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Posts Tagged ‘James Woods’

I honestly can’t remember the first time I saw David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome. I have strong memories of seeing it early in 1997, when it seemed particularly pertinent to the postgraduate multimedia course I was doing at the time, although I suppose it is entirely possible I’m getting it mixed up with Tetsuo: Iron Man, which definitely showed at around the same time. My doubt partly arises from the fact that I seem to recall watching it as part of (ironically) Moviedrome, the BBC’s cult film strand, but my research indicates that particular showing was a couple of years later. I suppose it doesn’t really matter anyway – plus, slightly losing your grip on the hard facts of reality is entirely appropriate when it comes to this particular film.

It sometimes occurs to me that our universe got a raw deal when it came to Return of the Jedi. Quite apart from the fact that the original conception of the film before George Lucas and Gary Kurtz parted company sounds much more interesting (Luke is drawn to the dark side, Han dies when the Falcon is destroyed, Luke’s sister turns out to be a brand new character), the list of people who nearly directed it is eye-opening – quite apart from Spielberg politely declining, Paul Verhoeven was briefly in the frame, apparently until Lucas saw all of his back catalogue (‘he became worried the Jedi would immediately start f***ing,’ according to Verhoeven), and so was David Cronenberg. Can you imagine Jabba’s palace as conceived by the maker of The Fly and Scanners? However, Cronenberg says that at the time he wasn’t interested in other people’s stories, so he said no and made Videodrome instead (and straight after that did an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: hmmm).

The movie (Cronenberg’s eighth) starts off naturalistically enough: James Woods plays Max Renn, a small-time, slightly sleazy TV executive, working for a cable station in then-present-day Toronto. Max’s particular market niche is the provocative and extreme: he is wont to turn down eye-opening Japanese pornography on the grounds it is too gentle and polite. This doesn’t stop him from being a controversial figure, dragged onto chat shows to be taken to task for the moral decline of society. Eventually, however, he comes across something which definitely piques his interest: recordings of a show apparently broadcast as a scrambled signal, not intended for public consumption: itself entitled Videodrome, the show exclusively consists of torture, mutilation and murder, staged in an alarmingly realistic manner.

Max is keen to get the rights to Videodrome, despite the fact that various acquaintances warn him off from it, saying it is not just for real, but also dangerously ideological. Nevertheless, he maintains his interest, not least because his intimate acquaintance Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry), a sado-masochistic radio psychiatrist, has also become fascinated with Videodrome: she heads off to ‘audition’ for the show, and is never seen again.

Max’s enquiries lead him to self-styled ‘media prophet’ Brian O’Blivion, played by Jack Creley (the character is apparently based on Marshall McLuhan, who lectured at the university Cronenberg was studying at), who finally gives him some answers. He suggests that the development of human beings has reached the point where the boundary between physical reality and that of the television screen is beginning to blur and disappear: O’Blivion’s daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits) runs a mission where the homeless are encouraged to watch TV for hours on the end, in the belief this will reintegrate them into wider society. The Videodrome signal is an attempt to artificially corrupt and control this development for political ends: watching the programme causes hallucinations, which in turn influence ‘reality’, causing mutations and disease in the viewer.

Soon enough Max encounters Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson), one of the creators of Videodrome. It turns out the shadowy forces responsible have plans for Max, transforming him into an assassin for their cause – a fleshy slot appears in the front of his torso, through which he can be ‘programmed’ by videotape (Betamax, as VHS tapes turned out to be too chunky for the prosthetic), while his handgun fuses tumorously with his hand. Can he fight off the influence of his new masters, or will Videodrome prove triumphant?

For those of us of a certain age, the words ‘a David Cronenberg film’ carry with them a certain set of associations: grotesque, SF-inflected horror, with the human body twisted almost beyond recognition – but also a piercing intelligence that elevates the picture above simple gory splatter. One can appreciate Cronenberg’s desire to go beyond this and make more conventional films, but no-one has ever done this kind of thing better than him, and Videodrome is one of his most impressive movies. The SF and horror elements only gradually emerge as the film continues; it initially seems almost like a particularly lurid conspiracy thriller, illuminated by a smart discussion of the role and responsibility of the media, particularly television.

It’s really only in this respect that Videodrome shows its age, but its suggestion that people don’t treat anything as real until it’s appeared on a screen feels absolutely relevant to the world today – it’s just a slightly smaller screen than Cronenberg had in mind. The film’s metaphors are grisly and memorable, the succession of images and ideas it produces coming almost too quickly to be properly processed. The first time I watched it properly, some form of cognitive overload did feel like a definite possibility.

These days, I can still appreciate the quality of the film, and the subtleties of its plot are clearer to me. But watching it now, Cronenberg’s admission that they couldn’t actually think of an ending – the one they used was apparently Woods’ own idea – doesn’t really come as a surprise, and I suppose some of the body-horror effects do look a little dated. It seems to me that the removal of a sequence suggesting that the main characters have attained a kind of immortality within the TV medium itself was a mistake, but Cronenberg felt obliged to remove it on philosophical grounds. Nevertheless, this is a strikingly original and highly intelligent film, though managing to hide these things well enough to be more widely accessible as a genre movie, too. A major achievement, no matter which way you view it.

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Slim pickings down the cinema at the mo’, if you ask me – so this week I was planning to go and see Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at the local Picturehouse. However, I had reckoned without the cinema’s surprising entry policy for some of its daytime screenings, namely that you need not only a ticket but also an infant child in order to get in. Being unable to lay my hands on a toddler in time, I was faced with a bit of a quandary: go and see something I really didn’t have any particular interest in, or not see a film at all this week? Well, obviously I decided to go after all, and  after surveying the film times the best fit for my schedule proved to be White House Down (beating out Diana and R.I.P.D., in case you were wondering).

In the past I’ve gone on about how day-and-date releasing is now standard industry practice. When a major movie doesn’t get a simultaneous global release, and especially when a summer movie gets pushed back into the autumn, one is inclined to start smelling something a little funky. White House Down came out in the States nearly three months ago but is only now troubling British cinemas.

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Roland Emmerich’s film is – well, look, here’s the plot, see what you think. Reliable beefy lunkhead Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a vaguely-blue-collary cop with family issues – nothing at all like John McClane, vaguely blue-collary cop with family issues, right? – working in Washington DC. He wants to join the Secret Service and to that end toddles along to the White House with his young daughter, who is a monumental civics nerd and expert on the place, not to mention the American constitution.

However, the President (Jamie Foxx) has just unveiled his secret plan to bring about world peace, much to the dismay of various vested interests, and as a result a plan has been put in motion to… well, revealing the ultimate goal probably counts as a plot spoiler. Suffice to say I’ll be interested to see if this film gets an Iranian release. What really counts is that a traitor in the White House has organised a takeover of the place by a gang of mercenary nutters led by Jason Clarke, and Cale finds himself caught up in the middle of it all…

So it is, basically, Die Hard in the White House, which is fundamentally a silly idea for a film. This is not White House Down‘s biggest problem. You may recall that earlier this very year we were treated to GERARD BUTLER!!! (imagine me shouting that in a Scottish accent) in Olympus Has Fallen, a thriller which was basically Die Hard in the White House. So White House Down isn’t just silly, it’s silly in a way which doesn’t even seem very original.

I get the impression that James Vanderbilt, author of the script, has watched Die Hard itself many, many times, as pretty much every beat and reversal of that film gets painstakingly revisited here. Okay, I exaggerate, but you’re never in any doubt about how the story is going to unfold. The identity of the White House traitor is blazingly telegraphed from his first appearance (it’s James Woods, in case you were wondering), Cale is initially given a frosty relationship with his daughter so the moment when she starts hugging him and calling him Daddy has some impact, the white-collar Secret Service types are all snotty about him to begin with so he can be especially smug when he starts saving the day, and so on.

The thriller aspect, though polished, is terribly mechanical and familiar. The political aspect of this film, inasmuch as it has one, is very much in line with the way that the US President has been depicted on screen for the last two decades. If you look at Hollywood movies and TV from the mid to late 90s, it’s striking how they come across as thinly-disguised love letters to Bill Clinton: we get the Prez impressing everyone with his wit and humanity (The West Wing), wowing the ladies as romantic lead (The American President), personally punching out terrorists (Air Force One), and even jumping into a fighter jet to lead the resistance to an alien invasion (Emmerich’s own Independence Day). Hollywood loved Clinton. The Bush years, on the other hand, transformed the President into a nonentity who died off-screen (Emmerich again, in The Day After Tomorrow) or was cuckolded by the hero (The Sentinel): generally a rather less heroic figure. Now we find ourselves in the Obama era, obviously Hollywood likes the President again, although not as much as they did Clinton: Foxx here is obviously a good guy, but he still has to be looked after by Tatum’s character.

One does get a sense of a bit of a tension at the heart of this movie between its desire to be a credible political thriller and its need to tick the popcorn blockbuster boxes. There’s some interesting stuff about the constitutional chaos that ensues when the President himself is MIA, and various FBI, army, and Secret Service types squabble about who’s actually in charge – but the film can’t afford to spend too much time on this sort of thing and soon enough we’re back to the galloping, uproarious absurdity of a car chase round the White House garden with the President shooting a rocket launcher out of the window of his own limousine.

So there’s two films going on here, one rather more developed than the other. I would happily have watched either the serious, crisis-of-command one, or the preposterous crowd-pleasing President-with-a-bazooka one (although I suspect I’d have preferred the former). The thing is that putting them together, even as competently as Emmerich does, is a bit problematic. This is a film which is about terrorism and touches on genuine issues in world affairs. To do so and then include dumb visual jokes and moments of utter, unbelieveable cheesiness just seems incredibly facile and in very dubious taste. There’s a scene where a gun is put to the head of a crying child, which isn’t really something I’d expect to see in a proper, inoffensive popcorn blockbuster.

So this is a film which is not without moments of interest and entertainment: Jamie Foxx gets some funny lines as the Commander in Chief, Maggie Gyllenhaal is reliably good as someone stuck on the outside trying to take charge of the situation, and James Woods and Richard Jenkins give the sort of reliable support you would expect from them. But the basic set-up remains very, very familiar, and the film is so all over the place in terms of its tone that’s almost impossible just to detach your higher functions and enjoy it as a piece of cheesy fun. Emmerich marshals the proceedings with his usual aplomb, but White House Down is by no means one of his best films.

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