What, the W films?


Who is this idiot?  What is he going on about now?  When will he stop? Where is all this leading?  There are more questions than answers, as Johnny Cash used to sing.  Or was it Johnny Nash?  Whatever, the titles of many good W-films begin in interrogative fashion.

Resisting the temptation to begin with Whisky Tango Foxtrot (think about it), I can’t resist starting with the answer to my quiz question from last time – namely the What-film which includes the following explanation of why vampires prefer virgins’ blood: ‘I think of it like this.  If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had f***ed it’.  This is What We Do in the Shadows, a genuinely funny and sporadically hilarious mockumentary from New Zealand about flat-sharing vampires, by the people behind Flight of the Conchords.

Although the opening of the alarm clock ticking over from 5:59 to 6:00 is from Groundhog Day (except here, of course, it’s in the evening, as the sun goes down), and the presence of the film crew recalls the wonderful Trollhunter, it’s an original idea, nicely exploited.  Epitomized by the moment where two vampires levitate and hiss at each other over doing the dishes, the fun continues as the logic of the situation is followed through, along with the normal tropes – the absence of mirror reflections (so you can never see how you look when you’re about to go out); Jackie the familiar, bringing them virgins but complaining of sexist treatment; getting themselves invited into night-clubs (otherwise unable to cross thresholds); a great encounter with a group of werewolves who try not to get wound up (‘we’re werewolves, not swear-wolves’); Nick the new flat-mate, with his friend Stu helping him use new technology (not just images of virgins on the internet or googling for a scarf lost in 1912, but watchable videos of the sunrise, like in The Interview with the Vampire); and the catastrophic inability to eat chips.

Just as the conceit seems to be beginning to lose steam, it gathers itself for the Unholy Masquerade meeting of various Wellington-based undead societies, featuring the return of Vladislav’s nemesis the Beast (she prefers to be called Pauline), who identifies Stu as a virgin from his role in IT, proceeding to an eagerly awaited return match with the werewolves (further shades of Trollhunter, here, in the actual wolf figures).  The reconciliation with the werewolves at the end ties things up nicely, combined as it is with Stu’s survival, Jackie’s confirmed vampire status with her husband as her familiar (‘I love you.  But I am your master’ (don’t trying saying this at home)), and Viago (Taika Waititi)’s cradle-snatching of his 96-year-old flame.  Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) looks like Matt Berry, and Officer O’Leary (Karen O’Leary) like Sandi Toksvig.  A gem.

In What Richard Did it’s all fun and games among the buff, young, sporty, well-off and well-connected drinkers from Dublin until someone loses an eye – or rather their life, in a plausibly depicted, jealousy-based killing: a single vicious kick, rather than Meursault’s five bullets in L’Etranger.

What Richard did is presumably the things before, as well as the thing itself, and what he did about it (to avoid justice), and how he felt, before what he also did later – went on to study law.  There are some good scenes here, as he confesses to his Dad, for instance, or goes hysterical at the beach-house, together with the bereaved mother’s accusation at the funeral; and some nice touches – in the dunes he’s reading The Hobbit, showing him (to me at least) still to be a child, as Renton’s bedroom does in Trainspotting.  But the weakness here is that despite the drama of the murder and the power of the guilt, the script fails on the dialogue.  True enough, the youngsters aren’t supposed to be great at expressing themselves, the lads relying frequently on manly, back-slapping hugs, but the fact that much of the dialogue is deliberately inaudible, presumably improvised but not up to much, makes you suspect that the writing purposefully shies away from the task of properly conveying the depth and nuance of the emotions.  This work from director Lenny Abrahamson immediately precedes his flawed Frank and his half-decent Room; next up from him was The Little Stranger, which has also had mixed reviews.

Next up from me are two classics, starting with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane – or ‘Who the hell was Baby Jane Hudson?’, as a guy in the newspaper office says (presumably this would have been too profane as a title in 1962).  Director Robert Aldrich sets things up pretty quickly: Baby Jane Hudson (The Diminutive Dancing Duse from Duluth) was in fact a child stage star, with a resentful sister Blanche; eighteen years later Blanche (Joan Crawford) was the screen star, and Jane (Bette Davis) a drunken liability (interestingly, Davis’s own film Ex-Lady is used here as evidence of her hopeless acting), before a crippling ‘accident’; then ‘Yesterday’ (i.e. now, rather than the day before the accident) – Blanche is in a wheelchair, and Jane is the slobby, grouchy helper in the nightmare ménage.  Although this is another situation to add to the catalogue of Hollywood’s treatment of disability, it’s a dramatic device rather than a realistic portrayal: the incapacity is around movement, and the care is sanitised and essentially limited to the supply of meals.

Inevitably the film turns into something of an act-off between the two stars.  Crawford’s Blanche is measured, struggling to do the right thing as she seeks to move house and to move Jane out and to get medical help for her, yet reliant on her sister and unable to do anything behind her back while imprisoned in her chair; she’s excellent as her attempt to throw a note to the neighbour backfires, and she captures well the way Blanche forever weakens in the face of her sister’s lunatic forcefulness – but this also means that she is rather eclipsed in the film (it must have been nice for Crawford to accept Anne Bancroft’s Oscar for The Miracle Worker on her behalf when she pipped Davis that year).

For Davis is sensational as Jane, wonderfully broken down, dragging her feet around, intercepting fan mail, impersonating her sister to get liquor, serving her her pet bird for lunch, and then a rat.  She poignantly reprises her childhood song; repulsively makes herself up in the mirror of our lens; and is suddenly domineering, trying to launch her career again with the interesting, Zero Mostel-like ‘introducing’ Victor Buono as accompanist Flagg (with his supposedly cockney mother (Marjorie Bennett’s native Australian accent comes out under pressure)).  Jane exploits the disability, trying to cast her sister as neurotic; terrorises and hits her; and pathetically throws herself at Flagg.  Despite some modish, now jarring, zooms there are many nice touches to complement the striking story and Davis’s fine turn – the various heart-shaped beauty spots; the dubbing so that Jane does really sound like Blanche; Blanche finding Jane’s forged practice signatures beneath the cakes in her desk; Blanche painstakingly manoeuvring herself down the stairs to phone the doctor; and the extraordinary violence of the assault afterwards, the trussing-up and imprisonment, and the hammer blow to the maid.  This ushers in proper black comedy towards the end, with Jane deranged, Flagg drunk, and Blanche dragged comatose to the childhood beach, until she revives enough to confess that she in fact crippled herself – her injuries as the driver in the crash being rather improbably assumed to have been the result of being run over by her sister who’d fled, drunk.

Revisiting What’s Up, Doc?, Peter Bogdanovich’s screwball comedy, rewards you with something that isn’t just nice and gentle, but is genuinely enjoyable and consistently amusing.  It’s helped by the intricate, farce-like Buck Henry/Robert Benton script, based around the multiple plaid bags; but it’s made by the toothsome leads.  Barbra Streisand looks great and is great as Judy, in her improbable hat; driven initially by hunger, then managing to make the title line a pretty iconic screen moment (just as she gets away with the Love Story bit about never having to say you’re sorry, accompanied here by manic blinking), and showing good, fast-talking comedy talent throughout.  As he will be in Barry Lyndon, Ryan O’Neal is a revelation, with a good deadpan style and reasonable slapstick ability. She calls him Steve, like Bacall does Bogart in To Have and Have Not; then moves on to Casablanca with As Time Goes By on the roof, showcasing her terrific voice (which is otherwise wholly unrelied upon other than in the closing credits, where You’re The Top from Anything Goes is reprised (‘You’re Inferno’s Dante/the nose on Durante’)).  The Fawlty Towers-like hotel scenes are forsaken towards the end as the chase moves outdoors, and the San Francisco that had been largely waiting in the wings comes into its own in a parody of Bullitt but also featuring the classic silent movie tropes of a ladder and pane of glass (the eventual smashing of which is truly unexpected), plus an unfortunate camper van and a poor bystander suddenly chased by dustbins before we morph into a hybrid of The Love Bug/Herbie and The Italian Job (prefiguring Homer Simpson’s skateboarding in ‘I don’t think we can make it’ as the car plunges into the water).  Among the support, the jewel is the fabulous Kenneth Mars as the rival musician (denouncing the happy ending as ‘inspicable!’); there’s Madeline Kahn, gamely trying to keep up; but there’s also Michael Murphy from Manhattan, Randy Quaid from The Last Detail and The Last Picture Show, Stefan Gierasch from Jeremiah Johnson as the scheming hotel clerk, and M. Emmet Walsh presenting the court case to the neurotic judge, who plays with his balls like Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, and who turns out to be the father of Judy, Judy, Judy … .

In some circles Who Framed Roger Rabbit is mainly notorious for its punctuational inexactitude in omitting the question-mark, but Zemeckis’s film (from his golden decade, 1984-94) has aged quite well, and seems seminal and innovative in so many ways, now: like the mixture of animation and live-action (though not forgetting predecessors like Anchors Aweigh and Mary Poppins, for instance); like the crossover appeal to both kids and adults (the grown-up stuff is evident from the initial joke about Roger going back to the science lab; the jaw-dropping sexuality of the Kathleen Turner-voiced Jessica (‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way’, and though she is drawn so deliberately outrageously to avoid titillation it’s none the less there, for example in the slightly jiggly sequence as she walks); ‘is that a rabbit in your pocket?’; the booby-trap (a mantrap in her cleavage); the confusion between probate and prostate; the jokey rhyming with ‘balls’; and so on); like the baleful role of big corporations (here Cloverleaf, taking over public transport in order to close it down and profit through the building of a freeway (like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy); and like racism (the toons despised by Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins)).  There’s a great initial cartoon sequence; good performances by Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd; and a host of cartoon stars and their voices.  In the inspired final fight, Sinatra’s Witchcraft makes a memorable appearance, before Eddie almost gets split up the middle like Bond in Goldfinger; Roger watches Eddie and Joanna Cassidy snogging in the cinema, as also happens in the much more sinister The Tenant; Stubby Kaye appears in his last film; and Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson) is the voice of the dipped shoe.

More grammatically correct is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a great deal of which is hugely entertaining, principally around the viciousness of the main characters with each other and with their guests, while behind it all there’s a relationship which is both horrible and a kind of love.  Sure, it’s stagey, and some of the facility (and long takes) benefit from a long Broadway run, but Burton and Taylor are great as Martha and George (no matter how well their private lives may have suited them for the roles) and Mike Nichols directs very well in his only film before The Graduate.

‘What a dump,’ starts Martha, quoting Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest, then sluttishly, hilariously putting dirty plates in drawers, and dirty clothes behind chairs; reserving particular venom for her husband’s being still an associate professor before changing into a dramatic top to ratchet up the action voraciously.  Burton skewers the academic, chuckling to himself; not knowing whether to rage or laugh or weep at the infidelity; alighting on, and rehearsing, telling her their son is dead – this a part of the game they play to deal with their childlessness (the son’s imaginary status explaining why he’s nameless), and possibly it will have a cathartic effect – there’s considerable tenderness in the final scene.  For there is love amid the bitterness and sexual frustration and jealousy; she says he’s the only man who ever made her happy, and must be punished for loving her.  They’re a bio-couple like those of Beckett, Edward Albee’s contemporary, although their dramas couldn’t be more different.

The acting of George Segal stands up quite well against the opposition; and while Sandy Dennis as his wife at first threatens to be submerged, her phantom pregnancy and wish to avoid having children is a nice counterweight – moreover she perhaps institutes the tradition that in every single modern film someone always throws up (I’m sorry: once you notice this, you’ll never stop noticing it).  That tradition lasts to, and beyond, the terrific Polanski film Carnage, which is arguably inspired by this (here we have the line ‘I thought you’d like the carnage’).  Even so, I’m not sure it deserves the Oscar that Dennis got, alongside Taylor (although it can’t have been easy for her as she had a miscarriage on set).

The film is funny (some of it is not a million miles away from Fawlty Towers)  – ‘show her where we keep the euphemism’; as they discuss what they weigh in pounds, George says ‘Martha is 108 … years old,’ one of many allusions to how many centuries they’ve been together; ‘that’s blood under the bridge’; ‘I swear if you existed, I’d divorce you’.  Some of you may remember the Dallas drinking game, in which viewers have a drink every time the characters do: that pales in comparison with the alcohol-consumption stakes in this film – not that that stops the couple driving, stopping to dance to ramp up the sexual tension and to spring the apparent revelation that George killed his parents.

Where next?  Where Eagles Dare has an interestingly teasing, complex plot (written bespoke for the film by Alistair MacLean), with effective use of the alpine location, cable cars, the mountain-top castle, etc.; but it’s overlong, especially in the drawn-out escape sequence.  It stars Clint Eastwood, and Robert Beatty as the imposter American general; but there’s a strong British cast led by Richard Burton but also with Michael Hordern; traitors Patrick Wymark, Donald Houston, and Peter Barkworth; Burton’s real-life assistant Brook Williams, son of Emlyn; and hatchet-faced Bernard Bresslaw-lookalike Neil McCarthy.  The women are Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt (who in real life survived a concentration camp and may later have escaped over the Berlin Wall).  And among the Germans are Anton Diffring and Derren Nesbitt.

There’s more punctuation in When Harry Met Sally …, which is still worth a rewatch although you suspect that what has given it its enduring appeal is the fake orgasm scene: that’s rather out of character for Sally – elsewhere Meg Ryan is generally very good and convincing in getting over the suspicion that unbeknownst even to her, she secretly always loved Harry.  Billy Crystal, on the other hand, is more shallowly and tiresomely convincing in getting over the suspicion that he always just wanted her as one among many.  Against that background, the friendship sequence after their divorces gets the best out of them, although Crystal’s grief at this point doesn’t entirely ring true.  Nora Ephron script; Rob Reiner directs (and it’s his mother who says she wants some of what she’s having); Carrie Fisher gives good support; and it’s a great film about New York (its distinctive tone makes it no surprise that you tend to assume that the footage here of old couples talking to camera must come from some Woody Allen effort).

And finally When Marnie Was There, another delightful, wonderfully drawn Ghibli Studios animation (this one directed by Yonebayashi, following Miyazaki’s retirement); for the most part it’s charming and gentle (although there is one really quite unnerving sequence as, in the middle of what we assume to be an encounter with her imaginary friend, the heroine Anna herself almost disappears from our vision as she tries to remember the recent past).   The blank-faced, orphaned, shy, asthmatic sketching misfit Anna is sent away to kindly relatives of her ‘aunt’ (foster-mother) in an idyllic village; a mysterious marsh house there, which she also keeps dreaming about, becomes a different world just off the beaten track, like the one encountered in Spirited Away.  There she finds and bonds with the beautiful, secretive Marnie – she is also an only child, and both have variously absent parents; it seems to be a wholly imaginary world, albeit one into which Anna can import jealousy, as at the party (where the guests seem even more Western-looking than usual in these Japanese films) when she sees Marnie with a young man; and terror (the silo on the hill, where there’s also a boy rival).  But then when the house really does become inhabited, the renovation throws up Marnie’s real diary, and the new girl believes Anna must be Marnie (just as, in the fantasy, Anna and Marnie each wish they were the other).

Anna with her drawings is a reminder of the art that has produced her character, and the friendly painter Hisako sketches in the tragic back story (no more real, of course, than the one Anna has imagined, or the surface one of which she is a part); Marnie is not, as it seemed at one point, the childhood doll that Anna is seen clutching it at the funeral of her parents, but is rather Anna’s own grandmother – the dénouement (accompanied by the ludicrous tears which are the other oddity of this genre) seeing Anna forgiving her foster parents for being paid to do it, and calling her ‘Auntie’ her mother.  As usual, don’t feel guilty – it really is best to watch this in a dubbed English version (after all, it is dubbed in Japanese in the first place), so you can concentrate on the lovely drawing and not the subtitles; the English-language voices include those of John C. Reilly, Geena Davis, Kathy Bates, and Ellen Burstyn.

And your quiz question – everyone (well, nearly everyone) knows that the line ‘If they move, kill ‘em’ comes from The Wild Bunch; but in which wild film does a character conclude about the naming of a baby that ‘I’m going to call it Pace, whether it’s a boy or a girl’?

By Jem Whiteley