Talking Movies

November 27, 2009

Glorious 39

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 3:28 pm

I’m in something of a quandary about Glorious 39, a rare cinema outing by acclaimed writer/director Stephen Poliakoff who specialises in making literate thoughtful dramas for the BBC. When I interviewed Bill Nighy in February he was bubbling with enthusiasm for working with Poliakoff again, having won a Golden Globe for his lead role in the sublime 2005 TV film Gideon’s Daughter. Sadly Glorious 39 has all the recognisable Poliakoff concerns but inexplicably falls apart in exploring them.

In the present day the elderly Walter (Christopher Lee) narrates to his young cousin the events of the glorious summer of 1939 when the world stood on the brink of war – a prospect with which the private dramas of the Keyes family, in which Walter played a minor part, seemed intertwined. Romola Garai, who sparkled in the lead role in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, stars as Anna the eldest but adopted daughter of Bill Nighy’s aristocratic Tory MP Sir Alexander Keyes. Nighy is rather good as a compassionate man whose experiences in WWI have so unfitted him for dealing with another war that he tries to retreat into the private realm to dote on his children. Jeremy Northam is startlingly good as the sinister MI5 agent who dogs this retreat from Westminster while David Tennant has a nice cameo as a Scottish MP who makes a passionate attack on the policy of appeasement at a Keyes garden party. Anna (Garai) has little time for all this, being more concerned with her budding film career and boyfriend in the Foreign Office (Charlie Cox). However she discovers recordings of secret meetings revealing an MI5 plot to murderously suppress any opposition to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement and is thrown into a dangerous world of espionage and intimate betrayal.

Glorious 39 starts as a thoughtful drama but unexpectedly develops Hitchockian paranoia. Poliakoff’s trademark concerns with memory, family, the moving image, and the impact of the past on the present are all present and correct and Glorious 39 is wonderfully atmospheric. All the performances are very good enabling Poliakoff to deliver some shocks with devastating emotional impact amidst a string of unsettling suspense set-pieces including a kidnapped child. Ultimately though the film degenerates into sub-Hitchockian pastiche, undermined by the knowledge that whatever action Anna takes is irrelevant to war being declared or Churchill becoming PM, as this film will not have a Tarantinoesque disregard for historical fact. Poliakoff thus switches genres to introduce a Victorian madwoman in the attic horror story before contriving a deeply odd ‘meaningful’ ending.

A character study that made us empathise with decent individuals promoting Appeasement for good reasons, even though they are on the wrong side of history, by re-inscribing their uncertainty about what the future held would be prime Poliakoff. Sadly Poliakoff eschews this route meaning that this misfiring thriller should have stayed on the small-screen.

2/5

November 17, 2009

I’d Rather See the Wires

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:36 pm

Possibly it was Lou Ferrigno’s cameo in The Incredible Hulk that inspired this piece. Everyone smiles at seeing Lou Ferrigno do his cameo, but he’s only alone in making the obligatory cameo with Stan Lee because Bill Bibxy is dead, otherwise Bixby and Ferrigno would be making their cameos together in the way Lee and Ferrigno shared their cameo in Ang Lee’s Hulk.

Why begs the question why shouldn’t two people play the Hulk and Bruce Banner? Why is it considered absolutely necessary for the Hulk to be a fake CGI creation? What if, to use the suggestion of the characters in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates in casting a film of their own lives, Steve Buscemi was to play Dr Bruce Banner and then transform him into say The Rock who would be painted green and shot with LOTR style tricksy perception filming techniques to tower over everyone else (a bit more than usual). Would it really be any more ridiculous than a plainly CGI creation rampaging around a plainly green-screened location throwing plainly CGI objects about at a plainly CGI villain with a few actual actors and physical props dotted here and there to give some feeling of reality to proceedings, unlike say Attack of the Clones’ over-dependence on pure CGI constructions around actors forlornly stranded in green-screen deserts.

It seems that CGI has become the first option in the blockbuster film-maker’s bag of tricks. I Am Legend’s vampires we were told were CGI creations rather than actors wearing vampire prosthetics and make-up because the producers wanted the vampires to be terrifyingly agile. Well, yes, they were terrifyingly agile, but did it really make up for the silliness that ruined 40 minutes of high tension when we first glimpsed them in all their shockingly obvious CGI glory? If only some technology existed for making actors seem super-humanly agile, some way of making people run up walls, and levitate in air, some way of – oh wait, it does, it’s called wire-work and you may have seen it used extensively in The Matrix where it looked, at least it did the last time I checked, extremely cool rather than silly, and beat the mortal crap out of the use of CGI Keanu v CGI Hugo Weaving in Reloaded’s showpiece fight scene which ended up looking…silly.

Cinema produced marvels for damn near a hundred years before CGI took over. The Thing has no CGI whatsoever, can you imagine anyone having the inventiveness to do that now? CGI has stopped being a technological tool that we marvel at, it’s become meat and potatoes, and the over-reliance on it by lazy film-makers has left special effects somewhat less than special. ‘How did they do that?’ is always now answered by ‘Oh, they just CGI’d it – of course’. That’s why the truck-flip in The Dark Knight drew astonished gasps from audiences. So here’s a plea for the next over-digitised summer blockbuster – I’d rather see the wires.

A Proof: Keanu Can Act

This blog will now attempt the impossible and prove (though sadly not by the use of algebra or geometry) that Keanu Reeves can act. I know, you’re sceptical, but hear me out. If Keanu can’t act, as nearly every film critic on the planet has gone on the record at some point to allege, then everything he does in every film should be the exact same, because he never gets into any role, right? To quote Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, “WRONG!!!” I’m going to use the old classic ‘compare and contrast’ method to prove once and for all that Keanu Reeves can act and not only that but that he can be observed acting in the most minute character details that could be easily overlooked.

The films to be examined are Hardball (2001) and Constantine (2005). Hardball is a sappy sports drama in which our hard-living hero learns life-lessons from the ghetto kids he coaches at baseball and blah. Constantine is a highly stylised supernatural thriller loosely inspired by the comics of Alan Moore, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. In both films Keanu chain-smokes. But he chain-smokes in completely different ways in each film. Keanu’s John Constantine is a bad-ass, his soul has been marked for eternal damnation and he knows it, he’s cocky and arrogant because of what he knows about magic and demons and the terminal cancer in his lungs, he is a rake at the gates of hell to borrow one of the comics’ descriptions. Thus he lights his cigarettes in a very stylised ‘I’m too cool’ way, and smokes them slowly, enjoying the social taboo he’s breaking.

Keanu’s Conor in Hardball is a twitchy, nervy gambler, heavily in debt and facing a savage beating from at least two bookies if he doesn’t repay them an awful lot of money that he really doesn’t have and has little prospect of raising in time. He lights his cigarettes viciously fast, drags on them like he’s sucking in oxygen, and pulls them in and out of his mouth jerkily like he’s got endless caffeine causing spasms in his arms. This is not the lingering smoking of Constantine but a very character specific neurotic smoking.
 
Now an actor who can’t act could in no way have come up with two different ways of smoking to express his character’s feelings. Therefore people, Keanu Can Act: QED.

November 5, 2009

Bright Star

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 12:44 pm

Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish acquit themselves well as Romantic poet John Keats and his fiancé Fanny Brawne, but Jane Campion’s screenplay serves them poorly. So much for her return to period drama being her great comeback…

Brawne, a middle class girl who makes her own fashionable clothes, falls under the spell of Keats when he moves into her old house. When her family moves back into the other half of the rented house a doomed love-affair ensues. Campion’s feminism, laudable in her other work, destroys this film by its relentless focus on Brawne rather than Keats. Being brutal, Brawne wasn’t the Regency’s Coco Chanel, and Campion fails to make her dramatically interesting. While the BBC’s current version of Austen’s Emma features Emma making lists of improving books to read then cheerfully ditching Milton after 2 pages for more mischief Fanny pretends to read Milton and then limply never does because of Mr Brown’s sneering.

Oh dear, Mr Brown… Bright Star is sunk by its reliance on Andrew Motion’s biography. Keats did live with Scottish poet Charles Brown but this film is dragged under by his presence – he is callous, misogynist, boorish and painfully talentless. It’s never explained why kind-hearted Keats endures this oaf, which leaves the audience assuming it’s purely because Brown subsidises the Cockney Romantic. His status as the poorest but ultimately the greatest of the Romantic poets despite snobbish contemporary criticism is thus rendered alienating rather than endearing. Incredibly Shelley and Byron never appear, two scenes with the artist JH Reynolds defending Keats’ poetry – “there are immaturities to be sure, but there are also immensities” – are all we get to create a sense of the artistic community of the era.

This film feels far longer than two hours because it endlessly repeats its precious few ideas: Keats loves Brawne, Keats is too poor to marry Brawne, Keats is inspired to write better poetry by Brawne, Brawne can’t understand poetry but loves Keats, Brawne doesn’t care that he’s poor, Mr Brown is a jerk to Brawne, Keats defends Mr Brown, repeat and fade… Even the failing health of the consumptive Keats, who died aged 26, only ends up running into this endless loop. One of Keats’ most famous lines, “I have been half in love with easeful Death”, runs like a refrain through the film, yet Campion fails to convey any sense of Keats as marked for doom, or, thanks to her narrow focus on the purely domestic, the loss to literature that his early death was – his achievements are recorded in the Norton Anthology of Literature thus: “his poetry, when he stopped writing at the age of twenty-four, exceeds the accomplishment at the same age of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton”.

Ultimately watching people reading letters while those letters are read in voiceover is deeply un-cinematic. The best of these scenes are the closing reading of Bright Star and, over the end credits, Ben Whishaw finally being allowed to recite the full Ode to a Nightingale. Julian Temple’s Pandemonium, a deeply imaginative and visually inventive 2001 biopic of laudanum-addled poet ST Coleridge starring Linus Roache was a model of how to catch the lightning of poetry in a cinematic bottle. Watching it then reading Keats’ poetry would come closer to appreciating his short-lived but dazzling flame.

2/5

November 2, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

George Clooney’s writing partner Grant Heslov directs his collaborator in an adaptation of British journalist Jon Ronson’s book, which, while consistently amusing, never becomes the laugh-riot we had hoped for concerning American military attempts to weaponise (non-existent) psychic powers.

Goats does though at times recall the Peter Cook sketch involving Lord Streebling who had been training ravens to fly underwater for decades but when asked by Dudley Moore’s reporter how many ravens he had actually successfully taught to fly underwater sheepishly replied ‘Ah, none’. Clooney as Lyn Cassady in 2003 Iraq endlessly talks up his awesome psychic powers to Ewan McGregor’s credulous newspaperman Bob Wilton then does something brutally violent before explaining how he just achieved his objective predominantly by mental means.

In flashbacks it’s another story entirely, as Wilton isn’t around to fact-check… These flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s contain by far the funniest sequences in the film as Cassady’s mentor Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) bruised by his experiences in Vietnam, and a baffling near-death vision, investigates various New Age movements as a research mission and then tries to train an army unit to use their gentleness as a weapon – it’s like watching The Dude taking over David Mamet’s The Unit… Cassady joins Django’s unit and learns to dance, which (naturally) leads on to finding kidnap victims using remote viewing as his mind soars over the planet to the strains of Boston’s More than a Feeling.

There are good gags dotted throughout the film like Wilton’s annoyed response to some training by Cassady: “‘Attack’ me” “What’s with the air-quotes, like you think I’m only capable of ‘ironic’ attack?” What’s most interesting though is that Heslov and Clooney have used Ronson’s book to make a film which is really about the American/capitalist tendency to militarise and/or crassly commercialise everything so that even positive discoveries invariably turn sinister or inauthentic. Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper represents this dark side of the force as an ambitious recruit to the unit who aspires to lead a full on psychic warrior division. Cassady, under pressure from Hooper, does in fact kill a goat by staring at it till he makes its heart stop but in doing so the Jedi Warriors (as the New Earth battalion are known – have a good laugh at McGregor being an ex-Jedi, now stop) turn to the dark side, and they are cursed from that moment on for having misused their powers.

The film’s insane finale in a secret army base in Iraq would feel at home in both MASH and Inglorious Basterds as it outrageously rewrites recent history with a more positive version of American liberty. It’s while watching this final sequence that it hits you Heslov’s point is really just Hunter S Thompson’s 1971 musing on “what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon”. Amen to that.

3/5

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