Archive for Tom Waits

How the West was Not

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2018 by dcairns

So, I got Netflix for THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, which of course meant we could watch THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, so we did. I used to indiscriminately like all Coen Bros movies, with a slight preference for the early, funny ones. The tendency towards emptiness did start to nag at me a little as early as MILLER’S CROSSING and BARTON FINK. The nasty sense of humour didn’t — I have a fairly dark S.O.H. myself. But then came INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS which I disenjoyed so thoroughly it made me retroactively question even my favourites, and proactively question subsequent films.

I suspect the following will make David E. impatient, since he was onto the Coen’s combo of snark and misanthropy from the start.

Here’s my run-down of the episodes in this latest western compendium. Not too many specific spoilers, but plenty of comparisons with the Bros’ earlier offerings, good, bad and ugly.

1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The ballad itself is practically a proper musical, except that, as with OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? the songs are all sorta diegetic. We have the welcome return to the fold of Tim Blake Nelson, and the unbelievably crisp cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, who they got acquainted with on PARIS JE T’AIME and used again to even better effect on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, a flm with a unique look in the Coen oeuvre. It’s fascinating to see iconic western imagery shot in an ultrasharp digital way. When people start by telling you they liked the photography it reliably indicates they hated the film, and I hated this episode. The “humorous” violence is mean and squicky: the severed thumb from THE LADYKILLERS is back. Remember how funny it is when Travis blows the guy’s hand off in TAXI DRIVER? That’s how funny the mutilation gag is here. The saving grace is Carter Burwell’s music: this whole movie is the best showcase he’s had for a while.

2. Near Algodones. Or, One Damn Thing After Another. A pretty good Leone imitation in places, this is nevertheless just as pointless and unpleasant as Part 1. James Franco as a bank-robber is given no appealing qualities, so his Really Bad Day is neither a nightmare we can empathise with nor even a justifiable punishment. These two episodes look to have been written in an afternoon. Both end, kind of, with The Last Sight You’ll See, harking way back to BLOOD SIMPLE’s grotesque yet kind of poetic plumbing close-up final shot.

3. Meal Ticket. Here’s where I start to wonder if the ordering of the stories is a problem. As soon as we meet the armless, legless “protagonist” of this one, we expect that something terrible will happen to him. Which means viewing the whole film in a queasy suspense, and not being surprised. The wintry, nocturnal look is really gorgeous and the reason for the story being told, as with the previous installments, is inscrutable. Shit happens, you say? No shit. Fiona was on the point of bailing at this point… but got drawn back in.

4. All Gold Valley. Things take a turn for the better here, maybe in part because we have a story by Jack London. It’s no TO BUILD A FIRE but it’s good. All the episodes are magnificently cast from both a dramaturgical and a physiognomic point of view, but here Tom Waits is actually given sympathetic traits, and though we suspect we may be being set up for a fall, this is not entirely true. This was the first yarn that didn’t make me feel horrible, and the nature photography ascends to new heights of loveliness,

5. The Gal Who Got Rattled. Another adaptation, this time from Stewart Edward White. whose stories have been used by the movies a fair few times, but not since 1941. A really grand evocation of a wagon train. Likeable characters. “I’m really worried about this girl,” said Fiona of Zoe Kazan’s nervous young frontierswoman. There’s a cute dog. This one’s a proper story, very strong, strikingly presented. It would play even better if it weren’t following a trio of sick joke blackout sketches: we need to believe the Coens are sincere here, for the yarn to play emotionally. It COULD be taken as another set-up/punch-line bit of cynical manipulation, and of course if we can give the Coens more credit than that and actually embrace the apparent warmth of feeling and sympathy, the film will play MUCH better. It’s a great little film: Kazan is terrific, and Bill Heck and Grainger Hines ought to be stars.

Also, by this point, the use of pages turning in a book of wild west yarns, with coloured illustrative plates, is really paying off. It’s something I don’t believe we’ve seen before in a film: the illustrations pluck a moment from the narrative, often from near the end, and then we wait for it to turn up and make sense in context. It can add a little extra touch of inevitability to a tragedy, an added twist of irony to a joke.

Also also, it’s nice to finally meet a girl. I know westerns have traditionally been male-dominated, but watching this one’s like going to prison (if you’re a man). Only with less sex.

6. Mortal Remains. OK, Tyne Daly is here so you’ll get no complaints from me. Well, maybe a few. This is DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS only on a stagecoach instead of a train. I mean that literally. I liked the misty cut-out buildings that nod both to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and the whole history of the western movie set. A bunch of facades with nothing behind them seems an apt metaphor for something or other, but what? Oh yeah.

The garrulous English character is hard to process as anything other than a riff on THE HATEFUL EIGHT, and it does feel like the Coens have been treading familiar ground: Tarantino already gave us a western full of talk, with epic iconography but an oddly intimate, enclosed locale, and a lot of unpleasant characters doing horrible things we cant possibly care about. The mysterious, even mystic quality the Coens aim to evoke here certainly adds a new flavour, but as this one fades out I realize why anthology films usually have a framing structure. It’s hard for one episode to deliver an ending satisfying enough for all six.

Maybe the Coens need to stick to adaptations. Their two strongest films, the ones that feel most like they have a reason to exist, are NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and TRUE GRIT. The brothers are experts at pastiche, and their delight in language, both verbal and cinematic, is a kind of redeeming feature (they do care about SOMETHING), but what they get from an original author with world experience and an interest in people seems to be something they struggle to achieve by themselves.

Dissenting views are welcome.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS stars Delmar O’Donnell, Harry “Oz” Osborn, Ruby Sparks, Oskar Schindler, Dudley Dursley, R.M. Renfield, Mary Beth Lacey, Colonel Oates and Alastor ‘MadEye’ Moody.

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Vlad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2018 by dcairns

Here’s part two of my commentary on Francis Ford Coppola’s commentary on BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. Slip into your loud pink shirts and join me on this adventure! This time, we’ll also get Fiona’s commentary on my commentary. Maybe by the end of the two-hour running time we can include the whole world.

Take it away, Franny!

Tom Waits played Renfield, who was the former real estate guy who had gone off to Transylvania to attempt to do a real estate deal with this mysterious Count Dracula.

When you say it like that, it seems so natural. Waits’ casting might seem, on paper, the barmiest thing in this very eccentric film, but I contest it’s one of the things that incontestably WORKS. But then Renfield, like Goebbels, always seems to work. I defy you to name a bad Renfield. Although Jack Shepherd in the BBC teleplay is so amazing that he can make everyone else look like a flop. But Waits is great, and it must have been nice for Coppola to have a familiar face in the cast, an ally who evidently gets what he’s on about, as so many of the others did not. (But I’m not entirely blaming them.)

This is the only film I know of where Tom Waits plays an estate agent. That should change, man.

Waits’ first bit shows him standing from a crouch, filmed from above with a wide-angle lens, so he seems to sprout impossibly. A great trompe l’oiel moment, worth stealing. If you like stealing things — if you’re Paul Schrader or Lynn Ramsay — you should check this film out.

OK, Francis has started explaining the plot now. You have a choice whether to listen to actors speaking James V. Hart’s dialogue to explain the plot, or Uncle Francis, who might be doing a better job of it. Disappointingly, our favourite funny uncle generally adheres to the Sidney Pollack dictum of “Let the boring crap be boring crap,” so that apart from the pleasingly theatrical establishing shot above, this kind of scene plays out in dull, televisual close-ups. Since there’s always a world of wonder happening in the sets and costumes, this is a shame, and Coppola’s nervous tendency to jump in close — brilliantly apposite for Mafia politicking, fatal for tap-dancing — is in play throughout.

SUBTEXT — Coppola has already told us how Winona Ryder “didn’t feel well” and had to drop out of GODFATHER III. So in my reading, Renfield/Waits = Winona/GODFATHER III, the first attempt at doing whatever this is, who had a nervous breakdown and had to be replaced by one Coppola with another, and Keanu/Harker = Winona/BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, the current movie/mission. Harker’s trip to darkest Transylvania on behalf of his real estate firm is a metaphor for Coppola’s second attempt to work with Winona. Let’s see if this theory holds up, whatever the hell it is. Really, this is not a subtext I’m reading from the film, but from the film’s audio commentary.

This was a great big sound stage that had a pool, and this is the pool where Esther Williams made all of her films in the MGM era.

I’m thrilled to hear this and it seems totally appropriate. The same pool was renovated for HAIL, CAESAR! I believe.

I love the peacock feathers folding across the scene like a curtain, I hate the mix to a tunnel mouth. A lot of the overlaid images in this movie are very nice, and very silent-movie in style, but so many of the transitions are horrible — not in execution but in CONCEPTION. I will mercilessly flag them up as they appear.

Everything is live, it’s not done in post-production as it would be done in modern times.

Coppola then compares this approach to Pabst, curiously enough, before mentioning the more appropriate Murnau. Keanu on the train, deliberately stylised and unreal, still manages to be just as convincing as Arnie on the train in TOTAL RECALL. And Transylvania looks just as alien as Mars.

It’s interesting, I see the letter and he says, “Your friend, D.” For a while I was suggesting that we call the movie D. with a period just to try to designate it as being different from the more familiar Dracula movies, but I guess that wasn’t such a good idea, at any rates it wasn’t an idea that was used.

You’re right, it’s a terrible idea (commercially) but thanks for confessing to it. Coppola has already said that he put Bram Stoker’s name up front in the same way as he did with Mario Puzo’s, a much happier notion.

As Francie is describing how faithful James V Hart’s script is to the book, the film rushes ahead to Castle Drac, skipping out lots of atmospheric build-up. As a result of cramming back in all the usually deleted characters, the movie tends to be in an awful hurry, rather like Keanu’s coachman. Coppola tells us that he had the entire cast sit around for three days and read the novel aloud ~

something that really frustrated Antony Hopkins, who didn’t see for the life of him why I wanted to have them read the entire book, and of course I did because I wanted to be sure they read the whole book, and also I was hoping we’d discover something in the book that had been left out.

Strictly speaking, the latter task could have been accomplished just by FFC reading the book alone, but who’d pass up the opportunity to get the cast of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA to read you Bram Stoker’s Dracula? I like to think this happened at Coppola’s house while he lay in bed drinking his fine Californian wines.

We did work with wolves, they were real wolves, and they’re tricky to work with, you have to be very respectful of their territory.

Wait, they filmed on the wolves’ territory? Or certain areas of the studio were designated wolves’ territory for the purposes of filming? Did Tom Waits also have territory?

We’re told that lots of thought went into the moment when the coachmen reaches out with an overextending arm, plucks Keanu from the soil, and sets him within the carriage. I love that they did it live on set. I don’t love how it looks. I think wirework might be a better solution. Also, poor Keanu has the impossible task of reacting to this occurrence with mild surprise.

Ishioka did various designs for the coachman, all beautiful and eerie, but the fellow never really gets an effective “hero shot.” The stuff involving actors doing and saying things tends to be the least effective in this movie. Fortunately, a huge amount of the movie has nothing to do with acting and dialogue and blocking; unfortunately, it’s not a totally abstract/special effects film.

you know that you’re in a realm of supernatural because things don’t happen correctly.

Or maybe you know you’re in a late Coppola movie.

“He’s got bum hair! His hair is shaped like a bum!” says Fiona, of Gary Oldman’s Dracula.

Coppola is pontificating, interestingly, about the similarity between vampires and mafiosi (you have to invite them both in) and Keanu is enjoying his supper when Dracula suddenly crosses a room, swinging a dirty great sword. This is pretty funny in the movie, but hilarious in the Watch BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA with Francis Ford Coppola version because FCC takes no notice of it whatsoever.

I think it would work better if Keanu choked on his goulash in surprise. The film is really devoid of any actual human behaviour, isn’t it? I mean, so is the Universal version, but I think that’s a bit of a problem there too.

Of course this, um, performance of… Gary Oldman

The hesitations are funny and possibly revealing.

attempted to blaze a new trail, making use of the historical Vlad Tepes, the picture of which is on the portrait

I’m pretty sure that’s a picture of Gary Oldman.

as well as, a character, the eccentric count living in an old castle that had been made so famous by Bela Lugosi. And we felt very much that we were going to go in another direction, for better or worse, and try to find a new kind of imagery…

And I think we’re all happy Gary isn’t wearing an opera cape, which Christopher Lee always said was a silly costume for lounging around at home in the Carpathians. I don’t know what WOULD be most suitable. Maybe furs? Maybe NOT a giant red kimono with a ten foot train. But, it’s another bold choice.

“You know what he looks like?” asks Fiona. I mention Glenn Close.

“No, the bum-face guy in SOCIETY [Ed Begley Jr.]” she declares.

“Well, he has a similar sort of neck wattle…”

“And he has a bum on his head! I’m lowering the tone, aren’t I?”

Oh, I expect you’ll want to see Gary Oldman singing West Side Story in his Dracula voice now, won’t you?

A break from the norm

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2016 by dcairns

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I felt kind of guilty that I hadn’t hurried to catch up with Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH and TETRO when they were new. I kind of bailed on him after Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, and saw no reason to bother with JACK or THE RAINMAKER. Uncle Francis was going to get paid whether I saw them or not, so they’d served their purpose. But I intended to give him another chance when he came back with more personal films, I just… never got around to it.

But now I’ve seen TWIXT and am right puzzled. Written by FFC himself, and proudly bearing the American Zoetrope logo, it seems like a personal project. And indeed it incorporates a tragic incident from Coppola’s life, the death of his son in a boating accident (here rendered as the death of a daughter because, as Poe says here, that makes it more poetical). But what it is, is a hoaky, creaky, incoherent gothic fantasy that plays like cut scenes from a video game and feels like it was written by an eight-year-old. Now, that may sound like a knock. In fact, even as it suffers from all these problems, it has some of the dopey charm of cut scenes and children’s writing: naivety can be attractive.

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The thing starts with considerable assurance: a spooky Tom Waits voice-over will kick anything off nicely. And the images of the small town are very atmospheric without, for the most part, pushing it: visually, the film is often splendid, with digitally manipulated night scenes that evoke Bava and Freda. As the movie goes on, the stuff set in “reality” becomes more and more laughably unconvincing, but the fantastical stuff has a bit of Lynchian weirdness and, although nothing in the movie makes proper sense, there are bits that seem to link up in an irrational, dreamlike way.

It feels harsh to criticise Coppola for using a personal tragedy in his story — after all, it’s his personal tragedy. He should be free to use it if he wants to. But it felt unresolved, unconnected, and curiously unfelt — maybe because we first see a photo of the dead child right after Kilmer’s done a Brando impersonation in a (quite funny) improv writer’s block bit.

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The acting is all over the shop. Val Kilmer works hard to anchor it. It’s lovely to see his ex-wife, Joanne Whalley, here playing his current wife — but she doesn’t convince in her bitchier moments. She’s just too nice. Then there’s Bruce Dern as Sheriff Bob LaGrange, who Coppola clearly believes can do no wrong. I saw Dern in Telluride talk to Leonard Maltin about his work in NEBRASKA, and giving a pared-down performance without any of his trademark “Dernsies.” Well, I think all the Dernsies ended up in this film. It’s a performance made entirely of Dernsies. Waste not, want not. I love Bruce Dern, he is an international treasure. But when he gives his name as “BOB LaGrrrraaaange!!!” he probably could have benefited from some direction. Who gets that excited about their own name? I think you can see similar stuff going on with Anthony Hopkins in DRAC, he keeps getting more ridiculous, waiting for the moment when his director will say, “Okay, maybe that was a little too much…” but the moment never comes.

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Oh, we also get Alden Ehrenreich, a Coppola discovery. He plays a ridiculous, Baudelaire-quoting vampire goth biker called Flamingo, and is as good as anyone could be under such circs. Ben Chaplin plays Edgar Allen Poe with an English accent, an odd/lazy choice. But he looks the part. Handsome yet still strongly Poe-like. And I always feel a burst of enthusiasm from somewhere or other when this guy shows up, a bit like with Rufus Sewell, you know? A Rufus Sewell kind of a feeling.

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I’m told, and it may not be true, that when Coppola screened DEMENTIA 13, his first attempt at the Gothic, for his producer, Roger Corman, a man not given to loud displays of emotion, Corman snapped a pencil. Which would be like a bomb going off, from Corman. So he got Jack Hill to rescue it. My own pencil-snapping moment came right at the end of this one, when it became clear that nothing was going to wrap up satisfactorily, that Coppola didn’t have a clue how to end the story, that he’d been making it up as he went along and filmed a first draft. And let’s be clear — it’s OK to end a movie with text on the screen saying what happened to the characters IF THEY’RE REAL. Or if you’re being funny. Coppola is clearly being funny some of the time here, but he doesn’t seem to have made a clear decision about when.