Monday, April 13, 2020

Lockdown Viewing - April 6th to 12th

Big Trouble (John Cassavetes, 1986)
“I’m embarrassed to have my name on it, and even more embarrassed that people will think it’s my final film,” John Cassavetes said of Big Trouble, a salvage operation that he was parachuted into when writer-director Andrew Bergman left mid-production. It’s hard to know who is primarily responsible for the end result – Bergman, Cassavetes or the producers who reportedly meddled along the way – but it’s a film that doesn’t display much evident personality in its filmmaking, and has a schizophrenic quality in its storytelling. The first half is essentially a beat-by-beat parody of Double Indemnity, with Alan Arkin as the insurance man persuaded by a scheming femme fatale (Beverly D’Angelo) to get rid of her husband (Peter Falk) and split the payday. Once the deed has been done, however, the film spins off in a variety of directions, incorporating a faked death, a kidnapping, an attempted heist and an encounter with terrorists. A lot of Big Trouble doesn’t work or even make a great deal of sense, but no film starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin is ever going to be a complete write-off, and this one is often very funny. The dynamic the two leads share is similar to the one at the heart of The In-Laws (also scripted by Bergman) and Arkin gets so much comic mileage out of simply trying to control the pitch of his voice as his anxiety overwhelms him or – in the film’s funniest moment – delivering a spit-take for the ages after tasting Falk’s sardine liqueur. Big Trouble may be regarded as an ignominious and anonymous end to a great director’s career, but if you judge it against the standards of the average Hollywood comedy rather than Cassavetes’ own work, it doesn’t look so bad. There is one interesting side note to this film’s troubled production: before shooting began Columbia Pictures had to seek permission from Universal to use the plot of Double Indemnity, and Universal agreed in exchange for the rights to a project that had been sitting on the shelf at Columbia. That film was Back to the Future, which had already become a monster hit by the time Big Trouble finally hobbled into cinemas.

The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo, 2003)
Given all the brouhaha that surrounded its release – the uproar at Cannes, the feud with Ebert, the fuss over a single scene – it’s strange to look at The Brown Bunny now and see how delicate, wistful and introspective it is. It's hardly a film that merited such a noisy introduction to the world. I don’t think it’s as strong a film as Gallo’s directorial debut Buffalo ’66, but I still like it a lot. The film feels of a piece with other minimalist films of that era, such as Gus Van Sant’s Gerry or Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, while also harkening back to pictures like Zabriskie Point and Two Lane Blacktop, as Gallo drives across the United States and occasionally stops to have an awkward conversation with somebody. It’s clear that he’s a lonely individual haunted by something, and in search of some kind of reconciliation with Daisy (Chloë Sevigny), a woman from his past, but the nature of their relationship isn’t clarified until the very last scene, which is the only scene in the film anyone talks about. The meeting between Gallo and Sevigny is alternately uncomfortable, tender, angry and sad, and it acts as a culmination to everything that has come before it. Gallo has a gift for finding piercing and truthful moments in a scene that appears to be meandering, and he does that a number of times throughout The Brown Bunny, most notably in a wonderfully unexpected and intimate encounter with Cheryl Tiegs. The Brown Bunny’s 16mm images are evocative and atmospheric, and the film has an entrancing rhythm. I wonder if we’ll ever get to see another film from Vincent Gallo? I wonder if he’ll ever let us see his 2010 film Promises Written in Water? I dearly hope the answer to both of those questions is yes.

The First Men in the Moon (Nathan Juran, 1964)
Five years before Neil Armstrong walked on the lunar surface, this film imagined a United Nations mission successfully landing on the moon only to find that somebody had beaten them to it. The discovery of an old Union Jack flag and a note claiming the moon for Queen Victoria leads them to the aged Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), who recounts the journey that he took to the moon way back in 1899. The First Men in the Moon is an adaptation of an H. G. Wells novel, and it’s very distinctly a film of two halves. The first half of the picture has a manic screwball energy, being dominated by Lionel Jeffries as Cavor, the eccentric scientist whose gravity-defying substance will lift their craft into space. Jeffries charges about the place causing explosions and shouting about geese, and while some of this is funny, it’s more often just loud and frenetic. It takes a surprisingly long time for Bedford, Cavor and Bedford’s fiancé Kate (Martha Hyer) to achieve lift-off, and it’s something of a relief when they do, but that relief eventually hardens into disappointment during the underwhelming moon-set section of the film, where Nathan Juran’s direction is too sluggish and workmanlike to generate any real sense of danger or excitement. This is a very handsome film to look at, though. John Blezard’s art direction is impressive, both inside the spacecraft and within the tunnels of the moon, but the real star of the movie is undoubtedly Ray Harryhausen. He creates some giant worm-like creatures for our heroes to evade, but I was particularly fond of the aliens’ x-ray machine, that reduced the captured Martha Hyer to an angrily gesticulating skeleton.

My First Film (Zia Anger, 2019)
One of the most depressing rituals that has grown familiar over the past two months has been the deletion of various eagerly-anticipated events from my diary, as the Coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of cinemas, theatres and art galleries. An early casualty of this was Zia Anger’s live presentation of My First Film at the ICA, which I was supposed to see at the end of March, but fortunately Anger has found a way to give people an approximation of that experience. She is presenting live online shows for around 60-75 people at a time, and being part of one of those audiences was a very special experience. The first film that Anger is referring to was called Always All Ways, Anne Marie, a feature she made in 2012 with friends and relatives on a crowdfunded budget of $22,000. Once completed, the film was rejected by every festival it was submitted to and was never seen by an audience. In My First Film, Anger shares bits and pieces of that film with us, presenting it on the left hand side of her desktop while typing her thoughts in a text box on the right hand side of the screen. Anger is honest and philosophical about both the film’s failings and her own, and there is something incredibly intimate about the spontaneous manner in which My First Film plays out, watching her thoughts appear on screen as she types them out, with her often going back to correct or revise them and sometimes responding to comments made by viewers as she goes. I admired her authenticity and imagination, and by the end of the film I was very moved by a shared experience that seemed to work as a cathartic and emotional experience for Anger too. I hope she can return to London to present My First Film live one day. If she does, I’ll be there.

The Rainmaker (Francis Ford Coppola, 1997)
The Rainmaker hits all the standard beats of a John Grisham thriller. An idealistic young lawyer is taking on a case that’s bigger than him. He appears in over his head against the high-powered legal team he’s up against, but after some canny legal wrangling, some shouts of "Objection!" and a few last-minute revelations of evidence, he wins the case and gets the girl. These films always adhere to a sturdy and familiar template, so what matters is how classy the filmmaking is and how many great character actors you can squeeze into the picture, and these are the factors that make The Rainmaker such a pleasure. This film may be among the most modest and anonymous of Coppola’s works, but his subtly intelligent direction elevates it. The way he frames certain figures, such as Mickey Rourke’s crooked lawyer and Dean Stockwell’s feckless judge, speaks volumes about their characters and the power dynamic inherent in those scenes. Rourke and Stockwell are just two of the wonderful roster of supporting players enlisted to prop up a committed but bland Matt Damon, whose romance with Claire Danes (trapped in a helpless abused wife subplot) is by far the worst thing in the picture. Jon Voight is the slick corporate lawyer who sold his soul years ago, Roy Scheider is the insurance company’s CEO, Mary Kay Place is the mother of a son who is slowly wasting away. Best of all is Danny DeVito as Damon’s opportunistic partner; constantly hustling and looking for an angle, he brings a vital bristling energy to the picture. The Rainmaker is a thoroughly engaging mainstream entertainment, but there’s also a real power in the way Coppola presents the dying young man (Johnny Whitworth) whose illness has instigated this case. Instead of just treating him as a plot point or a cheap emotional hook, Coppola recognises the tragedy of the situation, making us face these characters and their pain just as Voight and his cronies are forced to. "This is how the uninsured die," Damon says in his (Michael Sherr-scripted) voiceover. It’s an element of the film that still resonates more than two decades on.