Archive for Sam Rockwell

The Noms

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2018 by dcairns

So, unusually, I have actually seen some of the Oscar-nominated films.

We saw THE SHAPE OF WATER. Fiona is a big Del Toro fan. I like him as a person on the movie scene, but usually wish I could like his films more than I do. I like THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE best, the rest seem to miss the mark. I like the compromised MIMIC better than I like PAN’S LABYRINTH, which gives you some idea.

This one disappointed both of us, but all the reasons I could give you don’t mean much, because the real reason was we didn’t buy into the central relationship and as a result we weren’t moved. We were interested, but we didn’t get weepy, which we should have, surely, since this is basically E.T. (and SPLASH, but then SPLASH is E.T. too).

The romance seemed to consist of Sally Hawkins giving Doug Jones some hard-boiled eggs. I can imagine that Guillermo sees this as the highest form of love, and he might feel he would be tied by unbreakable romantic bonds to anybody who gave him some hard boiled-eggs, but I couldn’t relate to this. Now, if it had been cheese on toast…

The production design of Hawkins’ apartment, styled after Mario Bava’s BLACK SABBATH (episode: The Drop of Water), is gorgeous. We didn’t buy the light from the cinema downstairs filtering through the floorboards, but we were willing to be indulgent. But then when Hawkins fills the bathroom with water, we stopped indulging. You can have a flimsy, permeable floor or an impossibly strong, almost-watertight floor, not both. And that flooding the house was a stupid thing to do when you’re hiding from the authorities.

(How I know about water and floors: there’s an anecdote from the filming of TOMMY. The production made what can in hindsight be seen as a mistake in putting Oliver Reed and Keith Moon in the same hotel. One evening, Moon knocks on Ollie’s door and asks for help moving his water-bed. Ollie is a very strong man: his party trick was to seize a bar-top and hold his entire body out horizontally. But he doesn’t know that it’s impossible for a human being to move a water-bed when it’s full of water. It weighs about twice what any strong man could lift. Still, Ollie has a try, and does succeed in ripping the water-bed, flooding the room with 200 gallons of water, not enough to fill a bathroom but enough to cause Moon’s hotel room to collapse into the room below. So I always laugh at stories of rock stars destroying hotel rooms. They merely destroy the contents of hotel rooms. Moon and Reed destroyed two actual rooms. This may seem like a digression but the film is called THE SHAPE OF WATER so it isn’t.)

Other bits of production design we liked: well, all of it, but the dais Jones is strapped to is borrowed from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

And the idea of a film set in a secret government lab but centering on the cleaners is lovely.

But I didn’t buy the baddies wanting to dissect their only specimen, I didn’t buy the Russians at all (what they wanted seemed to make no sense). I couldn’t invest because I couldn’t believe. The twist was cool, but the sudden miraculous powers bit kind of confused that. It seemed odd that a writing team wouldn’t pick up on each others’ mistakes more. But I’m sure if Del Toro asked me to co-write a film (ain’t going to happen NOW, is it?) I would be somewhat in awe of him and just agree with all his ideas even if I privately thought maybe they were silly.

We also saw THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. That has lots of entertainment value, and we did respond emotionally, and I think we’re all grateful Martin McDonagh isn’t trying quite so hard to be Irish. I did have qualms, but mostly some time after seeing it, so I can kind of recommend it as a cinema experience.

At first, when I heard people having an issue with the film’s treatment of race, I thought, well, that’s not really what the film’s about. Which I would stand by. But Sam Rockwell’s character is explicitly identified as a particularly horrible racist. And then he’s put through quite a lot, and tries to redeem himself. But racial awareness never plays any role in that character arc, that shot at redemption. He doesn’t seem to think about it, and nor does the movie anymore. Which I think is a problem. It does seem rather too urgent and serious an issue to drop into and out of your movie. Would it have been better to leave it out, or else deal with it more fully? How would they have done that?

By making Frances McDormand’s character black, I guess. Hmm, would that make it a more urgent, serious and meaningful film, all by itself? I think it might.

And we have seen GET OUT (no complaints, a masterpiece — so why didn’t I write about it?), THE DISASTER ARTIST (a wasted opportunity), I saw DUNKIRK, Fiona saw and liked LOGAN, we saw the STAR WARS and the BLADE RUNNER and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.

Gotta see PHANTOM THREAD! That’s the one I feel doltish for not having caught. But oh look, it isn’t out here. So I’m not stupid for missing it, yet.

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Spats

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2017 by dcairns

We had an inadvertent Sam Rockwell double feature the other week. First I stumbled upon a copy of the 2005 adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s PICCADILLY JIM, in which he plays the title character, sort of, and which I’d been curious about for some time. But you can’t buy the thing anywhere — this was a charity shop discovery. So I immediately satisfied my curiosity, and then we embarked to the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s festive mystery show, which turned out to be THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, with Mr. Rockwell again.

Verdict: Sam Rockwell is a powerful force, if used responsibly. This piece is about the earlier film.

PICCADILLY JIM would make a fine film to test budding critics on. Make them read the book, then watch the 1936 film and the 2005, and attempt to say what’s wrong in each case. The novel isn’t actually prime Wodehouse, but it’s an early example of him starting to hit his stride. The budding critic might dispose of the MGM version swiftly: despite employing a lot of the right sort of people, it’s not funny and every change that’s been made to the original story, and there are many, makes it worse. Why didn’t they just film the book?

In the thirties, one feels, it might be possible to just film Wodehouse. Certainly the best Wodehouse movie by far, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, was made then, and is fairly faithful. It’s biggest departure is the addition of Fred Astaire song-and-dance numbers, a wholly forgivable infidelity since Astaire hoofing is about the one thing as lighter-than-air as Wodehouse.

Post thirties, it’s become necessary to treat Wodehouse as a period piece, and this seems to add a heaviness that’s ruinous to all adaptations. A lot of people like the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster series, which was honestly faithful to the plots and characters, but I find its plodding pace, sludgy 16mm look, and respectful tracking across drawing rooms or bottles of bath essence, as if in awe of its own production design, so antithetical to the correct frolicsome spirit that I find myself doubting whether anyone who professes admiration for it actually appreciates Wodehouse at all. Which I realise is a bit extreme, harsh, judgemental.

Turgid though J&W is, it’s still miles closer to making a decent attempt at the job than most of the atrocities perpetrated, including the inane, cartoonish Blandings series shoveled out by the BBC. Again, I could defend that one in principle, because it may well have been made by parties who had noticed the problem of adaptation. But their solution — going BOING! a lot — was a dismayingly stupid one.

OK, this is quite a funny image.

Sticking a camera in front of unadorned Wodehouse seems to result in the flat champagne of the Fry-Laurie show. Some level of stylisation seems necessary. But so many attempts at this result in shrill, arch overacting, and distracting visuals. PICCADILLY JIM is almost entirely composed of these things. It’s the first Wodehouse made for the big screen since THE GIRL IN THE BOAT in 1962, which improbably starred Norman Wisdom. It’s written by arch-Tory posh boy Julian Fellowes, between his first big success with GOSFORD PARK and his second, Gosford Park Lite Downton Abbey. He ought to be a reasonable choice, being familiar with and not overawed by the ritzy milieu. And one assumes his enthusiasm for the original author is genuine. (I’d even say that a Wodehouse adaptation that played like GF without the darker notes would be about right — look at how a former Jeeves, Stephen Fry, playing the only broadly comic figure, fits right in and actually “works” better than he does in any other film.)

The director, John McKay, ladles on the stylisation (archness, shouting, cartooniness, distracting visuals). but he has an interesting concept. Wodehouse started in the early 1900s, hit his stride in the 20s, peaked in the 30s and 40s, and kept merrily going until the 70s. The world of his stories changed very little. So what we casually visualise as some sort of vaguely thirties setting is a lot less concrete and specific than that. The PICCADILLY JIM film uses this as an excuse to go all MOULIN ROUGE! on Wodehouse’s ass. Mix up the fashions, turn everything up to eleven, and have someone perform a jazzy version of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.”

Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! is, in my view, a very terrible thing, a cinematic Srebenica. But this approach, used consistently and moderately, need not have been fatal. Setting the film, like Gilliam’s BRAZIL, “Somewhere in the twentieth century,” makes it interesting to look at. McKay and his designers have the visual chops to produce imagery that’s amusing and pleasing, if you press mute on the sound. But let’s be clear: this is just a decorative layer laid over the story. Decoration doesn’t make things function better, and it can weigh them down.

McKay is less ADHD-chaotic than Luhrmann, but he’s aiming for frenetic from the off, and in search of the chimera of “intensity” he films things too close up and cuts too much. He and his team have noticed that Sam Rockwell moves beautifully, but they try to feature this virtue by cutting to wide shots but then jumping back in immediately. In-out, in-out, for little or sometimes no reason.

There’s some good actors in this. Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander especially (the only really funny one) and Nitin Ganatra seem able to do lightness. They’re not belabouring it. The women all go for Queen of Hearts type acting. Wodehouse does, admittedly, enjoy writing termagants, and the fear of powerful women motivates a lot of his plots. Brenda Blethyn and Alison Janney are just too much.

Frances O’Connor is a more interesting case. Most Wodehouse heroines could be seen as a little boring to play: the interesting girls are more likely to be secondary characters like Corky Pirbright, who can apply their eccentric determination to get the hero in trouble using charm and appeal rather than sheer domination. Ann Chester is a character of this variety, at least as portrayed here. O’Connor is very skilled and gets to do some surprising stuff, and she’s sexier than anyone in a Wodehouse piece has ever been, which isn’t very Wodehousian but is fine with me. But she’s playing it American, which is another level of archness and artifice, so that’s less welcome. Although a real American wouldn’t necessarily be better: Americans working in Britain sometimes manage to act like they’re American impersonators.

The exaggerated costumes by Ralph Holes are fun, but would be all wrong for a Wodehouse film that was actually working. As it is, they can certainly be enjoyed in their own right.

Which brings us at last to Rockwell, who applies tremendous energy to the part, and moves well, as noted. The fact that the film doesn’t work has something to do with him, but it’s not immediately obvious how, because he’s so GOOD, or at any rate fascinating to watch. Dynamic, inventive and kind of aggressive, but not frighteningly so. But Jim starts out as a philanderer (discovered unconscious with three girls at the outset, which isn’t very Wodehouse) and has to be converted by true love. Wodehouse always treats love with heartfelt sincerity: the storm clouds in his sunny stories are all to do with the threat of thwarted romance, and at the end romance is never actually thwarted. And we’re supposed to care.

This film never gives us a reason for Jim to fall in love with this girl after being around so many. Even though O’Connor is glamorous and dashing — the Wodehouse love at first sight never gets a moment to establish itself, and the entire edifice is meant to be built on it. Without that simple, hackneyed thing, all the clever touches and all the stupid touches (plenty of those) are meaningless, have nothing to cling to, and there’s no underlying anxiety to make the farce run — no negative outcome that matters to us is ever imminent. Fellowes even threatens to blow everyone up with a doomsday device, a rather outré development, and I wasn’t remotely worried. He’s found a whole new way to fail at adapting Wodehouse — by being TOO flip and throwaway. And of course, he combines this innovation with all the more typical ones.

Why is Wodehouse so hard to get right? True, his deathless prose can’t be transferred to the screen, but his plots are sound and hilariously complicated, his characters sweet and funny, his dialogue wonderful. But it seems the tone and style of the movie, which must substitute for Wodehouse’s writing, are maddeningly elusive. It’s not a tone anyone does naturally anymore, and the more you strain after it, the more it recedes, like a caffeinated vanishing point.

Nobody’s made a Wodehouse for the cinema since 2005, and it looks like the gap that yawned between Norman Wisdom’s attempt and the Fellowes-McKay stumble may well be repeated.

This would make an instructive double feature with another Rockwell — THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY… in which again, transatlantic casting surprisingly isn’t a problem, but a shaky grasp of tone and story and uneven jokes certainly ARE.

 

Hollywoodland

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2013 by dcairns

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Off to LA on top secret business. Will try to keep you posted.

Watched SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS not knowing much except a few of the names of the excellent cast and that it’s the guy who made IN BRUGES, which we mainly enjoyed. So it turned out to be set in Hollywood — opening shot is the famous Shadowplay Hollywood sign — and it has an ADAPTATION kind of self-reflective side, being the story of a drunken Irish screenwriter trying to write a screenplay entitled Seven Psychopaths, but he keeps encountering the characters he writes about. SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR?

This is kind of like a Bertrand Blier romp, jumbling an outrageous comic plot with self-referential deconstruction, except without much apparent serious side. The weird coincidences whereby characters invented by Colin Farrell’s character turn out to be real are never explained. The auto-critique of violent movies is just a joke, and having Christopher Walken tell Farrell that he writes dreadful female characters does not necessarily excuse wasting the talents of Abbie Cornish in a role with zero development and a combined wet T-shirt/death scene.

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BUT — it must be said that Martin McDonagh’s gift for outrageous dialogue outstrips Tarantino’s, and he has fantastic performers on the top of their game: Farrell is really good at this kind of thing, and he has a character that makes more sense than in IN BRUGES; Christopher Walken is on top form AND is cast against type, kind of; Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson are very funny too. And Harry Dean Stanton turns up, all too briefly as seems to be the way with him these days. Must see HARRY DEAN STANTON: PARTLY FICTION, the acclaimed documentary, so I can get a decent dose of Harry Dean.

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Plus Tom Waits and a rabbit.

It’s all pretty rambling and meaningless, and though Walken and Linda Bright Clay are employed to give it some heart, it’s the fact that, after Gabourey Sidibe is terrorized by gunmen (to show how bad the bad guys are), she’s allowed to live, that suggests McDonagh might actually have some feeling for his marionettes. Helpless characters in action cinema generally exist only to be snuffed as demonstrations of villainy and to motivate the hero towards more violence: we all know Robert Rodriguez or John Woo would have wasted her in a heartbeat.