Tuesday, June 26, 2012

See You Next Wednesday - An Evening with John Landis

Once upon a time, there were two men called John, and they towered above all others in spraying fuel on the simmering embers of my nascent cinephilia. Back in 1994, I was fortunate enough to attend a Q&A with John Carpenter at the National Film Theatre to accompany the world premiere of his wonderfully nuts Lovecraftian feverdream In The Mouth of Madness.

16 years later and, on Tuesday 16th March 2010, I finally caught up with John Landis on exactly the same stage at the now-renamed BFI Southbank. An unflagging bundle of enthusiasm, self-confessed film geek Landis came straight from a day's shooting on Burke and Hare at Ealing Studios and sat with the audience through a rare showing of his 2004 documentary Slasher before regaling us all with his encyclopaedic knowledge and love of movies for two hours, starting out by taking photos of the audience from the stage and wrapping it all up by exhorting us to go and watch Scott Pilgrim vs. The World when it arrived, directed by his friend Edgar Wright who was sitting amongst us.

The following is cobbled together from a bunch of notes I made over two years ago, so cut me some slack.
On his friendship with Alfred Hitchcock:

During their regular lunch dates, Hitchcock expressed his irritation that Dressed To Kill was frequently referred to as “Hitchcockian” by calling Brian DePalma “that boy that steals from me” to which Landis said:
"But Hitch, he’s not stealing from you, it's an homage."
"You mean fromage?"

On bad movies:

Landis unashamedly loves bad movies, in particular the oeuvre of Roland Emmerich, singling out the recent 2012 and the delirious absurdity of characters attempting to out-drive a natural disaster. He also pointed out that film is the only art form where you can experience the worst possible entertainment and still have a good time.

I’ve just discovered that Landis recently restated his affection for Emmerich’s logic-defying excesses on German TV as he wandered around London with Terry Gilliam:

On Coming To America:

During the making of Coming to America, Landis was made aware of comments by Spike Lee bemoaning a trend of “old Jewish guys pretending to be young black guys”. [Despite extensive research, I’m unable to locate the interview that Landis cited. However, Lee does have form for this sort of thing. For an example, see page 57 of Spike Lee: Interviews on Google Books for Lee’s remarks on the writing staff of In Living Color during a conversation with Elvis Mitchell from 1991].

Despite the well-documented acrimony between Landis and Murphy at this stage in their collaboration, Landis, knowing what an incredibly gifted mimic Eddie Murphy is, approached him about flipping this around by turning a young black guy into an old Jewish guy, which led to the creation of the character Saul. (This is the zenith of a relentless downward spiral that leads to Norbit - Coming to America marks the first time that Murphy played multiple characters in a movie, so maybe Landis has to shoulder a little bit of blame for kicking off that particularly unwelcome trend in Murphy’s career.)

On The Spy Who Loved Me:

Landis was one of many uncredited writers (along with Stirling Silliphant, Ronald Hardy, Anthony Burgess and Derek Marlowe) who worked on the script for Roger Moore’s third outing as James Bond, claiming that his major contribution was the downhill ski chase that opens the movie.

On Into the Night:

His first flop. Landis told an anecdote of being summoned to meet Jack Nicholson to discuss the project in a remote location (Aspen, perhaps?), that turned into an unusually treacherous trip due to the snow and icy conditions, just so that Nicholson could turn it down on the grounds that the Ed Okin character (eventually played by Jeff Goldblum) is passive and never actually does anything, spending the whole film being led around by Michelle Pfieffer's character. Nicholson softened the rejection by saying that he still thought that it would be a great movie and he looked forward to seeing it. Landis conceded that maybe Into the Night was just "too weird" for audiences. Personally, I think Into the Night ranks way up there with his finest work and the three-way knife fight between Carl Perkins, David Bowie and Jeff Goldblum in a darkened hotel room strewn with corpses whilst Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein plays in the background is just glorious:

On casting Burke and Hare:

Landis professed his love and admiration of Ronnie Corbett, saying that he was the only member of the cast he had to fight for to get him into the movie. He called him a great actor and a national treasure, acknowledging that “national treasure” in the UK means that you've been on TV for over 25 years.

On Hollywood today:

With a hint of amused irritation, Landis noted that some of the younger breed of Hollywood executives don't know their history, recollecting that he has been asked in meetings: “Did you ever see Animal House? That's what we want.” Understandably, he’s insulted and flattered at the same time.

There was so much more, and the event was recorded by the BFI, with selected highlights available to view here.

I went to see both Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Burke and Hare on the weekends they opened. The former ended up being one of my favourite films of 2010. The latter didn’t. But I confess that I just really enjoyed the fact that I could go and see a brand new John Landis movie on a big screen and, as always, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
When in Hollywood, Visit Universal Studios. Ask for Babs

Friday, June 22, 2012

It Came From The Archives! - Nic Balthazar’s Ben X

Still rooting around in neglected folders. Retooling unfinished pieces for publication here on the blog and briefly glancing at things that have been out there at some point in the past but are no longer available. I’m going to start recycling some of the latter here, otherwise all those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain....Here’s a review that originally appeared on the now-defunct Write on Film (Hi Marie!) back in August 2008.
The debut movie from Belgian filmmaker Nic Balthazar, Ben X unfolds from the perspective of Asperger's sufferer Ben, as he gets through his rigidly-structured daily routine by immersing himself in the lush pixelated landscapes of the MMORPG ArchLord (the one place where he feels truly in control) before the drudgery and discomfort of the real world encroaches on his virtual reality.

Very loosely based on real events (which I can't go into in any great depth without blowing the ending), Ben's story is interspersed with posthumous faux-documentary footage analysing the events of the film by most of the major players, as the narrative creeps little-by-little towards a teased and seemingly-inevitable tragic denouement.

As a diverting thriller, Ben X crackles along and is watchable enough, there are enough neat twists and reversals to keep an audience engaged and Greg Timmermans is excellent as the titular Ben, all barely-repressed tics and twitchy anxious movements as he struggles to function in a world that doesn't quite make sense to him.

But Balthazar seems less interested in what it means to live with Asperger's Syndrome - it just appears to be a plot-motor to tell a story about feckless teens and out-of-control bullying, and Ben's love of ArchLord, whilst interesting in illustrating the way in which he operates differently in distinct and yet not-quite-separate "worlds", teeters dangerously close to a flashy, over-used gimmick when the virtual environment of the MMORPG is overlaid with comparatively dreary Belgian suburbia to show how Ben retreats into his innerlife as a coping mechanism.

The final half-hour obliterates believability beyond any reasonable suspension of disbelief, indulging in nonsensical narrative contortions just to get the story to where it wants to be. Nevertheless, there is a kind of emotional logic at play that almost let's Balthazar off the hook and up until that point the movie has built up sufficient viewer goodwill that makes it all slightly easier to forgive.

Balthazar has a striking visual style and an undoubted facility for spinning an entertaining story, and Ben X is certainly ambitious with much to recommend it, but now and then I had the nagging feeling that it was all an elaborate shaggy-dog story masquerading as a gritty teen thriller.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Quid Pro Quo, Douchebags

(Digging through a folder full of documents that I never did anything with for a variety of reasons, I found this. I can see why I left it alone for a couple of years. It’s a really angry, somewhat rambling screed on the hateful The Hangover. Re-reading it, I find that I’m still just as angry about it, but my powder is now suitably dry, and I felt like taking it out of mothballs and throwing it out into the world. So here it is. At the very least, it should make a nice change from people griping about Prometheus.)

"The most commonly reported characteristics of a hangover include headache, nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, lethargy, dysphoria, diarrhea and thirst. A hangover may also induce psychological symptoms including heightened feelings of depression and anxiety."

Add feelings of uncontrollable rage, and that pretty much nails my feelings after enduring Todd Phillips' hit comedy / vile piece of shit The Hangover. For this particular tirade, I'm going to have to do two things that I usually try to avoid - I'm going to be overwhelmingly negative about something in writing (as I prefer to talk up the good stuff rather than expend energy trashing the shit); and I'm going to indulge in spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers. If you haven't seen The Hangover, you are incredibly fortunate and hopefully this will dissuade you.

There's a line of dialogue in The Hangover that encapsulates everything that's wrong with the film: "You know, everyone says Mike Tyson is such a badass, but I think he's kind of a sweetheart." Yes, this is a film that holds as part of its odious, twisted worldview the opinion that convicted rapist Mike Tyson is "kind of a sweetheart".

(For a more articulate evisceration of this horrific "hilarious" cameo appearance, read Jane Claire Bradley's Punch Drunk: On Rape Apologists and Hollywood Misogyny).

It's the way certain little details start to mount up that really, really aggravated me. Aside from the appearance of former Undisputed Heavyweight Champion and ear-chewing rapist Tyson, there's this:

All of the women in the film are either screeching emasculating bitches or ripe for the fucking. Except for "hooker with a heart of gold" Heather Graham who, in one of the film's most egregious moments, bares a breast to feed her child. Nothing wrong with that, you might say. And you'd be right. Not only is there absolutely nothing wrong with breast-feeding, but there's nothing wrong with showing it on film. So far, so good.

But context is everything, and here Phillips pops a breast on the screen for two reasons and two reasons only - for titillation and comedy. God knows, I'm no prude, and I certainly don't object to nudity in movies. But breasts are not inherently erotic, and yet here breast-feeding is overtly equated with something sexual. And the three gibbering lackwits at the centre of the film are supposed to be uncomfortable at this display of bare flesh, which is supposed, I assume, to generate a laugh. This is even more disingenuous when you get to the photos playing over the end titles and see the heinous shit they got up to over the course of that “lost” night.

To be clear: I don't have a problem with gratuitous nudity. (Some of my best friends are gratuitous nudists). I don't have a problem with bad taste comedies. It's All About Context.

Also: slamming a car door in a baby's face isn't inherently funny. It. Just. Isn’t.

Also also: Are camp oriental stereotypes really funny? Really? What the fuck is wrong with you?

If this weren't such a hugely popular film, and if I hadn't heard from so many people who kept telling me how fucking funny it is, it probably wouldn't stick in my craw so much, as such widespread adulation indicates something rotten not only in the worldview of the filmmakers, but of the audience as well. But let's put that to one side for a minute and shake our heads in confusion at the list of plaudits this festering shitcake has accrued. On January 17, 2010, The Hangover won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. It was also named one of the top ten movies of the year by the American Film Institute. The film won "Best Ensemble" from the Detroit Film Critics Society. The screenplay was nominated for a Writers Guild of America and BAFTA award.

Let's just consider that last one again. Screenplay award nominations. The screenplay may be sufficiently absorbent to work as passable toilet paper, but little more than that. The entire premise of the film hinges on a trio of morons piecing together the mysteries of the night before. And yet it all falls apart once you start poking away at it. For example, if the mouth-breathing arrested adolescents had stayed in their hotel room for five more minutes once they woke up, Heather Graham would have returned to explain it all to them.

Here’s another glaring unresolved plot thread - what about the chickens in the hotel room? They are never explained. Just another piece of the scaffolding of the film that collapses once you lean on it a bit with your brain. You remember brains, don't you? Those are the things that this film asks you to forget you own. (And I don’t want to hear a counter-argument of “You’re thinking about this too much. It’s just a joke!” This screenplay was nominated for awards! I don’t expect it to be a masterpiece of construction like Chinatown or Back to the Future, but it should be pretty damn close to bullet-proof.)

So. The Hangover was loved by most audiences and despised by me. Funnily enough, the criticisms I level at this mess that Todd Phillips curled out on to the screen are not entirely different from the ones sprayed at Observe and Report from many quarters - a film largely despised by audiences and loved by me. (Not just me. Kim Morgan and Anne Billson have also been vocal fans of Jody Hill’s pitch-black comedy).

The fundamental difference is one of worldview. The makers of Observe and Report know that Seth Rogen’s mallcop Ronnie Barnhardt is a monster. That changes everything. The odious fuckwits behind The Hangover think the objectionable shitheads are just regular guys having a fun weekend of sex and booze. After all, as Jeffrey Tambor keeps repeating with a knowing wink and smile throughout "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right guys? Heh heh heh." Oh fuck off, Jeffrey Tambor, for coming out with that hackneyed line as lazy shorthand to legitimise reprehensible behaviour as mere harmless, boyish fun. What makes this all the more galling is that Tambor played one of the great all-time screen fantasist monsters as Hank "Hey Know" Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show, in a show that was both dark and funny and made us love the central characters without ever letting us forget how fallible and monstrous they could be.

"It's like my mom always said: you can polish a turd, but it's still a piece of shit." Brandi (Anna Faris) in Observe and Report

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pitch Slap

"One thing that always surprises me about career advice is how lousy most of the writing is. They say the same boring, formulaic ideas over again. They convince you that if you do this one thing, it will all work out for you. The worst thing they do is tell you to follow the rules. This is a terrible idea." - Susannah Breslin (How to Not Be Unemployed)

Here's an unassailable truth for ya: I have written a lot of different things for a lot of different people over the years. Magazines, blogs, books. Shorts, videos and documentaries. And not one of those writing gigs came about as the result of a pitch.

That's not to say that I haven't ever pitched an idea. Of course I have. Mountains of them. Pitches that I dashed off as half-arsed afterthoughts. Long, detailed, drawn-out pitches that I spent days tweaking, buffing and polishing until the monitor screen itself seemed to glisten. Not one fucking nibble. Nothing.

Any word that I've ever written that ended up in a pay cheque came about because someone approached me. Maybe they knew me personally or by reputation. Maybe I was a friend of a friend or a recommendation. Maybe they knew me from other things that I'd already written. There’s more than one way to skin a gig.

If you’re waiting for a point to all this, where I come up with a neat, tidy conclusion about what this means, then you’re shit out of a luck. I’m really not trying to say that pitching is a waste of time. Maybe it just means that pitching is an incredibly inefficient way of getting your stuff out there. At least, my experience certainly seems to bear that out.

(This also applies to any kind of job application - hundreds (if not thousands) of people applying for the same job in the same way. The odds are stacked against you, no matter how goddamn brilliant you are).

Maybe the point is this: it’s more fun when you want me more than I want you. Or maybe it just means that the only person I’m interested in competing with is myself. And that the best way to get stuff out into the world is to take the road less travelled. Not through the front door, crowded with noisy people queueing up for their shot. I prefer to sneak in the back window. I’ve never had a problem with working hard. Sometimes, it makes more sense to work smart instead.

Rambling (almost) over. I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit recently. I’m never short of things to write. I’m the King of Spec, and I’ll happily write stuff for my own amusement forever. But I find myself craving the benefits of collaboration again. Working with or for smart people with ideas that I haven’t thought of and perspectives that maybe I don’t have. Basically, I’m in the mood to shred my rule book and shower the place with confetti. And I'm starting to build bricks to smash through the back windows that no-one else seems to be looking at. Developing...