October 23, 2009

Where rich people have chandeliers

Soap operas are a world where rich people always have chandeliers and hip people have striped hair and the language that they use doesn’t have any flexibility anymore.
Bronson Pinchot, interviewed in The Onion. In the same interview, this exchange:
Did you have a sense that even though Tom Cruise was boring and unpleasant, he would be exciting onscreen?
Oh, no. I thought the movie [Risky Business] would disappear. It just goes to show you, I obviously don’t have the antennae for that. I didn’t see it at all, but neither did any of the actors. All of the actors who talked about him were like, “What is this guy all about?” And you know, honestly, I never got it, and I don’t get it to this day. But it was his breakout film. He always talked about himself like he was a mega-superstar; that was weird, too.
In other Tom Cruise news, Christian Bale based his Patrick Bateman on the Cruise he saw interviewed on TV, according to American Psycho director Mary Harron. From Black Book:
We talked about how Martian-like Patrick Bateman was, how he was looking at the world like somebody from another planet, watching what people did and trying to work out the right way to behave. And then one day he called me and he had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman, and he just had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and he was really taken with this energy.

October 12, 2009

Four from October, and 25 films you will never be able to enjoy again


Up (Pete Docter, 2009): The married-life montage is extraordinary -- and moving. Everything else in Pixar's Americanised Miyazaki outing is just -- no contradiction -- predictably spectacular.
Summer of Sam (Spike Lee, 1999): The Scorsese film Scorsese never made. Or Saturday Night Fever meets Seven in the imagination of Travis Bickle. But no amount of art-directed 70s sleaze and urban dread can ever be as pungent as the real thing.
Strayed (Andre Techine, 2003): Making the nature scene. A French idyll on the edge of WWII. Emmanuelle Beart you know about. Gaspard Ulliel? He looks like he walked out of a Pierre et Giles shoot. How apt that he's soon the gay angel in The Vintner's Luck (but just how gay and how much space he and his theology will get is a discussion that apprehensive Vintner's fans are having somewhere else).
Proof (John Madden, 2005): David Auburn's maths play about that slippery border between genius and insanity gets skilfully adapted by the author for John Madden -- but then, I've never read or seen the actual play, so who knows? Anyway, why do I feel like I've never seen a Gwyneth Paltrow performance as good as this before? And less is thankfully more for mad dad Anthony Hopkins. But can you buy Jake Gyllenhaal as a maths prodigy and rock drummer? Darko excepted, have you ever bought him as anything?

This is oldish -- from February 2009 -- but I only just came across it. The arch-conservative National Review has its list of 25 best conservative movies. You expected Red Dawn, Forrest Gump, maybe even Whit Stillman's Metropolitan ("He brings us to see what is admirable and necessary in the customs and conventions of America’s upper class"), the Christian allegories of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the enduring fantasy that Lord of the Rings is somehow prophetic of and applicable to America's mood post-9/11. You also expected that they would read The Dark Knight as an analogy of illegal tactics in the war on terror (but not as a critique of said tactics) and love every minute of United 93. Surprise entry: Team America: World Police, as "the film’s utter disgust with air-headed, left-wing celebrity activism remains unmatched in popular culture". Actually, no surprise -- this is the anti-Sean Penn and Tim Robbins list. I can put up with all that. But this is my question: now I know that it's about how "the fads of modernity are no substitute for the permanent things", will I ever be able to enjoy Groundhog Day again?
Actually, wrong philosophy. A couple of years back, I reviewed Groundhog Day like this:
An existential classic. In the late 19th century, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proposed the doctrine of “eternal recurrence”: “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight.” In the late 20th century, that Nietzschean dilemma was illustrated with wit, panache and brilliance by the team of Bill Murray (star) and Harold Ramis (writer/director).

October 9, 2009

Mr Orange and moral conflict

Rewatching Reservoir Dogs this week, the first time in more than a decade, I was caught by a line from critic Amy Taubin on the commentary: Reservoir Dogs unfolds in the time it takes undercover cop Mr Orange (Tim Roth) to bleed to death. Drop the prologue, she says, and that's how it works. After the title sequence, he is seen squealing and bloody in the back of the car driven by Mr White (Harvey Keitel), then he's on the floor of the warehouse the gang is using as a rendezvous in a pool of blood that gets deeper and darker as the film goes on. The first time I saw this -- probably 1993, a film festival -- I was reminded of something by Beckett or Sartre's No Exit. These doomed guys, this one dingy location, black humour and obvious fatalism. That warehouse had the feeling of a stage set (actually, it's a morgue with plastic sheeting draped over coffins and hearses -- apt for a story where almost no one gets out alive). I didn't single out any one character as mattering more than any other: Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) are clearly secondary players to Orange and White but Buscemi's comic relief is so well done and Madsen's notorious ear-slicing bit so memorable that they would hold an equal position in your memory of the film. Blonde, Orange and White all get back stories; Pink gets none -- yet he's the one who lives. But Taubin's line suggests that this was never a story about gangsters; it was always a story about an undercover cop. In this reading, the most important scenes in the film are the long flashback in which Orange is coached by another cop in how to tell a story about a criminal situation; he's like an actor learning a part, which is doubly clever when you consider that the British Roth was training himself in an American accent at the same time. These criminals take on identities just as actors do; Roth's character just takes on more layers of identity than most. Identity is conveyed through storytelling and when the criminal Orange, in his back story, encounters cops in a hotel bathroom, we see that they're listening to a long crime anecdote as well. The DVD's deleted scenes give us more of this, more of Orange's back story, more of his preparation, more of the world outside the repurposed morgue -- had these scenes gone into the original film the balance would have been tipped and there would be no question that this was always a film about the moral conflicts and difficulties of the undercover world and the brutality and unscrupulousness of the criminals you encounter in it (the White we warm to in the film is revealed as close to psychopathic in the deleted scene called "background check"). By leaving these scenes out, and making the film less Mr Orange's story and more the story of the cold-blooded White/Pink/Blonde, Tarantino's position in relation to criminality and violence became more ambiguous. Either that or he didn't really know how to get the moral conflict across.