Archive for Trading Places

Wall Street Bull

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2018 by dcairns

Adam McKay’s entertaining, broad cop comedy THE OTHER GUYS actually hinges on financial crimes involving the police pension fund, and unexpectedly ends with an animated credits sequence explaining stuff like Ponzi schemes and wealth inequality in America — it’s by some way the cleverest and most serious thing about the movie. The subject obviously fascinates the director, and having rather shoehorned it into that film, he centres THE BIG SHORT on those financial services dudes who saw the coming financial crisis and enriched themselves by betting against the housing market, previously thought to be the most stable of institutions.THE BIG SHORT is eager to have us understand the issues at stake — it has an uphill task with me, since I tend to go blurry whenever the stock market of high finance enter the picture. I can just about follow TRADING PLACES (“You guys are a couple of bookies!”) until the ending, at which point it becomes like one of those poker scenes in a western — I don’t understand the game, but I know something important is happening with money and somebody will win and somebody will lose. The documentary INSIDE JOB had set me up with some useful terminology, and it’s full of little mini-lectures that set out the key concepts in simple terms (“When you hear ‘sub-prime,’ think ‘shit.'”)Where INSIDE JOB can simply tell us stuff using talking heads, and encourages us to be interested by laying out the stakes, McKay knows that a drama has to convey its information through scenes of rising dramatic tension. He can break this rule with the mini-lectures by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain et al, by keeping things entertaining, but he has to give his actors meat. Fortunately, the real-life characters are adapted into appealing, extreme personality types (I don’t know how accurately, but Steve Carell, Christian Bale et al are interesting and convincing) and the script gives them plenty of funny, explosive scenes. This stuff is also dressed up with some creative fracturing of the fourth wall, which doesn’t stop us caring (Brecht was wrong) but does mix up the approach and keeps things snappy and surprising.

The cast includes Batman, Driver, Nebula, Gru, Spiderman’s Aunt May, Tyler Durden…The film’s choppy cutting style is also worthy of note. I didn’t exactly like it, but it’s worthy of note. Many of the conversations are shot in a fragmented, zoom-happy mockumentary manner, using the reframings and adjustments you’re normally supposed to leave out (Hill St. Blues seems to have originated this approach for its morning briefing scenes) and the edits are also often abrupt, premature, cutting out of a scene before it a gesture or word has been completed. The earliest example of THAT which I can think of is HAROLD AND MAUDE, where a traumatic moment is cut short before Harold can quite finish the word “WHAAA-” That movie does it once — this one seems to do it constantly. It’s enervating, which is sort of effective, and it’s an innovation, but it’s one I rather hope doesn’t catch on. It could potentially take the joy out of editing the way the BOURNE series takes the joy out of cinematography.

There are also some photomontages. These are surprisingly poor. Is this a lost art? Or did the film not have enough money to get enough good stills? I think it’s a lack of editing skill, maybe. Like, the ugly cutting of the staged scenes is definitely deliberate, is going for ungainliness as an effect. But I can’t see any advantage to the clumsiness of the photomontage.

But in a way this is all just window-dressing — perhaps necessary stuff to help tell this complicated and technical story — there are multiple narratives, each with its own protagonist, all of which explore the abstruse world of financial services — but the film thrives on its multiple scenes of dramatic confrontation, unfolding like a detective story garnished with bizarre human comedy, and powered by sorrow and anger which it transmits with skill. The methods used, ultimately, may not matter, so long as they provide clear context for the Big Scenes.


The Look # 5: Tilda and Arno overdo it

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2016 by dcairns

Orlando (Tilda Swinton) and Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) in the film Orlando Scene 54 Photo by Liam Longman © Adventure Pictures Ltd

I like it when actors break the fourth wall, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this occasional series, but I do think it’s a device that should be used sparingly. It’s clever once, acceptable twice, and more than that can start to seem smug — like the filmmakers are so pleased at coming up with this clever idea, they can’t stop doing it, forgetting that true cleverness usually involves having more than one idea.

One use that irked me slightly was Sally Potter’s film ORLANDO. Tilda Swinton, who plays both male and female in the film, is perfectly cast and perfectly suited to fourth wall breakage, since her presence is often borderline uncanny, especially when she’s not wearing comedy teeth. She knows that we know that she knows… I saw a clip of ORLANDO before I saw the whole thing, and was amused by her look to camera as Billy Zane rescued her from an equestrian accident. The look seemed to say, How can I, an art film character, be caught up in such a corny situation? It perfectly took the curse off the moment, and made me want to see the film.

But Tilda does it all the bloody time. It loses its impact, its humour and its cleverness long before the Zane/horse moment. The fact that Tilda, I believe (it’s been years) also talks to the audience actually helps, since you’re allowed to do that all through a movie — that turns The Look from a spot gag into a full-fledged narrative device. But mostly it’s just the mute look, and it wears out its welcome, rather. If it doesn’t bother you, I say this: imagine how great it would be if s/he just did it three times, evenly spaced. It would pack a wallop each time.


Image from Eye Contact: Look at the Camera, a whole tumblr dedicated to camera-gazing!

FUNNY GAMES is a movie so repulsively self-satisfied and secure in its Important Message that it would be hard to know where to begin, but for the fact that I’m writing about looking at the camera, not about being an arrogant, not very bright prig who wants to give the audience a hard time. But I shouldn’t really be writing about it at all, since I walked out part way through. Michael “Happy”Haneke, the prig in charge, says that people who walk out don’t “need” the film, apparently believing that if you can’t bear FUNNY GAMES you are already cured of your thirst for celluloid violence. You understand that violence shouldn’t be used as entertainment.

I wouldn’t say that. I definitely felt I didn’t need the film, but I didn’t need it because I felt the idea was a stupid one, and not entertaining. Since I’m fully aware that violence in real life is not fun (for the victim), but I’m further aware that movies are not real life, my attitude to movie violence is neither simplistic condemnation (Haneke) nor simplistic enthusiasm (Tarantino). If it works for the film’s purpose and I approve of the film’s purpose, I’ll be OK with it.

Haneke’s failure to accomplish what he thinks he’s accomplishing (teaching us that violence is bad) extends to the people who like the movie as well as those who don’t. One friend praised it for being a dark thriller that tortures the audience along with the central characters, a tough movie you win points for surviving. Others praise the film’s “purity” since there’s supposedly no actual onscreen violence. Which I think is nonsense — in one moment we see a character blown away by a gunshot, though psycho-killer Arno then rewinds the movie so that didn’t happen. But it did happen, in the sense that we SAW it. And does it matter if a deadly blow happens just outside of frame, or offscreen? Do we class the forcible placing of a bag over a child’s head as a non-violent act simply because it doesn’t involve a blow or a gun-blast? This is a violent movie, about as pure as THE PUBLIC ENEMY, the only difference being we’re not allowed to enjoy it.

Arno Frisch’s looks to camera are designed both to alienate and implicate us, to make us more aware of the act of watching. OK: we get it. It’s perfectly clear, and moderately startling, the first time he winks at us. By the time he’s asking us if we think the good guys will survive, it’s old. And from the film’s wearisome, puritanical attitude, we ought to be able to answer the question confidently. To hell with all filmmakers who want the paying audience to have a lousy time.

Oh, I do think John Landis overdoes it a little in TRADING PLACES. He has too many characters do it too many times. I can allow the two leads their moments, but the guy in the gorilla suit? The real problem with this is not the individual moments, but the fact that evidently Luc Besson was taking notes. All Luc Besson knows about comedy is that if you have the characters look to camera in a very deliberate way, or at each other, you can fool the slower-witted or more indulgent audience members into thinking something amusing just happened. Luc Besson actually makes me angrier than “Happy” Haneke, which is inconsistent of me, since Besson I guess DOES want us to have a good time. My problem with him is he doesn’t want to put in the work or thought to make the fun happen, he just wants to create the hollow appearance of fun.

(Also, he’s a plagiarist.)

Mistletoe and Whines

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 23, 2010 by dcairns

In a very special festive edition of The Forgotten, I delve into THE HOLLY AND THE IVY, a powerfully depressive, and therefore somehow cheering, British Christmas movie.

Somewhere in there I make the, perhaps startling, allegation that there’s something inherently Christmassy about the actor Denholm Elliott. This may require amplification.

My mental association of the talented, biesexual, inebriate actor with the festive season perhaps stems from TRADING PLACES, in which he played a comedy butler, something every British actor is required to do at some stage in his career, unless he’s Judi Dench. The movie takes in the holiday season as part of its narrative sweep (we get Dan Aykroyd as a Bad Santa), and Elliott has a scene where he comes in with a tray and rounds off a scene where the heroes are planning their counterattack on the nefarious Duke brothers, with the line, “Not if we beat them to it. Eggnog?”

Elliott did the final word “As if I were adding fire to their brimstone,” and the crew laughed. Landis, a man of sure, yet perhaps conventional, comic instincts, yelled “Cut!” He was outraged that a performer was getting an unintended laugh. “That’s not supposed to be funny!” Elliott pointed out that the crew had thought it funny. “What do they know?” demanded Landis, with the tact he’s famous for.

The line reading is still in the film, though — having gotten over his shock, Landis recognized that an additional laugh in a comedy was not, after all, a disastrous occurrence. The lesson may be that it’s a mistake to think that the director’s job is to realize the scene the way he’d envisioned it. His job is to envision it, and then realize it better. Or, as Orson Welles delightfully put it, a director is someone who presides over accidents.