Quiz the forty-second: Underground (Part one)

Since our last quiz was set on the buses, I thought I’d stick with public transportation this week and take a ride on the subway. Or, as our friends in London say, the Tube. In fact, we may find ourselves on the Tube pretty soon . . .

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Hail, Caesar! (2016)

*. I would never want to deny that Joel and Ethan Coen are a pair of talented filmmakers, and they work with some of the best in the business, but doesn’t that make a bit of fluff like Hail, Caesar! even worse? What the hell was the point of this movie?
*. It’s a love letter to Hollywood’s ever-golden age, and there’s nothing Hollywood loves as much as it loves loving itself. Since critics are part of the same perpetual circle jerk, they mostly climbed on board as well. Audiences, however, were less enthused.
*. I didn’t hate Hail, Caesar! It’s a very hard movie to hate. The photography by Roger Deakins is sensational in a glossy, artificial manner, and the cast is polished to the point where they even manage to inject subtlety into what are caricatures. But I have no idea why the Coen brothers made this movie at this point in their careers. It’s a comedy but there’s nothing at all funny going on. And heaven knows the film biz has been sent up countless times before. Does going from Billy Wilder to this count as progress? Or going from Barton Fink to this?
*. There are a bunch of skits to go along with the filming of a biblical epic, some aquatic follies, a Western, a sophisticated drawing-room drama, and a musical. None of these has any authentic period feel (they are twenty-first century parodies), and the only slightly amusing one has Ralph Fiennes trying to teach a cowboy actor (Alden Ehrenreich) how to say his lines. I don’t think any of the others even qualifies as droll.
*. Tying all this together is a flimsy plot full of in-jokes that has star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) being kidnapped by a society of communist screenwriters. Studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) has to somehow keep everything going. He does. Can we get a happy ending? We can.
*. At one point I was wondering just how much real story there was in this film. I figured maybe 20 minutes worth. The rest is cameos (despite star billing, they’re really cameos) and filler.
*. Does Hail, Caesar! have anything new or interesting to say about the movie business? About politics? About faith? I came up with nothing. I guess the Coen brothers found something amusing in all of it, but I couldn’t help feeling I wasn’t in on the joke.

The Ghost Ship (1943)

*. The Ghost Ship is a movie that disappeared soon after its release due to a lawsuit claiming the script had been plagiarized. It stayed out of circulation for some fifty years, making it a nearly-lost movie.
*. I begin with that bit of trivia because the charge of plagiarism is an interesting one given how many tales of the sea The Ghost Ship draws on. There’s Melville’s Billy Budd, with its innocent eponymous hero being destroyed by the false accusations of the malevolent Claggart. There’s Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, whose Wolf Larsen captains The Ghost. There’s a long line of demented or power-mad captains that runs from Ahab to Captain Queeg (the latter being another authoritarian undone by his own incompetence).
*. All of these connections have been made to The Ghost Ship. I don’t hear the name of Conrad invoked as often but I think it belongs in the mix too. Merriam is the narrator figure who is confronted by a man who has adopted an amoral, vaguely Nietzschean philosophy (“Men are worthless cattle! And a few men are given authority to drive them.”). The novel also takes the form of a Conradian rite of passage, as Merriam has to cross the shadow line dividing youth from maturity before he can inherit a command on his own. As Captain Stone explain to Merriam, going from being a cadet to an officer is all the difference from being a boy to becoming a man.
*. Granting that it sails a somewhat familiar course, The Ghost Ship is also a very odd movie, full of bizarre elements. Because it was a Val Lewton production? Well, that may have been a part of it but his influence is hard to quantify. Can we speak of a “typical” Lewton film? I’m not sure, even if we define him by the strangeness of his output.
*. Clearly, however, Richard Dix as Captain Stone gives a remarkable portrait of a psycho: not a raving lunatic or sadistic crazy but a cool killer, fully in thrall to his obsession with authority.
*. Despite Stone’s professional coolness (note the scene where he shuts the door on Louie), this is also a remarkably violent film. The crushing of Louie in the chain locker is shocking, especially for the time. And the amount of blood in the final knife fight between Stone and the mute sailor Finn (Skelton Knaggs) is a surprise too. I’m not sure how they got away with showing so much.
*. That final fight is noteworthy for a couple of other reasons. In the first place, it leaves the film’s hero as a mere onlooker, bound and gagged in his bed. Knaggs (whose proficiency at stealing scenes I mentioned in my notes on House of Dracula) has to serve as a kind of proxy.
*. The other thing I find interesting about it is the way it proceeds while a calypso song that the crew are dancing to on deck plays in the background. That makes for an effective incongruity, and a flourish I wasn’t expecting.
*. Finally, there’s an interesting political message being made in the way everyone makes accommodations for the captain’s authority and established social status (he is an “old friend” of everyone in power). For much of the movie Merriam is actually the villain of the piece. Though morally in the right he is rocking the boat. He is also an orphan, with no connections to the company power structure to give him any standing. At the end he triumphs not through any action of his own (Finn the mute takes care of the Captain) before being adopted (or absorbed) into the company family.
*. For a minor movie that’s only a little over an hour long, having this much going on was enough to have made The Ghost Ship worth checking out. While not a classic it is a film of interest for fans of multiple genres.

Logan Lucky (2017)

*. Logan Lucky is one of the least interesting movies I’ve seen in a while.
*. That probably sounds worse than what I mean. Critics often use the word “interesting” as a throwaway when they can’t think of any other faint praise to give to a book or a movie that they didn’t much care for. Being interesting thus becomes a sort of baseline, the bare minimum hurdle that any work of art has to clear just to be worth sticking with till the end. But a movie that’s uninteresting isn’t necessarily a bad movie. I didn’t find Logan Lucky dull. Parts of it are even entertaining. But none of it is interesting.
*. It’s a heist picture by Steven Soderbergh, over which, by some creative maneuvering, he had complete creative control. He used that control to make Ocean’s Fourteen. Except instead of the twenty-first century Rat Pack we have a bunch of white trash losers looking to rob a NASCAR speedway. In other words, what Soderbergh himself called an “anti-glam version of an Ocean‘s movie . . . a version of an Ocean‘s movie that’s up on blocks in your front yard.” Is that more or less interesting than the sexy boys taking down yet another Vegas casino? I’d say about the same, which is to say not very interesting at all.
*. So Hollywood’s slickest director goes rough. That might have been interesting if he’d chosen to film Logan Lucky in a rougher style, but this looks every inch a Soderbergh film. It was amusing to see Daniel Craig playing a redneck, but Joe Bang isn’t an interesting character so the role sort of fizzles when the novelty of the look and accent wears off.
*. The plot proceeds in a formulaic way, with a by-now standard long unwinding in the denouement that manages to give things a bit of a twist. But there are no big surprises. Again, this doesn’t make it dull. You know what to expect in terms of the story’s structure but some of the specific elements are different.
*. Some. Not all. It’s still the good ol’ boys sticking it to the Man. The burglars may be a grab-bag of misfits, but the authorities are incompetent boobs. There’s still a cool soundtrack that kicks in whenever we get a montage without any dialogue. There’s still a happy ending.
*. The line they highlighted in all the ads has Joe Bang complaining about wearing a prison onesie. But does he? The prison uniforms all seem to consist of pants and tops.

*. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver are determinedly understated as the Logan brothers, providing the quiet eye of the cyclone of eccentrics. Hilary Swank has a fun turn as an FBI agent. Daniel Craig’s platinum ‘do steals every scene he’s in but I didn’t buy him for a moment as Joe Bang. What really puzzled me however was the British toff Max Chilblain (Seth MacFarlane). What purpose did he serve? I still can’t figure why they felt they needed him. Anthony Lane thought the film “delights in superfluities,” but I took no delight in Chilblain and I don’t think any part of a film should ever be a superfluity.
*. I guess the nagging question I had concerns Soderbergh’s attitude toward the brothers. Yes, they’re comic figures, only slightly less bizarre than the Bang siblings. But are they being mocked? Is this a movie that is sending up redneck culture, with its kiddie beauty pageants and NASCAR races, or does it view that culture sympathetically? I can’t help feeling that Soderbergh despises these people, and things like the little girl getting the crowd to sing along with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” don’t really change this. This isn’t anything I take personally, but it did leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.
*. So, yeah. A polished entertainment, but uninteresting. Also nearly half an hour too long. You’d think that with creative control Soderbergh might have tried something a bit different aside from just working different distribution channels. But then the financing might have made him even more risk averse. In any event, Logan Lucky only kills the time.

The Homecoming (1973)

*. If it’s true that all happy families are alike and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, we should also add that the unhappy families in Pinter are among the unhappiest unhappy families in English literature.
*. Unhappy, but they get by. Even if, to an outsider’s eyes, they appear to be deeply dysfunctional and the family members don’t seem to like each other very much. The brothers in The Caretaker. Stanley and his faux parents living at the boarding house in The Birthday Party. And of course the all-male clan in The Homecoming, which is the ultimate “meet the family” nightmare. Yet somehow all of these households make it work.
*. I think this is one reason some people get Pinter and others don’t. There’s something in his plays that every member of a fucked-up family immediately and deeply responds to and that those who come from happy families don’t. But this is all by the way, and a personal reflection.
*. This film, which was part of the American Film Theatre project, is about as faithful a representation of the play as you can get, being directed by Peter Hall, who also directed both the London and New York premieres, and starring most of the original cast. Many of the performances are definitive. Ian Holm is the standout as Lenny, with black depths concealed beneath his placid expression, but I also really like Paul Rogers as Max. His squinty-eyed ferocity dominates everyone else, pounding them into a blankess that can be mistaken for submission.
*. Is it more than a filmed play? Not much. It even sticks quite close to the single set, which is not just minimalist in terms of decor but is colourless as well. Instead of the usual squalor and clutter there’s a bareness and wideness that suggests a stage. Hall does a bit with different angles and directing our attention to little things like the glass of water, or how the men eat their lunch in different ways, or the sweat beading on Lenny’s brow as Ruth lists her conditions of employment (or is it adoption?), but aside from the creepy way Lenny is made to keep appearing it’s not a movie experience. I doubt that was even the intention.
*. I’d never heard the word “urinal” pronounced “ur-EYE-nal.” I guess it’s British. I couldn’t recall ever hearing it said like that before, but then it’s not a word you hear very often. Around the same time I was preparing these notes, however, I was listening on the commentary for Johnny English Reborn where director Oliver Parker pronounces it the same way (there is a scene in that film that’s set in a restroom). So, live and learn.
*. Maybe my hearing is even worse than I imagine but I have a hard time making anything out without subtitles these days, and British accents don’t help. I would have been lost watching the original run of The Office without them, and I completely missed Sam’s big line at the end here. What he’s saying, in case you’re wondering as well, is that MacGregor “had” Jessie in the back of his cab.
*. I mentioned in my notes on The Caretaker how I started out not liking it as much as I remembered liking it years ago but that it grew on me. That’s the opposite of how I experienced this film, which I enjoyed up until the end. That is, however, mainly because I don’t like the way the play ends. This is the difficulty of saying anything about movies that are such literal adaptations of their sources. There’s a lot more I could say about The Homecoming the play but I don’t think there’s much to add to my notes on the movie here.

The Birthday Party (1968)

*. You can come at Pinter from different directions. After some establishing shots of the beach here we go inside to have our noses rubbed in a filthy kitchen sink. As in kitchen sink realism. Even though Stanley refers to the place as a sty in the play, I never thought of the Boles’ boarding-house as looking quite this down-at-the-heels. But the play debuted in 1958 and England then was pretty down-at-the-heels.
*. I won’t argue the realism then, but just note the approach. That kitchen sink is meant to set a tone. When we immediately then get Meg talking about how “nice” everything is (or should be) the disjunction is striking. Decorum seems out of place in such a blasted environment. We suspect Meg to be only keeping up appearances.
*. A couple of names stand out. In the first place there’s William Friedkin directing. This was a few years before The French Connection and The Exorcist, so well before he was a name, and it was undertaken as a labour of love. As such, it sticks pretty close to the play (the biggest change is dropping Lulu from the third act) and lets the actors do their thing. Note the distance he keeps from Stanley when Meg tells him that two men are coming to visit. There’s only a very subtle cue there that this is not welcome news. Or note the way he keeps his distance from Meg when she channels Mary Tyrone and dreamily remembers being the belle of the ball, before drifting back to the kitchen. Those are both important moments, but Friedkin underplays them for effect.
*. Of course it’s a single-set play, and hard to film as being anything else, but Friedkin only rarely takes us outside the box and instead livens things up with high and low angles, some nice camera movement (turning about in the enclosed space), and slightly jumpy editing. The sound of McCann tearing the newspaper is amplified so that it seems, as it should, like fingernails going down a chalkboard.
*. The only misstep I registered was what Friedkin tries to do when the lights go out. I’m not sure what he was going for there, but the results just don’t fit with the otherwise drab realism of the presentation. It’s like we’re slipping into the Twilight Zone, and the language already does enough of that.
*. The other name that stands out is Robert Shaw. I’m a big fan of Shaw, but I have to wonder if he was the right choice here. Let’s face it, if you heard Shaw was going to be in one of Pinter’s comedies of menace you’d immediately peg him as one of the menacers. He’s a scary guy. And indeed he had played that role a few years earlier, appearing as Aston in The Caretaker. But as Stanley?
*. Well, it’s an interesting choice. He’s definitely cast against type. But . . . I just can’t buy him as the haunted and hunted Stanley. Especially with Patrick Magee as McCann, an actor who projects more frailty than threat. Even without his glasses it looks as though this Stanley could toss both Goldberg and McCann out the window.
*. My own personal favourite in the cast is Dandy Nichols as Meg. She really does nail the part, at least as I imagine it. She’s someone very aware that life has passed her by, but this hasn’t made her bitter and she’s not above making a bit of a fool of herself to grab some scraps of happiness. She’s a maternal figure in a world that appeals to notions of family but which has no functioning family structure. Instead there are only family parodies, like the boarding-house or the Organization.
*. Goldberg and McCann call to mind Vince and Jules in Pulp Fiction, though I doubt Tarantino, who was admittedly influenced by everything, was drawing on Pinter. The engimatic and menacingly absurd heavies go back at least as far as Max and Al in Siodmak’s The Killers, though I don’t know what their original might have been.
*. My own feelings toward Pinter have gone through stages. I guess I was a bit of a fan when I was a student, but then I got to thinking that there was actually less going on than I had thought. Watching him now I find myself coming around again. The weird or absurd elements have taken on a kind of life of their own, and Stanley’s predicament seems more archetypal and enduring. After some strategic delay Stanley is revealed as a lobotomized zombie not unlike what McMurphy is turned into at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Some of the questions in Goldberg’s badgering and obscure inquisition might prefigure Gene Hackman’s patter about picking one’s feet in Poughkeepsie in The French Connection. I even hear echoes of Goldberg and McCann’s stychomythia patter about how Stanley is going to be improved in the robotic lyrics to Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier.”
*. The final message is timeless too, though less for what it says than for its context. “Stan, don’t let them tell you what to do!” Great advice, but coming too late and from a compromised source. Not only has Petey backed down already (Goldberg has told him what to do), but in an added bit of stage business we’ve seen him pocketing Goldberg’s twenty pieces of silver (something not mentioned in the play).
*. So, yes, Pinter is still our contemporary. More than ever? We may be getting there.

The Caretaker (1963)

*. We start off with some interesting credits. The film was basically crowdfunded by a consortium of celebs chipping in £1,000 each. The names included Leslie Caron, Noel Coward, Peter Sellers, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor. They had to do it this way because financing wasn’t available for projects with no reasonable chance of a commercial screening. With the funding provided, the film was then produced by a partnership (including all three leads and Pinter, who adapted his own play). No one received any payment.
*. And that’s Nicolas Roeg doing the photography. Before he was famous. Just the year previously he’d worked as part of the second unit on Lawrence of Arabia.
*. Is there anything in the way the film is shot that would make you think Roeg was going to be a star? I was looking for clues but didn’t come up with much. Though to be honest I was a bit distracted by the horrible editing. I mean, this movie is really choppy in its cuts. Was this deliberate? If so, it didn’t work for me.
*. I’ve always felt a special connection to this movie because when I first saw it I hadn’t read any Pinter. I was young, and it really turned my head. I also became a lifelong fan of Robert Shaw.
*. I hadn’t seen it in a long while, and was a bit nervous coming back to it. All too often we feel a let-down in such situations. And I did feel a bit of that at the start, until I fell under the strange spell of the play again and ended up enjoying the film as much as ever.

*. The cast works in an odd way. Robert Shaw (who would be cast against type as Stanley in William Friedkin’s 1968 version of The Birthday Party) is the embodiment of menacing threat as Aston. Alan Bates doesn’t strike me as a scary guy, but he’s scary here, while at the same time registering genuine concern for his brother.
*. And then there’s Donald Pleasence. There’s a lovely moment when Aston tells Mac that he couldn’t drink a Guiness out of a thick mug and we (along with Mac) suddenly realize that Mac is the only sane one in this house. This reminded me of David Thomson’s jibe in his essay on Halloween that Pleasance playing the psychiatrist was a bit of a joke since he’s rarely the sanest man on screen. Well . . . he is here! And he seems as surprised about it as anyone.

*. The crowded bric-a-brac in the bedroom is managed in a way that makes us feel that Mac is just another piece of garbage that Aston has picked up off the street and brought back to his room. It’s not claustrophobia but clutter. The characters don’t stand out from the piles of boxes around them.
*. Speaking of that crowded bedroom, the temptation to open the play up a bit because they were making a movie was irresistible. But they should have resisted. The few brief scenes where we get outside the house are all superfluous, and in fact I’m inclined to think they detract from the overall effect. They knew they were shooting a single-set play, and they also knew this was not going to be a commercial project. They should have just bitten the bullet and gone into full isolation mode.
*. It’s a special production, given that it was made so soon after the play’s theatrical debut in 1960, with a lot of the same talent (Pinter doing the screenplay and Bates and Pleasence reprising the roles they played on stage). In other words, it’s as close to an “original” version of The Caretaker as you’ll see. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best Caretaker we’ll ever have, but it does give it a special status.
*. I did think, watching it again, that it’s a play that has stood the test of time and could probably be adapted to a contemporary setting with very few changes. I can tell you for a fact that these three guys are still out there. They’re probably in your neighbourhood too, though you won’t see them very often.

CHIPS (2017)

*. I never saw a single episode of the television show CHiPs, which ran from 1977 to 1983. I don’t know if that’s because I wasn’t interested or because it was never on at a time when it was convenient. As a result, I have no opinion on how faithful this movie –whose title is CHIPS, not CHiPs — is to its source, or how effective a parody it is. I knew enough to recognize Erik Estrada in his cameo at the end, but aside from that I went in to it cold.
*. I don’t think it makes any difference as this seems to be a very free adaptation, more along the lines of the comic send-ups of television series that became popular after Starsky and Hutch. Think The A-Team, 21 Jump Street and Baywatch. None of these original series were comedies, but the movies were. It was the age of irony and hipster humour, which was fine because there was nothing about the originals that was worth treating as sacred anyway.
*. The results have been disappointing. CHIPS isn’t quite as bad as critics made it out to be — I personally enjoyed it more than Baywatch — but it’s not very good either. I got a couple of chuckles out of the two crudest moments: the face-crotch collision and when Baxter gets a face full of kitty litter. Aside from these I didn’t get any laughs, but I didn’t find it a desperately un-funny movie or offensive. Michael Peña is fine as Ponch and some of the material at least had potential. I liked the arguing between the two leads using the language of therapy, for example. No laughs there either, but it was kind of fun.
*. That is, however, all I can say that this movie has going for it. The rest of it is limp. Most of the blame has to placed at the feet of Dax Shepard. Shepard has a goofy appearance but he’s not a funny guy, and since he wrote, directed and plays one of the leads here that’s a problem.
*. In addition to not being funny the story struck me as being impossible to follow. Who was the gang robbing? Who all was in on it? Why introduce the business about buying modern art as a way to move the cash? Nothing is done with this later.
*. I have nothing against crude comedy, and as I say I didn’t find anything offensive about CHIPS. Some people found it homophobic but I thought all that stuff was just a joke. What I did find disconcerting though was how violent and indeed downright sadistic a movie it is. One gang member is decapitated. Ponch has three of his fingers severed. A group of paparazzi are struck by a rampaging RV. All of this is played for laughs, which is a serious misjudgment. Again, there’s nothing offensive about it, but it isn’t funny either, even in a shock-humour sort of way.
*. That’s the best I can do. It’s not a good movie but it’s not worth getting upset about either. It will soon be forgotten, if it hasn’t been already.