Archive for The Player

To Look for America

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2015 by dcairns

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The story is told that, when filming the last scene of THE GRADUATE, the late Mike Nichols turned the camera on his actors, having briefly set the scene for them, started rolling, said “Action!” and then waited… and waited… and refused to say “Cut!”

His thinking was this: Ben and Elaine (Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross) have fled the church where Elaine was marrying some other guy, and run off together, alienating their respective families (his will probably come to terms with it, though they’ll be baffled; hers are unlikely to adjust). A romantic comedy happy ending has been achieved, but now what? Their lives are ahead of them, an onrushing highway of uncertainty. Nichols said to an interviewer, “It’s entirely possible that in another mile or so she’ll turn to him and say, @But I’ve got nothing to wear.'”

As screenwriter Buck Henry put it, Nichols kept the camera going, having given the actors NOTHING TO PLAY, in order to capture this feeling of uncertainty that creeps up on them. Film is running through the camera and Dustin and Katherine are wondering what the hell is going on. Let’s break it down.

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We did it! The happy ending. The initial rush of excitement running for the bus fades into a happy afterglow, the satisfaction of an immediate problem truly solved.

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The happiness fades. Being professionals, our stars don’t break the scene, they continue sitting there, but they have been given no direction as to what happens now so they’re just waiting for “Cut!” which they expect will be said in about a second from now. Yes. Any second… now? Now?

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Hmm. Apparently the director isn’t finished with us yet. Katherine smiles again, trying to get back into the mood of the events of a moment earlier. Dustin is beginning to think that something is very, very wrong.

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Katherine decides to just wait it out. Dustin tries smiling, either because apparently the scene isn’t over yet and the happy ending is going to take longer than he expected, or because he’s figured out that he’s the butt of a joke of some kind and should take it in good spirit. But WTF?

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Total introspection descends upon our leads. They feel like a pair of amoebas under a microscope. They have played the scene. They have smiled. They have not smiled. What else can they do? They’re only human. They withdraw inside their heads, close their eyes and pull up the drawbridges.

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A dim hope: Katherine wonders what Dustin is doing. Maybe he has a brilliant method actor type plan to get them out of this thing alive. She looks over to see what solutions are offered by the Hoffman face. But Dustin is staring vacantly into the middle distance (somewhere near the end of his nose). There are no answers here.

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The most heart-rending moment. Katherine turns a micro-degree away so she is now staring past Dustin, not at the scenery going by outside the bus, but at NOTHING. This is pretty much like the nightmares actors have where they’re on stage and have forgotten their lines, or their clothes, or both. What is the scene? What am I supposed to DO? I can’t just sit here and be ME.

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Utterly defeated, pinned like butterflies under the pitiless gaze of the glass eye, Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman face front, staring not into the eye of the Medusa (“Don’t look at the camera!”) but BEYOND, at the future. Their eyeline pierces the upcoming end credits and points to whatever will happen next, which is unknowable (although Buck Henry makes an ironic mock-pitch of THE GRADUATE: PART II in Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER).

I once saw Sir Ben Kingsley talk about his upcoming plans to direct, plans which alas have come to naught, at least so far. In preparation, he was reading Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting In Time, which is hardly a how-to guide, but it’s certainly not a bad thing to be reading. He pronounced his approval of the book, apart from one scene where old Andrei described filming an actress waiting (I think this was in MIRROR). To get the desired effect, Tark didn’t tell his actress whether the person she was waiting for was actually going to turn up in shot. Thus he was able to photograph the actual doubt in her face.

To Sir Ben, this was an outrageous abuse of an actor. While clearly far worse things have been done to actors in the name of authenticity, I think he may have a point. Letting your actors act is a sign of your trust in them.  Still, the funny thing about the above scene, which is certainly effective, is how the uncertainty of the actors works perfectly in character, as the audience projects onto those faces the emotions they assume the characters must be having.

“It’s all about projection,” as Spalding Gray put it.

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The Vabina Monologues

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2014 by dcairns

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To understand the title (above), you have to see the film, MAPS TO THE STARS. Trouble is, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

David Cronenberg’s latest, written by Bruce Wagner, deals with a set of interlocking Hollywood lives, and contains thriller elements, but differs from THE PLAYER in the blackness of the humour (several shades darker) and I guess in the fact that the film isn’t really interested in movies at all. Altman, who likewise dropped names and threw in familiar faces to boost the verisimilitude, really did want to talk about why movies had gotten so bad. The Wagner/Cronenberg is more about American culture in general. I guess it’s another science fiction film in the manner of CRASH, in that it extrapolates modern mores a little bit on from where they are. For all the denials that it’s satire, that’s exactly what it is.

Julianne Moore is excellent — Kidmanesque in her characters cringey phoniness. John Cusack, very good, his jet-black hair and eyeliner as bold a choice, arguably, as Moore’s nudity and mania (Fiona did wonder if it was how he really styles himself). Mia Wasikowska, weird and affecting. Robert Pattinson, not really stretched at all. Olivia Williams — always, ALWAYS excellent. Evan Bird (the kid) seems like he could play the role but needs a few more takes much of the time. He’s not helped by Cronenberg’s customary deadpan stillness, which feels stilted when applied to the teenage characters. There’s not much sense of life’s messiness and noise here, everything’s so cool and composed, but rather flat and televisual rather than making something interesting out of the stasis.

(What Cronenberg is always really good at shooting is modern architecture — Toronto, basically. But there’s not much of that glossy, alienated beauty here, though the movie could use it.)

There’s some complicated backstory (two fires in the past?) and the Gothic aspects of the story involving incest and schizophrenia did not much convince — and what point was being made by their inclusion? Surely the point of celebrity culture is that it can make you crazy even if you’re not the offspring of married siblings? Some of the gross ideas shocked, but the “shocking revelations” certainly didn’t.

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And the attempts to evoke madness — curiously unchilling. Cronenberg is usually at his best when he has historical settings and bizarre imagery to punch up his laid-back shooting style, and his portrayals of insanity from the inside out have been most effective when he can show you crazy stuff and make you believe it’s real. There’s a moment in SPIDER that always really bothered me, maybe because I’d read a copy of the script before seeing it and imagined the scene a certain way. Young Spider’s mother, Miranda Richardson, has turned her back, and he hears her say that she’s killed his mother and taken her place. Now, this line is his hallucination. I felt very strongly that the line should have played over her back, from his POV. Cronenberg films it full-face. I guess he meant to give it more force, make it seem more real, but I would have felt it more from the boy’s angle.

Here, the various hallucinations — everybody seems to be having them — should have a Lynchian creep factor but just lie there. The theoretically clever idea of robbing them of sound effects, so that bathwater sloshes in silence, don’t carry any uncanny impact because of the dialogue and the Howard Shore music all over them. I can’t see Lynch making this movie, but in a way he would have been a better fit. He’d have pushes his own interests into it, which Cronenberg is disinclined to do. He’s become an adaptor in recent years, and it’s really questionable how much of his own personality he’s able to force into the material. In NAKED LUNCH, yes, and CRASH, but those works already had influenced his outlook greatly. We would like to see some full-on Cronenberg, but not a self-pastiche.

There’s a bit of CGI that’s so poor — unreleasably poor — that you think, “Oh dear, someone else has started hallucinating,” when in fact they probably haven’t. I’m still not sure though.

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Still, looking back at the Cronenbergs that disappointed me at the time, I find I feel quite fondly about them now, whether I’ve revisted them or not, so maybe I’ll grow to like this one more.

***

Hey, producers! I went looking for stills of this film and found mainly behind-the-scenes paparazzi shots and images of Julianne Moore. Obviously, her Oscar campaign is underway, however you are also theoretically selling a movie that’s on release and Pattinson and Miakowska have fans too. Has the movie still quietly died? LET US PREY, the film Fiona & I are credited with writing, is now gearing up for an actual US release but you can only find about four images from it online (one of them depicting a major character’s death). Stills seem to me to still have use…

In Bruges*

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2008 by dcairns

*It’s in Belgium.

And it’s a pretty good film! I hate how my expectations are  lowered whenever I approach a British film, but I suppose it does allow a modest film like this to shine out. It’s a Film4 Production, therefore British, starring Brendan Gleason and Colin Farrell, therefore Irish, but set almost entirely in Bruges (whose tourist industry it should greatly benefit), therefore European. And released through Universal.

Eigil Bryld’s photography shows the city off to great effect, but Martin McDonagh’s intelligent direction keeps the scenic values working to the benefit of the film as a whole. His only error as director is to presage a long take with a glimpse of TOUCH OF EVIL on TV. Referencing that famous crane shot is rather studenty — Altman got away with it in THE PLAYER by doing it so blatantly it became a postmodern gag. James Toback did it in EXPOSED and it struck me as juvenile. It doesn’t help when the takes involved lack the complexity and bravura of Welles’ ground-breaker.

The filming is elegant and unhurried, attentive to performance, and it’s here the film scores. As two criminals laying low, Gleason and Farrell are funny and engaging, even when misbehaving atrociously. McDonagh’s script serves up skull-fulls of political incorrectness, with Farrell in particular using most of the forbidden derogatory terms, and karate-chopping a dwarf for good measure. In fairness, the little guy, Jordan Prentice, had just been promoting race war. The fact that he’s American, short, and apt to spout racist nonsense under the influence of cocaine suggests some kind of Mel Gibson spoof, but it isn’t belaboured.

Farrell redeems himself from his ALEXANDER embarrassment with an assured comic performance. The central joke of his character — an entirely unmotivated hatred for the inoffensive Bruges — never wears out, and he’s allowed some genuine pathos as well. Gleason is a marvel to behold. His great decomposing pudding of a face fully justifies the presence of 31 visual effects artists in the credits — it couldn’t have been easy to create. He earns our respect by demonstrating an unnatural ability to animate and transmogrify every fold and flap of facial flesh, but mostly CHOOSING NOT TO. In his last moments, he does things with one eye that simply defy both belief and comprehension, retracting it inwards, before extending it like a thumb, apparently looking at himself, winching it back into its pillows of skin, then somehow turning it off, apparently forever.

Clémence Poésy, Farrell’s romantic interest, is charming, distinctive looking, and hypnotically watchable — she may be the HARRY POTTER kid who has the strongest chance of adult stardom. Jordan Prentice manages to make the “racist dwarf” character sympathetic as well as surly, and transcends his role’s starting point as a swipe from LIVING IN OBLIVION.

And then there’s Ralph Fiennes. Looking more and more like Leonard Rossiter, and playing a role that could easily have been a pale imitation of Ben Kingsley’s terrifying turn in SEXY BEAST. Fiennes plays the part as if that worry hadn’t occurred to him. Although his cockney accent always has an artificial quality (some real ones DO) he’s effective, menacing, and very funny, something I hadn’t known he COULD be. Although a friend who worked with him has called him “the most boring man alive”, he’s certainly compelling on the screen.

Peter Serafinowicz as Ralph Fiennes / Leonard Rossiter.

His appearance does pose problems, however. The amusing script spends its first half replaying Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. When Fiennes shows up, it slowly becomes an action thriller. And the action doesn’t build, sustain, dazzle with spectacle or obey the rules of logic. Having dismissed the idea of shooting Gleason in public, Fiennes pulls a gun and starts blasting at Farrell in full view of swarms of tourists.

But the flaws aren’t enough to wreck it altogether — the film is still witty and gracefully made even when it’s a bit off-track. And it’s a first feature. So there’s hope.

“Lots of midgets have offed themselves. I hope yours doesn’t, otherwise your film’ll be fucked.”

My Mum’s capsule review ~ “Sweary but good.”

And yes, the MPAA confirms the second part: “pervasive language”.