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Posts Tagged ‘Jack Nicholson’

Sometimes you come across or rediscover a film which time or a sense of familiarity have led you to forget the sheer weirdness of. I’m not necessarily talking about very obscure, fringe films dealing with odd subject matter, but those very occasional examples of someone high-up at a big Hollywood studio having a bit of a brainstorm and greenlighting a project that, by rights, had no business even going to script stage. When one of these films is a monumental success, the suit responsible is hailed as a visionary film-maker and usually goes on to a lucrative career making the same kind of movie over and over and over again. But it doesn’t change the fact that the initial film was still a bit weird at the time it was made. Most often, though, the film either flops or does okay, inspires no great raft of imitators, and we are just left with an eye-catching freak of a film.

So, then: Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, released in the UK at least in 1997, which one reviewer even at the time instantly pegged as an extraordinary piece of folie de grandeur which could only have been made by mistake. It is a very odd film even in its conception: Hollywood is increasingly looking to peculiar places to avoid the strain of having to think up original ideas for films, but rather than a book, comic, theme-park ride or game, Mars Attacks! is based on a set of trading cards. Films based on knitting patterns or the assembly instructions for flat-pack furniture are only a matter of time, surely.

The tone is set by a garishly grotesque sequence depicting a stampeding herd of blazing cows (inspired by original card #22, Burning Cattle), which we are invited to assume is the work of a passing flying saucer before it zips off back to Mars. The credits roll as a veritable armada of Martian ships, lovingly styled in the retro 50s manner, launch and head for Earth, causing no small degree of alarm on our planet.

In charge of overseeing the response is US president James Dale (Jack Nicholson), who seems to have a sort of vague hope the arrival of the Martians will result in him looking good. Others are less optimistic. (To be honest, this film has about eighteen main characters, so attempting to describe and keep track of them all would be a bit futile; we’ll see how it goes.) Anyway, the Martian Ambassador ends up landing in the Nevada desert and the translation machine built by one scientist (Jerzy Skolimowski, whose career seems to get more bizarrely eclectic every time I come across him) assures everyone that they have indeed come in peace. Yeah, right. Then of course there is a mix-up with a dove, causing the Martians to furiously reach for their ray guns, and…

To be honest, the film kind of falls into a sort of cycle from this point on: the Martians gleefully inflict garish death and horror on the humans for a bit, shouting ‘Ack! Ack! Ack!’ to each other all the while, after which the humans desperately wonder what went wrong and make a plaintive attempt to contact the Martians and put things back on a friendly basis. The Martians clearly can’t believe how dumb the humans are, and propose another meeting, which will clearly just be another pretext for more neon-hued slaughter, at which point it all repeats. Along the way there are various charming tableaux clearly inspired by some of the original cards (e.g., #19, Burning Flesh, #24, The Shrinking Ray, and #36, Destroying a Dog), although – if you’re wondering – the plot of the movie only very loosely follows that of the original card series.

So you look at all this and think, well, it has a very distinctive visual sense – Tim Burton initially wanted the Martians created using stop-frame animation, but budgetary considerations meant CGI was used instead (some of it not fantastic to the modern eye) – and obviously the weird black comedy aspects of the story must have appealed to him, but still – how the hell did this thing get made? Quite apart from the grisly black comedy alien invasion storyline, the film is subversive and tongue in cheek and often just plain weird, never things the financiers of your typical Hollywood blockbuster will knowingly try to do. The closing moments of the film see the world recovering from the Martian onslaught, which has been repelled using one of the silliest plot devices imaginable – and the return to normalcy is symbolised by deer, birds, and other animals flocking around Tom Jones, who launches into a celebratory rendition of ‘It’s Not Unusual’. I have a lot of time for Sir Tom Jones, but on this occasion he is wrong: it’s not ‘not unusual’. Often it is simply peculiar.

At the time the film came out, it was less than a year after Independence Day, and the assumption was that this was intended as some kind of spoof or parody of it. My first thought would be that it’s extremely difficult to parody something not intended to be taken entirely seriously anyway, but there are a few shots which do seem to suggest this may have been the case. The two films likewise share a sprawling structure largely derived from disaster movies, with a commensurately large cast (apart from Nicholson, Mars Attacks features – deep breath – Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan (doing a very Hugh Grant-like turn – apparently Grant was first choice for the role), Danny DeVito, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lukas Haas, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Pam Grier and Jack Black.

However, it also seems to me that Burton is also doing a send-up of sci-fi movies from an earlier generation. This was only a year or two after Ed Wood, which recreated the ne plus ultra of bad fifties UFO films, so you can see why he might have this kind of idea. Certainly there are shots and sight-gags which are spot-on parodies or recreations of films like Earth vs the Flying Saucers and This Island Earth. But, once again, how many decent, ordinary film-goers are going to get a joke like that?

And there’s one more set of influences to be stirred into what’s already a very eggy pudding (not to mention an over-cooked metaphor): as well as playing the president, Nicholson also turns up in another role, as a Nevada property developer (who mainly seems to be in the movie to give Nicholson a chance to ham it up just the way he likes to). Coupled to some visual cues in the design of the president’s war room, and Rod Steiger’s performance as the rather hawkish general, it’s hard not to conclude that, on top of everything else, Burton was either attempting to replicate the tone of – or just homage – Dr Strangelove. This only succeeds as homage, if that: Burton has many fine qualities as a film-maker but the same kind of fierce, forensic intelligence Kubrick possessed is not amongst them and the film doesn’t have the edge or satirical power of Strangelove. (Though… I watch it now, seeing the ineffectual leader, insisting he will take control of the situation and demanding that schools and shops stay open… and I can’t help but be struck.)

Virtually no element of Mars Attacks! is consistently successful. Some parts of it just don’t work at all: there are a few dead wood characters and jokes that just fall flat, some of them a bit suspect. However, there are enough jokes that work, and the film has enough of a sense of mischief about it, for it to be quite watchable: there are some very game performances, obviously I like all the call-backs to B-movie sci-fi, and I think one of the film’s real flaws is that Tom Jones only turns up in the third act. Every time I return to it, I just find myself marvelling that someone read this script and said ‘Yes, this seems like a perfectly normal piece of commercial film-making: have $70 million!’ In a sane world it should not have been made. However, it is unusual to find evidence of an insane world which actually makes one feel slightly optimistic, for once, and I am quite glad it was.

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I enjoyed a dinner the other day with a few friends, where the wine flowed freely, the vegetable lasagne was for the ages, and our conversation ranged most agreeably over a wide range of topics: the directorial career of Neil Marshall, whether or not The Crawling Chaos would be a good name for an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired cookbook, and everything that’s wrong with the movie Passengers and its advertising material. I was fairly unstinting in my criticism of this film, which may explain the looks of mild surprise I drew when I casually mentioned I was going straight from the meal to a showing of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, enjoying a one-off revival as part of the local indie cinema’s one-take-wonder season of films.

There is, to be absolutely clear, little to connect The Passenger with Passengers, beyond their closeness in any A-Z list of noteworthy films (and Passengers would really be on that list for negative reasons). This is one of those international co-productions (in this case, between companies from Spain, France and Italy) which has been made in English simply to make it more commercial, relatively speaking. I say ‘relatively speaking’ because, despite the canny choice of language and the presence of a leading Hollywood star in the central role, this is still hardly what you’d call mainstream cinema. The question becomes one of – what exactly is this film?

Jack Nicholson plays Locke, a (supposedly) Anglo-American journalist on assignment in a remote part of Saharan Africa. It soon becomes clear that Locke is pretty hacked off with life in general, and the fact that his mission to find rebels to interview is obviously going nowhere just adds to his frustration. This culminates in him having a spectacular meltdown when his land rover breaks down, producing the image of Nicholson on his knees in the desert which is the still photo most often used to represent this movie.

However, an unexpected opportunity comes Locke’s way – he has made the acquaintance of another man at the same dingy hotel, a businessman named Robertson, who happens to be a reasonably close lookalike for him. When Locke finds Robertson dead of a heart attack in his room, he decides to switch places with the dead man, swapping their passport photos and informing the hotel staff that it is he (Locke) who has died, not Robertson. Adopting Robertson’s identity, he flies back to Europe, only noting in passing the obituaries he has himself received.

Those close to Locke – mainly his wife (Jenny Runacre) and a colleague (Ian Hendry) – are understandably upset to learn of his apparent death, but naturally they want to to talk to ‘Robertson’ about exactly what went on out in Africa. Not wishing to speak to them for obvious reasons, ‘Robertson’ ends up going to quite extreme lengths to avoid the people looking for him. He also learns that there was a bit more to the real Robertson than he first anticipated – rather than simply being a businessman, Robertson was an arms dealer and gunrunner working with the same rebel faction Locke was attempting to contact. ‘Robertson’ takes a large cash down-payment from the rebels and then continues with his journey, doing his best to meet the appointments listed in the dead man’s diary and hooking up with a young architecture student (Maria Schneider) along the way. But he seems to be inextricably caught between the complications of the life he left behind and the one he has just entered…

This is another one of those movies which looks like a thriller when you write the plot out in synopsis, but feels like quite a different experience when you actually sit down and watch it. There is, I suppose, the faintest resemblance to The Bourne Identity or something of that ilk about The Passenger, in that it is about a man struggling to resolve who he is while making a not entirely stress-free journey across photogenic parts of Europe, but if so it is The Bourne Identity as written by Jean-Paul Sartre. There are no thrills, no action sequences, the main time that something violent occurs the camera is studiously looking away, and so on. I have seen a few different notifications on BBFC certificates in my time – strong sex, bloody scenes, injury detail, bleeped bad language amongst them – but The Passenger presumably scores its UK 15-rating mainly for including footage of an actual execution, as duly noted by the BBFC. Apart from a very coy nude scene for the two leads, the rest of it is fairly innocuous, at least to look at.

On the other hand, there is something unsettling and strange about Antonioni’s film, not least in the way it makes a point of not explaining exactly why the main characters make the choices that they do – particularly Nicholson. We’re never completely allowed into his head, which you would think would be required given some of the extreme and apparently inexplicable choices his character makes throughout the movie. On one level this film is about the temporary escape from oneself which travel makes possible, a chance to leave your normal life behind – but just what has made Locke so alienated as to want to exist in a state of permanent vacation, abandoning his old existence entirely, is never really made completely clear. His wife has been having an affair, but that can’t be it: we are left to ponder the question. There seems to be some deep sense of existential dislocation at work. Or, of course, it could just be that Locke is having a particularly spectacular and possibly somewhat premature mid-life crisis (Nicholson was 37 when he made this movie), abandoning all responsibility and acquiring a much younger girlfriend.

Whatever is actually going on here, and it certainly seems to me that there may in fact be less than meets the eye, the film stays watchable mainly due to a magnetic performance from Jack Nicholson and an engaging one from Maria Schneider. 1975 was something of an annus mirabilis for Nicholson – in the same year he also made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and this is one of his more striking turns: for my generation and anyone younger, we know Nicholson from movies like Batman, A Few Good Men, Anger Management and so on, where he does not exactly underplay his scenes. Here, he is unexpectedly restrained, almost a man vanishing into himself – perhaps even he is not sure of why he is doing what he’s doing – but at the same time his performance is strangely compelling. His odd non-romance with Schneider’s nameless student is also oddly fascinating to watch.

This is probably just as well, for The Passenger is in one sense a film a considerable proportion of which is solely made up of people driving around and going in and out of hotels. The photography is accomplished, however, and the film does contain a couple of brilliant moments of technical innovation – an early scene, establishing back-story, in which the setting shifts from the present day to the recent past within the same extended shot, and the extraordinary climactic scene, which lasts about seven minutes: the camera moves through Locke’s latest hotel room, glides out through the window (seemingly passing through a solid metal grille to do so), roams around the square outside, and then returns to settle on Locke’s room as seen from outside, revealing his ultimate fate. As to what his destiny is – well, once again it may be less significant than Antonioni and his writers would perhaps like to think. But the journey to get there is an attractive and fascinating one.

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For a very long time, it was almost axiomatic that you could likely go your whole life without ever coming across a decent Stephen King adaptation; opinions were divided as to whether this was down to some inherently hard-to-reproduce quality in the man’s massively popular doorstep-novels, or simply because he was just really unlucky in his adaptors. People don’t seem to go on about this quite so much anymore, though this surely isn’t because there’s been a sudden spike in the quality of the films involved – maybe everyone’s expectations are lower. Or it may be because at least a couple of movies based on King have achieved a certain kind of critical respect – The Shawshank Redemption was regularly topping polls as one of the most popular films in the world, not that long ago, while the consensus with regard to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has also become markedly more favourable since the movie’s 1980 release.

This is a movie which King himself seems to have a rather ambivalent attitude about, once observing that Kubrick was just a bit too much of a cerebral rationalist to be able to come to grips with a story of the supernatural (which is what he wrote). Whether The Shining is a movie about supernatural events is just one of the many questions clustering densely about it; the real issue, if you ask me, is the extent to which Kubrick intended the film to provoke quite as much debate as it has done.

Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a struggling writer, who as the film starts agrees to take the post of winter caretaker at the beautiful but very isolated Overlook Hotel, in the mountains of Colorado. The job will mean being effectively cut off from civilisation for five months, but Jack rationalises this as giving him a good opportunity to get stuck into writing his new novel. He is bringing along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd); there are suggestions of past tensions in the family, not to mention that Danny seems to have some rather unusual faculties of his own.

The hotel’s head chef Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) is quick to spot this, telling Danny that they share something called ‘the shining’, a psychic ability. Unfortunately, according to Hallorann the hotel itself has a similar sort of supernatural sentience, one perhaps shaped by – or responsible for – some rather traumatic and bloody events that have occurred there in the past. (The fact it was built on an Indian burial ground may also have something to do with it.)

Well, the family moves in, and initially all seems well: Jack works on his book, Danny plays in the hotel, and Wendy… does stuff too (King’s complaint that Kubrick reduces the character to a weak and irritating non-entity does seem to me to be justified). But soon it becomes apparent that other forces may be at work: Danny has terrifying visions, while Jack begins to find himself losing control of his anger and resentment towards his family, and perhaps even coming unstuck in time…

We should probably begin by addressing the question of whether The Shining is, indeed, one of the most terrifying horror movies ever made. I can only give my own personal opinion on this one, but I would have to say no – I find it to be a curious and rather mesmerising film, but not actually particularly scary (indeed, a couple of moments presumably intended to shock are actually quite funny). The film has the same kind of extremely measured and calculated quality as Kubrick’s previous film, Barry Lyndon, which is admittedly very atmospheric but unlikely to generate much in the way of thrills or scares.

I am not sure that Kubrick’s decision to make the film quite so carefully ambiguous really works, either – it is never made entirely clear what exactly is going on. With the exception of a couple of events (one of them admittedly quite a key one, the release of Jack from the store room), there is no clear-cut evidence that supernatural forces are at work in the hotel – people could just be having hallucinations brought on by a psychological breakdown (although there does seem to be some reality to Hallorann and Danny’s ‘shining’ abilities). Even if one accepts that the malevolent ghosts of the hotel do have some kind of objective existence, the nature of their interest in Jack is never completely explained – Kubrick himself, in a rare moment when he was in the explanatory vein, suggested that Jack Torrance is the reincarnation of a former inhabitant of the hotel they were seeking to ‘reclaim’, but there’s not much evidence for this on screen.

Nor is the beginning of Torrance’s descent into madness really established: one minute he’s enjoying long lie-ins, and being generally mild-mannered and pleasant with his family, the next he’s staring out of the window at them with apparently murderous intent. Apparently a scene depicting Torrance discovering some old clippings about the hotel’s history and apparently being inspired by them, thus establishing the connection between man and place, was written but cut by Kubrick. I suppose this is also the place to comment on the wisdom of casting Jack Nicholson in this key role – he certainly gives a bravura performance, especially as the film goes on, but – given Nicholson’s general screen persona and acting style – it’s hardly a surprise when the character goes mad, nor does he particularly seem to fight it.

Then again, Torrance’s going crazy is one thing that everyone watching The Shining can agree upon. There is not much else, for the film is filled with curious little examples of what are either deliberate contradictions or simple continuity errors – the name of the previous caretaker is different on the two occasions it is mentioned, for instance, while furniture appears and disappears mid-scene. The interior lay-out of the hotel makes no topographical sense (there are impossibly large rooms and windows where no windows can exist). Kubrick seems to make such a point of certain elements of the film – for instance, Duvall spends most of it wearing clothes of the same colours, while there are unusually lengthy dissolves between scenes – that you can’t help thinking it must all mean something, that there is some kind of Shining code, which – once cracked – will allow you to figure out what the film is really about.

Then again, I recently watched Room 237, and I’m probably being influenced by it: this is the documentary that gave a number of especially dedicated Shining-watchers an opportunity to put forward their various wildly diverse and utterly irreconcilable theories about the film. Odd as it may seem, I’m not sure there is a particular interpretation of this film which is the ‘correct’ one – the point of it seems to be suggestive and ambiguous, without ever allowing the viewer the luxury of genuine certainty. You can see how that might potentially produce a genuinely unsettling and disturbing horror film, but The Shining is not it (for me, at least) – this is a substantial film (in every sense), but only in terms of its impressionistic power to mesmerise.

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I know, I know: you go seven years without a single review of an AIP Vincent Price movie, and then three come along in as many months. Blame the lucky dip nature of my DVD rental service (still waiting for Tiptoes, alas) – still, these are AIP Vincent Price movies, so there’s only so disappointed you can legitimately be. This week they sent me The Raven, a 1963 movie directed by (but of course!) Roger Corman, from AIP’s series of Poe movies.

This time around, the movie is based on a poem rather than a work of fiction, but otherwise the formula is wholly intact. Here is a screenplay from the great Richard Matheson. Here is Vincent Price, brooding over his dead wife’s picture. Here is a supporting cast featuring some unexpectedly big names, given the kind of movie that this is. Here are some pretty decent production values. It’s basically rather like an American Hammer movie, except slightly more genteel and with fewer hard edges.

The Raven is set in a rather fantasticalised version of the 16th century (historical accuracy is extremely low on the movie’s list of priorities), with Price playing Erasmus Craven, gentleman, scholar, and magician. Erasmus has withdrawn from the society of his peers and has become a bit of a recluse, partly because he objects to the plotting and scheming of his fellow adepts, and also because it gives him more time to brood over the portrait of his dead wife Lenore (Hazel Court, which may tip you off to the fact that Lenore is not as dead as originally advertised), somewhat to the concern of his lovely daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess).

Then, one dreary midnight, as Erasmus sits, weak and weary, pondering over a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore (oh yes, I know a thing or two about Poe, and also how to Google the text of a poem), a raven turns up, knocking at his window. Erasmus lets the bird in, and, as he is played by Vincent Price in a Roger Corman movie, beseeches the bird thusly – ‘Shall I ever hold again the radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?’ The raven departs from Poe by responding ‘How the hell should I know?’, which pretty much sets the tone for what follows. (Apparently this was a departure from the script, as well as Poe, as Peter Lorre (who voices the bird) was much given to ad libbing on the set.)

It turns out that the raven is actually Erasmus’ fellow magician Adolphus Bedlo (Lorre), who has been magically transformed into a bird following a magical duel with the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Magicians, Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the arch-rival of Erasmus’ dead father. Erasmus is happy to help Bedlo return to human form, but doesn’t want to get mixed up in the squabble between Bedlo and Scarabus – until he mentions that he has seen a woman resembling the supposedly dead Lenore in Scarabus’s castle. Erasmus pooh-poohs this idea, and offers to show Bedlo Lenore’s body, which he keeps in a box in his hallway (‘Where else?’ deadpans Lorre), but he is shocked to see she has been replaced by that of someone else. Desperate to learn the truth, Erasmus agrees to go to Scarabus’s castle with Bedlo, accompanied by his daughter and Bedlo’s son Rexford (John J Nicholson, who could have had a pretty good career if he’d just stuck with low-budget horror movies). Perhaps another clash of magics is on the cards…

The immediately previous movie in the Poe cycle, Tales of Terror, had as its centrepiece The Black Cat, a darkly comic, more than slightly outrageous tale co-starring Price and Lorre, and Corman and Matheson apparently enjoyed making it so much that they decided to have a go at making a full-length movie in a similar vein. Most of The Raven was invented whole-cloth by Richard Matheson, there not being quite enough material in a 108-line poem to sustain a movie even of only 86 minutes. I think it’s really stretching to describe The Raven as an actual horror film, even by the standards of the early 1960s – it’s more of a very tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure, impossible to take seriously.

It does make full use of Price’s ability as a comic actor, of course, and also – I’m tempted to say – his generosity as a performer, as he tends to be outrageously upstaged by Peter Lorre in every scene the two of them share, with Price very much the straight man of the duo (‘I think you need something for the cold,’ Erasmus declares to Bedlo, as the two of them prepare to depart, which prompts his guest to head straight for the drinks cabinet). Boris Karloff’s performance is less showy, but then the sheer understatedness of it is much of the fun. He’s up against it when competing with the other senior members of the cast.

If the overall quality of The Raven‘s cast isn’t quite clear yet, let me put it this way: one of the actors in this movie has received more Oscar nominations for his work than any other man in history. Yes, really. It’s not Price, Lorre, or Karloff, though – playing Lorre’s son, in case you haven’t worked it out, is Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), who turns up in a lot of AIP movies from this period, partly because his father James H Nicholson is the executive producer on them. It’s fair to say that there is not much sign here of the movie legend Nicholson would eventually become – although there’s a sequence where he is briefly possessed by evil magic, and does the same face made famous by The Shining – but he does give a very game performance, dashing about the set in tights, cape, and feathery hat. I doubt this movie was ever very prominent on his showreel, though.

The silliness of much of The Raven doesn’t prevent it from having a more intricate plot than you might expect, nor indeed an unexpectedly sound narrative structure, with a proper character arc for Vincent Price to work his way through. It may be a disposable comedy, but Matheson has clearly taken the writing of it very seriously, which is probably why it still stands up so well today. Corman directs with his usual efficiency, and comes up with at least one outstanding sequence, the final magician’s duel between Erasmus and Scarabus, which in addition to being witty and inventive, even has some pretty decent animated special effects.

I still think The Masque of the Red Death is the zenith of the Corman-Poe series of movies, but it’s a very different kind of film to The Raven, and very definitely a genuine horror-fantasy. The Raven is much more knockabout entertainment, but the strength of the script and particularly the comic performances means there is still a huge amount to enjoy about this movie even today.

 

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From the Hootoo archives. Originally published 26th February 2004:

[Originally preceded by a review of a film so appalling I shall not speak its name here.]

And so, thankfully, we move on to Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give, a somewhat oblique title for a film which makes no bones about Having A Point To Make. Fortunately the chosen media take the forms of two of the most watchable actors still working, so it comes across as a lot less didactic than it might.

Jack Nicholson is not at all typecast as Harry, a sixty-something hip-hop tycoon and libidinous rogue, who has an eye for the ladies (specifically those under thirty). On a weekend trip to the family beach-house of his latest conquest (Amanda Peet) he is unfortunate enough to run into her formidable mother Erica (Diane Lah-Di-Dah Keaton) who takes a dim view of his womanising and generally raffish behaviour. It is just his luck to have a heart attack that same evening, and even worse that his cardiologist (Keanu Reeves – no, really, Keanu Reeves) prescribes that he should stay in the area till he recovers – the only available residence being with Erica. But, and you’d never see this coming, it seems that there’s a bit of chemistry between Harry and Erica. Could there possibly be romance on the horizon?

Well, my usual goodnaturedness has been mashed out of me by the previous film, so let’s not beat about the bush: Something’s Gotta Give is overlong and a bit smug and not nearly as witty or insightful as it thinks it is. The characters are almost exclusively wealthy and well-educated Caucasians, all with a quite staggering degree of emotional articulacy. Given that the central topic under discussion – the subtle charms of the older lady – does not exactly possess the same pressing urgency as climate control or international debt relief, it could be argued that this is a case of much ado about nothing. It’s also an openly partisan film: Nicholson is depicted throughout as a priapic old rogue who must mend his ways, and most of the central relationship is seen from Keaton’s emotional perspective. (There’s also the odd way that the Nicholson/Peet liaison is implicitly frowned upon while a Keaton/Reeves dalliance is swooningly approved of.)

However, these criticisms aside, this is a polished and mostly intelligent film, with some very funny moments (most of them courtesy of Nicholson). Most of these come near the beginning of the film, which rambles off into much more straightforward (not to mention sentimental) romantic drama territory as it goes on, losing much of its sharpness and wit along the way. As I mentioned up the page, it also seems about fifteen minutes too long.

It stays entirely watchable throughout, though, and this is mainly due to two perfectly-judged performances from Nicholson and Keaton, whose presence together was enough to remind me of Hollywood’s 70s golden age. It’s an exceptionally classy double-act, with Nicholson’s armoury of Jack-isms complementing Keaton’s more naturalistic turn extremely well. The two stars really get their teeth into the script and probably make it seem a lot sharper and more intelligent than it really is. Having said that, it’s difficult to judge whether Diane Keaton genuinely deserves her Oscar win/nomination (Shazz, delete one of these as applicable come Monday morning, would you?) [A reference to the fact this was originally published immediately prior to the Oscar ceremony – A] – she is good, but I suspect nostalgia has played its part, and in case she often seems to be recycling bits of her Annie Hall performance, for which she’s already won an Oscar.

Most of the rest of the cast aren’t that impressive, not getting the material the leads do. But Frances McDormand has her moments as Keaton’s sister, and Keanu… well, Keanu gets bulldozed off the screen by Nicholson, as you would expect, and my initial thought that he’d made the interesting choice of playing the cardiologist as a surfer-dude only lasted as long as it took me to remember that he plays every part – FBI agent, techno-Messiah, 19th century English lawyer – as a surfer-dude. But it’s nice to see he’s still getting work.

There’s nothing actually bad about Something’s Gotta Give – it’s polished, entertaining, amusing and articulate, and it’s driven by very assured performances from two bona fide movie legends. But it does take a long time to come to a rather predictable conclusion, and has very little of genuine originality to say for itself. A rom-com with a bit too much rom and not enough com, but still a film of some substance.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 30th 2003:

Well, here we are in awards ceremony season again, and – what with our release schedule lagging the usual few weeks behind that of our former colonial cousins – many of the films being tipped for glory are only now pitching up for business in our fair country. You can always spot these as the newspaper adverts have tiny print at the bottom telling Bafta and Ampas members they can get in for free – surely that counts as trying to bribe the judges?

Anyway, one of these aspirant movies is Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, for which Jack Nicholson is being tipped for his twelfth Oscar nomination. At first glance this looks like another of the string of wedding comedies currently infesting multiplexes, but it’s not really an out-and-out comedy and it isn’t really about a wedding.

The film opens with the last day of work for Nebraskan actuary Warren Schmidt (Nicholson), and then moves on to his grisly, wake-like retirement party. As he struggles to adjust to retired life, Schmidt slowly realises that he hasn’t really amounted to much, something the sudden death of his wife and the subsequent re-evaluation of his life only confirms. Schmidt resolves to make the best possible use of the time left to him (as an actuary, he knows there’s a 73% chance he’ll die inside nine years), and hits the road in his mobile home, intent upon a noble quest – to stop his only child (Hope Davis) from marrying a dopey water-bed salesman (Dermot Mulroney)!

It’s almost impossible to overstate how important Nicholson’s performance is to the success of this film. He’s in every scene, but beyond this the film is the story of Schmidt’s growing self-knowledge and ultimate acceptance that he hasn’t made the best use of his years. Nicholson is immaculate, delivering a restrained, touching, and witty performance. Part of what makes it so striking is the almost total absence of the Nicholson-isms – the snarl, the leer, the manic eyebrow-twitching – that have become a routine part of most of his work over the last ten or fifteen years. Occasionally he lets rip – Schmidt writes regular letters to a little Tanzanian boy he’s sponsoring, which the audience hear as a voice-over, and the first in particular gives Nicholson a chance to do his thing – but the very rareness of these moments makes them all the more effective. Nicholson gets all the laughs in this film, but more often than not they arise from his deadpan reactions to the other characters he encounters on his travels. (There is one moment of terrific physical comedy, though, as Schmidt grapples futilely with the water-bed his new in-laws have put him in.)

The restraint and minimalism of Nicholson’s performance is matched by that of Alexander Payne’s direction. He’s a director of enormous precision, and you never doubt that a great deal of thought has gone into every aspect of this film. And it’s a remarkable film in many ways, but chiefly because of its attitude to Schmidt and the other characters.

Schmidt is a failure, a bumbling and rather deluded old man who makes a mess of virtually everything he attempts to do. But while the film is unflinching in making this clear, it never seems to be holding him up to ridicule, either. It’s a razor-thin tightrope between pathos and mordant black comedy that Payne navigates with tremendous skill, barely putting a foot wrong. Schmidt may be a failure, but more often than not this is simply down to a basic human decency he just can’t break free of. This is not really a very sentimental film, but it’s a hugely compassionate one.

About Schmidt rambles a bit in places and is perhaps a little too long. Don’t go to see it expecting a wall-to-wall comedy festival, because I did and it took me a while to figure out that that wasn’t what’s on offer. What you’ll get is an outstanding central performance in a film of great subtlety and enormous charm. Recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 8th 2007:

I first laid eyes on Martin Scorsese nearly twenty years ago. Not actually in the flesh, of course; he was contributing to a BBC documentary about (of all things) Hammer horror and, to be honest I had very little idea who he was. The name rang a vague bell, though, as having something to do with the recent film about Jesus which had received so much helpful free publicity from the fundamentalist Christians complaining about it – for people claiming to have privileged access to omniscience, fundies are awfully slow on the uptake sometimes.

These days, things have changed for both of us. I have a pretty good idea who Scorsese is and have seen many of his films and he in turn has, er, shaved his beard off and let his hair turn a distinguished whitish-grey. One thing which has not changed is his lack of recognition by the Academy – in fact, were one to make a list of Great Still-Working Directors Who’ve Never Won An Oscar, his would be one of the first names to be included. The list of Great Dead Directors Who Never Won An Oscar is in its own way quite a distinguished one, including the likes of Hitchcock and Kurosawa, but on balance one gets the impression this is an injustice that everyone involved would like to see fixed as quickly as possible.

In short, this must surely be Scorsese’s year. His latest film, The Departed, may be a remake, but it’s a classy piece of work set roughly in the gritty urban milieu Scorsese’s best movies all inhabit. The original Chinese movie, Infernal Affairs (aka I Want To Be You), was reviewed here in 2004, and the American version sticks reasonably close, in concept if not detail.

Boston gangster Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson at his most demonic) and Boston police captain Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) find themselves somewhat at odds as they go about their chosen professions, and so each hits upon a cunning ruse – they will introduce a spy into the other man’s organisation and thus cause him no end of nuisance! Costello virtually adopts a young man named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) and puts him through school and police academy until he joins the organised crime task force. Queenan selects a young trainee with the right background, William Costigan (Leonardo di Caprio) and sends him deep undercover to the point where he can plausibly join Costello’s gang (an eclectic bunch of hoods from places like Aberdeen and East London, judging from the cast list). Both moles soon become aware of the existence of the other, if not their identity, and quickly realise that their lives may depend upon finding the other man first…

One is made aware very early on in this movie that some serious talent has been put into making it. The script is seldom less than polished, and while the story is intricate it is never very hard to follow what’s going on. Similarly, nearly every key role is filled with a name actor doing very solid work – also appearing are people like Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, and Mark Wahlberg (who appears to have been Oscar nominated just for swearing a lot – by his standards it’s a good performance, but by no means anything really special). The only really unknown performer in a key role is Vera Farmiga as the woman Damon and di Caprio both get involved with, and she’s pretty good as well. Scorsese’s mastery of soundtrack and technical virtuosity are also on display throughout. This is a distinctly superior thriller.

However, that’s all it is. It’s a great piece of entertainment, but no more, and in some ways it isn’t even as good as the original movie (which I seem to recall I only gave qualified praise to anyway). There’s never any doubt here that di Caprio is a hero while Damon is a nasty piece of work, whereas in the original the spy in the police was presented as a genuinely likeable and almost sympathetic guy. The ending has also been changed, with a much less ambiguous conclusion being inserted (some of the plot mechanics which bring this about seem rather implausible to me, as well).

But anyway, this is still a good bet for a night out – Nicholson is on particularly good form and the film suffers noticeably when he’s not on screen. I’m a little surprised the film is set amongst the Irish mob rather than the mafia, but I suppose Scorsese has been there a number of times before and is wary of spreading too many stereotypes. (It hasn’t stopped him casting Italian-Americans in at least two keys roles in the movie!)

In many cases, winning an Oscar is more a sort of body-of-work award than a prize for a specific film – and bearing this in mind, surely no-one would complain were Scorsese to pick one up for The Departed, even if (to my mind) it’s rather less satisfying and enjoyable than either Gangs of New York or The Aviator. Better to get a richly-deserved award for the wrong movie than to never get one at all.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 12th 2003

Ah, hubris – attentive masochists will recall that, before last week’s doggy-paddle through the lagoon of fond remembrance [the previous issue was a ‘best-of’ compilation – A], I took the opportunity to proudly proclaim that prior to Punch Drunk Love I had never paid to see an Adam Sandler movie, and that anyway that didn’t count, it was a special case what with it being an art movie and all.

Well, let me tell you, kids, you should never go shooting your mouth off about things like that because would you believe that this week I found myself trundling along to see Sandler’s latest offering, Anger Management. Obviously, there is no safe dose where Sandler is concerned – if you want to stay clear of the slippery slope to critical damnation, total abstinence is the only path to follow.

Anger Management, directed by Peter Segal, sees Sandler playing, as usual, a dweeby, dorky, sports-loving, romantic, violent psychotic. On this occasion his name is Dave. After an altercation with the flight attendants on an internal flight snowballs out of control Dave finds himself sentenced to anger management therapy with the unorthodox Dr Buddy Rydell, portrayed with predictable sensitivity and restraint by Jack Nicholson. Buddy’s approach to therapy seems to be to manipulate Dave into situations where fisticuffs, property damage and ritual humiliation are the most likely outcomes, which causes his patient some concern. Will Dave be able to escape from Buddy’s clutches and find permanent happiness with his girlfriend Linda (Marisa Tomei)?

Well, frankly I couldn’t have cared less about that by the end of the story, but there is much fun to be had along the way, even though this is a movie whose IQ slowly deteriorates over the course of its duration. Once a worryingly crass flashback is out of the way, the film’s first fifteen minutes are by far its sharpest and wittiest: Sandler’s entirely justified complaints to airline staff are met with chilly stares and the mantra ‘Our country’s going through a difficult time right now’ – this kind of mockery of the USA’s post-September 11th mindset is startlingly edgy material for a mainstream comedy, and it’s followed up with some equally good gags at the expense of political correctness and over-litigiousness.

But once this is done with, something rather odd happens to the film. It appears to turn into a sort of holiday resort for well-known and respected character actors who fancy a bit of a break and the chance to do things they don’t normally get to. And so a host of familiar faces swarm into view, all of them seemingly intent not so much on going over the top as actually physically launching themselves into orbit. The roll call includes John Turturro, Woody Harrelson, John C Reilly, Heather Graham, Harry Dean Stanton and Luis Guzman.

Ringmaster of this demonic cavalcade is, of course, Jack. Jack Nicholson has twelve Oscar nominations. Write that down on a piece of paper, take it into the theatre with you, and keep looking at it, because you will need some physical evidence of the fact just to reassure yourself that your memory isn’t playing up. Remember the subtlety, nuance, and texture he brought to his role in About Schmidt? Well, hang on to that thought as none of those things are on display here. This is Nicholson almost as self-parody, a crazed, priapic wild man. His eyebrows bounce around like kittens on a hotplate, and his grin is so broad the ends are in different time zones. One almost feels sorry for Sandler, who visibly quails at the prospect of having to compete with all this and in the end settles for playing straight man, and in a rather restrained fashion at that.

This is not without its charms and there are a good many laughs along the way. But the plot is a collection of set pieces, an episodic shambles that starts running out of steam very fast, and the climax drowns in glutinous, all-American sentimentality of the most objectionable kind – it’s not helped by smug cameos from John McEnroe and Rudy Giuliani, amongst others.

For all Nicholson’s prominence in the advertising, and indeed plot, of this film, don’t be under any false impressions. This is traditional Adam Sandler fare all along the line, distinguished only by the presence of Nicholson and company, who manage to simultaneously seem horribly incongruous yet also the best thing about the film. When Sandler has to carry the film on his own, it’s a grim and joyless slog – but his co-stars are around enough to make this brainless, insubstantial fun. Still, a bit of a missed opportunity.

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It must have been nearly four years ago, and as usual I was boring regaling a colleague with news about upcoming film releases. He turned out to be completely ignorant of the then-around-a-year-off release of The Dark Knight, and utterly aghast when I revealed that Heath Ledger was playing the Joker.

‘You can’t have Heath Ledger as the Joker!’ he cried. ‘Jack Nicholson’s the Joker! Nobody else can play that part!’

Less than four years ago, like I say: how things can change, huh? (And to be fair I was very dubious about the wisdom of casting Ledger myself for quite a while.) But it does show what a massive pop-cultural presence the 1989 Batman movie remained for quite a long time. Certainly it was inescapable that summer, almost omnipresent on TV, radio, and in terms of merchandise. (A friend of mine constructed his own batarang in metalwork class, with which he then proceeded to give himself a spectacular black eye – and unless he gets in touch with my people regarding a financial settlement, I will find it hard to find a reason not to reveal his identity. Hello, Steve. Hope you’re well.)

Christopher Nolan’s Batman films have reaped such deserved popular and critical success that the four movies that came out between 1989 and 1997 seem to have been largely forgotten about. And a good thing too, you might say, given the embarrassing excesses and general incoherence the series was prone to for much of that time. Well, maybe – but watching the original Tim Burton film again for the first time in ages, I can’t help feel this is a film that doesn’t really deserve it.

You could make a good case for arguing that Batman is the first modern superhero movie, in that it genuinely attempts to bring the essence of the comic-book to the screen. (The Christopher Reeve Superman movies are terrific – the first couple, anyway – but don’t bear much resemblence to the book in terms of their tone and plots.) The plot is certainly archetypal stuff – masked hero makes his debut, shortly followed by a grotesque villain of some kind, and the two of them battle it out in a succession of big set-pieces. And indeed much of the script just seems like the result of an exercise in ticking boxes and hitting marks.

However, the memorable stuff in this movie isn’t in the script, anyway – not that the screenplay is entirely mechanical, neatly undercutting the audience’s expectations from the very beginning (what looks like it’s going to be Batman’s origin turns out to be something slightly different). As a director of motion pictures, Tim Burton’s always seemed more interested in pictures than movement, and the visual style of this movie is rather more impressive than its action choreography. The look of the film – Gotham City seems to exist in some odd time-warp, stranded between the 40s and the 80s – may not be especially coherent, but at the time it was groundbreaking: such overt art-direction of a film with an ostensibly present-day setting had never really happened in a blockbuster before.

And so where Nolan created a realistic Batman who could plausibly exist in the real world, Burton creates an unrealistic world in which a fantasy figure like Batman seems entirely at home. I think this is a considerable achievement, and not something to be dismissed out of hand. You can see the excesses that would come to define the series lying in wait, of course, as first Burton and then Joel Schumacher chose to frame the later films solely in terms of their visuals, but the plot and script here are strong enough to support the visuals.

Acting-wise – oh, well, let’s face it, we’re talking about Nicholson. All the work, excellent, good, indifferent and poor, turned in by Michael Keaton (second-billed, tellingly), Kim Basinger, Jack Palance, Robert Wuhl, Michael Gough and every other performer – all of it is utterly obliterated by a giant, ravenous performance by an off-the-leash Jack Nicholson. Nuanced and understated it isn’t – neither, to be perfectly honest, is it especially sinister – but on this occasion it really sort of works, simply because it means your eyes are magnetically drawn to something other than the art direction.

On another level, it’s interesting to compare Burton’s Batman with Nolan’s The Dark Knight, simply because they both owe an obvious debt to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which came out in 1986. Miller’s book brought an iconic grandeur to Batman and Gotham City, as well as unprecedented moral and psychological complexity – and while Burton chose to concentrate on the former elements, Nolan has opted for the latter.

At the moment, of course, it’s Christopher Nolan’s approach which is in fashion, with Burton’s style somewhat out of favour. However, it seems highly unlikely that people are going to stop making or going to see Batman movies after Nolan moves on, and it’s quite possible things may swing back the other way, or achieve some sort of fusion between realism and fantasy. If that leads, in passing, to a reappraisal of the 1989 Batman, then all the better.

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