Archive for The Holcroft Covenant

Explosive

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by dcairns

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“What’s with the Frankenheimer kick?” asked Fiona. She’s a great fan of SECONDS, in particular, but even she was puzzled by some of the crap I was watching.

“I just think he brings a professionalism and a stylistic brio to anything he does,” I explained. “So I’m looking for the worst film he ever made.”

So far THE HOLCROFT COVENANT might be it, but even that was entertaining in a “was that meant to be funny?” way. I still have PROPHECY to enjoy. Given that it’s about a mutant grizzly bear, I have a suspicion it might be Frankenheimer’s most autobiographical work.

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99 AND 44/100% DEAD is such a terrible title, I’d always avoided watching the thing, but I think it was Glenn Kenny who mentioned its pop art credentials and that got me intrigued. It’s a queer thing, marrying said Lichtenstein visuals to an episodic, shambling narrative about warring gang lords, and throwing in lots of gratuitous grotesquerie along the way. Chuck Connors as a hitman with a steel claw that takes various attachments (bottle opener, cat o’nine tails) seems to have inspired a similar character in Joe Dante’s INNERSPACE.

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Irish people — please explain Richard Harris’s hair to me. I know the top part is a toupee. But that part’s practically normal compared to those weird flanges at the sides. He’s like a cross between an Elizabethan clown and a zombie Michael Caine.

Pointlessness hangs heavily over the thing, as with much of Frankenheimer’s expensive, explosive work, but much of it is amusing in a nihilistic sort of way — Bradford Dillman invents one of the screen’s most distinctive villainous laughs, sucking in air through pursed lips like a man whistling in reverse — Edmund O’Brien seems to be on hand to evoke THE KILLERS or D.O.A. but just makes me think THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT — Henry Mancini provides a great score, adding a lot of wit to the scenes that don’t feature sewer alligators, giant inflatable lady sculptures or crowds of bodies in concrete boots standing around the bottom of the East River.

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The cops and even the regular population seem indifferent to the mass slaughter being waged around them, and its strange to see the characters walking casually down the street one moment, just after being chased by machine-gun wielding assassins. Don’t they ever get nervous?

DEAD BANG seemed like it was going to be true shit, but it really wasn’t. Don Johnson is a cop on the edge, chasing neo-nazis… The story is rather televisual, especially how it ends (monologue from about-to-be-slain baddie, freeze-frame on shit-eating grin from Johnson), but the script adds surprising details and funny bits (a hungover Johnson throws up on a suspect) and Frankenheimer aggressively hurls production values at it. A car ride to investigate a white supremacist church rates a big crane shot AND a helicopter swoop.

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The Frankenheimlich manoeuvre.

Don Johnson may be a furious drunken maniac, but he gets results, damnit. Amusing to see his character intimidate, infuriate or repel virtually everyone he meets. In common with BLACK SUNDAY, the movie suggests that torture is really your best bet if you want to achieve anything good in this world. Odd that Kathryn Bigelow is picking up so much flak over ZERO DARK THIRTY when US cop movies have quite blatantly endorsed torture and the threat of torture for decades. DEAD BANG makes DIRTY HARRY look quite nuanced in this department.

Not, I have to say, a very good title. A friend suggests that having a title people are embarrassed to say is probably unhelpful. “You wanna go see DEAD BANG?” But I did like the idea of a drunkard cop who fights crime by puking on it. THE EMETIC DETECTIVE should have had a whole series of movies made about him. “Don Johnson is a cop on the edge… of nausea.” “Crime makes me sick!” It’s not too late for a sequel, in which Johnson (trailing glory from his DJANGO comedy turn) could come out of retirement/rehab to take on one last case and barf on it. “It takes guts to be a cop, and Don Johnson is going to empty them all over this city!”

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In It For the Money

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2013 by dcairns

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Came back from Dublin with a rampaging Irish lurgi in my system and collapsed into bed with a fitful cough that made my head explode each time it went off. Comedies were out. I chose to watch the worst thing I could lay my hands on.

That meant the 1980s. That meant Michael Caine. Add Robert Ludlum and John Frankenheimer, during his years of alcoholic haze, and you should have a perfect storm of awfulness perfect for a state of feverish narcolepsy. But actually THE HOLCROFT COVENANT displays dim glimpses of another, better film, as if two movies were projected on overlapping scrims and the wrong scrim was to the fore.

Ludlum: “the man who ruined titles,” as a friend puts it. I have a mental image of his literature — fat volumes of inept prose — but have never read any of it so apart from the fat part I don’t know how accurate/fair that is. He does seem to have yielded very little of cinematic value, and I suspect this may be partly due to weak characterisation — the one real hit in movie terms was the Bourne series, in which the hero is a literal blank. For much of THE HOLCROFT COVENANT, Caine’s character is similarly ill-defined, though that may be partly due to his inability to suggest a New York architect called Noel Holcroft (doesn’t he play something similar in the even-more-awful BLAME IT ON RIO? And with a similar name, Hollis…) and in THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND, characterisation is largely replaced by casting.

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So much for the HOLCROFT part of the dreadful title. The COVENANT is a vast bank account of pilfered Nazi funds set up supposedly to redress the Third Reich’s crimes. We’re asked to believe that it was judged wise to keep this money hidden away for forty years (Why?), that the funds shouldn’t have simply been handed over when the Reich fell, and that Swiss banks administer Nazi funds for benevolent reasons. Obligatory Euro-thriller star Michael Lonsdale plays the Swiss banker, with Lilli Palmer adding class and Mario Adorf adding sweaty ebullience.

But why do I suggest that the film is anything more than sheer rot, with an offensively inane premise? Well, the screenplay is the work of three hands — John Hopkins, who did a lot of spy stuff including THUNDRBALL and Smiley’s People, Edward Anhalt, who did classy stuff like THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH but also fun like THE SATAN BUG (which I watched the same day by sheer coincidence, mainly because I was convinced I had the titular bug) and George Axelrod, a reminder of Frankenheimer’s glory days via THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

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Axelrod tends to smuggle in humour, sometimes in so black a form it’s hard to receive it as such, and it’s his voice that predominates, or would if the film were in tune with its own best intentions. Lines about Adorf’s character having found the perfect way to conceal his Nazi parentage by becoming world famous seem to leeringly point out the absurdity of the whole story. The NORTH BY NORTHWEST device of a regular joe plunged into the mad world of espionage is entertainingly resuscitated, at least on paper.

Caine is actually very funny in his incredulity at the secret codes and meetings in public places, but his being so evidently himself (complete with blazer) wrecks all the humour the script tries to ring from him being an American fish out of water. Co-stars Victoria Tennant, Anthony Andrews and Bernard Hepton (“Mustn’t grumble”) are forced to try to be even more British than they already are in order to try to make him seem American. Or maybe it’s just that Axelrod has written them as stiff-upper-lip parodies.

(Caine’s career seemed to stagger through innumerable fatal misfires like this one, but like a zombie from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, not even repeated bullets to the head could stop it.)

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Highlights of fatuity — a chase through a Berlin Carnival of Prostitution (because not only do sex workers have lots of disposable income to throw at street festivities, but the city council is keen to promote the red light district as a tourist attraction); a highly public assassination attempt on seventy-one-year-old Lilli Palmer that kills four innocent bystanders and one assassin while wiping out Palmer’s bookshop (“My shop!” she cries, oblivious to the loss of life) but misses its target; Caine constantly meeting representatives of governments and businesses away from their places of business, with no guarantee that he’s talking to the real deal (he almost never is); an eleventh-hour twist about a character’s identity which makes no difference to anything.

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The movie looks glossy and Frankenheimer seems, depressingly, committed — some of his Dutch tilts and one crash zoom on Adorf’s huge cave-in of a face are actually witty. Obviously the money ran out — the score is a pathetic synth dribble, and a series of voicemail messages early on seem to be recorded by the film’s supporting cast, doubling up as offscreen characters. One of them is Frankenheimer himself. Inspiration must have run out too — the climax reprises shots from THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (much as RONIN and REINDEER GAMES would reprise the coda of THE TRAIN) and the story, finally unmasked as the great chain of piffle it is, seems beyond even Axelrod’s powers to parody.

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