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Posts Tagged ‘weird stuff’

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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Crikey, you feel the pressure at moments like these: the characters in Cats are all queueing up for their moment in the spotlight, and in rather the same way the great and the good of criticdom all seem to be competing to deliver the most crushing dismissal of Tom Hooper’s movie. ‘Battlefield Earth with whiskers,’ was the coup de grace of one assessment; ‘a dreadful hairball of woe’ was another; ‘it’s just not finished‘ was the despairing cry of one professional viewer – one of a number of critics who made comments to the effect that there are some sights the human eye simply should not see, and Cats may well be one of them. How am I supposed to compete with that kind of thing? Of course, it is never a good look to spend one’s time feeling sorry for oneself – the charitable thing to do is to spend one’s time feeling sorry for Cats.

Things look about as bad as bad can be for Cats, as the story has become not that there is a new big-budget movie musical, but that there is a new big-budget movie musical which is really terrible.  That said, the film hasn’t exactly helped itself – Robert Wise always used to say that no movie in history ever came as close to not being ready in time for its release than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but I think that record has been broken. Three days into its release, a new version of the movie is replacing the one that was initially distributed, in an attempt to address issues with the special effects. Various comments including words like ‘sticking plaster’, ‘on’, and ‘a shark bite’ do creep into my mind, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The movie is set in a garish 50s version of London, from which people seem essentially absent, leaving the streets populated by bizarre human-animal hybrids (mostly cat-people, as you might expect from the title). A hideous tinny clanging presages the onset of the music, which honestly does sound out of tune in places, and we get the opening number, entitled ‘Jellicle songs for jellicle cats’. The lyrics of the song seem to largely consist of the word ‘jellicle’, which seems to me to be a bit of a cheat as TS Eliot (author of the book of light verse which has gone through various transformations before reaching the screen in this unlikely form) made it up: it doesn’t really seem to mean anything, but it seems to be a useful all-purpose lyrical filler even though there aren’t many obvious rhymes for it (‘petrochemical’, maybe, and ‘Ecumenical’; one might even suggest ‘genital’, but all of the cats in the film have had theirs digitally erased).

Well, anyway. By this point we have met the main character (or as close as the film gets), Victoria Cat (Francesca Hayward) and a bunch of other cats. Following a quick rendition of Eliot’s ‘The Naming of Cats’ (performed without music and possibly the best bit of the film), the nature of the thing heaves into view: it’s a special night for the cats, as their matriarch Old Deuteronomy Cat (Judi Dench) will be listening to them all sing songs about their lives, with the cat she names the winner being sent off to the Heaviside Layer (the E region of the ionosphere, long used to reflect MW radio transmissions) to be reincarnated. There is something very English and drolly quirky about this, which apparently was derived from Eliot’s writing, but it is still mostly gibberish.

What it basically does is facilitate a structure where a bunch of different cats come on and sing one song each about themselves, in a number of different styles (there aren’t many musical references more up to date than the late 1970s, which is when these songs were written). In technical terms, it’s all ‘I Am’ and not much ‘I Want’; what plot there is concerns a scheme by Macavity Cat (Idris Elba), an evil cat with magical powers, to rig the competition for his own benefit. So, basically, it goes: Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. Song about a cat. The songs don’t really refer to each other, nor do they tell a story; this is why turning collections of poetry into musicals is one of the more niche creative disciplines.

Whatever the problems are with the narrative structure the film has inherited from the musical, they are nothing compared to the consequences of the sheer visual impact of the thing. You can kind of see why they’ve got themselves into such a mess here, but the fact remains that the fatal problem with the film is that it does not appreciate the difference between presentational and representational modes of performance, particularly when it comes to cinematic and theatrical contexts. (And, yes, I did write that myself.) Or, to put it another way, in a stage show with a live audience, someone coming on dressed as a cat can be a magical and moving experience. However, Rebel Wilson with cat ears CGI’d onto her head, eating CGI cockroach people, is simply the stuff of nightmares. The characters in this film are obviously not cats. But neither are they people. So what are they? It’s just all kinds of freaky, and not a little confusing. Faced with Victoria Cat, I wasn’t sure whether to give her a piece of fish, or – well, look, I’m not a cat person, but if they all looked as Francesca Hayward does here, I could well be persuaded.

Cats is such a thoroughly weird experience that for a long time I was genuinely unsure if this is a bad movie or not. As a sort of surreal, hallucinogenic Arabesque fantasy, it has a certain kind of colour and energy, and the cast do seem to be trying hard. In the end it does largely boil down to extremely peculiar stagings of light verse put to music, though. It is telling that ‘Memory’, the big show-stopper of Cats, is only very loosely drawn from TS Eliot, and is not from the same source as most of the rest of the songs. Under optimal conditions it is a very pleasant and possibly even affecting little number – here, however, it is given to Jennifer Hudson, who gives it maximum Streep and maximum volume. The results made me want to hide under my seat, I’m afraid.

In the end I am going to stick with my gut instinct and agree with the consensus: Cats is a very bad movie, not because it is poorly made, but because it is fundamentally flawed. I can imagine that a fully animated version of the show might have done reasonably well, and almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted such eviscerating notices. You can certainly admire the skill, talent and nerve that has clearly gone into making such a bold and unusual film. But the film itself is a freakish mutant, and only really worth seeing because things so remarkably misconceived so rarely make it into cinemas.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 10th 2003:

[Another attempt at smart-arsery. I wish I could say it was out-of-character. Sorry everyone. Don’t worry about all the h2g2 in-jokes and just roll with it.]

Simulated dust motes danced in simulated sunlight as Shazz made yet another of her occasional attempts to clear up the mess in the H2G2 Post Office. I’m not surprised this is a virtual environment, she thought, it’s virtually uninhabitable for one thing.

Thrusting another half-dozen empty doughnut cartons into an already overflowing bin she paused to light her pipe. Rich, aromatic green fumes added to the already murky office atmosphere and a languid moment was only disturbed by a salvo of liquid barking noises as Shazz nearly coughed up a lung.

The cleaning attempt temporarily put on hold Shazz sat down behind her ink-stained desk and mused about the next edition. All the usual suspects, she thought, although as usual one member of the team was shockingly behind deadline, delaying her, inconveniencing the Towers, and letting down the other contributors. Utterly, reprehensibly irresponsible, Shazz thought with disgust. When I get my hands on –

‘Awix!’ she said, cranking a saintly smile onto her face as a familiar figure shambled in through the virtual door. There was no mistaking the pallid hairless dome, the rolls of fat, or the terrible dress-sense. ‘I was hoping you’d pop in today.’

‘Uh, well, erm,’ Awix responded with a confused smile. He stepped aside to let his slim and lovely girlfriend Lisa follow him into the office. ‘Got the, uhr, stuff if you still need it.’

‘Great. Hi Lisa,’ Shazz smiled. ‘Wow, that dress looks great on you!’

‘Thanks, it’s Italian.’ Lisa and Shazz did that French air-kissing thing – Shazz could tell Awix was watching and thinking about Tatu from the gawping lasciviousness of his expression. ‘So, what have you got for us this week?’

‘Um, right.’ Awix fished about in his pockets. ‘Freshly edited episode of 168, same again for The Edge… oh, and we were thinking about doing another TV review thing.’

That’ll play well with readers from outside the UK, thought Shazz in near-despair. ‘And what about one of your film reviews? That’s the really popular thing you do!’ Though God alone knows why…

‘Oh, yeah, that. Well, you see, I, um…’

‘What Awix is trying to say that is that he feels we’re stuck in a bit of a stylistic rut at the moment,’ Lisa explained. ‘He feels every review kicks off with some generic comments, then we write a synopsis with some cheap and obvious gags in it, then try to make serious critical points for a couple of paragraphs. He wants to try something different.’

‘Oh. Good,’ Shazz said dubiously. ‘So what did you go and see this week?’

Adaptation.,’ Awix said. ‘It’s got that guy out of Con Air in it but he’s got really fat. It’s dead weird.’

‘It comes on like the sound of one man screaming into his own navel,’ Lisa revealed. ‘It does seem like an incredibly self-indulgent film. Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, has written himself into his own screenplay as the main character. He was supposed to write an adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief but he’s written a film about how he impossible he actually found doing that. And God knows how or why, but the studio made it.’

‘Wasn’t this the one with a few Oscar nominations?’ Shazz enquired helpfully.

‘Uh, yeah. The fat guy, and the guy what wrote it, and wossname Cooper,’ Awix said cheerily. ‘Only one of them won though. The thing is that most of the characters are, like, real people, but made-up versions of themselves.’

‘Fancy that,’ Shazz sighed. ‘It sounds a bit self-reflexive. You know, in-jokey?’ – this last added to try and dispel Awix’s look of blank incomprehension.

‘Oh, yeah, that,’ Awix said. ‘I didn’t get all the jokes, you’d need some kind of brochure to explain it to you, probably. Well, I didn’t, Lisa was there to explain it all to me, weren’t you, chickadee? And the Kaufman guy comes off as really kind of up himself, writing himself as this neurotic geeky guy – God, I despise these self-pitying writers, always putting themselves down and fishing for compliments. He’s given himself this imaginary twin brother, too, played by the same guy out of Con Air.’

‘But to be fair to him, Kaufman makes a reasonable stab at justifying what’s basically a wildly and possibly unnecessarily eccentric and convoluted script,’ Lisa said, smiling fondly at her beloved. ‘Kaufman the character writes the script of the film he appears in, which can get a bit weird. But all the performances are really very strong and it’s a very funny film.’

‘Oh, good,’ Shazz said distractedly. Awix had started poking through the pile of litter she’d just painstakingly assembled, in search of doughnut fragments. Fat chance of that with Greebo about, she thought. ‘So how does the plot work? Is there one?’

‘Well,’ Lisa said, her face becoming more serious. ‘For most of the running time this is a film really without a conventional narrative. Kaufman sets out to write something completely at odds with the traditional screenplay structure, a story where the participants don’t have traditional aims or motivations and without a normal sense of closure. So we get a series of scenes reflecting this, intercut with him worrying about how a script of this type is actually impossible to write. He’s really trying to have his cake and eat it here but it’s enormously entertaining.

‘Then, near the end of the film, he gives in and the movie adopts an almost hyperbolically cliched thriller style, as if to mock his earlier aspirations. The shift in style is brilliantly, subtly achieved – and, come to think of it, what I’ve just said probably counts as a massive spoiler, so I’d better leave it out of the actual review when Awix and I get around to writing it. The whole film is self-indulgent and probably too clever for its own good, but it’s also an extremely witty wail of frustration from a writer, despairing of the tyranny of regular storytelling structure but also giving in and accepting that, in order to work, that kind of structure is normally essential – films need closure, characters need to grow, objectives must be attained.’ Lisa shrugged. ‘It’s as simple as that.’

‘So, to make an analogy, any kind of review, simply because it’s a review, must contain a few solid paragraphs of analysis somewhere down the line?’ Shazz enquired.

‘Yes, that’s about right,’ Lisa agreed.

Awix sighed and put down the bin he’d been rooting through. ‘I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to say in the preview of the movie,’ he announced. ‘Y’know, in the new style.’

Review, honey,’ Lisa said with an indulgent smile.

‘Whatever. I thought I’d be, like, punchy and outspoken and maybe give a rating – like three out of five little stars? And some pithy comment like how this kind of clever arty film is all very well once in while but give me something with kung fu and rappers and lapdancing any week. Oh, and then I thought I’d put in a kind of blatant plug-stroke-link for The Vault of Lies-‘

‘I shouldn’t bother, no-one ever reads the back issues,’ Shazz said. ‘What do you want to put as the byline?’

‘The what?’ Awix gawped at her.

‘The bit on the front page saying what the article’s actually about,’ Shazz sighed.

‘How about, “Another brilliant film review by Awix”?’ he said with an artless grin. ‘Or “Awix honours us with his words of wisdom once more.” Or –‘

‘How about, “Awix risks seriously pissing off his editor”?’ Shazz suggested, deadpan.

Awix blinked at her. ‘Erm, well, if that’s what you think is best. It’s only a movie for smart-arses, after all.’

‘Personally I really liked it,’ Lisa said with a shrug. ‘But it’s your column, darling. I know what you mean though – Charlie Kaufman is a brilliant writer and can pull this kind of metatextual conceit off. I shudder to think what would happen if any old amateur hack tried copying his style. One thing’s for sure, it wouldn’t be pretty.’

Shazz shuddered involuntarily. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It absolutely wouldn’t.’

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