Archive for The Bridge on the River Kwai

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.

Ape Crisis Centre

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2017 by dcairns

Sorry for the tacky title, but somebody already reviewed KONG: SKULL ISLAND with the tagline I LOVE THE SMELL OF APE PALM IN THE MORNING, better than which it is impossible to do. It wasn’t the famous Anonymous Wag, it was somebody real with a name, I just can’t recall who and can’t be bothered checking. but well done, Nonymous Wag.

I didn’t see KK:SI but I did see WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, slightly dragged by Fiona, and it has just probably as many APOC NOW refs as the big gorilla one. There’s even a graffita reading APE-POCALYPSE NOW, so I couldn’t use that as my header either. The Vietnam stuff is a little heavy-handed and dumb, though in a war with the apes Americans surely WOULD call their enemy “the Kong” so I have to grant them that one. (They called their enemy that in ‘Nam, too — I know you know that, but did you know it was actually a made-up name? There was no such group as the “Viet Cong,” the US made the name up because they wanted something that sounded cool and sinister. NOTE: see correction in comments section.)

So, I was glad I saw this in the end — we’d seen  films one and two in the trilogy, and this one does its best to actually be a concluding episode, though I’m sure there’ll be pressure to do more — a reboot, or some kind of sequel that also serves as a remake of the original Chuckles Heston apetacular (still the best in the series/serieses).

DIGITALLY RENDER UNTO CAESAR

The first half hour is nicely directed, though the 3D didn’t add as much as I expected — maybe because the sinuously moving camera does all the 3D’s work for it. But I wasn’t really engrossed dramatically. Caesar (Andy Serkis and his army of animators) is quite chatty in this one, despite Noam Chomsky’s firm stance on ape language, but he apparently has never learned to use contractions. So talks like Data from Star Trek, or like a man in a biblical epic. This is obviously as deliberate as the ‘Nam refs, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. (Notice how Data’s robospeak gradually infected the rest of ST:TNG‘s cast as the writers forgot how people talk).

I guess the biblical epic aspect has always been there, from the casting of Heston to all the talk of a “Lawgiver,” echoing Heston’s role as Moses and eventually embodied by John Huston, director of THE BIBLE (and portrayer of Noah, another man who conserved species from an environmental disaster) in BATTLE FOR, the last of the original series. That movie is referenced here just enough (a single teardrop!), and there are lots of other clever harkenings to the earlier films, which the reboot has always been nicely respectful of.

But the first half hour is also terribly uninvolving. No effort is made to remind us of the personalities of the lead apes from the previous installments. One fellow only gets a little character grace note five minutes before being offed, which retroactively makes said grace note seem like a cynical plant. Inexplicably, the film’s baddie, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson as Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz with a side order of Robert Duvall’s Kilgore) shows up out of nowhere to kill some apes and set Caesar on a mission of revenge, then vanishes back to his hideaway — Caesar falls off a waterfall, very dramatically, but in the next scene is back in his (compromised, unsafe) base camp, making plans. It feels muddled, and the emotion is dampened by confusion.

Fiona points out that the film is still afraid of female apes: none of them talk in this film, and they don’t fight, contrary to nature. They don’t have big purple behinds, so the movie resorts to having them wear little hair braids so we know who’s a girl. They make little feminine grunts, the way real apes don’t. I think the rot set in with Tim Burton’s appalling POTA movie, with Helena Bonham Carter and Lisa-Marie as sexy ape-babes. Ugh. That’s the only bit of wrongheadedness from that abomination which has kind of survived and mutated, as if exposed to an experimental gas canister (Burton is getting to resemble an experimental gas canister more and more).

BAD TIME FOR BONZO

There’s also, I would say, a problem with the first half’s post-apocalyptic landscape. Unlike the crumbling cities of DAWN OF, there’s nothing specially evocative about, say, a Snow Cat lying abandoned in a snowy forest. It looks like quite a normal site. I love post-man settings in the same way I love empty set photographs — I’m all about the defining absence, me. So this was disappointing.

But it was in the midst of the snowy rural stuff where the film is aiming to be THE SEARCHERS with even more sign language that it starts to get good. There’s a quite brilliant scene of Maurice the orang (Karin Kanoval and her animators) and a silent little girl (Amiah Miller) which is LOOONG, wordless, quiet, tender and hypnotic. Really unexpected in a summer blockbuster. And the film starts improving right now.

Next we meet Steve Zahn (and his Zahnimators) as the comedy relief chimp (his “Oh nooo…” sounds very Scottish, somehow). Comedy relief characters are primarily needed by films with no sense of humour, or films afraid that a sense of humour will deflate the pomposity that sustains them. Both certainly factors here — any film with a lead who can’t use contractions must be afraid of humour. Get it safely contained in one character and you’ve quarantined it. But Zahn & co create a rather adorable figure here. So appealing, I worried he was being set up for a moving death scene. But the film doesn’t ALWAYS do what you expect.

EMOTION CAPTURED

Now the movie becomes a prison camp flick, and the Colonel shows semblances of another of his rank, Saito in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. But it’s a wall he’s building. Yes, this feels like the first anti-Trump blockbuster (or the first I’ve seen — I don’t see many). And it will feature an ape swinging from a Stars and Stripes which is also inscribed Alpha Omega and is also on fire. An image for our times. (Also prefigured by John Huston, this time in WINTER KILLS.)

Science fiction films never accurately predict the future (except BRAZIL, which has all come true) but one hopes this does, just so we can have Don Jr. lose the power of speech and his dad shoot him. Oh, come on. It’d be interesting.

But the movie isn’t as dark and vengeful as that, after all. It has a much more nuanced take on vengeance than, say THE REVENANT, which proved remarkably dumb and unsophisticated. And it even redeems the somewhat fascistic ending of RISE DAWN, which had Caesar depriving his enemy of apehood so he could kill him without breaking the “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape” rule. That climax, which seemed like it was meant to be just cool and bad-ass, is back-engineered to seem genuinely proto-fascist, something that must be atoned for and which leaves trauma for the perpetrator, or maybe this was always part of their plan (the writers of the first film are execs on this, granting a sense of cohesion and trilogic world-building). Caesar feels guilt for killing Toby Kebbell as Koba the bonobo (I just like writing that) and gets a chance to act differently this time.

APE PLURIBUS UNUM

So maybe because I like apes or because I don’t like concentration camps, this movie got quite emotional for me. I seemed to continually have something in my eye (mayve it was the 3D). It wasn’t profoundly moving, because torturing animals always gets a reaction (my friend Alex makes fun of the bit in RISE OF where Malfoy shows up with girlfriends to abuse apes — “No matter how evil you are, it’s unlikely you’d think that torturing chimps would be a good way to impress the girls,” — but in fact, animal abuse is a staple of entertainment, since drama depends on a good bit of unpleasantness to work its magic). Arguably, it was all too easy. But it worked. And it didn’t become so manipulative and Von Trieresque that I resented its effect.

It’s nice to get a proper trilogy. The middle one is the darkest. The first and third are the best. This is as it should be.

 

Plasterworks of the cinema

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , on September 2, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-09-02-11h12m18s680

Last week I had the great pleasure of interviewing production designer Leslie Dilley on the set of kids’ TV show Teacup Travels. Les designed James Cameron’s THE ABYSS, and as art director worked on Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS/THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, as well as STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, ALIEN, SUPERMAN… not to mention his being one of the whistlers in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which is the one that made my jaw drop.

The interview was fun, but the conversation afterwards was even better — of course, I wasn’t recording that. But Les relaxed and told a couple of stories of mishaps, both ironically centered around the craft speciality that was his entrée into the film business — plastering. And both involving Gene Hackman movies.

Lucky_lady_poster

On LUCKY LADY (Stanley Donen, 1975), Les was working with his mentor Norman Reynolds, and had the job of preparing sheeted several corpses which had to be flung off the side of a boat. I’m not sure if this scene made it into the movie, as I gather three different endings were shot. Les prepared nine or ten chickenwire frames and plastered them over to make good, realistically heavy corpses. But he was rather worried that the Mexican extras who had to commit these remains to the sea might not by hefty enough to actually get them over the side — they were all quite little fellows.

Donen called action and Les hid below-decks, listening nervously. Splash. Splash. He began to relax — evidently the diminutive Hispanic seamen were managing their task with aplomb. Splash. Splash. Then — disaster — sudden hilarity. Generally the very effect you want to avoid in a funeral at sea.

Rushing on deck, Les learned the cause of the laughter — the plaster corpses were bobbing to the surface, one after the other. Despite being extremely heavy, they all contained enough air to be buoyant, something Les had never learned at school.

vlcsnap-2016-09-02-11h12m15s286

The laws of physics will trip the filmmaker up every time. Les ended up skipping RETURN OF THE JEDI to do EUREKA, since he was very interested in working with Nic Roeg. For this movie, he built a tree that Gene Hackman has to sit under in the Klondyke. The tree was constructed at a studio in Vancouver and shipped up north to the snowy climes for assembly on location. All the branches slotted into the trunk perfectly, according to Les’s prepared diagram, and Les secured them with plaster and scrim, working in progressively colder sub-zero temperatures as the evening wore on. They were absolutely solid when he left.

But then he got a call. Gene Hackman had been filmed at his little prospector’s campfire under the tree, and had narrowly escaped being brained by a falling plaster branch.

vlcsnap-2016-09-02-11h12m42s711

What had happened was that as the temperature got insanely low, the plaster had stopped bonding, since the water content of it would freeze before the plaster was dry. This ice would have still done the job and held the branches in place, probably securely enough for people to climb the tree if they’d wanted, except that the heat from Hackman’s fire had risen up the tree and started them thawing.

The lesson: people on movies are always doing strange things under pressure of time, such as building plaster trees in arctic conditions, and this is exactly how accidents happen… and it’s the things you know perfectly well how to do that will suddenly turn treacherous in these circumstances.