Archive for Spectre

Bully Beef

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2020 by dcairns

There are some big spoilers further down.

To the Vue Ocean Terminal with its good cheap prices and recliner seats, to see a bunch of car commercials (the Peugeot one unusually inept for this day and age) and 1917, the fabled long take WWI epic from Sam Mendes.

Now, I haven’t watched a Mendes film since AMERICAN BEAUTY. I’ve half-watched his James Bonds. It wasn’t really a deliberate choice, I had some problems with AB but I thought aspects of it were good and he stole from the best (that BIGGER THAN LIFE shot). I just had too many precodes and giallos and 70s scifi movies to watch to find room for REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. The one that would have been interesting for comparison purposes is JARHEAD, I guess.

What drew me this time was the long take conceit, and folks saying you had to see it on the big screen. Possibly true — I might have drifted off as I did with SPECTRE if this had been at home.

Here’s the thing — the behind-the-scenes ads tried to sell this as an actual single take, which you could immediately tell it wasn’t going to be. But it doesn’t even PRETEND to be a single take — we cut to black around the midpoint when our hero is knocked unconscious, and fade up hours later. I could have asked for my money back at that point, couldn’t I?

(I did actually take my seat thinking, Wouldn’t it be funny if, like ROPE, this had one or more absolutely blatant cuts in it? Well, we never cut directly from one image to another but we do go to black and change scenes, so it ain’t continuous.)

The next two questions I had to satisfy were whether the long take thing was effective, and whether the joins were skillfully managed. I feel like you can sense something off about some of the fast pans in THE REVENANT, a feeling that digital jiggery-pokery is being worked to tie separate images together. Would this be like that?

No, in fact. This is more like in ROPE when John Dahl walks into the camera, blocks the lens, and then walks away again. Ridiculous. I mean, it’s not quite like that, the image isn’t totally obscured, but Roger Deakins’ camera goes wandering around people and objects and lets them more or less occlude the image and a digital join is effected, and I was very conscious that the camera had no reason to be circling back there other than to make that join easy to manage.

But the first question is the key one: what effect does the long take have? Is it immersive or distracting? That may depend on how shot-conscious you are, and that in turn may be effected by how convinced you are by everything.

JARHEAD was written by a veteran and I gather it succeeds in terms of convincing detail, both environmental and behavioral. Obviously WWI is much further away historically than the Gulf War, which is where research comes in I guess. And talent. This film is written by Sam Mendes, who is not a writer, and Krysty Wilson-Cairns who I imagine must be a distant relative of mine.

I think, on a positive note, the film shows that the walk-and-talk shot can be sustained without loss of interest almost indefinitely. With continuous movement, there may not be something new to look at every second, but there’s always GOING to be, and we sense that.

On the other hand, I’m very picky when it comes to realism. Seeing soldiers pissing against a wall, it made me wonder how long the protagonist was going to go without relieving himself. When he gives away his canteen to a needy civilian, I was skeptical, especially seeing the milk bottle in the background into which he could easily have decanted its contents. How long is it going to take the army to issue you a new unbreakable bottle, Lance Corporal? And do you realise you can be court-martialled for losing army property?

The test of the single-take (or, in this case, two-take) illusion should be, does it make the film better? I’m fairly sure this movie could have done its job better as a series of long takes, using cuts for dramatic effect and thus obviating the need for transforming the hero into a CGI puppet when he goes over a waterfall, or having boulders pass through frame close to camera, from behind which he will emerge in a totally different position.

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Oh, but there are guest stars! I didn’t feel it while watching, but afterwards I came to think of these bits as the cut scenes in a video game — a sort of First World War second person shooter. The only actor to make a real impression on me, besides our protags, was the ever-tricksy Andrew Scott, who seizes on his single character trait like a ravening terrier and worries it to death, but he brings the entertainment and isn’t around long enough to wear out his welcome. He’s very funny and arguably wrong for the film but I’ll take what fun I can get, thanks.

Some good things: effective use of offscreen space, some non-white characters, very beautiful night scenes.

But I think the film makes some peculiar choices which fly in the face of its own aesthetic. The wall-to-wall music — my impression was it coated around a third of the film — gets in the way of any “realistic” or “immersive” approach. Music is good for many things, but it doesn’t make things more REALISTIC. I would love to have heard what some of the film’s evocatively ravaged landscapes sounded like, without Thomas Newman’s very modern score.

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When we meet a French civilian, she gets subtitles, which I found EXTRAORDINARY. If we’re meant to be sharing the experience of our protag, who doesn’t speak much French but helpfully speaks aloud his translations of the words he understands, how are subs going to help put us in his boots? (This film is really anxious for us to understand everything — when we enter the German trenches and somebody finds a brazier with still-hot ash, he helpfully remarks, “Not long gone.”)

That French civilian is initially afraid of our hero, but she relaxes when he explains that he’s British. Because we’re the good guys. Now, it’s not impossible that this might happen, I suppose. But if I were a French civilian, especially a young woman, I’d probably be a bit nervous of ANY lone soldier, whatever their country of origin. And I think it would make a more dramatic and convincing scene if the hero had to PROVE he meant no harm.

But the film is very committed to its goodies-baddies binary. One protag is stabbed to death by a German pilot he’s just rescued from a burning plane. Odd behaviour from the pilot, I have to say. The film’s frame of reference — follow two, then one, British soldiers, staying close — means it has limited opportunities to humanize the enemy. The rigor with which it rejects those opportunities is jawdropping.

It’s fine that the protags are pissed off that the Germans have left tripwires and explosives in their path, and killed the livestock and chopped down the cherry trees. We don’t need our characters to be even-handed about things.

The only other German we “meet” is the young soldier our hero throttles. First he claps a hand over the guy’s mouth and tells him to stay quiet. But when he un-gags the guy, he calls for help (he doesn’t get any subtitles though). What an absolute swine.

I *think* the subsequent strangulation was intended, along with the Hun’s youth, to make us think about how horrible hand-to-hand murder must be, but it’s staged in silhouette with another German pottering about obliviously in the background, so the primary emotion is suspense — we’re hoping our man doesn’t get caught. We’re rooting for him to soundlessly asphyxiate this Hun.

In the end, you’ll be glad to know, our chap successfully extinguishes life in his opponent AND delivers his message in time to stop the futile attack (because in WWI, it’s important to know, futile attacks were called off um lemme think for a second NO) AND thus saves the life of his friend’s brother. Apart from Benedict Cumberbatch being a bit grumpy, and his friend being dead, it’s all been a ripping success.

I had my doubts about this war but do you know, I think everything’s going to be fine.

Movie of the Week

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2015 by dcairns

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My friend and collaborator Niall Greig Fulton — Edinburgh Film Festival Programmer and actor — has put together an enticing season of American TV movies for this year’s fest, including such classics as Salem’s Lot, Duel, The Jericho Mile and the rarely-seen Noon Wine. It’s all about finding the cinematic in the televisual, and with an array of directors like Hooper, Spielberg, Mann and Peckinpah, the exercise is clearly going to be worthwhile.

I’ve seen a few interesting pieces from this era of US TV — A Cold Night’s Death is about killer psychic chimps at the North Pole, which is pretty non-generic. You can watch that one here. I wrote about Gene Roddenberry’s bizarre Spectre here, a show which introduced me to the thrills of Robert Culp. Rod Serling’s The Man looked at the travails of America’s first black presodent. But I wanted to dig a little deeper to see what else I could find, because really, I remember American TV of the seventies as a HORRIBLE WASTELAND. Growing up in the UK we saw a lot of it, you see, and the good bits were very much overshadowed by the transcontinental miasma of blandness. It was apparent that things like The Rockford Files were a cut above. But on the whole, everything looked the same, was shot the same, used the same locations, the actors all seemed to look the same and dress the same and talk at the same speed, the credits were all in yellow blocky letters, and it kept fading to black in the middle of scenes, where the BBC had removed the ad breaks. I think you could make a pretty good case that any show that fades to black in the middle of a scene and then fades up again with everybody still standing in the same position (with meaningless musical sting as we fade out and in) just shouldn’t have been on the BBC at all.

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The first thing I looked at was Stranger on the Run, an early (1967) TV Movie of the Week, given the class treatment — it reunites star Henry Fonda with his 12 ANGRY MEN writer Reginald Rose, though Rose’s story has been fleshed out by screenwriter Dean Riesner (coincidentally the son of Chuck Riesner). The director is Don Siegel, and how these talents fit together within the context of a TV movie is sort of interesting.

The story transposes to the west and then inverts the premise of 12 ANGRY MEN (itself a TV play before the more famous movie) — Fonda is now the suspect, an alcoholic drifter hunted by a surly posse of railway company thugs for murdering a woman. The debate about his possible innocence (of course we know he’s innocent) occurs among the posse as they track him, which in theory should make it more exciting and filmic. In fact, Riesner’s dramatic values — he was a writer for Siegel, on COOGAN’S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY and CHARLEY VARRICK, which I would characterise as a desire to play out a story’s themes in the form of action, without philosophising about it — rather clash with Rose’s, since he sets things up deliberately to provoke debates about personal and social values. In 12 ANGRY MEN these are filtered through some strong, sweaty characters, so it’s still solid drama. Here, the genre action doesn’t seem to reinforce the deeper themes, though there’s some good talk in there. When Fonda mourns that the day of testing whether he’s a man has passed, and he failed the challenge, Bernie Hamilton cheers him with a hearty “That just means you’re lucky — you’re going to get another chance!” An upbeat way of viewing the present situation, which is that a gang on armed men are coming to kill him.

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The movie is crammed with interesting actors — Anne Baxter is top-billed after Fonda. They’re good together, and he’s particularly effective as a broken-down hobo, not trying to make the character more initially appealing than he should be. Michael Parks, Dan Duryea, Sal Mineo, Tom Reese and Zalman King (!) make a characterful posse. Plus Lloyd Bochner and the reliably strange-looking Walter Burke.

In the early scenes, Siegel seems to have a lot of trouble covering scenes with all these mugs, no doubt due to the tight schedule. He does fine in the exteriors, but most interior scenes get treated with one wide shot that’s too wide for comfort — it serves to establish where everyone is, but then you can’t look at it any longer because everyone’s miles away — then he’ll cut to individual closeups that are too tight — we lose all context and quickly get a little disoriented. In general, critics don’t talk about the problems of shooting large groups, but it’s an absolute nightmare. You never have time to shoot a single on everyone, and if you do, it confuses the audience. I had some fun with the worst ever example of this, here. A far better approach is to make each shot work as hard as possible, tying in one character to another to keep the audience cognisant of who is where in relation to whom. A truly amazing example, from Otto Preminger, is discussed here. Siegel’s best strategy might have been to spend all his time picking a great master shot and then hold it, as he would on CHARLEY VARRICK, for instance, but TV, with its low-res image and demand for close-ups, wouldn’t have allowed that.

Ultimately, Stranger on the Run feels like a B-movie with ideas above its station, ideas which overstuff it and overbalance it, and the plethora of characters (who never quite develop into a caseload of suspects for us to wonder about, as they would in a well-plotted mystery) spread the drama too thin. The production values are OK — the desert cycloramas are a lot more convincing than in Siegel’s more celebrated THE KILLERS (originally made for TV but fobbed off on the big screen after concerns about the violence). But it isn’t clean and simple like, say, THE LINE-UP, and the look has a generic quality, that made-for-TV feel, which dulls down the possibilities of the form.

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Chris Schneider recommended The Outsider, a 1967 PI story directed by Michael Ritchie and crammed with aging Hollywood greats — the presence of Ann Sothern, Edmund O’Brien and Audrey Totter could almost put this in the league of something like THE OUTFIT. Then there’s Shirley Knight, Ossie Davis and Joseph Wiseman. In the lead, Darren McGavin is surly and deadpan and very, very enjoyable, with Roy Huggins’ script providing plenty of zingers (it’s no surprise to learn Huggins created Jim Rockford and thereby trained up David Chase).

Best of all, it’s directed by Michael Ritchie, just about to break into features on the big screen and eager to show what he can do, even on the kind of schedule where the grips start disassembling the tripod before you’ve said “Cut!”

McGavin’s down-at-heel gumshoe is, per genre requirements, perpetually sleep-deprived and roughed up, though the scenario comes up with novel ways of mistreating him — a near-garrotting and a drugging with chloral hydrate that leads to the stomach-pump. Even Jim Rockford didn’t have it this tough.

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My favourite bit started off looking like it would be an embarrassment. Having tracked his would-be strangler to a beach-side shack, McGavin finds the suspect’s mother, Ann Sothern, who tells him that the guy is inside, tripping with a friend and won’t be coherent for interrogation for several hours. They go in, and there’s sitar music playing and hysterical laughter from the next room, which is kind of ridiculous. And here’s Joseph Wiseman — Dr. No himself, as the acid guru, who starts lecturing McGavin about the joys of turning on and experiencing the cosmic laughter. And all this while, Sothern is plugged into headphones and smiling at a TV game show where various sub-lebrities are trying to guess the phrase “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Big closeups and surprise angle changes start to suggest all this is getting to McGavin. The world has slipped out of joint. In other words, while the young hood is having a TV movie acid trip next door, with laughing and freak-outs and sitar music and a fisheye lens on a handheld camera — McGavin is having a REAL acid trip in the front room — an experience in which reality comes to seem unreal.

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That sensation is one which the TV movie genre could profitably have pursued more doggedly — it is well within the constraints of time and budget, it can work within all kinds of genres, and it is familiar enough to anybody paying attention to the real world that it ought to be highly commercial, a staple of entertainment like romance or tension.

Culp De-Programmer

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2012 by dcairns

SPECTRE — a failed TV pilot devised by Gene Roddenberry. Download it! Slap it in the Panasonic! Watch it!

Stars Robert Culp — my new hero! as Gene Roddenberry William Sebastian, a stylishly dressed criminologist and expert in paranormal abnormality, who, assisted by Dr Ham Hamilton — who I kept thinking was played by Bradford Dillman, but is actually the murderer Gig Young — “He looks nothing like Bradford Dillman. Why did I think it was Bradford Dillman?” “You just wanted it to be,” claims Fiona. “I deny the accusation!” — this sentence has really lost its way. Back up. Start again.

Our two decrepit intrepid heroes journey to London, England, to investigate a case of possible satanic possession at a stately home newly outfitted as mod shagging palace by incumbent Sir Geoffrey Cyon (James Villiers). Just as in SOME GIRLS DO, Villiers is surrounded by dolly birds, although whether in this film they have had their heads hollowed out and filled with radio-controlled microchips is never stated — but going by their behaviour, I’d say the answer is YES, and Roddenberry has the remote.

Gig’s bedchamber — and waterbed — is invaded at night by Allo Allo‘s Vicki Michelle, plus a dominatrix and a schoolgirl, but that’s just the beginning of the diabolism in store! The problem is figuring out which of the Cyon scions is possessed of the Devil — Villiers (who definitely is), Ann Bell, who might be, and John Hurt, who probably definitely is. “I remember being very disappointed in him for doing this,” says Fiona. Whereas I don’t remember it at all. If I did, I’d like to think I wouldn’t be watching it now. Fiona has no such excuse, other than wanting something cheery after running PUZZLE OF A DOWNFALL CHILD.

John Hurt tries out for the role of a Klingon.

James Villiers turns into a cat.

Tits! Obvious cutaways of tits to try and sell this as an X-rated horror movie abroad. Clive Donner directed this — I’m starting to think he was never very good, you know. His camera swoops in, leering, in like a dirty eagle, every nipple a merit badge.

Jenny Runacre smiles slyly in the background, which you’d think would be enough, and Culp is pretty delightful, channeling Shatner’s heavy pauses. Gordon Jackson is on hand, as ever.

“You hear a lot about Bradford Dillman,” I observe, “but you never hear about his brother, Rochdale.”

Culp is such a Roddenberry substitute, he even has Majel Barrett (Mrs R) as housekeeper. And the voodoo curse on him, manifesting as chest pains and a blob of mortician’s wax on his manly abdomen, is presumably a thinly-veiled fictionalisation of the heart condition that slew the Star Trek creator.

Why Gene Roddenberry wrote science fiction: his first wife was named Eileen Rexroat. It was inevitable.

More Wiki —

“Star Trek theme music composer Alexander Courage long harbored resentment of Roddenberry’s attachment of lyrics to his composition. By union rules, this resulted in the two men splitting the music royalties payable whenever an episode of Star Trek aired, which otherwise would have gone to Courage in full. (The lyrics were never used on the show, but were performed by Nichelle Nichols on her 1991 album, “Out of this World.”)”

The only Star Trek lyrics I ever heard require to be sung with a Scottish accent —

Star Trek! It’s a funny tune!

It goes UP and then it goes doon!

AND! just when you think you’ve got it mastered,

It flies off like a crazy bastard!

I think perhaps those are not canonical.

As someone who grew up with a lot of terrible, boring, generic American TV (Petrocelli, The Fall Guy, Fantasy Island, Kojak, Dallas) I kind of wish Spectre had been commissioned. It’s not boring. It’s terrible and ridiculous, but not boring. If it had run, there might have been some good episodes, but even if they were all dreadful, they would have been more diverting than all the lawyer and cop and doctor shows, and with Culp and his polo neck, they’d have been more fun than Kolchak, too.

In some dreamy alternate reality, this series ran for decades. David Duchovny eventually took over from Culp.