Film 2019 – Casablanca


What could I possibly say about Casablanca that hasn’t been said thousands of times, by hundreds of people far better qualified to say it? This is a classic film, a film with a cast that not only stars three of the most popular actors of the time but also a supporting cast of great range and strength, not to mention hundreds of extras, many of whom were themselves refugees, and whose personal experience gave the film a solid underpinning of realistic emotion that no American actor could have emoted.

I don’t really need to describe the story of Casablanca to any of you. It’s many films in one: a love story, a war story, a nobility story, a comic story, even to some extent a documentary film, reproducing for American audiences of the time, and succeeding generations, a part of the experience of those fleeing the Nazis, in fear of their lives.

Casablanca is a way-station, a stop on the (fictional) route for refugees: Paris to Marseilles, to Oran, to Casablanca, to Lisbon, to then-neutral America. But Casablanca is a bottleneck, where refugees arrive only to wait, some endlessly, to the exit-visas that permit them to board the Lisbon plane. These are highly-desired and thus expensive, as is anything that people desperately need that is limited.

Whilst they wait, those who can still afford it attend Rick’s American Cafe. Rick is Humphrey Bogart: cynical, relaxed, in control. Rick is himself a refugee: his past is a mystery, but we know that he has previously supported quixotic causes. Now he’s withdrawn from the fight, makes money through the Cafe, sticks his neck out for no-one.

Someone important is coming to Casablanca, someone who must not be allowed to leave. This is Victor Laszlo, a Czech Resistance leader and a symbol of hope for many nations. He is played by Paul Henreid, who didn’t want to play the role but who was mollified by equal billing with Bogart and the film’s third star, Laszlo’s travelling companion, Ilsa Lund, who is Ingrid Bergman. Ilsa, we will learn a longway into the film, is Laszlo’s wife.

But she was once in love with Rick, in Paris before the Germans occupied it. They were both in love, strangers who asked no questions of each other, but who clearly transcended what might have been meant as a casual love affair but which became an overpowering commitment. Until Ilsa left Rick standing in the rain at the train station where they were supposedto leave Paris together.

Victor Laszlo needs the stolen letters of transit to leave Casablanca with his wife. Rick has them, but is fully aware that Laszlo is too hot to handle, if he were prepared to handle anything. Ilsa enters Rick’s not knowing that he is the Richard Blaine she met and loved in Paris until she sees Rick’s house pianist Sam, who is Dooley Wilson, actually a drummer, and a crooner of the jazz songs of the time, who brings his smokey voice to the film’s central song, the classic ‘As Time Goes By’.

No, she doesn’t say ‘Play it Again, Sam’, nor Rick later, in fact no-one does. But she asks him to play it for her, and Wilson looks and sings into space, knowing what will follow and having done everything he can to try to prevent the landslide. For this is an Our Song that summarises for two people what was once, and two people meet again, who never expected to see each other. Pain, and memories are invoked on both sides, what was and ended becomes what could be again.

This is what plays out through the film, and what guides every step. Around it, there are scenes which reflect the essential core of the film, moments, hints, allusions. There are deep undercurrents in every part of the film, but it’s successlies in how these are played out entirely on the surface. Everyone in the film, of whatever nationality, has a story behind them which is never given, but whose performances illustrate it. Some elements had to be kept buried thanks to the Production Code: it cannot be stated that the cheerfullyand unashamedly Prefect of the French Police, Captain Louis Renault, played delightfully by Claude Rains, extorts sexual favours from attractive young refugees in exchange for exit visas, nor that Rick had sex with Ilsa, not only in Paris, when she believed her husband was dead, but here in Casablanca.

This latter moment has a deliberate echo in the film. Annina Brandel (Joy Page), a young Bulgarian refugee, eight weeks married, approaches Rick to ask how trustworthy Captain Renault is: by allusions and ellipses we understand that hehas offered them an escape to America if she lets him bed her. It is a monstrous thing, especially for a young wife, young in years as well as in marriage. Annina seeks from Rick confirmation that if she does this thing, it will not be in vain, that Renault will keep his end of the bargain. She also seeks a larger, and in many ways more important assurance: that to do this evil is yet a good thing, if it is done for another, if it is kept strictly secret forever, and if, should it ever be learned, it is forgivable because it was not done out of selfishness. Rick is the last person to present this scenario to, or ask this of. Annina, trying to convince herself, affects an air of knowing, a claim thatshe is in many ways older than Jan, who is at the roulette table, trying and failing to win the money that will remove this burden from her.

And Rick does a thing which is out of character for him as presented throughout, which is to go to the roulette table, direct Jan to put his money on 22, and nod to his croupier. The number comes up, twice, and Jan has the money to buy the exit visa.

It’s a brief scene, with much of its purpose both under the surface yet on it, and whilst it shows Rick as possessing a heart that can be touched, it foreshadows Ilsa’s visit to Rick on the last night. They have to have the Letters of Transit, or Victor Laszlo will be killed in Casablanca: Rick is withholding them because of Ilsa, and Paris.

She rationalises, she pleads, she holds a gun on him, but that she cannot do. Emotionally exhausted, she collapses into his arms, unable to resist her feelings for him any longer. She loves Victor, but she also loves Rick. In an era when filmmaking meant it had to be one or the other, Bergman conveys to us that she loves both, and that she understands that both need her in their different ways. Victor has refused to leave her behind, at his own risk, many times. She is a part of him, and thus of his work, and without her he will be diminished, perhaps as fatally as if he were to die in Casablanca. But she is responsible for Rick in Casablanca: it is because of her. And she cannot fight him anymore. It isn’t said, or shown, but they make love that night. It is Annina’s story, without a Rick to intercede and avert a betrayal.

Victor Laszlo is in the closed down Rick’s that night, fleeing the Germans. He too asks for the Letters of Transit, but it is not himself and Ilsa. Henreid didn’t want the part, saying tthat Laszlo was a stiff, but he plays him with a wonderful calm, and an intelligence, both intellectual and emotional, that enables him to see beneath the surface, to understand, assess and accept what he doesn’t know, yet realises. Laszlo wants Rick to use the Letters to take Ilsa away, to save her life by joining her to Rick, to allow her both kinds of freedom in one moment.

Then he is arrested, and arrest will mean death.

Rick, the bitter man, the cynic, tries to pull the wool over our eyes. He will do as Laszlo said, he will get out of Casablanca, and he will takeIlsa for herself. What’s more, to secure her for himself, he will throw Laszlo to the wolves, set him up for arrest on a serious charge, immediate evacuation to Occupied France. We don’t believe it, not of Humphrey Bogart, though Captain Renault does. It’s a con, and Louis Renault’s presence at gunpoint will clear the way to the airport.

Where Rick will pull the last element of his scheme on Ilsa, and Louis. The Letters of Transit are to be made out in the names of Mr & Mrs Victor Laszlo. She’s going with her husband. It’s a scene in which honour, nobility, sacrifice and the rediscovery of instincts that had been lost outweigh selfishness and love. Rick saved a young Bulgarian girl from dishonouring herself in order to escape: though he had sex with a former lover, a former love, he is also saving a young Swedish woman from dishonouring herself more completely (no other outcome could have been filmed, the Production Code would not have allowed a wife to leave her husband).

Ilsa leaves with Victor. Rick kills the German, Major Strasser, to keep him from preventing take-off. Louis is witness to this, but the cynical Frenchman tells his Police to round up the usual suspects. He’ll smuggle Rick out to Brazzaville, where the Free French are based. In fact, he’ll go with him. Honour, chivalry, and the obligation to fight what is wrong, has been re-kindled in more than one breast. A cyical final line was rejected and overdubbed with one of the film’s many classic lines, “You know Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

Those lines: “We’ll always have Paris”: “Here’s looking at you, kid”: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine”: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

And there’s one I appreciate, that the late William Goldman picked out, is a line where Louis is probing Rick’s background, why he came to Casablanca. Rick replies that he came for the waters. Louis protests that there are no waters in Casablanca, to which Rick replies, “I was misinformed.” Three little words, simple and unfussy, but they are a road block. What they really mean is, We Don’t Go There. We will never Go There. Yes, the film does, with it’s long flashback to Paris, but even then that just scratches the surface.

Yes, Casablanca arouses mixed responses. It has grown in popularity and stature down the years, even though it was a (surprise) winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Yet although it is a conglomerate of ideas, meanings and emotions, these came together to create a great totality. I would think long and hard before not including it in a list of ten films to take to a desert island.

Inevitably, sequels and remakes have been mooted down the years. The last one to get off the ground in any way was a TV series in 1983, Rick’s Bar, starring David Soul as Rick: it was cancelled after three episodes. Itwould have been only right and proper never to have done it at all.

Because Casablanca is that rare thing, a composition right and whole in itself. Any attempt to remake it, or prequel it or sequel it is unnecessary on every level. It cannot be added to, it cannot be detracted from, and any attempt to do it again would be insane to any creative purpose, because the first thought is and always will be, “Why?” Any attempt to do so would be doomed to diminishment from the very idea of it.

So that’s what I found I had to say about Casablanca.

 

Advertisements

Film 2019: Superman


We begin Phase 2 of Film 2019 here: for the remainder of this series I’ll be watching and commenting on films I have in box sets of differing numbers. Some of these box sets are of films that tell a complete story between them, trilogies if you want to call them that without giving away the least clue, oh no, gollum. These will be watched over consecutive weekends. Others, like the film that starts this sequence, are part of compilations, and these I will dip into serendipitously, at random. Let us begin.

For me, Superman, the Mario Puzo scripted, Richard Donner diected, Alexander and Ilya Suskind produced, Christopher Reeve starring film, is a glory and a nostalgic dream. It’s not perfect, it’s not impervious to criticism, but it represents something that goes deep inside me and for that it will always soar above its flaws.

Superman was released forty years ago this year, on January 1, 1979. It had been promoted for months, and the tag-line was You will believe a man can fly. And we did. I saw it within a week of it arriving in Nottingham, on the ABC1 screen, a big, old-fashioned cinema that foresook the intimacy of today’s multiscreens for the gigantic spaces of old and was thus the best ever venue for a film like this. I took my best friend, the woman I was in love with and from whom I was concealing my feelings (I thought) because she was in love with someone else. We both loved it. And despite the occasional green screen mismatch, of colours, usually, we believed.

Superman was the big daddy of them all, the first big budget effort at putting a superhero on screen and taking him seriously. You look at it forty years on and see the roots of what is present in the Marvel Extended Cinema Universe films. You see the relatively primitive special effects, you see the naivete of many elements in the film, you see where the courage of convictions wears thin and the film just has to resort to silliness because, after all, we’re grown-ups, aren’t we? And you watch the film take a time over things that would have audiences poring over their smartphones long before the scene is over. And if you are me, you say a great big flaming So What?

Because this was the great big validation. This was all of us who loved comics and who kept that love, or even the very merest mention of interest, concealed from everyone we worked with. This was Superman, first of them all, and this was Superman being taken seriously, in a way that let us openly celebrate what we otherwise hid, without being exposed. Before I got to see the film, I was hearing Barristers in their Robing Room discussing the film delightedly.

Speaking of slowness: the film opts for a very long introduction/origin. We begin on Krypton (after that glorious John Williams theme has played out to its full) with Jor-El conducting the trial of General Zod and Co.  This is very much a teaser for Superman 2 which Donner, in the manner that he’d taken with The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers, was filming simultaneously. But it also establishes Krypton for us, or a film Krypton, of a massive and frozen aspect, an ice and snow planet with elegant crystal technology (a controversial departure from the comics Krypton, a planet of glorious, abounding life and wonders). And it establishes Jor-El for us, in Marlon Brando’s massively expensive, impassively composed performance, as the classic story plays out and baby Kal-El is placed in a star-shaped rocket to be sent to Earth where, as we are told twice round, his Kryptonian metabolism will make him super-powerful.

Then we cut to Smallville, Kansas, childless middle-aged couple Jonathan and Martha Kent, who adopt the baby that crashes in a falling satellite, raise him, teach him honesty, humility and a sense of purpose that will be built upon doing good. It’s old-fashioned, it’s hokey, but it’s unashamedly presented as natural, and it captures an essential part of the superhero DNA that’s so badly overlooked in these cynical times when everything is insistent on exploring the dark heart of the myth, that these brightly lit fantasies of superiority are about being good and doing good, because that’s what is important.

All of this is seen through the life of Clark Kent aged 18, and played so far by Jeff East (with dialogue redubbed by Christopher Reeve), and but for an unrealistic scene where the Special Effects aren’t up to convincingly showing you Clark running faster than a speeding locomotive (it had to be) it’s superb. The Kansas setting is evoked wonderfully in its sheer massiveness, a spaciousness that subconsciously echoes the grandeur of Clark’s powers.

Then, after Jonathan dies of a heart attack, Jeff East goes away for twelve years, to the Arctic, his Fortress of Solitude, and further holographic education from Jor-El, and, forty five minutes in, yes, a whole forty-five minutes, we get a brief glimpse of the Superman costume, and then it’s a cut to Metropolis, to the Daily Planet, and finally Christopher Reeve comes onscreen, not as the hero, but as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter.

Christopher Reeve, poor damned Christopher Reeve. He is the movie. A more or less complete unknown, at first rejected for the part for being too young and too skinny, Reeve is Superman, and he is Clark Kent, and he is two completely different people and he brings total authority, complete conviction and massive authenticity to both. As Superman, you believe a man can fly not because the Special Effects show it but because Christopher Reeve shows it: he’s brilliantly adept at working with the machinery that supports him, and when we watch him in flight, we believe we are seeing this, because Reeve treats it as the most natural thing on Earth.

And as Clark, he is funny, clumsy, klutzy and sincerely outdated to the exact point before his performance could turn into parody. His posture changes, his apprehension of an unkind world increases, his voice is higher-pitched and light without sounding unnatural. To demonstrate my point, there is a scene in Lois Lane’s apartment that condenses Reeve’s performance into about sixty seconds: Reeve has just left Lois as Superman and returned as Clark Kent for their ‘date’. She is still in a haze of distraction. As Clark, he looks at the room into which she has just disappeared, to fix her hair. He takes off his glasses, straightens up, his voice drops in register. With no make-up or effects, he has turned from one man into the other. Then doubt affects him, he restores his glasses, shrinks and dissolves into Clark. All in one scene, no cuts.

Margot Kidder, poor damned Margot Kidder, plays Lois Lane. There’s an early and nasty attempt to undermine her by portraying her as obsessed with violence and sex and unable to spell properly, and she ends the film as the classic victim, dependent upon the hero to rescue (please bear in mind that this version of Superman is based on the pre-1986 John Byrne reboot), but she’s perfect in the role, mixing the character’s underlying independence and forthrightness with the effect of being thunderstruck in love (and lust). Kidder was a lovely woman then, with a wonderfully throaty way of speaking. Like Reeve, she was an unknown, but the pair have chemistry that leaps off the screen at you, and the film was so right to cast unknowns in these two vital roles, since that enables us to see them as Clark/Superman and Lois, instead of actors.

These two carry the film. There are, as I said, flaws. Gene Hackman plays an ebullient, imperious, self-congratulatory Lex Luthor (the original Luthor, the openly criminal scietist). He gets the two best lines in the film, one of them the justly celebrated “Everyone has their faults. Mine’s in California”.

The other’s a bit self-referential, “Why does the world’s greatest criminal surround himself with nincompoops?” which, having already seen Ned Beatty’s face-stuffing Otis, is surely being said before the audience can ask the same question. His other assistant is Valerie Perrine as Miss (Eva) Teschmacher, and we all know why Luthor keeps her around: Miss Teschmacher is a cartoon sexpot (if she were a real cartoon, she’d be a Hentai).

The ending to the film was also very controversial. Luthor’s nuclear missile hits the San Andreas Fault, causing massive earthquakes, collapses and a lot of work by Superman in saving people. So much so that by the time he realises Lois is in a car being swallowed up by the Earth, it’s too late, she has been crushed to death.

Comes the moment. Superman struggles with his loss, his grief. He looks into the sky, screams, “Noooooooooooooo!” and takes off faster than at any time in the film. He flies into space. He is challenged by the image of Joe-El, reminding him that it is forbidden to change the course of human history (isn’t he already doing that, the way all of us do, just by being here day after day?), he recalls the words of Jonathan Kent, that he is here for a purpose and that is to use his powers to help people. Two fathers, two philosophies, two cultures. Kal-El chooses Earth. He spins round the planet so fast and persistently that it begins to turn backwards. Footage rolls backwards. Cracks in the earth close up, dams heal themselves, boulders roll uphill. Superman lands by Lois’s car and she’s alive. They’re about to kiss when Jimmy Olsen turns up.

I don’t care. I loved it, then and now, the eucatastrophe. Of course it’s a cheat. It was called as such then, the action of a big baby, stamping his widdle foot and screaming, and I don’t care. Above all else, this is a peculiarly comic book film in a way none of  the modern breed are. It plays by comic book rules, not cinema rules. It has a sense of wonder unpunctured by too much realism. The DC Cinema Universe may one day run to 100 films, and I still won’t have watched Man of Steel, but this will still be greater than all of them, because we do believe a man can fly, and we can go fly with him and feel that first thrill over and over again. It can even tell us that Superman fights for Truth, Justice and the American Way and not have us laugh with embarrassment.

One final comment. My DVD has the amended credit sequence. When I saw this in Nottingham in January 1979, there was no line crediting Superman as the creation of Jerry Seigel and  Joe Schuster. Truth and Justice did, eventually, triumph over the American Way.

Film 2019: Orgazmo


Back in the very early 2000s, I would come home from work after a long week, and every other week I set off on a 200 mile round trip, so that my stepchildren could have regular contact with their Dad. Each time, we’d set off at 7.00pm, on the same route, the same, increasingly familiar landmarks passed at the same time, until we’d arrive, at 9.0pm, at the Little Chef car park where the handover took place. We’d set off back, about six or seven miles, to the next Little Chef, where we’d stop and have our evening meal. Then, in the full dark, back to Manchester, the same landmarks now dark or sodium lit. Frequently, she’d fall asleep and I’d listen to music, singing along quietly. We’d be home some time between 11.30 to midnight. I’d put the kettle on, make tea and coffee. Usually, we’d head off to bed fairly quickly: four hours driving on a Friday night is tiring. One of these Friday nights, whilst she was busying herself elsewhere, I put on the TV, flicked around the channels. Channel 5 was still a relatively new Channel, and it still followed its early programming, which included an ‘adult’ film late Friday night, that I used to call their Mildly Mucky Movie. There was never anything stronger than softcore, any hint of a lesbian scene was cut out, no matter what damage it did to the story (don’t laugh, they usually had stories) and Emmanuelle 2 didn’t even last 60 minutes when it was shown. I watched a couple of minutes of that week’s offering, then called, “Hey, come and have a look at this.” She joined me.Within a couple of minutes, she was laughing as hard as I was. We stayed up till 1.00am to watch the film. That’s how I discovered Orgazmo.

Watching Team America: World Police a few weeks back reminded me of Orgazmo, and it was dirt cheap on eBay, and it marks the end of Phase 1 of Film 2019: it is the last of those additional single film DVDs acquired since I started watching and writing about films on a Sunday morning. The film was made in 1997, and was written, directed and stars Trey Parker, with Matt Stone playing an hilarious supporting part. It debuted a few months after South Park first appeared on TV, and was the pair’s second film.

Orgazmo is a spoof sex film. It’s crude, basic, cheap and extremely silly, but it’s bloody funny. Parker plays Joe Young, a Mormon missionary in LA, getting some, shall we say, unfavourable responses going door to door. none more so than when he interrupts Maxxx Orbison (Micheal Dean Jacobs) filming his latest porn shoot, Orgazmo, about a superhero whose superpower is his Orgazmorator. Orgazmo busts through walls, cuts down the evil bad guy who’s about to force himself on his latest unwilling big-titted victim, and is then ‘rewarded’ for saving her.

Unfortunately, ‘Orgazmo’ is crap at his role. Pissed off at the disturbance when someone knocks on his door, Orbison sends his thugs out to remove them (actually, he tells the first guy to cut their balls off, so the guy calmly goes out with a knife). Equally unfortunately, in the opposite direction, Joe turns out to be a martial arts expert, which is not a characteristic you normally associate with Mormons, but we are not going for intellectual consistency here, and whups their asses. Then apologises.

Orbison sees money. He persuades Joe to take over as Orgazmo. Joe’s unwilling, given that this is a porno and contains things that are against Heavenly Father’s wishes, but Orbison persuades him with two things: one is $20,000 for two days shooting and the other is that he won’t have to do the penetration himself, they’ll call on a stunt cock.

Now if you’re not laughing at the idea of a stunt cock, this film is not up your street, but that’s just the first of the total absurdities Parker has in store for you. Joe accepts the role because he has a fiancee back in Utah, Lisa (Robyn Lynne), who is perky, bubbly, blonde, squeaky and altogether too innocent to be believed, and she has her heart set on being married in theTemple, which costs money. This is not a digression, but it’s noticeable that Lisa, who is indeed a pretty girl, wears long-sleeved tops and ankle length (and fairly restrictive) skirts. No wonder Joe’s nickname for her is cupcake.

On goes the shoot. For a film that spends so much of its time mocking porn movies, it’s actually quite modest in what it shows: at the very start there’s the briefest glimpse of Chasey Lain’s breasts (Lain is a porn actress, one of several who appear in the film) before a naked male ass walks in front of the camera, but though there’s obviously a lot of skin on show, that’s your lot: naked backs and bums from hereon in.

But that’s because Parker is playing for laughs. Here and there, there are some serious underpinnings. Joe’s sidekick Ben Chapleski (Dian Bachar) has two Ph Ds, but works in porn because he’s a skinny short guy that women don’t look at, and here he can get laid. Ben plays Orgazmo’s sidekick, Choda Boy, and I confess that I have never googled the term Choda to find out what it means because I’m notsure that I want to.

Ben’s an inventor whose inventionsinclude the cock-rocket (a miniature flying bomb in the shape of a rubber penis that screws onto the front of his shorts and is fired by a pelvic thrust) and a real Orgazmorator, which gives people instant and incapacitating orgasms when they’re struck by its beams.

Joe’s very much the Holy Innocent in all this. Everything around him is a total shock that makes him aghast. He’s doing it all for Lisa, who thinks he’s playing Biff in Death of a Salesman, and trying to keep it all quiet, except that Orgazmo the movie becomes a national senation, the third highest grossing film of all time (behind E.T. and Jaws) and Orbison’s offering him $40,000 to do a sequel. There’s a brilliant scene where Joe improvises an explanation of how a character who dies can be in a sequel to Death of a Salesman, which involves twin brothers seeking revenge.

Meanwhile, Ben’s favourite Sushi bar, owned by G-Fresh, a mature Japanese guy who dresses and talks like a forerunner of Ali G, is under threat from thugs whose boss is trying to force him to sign a cooontract to sell out, so the neighbouring dance club can expand. When they beat him harshlyenough that he does sign, Ben persuades Joe to join him in taking Orgazmo and Choda Boy real by invding the club, beating up the thugs and retrieving the contract.

The real insuperable problem is that Lisa, thrilled to her little cotton socks at what Joe is doing to providefor her, turns up in LA because she misses him (don’t worry, Heavenly Father, she’ll sleep on the couch). She wants to come and see him film. Needless to say, despite everything, she finds out about Orgazmo and leaves weeping – that Joe has a stunt cock doubling for him is of some consolation but it was still his hand that touched those women’s breasts – but he’s still got to  quit and come back to Utah with her.

But when Joe does, Maxxx refuses to allow him. Orbison owns this town, and Joe will star in Orgazmo 25 if Orbison wants to make it, and to ensure Joe’s cooperation, he has Lisa kidnapped. What’s more, she’s gonna do a scene…

The day however is saved, by Orgazmo and Choda Boy, Orbison is hit by so many shots from the Orgazmorator that he has to have his little boy amputated, and Ben blows up Orbison’s house with the much-requested more powerful cock-rocket.

Joe’s still going back to Utah though. Funnily enough, Lisa’s experience seems to have, well, mellowed her. She’s wearing a sundress, a sleeveless sundress whose hem is a very long way above the ankles (nice legs). And when Ben get all tearful at Joe leaving, it’s Lisa who suggests they Stay in LA, so that Orgazmoand Choda Boy can clean up the town! (By the way, Heavenly Father approves, sending Jesus to give Joe the thumbs up). And she kisses him. With the grossest and deliberately most grotesque tongue action outside the mouth that you could wish not to see.

I haven’t even mentioned half the stuff that happens in this film, and I’m not going to, except for Matt Stone’s part as the mulleted Dave the Camera Guy, whose open-mouthed look just can’t be described in words, and whose every compliment is prefaced by the words, “Dont want to sound like no queer, but…” I’m just not going to go there when it comes to Sancho. And I’d like a Legends of Tomorrow memory eraser for T.Rex, please.

Boisterous, cheap, energetically dirty, this was just a laugh. No wonder we ignored fatigue to watch it (we could have set the video to record the rest and watched it later, but we were hooked and wanted it now. Judging from the DVD, I reckon I must have missed no more than thirty seconds when I put Channel 5 on.

Of course, responses to the film were mixed and it’s easy to see why (though just have to love Choda Dog, everybody’s gotto love Choda Dog) but it tickled my funny-bone then and now, and it’s my favourite of Parker and Stone’s stuff. And no, unlike the film, I don’t have a pay-off line. Unless… yes! To the Orgazmobile!

 

Very Collected Thoughts: Avengers – Endgame


I’ve been avoiding spoilers for this film practically from the moment that Avengers: Infinity War ended its last post-credits scene. No news items, no casting decisions, no set photos, no trailers, not even any fan-theories. I went into that cinema this afternoon as unaware as if I had spent the entire time blindfolded and with cotton wool superglued into my ears.

So I’m not going to start giving away spoilers to anyone who hasn’t yet seen this film. Except for this.

There ain’t one damned thing wrong with it.

Film 2019: Sliding Doors


Another late addition to the first phase of 2019, you can blame this film on a sudden eruption of the ‘sliding doors’ trope in the press I was reading, triggering memories, triggering memories of the film (but not that it was over twenty years ago that I went to see it for the only previous occasion), added to the instant availability of the DVD dirt cheap via eBay.

Sliding Doors has a very simple premise that is fascinating to me because it illustrates a major theme in much of my thinking, with particular reference to my Tempus Trilogy (three novels, also available individually). Gwyneth Paltrow, about whom much has been said but who here was in the fullest flight of her acting career, and also looked realistically gorgeous throughout) plays Helen Quilley, a PR person, living with the sponging would-be novellist Gerry (John Lynch) who, unbeknownst to Helen, is carrying out an affair with his American ex-girlfriend Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn).

Lydia gets fired from her job and sets off home. Rushing into a Tube station, she just misses the train: a little girl who wants to walk her dolly up the handrail steps into her path, forcing Helen to check and go round her: the doors slide shut in her face. There is a flash, and time and the film unreel for ten seconds, taking Helen back to the top of the stairs. The little girl turns towards the handrail, but her mother pulls her away. Helen’s path is impeded, she grabs the door as it is closing, steps in.

The film now splits into two parallel and different time-tracks, the narrative bouncing between the two in often very brief scenes. One Helen finds herself being pestered on the Tube by James Hammerton (John Hannah), who has already had a brief acquaintance with her – her earring fell off in the lift as she was leaving her ex-company’s building and he picked it up – which he uses to chat to her. He’s fast-talking, with an antic sense of humour, and barely seems able to say a serious thing, enough so that whilst she really doesn’t want to be bothered by anyone, he does make something of an impression on her. He jokes about her situation, referencing Monty Python – “You mean, always look on the bright side of life?” “No, nobody expects the Spanish Inqisition!”

This Helen arrives home unexpectedly early, finds Lydia on top of Gerry, walks out, gets drunk, bumps into James again in the bar and, when her best friend Anna (Zara Thornton) collects her to take her back to her place, James offers them both a lift in his taxi.

The other Helen takes longer to get home: a serious Tube delay is announced, she leaves to find a taxi, someone attempts to steal her bag, she falls and hits her head, requires stitches, and doesn’t get back until late afternoon, her taxi passing Lydia’s car as it pulls in. Gerry is all alone. He takes her out to get drunk, to the same bar other Helen goes (there is some potentially confusing but expertly timed cutting from one time-track to the other around the constancy of the bar, and James and his mate stood talking at it). In order to keep the money in, there being no PR jobs, Helen takes on two part-time jobs, sandwich deliverer and waitress.

In order that we should not be confused as to which track we are on, Director and writer Peter Howitt distingusishes between the two Helens, first by the strip of tape over the head-wound of one, and the red dress this version has changed into and then, on a longer term basis, by having Anna persuade the Helen who’s found out into a change of image, hair cut short, died blonde, whilst the oblivious Helen retains her shoulder-length light-brown hair, thus enabling me to distinguish between Blonde Helen and Brunette Helen.

It’s obvious that the two tracks, represented by light and dark hair respectively, are meant to be seen as positive and negative experiences. Blonde Helen, at first still emotionally tied to Gerry, finds herself pursued by James, ccepting him as a  friend who makes her laugh, introduces her to nice friends, gives her good times, encourages her to set up her own PR film and finds her her first client. All of this is done at arm’s length, as friends: she is too aware of rebounds and things being too soon, although it is her who kisses him first and that leads to sex. Up and up.

Brunette Helen’s life is the opposite. She’s working too exhausting, demanding jobs, neither of which have any hope of advancement, Gerry – a moral morass with the spine of a snake and much of its trustworthiness – is still cheating on her, she demoralised, despairing and edging intosuspicion that she’s being undermined.

Oh, and she’s pregnant by him akthough, what with one thing and another, he doesn’t give her chance to tell him.

Blonde Helen also suffers a setback. Gerry, trying to get her back, turns up at her first successful launch. he kisses her, which James sees. Next thing, James disappears on a business trip to Newcastle, and his secretary’s not being helpful. Helen makes a final break with Gerry, when she finds he’s not, after all, finished it with Lydia, but she’s now afraid that she’s blown it with James, who she realises she loves. Oh, and Blonde Helen is also pregnant. By James.

The endgame approaches. Brunette Helen is growing more and more suspicious but she has a job interview, for PR, at this CEO’s flat. The CEO is Lydia. It’s to force Gerry into a decision, because Lydia is also pregnant by him.

Blonde Helen catches up with Gerry but they’re awfully awkward. Then she finds out he’s married. When he discovers she knows, he frantically chases all over, looking for her, finds her on a London Bridge in deep rain. The truth is awkward: technically James is married, but they separatedamicably six months ago andare getting divorced. Claudia maintains the pretence in front of James’ very ill mother, as a favour to him.

Blonde Helen learns the truth outside in the rain. She is happy. And then she’s knocked down by a car. Brunette Helen learns the truth inside, on a landing. She is devastated. She runs away and falls down the stairs. Twim ambulances take two Helens to one hospital. Both lose their babies. Both are in comas. One dies.

This is where I find fault with the film, for lacking the imagination to find another ending. The ending is that one time-track disappears, leaving only the other. The concluded time-track is inevitably tarred as the ‘not-real’ one, as it leaves no trace of its existence. It becomes, by default, the fantasy, the immaterial in every respect, though the film then tries to hve its cake and eat it in the final shot. I understand all the thinking behind this, and on a critical level I applaud the decision to make Blonde Helen’s life the fantasy: the romance, the positivism, the joy and the attendant heartbreak that it is she who flatlines, in James’ arms.

But to choose to ultimately make one time-track unreal, the film undercuts its own concept (even if that concept is borrowed, at cuusinly remove, from It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Pottersville sequence). It reduces the film by giving it a romantic comedy, and a very effective one, at it’s heart and then to dismiss it as a fantasy. The film should have found a way to make both stories real, because in our real lives, we are constantly subjected to Sliding Doors moments, not only to major effect. The film scores highly by turning things upon so random and minor a point: it’s an exploration of Chaos Theory, the Buterfly Effect. But it only works as long as both halves had equal weight. Not to find a way to maintain that is the film’s cop-out.

And it doesn’t help itself by trying to borrow back it’s fake life. Blonde Helen dies, Brunette Helen lives. Gerry’s all apologetic over his behaviour, will do anythingsheays. In cold, impersonal tones she invites him to stand up, go out, shut thedoor and never come back. James emerges from his mother’s room in the same Hospital. She’s getting better, just as Blonde Helen predicted.

Brunette Helen gather her things and walks towards the lifts. They slide shut in her face. Time does not re-run. The next lift arrives. As she gets in, she losesan earring. The man in the lift picks it up for her. It is, of course, James. He mentions what Monty Python says. Automatically, Helen replies, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” As they turn to look at each other in surprise, the camera freezes. The audience’s expectations leap ahead.

Part of me, that wants merely to be entertained emotionally, approves. The rest of me, that doesn’t like being manipulated, sucks in his teeth.  We’re supposed to believe that Blonde Helen’s story is about to roll out in ‘real life’, whilst the Director is hurriedly blowing smoke in our eyes in the hope that we’ll forget what the whole film is about. Helen and James aren’t meeting on a tube train, she isn’t living with a cheating bastard, she’s not only just been fired. If a sliding oor moment of such triviality has produced two disconnected lives that differed so much, then on what basis can Helen and James’ meeting at a very different time, under radically different circumstances lead to a direct copy of their romantic odyssey?

Answer: it can’t. Which is why the film rushes off into the distance, blinding us with a blur that might well work on those who don’t write about time travel and parallel worlds and fractal micro-dimensions.

Still, I really do love the film, and if Helen Quilley doesn’t want James Hammerton, I’d buy her a drink. This really was twenty years ago, you know. I’m still kidding myself that she’d accept, mind you.

Film 2019: The Blair Witch Project


Originally, this was the point where Film 2019 would go over into Phase 2, but a few individual DVDs have come in at a late stage to keep us going for a few extra weeks. Which means that for Easter Sunday I have watched the entirely inappropriate The Blair Witch Project. For the first time as well.

I remember the whole Blair Witch phenomenon at the time, but I was astounded to realise that it was a whole twenty years ago. Then again, in advaance I would have guessed the film to sometime around 2004, so the disrepancy is not that great. But for a film that gained such ubiquity, and notoriety, it’s something of a feat to have failed to see it in two decades.

Nor, now I come to have watched it, do I find it an easy film on which to comment. Some of that is that it is no longer such a divergence from standard film making. The left field it comes out of is no longer so remote, nor is the shift so extreme. And the initial, careful, internet-based stirring up of the film’s possible reality – the film’s three actors, Heather Donohue, Michael C Williams and Joshua Leonard were listed as ‘missing, presumed dead’ on imdb for the first twelve months or so – has dissipated. This is a film, and we know it to be a film, not actual found footage of people who really disappeared.

The film is constructed to appear to be the raw footage of a student film project, investigating the Blair Witch legend (fictional). It’s Heather’s project, and she’s roped in her friend Josh, who in turn ropes in Mike, whom Heather has never met before. The first part is jokey, loose, amateurish, setting a tone for what will follow: the project on the strength of this isn’t going to lead to offers for Heather in the future.

Nor do the film-makers waste much time on the set-up, interviewing random townspeople in Burkittsville – formerly Blair – Maryland, home to the Witch legends. The trio are, with commendable brevity, despatched into the woods with backpacks. Where they get lost.

And that, with wonderful simplicity, is it. Three people, two video cameras, and woods in which no sense of direction can prevail. Heather is over-confident for her own abilities, convinced she is right. Michael rejects the reality of their situation, seeing it as a deliberate piece of bullshit aimed at him. Josh grows intensely frustrated at Heather’s priorities, which he sees as the obsessive pursuit of her project rather than just getting back to the car. A weekend’s hiking becomes hree days, four days, five days.

Weird things happen at night around their tent. Josh goes crazy and disappears, creating an artificial oasis of relative peace and quiet as Heather and Mike turn surprisingly practical about their situation instead of conducting screaming matches at every second. Josh’s screams are heard in the night. Mysterious things turn up outside their tent. One, a bundle of sticks bound with a strip from Josh’s tartan flannel shirt, contains part of a human tongue.

What is actually happening is never explained (nobody would be stupid enough to demolish a film like this by providing an explanation). Heatherfilms a goodbye to her parents. She and Mike discover an ancient, dilapidated house from which Josh’s screams appear. Mike races down to the basement, where something seems to hit him. His camera falls to the floor and stops recordng. A panicking Heather follows him, briefly sees Mike stood facing the wall (per one of the townfolks’ stories of a local child killer) then her recording is abruptly stopped. Given the whole concept of thefilm, this is the only possible ending there can be.

The film didn’t scare me. Being a bright and hot Easter Sunday morning wasn’t conducive to things that go bump in the night, whilst the super-naturalistic tone the film takes led me to concentrate upon things other than the undefined, elusive and illusive horror, but I confess to being far more scared by things like the very old-fashioned Dead of Night than this.

What did interest me in the film was the three characters. The dialogue was mostly improvised, from various scenario, whilst the actors themselves were filmed in the woods whilst being harrassed and chased, to create for them the essence of the film. I found none of them to be people I’d want to spend a weekend hiking in even normal woods with, and the way they fell apart so quickly, retreating into extreme individual responses and showing themselves as weak, unpleasant and self-centred people, left me feeling contempt for each of them in different ways.

It didn’t stop me being fascinated with the process even as I couldn’t help but condemn the self-destructiveness of their reactions and, at times, their complete stupidity.

As I said, once Josh disappeared – perhaps kidnapped but far more likely just cracked up – the scene became calmer. Deprived of a third pole, and growing ever more weaker and despondent, Heather and Mike lacked the energy to attack each other continually, and concentrated more on keeping things together, though when Heather discovered the part tongue, she kept that secret from Mike.

By the nature of it, such a film can’t have a conclusion, only a stopping point. Nor was that a weakness, as I’ve identified with the two most recent Isabelle Huppert films. There’s no other ending, without explanation, denouement or closure. We have to construct what may have happened out of our belief in what is happening, which makes every ending unique to its viewer. Mine? A serial killer in the woods, pure and simple, nothing Witchy. Filter these events into a ‘professional’ depiction in a Dead of Night style portmanteau film and I might not be so realistic. Twenty years ago, in a cinema surrounded by a receptive audience… well, who knows?

As a final note, this film having come out in 1999, I always had difficulty taking it wholly seriously because of its title. Then, and now, there is only one Blair that comes to mind when the film is mentioned, and he’s scarier than anything the film can do.

Uncollected Thoughts: Shazam!


I still haven’t seen Aquaman, and I’m no more likely to watch the first Henry Cavill Superman film than I am to sit through a rewatch of Batman vs Superman (hey, I just realised, if I am ever captured by a supervillain who wants to torture me for the information I have, I have soooo given away what he needs to do to make me spill like a baby), but I’m confident that I have now seen the best DC movie to date.

Outside, it’s still Good Friday afternoon, and it’s sunny, but instead I chose to go indoors at The Light. I was in Screen 3, which is the nearest to the door I’ve been yet, and I was in row C, which is the nearest to the front I’ve sat yet (and which did not do much to improve this series of headaches I’ve been getting for days.

And once again the trailers were ALL superhero movies, one of them for Avengers: Endgame, which caused me to close my eyes to avoid seeing and at least blur hearing any of it.

Last time out, I went to see Captain Marvel. This time I was here for Caprain Marvel, that is, the original Big Red Cheese, the guy created at Fawcett Comics by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, the guy that National Comics sued for ripping off Superman (he didn’t, you only have to read the comics to see that, but he did outsell Superman, so…) He’s also the guy who couldn’t appear in any comics under his name after DC picked him up because it the interim, Marvel had registered a trademark on Captain Marvel. Now, DC either can’t or won’t call him by his real name inside his comics, so now he’s Shazam (which means that he can’t call himself by his own name). It was a niggle, just a niggle, but a niggle nonetheless.

But it was really my only niggle. The movie took the Captain Marvel story, twisted it a little to branch Dr Sivana into the Shazam legend instead of him just being an evil scientist, but otherwise played that side of things straight. Since Sivana, a wonderfully composed, steel-faced performance by Mark Strong, takes the Seven Sins into him, after being passed over as a potential Captain/Shazam back in 1974, there’s some real darkness: you can just feel Zack Snyder turning up his very slow motion camera.

And that’s what makes the film work. It is serious, it is real, but it doesn’t feel like it. And I’m not talking Marvel-style banter. Sivana is 100% serious throughout. The comedy comes directly from (ah, hell) Shazam himself. Billy Batson (Asher Angel, who’s is a fourteen year old boy. True, he’s a very adult fourteen year old boy in some respects, having become separated from his mother at age 4, with her never coming looking for him, making Billy a determinedly independent kid, a serial rejecter of foster homes, a serial rejecter of any families or relationships, hellbent on finding his mother himself. But he’s a fourteen year old boy.

He gets placed with the impressively loving and concerned Victor and Rosa Vasquez and their existing group of foster kids, Darla, Eugene, Pedro and, most importantly, the crippled Freddy Freeman and the oldest of all, Mary Broomfield (Grace Fulton). This all comes directly from the rebooted Shazam Family but I am constitutionally incapable of seeing the latter two as anything by Captain Marvel Junior, and Mary Marvel, aka Billy’slong-lost twin sister.

Billy won’t get involved. Indeed, he’s running away again whenhe is zapped to the Rock of Eternity by the near-dead Wizard Shazam, and has the powerof being Captain Marvel (dammit, Shazam) vested in him.

And he turns into Zachary Levi, having a ball of fun as this big, beefy guy in a red and gold suit, but still basically beeing Billy Batson, misanthropic and self-centred fourteen year old.

Angel and Levi can’t help being funny, whichever one of them is there at the time, which is what makes this film so good. You believe every second of it as being what a fourteen year old would think and do, from good to bad, and how helpless the Shazam version is when Sivana finds him and starts beating the crap out of him. Shazam can only escape by shouting ‘Shazam’ and turning into Billy.

Who’s all set to run away again once the other kids discover his secret, like Freddy and Darla have, because Eugene’s found him his real mother, who abandoned him because she was just a young single mother and random strangers could take better care of him than she could. But that’s the catalyst for the heart-warming moment (I didn’t say the film was perfect, did I?) when Billy decides who are his real family.

This cues us up for the long, actually slightly overlong fight scene that rounds the film out, which gets particularly daffy when Shazam gets everyone to grab the Wizard’s staff (which has a very large knob on the end) and shout his name. ‘Billy!’ they all cry, naturally, but second time round they all transform into Shazams, in different coloured costumes (in a neat tip to the once and former Mary Marvel, Mary gets red alongside Billy).

And there’s not a moment of slow-motion to be seen, just good honest CGI whirling around until the day is saved.

There was the expected mid-credits scene to set up the sequel, which I’m alredy looking forward to, and that had me laughing tthe hardest at he fact they’re going to be so nuts as to use Captain Marvel’s other archenemy: no, not Black Adam, I’m not counting him, but Mr Mind. Yes, the four inch tall, taking intergalactic worm. I love that they have the nerve to pull Mr Mind off in the 2020s.

I was leaving when someone told me there was a post-credits scene, so I stayed. It was basically a diss on Aquaman and hardly essential, but it summed up the irreverence that made this film such fun to watch. A plague on your Man of Steels, a murrain on your Dawn of Justices! This is what we’ve been waiting for all along.