Archive for The Avengers

LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2017 by dcairns

Regular Late Show participant Matthew David Wilder is a screenwriter (Paul Schrader’s DOG EAT DOG) and director, but I first became aware of him as one of the few people using reviews on the early IMDb as vehicles for actual ideas. Here he is on the way we live now, in these late days ~

HOW LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE

by Matthew Wilder

I’ve noticed a little nervous squinch—that tiny pulse at the far left side of my left eyeball—that usually comes from too much caffeine. It starts annoying me because I shuttle in a most annoyed way from close-up-vision glasses to far-off-distance glasses. Right now, as I feel the squinch, I am shifting from close-up glasses to far-off glasses as the monitor I am looking at is now a little bit farther than it is close. The picture I am staring at is Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc, a movie I shot in July that features, in almost every frame, a great but only moderately well-known actress named Nicole LaLiberte, best known as the femme fatale we assumed would be around for a long time in Twin Peaks: The Return, but who was dispatched with terrifying swiftness by the Bad Agent Cooper.

The genius of the scene is that David Lynch and Mark Frost have Nicole’s character repeatedly ask, within the same scene, “Are you gonna kill me?” to which Bad Coop says “Yes…” There is something terrifyingly childlike about that notion of re-asking a terrifying question and hoping to get a different answer. Eventually Bad Coop makes good on his yeses.

The squinch keeps pulsing as I look at a scene of Nicole’s character being waterboarded.

In our picture, Nicole is Joan of Arc, an alt-right Christian militia terrorist who blows up federal buildings because her voices have told her to take back America for Jesus Christ. As a result of her purity of purpose and her virginal character, she has the same kind of supporters Trump has, but more. She owns a good fifty percent of the populace. Even people who disagree with her politics respect her self-sacrificing and rigidly uncompromising vision.

In the scene, Joan says “I don’t, and can’t, know what is in their hearts.” We have dropped in a version of the line that sounds more Middle American and less precise, like “I doand, and cand, know what is in their hearts.”

As the doand and cand are about to go in, a little ting, like a coin falling in a cup, lands on my phone, and I see an email has arrived. It’s from a film festival in Texas, asking “a number of people who think a lot about movies” to answer the question “Is cinema over?”

A few moments before “Is cinema over?” landed in my lap, some other events came to me by phone. The Republicans passed a tax bill generally considered a wild looting of the Treasury by many sane, centrist people, a giant redistribution of money upward that involved such gleeful moments as lobbyists writing in special dispensations for special friends in pen during the sleepover party at which the Senate passed the bill.

In the same moment I discover that a host of National Public Radio, someone I’ve never heard of before, is being fired for “inappropriate behavior,” one of which is signing an email “xoxo.” The portrait of this gentleman depicts him looking somewhat enfeebled in a wheelchair, which somehow—is this intentional or just my interpretation?—scores as “See? We’re gettin’ ‘em ALL!” rather than “Isn’t this just too sad?”

Joan’s head is seen on a sort of dentist’s-chair-cum-surgical-table-cum-torture-device. Her head is down low and her feet, out of frame, are up high, as if she were lying on an upended seesaw. Are you gonna kill me? ……Yes.. I look at the phone again, which gives me evidence from a friend of people piling on Richard Brody’s attack on Woody Allen’s character in a review of Wonder Wheel. The Texas question sticks with me: Is cinema over?

Immediately there is an attempt to evade the question. Over what? is one way. What difference would it make if it were over or not? is another. But the intention is clear. We know what the guy who wrote this question was thinking. Is “cinema”—that thing where people gather in an operahouse-like setting (which runs the gamut all the way from majestic to degraded) to see moving pictures, together, historically on celluloid, in a communal experience of laughing or crying or being bored together—over? As in dead.

I pull out my notebook. The page I am about to write on is full of little mispronouncements in our picture’s dialogue. You said you wanted to meet with a spiritual advisuh. Some of them are crossed out, done, some of them persist. Next to them, on the next page, I write Is cinema done? and under that EXAMPLES OF NOT DONE.

Here is a pause.

I think of all the things I have enjoyed in recent times in that big room with people I don’t know in it, and most of them are rather effete, culturally anodyne art objects. Frederick Wiseman reflecting on the good deeds done by idealistic public servants. Bruno Dumont making a kind of comedy so broad it becomes a meditation on the nature of comedy itself.

Stuff someone could write a long, thoughtful article about. But how about cinema itself, invader of the unconscious ¹. Something that hits us on a gut level, as Woody Allen once said, the thing that appeals not to our ideas but to our emotions and senses. Is that still around? I searched the hard drive of my brain for recent examples and could only find one.

I scratched on the page:

guardians vol. 2

It is a commonplace in Los Angeles that everything in movies is story story story, but, as anyone who has seen studio movies in the last 20-odd years knows, that’s not really the case. The story is pro forma, usually a somewhat banged-up and disfigured version of a very generic story (the Boston critic Sean Burns made a delightful case for JUSTICE LEAGUE as an almost exact reworking of THE AVENGERS, somewhat like Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO, a reworking that got away scot-free because no one could remember the plot of THE AVENGERS enough to see the similarities). The picture that stands out as the most cinematic, in the old-fashioned sense of “pure cinema,” a perfect storm of camera movement, staging, editing, color, sound and score, is James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, and it’s maybe six months since I’ve seen the picture and I can barely remember what it’s about—except that Kurt Russell is a godlike figure who wants Chris Pratt to join the family business, to accept a bear hug from him, to shape up and start doing things like his old man…Except, of course, we discover that the ever-lovable Kurt is not, in fact, an example of lovable old-school manhood but turns out to be a diabolical villain.

Turns out to be. I look at a text from yesterday. I asked a girl who used to work with Garrison Keillor, “Did he ever do anything to you?” I recall her never having a bad word to say about him. She was the only cutie under 50 in his vicinity during the tapings of the show; if he did something, she must’ve known about it. The response I get to the text is “Do I know u? Think u got the wrong #, ”

I write underneath GUARDIANS the following phrases: SHANG-A-LANG + LAKE SHORE DRIVE.

What’s cinematic in GUARDIANS is that the director, James Gunn, somehow got the global commercial juggernaut of Marvel to sign on to a movie about a motley crew of humans and creatures whose universe is lit up in the fluorescent psychedelia of a Gaspar Noe movie, and whose whiz-bang action set pieces are all scored to…nearly forgotten AM-radio hits.

Here is the key to what’s powerful here. It is tiresome, albeit sometimes funny, to repurpose overfamiliar pop songs—see John Lithgow coming down the escalator to some cheesy Barry Manilow in DADDY’S HOME 2. But what is truly powerful—what is the excavation—is when something you’ve almost entirely forgotten comes zooming back in the form of a physically exhilarating set piece: see the tour of alien worlds scored to Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” in GUARDIANS 2.

Hold on a second—the words don’t fit the mouth. I doand. And cand. Know what is in their hearts. I ask the editor to hit pause. He was born in 1993. “Can I ask you something? Do you remember the song ‘Lake Shore Drive’ in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2?” This chap loves STAR WARS movies—I think he wears a different hoodie with a Sith on it every day—but second to that really digs Marvel movies. He doesn’t, so I play it:

“Ring a bell?”

“Nah, not really.”

“Does it work, though?”

“Oh my God! It’s genius!”

I find this often. Young kids respond to Led Zeppelin or Stevie Nicks as if it had just come out yesterday. No baggage attached to it—they just like it more than the Autotuned things they are offered today. I think there is a certain extra something, however, that comes from being aware of the craziness of that admixture of Liberace twinkling piano, folk-rock shuck ‘n’ jive, and reference to “comin’ on by on LSD” that makes its placement in a 2017 corporate product all the more endearingly insane.

I stare at the notebook. Guardians 2 SHANG-A-LANG + LAKE SHORE DRIVE. Well, there must be something more to it, right? That is “cinema.” It’s just a bunch of ricocheting, highly digitized, extremely artificial-looking set pieces scored to earwormy ditties that remind me of grade school in the Gerald Ford era?

“Can’t we get one of these ‘doand’s to fit with where her mouth opens?”

“I’ve tried all of them,” the PHANTOM MENACE fan says, “but they’re all too late. She’s slower on the ‘doand’ version than when she’s saying ‘don’t.’”

We go back to the earlier, cleaner, nicer, hard-T sound of don’t.

I try to find more reasons for this movie I vividly but only partially remember, reasons other than fleeting euphoric moments in which all the elements of cinema harmonize to make something that crashes into every one of your pleasure centers—but I can’t find any more.

“Matthew, I think I’ve run out of don’ts.”

Someone texts me that there was supposedly a mass shooting at a “You Will Not Replace Us” rally near Roy Moore’s home in Alabama, but it was some fake news.

I find out that a grad-school professor of mine has nine women complaining against him. It’s always nine.

I’d try to make the words fit again, but it’s too late.

You may press me to know what my people are planning, but I can tell you I have no answer. I don’t and can’t know what is in their hearts.

(1). The night after this encounter with “Is cinema done?” I saw Edgar Ulmer’s THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN at the Echo Park Film Center, a room filled with seemingly flammable stacks of super-8 film. An abject, Skid Row invisible-man movie, with one interesting exception. The scientist in it—not a mad one, but the other archetypal kind, the kindly Mitteleuropa Einstein-accented genius who is extorted by evil men to do evil things—we discover cracked, spiritually, because he was forced to do experiments in an Auschwitz-like camp on women with masks on their faces; and, of course, he discovered that one of them was his own wife. At the end, he tells the no-account roughneck whom he has invisibilized that he is to be “a sacrifice,” a Judas goat for the atomic age. Somehow it is as if, in the script form, the real concerns of the artist Ulmer leaked onto the screen. In other words, it’s as if Ulmer’s movie excavated his own unconscious without his being aware of it—a kind of naïve Lynch-ism. (While watching TRANSPARENT I was also at all moments half thinking of the stormy exit from the theatre of a recent ex-friend, at one time the about-to-be editor of JOAN, who came to watch a series of tortured shorts by international arthouse directors, then left in a huff when the tawdry TRANSPARENT come on.)

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Spouse Invaders

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2014 by dcairns

john-saxon-the-night-caller

THE NIGHT CALLER

I wasn’t aware of UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1964) but I had seen THE NIGHT CALLER made the following year. Both are British sci-fi movies, both feature stand-out turns from Warren Mitchell, and both are weirdly, creepily misogynistic.

MARS NEEDS DUMB WOMEN

Briefly, in THE NIGHT CALLER, someone is advertising for models and when the swinging London dolly-birds turn up to audition, they get disappeared. A female scientist investigates, using herself as bait, and is murdered. Finally, the intrepid John Saxon confronts the extraterrestrial responsible, who confesses that his dying planet, devastated by war, desperately needs nubile young women, so he’s been advertising for them and whisking them off to Mars or wherever. He also reveals that Martian men are hideously disfigured by radiation but that using mind control he can prevent the dolly birds from realizing this. Saxon and the rest of the representatives of Earth are touched by his plight and agree that what he’s been doing is basically fine. Then they remember about the murder and ask about that. “She was a threat to us — she was too intelligent!” says the space chappie, and everybody agrees that, though it’s of course regrettable that she had to die, it was probably for the best. Too intelligent. Can’t have that.

Very disturbing viewing, and a commercially released genre picture, albeit a low-budget one. John Gilling of Hammer fame directed it. It’s actually like a film made by the warped-by-aliens men in Joe Dante’s alarming Masters of Horror episode, The Screwfly Solution.

Warren Mitchell, famous as TV’s Alf Garnett (comedy sitcom bigot, prototype of Archie Bunker), has a moving bit as father of one of the missing girls — so real and human he blows the doors off the film, and all the more disturbing when it gets to the end and his loss is swept under the rug.

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SEX IS A VIRUS FROM OUTER SPACE

Now. UNEARTHLY STRANGER, like TNC, starts smoothly and doesn’t reveal its bizarre sexual politics until quite late, but when it does the effect is striking.

Good cast! John Neville, who was about to be Sherlock Holmes in A STUDY IN TERROR, and would play Baron Munchausen for Terry Gilliam and have another run-in with aliens in The X-Files as The Well-Manicured Man, is a scientist working on a scheme of astral projection to enable mankind to travel into space by will alone. Philip Stone, the sinister waiter in THE SHINING, is his head of department. (Oddly, THE NIGHT CALLER features two Kubrick stars too, Marianne Stone who dances with Peter Sellers in LOLITA, and Aubrey Morris, the camp social worker in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I really do think Kubrick did all his casting from British B-movies.) And Patrick Newell, Mother in The Avengers, plays the security man whose job is to find out why Britain’s top scientists keep having their brains incinerated from within.

(“The brain drain” — a newspaper scare story about British talent being stolen away by countries with higher salaries and lower tax, was very much in the media at this time.)

(The movie is produced by Avengers head man Albert Fennell and directed by documentarist John Krish who also filmed that show’s credits.)

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Suspicion eventually falls on Neville’s wife, “an alien” — meaning she’s Swiss — or is she? Sympathetically played by Gabriella Licudi, she sometime forgets to blink, takes the casserole out the oven without gloves, has no pulse, and weeps acid tears. It seems the aliens have invented astral projection first, and they’re here. And they’re all women.

Nicely shot but confined to a couple of offices, the Neville family home, and a car — apart from an effective bit of Licudi wandering suburban streets and upsetting the children she meets, who all instinctively know she’s Not Right — the film suffers from an excess of wordiness and a lack of action and visual variety. But it’s short and somewhat original. Then the big reveal happens, and the further twist comes that secretary Miss Ballard (Jean Marsh) is also an alien. A struggle ensues with Neville and Stone trying to chloroform her — like the vampire-stakings in Hammer flicks, it’s filmed like a rape. She goes out the window, but by the time our panting heroes have descended the loooong flight of stairs, she’s vanished like Michael Myers. But just to drive its non-point home, onlookers start turning to the camera. Women onlookers. Staring with sinister womanly eyes. You’re next! You’re next! Watch the skies. God help us in the future.

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MOTHER, JEEVES AND BOSIE

Where does this fear and loathing come from? Sexual liberation may have stirred up some anxieties, I guess. The makers of The Avengers were an odd lot — celebrating kinks and campery, but treating Linda Thorson shabbily and establishing a “no-blacks” rule because “the show has got to have class.” A good part of UNEARTHLY STRANGER’s unease feels curiously homonormative (now there’s a word you really don’t get to use much). All the women are aliens and all the men are a bit fruity. Warren Mitchell’s cameo involves a PERFECT Scottish accent, the kind of posh one that’s slightly camp. John Neville had been Bosey to  Robert Morley’s OSCAR WILDE, and has a neurasthenic, dandified quality that’s pleasantly un-macho. “Mother” describes himself as a confirmed bachelor and is of course camp as knickers: this may be the best movie role he ever had, and he chews it up greedily, joyously. And Philip Stone, with his prissily plummy, theatrical diction… well, he doesn’t conform to any notion of sexuality, really: his characters always seem scarily inward. He’s magnificent, though: one can see why Kubrick loved using him. With Neville he forms a kind of cut-rate Richardson/Gielgud double-act. I wish they’d done a whole series of movies together.

Check it!

what’s inside a girl? from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I told you: this movie is just bizarre about sexual relations and society and everything.

The Avengers: The Complete Emma Peel Megaset

Webb Head

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2012 by dcairns

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN — enough has been said about whether this was an absurdly rapid reboot (I’d say so), about whether there are too many superhero movies (I’d say so) or about whether making every superhero film an origin story betrays a lack of imagination (it does)  — having caught the film at last, I want to say that it’s pretty good, for a superhero movie.

It’s really two movies. Director Marc Webb must’ve been hired partly for his name, and partly to bring the characters to something like three-dimensional life. This, he succeeds in. The film is actually emotional, the leads are appealing and convincing, and everything involving Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Sally Fields and Denis Leary is good, human drama. The filming is a little ordinary, to the point where you can barely even tell it’s in 3D for the first ten minutes or so.

Then there’s the action side. This is kinetic and packs plenty of visual oomph. We’re used to big movies being kind of patchworks, with the visual effects and second unit guys handling everything that doesn’t involve standing still and emoting, but the result is particularly striking in this case. On the other hand, the dialogue in the scenes involving Spidey and the Lizard, his hulking foe, is pretty pitiable, a collection of clichés and disconnected one-liners. I’m guessing that two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent (PAPER MOON, STRAIGHT TIME) didn’t write those bits.

As well-staged as it is, the monster-fighting doesn’t offer much we haven’t seen before, although the web-slinging and city-swinging is MUCH more convincing here than it was in Sam Raimi’s cartoony pastel Manhattan. And the film’s villain, Rhys Ifans / the Lizard, isn’t very well integrated into the other storylines. Ifans, maybe the film’s best actor (see his AMAZING turn as Peter Cook in Not Only But Always), gives probably its weakest central performance. I don’t think anybody involved was really enthusiastic about, or believed in, the mad scientist transformation stuff.

Here’s where the origins story thing hurts the movie: it’s actually sort of interesting, in a nerdy formulist way, to watch Spider-man’s origin get re-told, exactly the same key story points expressed in different ways, but like the first Raimi film, the movie takes an age to get going because we also have to see the villain’s origin. And Raimi did this in EVERY ONE of his Spider-man movies (and in DARKMAN). How much more interesting (and speedy!) it would be to have the monster already at large and have the hero uncover the secrets of its existence and motivation. The only recent movie I can think of that does anything like this is THE AVENGERS. Which is part of why I respect THE AVENGERS.

Then we ran (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, Webb’s previous effort, and it was so much better than THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN that I did kind of wonder — has Webb wasted several years of his life? He could clearly have made two movies like (500) in the time it took him to make the blockbuster, and for that money he could have made (50). Of course, the economics of the film biz doesn’t work that way. But I’m hoping that the bigger movie will allow him to make more smaller movies.

(The harsh version: John Cassavetes to Martin Scorsese, after the latter had made BOXCAR BERTHA. “You just wasted a year of your life.”)

Webb has a real gift, clearly, for casting handsome couples — Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel go great together. And the playful narrative choices (think ANNIE HALL’s splitscreen, animation and subtitles) and non-linear structure via first-time screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber keep the thing constantly on its toes. The pity of it is that a super-hero blockbuster COULD have precisely those virtues — the nasty but very funny KICK ASS practically does. (KICK ASS also has a more convincing sense of the modern world, with its hero becoming a YouTube sensation. In AS-M, a giant lizard rampages across the Williamsburg Bridge and nobody shoots it on their phone, leading the cops to dismiss it as a fantasy.)

There’s also emotional depth — you may tear up, and you certainly may recognize bits of your own life, sharply observed. The film is so much fun that it could coast by on charm alone, but it chooses to get into real heartbreak, which is what separates the truly romantic from the mere romcom. And this comes out even in the ludic filmmaking choices — a splitscreen comparison of expectation versus reality late in the show creates a genuinely anxious, sinking feeling in the stomach.

I carry in my mind the idea that we’ve lost the ability, for some reason, to do good romantic comedies, but while I stand by the idea that it used to be somehow easy and natural to do those films well and now it seems to be hard, there have been some really good funny romances in the last twenty years. It’s just that, from GROSS POINTE BLANK to SCOTT PILGRIM VERSUS THE WORLD to (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, they more often seem to be predominantly from the male perspective. Am I wrong, or why is that?