Friday, September 28, 2012

Sweet Dreams Are Made of Gilliam

Wise: Hello, Werth.

Werth: Hi, Wise. Have you ever been haunted by a dream?

Wise: Only when someone desecrates the Eurythmics

Werth: I had a dream the other night about hanging out in a bar with Bernadette Peters, Burt Reynolds, and George Takei.

Wise: Have you been mixing leisure suits with Harvey Wallbangers again?

Werth: I don't think it was what I drank, but what I saw before I went to bed that goosed up my dream-world. Tuesday night Film Forum screened the Terry Gilliam cult-favorite Brazil (1985). I have heard about this film for years, but I really wasn't prepared for the reality-bending, dystopic vision quest I was about to embark on. 
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a petty paper-pusher in an Orwellian bureacracy "somewhere in the 20th century" who begins to have Barbarella-like dreams about rescuing a beautiful woman (C.H.U.D. alumna Kim Greist). 
While delivering a refund check to a woman whose husband was tortured to death by mistake, Lowry sees the girl he's been dreaming of and can't help but pursue her.

Wise: Just not pursue in the Lifetime movie way.  

Werth: The plot quickly ratchets up to include terrorist bombings, a promotion, a seditious air-conditioning repair man (Robert De Niro), a sword fight with a giant samurai, and a face-lift obsessed mother (Katehrine Helmond) who wears hats shaped like high-heel shoes.

Wise: It sounds like Zsa Zsa's dream diary.

Werth: Indeed. Gilliam's ability to make the film's "reality" so fantastical that you can't tell what's real in this world and what's not soaks the film in a dream-like quality that alternates between whimsy and nightmare. Gilliam mines the visual motifs of film noir, art deco, traditional Japanese art, wholesome '50's propaganda and industrial grunge to come up with stunning vistas, posh restaurants and dark alleys where Lowry is forced to fight the sytem to save his girl and himself. 
Oscar-nommed production designer Norman Garwood must have had a field day turning the images in Gilliam's head into physical sets and matte paintings of cityscapes, dreamworlds, and ghettos. One particular car chase scene is notable because it's hard not to accuse Tim Burton of stealing its look for one of the Batmobile chase scenes in Batman (1989).

Wise: We call it homage.

Werth: Gilliam himself creates an homage to the famous Eisenstein Battleship Potemkin "massacre on the steps" scene during Lowry's escape from work/prison, so it's clear that he is purposefully referenicng the worlds created by the cinema.
The whole film is so visually rich with cultural code and imaginative spaces and a plethora of top-notch actors including Pryce, De Niro, Helmond, Ian Holm, Michael Palin, Bob Hoskins and an early slimy screen appearance by Jim Broadbentthat it's overwhelming. 
With a plot that keeps going and going, accompanied by an ever-changing refrain of the famous Ary Barrosso songBrazil is like a twisting nightmare that refuses to end. But it's a dream that I would welcome any night. 

Wise: Terry Gilliam is a master of bringing dream visions to the screen.  Unfortunately, that genius can sometimes devolve in nightmare.  The documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002) chronicles Gilliam's failed attempt to bring Cervantes' classic Don Quixote to the multiplex.  

Werth: Which was also a failed project that plagued Orson Welles.

Wise: Ever since a dispute with a producer hobbled the production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), Gilliam has allowed documentarians onto his sets to help combat the (unfair) perception that his playful production style leads inexorably toward bloated fiascoes.  
In the case of La Mancha, the desire to appear responsible may have led to disaster because the tight budget and even tighter shooting schedule ultimately could not withstand the catastrophes that plagued the project.  Unable to gather his actors for rehearsal before the start of filming, Gilliam spends most of his pre-production time encouraging his team to be both whimsical and mindful of the budget.  
When the first day of filming does arrive, momentum is slow to build as the cast attempts to cohere, then comes to a complete halt when NATO jets running maneuvers drown out the sound followed by a flash flood that sweeps away the set.  

Werth: Top Gun meets Waterworld!

Wise: The problems mount until Gilliam's Quixote, French film legend Jean Rochefort, sustains an injury that forces him to drop out of the cast.  The production team decides to shelve the project, but the film's insurers refuse to pay the claim, forcing Gilliam to continue making a film that can no longer be completed until the producers and the insurers reach an agreement.  

Werth: Which sounds like the plot to a Terry Gilliam film.

Wise: It's hard to know what we've lost by not having the completed picture.  The rushes included are arresting (particularly a shot of three giants lumbering over a mountain), although without context.  

Johnny Depp does some fun mugging as a revamped Sancho Panza, but mostly he sits at the edge of the set smoking and watching disaster unfold.  The best indication of what might have been is the delight that 
Gilliam takes in the creations of his production team: he battles a phalanx of life-sized marionettes and predicts Oscars for his costume designer Gabriella Pescucci.  There have been occasional rumors of Gilliam reviving the project in the decade since the documentary appeared, but so far all attempts seem to be mere tilting at windmills.  

Werth: So, Wise, has our salute to Terry Gilliam inspired any new dreams for you?  

Wise: Well, aside from White Christmases and Jeannies, I'll be dreaming of next week's Film Gab.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Break-up Gab

Wise: Howdy, Werth!

Werth: Don't howdy, me! After all you've done to me, I would think you would be ashamed to even speak to me!

Wise: Hunh?

Werth: I just figured with all the Hollywood couples that have been breaking up, maybe we should have a blow-out so we can make some headlines.

Wise: As opposed to making headlines for being such a great writing team?

Werth: Come on Wise! Bad couples are so much more fun to watch! Take Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Mike Nichols's screen adaptation of Edward Albee's Broadway sensation was the perfect film to showcase this fiery Hollywood couple in all their dysfunctional glory. Taylor and Burton first met at a party in 1952 while Liz was married to Michael Wilding, but it wasn't until the two were teamed up in the mega-budget epic Cleopatra (1963) that sparks and gossip columns started to fly. By 1964 the two had rid themselves of their spouses, laughed at a Vatican condemnation, and tied the knot.

Wise: Plus made themselves the archetype for every Hollywood power couple ever since. 

Werth: In Woolf (Burton and Taylor's fourth screen pairing), the studio played yet again to the public's perception of their wild and passionate relationship only this time the vehicle wound up being a well-crafted Oscar magnet that proved the acting talents of both Taylor and Burton. 
George (Burton) and Martha (Taylor) are a middle-aged couple who live near the campus of the college where George teaches and where Martha's dad is president. From the first shot of the two entering their home, Nichols throws the audience a major curveball. Handsome Burton is wrinkled and worn-out in a sweater and glasses, and the normally glamorous and sexy Taylor is replaced by a frumpy, loud-mouthed house frau. 
Bickering about a line from a Bette Davis movie, Martha continues her drinking jag, "braying" and chewing on her ice while George keeps pace with her drinking and her verbal barbs. It's all a warm-up for the battle of wits royale that will take place in front of (and include) a new university couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) that innocently accepted an invitation for a nightcap, but wind up staying for a night of "games" and revelations.

Wise: Sounds like their martinis were shaken and stirred.

Werth: George and Martha seethe with rancor for one another to the point that you can't imagine why they are together. But that's the real beauty of this work. Taylor and Burton not only masterfully depict the snide resentment, but also the tender attachment of two people who are so lost they only have each other to cling to. 
It's hard to believe that their real-life marriage was full of as much venom and spite as George and Martha's, but considering their divorce, then re-marriage, then re-divorce eight years later, you can't help but think Dick and Liz brought a little of their tumultuous relationship to these characters. However they did it, both were nominated for Oscars (Taylor and Dennis won) and the film remains a mesmerizing example of how to translate a cerebral stage property to the screen.

Wise: Another play-turned-film that also features a couple both at war and in love with each other is The Letter (1940), director William Wyler's adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 1929 play of the same name.  Justly famous for the opening scene where Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie guns down her lover Geoff Hammond (David Newell) on the steps of her husband's rubber plantation in British Malaya, the film follows that initial salvo with a crackerjack combination of marital infidelity, deceit and manipulation.  

Werth: And fantastic lace-making!

Wise: Disguising the crime as an act of self-defense, Leslie is sent to jail as a mere formality until the native assistant to her attorney Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) delivers a copy of an incriminating letter written by Leslie to her lover.  Joyce immediately tracks down Hammond's widow (a scintillating Gale Sondergaard in full dragon lady drag) who insists on an outrageous ransom for the return of the purloined post.  

Werth: Sondergaard would give Myrna Loy and Luise Rainer a real run for their money in a "white chick playing Asian" contest.

Wise: Davis earned a nomination for Best Actress for The Letter, and it's easy to see why: her turn as a killer who's also a wronged woman fighting for her life in a courtroom drama is mesmerizing.  It also represents what Davis did perhaps better than any other classic Hollywood actress: playing the woman who deserved her sorry end and yet was principled enough to know it.  Her performance is a thrilling combination of cruelty and honor.  
Herbert Marshall as the wronged husband has fewer scenes, but is no less potent as a man who would give up anything to save his wife. 

Werth: Herbert Marshall would get more marital woe from Davis when they were paired again a year later in The Little Foxes.

Wise: Of course the film wouldn't gel without James Stephenson's excellent work as attorney Joyce.  A relative unknown when he was cast, he went on to earn an Oscar nomination for the role.  His performance both supports Davis's heavy lifting, as well as functioning as audience surrogate, reacting to Leslie's deeds with both admiration and revulsion. 
Guiding all these performances through an Orientalism-inflected noir landscape, director Wyler suggests that marriage is after all the perfect balance between crime and passion. 

 Werth: I'm sorry I yelled at you earlier, Wise. Let's make up.

Wise: Did you just realize that we could get press coverage by getting back together like K-Patt?

Werth: I realize we'll both be back next week for more Film Gab!

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Misadventures of Werth & Wise

Wise: Greetings, Werth!

Werth: Ssh, Wise. Mama's got a hangover.

Wise: I take it you're still recovering from our night out this past Saturday.

Werth: Who knew dinner and a show would wind up with us closing down a hole-in-the-wall organic bar after multiple rounds of free-range vodka with fresh ginger-infused ginger ale served by a Roman hottie?

Wise: Not to mention finding a drunk woman with a birkin bag taking a catnap in the loo.

Werth: It just goes to show the fun you can have when a series of misadventures sends your plans off-track.

Wise: Everything jumps the rails in A Fish Called Wanda (1988).  Written by and staring Monty Python alum John Cleese, this farce follows the misadventures of a ragtag band of jewel thieves as they plot, doublecross, but mostly muddle through a jewel heist that goes every which way except according to plan.  

Werth: Sounds like the plot to The Great Muppet Caper.
Wise: Not exactly. Although Cleese has a cameo in Jim Henson's film, he plays the lead in his own: Archie Leach, a well-respected barrister with a shrewish wife who is almost too strait-laced to fall for the machinations of Jamie Lee Curtis's sexpot criminal Wanda Gershwitz.  

Werth: I used to think of Jamie Lee Curtis as sexy until she started shilling for digestive health

Wise: While pretending to be in love with English gangster George Thomason (Tom Georgeson), Wanda is actually plotting with her lover Otto (Kevin Kline), a hair-trigger weapons expert who fancies himself an intellectual, but whose vanity-induced rages foil nearly every scheme.  After the gang pulls off the heist, Wanda and Otto drop a dime on George landing him in prison, only to find that George has already removed the jewels to another location.  Wanda stumbles into George's barrister (Cleese) and decides that the best way to secure the loot is to seduce him
Meanwhile, George has convinced the fourth member of the gang—the stuttering, animal-loving Ken (Michael Palin)—to rub out the sole witness to the crime, the doddering Mrs. Coady (Benny Hill Show alumna Patricia Hayes), but to make sure the crime looks like an accident.  

Werth: Cue up "Yakety Sax." 

Wise: Of course, nothing goes according to plan: Ken keeps botching the job, mistakenly eliminating the old lady's yapping Yorkshire terriers one by one instead of the old gal herself in an escalating series of hilarious gaffes;
Otto's jealous outbursts and sheer stupidity nearly give the whole game away multiple times; and Archie and Wanda fall in love which is the one complication amid the endless blunders that turns out right.  

Werth: Jewel thieves should learn to keep their personal lives out of the workplace. 
Wise: The love story anchors the mayhem that surrounds it, allowing Kline and Palin to ascend to ever more baroque heights of madness.  Palin is hilarious, working mostly alone and in pantomime; he's like a throwback to Harold Lloyd, only instead of rescuing the girl, he flubs almost every attempt to kill her. 
Kline, however, gets to be a bit more operatic, trying on a series of accents and pratfalls, and eventually securing the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his wrongheaded efforts.  He and the rest of the cast prove that no matter how brilliant the scheme, a pack of idiots can always make things turn out worse.

Werth: Idiot criminals also stumble through a string of misadventures in the Coen Brothers' Depression-era comedy O Brother Where Are Thou? (2000). Ulysses Everett McGill (the dapper George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) escape a chain gang deep in the heart of Mississippi and make their way through the backroads of the Deep South to retrieve a stash of money from an armored car robbery before a TVA project floods the entire valley. But nothing goes according to Ulysses' semi-formed plans.
Pursued by a menacing lawman (Daniel von Bargen), the mismatched trio stumbles into and out of money as they encounter a cock-eyed radio station owner, George (don't call him Babyface) Nelson, a one-eyed bible salesman (John Goodman), three scantily clad sirens washing their undies in a river, and Ulysses' sparky ex-wife (Holly Hunter) who is about to re-marry.

Wise: Sounds epic.

Werth: It should. The Coen Brothers based the story on Homer's The Odyssey. Even though they claim never to have actually read the poem, only absorbed it through cultural osmosis, the references are cunning and playful... for those who actually know ancient Greek literature well enough to recognize them.

Wise: Mostly I'm just able to recognize Harry Hamlin

Werth: But any dustiness that might cling to Homer is blown away by the Coens' sense of dark comedy and expert cinematic design.

The Coens often do amazing work when they create environments that infuse every facet of the film with character: the pre-war skyscrapers of New York City in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), the snowy wasteland of North Dakota in Fargo (1996), the seedy, gaudy world of bowling alleys in The Big Lebowski (1998).
Here, the dusty, ravaged world of the Deep South in the 1930's is mined for all its ugliness and character, creating a brown and yellow-paletted world of strange beauty populated by drawl-ey no-goods, bible-beaters, blustering politicians, and lots of good, "ole-timey" folk music.
The soundtrack of authentic music from the era became an unexpected hit and the movie itself was nominated for two Academy Awards. So if you're interested in having a wild night out in the comfort of your living room, O Brother hits all the right notes.

Wise: Since both our misadventure movies involve criminals, should our next night out include a little larceny?

Werth: I'll swipe some flatware if you can palm a salt shaker.

Wise: Tune in to see what we get away with in next week's Film Gab!