Sunday, March 30, 2008

Vintage Trailer of the Week 4

The ending of Cloverfield rips it off, its got a Tangerine Dream score, Anthony Edwards is its lead, and in its quiet way, it is one of the best movies of the 1980s:


Saturday, March 29, 2008

"You all can kiss my rebel dick"

Or: A Top 5 Movie Doc Hollidays

There are three prime stories of the American West (excluding the many tragedies of the Genocide visited upon the Native American peoples) which are perhaps the basis for more Western movies than any others. The story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, the story of Jesse James, and the story of Billy the Kid. The latter pair of stories focus upon outlaws, charismatic outsider figures with an obvious popular appeal. That means that the stories have been consistently popular since the historical facts that they are based upon actually occurred in the last years of the 19th Century.
The story of the OK Corral is different. Its "hero" is a saintly lawman, Wyatt Earp. That gave it a unique selling point when the iconography of the Western was being established in early Hollywood, and Earp was still around then, living in Los Angeles and acting as a sort of salesman for his own myth. The story seems to have it all - a town divided, a gang of ruthless, murderous villains, a family of lawmen uniting behind an unrelenting hero, and, most importantly, a definitive, violent climax. All of that would probably have been enough to sustain it as a foundation narrative for the genre throughout the twentieth century. But the story of the OK Corral became something more - it is possibly the most mythic and resonant of the Western myths, the genre's most archetypal tale. Every story of a good man (usually a Sheriff or Marshall) coming to a town to rid it of bad men owes a debt to the life story of Earp, and more particularly to his time in towns like Wichita, Dodge City and Tombstone. The fact that the story of the OK Corral incident was immortalised rapidly, mostly-fictionalised in pulp novelizations, only served to crystallize its place in the American folk psyche.

But that alone does not explain what has made it so durable. Part of its lasting appeal lies in its status as an ideal slate for allegory - filmakers and novelists have projected their contemporary concerns and worries onto the story for decades, and the ambiguity and starkness of its details and characters serves to make this easy. Thus in the 1950s the dispute between the Earps and the Clanton-McLourys becomes a metaphor for the Cold War, resolved only through an apocalyptically violent confrontation. In the suspicious, cynical Vietnam era of the 1970s, an anti-authoritarian culture views the quasi-fascist Earp as an opportunistic murderer, his heroism a sham. That neither of these interpretations damages the basic appeal of the story reveals its almost elemental power.

Another factor in its continued popularity is the friendship at its centre. Wyatt Earp is a relatively dull figure when viewed in isolation. He is a typical "hero" in most narratives - selfless and square-jawed, courageous and handsomely bright-eyed, a wholesome man of action. He is made vastly more interesting by his friendship with John "Doc" Holliday, the tubercular dentist and gambler who stood alongside the three Earp brothers at the OK Corral. Holliday is a fascinating, modern figure. A tragic antihero, ambiguous, witty and complex, he is always the plum role in any cinematic version of the story. And there have been many great interpretations of the character since the first major version, "Frontier Marshall" (Alan Dwan, 1939) in which Cesar Romero played Doc to Randolph Scott's Earp. I love the story and the character, and every version I've seen is interesting and worthwhile in its own way. But some are more interesting and worthwhile than others.

5. Victor Mature in "My Darling Clementine" (John Ford, 1946)

"My Darling Clementine" is my favourite of Ford's films. Its probably his purest, most archetypal Western, and yet, its shot with a palette of noirish blacks, full of shadow and deep darknesses in the corners of the frame (the lovely photography is by Joseph MacDonald, who went on to work on several seminal noirs including "Call Northside 777", "Panic In the Streets", "Niagara" and "Pickup on South Street"). Its a dark film in more ways than one, however - its tone and themes are shadowed by a melancholy which can most likely be attributed to the recent end of the Second World War. Indeed, one valid reading of the film is as an allegorical account of the nascent United States' history as an International power, the gunfight at the OK Corral representing WW2 in all its calamitous violence. Henry Fonda, in all his upright, optimistic glory, is a perfect Earp. Mature, however, makes for a bizarre Doc. In this version the character is a surgeon rather than a dentist, and his position in the narrative is more ambiguous for much of the film than later versions would allow. He is a feared killer, and he and Earp circle each other warily for the first half of the film. Fonda and Mature make for a fine contrast, both physically and in their acting styles - Fonda plain-spoken and emotionally available, Mature an altogether darker and more difficult propsition. His is perhaps the least consumptive Doc ever put on screen, too - his bodybuilder's frame bulges beneath his shirts and so he approximates T.B. by coughing into an effete little handkerchief occasionally. He is a ham, fond of dramatic pauses and long silences. There is a very 20th Century angst to Mature's screen presence, the sense of a big man struggling with his masculinity and its meaning and responsibilties. And yet it works, his air of modern ennui and the cold bitterness in his dark eyes making him a suitable Doc for this most Noirish version of the story. He never seems to fully like Fonda's Earp, not convincingly, and that gives the film a strange tension absent from some others without diluting the homo-eroticism which is generally present in different interpretations of the story...

4. Kirk Douglas in "Gunfight at the OK Corral" (John Sturges, 1957)

"Boot Hill, Boot Hill,
So cold, So still,
Wyatt Earp, They say,
Saved Doc Holliday
Boot Hill"
- from "Gunfight at the Ok Corral" by Dimitri Tiomkin & Ned Washington, sung by Frankie Laine

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Earp and Doc is almost insultingly obvious casting. As such, it works marvelously well. And provides the perfect evidence that Doc is invariably the better role. Lancaster gets marginally more screen time, but he never has anything interesting to do, really. His Earp is the hero. He just needs to be square-jawed, courageous and implacable. Lancaster had all those qualities effortlessly in his grasp, and so he breezes through the movie, meaning that he leaves little impression. Douglas, on the other hand, plays a legitimately frightening Doc, bringing the barely-controlled fury of his screen presence to bear upon the character. He could do a slow-burning seethe better than any actor of that era, and Holliday provides plenty of scope for that. When not ferociously angry, he plays Doc as sardonically amused by fate and by the expectations and delusions of others. His relationship with Earp involves him fondly needling the Marshall by calling him "Preacher" while Earp lectures him that he should leave the desert for the good of his health. In contrast, his relationship with his woman, Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet) is based upon an almost sado-masochistic dynamic of abuse and comfort. And he is open about his death wish, admitting that his only fear is dying slowly in bed.
John Sturges' film is a great example of the big, prestige Super-Westerns common in the 1950s. Sturges is great with a widescreen frame and his Westerns are always entertaining, this one climaxing in a thunderous version of the titular gunfight, after an iconic walk through tombstone by Doc, Wyatt and Morgan and Virgil Earp. Sturges revisited the material in "Hour of the Gun" (1967) with James Garner as Wyatt and Jason Robards as Doc. Its a sequel of sorts, beginning with the events at the OK Corral and focusing upon the messy, bloody aftermath. Its a surprisingly dark, violent film, too, and Robards makes for a fine Doc, weary and cynical and ever-loyal to a morally-disintegrating Earp. Another fine version of the story from the 1950s is "Warlock" (Edward Dmytryk, 1959), based on the fantastic novel by Oakley Hall. Here Henry Fonda plays Earp again (altough all of the characters have different names) with Anthony Quinn as Doc. They end up on opposing sides, their highly homo-erotic relationship poisoning the town they have come to save, and pitting both against local lawman Richard Widmark. Its an intriguingly modern take on the material, with good performances and great direction by Dmytryk.

3. Stacy Keach in "Doc" (Frank Perry, 1971)

John Ford claimed that "My Darling Clementine" was an authentic take on the Earp/Holliday legend. He even said that Earp, in person, had told him exactly how the gunfight at the OK Corral had transpired, and that the version in his film was true to this account. Well, either Earp was lying or Ford was. The gunfight in "My Darling Clementine" is a drawn-out affair of stalking and hiding, full of movie tension. In real life, the gunfight was over in a few seconds, all the shots fired at close range in a scramble of dust and blood. Only the two versions of the story from the 1990s really portray it with any historical accuracy. Frank Perry's "Doc" goes to the opposite extreme to "My Darling Clementine". Here, the gunfight is more firing squad than battle. Holliday and the Earps approach the Clanton-McLourys at the Corral, exchange some words, then unceremoniously open up on them with shotguns. The resulting blood-splatters are more Leone and Peckinpah than Ford or Sturges.
But then this film is the most different of the major films on the material - it focuses on Doc as its hero, recasting Earp (Harris Yulin) as a shifty, near-homicidal manipulator with his own agenda. Doc is a tragic lead here, played by a far too-healthy looking Stacy Keach as enjoying a tortured romance with Faye Dunaway's prostitute Kate Elder. The film suffers the identity crisis common in American Westerns of the early 70s - torn between the Classical tradition in American Western filmaking and the revisionist approach to the genre taken by the aforementioned Leone and Peckinpah (the cynical, amoral tone of the spaghetti Western is aped to some extent, but in an American film it makes for an odd, overly talky atmosphere). Its a dichotomy that made for some fascinating cinema, and "Doc" is perhaps the most interesting film of this old story. Keach is fine, altough his position in the narrative makes his character feel less like Holliday and more like a stock Western hero with some of Doc's recognisable quirks. Part of Holliday's appeal lies in his perpetual status as Earp's sidekick, and here hes denied that status, elevated to hero as he is. The only work of art I know of to successfully tackle this problem is Bruce Olds' postmodern novel "Bucking the Tiger" which paints an interior portrait of Doc by impressionistic, fragmented means, through poetry and scraps of narrative, newspaper reports, personal testimony..."Doc" is brave in its insistence on underlining the homo-eroticism of the Earp-Holliday relationship. Earp constantly throws smouldering looks at his friend and his ambivalence to Elder seems based on sexual jealousy more than anything else.

2. Val Kilmer in "Tombstone" (George Pan Cosmatos, 1994)

Probably the most entertaining Doc yet attempted, Kilmer's take on the character is as a sort of murderous Oscar Wilde. His Doc is forever quick with a cutting comment, his wits seemingly sharpened by the disease destroying his lungs. Kevin Jarre's script gives him all of the best lines, ("I know - lets have a spelling contest!","You know Ed, if I thought you weren't my friend... I just don't think I could bear it!", "It would appear that the strain was more than he could bear".) and he gets the most satisfying moments in the narrative, too - his two face-offs with Michael Biehn's Johnny Ringo are the best scenes in the film. He doesn't seem all that tubercular though - puffy faced and sweaty, yes, his lungs decaying, not so much. But he effortlessly steals the film. As Earp, Kurt Russell has to work against not only all that dully heroic baggage, but also a tremendous cookie-duster upon his top lip and some hilarious eye-liner (he also supposedly took over the Direction of the film a little way into the shoot, but goes uncredited). The villains are played by lots of b-movie character actors, and the whole thing is absolutely full of references to other Westerns. Despite that it doesn't feel authentically like a Western to me - its a modern action movie dressed up in a cowboy hat and six shooters and spurs. Kilmer is the best thing in it, and he knows it. He seems to be having a great time, which gives his Doc an unusually jolly tone. The character is generally portrayed as a bit of a rascal, but Kilmer makes him all rascal, camp and teasing and full of himself as he is. "I'm your huckleberry." he tells Ringo just before they go for their guns, the winner never in doubt. Kilmer rarely gets roles this good - his stint as a Leading Man didn't suit him, since he's a character actor in a Leading Man's body, too eccentric for the sometime blandness demanded to appeal to the lowest common denominator hunger of the Mass audience. Kilmer doesn't really do bland. Which makes him perfect for Doc Holliday.

1. Dennis Quaid in "Wyatt Earp" (Lawrence Kasdan, 1994)

Here is the only Doc on this list who actually seems like he is suffering from Tuberculosis. Quaid lost 40lbs for the role, giving himself anorexia in the process. It adds to the dark heart of this version of the story, though, the fact that Quaid is such a skeletal, hacking creature, spindly-legged, hollow-cheeked, his voice full of phlegm and recrimination. Kasdan's film is perhaps the darkest film about Wyatt Earp, pessimistic in its view of the West as a violent, pitiless place where only the strongest survive. Its an underrated film, too, hamstrung by a dull first hour as we are shown Earp's boyhood and adolesence. But once he reaches Dodge City and becomes a Lawman, Kasdan begins to work his themes - violence and the law and what relationship they bear to justice in America - and "Wyatt Earp" become a serious, Epic Western with some great work in its second half. Costner's Earp is almost as cold as Harris Yulin's from "Doc" - motivated only by the desire to protect his family, and the need for revenge once they have been attacked. After he falls in love, his only other emotional tie in the film is his friendship with Holliday. Kasdan imagines them as kindred spirits, to an extent, both outsiders, both lonely, both aware of how short and brutal life can be. Quaid plays Doc as if he is sometimes desperate in his struggle with life itself, savagely fighting his inevitable early death, at times furious about it, at others sanguine and almost amused. Its a brilliant performance, lacking the staginess that infects most of the other Docs on this list. The other performances, great as they are, all play like characters. They are all playing "Doc Holliday", and that self-consciousness affects the work of each and every one of them. Quaid makes his Doc seem like a real person, as if he were unaware there had ever been any attempts to play Doc before. He seems at deaths door, and his humour feels hard-won and somehow private : "Dave Rutabaugh is an ignorant scoundrel! I disapprove of his very existence. I considered ending it myself on several occasions but...self-control, got the better of me". He is also self-aware, and he uses this to justify his own behaviour, his abusive relationship with Big-Nose Kate (Isabella Rosselini) and his propensity for violence: "What is wrong with me? What have you got? I am dying of tuberculosis. I sleep with the nastiest whore in Kansas. Everyone who knows me hates me, and every morning I wake up surprised that I have to spend another day in this piss-hole world." He welcomes Earp's quest for vengeance and the chance for a quick death it offers, but also the chance to stand by his friend. If the film has a real flaw, that first hour apart, its that there is not enough of Quaid. His scenes are easily the finest and most memorable in the film. But then thats always the way with Doc Holliday.


Friday, March 21, 2008

The Peoples Front of Judea

If you grew up in a Roman Catholic society, were raised by Religious parents and attended a Christian Brothers School, chances are you've got quite a well-developed taste for a Biblical Epic. Which I was, and I do. And I don't mean any "Ben Hur" or "The Robe", either. They both try to take sidelong looks at the story of Jesus Christ while really just functioning as Costume Dramas with scenes full of big spectacle. No, I mean films about Jesus, that actually feature him as the main character. The problem of dramatising that particular story has always fascinated me, as has the bizarre position anyone raised in the Christian tradition in the Western World must face when having to play the character. Just what kind of motivation could you give yourself before a scene as the Son of God?

This is a quote from an interview where Christian Bale compares the experience of playing Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho" with playing Jesus:

Were you ever freaked out by him?

CB: I never was. I could completely switch him off at the end of the day. I slept very well. However, when I played Jesus [in last year's TV movie Mary Mother of Jesus], I had nightmares constantly. I had dreams of blood dripping from the ceiling and my palms.


CB: I don't know exactly, you'd have to explore my psyche. [laughs] With Bateman, there was never any feeling of playing a real character, so he didn't linger at all. With Jesus, there are so many expectations.

Only the expectations of a few billion Christians, Christian. No biggie, don't sweat it.

The story of Jesus is a no-brainer for a film. Its got brand awareness for the marketing men, action scenes - Jesus in the temple! the Romans arrest our hero! Barabbas stirs things up! - lots and lots of spectacle, and a ton of great characters for an eclectic cast to get their teeth into. Despite the seeming piety of the idea, Jesus-movies are frequently more Hollywood Backlot than Holy Land, and that glamour makes them seem both kitschy and oddly seductive. Anyway, Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" is probably my favourite Jesus-movie. But it only narrowly pips Nick Ray's fantastic "King of Kings" (which it rips off shamelessly). As you might have guessed by now, this post is basically an "Easter Vintage Trailer Special". So down to it.

This is more short documentary than trailer, and it hilariously names more or less the entire cast, while also including a couple of classic "IT WAS A TIME OF..." captions. But you don't get any better than Robert Ryan as John the Baptist. Maybe Lee Marvin, but nobody ever thought of that. Except me, and by now its too late. The film is better than the trailer suggests, which I don't think is the general aim of a trailer, but maybe I'm wrong:

When I was a kid, my parents let my brother and I stay up late to watch this film, which was atypical behaviour. Except its looooong, and I fell asleep. But Max von Sydow is the greatest Screen Jesus, for me. And John Wayne has a cracking, legendary line of dialogue. And Donald Pleasance plays Satan, basically. But Charlton Heston is no Robert Ryan. Or Lee Marvin. Was Burt Lancaster busy that week, I wonder? Playing Moses, maybe...
Anyway, Happy Easter:

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Golgolgolgolgolgolgolgolgolgol: 4

Diego Armando Maradona. The greatest player of my lifetime by a very wide margin. It would be wrong to have him share a post with lesser players, he deserves his own collection of clips. So:

This is what is called a proper range of passing:

Dribbling, attracting some of the most ferociously brutal tackling I've ever seen, making opponents fall over, flip-flops, drag-backs, multiple stepovers:

Deliberately injured (and out for months) by Athletic Bilbao's Goikoetxea during his time at Barcelona, Maradona returned to Bilbao with a score to settle. So he decided to start a fight:

He didn't warm up like anybody else, either:

"Hero", the Official FIFA film of the 1986 World Cup understandably concentrates on Maradona. The entire thing is on Youtube in 10 minute chunks and its all worth a watch, especially part seven, featuring France vs Brazil, Platini vs Zico etc. But this part is Argentina vs England. The greatest goal ever. Michael Caine, synthesiser music. Ace.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

King of the Rocketmen

They used to show old Serials on tv on saturday mornings when I was a kid, and I loved most of them. I noticed the staginess, the cheapness, the creakiness, but it didn't bother me. I could always get around it, probably because I was always in love with stories, even then, and those shows always had decent stories. I loved the old Buster Crabbe "Flash Gordon". I loved "Champion the Wonder Horse". I have dim memories of a Zorro show, maybe a Lone Ranger show too. But my absolute favourite was "King of the Rocketmen".

Fast forward to 1991, and Disney release "The Rocketeer". My first thought upon seeing the lovely Art Deco poster in a comic book was "Thats "King of the Rocketmen"" My second thought was that it had to be based on a comic book. And of course it was.

I managed to snag a copy of one of Dave Steven's fine collections of "Rocketeer" stories a few years later and realised that it wasn't just an old serial it played homage to - there were references to pulp characters like the Shadow and Doc Savage too, as well as characters visually based on old B-movie stars. But the story was a little weak - Stevens was no writer. What he was was a brilliant artist, with a lovely, meticulous line reminiscent of Alex Raymond and Al Williamson and a fantastic design sense (the Rocketeer costume is proof of that). He really didn't do all that much work in comics - the entire Rocketeer saga is only a few magazines long, and aside from that he did some beautiful covers - but all of it is of the highest quality. And he was strangely influential. That retro, art deco look he specialised in was given new popularity by his work, the heavy blacks and sculpted figures echoed in the work of Mark Schultz, Steve Rude and even Jaime Hernandez. His use of Bettie Page as a model for the female lead in "The Rocketeer" led to a rediscovery of her work in American pop culture. And of course "The Rocketeer" movie immortalised his creation in another medium, even if quite a lot was lost in the translation. Its a nice film, not an outstanding one, but that poster is worth revisiting:

Anyway, he died last week, which made me think about how much I love his work, and how I should try to get hold of more of it. There is so much bad comics art around, that the really great stuff needs to be cherished. Stevens was really great.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Vintage Trailer of the Week 3

Why hasn't Victor Erice made more films? Why is it that, as well as having a certan similarity to Terrence Malick stylistically, he shares his habit of going years between projects? I don't think an answer is forthcoming.

Anyway, a trailer for a masterpiece:


Its buttah, Its chickybaby

I watched "Bowfinger" on DVD a few days ago. I'd seen it before, on its original release. It was the last Eddie Murphy film I watched in a cinema. That was in 1999, almost a decade ago. Its quite a funny film, written by Steve Martin, which means that its got some brilliant one-liners and is full of instances of Martin's trademark clever idiocy. It takes broad satirical aim at a couple of obvious, easy targets: Hollywood and Scientology, and gets laughs out of its digs at both. What is surprising about the film, however, is how great Eddie Murphy is.

Eddie Murphy was cool, once. Young, handsome, funny, sexy, dangerous, he managed to be successful too, somehow. He had the right kind of charisma for movies - he could carry them, generally by just playing himself. When I was a little kid, he was a Megastar. All of his movies were huge hits, and the two Films of his stand up performances - "Raw" and "Delirious" - were the kind of thing everybody could quote and everybody loved.

As a comparison, you can always look at his career today. Over the last decade, a few of his films have been: "Doctor Dolittle" (1 & 2), "The Nutty Professor" (1 & 2), "I-Spy", "Haunted Mansion", "The Adventures of Pluto Nash", "Showtime", "Daddy Day Care" and "Norbit". That is a horrific list. I know, it almost goes without saying - Eddie Murphy's presence now means a film is probably a stinker. I know this, I take it for granted. But the quality of his work in "Bowfinger" shocked me a little, reminded me of how good he could be. Probably still can be if he wanted to. It seems the greatest betrayal of talent I can think of in comedy since Ben Elton sold out and started writing mediocre novels and bad West End musicals.

So I started wondering what happened to him. He had a definite Golden period from 1982, when "48 Hours" came out, until 1988, and the release of "Coming to America". Those six years encompass the releases of "Raw" and "Delirious", and also saw him star in "Trading Places", "Beverly Hills Cop" (1 & 2) and "The Golden Child", as well as appearing regularly on "Saturday Night Live". Pretty much every part of his cultural legacy emerged from that era. Almost everything since has been disposable at best. But the warning signs were there in that string of hits - he had a habit of making bad choices. His stardom made "The Golden Child" successful, its strange premise and odd tone working purely because of his force of onscreen personality. Likewise, "Beverly Hills Cop 2" is a lazy, smug,shabby piece of work, but he carries it effortlessly, and did so to a massive Box Office taking. this poor judgement soon caught up with him, when he made a string of flops, beginning with "Harlem Nights" in 1989 (he wrote and directed that one too) through "Another 48 Hours" (1990), "Boomerang" (1992), "The DIstinguished Gentleman" (1992), "Beverly Hills Cop 3" (1994) until "Vampire In Brooklyn" (1995). He had lost all his clout and all of his cool, and suddenly, in the mid-90s, he seemed a very 1980s kind of movie star.

So he took a chance and dove headfirst into family films. "The Nutty Professor" came out in 1996, he played 8 roles, having done something similar in "Coming to America", and it was a massive smash. Over the next decade he appeared in the occasional non-Family feature (if you can call "I-Spy" or "Metro" that), but he always returned to the safety of a kid-friendly franchise afterwards. He only made himself a more commercial prospect with his work voicing animated features, first on "Mulan"(1998) and then on the "Shrek" series from 2001. He seems as far from the young, whip-smart and fearless, ridculously cocky comedian from "Delirious" as its possible to get.

"Bowfinger" came out a few years after he'd begun this new phase of his career. He made it between "Doctor Doliitle" and "The Nutty Professor 2" apparently. He plays two characters, one of them seeming a parodic version of the "Eddie Murphy" who has featured such a great deal in the tabloid press over the last decade. This character, Kit Ramsay, is a paranoid, megalomaniac star of action movies with an enormous mansion, a heaving entourage, and a questionable grasp on his own sanity, who counts the occurrences of the letter "K" in his scripts ("KKK appears in this script 486 times!"), flashes at cheerleaders and believes Aliens want to impregnate him or that he may spontaneously combust at any moment. Murphy also plays Ramsay's brother, Jifferson, a geeky loser with a speech impediment and a terrible wardrobe. Both roles give him plenty of opportunities to be funny, and he takes them, spewing out Kit's conspiracy theory rants and hamming up Jifferson's inarticulate shyness in alternate scenes. The film reminds you that given the right script, he's a uniquely talented comic performer, and makes you wonder why he doesn't make more like it.

A couple of years ago he was Oscar-nominated for "Dreamgirls" (2006), which allows him to show off his abilities as a singer and dancer, and never requires that he be funny. He seems comfortable with that, somehow. Many comedians seem to fall out of love with comedy over long careers, as if they weary of the sound of the laughter. They long to be taken seriously. Obviously not Murphy, churning out voiceovers and sleepwalking through kid's films every year or so. But he shows absolutely no inclination to return to Stand Up comedy, either. He's reached the level he's reached, and he seems quite happy to stay there, at least for the moment.

And who can blame him, really. He's still instantly recognisable, all over the world. The Megastardom of the 1980s is hard to fade, it remains with him. He came into the place I work a few years ago, and a crowd amassed around him, just watching from a certain distance. It felt like a strange new hysteria had filled the building : A superstar was in our midst. Other stars have shown up before but the only one with a similar effect was Michael Jackson. Eddie Murphy, in other words, has still got it. That crucial component, that X-Factor. He just really doesn't know what to do with it anymore...


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Screengrab - "Is Mr Reincarnation enjoying his cake?"

Jonathan Glazer was always a great film Director waiting to happen. His work on music videos and adverts was so distinctive and so consistently, staggeringly great that once I became aware of him and his growing body of work, I awaited that first film with genuine excitement. What body of work? Well, he directed some of the most memorable and iconic adverts of the past decade, including three classics for Guinness ("Swimblack", "Dreamer" and "The Surfer"), "Last Orders" and "Whip Round" for Stella Artois, plus "Odyssey" (featuring a guy & girl running through walls) and "Kung Fu" for Levis. He also made a fistful of fantastic music videos (collected together on a Directors Series DVD) including "Karma Police" and "Street Spirit" for Radiohead, "The Universal" for Blur, the awesome, chilling "Rabbit In Your Headlights" for Unkle, and "Karmacoma" for Massive Attack.

His first film was brilliant. "Sexy Beast" (2000) was easily the best of the Guy Richie-spawned wave of British Gangster films, and alongside an excellent script and powerful performances, a major part of that brilliance was due to Glazer's imaginitive direction. He staged scenes in unconventional, surprising ways - the love scene set with an expressionist flourish amidst celestial bodies, scored by Henry Mancini's suavely lovely "Lujon" suggested that here was a director who had learned from his work in the music industry, but was not in thrall to it. Glazer was smart enough to know when to give the showing off a rest, when to just point the camera at the actors and let them do their thing, and the film is both thrilling and dependably satisfying as a result. He seemed like a sort of visionary. He seemed like a director going places. But then his second film was delayed, mainly because he wanted to hire the venerable, elderly Jean-Claude Carriere (who has written a bewildering array of films, from "Belle du Jour" to "Valmont") to work on the script with him. He got his wish, and two years and another writer - Milo Addica - later, "Birth" came out in 2004 to a muted critical and commercial response.

Its premise is arresting - a little boy turns up on the doorstep of Clara, a widow, claiming to be the reincarnation of her husband Sean. He seems to know things he couldn't know, things only Sean would know. As she and her family try to deal with the upset caused by his appearance, her emotional and mental health begin to suffer, as does her relationship with her fiance. Its a fine film, beautifully directed and absorbingly atmospheric throughout. Glazer has always filled his work with allusions to Stanley Kubrick*, and "Birth" feels like Kubrick-karaoke, to an extent. The stately compositional sense is pure Kubrick, as are the slow camera crawls through the hallways of massive Upper East Side Apartments. Glazer hired Harris Savides, one of the most exciting cinematographers in modern cinema, to shoot the film, and it is correspondingly beautiful, full of chilly shades of green and steely winter greys, which are matched by Alexandre Desplat's pulsing, disturbing score. Glazer intended this muted palette to suggest that the film was set in the "anteroom" of the afterlife, and the look and sound design do evoke something womblike, a strange caul over the senses. As a display of directorial control, it is undoubtedly impressive. Glazer also has his fun. The film's opening scene is a long tracking shot following a hooded jogger on a run through a snow-covered Central park with Desplat's theme gently ushering us into the world of the film. The shot ends with the jogger collapsing slowly to the ground in the darkened underpass beneath a bridge. He is Sean, and we have just witnessed his death.

The film's true glory, however, is Nicole Kidman. Always at her best when she portrays the first cracks of emotion appearing in the beautiful facade of her screen persona, here she is relentlessly battered by contrasting emotions. First she doesn't believe the boy, then she is hurt and angry at the intrusion. And then she starts to wonder, and her life begins to fall apart. The greatest scene in the film is the moment where it all seems to hit her, where she concedes something of herself to the possibility that Sean may be telling the truth, and finds herself lost. Glazer, in a seeming reference to Dreyer, does it in one shot - a view of the audience at a Wagner Opera, Kidman and her fiance (Danny Huston) arriving late and taking their seats, the camera slowly moving over the heads towards them. They sit and the camera hones in on Kidman. She looks shaken, frightened, almost in shock, right from the off. Her eyes are wet, her blinks elongated, her mouth a little open, suggesting that she is finding it hard to breathe. She listens distractedly to what Huston tells her. Other feelings begin to show in the little barely perceptible tremors and moods shadowing her face, a tightening of her eyes, a twitch of her lips. You can almost see her struggle with the memories, most of it there in her eyes, her features tight with tension. Eventually she begins to smile and jumps, startled, when he leans in to speak to her again. Finally she closes her eyes, as if to block it all out.

On a big screen in a cinema, this scene had a shattering impact, the long focus upon Kidman's features in tight close-up in such an intense film giving it a massive emotional weight. Thats necessarily reduced on Youtube, obviously, but Glazer's ambition and determination to make this film a singular experience are not. "Birth" is a unique film, elliptical, ambiguous and eerie in an utterly original way. Its also a film that I imagine will be better appreciated in the future, when Glazer's career in cinema has more shape and history. He is capable of truly great things, I think. When we will get to see them is another matter entirely. His next film was supposed to be an adaptation of Michael Faber's "Under the Skin", due originally to shoot in 2006. That never happened, and I can't find any news of it anywhere on the net, or indeed of anything else Glazer might be involved in at the moment. He's still making adverts, and as the appearance of the Sony Bravia "Paint" advert proved a couple of years ago, still excelling at it. I just hope that in terms of cinema, he doesn't go all Malick on us and disappear for a couple of decades....

Here's an advert he made for Motorola in 2006 which they decided not to use, the fools:

*Most obviously, Blur's "The Universal" is a long "A Clockwork Orange" reference, and "Karmacoma" suggests "The Shining"...

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Vintage Trailer of the Week 2

Voiceover man invoking a director's past glories - and calling a film "unusual" - is always a bad sign for a movie's commercial prospects. But this is a great trailer, mainly because of Tangerine Dream, but also because of Roy Scheider, trucks and explosions. Its oddly incomprehensible though, hard to tell exactly what the film is actually about from what you're shown unless you already know that its a remake of "The Wages of Fear":

I love the way he says "It made history."