Archive for Superman

The Man from Atlantis

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

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John Stuart expresses surprise in Hitchcock’s NUMBER 17, in a suitably subtle fashion. And today, in the Forgotten, over at the Auteurs’ Notebook, you can find Stuart in the Sahara for GW Pabst, making MISTRESS OF ATLANTIS. The Edinburgh-born actor also worked for Hitchcock in BON VOYAGE, where I seem to recall his Scottish accent is strongest when he speaks French, and he finished his career in SUPERMAN, as part of the council condemning Terence Stamp’s Zod to eternity in the Phantom Zone. From Atlantis to Krypton, the Lost Continent to the Lost Planet. Quite a journey.

Leave your comments over at the Auteurs’, but by special dispensation you can leave Maria Montez videos here, where her perfect cinematic appositeness will always be celebrated.

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“Isn’t it a bit old-hat?”

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2008 by dcairns

Kenneth Branagh usually comes up with some interesting directorial strategies. The trouble is, they usually don’t work, and neither do the films. He’s inventive, ambitious, and courageous, but I somehow never feel he’s a natural film-maker.

Nevertheless, some critics were perhaps too nasty about SLEUTH. The film unites an interesting bunch of people, looks very handsome, and is easy enough to watch. There are good bits. Harold Pinter’s reworking of Anthony Shaffer’s play is often amusing.

JL: “Maggie never told me you were… such a manipulator. She told me you were no good in bed, but she never told me you were such a manipulator.”
MC: “She told you I was no good in bed?”
JL: “Oh, yes.”
MC: “She was joking. I’m wonderful in bed.”
JL: “I must tell her.”

As in the original, a successful thriller writer confronts the much younger man who has made off with his wife, and a variety of vicious mind-games are played. Pinter dispenses with Shaffer’s critique of the English mystery novel tradition, leaving the piece as simply another Pinter power-play of pauses. Even the title becomes irrelevant.

One can’t escape the fact that the gimmick casting — Michael Caine returns from the original Joe Mankiewicz version, but playing the other part, Jude Law, who’s already played a Caine role in the ALFIE remake, plays Caine’s part from the original —  is a titillating concept, but not necessarily the best way to fill the parts. Olivier, in the original film, stood boldly for the English establishment, and Caine was the working-class upstart — it was almost too perfect. With cockney Caine as the rich author and the vaguely classless Law as his romantic rival, the distinction is lost. But more important is what Branagh can get out of these actors in the way of acting.

Caine starts off like he’s trying for poshness, perhaps imitating Alan Bates (a fine interpreter of Pinter), which is a bit queasy. The it starts to feel like he doesn’t know his lines well enough — little hesitations and bodging of the difficult bits are either methody additions or genuine screw-ups, and either way they’re harmful to Pinter’s rhythms. But gradually Caine’s undiminished charm and inexplicable authority work their spell, and he becomes enjoyable.

Law is fine when he underplays, and rather embarassing when he tries too hard. He’s a star when he just holds the camera’s gaze. Some insecurity forces him to spoil it by doing stuff, and the effort shows. He’s probably most useful when he’s being tormented by Caine, since some evil part of this viewer derives some pleasure from seeing Law having a hard time. Later, he will do foolish things with a loaded pistol, much like the detective in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Nobody would call this prime Pinter. Although the Great Man has written screen thrillers successfully in the past (THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, under-valued) here there are odd, damaging implausibilities. Why does Caine have an automated rope ladder in his stately home? Why does Law take his gun from his holster for no reason, lay it on the bed for no reason, thus allowing Caine to grab it at the climax? That’s quite bad playwriting, or direction.

What makes the film watchable? The set, designed by Branagh’s regular collaborator Tim Harvey, is very nice, all shiny surfaces and disco lighting, and the photography of Haris Zambarloukos serves up innumerable great widescreen close-ups. But the James Bond lair doesn’t make much sense, and is part of the overall watering-down of Shaffer’s original concept, the conflict between tradition and progress. The Bond vibe is both apt and ironic, since original Bond designer Ken Adam created the look of the original SLEUTH,

The stylised environment is doubtless meant to provide a comfortable setting for the stylised talk, but Pinter’s verbal gymnastics are defiantly archaic, and sound more so amid these glossy surfaces and pointless hi-tech appurtenances. I’m reminded of the grand staircase in FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA’S KENNETH BRANAGH’S MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (I think that’s the full title), which has no bannister and makes you nervous to look at it. It’s quite an interesting effect, but you can’t help wonder WHY would anybody have a stair like that in their house?

This next is a bit spoilerific — if you’ve read the above and still plan on seeing SLEUTH, skip this last stuff.

Full disclosure — Stephen Murphy, prosthetic makeup artist for Jude Law, did the make-up on my clown film and is a good friend. He’s been working on HARRY POTTERS and stuff, turning ex-porn dwarfs into goblins, working his way up, and this is is his biggest job yet. Oddly, the transformation reminds me of another make-up creation, even though Stephen didn’t design the Law job.

It’s the Ringo Starr/Mexican bandit look Stephen created for Alice Bicknell in my film CLARIMONDE using mainly liquid latex and wet tissue paper. I’m also reminded of another makeup creation, Reece Shearsmith as Geoff Tipps in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN:

I am a man

Even the voice is the same! The transformation works OK until Law starts overdoing it again, which makes him more recognisable. Stephen reports that Law was a very nice chap to work with, which is about what I’d expect, actually. Hitting the odd paparazzo doesn’t make him a bad guy, in fact I give him points for it, even though I’m anti-violence.

In the original SLEUTH, make-up artist Tom Smith, required to transform Michael Caine completely, executed a self-portrait, changing Caine into a Smith clone. I asked Stephen if he’d been tempted to do the same, but alas, he hadn’t known. What might have been REALLY interesting would have been if the remake’s make-up DESIGNER, Eileen Kastner-Delago, had given Law a sex change and made him over in her own image.

Made Up

Sexual ambiguity does enter the picture in the last act, with both Caine and Law suggesting bisexual sides, a motif borrowed from Sidney Lumet and Ira levin’s DEATHTRAP, the low-rent version of SLEUTH — Caine, having kissed Christopher “Superman” Reeve, now kisses “Sky Captain”. But this additional twist leads to no new dramatic suspense, and certainly doesn’t carry the mild shock value it did in 1982 (“But it’s so juicy,” Lumet pleaded, when Reeve objected to the kiss). As with the despised DIABOLIQUE, the re-makers try to preserve the twist surprise by adding a further wrinkle to the already-creased story, but it does nothing but drag the film long past its emotional climax… which is about half an hour in.

For all that, the film is diverting, short, and at least it has a different set of flaws from the ones we’re used to seeing all the time. Any bets on what the next Michael Caine remake will be?

Thimble Theater

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2008 by dcairns

He yis what he yis

Popeye the sailor’s first appearance in E.C. Segar’s newspaper strip Thimble Theater is fairly well documented. In the space of weeks the character had evolved from a grotesque walk-on part, to lead character and all-purpose superhero, displacing Olive Oyl’s beau, Ham Gravy, to boot.

(A note on names: when you’re called Elzie Crisler Segar, you probably think nothing of naming your characters Jack Snork, Glint Gore or Battling McGnat.)

The early Popeyes are now reprinted as part of a mammoth project to republish all of Segar’s ten-year run from the 1930s, daily and Sunday strips both. I had just started reading the first volume when I was struck down by my recent flu, and I found it an excellent companion in times of illness — buy it, it could work for you too.

Anybody who enjoys ’30s Warner Bros films and Dashiell Hammett novels and the like is going to enjoy the arcane slanguage paraded between these (deluxe, hard) covers. While Popeye’s garbled English (“I got personal magnecism an’ sex repeal.”) is one source of pleasure, the depression-era badinage from the other characters is at least as amusing. “Everything is hotsy-totsy.” ”

Oyl!

Popeye himself may be one of the most complex comic characters ever. Noble-hearted and fearless, he is also dishonest and opportunistic (like everybody else in the strip). Simple (“I thinks with me fisks.”) and superstitious (“I ain’t afraid of nuthin’ ‘cept evil spiriks.”) he can still outsmart his “emenies”. Introduced into a whodunnit, he socks the butler in the jaw on general principles, only to discover, pages later, that (spoiler alert) the butler did it. When he vows (about once every couple of weeks) to quit fighting for Olive’s sake, he is generally sincere, and will maintain that unassailable sincerity even while slugging some yegg in the breadbasket a panel later.

Magnum Force

At first, Segar’s fondness for repetition is a little disconcerting. But as with Laurel and Hardy, a certain familiarity with the characters, a certain predictability, can add to the comedy. There’s generally a variation in the way a gag is delivered, even if it’s the same old gag. And Segar’s glee at repeating a favourite joke is infectious — swimming instructions to an enemy, “Lie back and open your mouth, there’s nothin’ to it!” is even better the second time around, since it has the familiarity of an old friend.

Guns in the Afternoon

This being the ’30s, there’s a sense of danger to the constant political incorrectness. Guns are blasted left right and centre in a way that might cause concern to modern editors. Olive is both victim of violence from bad guys (Popeye even slaps her at one point) and perpetrator, shooting thirteen cattle rustlers in the shoulder, one after the other. “I’m too kind-hearted to blow his head off,” she remarks of one fallen foe. “I’ll drop him into the cellar — maybe he’ll break his neck.” Golliwog-like cannibals are seen to menace our heroes, and animals are enthusiastically assassinated.

The Hospital

Throughout it all, Popeye displays the near-invulnerability of the superman, which Segar is able milk for a surprising variety of comic and dramatic situations. When Popeye hits a man so hard he breaks his own arm, it’s further proof of his own toughness. The other characters always react as if Popeye was normal, cringing and blanching as he is hit with furniture or plugged with slugs. “Pour lead into him till he sinks to his neck in the desert sands,” instructs John Holster, bad man. But Popeye ignores bullets.

With his gambling, drinking and fighting, not to mention a surprising emotional vulnerability, Popeye still has plenty of weaknesses, and part of the strip’s interest comes from putting him in the wrong and watching him struggles his way to the right.

Eat your greens

The Popeye of the Fleischer bros’ animated cartoons is altogether less complicated. It’s a strange feature of the movie-comic relationship that when cartoon characters are adapted for the big screen, they’re generally simplified. Movie snobs would expect them to require the addition of depth and nuance, but this is more usually subtracted. “I think most comic book movies are made by people who don’t read comic books and despise those who do,” says Guillermo Del Toro.

Olive and Let Die

Despite the fact that there’s really only one plot (Popeye must eat spinach and rescue Olive from Bluto) in the Fleischer toons, they are things of beauty in their own right, due mainly to the sheer artistry of the animation and the pitch-perfect vocal perfs of Jack Mercer and Mae Questel (also Betty Boop). With moving images at his disposal, Popeye could also partake of more strenuous forms of knockabout, with more elaborate consequences. I was always wowed as a kid by the way the hero could punch an offensive building so hard it would breaks into pieces, fly through the air, and reassemble in some new and more innocuous form. It’s no accident that the Fleischer studio was also behind the early SUPERMAN cartoons.

Given his violent, profane, anti-social nature, it’s an oddity that Popeye should be adopted by the Disney Corporation in 1980. But everything about Disney at that time was rather odd. They would make dark, disturbing films (SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, DRAGONSLAYER, THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS) and then not know what to do with them. Only an essentially headless entity, or a brilliantly mad one, would hire Robert Altman to make a childrens’ film.

For some time, I think, POPEYE has been considered a low point in Altman’s career, and it did lead more or less directly to his ten years in the wilderness (ten very productive years, it should be stressed) before his mainstream “comeback” with THE PLAYER. These days, POPEYE is regarded with some affection, I think, cemented by PT Anderson’s use of the song “He Needs Me,” on the soundtrack of PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. At the time, the film was seen as a commercial and artistic disaster.

‘To begin with I thought, “This is great, this is going to be my SUPERMAN. By the end I was thinking, “Please God, get me out of here,”‘ said Robin Williams, right around the time the film was opening. Maybe he just didn’t like Malta, where the movie was shot (you can still visit the crumbling hamlet of Sweethaven. I wonder if its wintry opposite number, the town of Presbyterian Church from MCCABE AND MRS MILLER still stands?)

Sweethaven 

With Williams, Robert Evans and Don Simpson involved, it must have been a pretty coked-up shoot. Evans lost a suitcase full of drugs and claims he called his evil crony Henry Kissinger to rescue the lost luggage and transport it to safety in the diplomatic bag. Simpson proved himself a prize asshole by objecting to Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl — the best casting decision in human history. “I don’t want to fuck her, and if I don’t want to fuck her she shouldn’t be in this movie,” he is supposed to have said. Altman’s response to Simpson’s early drug-related death on the toilet: “I’m only sorry he didn’t live longer and suffer more.” (Stories come from Robert Evans and Peter Biskind and therefore may be untrue.)

Shelley Winters and Robert Duvall no wait that's wrong

POPEYE’s greatest asset is a script by Jules Feiffer, a playwright, novelist screenwriter (CARNAL KNOWLEDGE) and cartoonist (Tantrum is a great thing) who admired Segar’s creation and had no truck with any subsequent incarnations. Added to his respectful evocation of the strip-cartoon universe Segar created, we have unanswerably correct casting — Williams becomes the character, with the aid of a little prosthetic enhancing of the forearms; Duvall is absurdly perfect; ditto Paul L. Smith as Bluto (whatever happened to Smith?); and Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy, a character reportedly invented by Segar in response to calls to make Popeye less abrasive — Pappy does just that, being even more ornery than his son. “I remembers when I was lickle how he used to throw me in the air,” Williams’ Popeye  reminisces, “only he was never aroun’ when I come down.”

Bound

Wolf Kroeger’s Sweethaven design is worthy of a Terry Gilliam film and then some — beautifully wonky and dishevelled. The idea of hiring Fellini’s cameraman, Guiseppe Rotunno, seems inspired. While nothing in the C.V. of Altman’s regular costume designer, Scott Bushnell, would indicate an aptitude for this kind of stylised work, his character designs are crucial in transforming the familiar players into their pen-and-ink counterparts. I would stand that man a pint just for creating Olive’s boat-like boots.

The Lovers

Also: Harry Nilsson’s music and songs. Pretty remarkable! Here we have the lyrical equivalent of Segar’s obsessive repetition. Hmm, maybe they’re a bit TOO repetitive? Still, they’re beautiful.

Altman said of Nilsson, “Everyone said ‘You’ll get in trouble with him — he’ll get drunk; he won’t do it; he’s all washed up.’ As a matter of fact I said all of those things about Harry to Robin myself one day. Then I went home and thought about it and said to myself, ‘Jesus, that’s what some people are saying about me!’ So I called Harry Nilsson, because I had never met him in my life, and we got along terrifically.”

Altman’s biggest handicap as director might be his love of muddle. Slapstick comedy tends to require absolute clarity to work, which translates either into a long-take style that observes the action in a simple long-shot composition of maximum simplicity (Keaton) or a hyperbolic action-movie approach that divides each unit of movement into a brief but legible shot. Altman likes to have everybody talking at once, in a cluttered, busy environment, and his cutting deploys angle-changes almost haphazardly: if the first angle doesn’t show the gag to perfection, the second will allow you another view, from which you might be able to figure out what’s happening. You feel like a reaction shot of a dog cocking its head at some inexplicable human behaviour.

This has the effect of flattening some of the well-staged slapstick, as far as laughs are concerned, but it’s not in itself a displeasing thing. What contemporaneous audiences couldn’t appreciate is that POPEYE isn’t really a children’s film or a comedy or anything normal like that. It’s purpose is not laughter so much as wonderment — it’s a Heath Robinson / Rube Goldberg contraption whose pleasure derives from its beauty and fussy complexity, rather than from anything it actually achieves.

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Sadly, such films have a history of under-performing at the B.O.