Archive for Watchmen

Treacly Dicky

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2016 by dcairns

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I got intrigued to finally watch NIXON — I had always been kind of intrigued to see it but not enough, apparently, to actually see it — after hearing Oliver Stone talk about it, and seeing a lengthy — really extraordinary lengthy — clip of it during his Edinburgh masterclass.

Fiona and I were both rather taken by Anthony Hopkins’ performance, but Fiona kept getting tired out by the sheer duration of the thing, and all those names — having missing Watergate ‘s opening run, due to youth, we felt we were experiencing it in real time, with added flashbacks. So we watched it in about four parts, which is admittedly not ideal.

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Let’s be clear: bits of this film are terrible. Stylistically there’s a lot of hangover from NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which took the faux-documentary elements of JFK — switching film stocks, flash cuts, b&w and still photo inserts — and pumped them up into sheer hallucination. It’s a film whose brio I admire but whose message and attitude I despise, and which makes me feel really ill every time I see more than a few minutes of it. But I would grant it’s effective. (I don’t blame the film for inspiring actual atrocities: but there is nothing in it which would not be flattering to someone contemplating an atrocity — the serial killers are the only characters with integrity, apart from the civilians who don’t matter — Tarantino’s original draft is positively moralistic compared to Stone’s revision.)

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In NIXON, some of the techniques are flat-out awful: superimposing napalm blasts behind Nixon as he mounts the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — a new low in taste. Put it alongside the shark eating a victim filmed from inside the shark’s mouth in 3D in JAWS 3D. But with Robert Richardson lensing, this filmic atrocity abuts some truly stunning shots of the statue itself. And then comes the bit Scorsese got very excited about — Nixon goes out of sync. He says a line, pauses — and his voice continues. And then we jump-cut to a very slightly different close-up just as he finished his new line, his lips moving in time with it for the space of half a syllable. “This is new! We haven’t seen this before!” snapped Marty, and he’s right. And not much since. But it’s powerful — it’s not just Stone, stoned, mucking about in the edit, though it might have come about that way. It conveys in vivid fashion a familiar human sensation, when we find ourselves saying something. Our mouth and brain are out of sync, and there’s a belated moment of realisation when we grasp what we’ve said. Or else, we’re concentrating so hard on what we’re saying, we kind of miss the moment of actually saying it. Intense conversations have this quality.

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Dance, Nixon, dance!

Hopkins is very enjoyable — so much so, that when the movie finally shows us the real Tricky Dicky, it’s a surprise how little resemblance there is — there is, in fact, no resemblance. I think Hopkins may be wearing contacts and teeth, but otherwise the team have wisely decided not to disguise him. In HITCHCOCK, Hopkins is plastered in makeup but can’t do the voice. Here, he gets to look human, he sort of does the voice, and he gets the manner, or at any rate A manner which is fascinating and horrifying to watch.

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Best Nixon: Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s film of Donald Freed and Arthur M Stone’s SECRET HONOR. Hall doesn’t exactly look like Nixon but he is a Nixon type, if he’ll forgive me for saying so.

Worst Nixon: the poor guy in the prosthetic nonsense in WATCHMEN, a big expensive film with inexplicably terrible makeup. He looks like he’s wearing a leftover Nixon Halloween mask from POINT BREAK. A good plot twist would be to have him rip his face off and be Tom Cruise underneath.

Best possible Nixon — Walter Matthau. Only he had the scrotumnal countenance. And, if we disregard all the twinkly rogues he played in his late career and recall his charmless villains of the fifties, then it all happens. Just sharpen his nose and lighten his hair.

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Hopkins works harder than Baker to adapt his mode of performing, because he obviously HAS to. He has no genetic advantages. Very smart costuming manages to make his shoulders behave like Nixon’s shoulders, with Hopkins’ help.

Stone was amusingly scornful of most of his collaborators (in a way that makes you slightly suspect him of being an asshole) — I paraphrase: “I liked Hopkins as an actor because you always felt you could see his thinking going on behind his eyes. Having worked with him, I don’t know what he actually finds to think about…” Stone reported that Hopkins struggled terribly with the accent, and one day was riding an elevator with Paul Sorvino (transformed by makeup and performance astonishingly into a perfect Kissinger) and asked how P.S. thought the rehearsals were going. “Well, you’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Sorvino, and Stone had to either wrench Hopkins down from the ceiling or high-tackle him on the way to the airport as he tried to flee the country, I forget which.

I can report that the struggle was worth it!

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As the movie lurches from bad bit — a March of Time newsreel that’s unconvincing in itself and a lame bit of condensed exposition even in the abstract — to good bit — lots of performers we like — Madeleine Khan, Larry Hagman, James Woods, J.T. Walsh (a great actor who had somehow slipped out of mm mind altogether in the few years since his death, a terrible thing) — I started to appreciate the hallucinatory feel. Maybe because it covers a lot of the same material, the film has much in common with the far more modest SECRET HONOR, but whereas the Altman takes place in a single room which comes to feel like Nixon’s headspace, all of NIXON, wherever the action takes place, feels like Nixon’s disordered mind — or Stone’s. Some of the Deutsch tilts and extreme low angles feel forced and melodramatic, but some of the psychedelic madness works, mainly in conjunction with Hopkins’ sweaty grimacing. Nixon, we are told, was trying to appear mad to make the Russians afraid. As Nick Nolte observes in MOTHER NIGHT, “Be very careful what you pretend to be, because in the end, you ARE what you appear to be.”

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“Don’t worry, I’ll use the old Nixon charm,” says Hopkins, and then performs a wink that makes him instantly morph into Quasimodo — a role he has previously played.

I quite liked John Williams’ music. For once, it doesn’t feel on-the-nose, maybe because it’s never quite clear where Nixon’s nose is.

Oh, apart from the opening biblical quote, “What shall it profit a man…” Give Williams a hackneyed biblical quote and you know what you’ll get from him.

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Not quite sure what to make of Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover. Stone overplays the homosexual angle just as he did in JFK, and seems to be using it as evidence of moral corruption. On the other hand, acknowledging Hoover’s sexuality may be more respectful than downplaying it to nothingness, as other biopics tend to do, either by necessity or sheer discomfort (Eastwood?). Hoover’s big scene with Nixon is awkward as we have two Brits trying to out-Amurrican each other, while Stone cuts to foaming racehorses, symbolism which would certainly be lead-footed if we knew what the hell he was getting at. But I must say, the looming closeups with their lysergic sharpness and broiling intensity made for quite a scene. It’s bad AND good, much like the film.

(I miss Bob Hoskins.)

 

In-flight insights

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2009 by dcairns

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In-flight movies used to provide the very definition of the term “captive audience”. I remember reading that there are always a million people in the air, flying to various destinations, and it’s fun to picture them all being forced to watch Kurt Russell in Disney’s THE STRONGEST MAN IN THE WORLD as they scream through the stratosphere in their jet-propelled passenger tubes. Of course, they had the option of not watching anything, unless they had the misfortune of flying Air Ludovici.

Today the options are wider, so I got to pick from a range of recent product. BENJAMIN BUTTON felt like a transatlantic journey when I saw it in an earthbound auditorium, and it seemed possible that MARLEY & ME might have me tearing open the emergency exit or attempting to detonate my shoe within seconds of the opening credits, so I gave both a wide berth and started in on Clint Eastwood’s GRAN TORINO. This seemed not bad, although the caricaturing of Clint’s family was overdone: Clint’s face creasing into that ever-so-familiar moue of distaste at the sight of his granddaughter’s pierced navel was extremely funny, but when the kid turned out to be an incredibly spoiled, insensitive brat, it seemed to let some of the wind out of the humour. Clint’s legendary hard-line stance, applied to domestic drama, is a promising trope, epitomised by his beautiful Harry Callahan line-reading, “Get off my lawn,” but it’s more effective if the stuff he’s pitted against starts very small and petty. When the grand-daughter openly laughed at Clint’s wife’s funeral, I sort of felt he’d be justified in reaching for the Magnum right there and then.

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But I can’t actually critique this film because an aeroplane isn’t the place to watch it, and I started to feel restless. Maybe you just need distracting crap when you’re hurtling about the upper atmosphere. I put on QUANTUM OF SHIT-TITLE, the latest James Bond. I’d heard that the opening car chase epitomised what I shall henceforth call the New Incoherence, that tendency of action movies nowadays to serve up ten minutes of motion-blur and impact FX and call it a brilliantly choreographed set-piece.

The film begins, with chase in media res, and I thought, “No, what’s happening here is that they’ve reduced the chase to the abstract, details and moments, and it will settle down and become specific soon.” It seemed like a nice way to start a chase.

But not, I would submit, a nice way to continue and end it. Who’s driving which car? Which car is in front? A police radio voice, obviously dubbed in to add a vestige of clarity, says something about a grey Aston Martin, so I started looking for the familiar Bond car, latest model. But Bond’s car is black, like all the other cars (a fairly basic mistake, surely?). Then the titles, full of CGI sand-storms, which are the one thing CGI can’t do at all (see THE MUMMY and sequels) and the worst Bond theme song ever, and I turn off.

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FROST/NIXON. Fiona had been keen on seeing this, and I’d poo-pooed it. Didn’t want to see no stinkin’ Ron Howard film. Fiona like Michael Sheen and Frank Langella and Toby Jones, and while I do too, I felt it would be wrong to let that sway me.

Fiona was right, in that the film is very entertaining, and perfect for those parts of your journey when the craft is buffeted by what they call “rough air” and I call GUSTS OF DEATH.

Howard is genetically bland, but skilled. He knows how to serve up his performances, catching an expression just as a door closes. He’s tasteful to the point of translucency, but the plus side of that is he didn’t slather the movie in retro-details or an oldies soundtrack. I was waiting for the one ’70s song to come in a the end though, and it did. Donna Summer.

Michael Sheen at times resembles one of his previous roles, Tony Blair, as much as he does David Frost, perhaps because he’s trying to avoid caricature, and Frost has plunged into self-caricature these days. When a member of the public accosts Sheen’s Frost with the catchphrase, “Hello, good evening, and welcome,” the presenter remarks, “I don’t actually say that.” But Frost today does. He has embraced the one-dimensional image people have of him. (Anybody can impersonate Frost by shaking there head violently from side to side as they speak; Frost doesn’t actually do this, but he sounds as if he does.)  Frost, at least in this movie, resembles Blair in that he’s an over-confident idiot who faces the world from behind a protective grin, raised before him like a Roman legionary’s shield.

Frank Langella as President Dracula is a welcome relief from the ludicrous Spitting Image Nixon puppet seen in WATCHMEN. He’s not quite as magnificent as Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s SECRET HONOR, but he’s good. His slurring is authentic, although in his drunk scene it threatens to jam the film in the projector. He sounds like a man going back in time underwater.

It turns out I’ve seen Rebecca Hall in three different things now, and liked her in all of them, but her range of accents and mannerisms is so rich I never realised it was the same person. I wonder if this will actually hinder her career. It doesn’t seem to be doing so.

Matthew Macfadyen is good as John Birt, although not to mention that he later helped destroy the BBC seems a wasted opportunity (neverwaste an opportunity to kick John Birt)  and Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt actually become the characters you care about. Impossible to really root for Frost. And I certainly hope nobody wants me to root for Tricky. Toby Jones is hilarious as Swifty Lazar, Nixon’s agent. The whole performance is reduced to a sneering expression, plus Jones’s startling appearance: bald, round, shiny and beautiful, like a woman’s knee. A woman’s knee emerging from a shirt collar. My God, that’s an arousing image.

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Oh, and Kevin Bacon is playing Clint Eastwood, although for some reason his character is called Jack Brennan.

Peter Morgan’s script is very entertaining, serving up chucklesome moments with the regularity of a tennis champ. It simplifies and distorts, of course. I liked the description of Nixon as having “an anti-democratic personality,” but the movie, like Frost, doesn’t really bring home the enormity of the man’s crimes. There is a good bit about the bombing of Cambodia, but nobody actually comes out and informs the modern audience (whom they’re otherwise quite concerned about) that it was illegal. You could walk out of this movie believeing, as Nixon wants Frost to accept, that it was simply a bit of policy that went wrong. Next to that, the film’s most obvious central lie, that the Frost-Nixon interviews made riveting, dramatic television (they were mostly a snooze) is unimportant.

Still, emboldened at my success in actually watching a film in mid-air, I decided to try something cinematically more stimulating. MILK.

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Great film, and an instructive contrast to FROST/NIXON. There’s more period flavour, much of it thanks to Harris Savides’s beautiful grainy photography. More of a melange of pop music, but some interesting and erratic choices to stop it becoming a tedious array of chart-toppers. While some critics found the film too conventional to satisfy as a Gus Van Sant movie, apart from the too-familiar device of Milk recording his testament on a tape deck, I found the narrational strategies pretty interesting: it’s a mix-and-match approach rather than a “pure” style, with mocked-up home movies, titles on screen, close-ups of campaign posters, split-screen — whatever works.

At the eye of the storm is Sean Penn, giving one of those rare performances which deserve awards and get them. It’s a major transformation without announcing itself as one. His Harvey Milk is lovable, which is something I’ve never felt about a Penn characterisation before. Those aspects of Penn that can seem unappealing — vague aspects I can’t even put a finger on, apart from his obvious unhandsomeness, which are deployed extremely well when he’s playing sleaze-bags and creeps — become endearing vulnerabilities here. His observation of the man he’s playing seems acute, and he’s not pussyfooting around trying to avoid caricature, he just goes for the essence and trusts that will stop any of the outward aspects appearing too outre.

The film I thought of most apart from FROST/NIXON (which, after all, I’d just watched) was PHILADELPHIA, which always seemed like a chickenshit movie to me — well-intentioned and anemic, and paralysed at the thought of its historical import. Jonathan Demme, a nice fellow and a skilled filmmaker, in trying to make a film that would convert homophobes, converted himself into a cartoon Stanley Kramer. Just comparing the Demme and the Van Sant in their approach to the male-on-male kiss, which seems to petrify everybody concerned with PHILADELPHIA, but which is treated in MILK just as it should be — as no big deal. Because if you see it as a big deal, it becomes one. You can’t kiss well under such pressure. And if you’re worried that your audience can’t handle this image… who is your audience? And why do you want to pander to such idiots? MILK, for all its greater “explicitness” (only the playful butt-slap might raise an eyebrow in a “straight movie”)  contains nothing that could shock a sentient human not deeply entrenched in prejudice. I think it’s about context.

Maybe on the return trip I’ll try GRAN TORINO again.

Family Viewing Time

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2009 by dcairns

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How are we getting on with our teen-supervision activities, you ask?

Films watched with Louis this week include THE WRESTLER (which I didn’t see, but which Fiona found pretty old-fashioned, like a marginally more disfigured version of King Vidor’s THE CHAMP — “I like his scary fridge film better,” says Fiona, referring to REQUIEM FOR A DREAM), HEAVENLY CREATURES, and THE PUMAMAN, a bizarrely homoerotic Italian superhero movie about ancient Incan space technology which gives the hero the powers of a puma: sensing danger, achieving a death-lke trance, flying — you know, just like a puma. “I always seem to end up watching something really weird with you guys,” Louis observed affably.

Best of all, we watched George Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE, which gives new pleasures every time I see it.

While Pal’s best pal couldn’t argue that he’s particularly sophisticated as a director, he has a very smart script to work with here, and has obviously been looking around and drawing inspiration from some pretty cool sources. When intrepid chrononaut Rod Taylor (marvellous perf!) goes for a walk in the Eden-like future forest, Pal throws in a variety of tracking shots suggesting that he’s been impressed by Kurosawa’s RASHOMON. The giveaway shot is the one looking up at the sunlight blinking through the branches.

Later, when Taylor discovers that the savage Morlocks (paunchy blue guys with unsightly body hair — the Scots of the future?) have a Gremlin-like aversion to bright light, he dazzles them for a moment by lighting a match, and Pal steals from the Master, with an orange glare of POV dazzle filched from REAR WINDOW. This struck Louis as implausible: “Just how bright IS a match, anyway?” Since the Morlock’s have Jawa-style glowing eyes, do they not get equally blinded whenever they look at each other?

As a fan of TV’s The Mighty Boosh, Louis has a fine eye for absurdity, and enjoyed such moments while still appreciating the beauty and craft of Pal’s special effects sequences and the sweep of the story, which must have made some impression: when I loaned him my battered copy of the Watchmen graphic novel later in the week, warning him that it might crumble to dust, he sagely remarked, “Like the books in THE TIME MACHINE.”

Yvette Mimieux: a bit too Paris Hilton for Louis’ taste.

Another weird coincidence: on Monday morning I was lecturing on Orson Welles, doing his whole film career only in reverse, and mentioned the amazing moment in the MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS screenplay, deleted from RKO’s edit of the film, where the voice-over suggests a future time when George Amberson Minafer’s shade might be seen, kneeling, its head and shoulders disappearing through a partition wall that wasn’t there in his era (you really have to read it to make sense of this). That evening, as Rod Taylor fired up his elegant steam-punk time-sled, Louis speculated about what would happen if he materialised halfway through a yet-to-be-constructed wall…