely neither of those films tries to put forward some kind of didactic point, which LVT certainly seems to be trying for here. Long stretches of the film are NOT dreamlike, intense audio-visual experiences. Long stretches are talkie chamber piece in which characters fire ill-thought-out philosophies at each other. If it were a parade of visuals aiming for abstract poetry, the movie might be OK.

The charge of misogyny is being flung about, but one of gynophobia is more germane. Von Trier doesn’t necessarily hate women, but Dod Mantle admits he doesn’t understand them, and probably fears them. “I don’t think women or their sexuality is evil,” says Lars in the press notes, “But it is frightening.” To which I ask, to whom? The answer’s obvious, but the problem is not that Lars is projecting his anxieties outwards upon the world, nature and women, and then making art out of that pathetic fallacy. The problem is that he doesn’t realise that’s what he’s doing, as that sentence makes clear. His anxieties are childish and irrational, which doesn’t automatically make them uninteresting, but he’s holding them aloft as if they were great insights. In other words, he’s a fool.

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