Archive for Steven Spielberg

They Go Boom #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2018 by dcairns

Friday night turned out to be a Vilmos Zsigmond double feature* — I’d bought a second-hand disc of Spielberg’s 1941 and showed Fiona the end credits because I remembered them being funny — she not only laughed at the entire cast screaming as their credits come up —— but at every single one of the random explosions punctuating the end titles. Then she demanded we watch the film. “What else did you buy it for?” Hoist by my own petard! Well, the trouble with certain unsuccessful comedies is not so much that the laughs aren’t there, but that the irritation is. As Spielberg himself diagnosed the problem, the film is just too LOUD. He realised he was in trouble in the edit and hoped John Williams’ score would bail him out, “…but then I realised John was overdoing his score to match my over-direction of Zemeckis & Gale’s over-written script.” In tightening the film to try to save the audience from exhaustion, he took out or compressed quieter character moments, according to co-star Dan Aykroyd, hyping up the intensity even more.

The best bit — whether it makes you laugh or not, it’s spectacularly impressive as a piece of choreography — camera movement as well as people movement.

Spielberg’s favourite comedy is, apparently, IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (“One mad too many”) — which is another way of saying he should never have attempted to direct a comedy. Amid the shouting, the actors who make a good impression and even get laughs are those who take their time and underplay — Lionel Stander and Robert Stack. Aykroyd does his patented fast-talking schtick (he would have gone down great in the thirties), Belushi is a cartoon, and the cast is rounded out with members of the Wild Bunch, the Seven Samurai, and Christopher Lee and Sam Fuller. Nominal hero Bobby DeCiccio is an incredible dancer/stunt artist and I’d like to have seen him do more physical comedy.It’s gloves-off time for Spielberg — he lets his obnoxious, bratty side out, though he did modulate the script to reduce some of the real unpleasantness. Our hero no longer nukes Hiroshima. But there’s a rapey villain — played with gusto by Treat Williams — a real Zemeckis/Gale trope — see BACK TO THE FUTURE — and lots of racial “humour” — I don’t need to see Toshiro Mifune saying “Rots of ruck,” thank you. But I kind of liked that the Americans destroy a lot of their own property but DON’T sink the Japanese sub. No Japs were harmed during the making of this picture. The race jokes are bold, especially viewed with modern sensibilities, but I’m not sure the movie really knows what it’s trying to say with them. Equal-opportunities offense only really works when you have equal opportunities elsewhere.

Spielberg asked Chuck Jones for advice, and the advice was, “Don’t do it.” Jones said you need to have at least one non-crazy character or it won’t work — he cited BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI for the James Donald character — “Madness! Madness!” But 1941 does have quite a few non-mad characters. DiCiccio and Dianne Kay are more generic than eccentric — but the movie never gives us a reason to care about them. They don’t care about anyone else. Example: in the wake of the seriously impressive night-club riot, Kay thinks she’s found DiCiccio — she lifts his head, but it’s just a random sailor, so she drops his head with a thunk and moves on. Moderately funny, perhaps, except we’ve seen it too often in movies, and it’s done cold-bloodedly (OK, maybe distractedly — but if she’s not paying attention to the wounded man, she’s still cold-blooded) and it hurts her character, so it wasn’t worth doing. All the characters we’re supposed to like are stupid or obnoxious much of the time in this movie.Slim Pickens’ character is dumped at sea, last heard screaming “Which way is the coast?” They KILLED him? I really needed a shot of him trudging out of the Pacific surf in his sodden onesie, and that’s not something I say about every film.

Good old Vilmos’s William Fraker’s cinematography is beautiful, but it’s a big part of the problem — combine the 70s’ approach to period, which is tons of diffusion, fog filters as thick as Warren Oates’ glasses, with Spielberg’s love of backlighting, smoke and Fuller’s Earth, and it becomes a little hard to read the action. Forcing the viewer to strain cancels out a huge amount of the comedy and adds to the headache effect with all the screaming and explosions. I think it’s a bit too misty even if it were an Indiana Jones picture. (To shoot RAIDERS, Spielberg gets Douglas Slocombe, who can do atmospherics but who also likes things clean and crisp unless there’s a good reason otherwise. Spielberg enters the 80s leaving behind that 70s period look.

Amazing miniatures work. Only the fairground ever looks like a model, for some reason. The Death Star assault on LA looks amazing. Callback to JAWS is a little laboured. Foreshadowing of JURASSIC PARK is funnier now, though.Oh, it was also a Nancy Allen double bill… In 1941, Nancy plays a woman with a sexual fetish for warplanes — an extrapolation of Carole Lombard and Robert Stack’s business in TO BE OR NOT TO BE, possibly. If we look for traces of autobiography in Spielberg’s work, then we have to say that the character with a fetish for WWII warplanes is HIM — see also the planes in the desert in CE3K, his WWII episode of Amazing Stories, the flying wing fight in RAIDERS, the flyboy antics of ALWAYS, and the rather extraordinary sequence in EMPIRE OF THE SUN where Christian Bayle spies on a sex scene during an air raid. Spielberg is more Ballardian than you’d think.

Meanwhile one couple end up screwing in a tar pit and Treat Williams is last seen being molested while covered in raw egg. Biological sex is messy. Mech sex is clean. Clean like fire. Once we can all upload ourselves into the Oasis, everything will be great.

*Actually, no.

Advertisements

Game Ova

Posted in FILM, Interactive with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2018 by dcairns

The easter-egg/treasure hunt plot of READY PLAYER ONE is very INDIANA JONES, while the quasi-dystopian world is pure MINORITY REPORT, but the movie references numerous other Spielberg productions as it attempts to visualise the postmodern concept of the pop-cultural universe as a virtual place where every fictional character and artifact exists alongside each other.

Maybe WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? was the first movie to attempt this kind of mash-up, but it contented itself with folding Disney & Warners cartoons together, with a few strays like Betty Boop, deliberately excluding later cartoons that would have diluted what stylistic consistency it had. Then THE LEGO MOVIE threw everything into the mix but achieved a surprising consistency by making it all Lego.

Complaints about Spielberg’s new movie warping the character of Brad Bird’s warping of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man (a delightful warping, but definitely a warping) and some of the other icons recycled in his big messy new flick seem quite misguided — according to the movie, these are merely avatars, not the real things. As someone who, as a kid, would make Action Man fight Cindy and Stretch Armstrong and a fluffy rabbit and Cassius Clay, I could appreciate the way the filmmakers are having fun cramming together things that just don’t belong together. It’s a bit like if, one second after the camera flashed on the Sergeant Pepper’s album cover, a massive fight broke out.

And it really doesn’t matter if you don’t get all the references, or any of them. The treasure hunt plot is one of the dullest conceptions available to the storyteller (follow the clues, win the reward), though slightly less obnoxious than Rescue The Princess, but writers Zak Penn & Ernest Cline throw in some neat complications to make things less boringly single-track. It’s diverting, sugary popcorn.

If the cultural (mis)appropriation doesn’t matter and the question of “Will the kids know who Buckaroo Banzai is?” doesn’t matter, and they really, really don’t and aren’t you ashamed of yourselves for caring, movie pundits?, then what does matter? Well, the hero is very bland and made more so by being flanked by a couple of cool, contrasting girls. And then Mark Rylance makes a caricature aspie genius figure become dimensional and wholly believable and that sort of lessens everyone else, especially poor Simon Pegg who can’t compete. Pegg can do many things but he’s not in Rylance’s league. He’s not even in his sport.

And of course there’s the whole issue of MEANING. Our hero joins an underground resistance movement but ends up as an all-powerful CEO, not only levelling up but lawyering up, and the film isn’t interesting in exploring or questioning or making fun of the contradictions. Those parts of the film’s world-building concerned with what makes the bad guys bad are so sketchily rendered as to wholly lack weight, and the Evil Corporation meme, which has always been a somewhat translucent veil when used by Hollywood movies produced by huge corporations, has never seemed so wispy and full of holes. This movie can’t even BEGIN to invest in the idea of authentic capitalist evil, so it all comes down to one nasty suit, well played by Ben Mendelsohn… but has he been cast just because he looks a bit like Miguel Ferrer in ROBOCOP?

A few people have suggested that this kind of fantasy, requiring a little satirical edge, might better suit a creator like Joe Dante, and I would recommend to you the flawed (by executive interference) LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION and the majestic GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH for films which really earn one’s respect by straining to bursting point to fulfill the contradictory requirements of selling toys and mocking the whole business of movie/merchandise synergy.

Still, RP1 is fun. If you surrender to it, the action is exciting, the extended Kubrick homage is a blast, Rylance is magnificent (say, can PTA discover him, please? Now that D-Day Lewis has apparently had his day?) and though it has a worryingly protracted wrap-up like in the bad old days immediately following SCHINDLER’S  LIST (or like Penn’s script for X-MEN II), it doesn’t completely outstay its welcome.

Zoning Out

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2017 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2017-01-08-18h11m35s128

Even though Joseph DR NO Wiseman’s lead character in the Twilight Zone episode One More Pallbearer is called Paul Radin, I could determine no reason why his building is called Radin Blog. (Note: I got it eventually.) I tweeted author Dean Radin, whose book The Conscious Universe is a good eye-opener, to say that it’s a shame he wasn’t writing a blog anymore as I had found the perfect banner for him.

I don’t think I ever want to run out of PG Wodehouse books to read, and in the same way I don’t want to run out of Twilight Zone episodes, although all the same i would hate to check out leaving any of them unenjoyed. This will need careful management.

vlcsnap-2017-01-08-18h12m06s967

One More Pallbearer is Rod Serling in atomic mode (see also: Carol for Another Christmas), which is usually good value, and he has the ideal star. As Dr. No, Wiseman played a scientist with metal hands, having lost his original flesh ones in an atomic experiment. That always struck me as improbable and a bit funny. This one suffers a bit from having no sympathy, really, for any characters, but the double twist at the end is a zinger and a half. Not quite two zingers, but still pretty good.

Kick the Can was remade by Spielberg in TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE and Fiona suggested it might be illuminating to check out the original. It was — where Spielberg’s filmlet was cloying and annoying, the original is beautifully bleak. All the rough edges were smoothed off, and the result bathed in a honey-like amber glow. The old folks’ home where it’s set seems paradisical in the movie, and starkly deadening in the series installment. The ending, in which the inmates rejuvenate and run of into the night, leaving one bereft old skeptic, is stark and strange in the series: we don’t know how these kids will live, where they will go. Serling pops out of the bushes to say they’re in the Twilight Zone, which might as well mean they’re dead. It’s eerie, not reassuring.

In the Spielberg, having enjoyed their moment of second childhood, the oldsters return to their doddering, hip-replaced selves, because the status quo must, apparently be preserved.

vlcsnap-2017-01-10-10h06m30s738

I like Scatman Crothers fine, though as a “magic negro” figure he Uncle Toms it a bit in the Spielberg, encouraged by his director. There’s no such character in the series episode, just an old duffer who HOPES, but does not KNOW, that playing children’s games might cancel out the aging process. I was wracking my brains to identify the actor while I was watching, then realized it was old Ernest Truex, best known as the saccharine would-be poet from HIS GIRL FRIDAY (maybe they hired him to script the Spielberg), and also memorable in Preston Sturges’ CHRISTMAS IN JULY. Turns out he had a huge career, starting in silents, and they even tried him in lead roles during the pre-code era when such things seemed worth attempting. WHISTLING IN THE DARK, which pairs him, improbably, with Una Merkel, is well worth a look.