Talking Movies

November 27, 2012

An Arrow of a different colour

I root for shows to stay on the air, not least because so many shows I’ve loved (Cupid, Studio 60, Vengeance Unlimited) have been prematurely cancelled, but … I really hope Arrow gets scrapped soon.

There’s been a Smallville-sized gap in my world for a year now, and so Arrow you’d imagine would be right up my street. But it’s not, it’s really not; for many reasons, mostly to do with other programmes. Arrow is a show that seems to have been created by putting other hits in a blender, and then just running with whatever derivative gloop emerged. It would appear that the producers noticed that Revenge was popular last season and so figured they also could surf the zeitgeist and take down 99%ers every week, complete with Green Arrow drawing a line thru the name of the fat cat he’d successfully ruined; just like Emily’s crossing an X thru the face of the person in the group photo she’d destroyed at the end of early episodes of Revenge. Every time I see the Queen mansion in Arrow all I can think of is Lex Luthor’s mansion in Smallville. If it’s not actually the same exterior then it sure looks like it, and it’s just a bit distracting. Furthermore while Arrow fails to match the charm of early Smallville, it’s overdosing on the angst that soon blighted that show. 5 episodes in and Laurel Dinah Lance has already stated, for not particularly clear reasons, that she and Oliver Queen can never be together. Even though their character names make it blindingly obvious they will be, eventually. And so Clark and Lana nonsense begins anew…

But these aren’t even the most aggravating or troubling derivative elements of Arrow. The constant flashbacks, to Oliver Queen’s 5 years on a remote island where he became Green Arrow, complete with meaningful life lessons from a cryptically wise Chinese Arrow screamed LOST and that was before The Others showed up… It was bad enough having to endure a flashback vignette every week that related to the main story, but now there are well-organised and well-resourced military personnel on an island where shipwrecked survivors are hunting animals for food. These Others are led by a man with staring eyes, just like Ben Linus, who is the Big Bad of the show, not least because he has sadistic torturer Deathstroke at his disposal. And then for the final kicker it’s revealed that the Mandarin name for the island means … Purgatory. Just, no… we don’t need more LOST meanderings, six years of pointless nonsense was enough. And then there’s the Nolan riffing. In the first episode Oliver was seen at a grinder getting his weapons sharp, in a scene shot farcically like its model in Batman Begins where Bruce makes his first throwing Bats. But then a shadowed Oliver goes on to growl to Laurel about he can give her leverage for a case, just like Batman growled as he gave his lawyer love interest Rachel leverage on Judge Faden. That’d be okay if perhaps Arrow appreciated why Nolan’s Batman worked…

But Arrow doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how comic-book superheroes operate. When in the pilot Oliver Queen, out of costume, caught a criminal who’d kidnapped him and then broke his neck shouting “No one can know my secret!” it was an enormous shock, because it was such a stunning mis-step, and anti-Nolan to the nth degree despite all the borrowings from Nolan elsewhere. It was a return to the ethics or lack thereof of Tim Burton’s Batman who very deliberately murdered the Joker as well as carelessly offing God knows how many goons along the way. Green Arrow’s subsequent shooting of a corrupt tycoon with an arrow thru the hand was far nastier than Batman dropping Sal Maroni to break his ankles, because Nolan’s Batman was being forced to extremes by the Joker’s madness whereas that’s just how this Green Arrow rolls… And for all Green Arrow’s homicidal antics by the end of episode 4 he’s been arrested by the police for being Green Arrow. So his first murder was in vain… Only things get even better. You see, like The Joker, Loki and Silva – he planned on getting caught! He wanted them to lock him up in the MCU Skybase Churchill Bunker Queen mansion. Because, like The Dark Knight Rises, the important thing is not that Oliver Queen is Green Arrow but that there will always be a Green Arrow, no matter who’s under the hood…

Except, why should we care who is under the hood if he’s just a cold-blooded killer? Nolan’s Batman famously only has one rule – don’t kill people. Maim the hell out of them, by all means, but don’t kill them. Arrow seems to think it can lift huge chunks from Nolan’s Bat-verse and then also appropriate the industrial slaughter of Maggie Q’s Nikita, but Nikita comes from a dark place – that’s the character. She’s a drug addict who killed people before she got forced by the government to join a secret government agency and kill people before she went rogue and embarked on a new mission to kill bad people. Killing is an essential part of Nikita as a character, but not killing has always been an equally essential part of DC Comics’ superheroes as characters. David S Goyer noted that they very deliberately had Batman throw Joker off a building and then save him in The Dark Knight as a riposte to the end of Burton’s Batman because both he and Christopher Nolan felt that Batman killing Joker had been a terrible tonal mistake. And it was a mistake, just witness the brilliance of the scene that Batman then shares with the Joker dangling from a rope. There’s a mystical connection between those two characters that doesn’t allow for simple killing. Superman can’t simply knock off Lex Luthor, and it goes beyond the morality of the characters to a sense of epic grandeur. This isn’t just comic-book bilge incidentally, look at Albert Camus’ description in The Rebel of Spartacus seeking out his opposing number Crassus to die in single combat against him and him alone.

The amorality of the lead character who should be a straight arrow, as it were, is only one part of the problem though. Oliver Queen in Smallville was transparently a Batman substitute, but Justin Hartley’s performance as Oliver Queen/Green Arrow had a nonchalance entirely absent from Stephen Amell’s wooden earnestness in Arrow. Some of this may be due to the different functions of the character, Hartley was there for sparring with earnest Clark Kent whereas Amell as lead character to some degree is earnest Clark Kent. But Hartley’s Green Arrow had the same formative traumas in his past, and it didn’t swamp the character’s traditional sardonic nature, while Amell’s inert demeanour never allows him to convince as the party animal that makes Oliver Queen such close kin to Bruce Wayne. Nolan allowed us to see that public Bruce Wayne, private Bruce Wayne and Batman were three distinct personalities; and that private Bruce Wayne was a good man. But Arrow has failed to make private Oliver Queen much more likeable than public Oliver Queen. And this points to a bigger problem.

Thor and John Carter placed alongside Arrow seem to indicate that we are in the middle of a bona fide scriptwriting crisis. There’s a distinction between a rogue and a dick that appears to have been lost. Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter was deeply unlikeable as a hero, and the film was reduced to not only bafflingly introducing Bryan Cranston as a metaphorical cat to be saved, but then introducing an actual dog to be saved as well later, in a vain effort to get us to like Carter.  Thor meanwhile was entirely upended by the fact that Thor was a thoroughly unlikeable jerk who only became bearable in the last act of the film, which enabled the suave Tom Hiddleston as Loki to steal the entire movie as the cleverer brother forever cleaning up the messes of his petulant blowhard sibling. A classic rogue, like Han Solo, or even Ian Somerhalder’s Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries, is cocky, likeable, and from the perspective of the other characters entirely unreliable, even though the audience always has a sneaking suspicion that the bad boy will come through in the end no matter how many times he weasels out on doing the right thing along the way to serve his own agenda. But Thor, John Carter, and Arrow are sunk by heroes who aren’t remotely likeable. Arrow has dropped the Green to emphasise its edginess but it’s dropped its character’s resonance too…

I’m sticking with Arrow for now to see Seth Gabel aka Jeremy Darling from Dirty Sexy Money as Vertigo, but once Gabel leaves the show I won’t be far behind.

November 21, 2012

Gambit

Colin Firth assumes Michael Caine’s role in an unnecessary remake of 1966’s unloved art forgery caper that fell flat next to Peter O’Toole’s How to Steal a Million then, and which falls equally flat now.

Firth is Harry Deane, a put-upon art expert who curates the private collection of vulgar multi-millionaire and ‘degenerate nudist’ Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman). Firth has reached the end of his tether and plans to exploit Shahbandar’s uncontrollable desire to lord it over his hated Japanese rival by buying the second long-lost painting in a matching set of Monets; having outbid said rival for the first painting a decade before. Tom Courtenay’s Major Wingate provides the forged Monet, while the spurious provenance comes from Texan rodeo-rider PJ Puznowksi (Cameron Diaz). Puznowki’s grandfather stormed art-laden Nazi bunkers, and Deane is convinced this will hook Shahbandar into believing that Gramps Puznowki may have liberated a Monet back to Texas. All Deane has to do then is authenticate the forgery and 12 million pounds is his… But cons are never that simple, hilarity ensues.

Regrettably hilarity does not ensue, at quite some length. For reasons passing understanding the movie opens with a truncated version of how Deane wishes the movie to play out; which is very disorienting. First you think that the plan has gone very well, and that it’s going to hit a snag after the original caper. Then you realise that was a dream sequence, and so when you find that plan dragging on forever in real time later you’re needlessly impatient; because you’ve seen how fast it can go. The actors are stranded trying to mug laughs out of a weak script. Diaz goofs around like she’s back in 1998, Rickman squeezes some smiles from being comically obnoxious, Firth does an uptight Englishman without flexing his acting muscles, and the venerable Tom Courtenay (who provides oddly sporadic voiceover) is entirely underused.

The Coen Brothers screenplay undoubtedly attracted these actors, and there are numerous small touches that scream Coens such as Shahbandar’s eccentric security system and his nudism, garrulous and seemingly idiotic Japanese businessmen, Stanley Tucci’s demented big entrance, and the neighbour who wordlessly punches Deane in the nose in several scenes (a particularly unfunny but typical touch). But this is a film set in England with predominantly English characters which appears to have been bolted together entirely from Hollywood clichés about England and Englishness. Constantly inserting the words sod, bugger, and bollocks into dialogue does not make it instantly authentically English, guv’nor… This film surely hurts the Coens’ reputation as it is a laugh-free zone in which they only script one mildly amusing sequence; in which Firth, Diaz and Rickman engage in some extremely old-fashioned farce involving missing trousers and endless room-swapping at a swanky hotel.

Gambit was a film that should only have been remade by Steven Soderbergh. Avoid.

1/5

November 6, 2012

The Sapphires

Chris O’Dowd stars as the manager of 1960s girl-group The Sapphires in this charming Australian drama based on a true story of pioneering Aboriginal women.

Three sisters in a remote township dream of singing, but racism stymies their attempts to get discovered until drunken pianist/MC Dave (O’Dowd) stands up for them at a talent contest and quickly becomes their manager. Determined to win them the chance to entertain American troops in Vietnam he works on changing their sound and stage presence, battling all the while with Gail (Deborah Mailman), the momma bear sister with an inflated opinion of her mediocre singing talents and a sharp mouth. Her sibling rivalry with the flirtatious Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell); who is recovering from being jilted at the altar; and the younger Julie (Jessica Mauboy); the most talented singer who is driven to succeed by her need to support her son; threatens to derail the group. But that’s as nothing compared to the tension created by Dave’s insistence on adding Kay (Shari Sebbens), their ‘passing’ cousin who lives in Melbourne…

It’s hard to imagine this film working as well as it does without Chris O’Dowd’s particular shambling charm as the drunken Irish soul man with a penchant for insulting people, an abiding hatred of country music, and an ever present hip flask. Dave’s fractious relationship with Gail sees them both deliver zinging put-downs of the other, and there is a fantastic ‘emotional’ speech in which he tries to compliment her but gets sidetracked by his own barbs. The memorable quips are accompanied by a joyous soundtrack of 1960s soul music, and the low budget doesn’t stop director Wayne Blair from throwing in one very memorable show-off shot hammering home the unpredictable chaos of guerrilla warfare. But underscoring the comedy of the script by Tony Briggs and (not that) Keith Thompson is a patient reveal of a family trauma…

This should be approached as a drama, but with a lot of very funny lines. It has serious emotional heft as a major theme is vicious racism against the Aboriginal population at both a casual and official level, and it also features a startling depiction of the emotional devastation caused by Martin Luther King’s assassination that rivals a similar sequence in 2007’s terrific Don Cheadle movie Talk To Me. The Sapphires wonderfully balances presenting Vietnam as a place of racial equality, and therefore supreme opportunity for these girls, but also an extremely hazardous warzone where as Dave says ‘every American soldier here is stoned off his head’ because of fear. It’s semi-miraculous that the film successfully combines these strands with a riff on Dreamgirls as the relationships within the group buckle under the strain of constant performing and doomed romances.

The Sapphires traverses familiar territory but does so with such winning performances and good humour that it is most rewarding viewing.

4/5

November 2, 2012

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part VI

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Star Search ’86 aka Hannah and Her Sisters

With apologies to Donnie Darko for that title, there is a scene in Woody Allen’s classic serious comedy Hannah and Her Sisters which really does double as a talent-spotting showcase. The scene in question is our introduction to Allen’s hypochondriac and endlessly harassed TV comedy writer/producer. As he walks along a corridor he is put upon by a remarkable set of actors who weren’t big names when the film was made but who would become well-known, even if some of them took their time about it. Allen has run into trouble over a sketch and the difficulty is being explained to him by Christian Clemenson, yes, the one lawyer capable of out-odd-balling Denny Crane in Boston Legal. Walking but not talking alongside Allen and Clemenson is one of the comedy show’s performers, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, just a few years before Seinfeld begins. Shouting advice at Allen is Julie Kavner, a few years away from voicing Marge Simpson. At the end of the walk a pre-Coens John Turturro explodes into the shot to complain about his PLO sketch being cut without anyone consulting him about it first, and then finally Allen meets the man from standards and practices who cut the sketch everyone is so concerned about; and the man is JT Walsh, in his only scene in the film, already starting to ply his trademark obstructive man in suit trade. It may have taken some of these actors longer to make their mark than others but boy does Woody have an eye for casting future stars or what?

Fassbendering Ahoy?

It’s been a while since I wrote about this blog’s signature concept of Fassbendering, but two recent pieces of production news indicate that 2013 may be a vintage year for it. Lenny Abrahamson isn’t a director you’d associate with comedy but his next project is co-written by the journalist Jon Ronson, a man with an eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test, and Peter Straughan who adapted Ronson’s non-fiction book Goats for the screen. Their original script Frank is a comedy about a wannabe musician, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins an eccentric pop band led by enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender). Shooting starts once Fassbender wraps Ridley Scott’s latest disaster movie The Counsellor. It’s about time Fassbender played a rock star when you think about it, few roles offer such potential for enjoying oneself far too much while working. Another two men who understand Fassbendering are reuniting after the success of The Guard as principal photography has begun in Co. Sligo on John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, with Brendan Gleeson as a priest intent on making the world a better place who is continually shocked by the spiteful inhabitants of his small country town. After being threatened during confession, he must battle the dark forces closing in around him. Among his unruly flock in this blackly comic drama are Chris O’Dowd, Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran, Pat Shortt, David Wilmot, and … yep, Domhnall Gleeson; whose impressive 2012 CV saw him recently named as one of Variety’s ’10 Actors to Watch’.

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