Archive for Ronin

Running on Empty

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2015 by dcairns

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Both of John Frankenheimer’s last cinema features, RONIN (1998) and REINDEER GAMES (2000), are set at yuletide, though the latter, with its heaps of bloodstained Santas lying dead in the snow, is certainly the more festive. Most of the best Christmas films are the work of Jewish filmmakers anyway.

RONIN, which I saw at the cinema when it was new, for DeNiro’s sake, and which I just showed to Fiona, seems the better film, which is interesting — RG has a twisty-turny plot with a killer set-up and an escalating menace and a truly ludicrous volte-face at the end which makes perfect narrative sense, in its demented way, but simply can’t be believed for an instant. RONIN is just about a bunch of guys (and Natasha McElhone) trying to get their hands on a shiny box (well, it IS Christmas). There are double-crosses and there are action sequences and there is, essentially, nothing else.

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David Mamet wrote pretty much all the dialogue and then they wouldn’t give him sole credit so he used a pseudonym. His terse, hardboiled stuff is quite effective here, sparser than usual because everybody is trying to make this movie be like a Jean-Pierre Melville heist flick — the title clearly references LE SAMOURAI. What ultimately elevates the tone into something approaching Melville’s oddly serious pastiche style, is the music of Elia Cmiral, which imposes a palpable melancholy over the quieter scenes.

Frankenheimer and DoP Robert Fraisse frame gorgeously. While the all-real car chases attract most of the attention, with the camera scudding just above the tarmac as we rocket through Paris and Nice (is that fapping sound a burst tire or Claude Lelouch furiously masturbating?), the scenes of plotting and confronting and staring down are so beautifully framed and cut, every frame seething with dynamic tension, with a chilly blue metallic tinge, that I could cheerfully watch a version of this movie without any of the searing mayhem.

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I recently contributed an essay on Frankenheimer to Masters of Cinema’s essential Blu-ray edition of SECONDS. This was subject to oversight by Paramount’s lawyers, who are strangely fussy creatures — they objected to my harsher words about some of Frankenheimer’s lesser works. To my surprise and wicked pleasure, though, the overall gist of the piece escaped their notice — in comparing Frankenheimer to the protagonist of SECONDS, I suggested that he had cut him off from his authentic self and become a hollow shell, making empty films whose most compelling subject matter is their own emptiness. In this regard, RONIN is a brilliant summation.

The whole plot revolves around this shiny box, a pure MacGuffin whose contents are never revealed (doubtless they glow when the box is opened, but it never is). By the end, it even transpires that the box is itself irrelevant, a decoy for an assassin, not what the plot was revolving around at all. And the title, meaning masterless samurai, patiently explained by Michael Lonsdale (yay! Michael Lonsdale!), turns out not to be an honest description of the protagonist. An empty film about emptiness, with Frankenheimer even reprising his shots of boxes and corpses montage from THE TRAIN, which he would re-reprise in his very next film.

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The jarring note is the end, where some idiot has decided the film SHOULD, after all, be about something, and has dubbed in a radio broadcast alleging that the plot had something to do with the Northern Ireland peace process. So all that carnage was in a good cause. This is completely unacceptable — I kind of respected the movie’s ruthlessness in staging shoot-outs and car chases on the streets in which innocents are casually mown down and blown up. I accepted that this was a dog-eat-dog, amoral world we were being shown. To now try to argue that all this collateral damage is somehow JUSTIFIED in a HIGHER CAUSE is the work of a moral imbecile. It feels like a studio afterthought. On this second viewing I’m able to disregard the nonsense, but it throws Fiona for a loop, as does Jean Reno’s sudden internal monologue, which ends the picture. “He never had a voiceover before! What happened?”

“Somebody panicked,” I suggest. To make a truly hollow movie takes guts, something Frankenheimer had.

It’s Turkey Time

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2013 by dcairns

The Late Show Blogathon is, and is not, over! We’re in extra time, where I run late-filmed-posts I couldn’t cram into the official week, and maybe a few guest blogs will still turn up. It’s the after-party, and it doesn’t stop until we say so!

The Blogathon master-post is no longer pinned to the top of the blog (using science), but it’s here. It links to every single post, here and elsewhere, that appeared in the blogathon. Or you can use the Late Show tag on the right of the main page to see all the posts from all four years of the blogathon. Some good stuff there! I’ll attempt to take stock and say something summative about this year’s jamboree soon.

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REINDEER GAMES was called DECEPTION in the UK because they’d figured out that their original title confused people. It always sounded like a thriller to me, but Fiona reckons that name only would work for a comedy. But it kind of IS a comedy. Anyway, I was browsing a charity shop and saw a Polish DVD of this going for £1 so of course I bought it…

John Frankenheimer’s last theatrical feature stars Ben Affleck and was made for Dimension Films — there are a few hints of the kind of obsessive quest to hammer plot points home that distinguishes the Weinstein aesthetic — “Did you get it? DID YOU?” Frankenheimer’s late career renaissance — I think he saw it in those terms — is an odd beast. You have THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU which is fabulously terrible in ever-changing ways, like looking into a kaleidoscope of shit. I love it dearly. Then you have RONIN which allows Frankenheimer to exercise his action movie chops in a film literally about nothing — chasing a suitcase, the most abstract MacGuffin imaginable. Then somebody decided to make it literal and boring and dub on a radio voice saying it was all about state secrets vital to the Northern Ireland peace process, which struck me as ridiculous and offensive, as if any cause could make all the cold-blooded mayhem we’ve just enjoyed in any way justifiable.

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And then REINDEER GAMES, a Christmas-set wrong man heist movie tarnished by a clever-clever ending that’s really stupid-stupid, but which is a pretty agreeable time-waster and a summation of Frankenheimer’s cynical, empty, hardbitten and hardboiled worldview. There’s even a great Frankenheimer substitute in it, Dennis Farina’s blunt, world-weary casino manager, a washed-up pro with no patience for politicking, last seen riddled with bullets in the ruins of his trashed gambling den. “I can’t go back to Vegas,” is his recurrent lament. There’s a melancholy under Frankenheimer’s post-sixties nihilism, and however happily the stories turn out, what you remember is a dying fall.

Lots of Christmas imagery, starting with a bunch of dead Santas reddening the snow. This preps one for a bracing, nasty take on the festive season, but there’s a big mushy ending being cued up by Bob Weinstein somewhere in a back room at Dimension, so watch out! It’s a horrible betrayal of the film’s noir attitude. The movie works better when it’s contrasting the tough thriller angle with corny Xmas pop songs, and has Affleck singing The Little Drummer Boy to himself. I think he should have his own lyrics.

I have no gift to bring

Parump-a-pum-pum

Can barely lift this chin

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Fun bad guys, less-skeezy variants on the gang in 52 PICK-UP — here we have Gary Sinise and Danny Trejo, who has “become a serious pain in the ass” since he “went to night school.” Charlize Theron sporting one of her early-career bad hairdos (see also THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE) — maybe it’s necessary to make us believe she might be the kind of woman who writes romantic letters to convicts.

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Here’s the plot set-up — Affleck and James Frain are due for release from prison. Frain can’t wait to meet his sexy penpal, but he gets shivved before the big day. Affleck comes out and recognizes Charlize from Frain’s photos and kind of feels sorry for her, waiting in the snow for the convict who’s never going to come. And also, she’s rather attractive (she has a hat on so he can’t see the hairdo). So he pretends he’s the deceased Frain…

I would submit that, for all the film’s flaws, anybody who likes stories would kind of have to stick around after this point to see what’s going to happen…

Here’s one of Frankenheimer’s even-later works — an eight minute car commercial from the screenwriter of SE7EN, Andrew Kevin Walker. It’s rather fine.

Wait, there’s a director’s cut? Now I’ll have to see that — maybe next year.  Reindeer Games (The Director’s Cut) [Blu-ray]

More Blogathon!

Chandler Swain revisits Losey’s STEAMING. Here.

Scout Tafoya’s second blogathon post explored the last film to end them all, PP Pasolini’s positively final SALO, as well as taking in the last essay films of Lindsay Anderson and Dusan Makavejev. It’s quite a feast, if you can get past Signor Pasolini’s unappetizing entreesHere.

In It For the Money

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2013 by dcairns

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Came back from Dublin with a rampaging Irish lurgi in my system and collapsed into bed with a fitful cough that made my head explode each time it went off. Comedies were out. I chose to watch the worst thing I could lay my hands on.

That meant the 1980s. That meant Michael Caine. Add Robert Ludlum and John Frankenheimer, during his years of alcoholic haze, and you should have a perfect storm of awfulness perfect for a state of feverish narcolepsy. But actually THE HOLCROFT COVENANT displays dim glimpses of another, better film, as if two movies were projected on overlapping scrims and the wrong scrim was to the fore.

Ludlum: “the man who ruined titles,” as a friend puts it. I have a mental image of his literature — fat volumes of inept prose — but have never read any of it so apart from the fat part I don’t know how accurate/fair that is. He does seem to have yielded very little of cinematic value, and I suspect this may be partly due to weak characterisation — the one real hit in movie terms was the Bourne series, in which the hero is a literal blank. For much of THE HOLCROFT COVENANT, Caine’s character is similarly ill-defined, though that may be partly due to his inability to suggest a New York architect called Noel Holcroft (doesn’t he play something similar in the even-more-awful BLAME IT ON RIO? And with a similar name, Hollis…) and in THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, characterisation is largely replaced by casting.

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So much for the HOLCROFT part of the dreadful title. The COVENANT is a vast bank account of pilfered Nazi funds set up supposedly to redress the Third Reich’s crimes. We’re asked to believe that it was judged wise to keep this money hidden away for forty years (Why?), that the funds shouldn’t have simply been handed over when the Reich fell, and that Swiss banks administer Nazi funds for benevolent reasons. Obligatory Euro-thriller star Michael Lonsdale plays the Swiss banker, with Lilli Palmer adding class and Mario Adorf adding sweaty ebullience.

But why do I suggest that the film is anything more than sheer rot, with an offensively inane premise? Well, the screenplay is the work of three hands — John Hopkins, who did a lot of spy stuff including THUNDRBALL and Smiley’s People, Edward Anhalt, who did classy stuff like THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH but also fun like THE SATAN BUG (which I watched the same day by sheer coincidence, mainly because I was convinced I had the titular bug) and George Axelrod, a reminder of Frankenheimer’s glory days via THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

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Axelrod tends to smuggle in humour, sometimes in so black a form it’s hard to receive it as such, and it’s his voice that predominates, or would if the film were in tune with its own best intentions. Lines about Adorf’s character having found the perfect way to conceal his Nazi parentage by becoming world famous seem to leeringly point out the absurdity of the whole story. The NORTH BY NORTHWEST device of a regular joe plunged into the mad world of espionage is entertainingly resuscitated, at least on paper.

Caine is actually very funny in his incredulity at the secret codes and meetings in public places, but his being so evidently himself (complete with blazer) wrecks all the humour the script tries to ring from him being an American fish out of water. Co-stars Victoria Tennant, Anthony Andrews and Bernard Hepton (“Mustn’t grumble”) are forced to try to be even more British than they already are in order to try to make him seem American. Or maybe it’s just that Axelrod has written them as stiff-upper-lip parodies.

(Caine’s career seemed to stagger through innumerable fatal misfires like this one, but like a zombie from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, not even repeated bullets to the head could stop it.)

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Highlights of fatuity — a chase through a Berlin Carnival of Prostitution (because not only do sex workers have lots of disposable income to throw at street festivities, but the city council is keen to promote the red light district as a tourist attraction); a highly public assassination attempt on seventy-one-year-old Lilli Palmer that kills four innocent bystanders and one assassin while wiping out Palmer’s bookshop (“My shop!” she cries, oblivious to the loss of life) but misses its target; Caine constantly meeting representatives of governments and businesses away from their places of business, with no guarantee that he’s talking to the real deal (he almost never is); an eleventh-hour twist about a character’s identity which makes no difference to anything.

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The movie looks glossy and Frankenheimer seems, depressingly, committed — some of his Dutch tilts and one crash zoom on Adorf’s huge cave-in of a face are actually witty. Obviously the money ran out — the score is a pathetic synth dribble, and a series of voicemail messages early on seem to be recorded by the film’s supporting cast, doubling up as offscreen characters. One of them is Frankenheimer himself. Inspiration must have run out too — the climax reprises shots from THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (much as RONIN and REINDEER GAMES would reprise the coda of THE TRAIN) and the story, finally unmasked as the great chain of piffle it is, seems beyond even Axelrod’s powers to parody.

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