Talking Movies

February 28, 2013

Stoker

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Oldboy director Park Chan-wook makes his American debut with a suitably twisted  tale of an alienated teenage girl’s growing suspicion of the motives of her  newly discovered relative, Uncle Charlie.

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is a bright but withdrawn teenager whose  beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) dies on her 18th birthday. However,  his death is immediately followed by the arrival of his brother Charlie (Matthew  Goode); whose existence comes as a complete surprise to India. Her mother Evelyn  (Nicole Kidman) explains that Charlie has spent the past 20 years travelling the  globe on geological surveys and was estranged from his brother Richard. Charlie  decides to stay on at the Stoker Mansion and while Evelyn throws herself at him,  India maintains an aloof distance. But the mysterious disappearance of their  housekeeper Mrs McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) followed by a visit from her  grand-aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), who warns India to be wary of Charlie,  arouses her suspicions about Charlie’s shadowy past. She soon has concerns about  his present intentions as they start bonding…

Stoker looks and sounds amazing. The  colours are rich, and Park does amazing things with ambient sound; consistently  pushed to the foreground to incredibly unsettling effect giving the film a  sustained intensity of unease. One stunning moment in which the camera circles a  character, following a belt being deafeningly pulled off, creates an effect akin  to hearing the tell-tale warning before a rattlesnake strike. Park doesn’t hold  back on the Hitchcockian flourishes; the camera swoops away and pushes in  dramatically, observes characters eavesdropping, generates suspense from the  mere framing of innocuous dialogue scenes, and even features a memorably  diabolic shower scene. Park teases the audience magnificently, holding on back  on information at key points, and then complicating our interpretation of  certain images with additional back-story. Even performing a simple piano duet  written by Philip Glass becomes a deliriously transgressive experience.

But there’s a flipside… Wentworth Miller’s original screenplay lifts a  number of elements from Hitchcock’s 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt, but doesn’t pilfer such  crucial traits as a sympathetic protagonist, likeable antagonist, believable  characters, or sustained ambiguity. I’m not sure a film set in Connecticut can  really claim to be part of the Southern Gothic literary tradition as it’s been  positioned, and in any case this is more Shadow  of a Doubt by way of Dexter than  Flannery O’Connor. And this isn’t just me seeing Dexter everywhere; as probably the most  original show of the last decade it’s unsurprising that ideas from it are  percolating. But Dexter DNA doesn’t  include ciphers masquerading as people. Goode’s unblinking Charlie is positively  reptilian, Wasikowska’s India is totally deadened, and Kidman’s Evelyn a mere  melodramatic type. The result is an anti-Hitchcockian emotional detachment.

Miller’s script rocked the Black List in 2010 but it’s the weakest link in  Park’s accomplished film, which lacks his Korean movies’ visceral punch.

3/5

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Arbitrage

Photography By Myles Aronowitz

A Golden Globe nominated Richard Gere plays a high-flying Wall Street magnate  juggling crises financial, emotional, and ominously legal in screenwriter  Nicholas Jarecki’s feature debut.

Robert Miller (Gere) is the CEO and founder of investment firm Miller  Capital. He’s about to sell his company to the fabulously wealthy James Mayfield  (Graydon Carter), but needs the deal to happen urgently before the $400 million  hole in his accounts, hidden by his pliable auditor, is discovered. His personal  life, juggling his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and his mistress Julie (Laetitia  Casta), is stressful enough. But between trying to stave off his wife’s  suspicions, visit his mistress’s new art exhibition to avoid her hysteria, and  finagle the forensic accountants, Miller finds himself asleep at the wheel,  literally. He enlists the help of an old lieutenant’s son, Jimmy (Nate Parker),  to cover up his deadly accident, but it seems certain either his  daughter/business partner Brooke (Britt Marling) or embittered NYPD homicide  detective Bryer (Tim Roth) will unravel Miller’s lies.

Richard Gere is a puzzling actor. He’s occasionally self-satisfied but can  generate audience sympathy out of thin air in films like Red Corner and The Jackal, but, as the necessity of doing so  in films like those indicates, he just can’t seem to recognise good scripts.  Gere does have some barnstorming rants here, and he’s brilliant at saying  abrasive things and then instantly apologising; as if the stress Miller is under  causes his social filters to malfunction. But Gere alone cannot carry a film  dripping cliché. His mistress Julie is the most irritating, high-maintenance,  art gallery owning French stereotype imaginable. It is simply impossible to care  about her, when you want to slap Miller for carrying on with her given how great  his privileged life is. And this is the script’s fault as Casta excelled as  Bardot in 2010’s Gainsbourg.

The slowly tightening legal vice  around Jimmy as he tries to stonewall his way out of admitting any involvement  with Miller’s situation is compelling, but not nearly as tense as that in Side Effects. Jarecki also nicely heightens  the suspense of Miller trying to meet the elusive Mr Mayfield to settle the  buyout of his firm in person like men. But this film doesn’t really shed a light  on high finance like Margin Call (or  even Wall Street 2’s central speech)  did. There’s nothing wrong with melodrama, Dickens and Ibsen are melodramatic;  what’s unforgivable is turgid melodrama. And, when Sarandon finally comes into  her own near the end, her grandstanding reveals that, for all Marling’s gameness  in showing how Brooke’s suspicions of her father’s honesty cause her to unravel,  this is melodrama about a tycoon masquerading as biting social commentary.

Jarecki was dropped from directing his 2008 adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Informers. This proves his  competence directing, but his script offers many individual gems without overall  impact.

2.5/5

Safe Haven

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Lasse Hallstrom directs his second Nicholas Sparks adaptation after Dear John, but this film about a fugitive  combines some thriller action with its soppy romance.

The movie opens dramatically with blood-soaked Katie (Julianne Hough) running  from a stabbed body to a neighbour for help. Some quick dyeing of hair and  changing of clothes and she’s on a bus out of town, despite the frantic attempts  of cop Tierney (David Lyons) to find her at the terminal. At a brief stop in  small town coastal North Carolina Katie decides to ditch the bus and take a job  as a waitress at a seaside restaurant. The presence of hunky widower Alex (Josh  Duhamel) in the general store being a major factor in her thinking, not that  she’ll admit that without some prodding from helpful neighbour Jo (Cobie  Smulders). But even as Katie bonds with Alex’s children Lexie (Mimi Kirkland)  and Josh (Noah Lomax), and embarks on a relationship with Alex, dogged detective  Tierney is on her trail…

Another year, another awful Lasse  Hallstrom movie to review; although in this case I suspect he may have had  considerable help from Nicholas Sparks. I excoriated Hallstrom’s disastrous  adaptation of Salmon Fishing in the  Yemen but this underwhelming flick offends less because nobody’s ever  accused Sparks of writing wonderfully. Hallstrom traffics in sentimentality;  and, this somehow being my first Sparks adaptation, that seems to fit well with  what I assume here is Sparks’ approach to romance – which is distinctly Mills & Boon in its major set-pieces. Except that this plot, as Hallstrom has  boasted, incorporates a strong thriller element into the usual sappiness. I’m  not sure that’s something to boast about as this feels like uncannily like Tess  Gerritsen’s novel Girl Missing, her  final entry in that horrible sub-genre of suspense romance, where each intrudes  on the other’s turf irritatingly.

Hallstrom pulls out all the stops visually for the climactic 4th  of July showdown, with fireworks in foreground and background, and some  efficient suspense. Footloose star Hough  on auto-cute makes less of an impression though than Smulders, despite having  acres more screentime as the heroine. Duhamel is a reliably endearing presence,  but he can’t carry a romance solo, while Lyons’ performance as the pursuing cop  decays throughout the film from subtle obsessiveness to pantomime villainy. Red  West as Uncle Roger essays some nice comic gruffness, but one-note  characterisation is far too prevalent, and is incredibly grating in the case of  Kirkland (adorable kid) and Lomax (sullen kid). Indeed the shallowness of the  writing is such that it allows an infuriatingly connived third-act reveal,  infuriating because it relies on one particular shallow characterisation without  realising that hiding it behind shallow characterisation all around hurts the  film.

Safe Haven is a competently made  film, that has some amusing moments and a memorable ending, but it’s impossible  to say that it’s good.

2/5

February 23, 2013

Oscar Schmoscar: Part IV

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:38 pm

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The annual parade of pomposity and razzmatazz known as the Academy Awards lurches around yet a-bloody-gain this Sunday, so here’s a deflating reminder of its awful track record.
 
Ben Affleck is not nominated for an Oscar for Best Director for Argo, but has already won both the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for Directing. But the Academy knows best, right? I mean it’s not like the Directors’ Guild of America plumped for Affleck for Argo and a bunch of costume designers, sound editors and VFX computer jockeys decided Affleck wasn’t really a director of the highest calibre, right? Well, actually the DGA did plump for Affleck, so, yes; it has happened that a bunch of people who don’t direct think they know better than the actual directors what directing is all about. But Affleck really shouldn’t feel bad about being snubbed. The list of directors that the Academy thought didn’t cut the mustard is really quite impressive, you’d almost want to join it; including as it does Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.
 
The Academy doesn’t acknowledge the best films made during a year. It acknowledges the films that conducted the best campaign to be acknowledged. It’s infuriating to make lists on December 31st of the best films released during the year, as experienced by Irish cinema audiences, in the knowledge that the Oscar movies will arrive over the next two months; because they’ve been held back in America to crash into the consciousness of the amnesiacs who make up the Academy, and get maximum traction in the race for nominations – many of which are crucial to the marketing of these films, because these are not films that anyone will want to go see unless they have Oscar nominations attached. Which should be a clear signal to the makers: if your film will fail to sound good to audiences unless it gets nominations thru relentless pseudo-political campaigning then it probably isn’t any good.
 
We shouldn’t let it be thought that the Academy are competent to judge excellence in any category when they’re capable of judging the lazy The Descendants to be a better adapted screenplay than the sublime Submarine. This event needs to be denied the oxygen of publicity, without which it would surely shrivel down to a size more commensurate with its questionable judgement. That’s why every year this blog will never speculate breathlessly about the nominations before they’re made, comment seriously on them after they’re made, or make obsequious acknowledgement of the winners. When the Oscars are worthy of coverage, I will cover them. I look forward to the day when blockbusters, comedies, small dramas, and epic dramas that have been released throughout a year and not merely in the last three weeks of December in small theatres in Los Angeles jostle for deserved recognition. But I don’t hold my breath.
 
If you love films, you’re almost duty bound at this point to revile the Oscars.

February 14, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

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Bruce Willis returns as NYPD’s finest terrorist/master-thief-killing  Detective John McClane, once again in the wrong place at the wrong time; this  time with his son.

McClane is horrified to find his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) has been  arrested in Moscow for killing a man in a nightclub. He flies to Russia, heeding  the warning of his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) not to make a bad  situation worse. He then, of course, proceeds to make it catastrophic. Jack is  actually an undercover CIA operative trying to protect Komarov (Sebastian Koch),  an oligarch become political prisoner. Komarov has incriminating evidence on  ex-business partner Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov), a man sympathetic to terrorism  and on the point of becoming Defence Minister. Jack’s cover comprehensively  blown by dad he retreats to the safe house run by his Agency handler, Collins  (Cole Hauser). But the unstoppable killers Alick (Radivoje Bukvic) and Irina  (Yuliya Snigir) seem to be one step ahead of the McClanes, and Jack mulishly  refuses John’s advice…

Director (and Dundalk native) John  Moore proved with Behind Enemy Lines  that he could deploy every weapon in the stylistic arsenal, but since then he’s  been serving time putting a glossy sheen on mediocre material. This is his shot  at the big time, but you suspect, despite his unwarranted criticisms of Die Hard 4.0, that he’s still putting a glossy  sheen on sub-par material. The spectacular car-chase following John pursuing  Alick tracking Jack and Komarov doesn’t stint on the vehicular destruction and  Alick’s beast of a machine is a joy to watch. Moore also has a lot of fun with  the thudding ballistics of a helicopter gunship tracking the McClanes down the  façade of a hotel. But, this film is half an hour shorter than all previous  instalments, and that missing 30 minutes would’ve usefully housed humour and  character moments.

Skip Woods’ script shares with his Wolverine plot a terribly disguised  early twist that vitiates a later great twist, and despite being written as a Die Hard it really only latterly feels  like one. There is a glaring reference that cleverly transforms into a traumatic  character death, but while there’re nice moments of musical homage by Marco  Beltrami to Michael Kamen’s iconic score and its appropriation of Beethoven,  frequently we’re treated to Zimmer/Howard Bat-rumblings, and Moore’s hand-held  direction lacks the geographic clarity of McTiernan’s template; something which  Len Wiseman wisely amended his style to synch with in Die Hard 4.0. Acting wise MEW’s bookending  cameo is delightful, while Snigir may (and I say this as a Nikita fan) actually be better than Maggie Q’s 4.0 villainess; her nihilistic rage in  the finale is astonishing. Courtney is physically imposing but he lacks the  endearing charm of Bruce Willis past and present.

This lacks the gleefulness that ‘Yippee-Ki-Yay Mother Russia’ teased, but  it’s an entertaining outing that doesn’t disgrace the franchise.

3/5

King Lear

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All dark, and comfortless

The Abbey amazingly hasn’t staged King  Lear since the early 1930s. Director Selina Cartmell thus has no  legendary productions of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy to outshine.

The aged Lear (Owen Roe) has decided to split his kingdom between his three  daughters. But, while the scheming diabolical siblings Regan (Caoilfhionn Dunne)  and Goneril (Tina Kellegher) flatter him to get their rightful shares, Lear’s  only good-hearted daughter Cordelia (Beth Cooke) refuses to lie or exaggerate,  enraging the vain Lear; and her share is thus split between her sisters’ husbands Cornwall (Phelim Drew) and Albany (John Kavanagh). Cordelia leaves  without a dowry to become the Queen of France and the noble courtier Kent (Sean  Campion) is banished for taking her part in the quarrel. He disguises himself to  serve Lear, but the scheming bastard Edmund (Ciaran Mcmenamin) uses the fraught  situation to eliminate his legitimate brother Edgar (Aaron Monaghan) from the  line of succession to Gloucester (Lorcan Cranitch); exploiting the political  chaos that Lear’s wise Fool (Hugh O’Connor) foresaw…

I found myself comparing Cartmell’s interpretation of the text to Sarah Finlay’s 2010 production  starring Ger Adlum because Gaby Rooney’s costume design replicated its  colour-coded royal houses, both productions being indebted to Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. But instead of Finlay’s icily  austere minimalism Cartmell offered rich medieval costuming, wolfhounds lurching  around between scenes, and a second storey built onto the Abbey stage to add a  period gallery to the drunken carousing in castles below. Garance Marnuer’s  layered set design sends a triangle into the audience for characters to deliver  their monologues, so that in the front rows the eye is caught by actors on three  levels; and that’s before the triangle spectacularly rises for the heath scene.  Given such impressive staging the climactic fight with long-staffs between  Edmund and Edgar surprises with its sheer inertness and lack of ambition in  clashing choreography…

Cartmell’s commitment to visual  medievalism though clashes with her highlighting of the paganism in  Shakespeare’s most nihilistic play. ‘Nothing comes from nothing’ proclaims Lear  in a famously pre-Christian thought, and the illuminated paganism is truly  chilling in one scene in which Lear, holding an antler skull to channel power,  calls down a curse on the heavily pregnant Goneril to make her miscarry for her  ill treatment of him. But… there are constant references to Greek philosophers  and Roman gods, and why would they be invoked if you believed in animist gods or  pantheism? Especially as Gloucester’s “As flies are to wanton boys so are we to  the gods/They kill us for their sport” screams of the capricious Greek  divinities. And that’s before you wonder what historical neverland Cartmell has  situated her post-Roman but pre-Christian nations of France and England in…

Cartmell coaxes many strong  performances. Roe is appropriately magisterial as Lear, while Monaghan is  fiercely committed as Edgar’s alter-ego Poor Tom (even if John Healy was not the  only one coughing Gollum), and Cooke’s Cordelia shedding a tear when Lear  finally recognises her in his madness is extremely affecting. Dunne makes  Regan’s villainy a progressive revelation, while Drew gives some richness to the  oft one-note psychotic Cornwall, and Ronan Leahy stands out from the ensemble  with empathetic nuance as he counsels Gloucester and Cordelia. Kellegher’s  Goneril though lacks subtlety, and Mcmenamin’s Edmund, emphasising his  discordant Northern accent and swanking around in black, at times appears to be  in an entirely different play. Cranitch’s straightforward Gloucester meanwhile  failed to match Keith Thompson’s 2010 camp lecherous interpretation, making his  eye-gouging less traumatic despite some truly horrific gouged eye-socket makeup.  He certainly wasn’t helped though by both beard and gouged-eye makeup peeling  off on the night I went…

This is a good production that has a  number of great performances, but some disappointing turns and an  inconsistency in tackling the text hold it back from true greatness.

3/5

King Lear continues its run at the Abbey  until the 23rd of March.

2013: Fears

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Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s 2004 novel is one of the most bafflingly over-rated books of  the last decade. Six novellas stitched together, and wanting a medal for  referencing their own sub-Stoppardian structuring, it comprises pastiches of  Golding/Melville, Huxley/Isherwood, 1970s Pakula, Amis, and even The Matrix; small wonder then that it’s the  Wachowskis who’ve filmed it with co-writer/director Tom Twyker. But they’ve  added another layer of inanity, not since Zelig have people played other races so  ridiculously. February 22nd sees Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim  Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, and Ben Whishaw being racially insensitive in the  service of a misguided interpretation of the novel as in thrall to  metempsychosis rather than meta-textuality.

 

Oz: The Great and Powerful

James Franco achieves every stoner’s dream when listening to a certain  synched Pink Floyd album and floats his way to Oz. Or rather to a greenscreen  warehouse where Sam Raimi promised he’d CGI Oz in around his roguish Kansas  magician later. The rights to Baum’s novels are out of copyright but don’t  expect to see any innovations made in the classic 1939 film because it’s not out  of copyright. Raimi’s not directed anything truly impressive in ages but his  witches are quite a triumvirate: Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel  Weisz. Incidentally did you know that Wicked is coming to Dublin in November? Go see Wicked

 

The Host

Saoirse Ronan has been on a bad run of giving performances better than the  film that houses them, and this looks like another example. In Time auteur Andrew Niccol adapts and  directs the latest Stephenie Meyer franchise. Ronan is Melanie Stryder, whose  body has been claimed by an alien but whose mind resists the parasite. Liam  Hemsworth is her love interest and William Hurt and Diane Kruger are Melanie’s  relatives put on the spot by her reappearance. On March 29th we’ll  find out if Niccol has managed to find a method to convey the struggle of two  minds in one body that is any way, shape, or form visual.

 

Gatsby

I venerate F Scott Fitzgerald’s  masterpiece, and the trailers of Baz Lurhmann’s suspiciously postponed splashy  film bespeak a totally disastrous adaptation. Leonardo DiCaprio is a good choice  to play the enigmatic titular old sport, as is Joel Edgerton as his  nemesis Tom Buchanan, but the blanker-than-thou Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway  may narrate us all into a coma, while Carey Mulligan has the eternally thankless  role of Daisy. Lurhmann has a remarkable inability to handle subtlety; Gatsby is not about swooping thru raucous  parties and zeroing in on high camp comedy scenes. And as for the delay, ‘allegedly’ for a Jay-Z score; Aliens  was scored in less than a fortnight…

 

The Hangover: Part III

May sees the latest instalment of the inexplicable comedy franchise spawned  by a crude film with a handful of good gags and a not nearly as clever structure  as it thought it had. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis this time  head to Mexico. So, more racist stereotypes, idiotic cameos, and crass humour.  But at least a different plot as we’re promised a character death… The Hangover is largely responsible for making  Galifianakis a star, and, given how dispensable he is from Bored to Death say, that’s an awful lot to set  against getting Cooper in the position where he could star in Silver Linings Playbook.

 

Man of Steel

On June 14th 300 director  Zack Snyder will unveil his first PG-13 film deliberately scripted as such.  Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry  White, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Martha and Jonathan Kent are all solid  casting choices, while Michael Shannon as General Zod is truly inspired. Against  that Henry Cavill as Superman is a gamble. The first non-American to don the  cape, he’ll struggle unless David S Goyer’s script eschews angst and that  doesn’t seem likely. Maybe this’ll be the origin story we didn’t know we needed,  but trying to Nolanise such an optimistic character seems like a folly.

THE LONE RANGER

 

World War Z

June 21st finally sees Brad Pitt’s UN worker try to prevent a  global zombie epidemic in an adaptation of the seminal Max Brooks novel by  Matthew Michael Carnahan, writer of the inert Lions for Lambs. The studio ordered massive  reshoots and the third act was rewritten by Drew Goddard so we’ll see if that  and the presence of Matthew Fox and David Morse can save proceedings. Director  Marc Foster was handpicked by Pitt, but reports have it that they ended up  communicating only by messages to a studio executive; perhaps because of small  mishaps like how production started before there was an agreed make-up design  for the zombies.

 

Pacific Rim

Guillermo Del Toro hasn’t made a film since 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Talking Movies was rather hoping he’d never  make another one, and just stick to writing novels with Chuck Hogan, but  somebody has relented and financed a giant aliens versus men in giant robots  blockbuster. So, the last 5 minutes of Aliens but supersized and with bad CGI instead  of great VFX… Oh, and clockwork. It’s great to see Rinko Kikuchi’s stellar  turn in The Brothers Bloom rewarded with  a leading role opposite Charlie Hunnam as the mind-melding pilots fighting the  Kaiju water monsters in IMAX 3-D, but, even with Clifton Collins Jr, can this  work?

 

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

This film should have been released last  year but was pushed to this year (in one of the funniest stunts ever pulled by a  major studio) because Channing Tatum had some major hits just before its release and so they  wanted to do some reshoots, as he died in the first act. So a Superbowl ad,  warehouses full of toys, and Jon Chu’s original directorial vision be damned!  Here comes a completely different G.I. Joe:  Retaliation in which The Rock, Bruce Willis and Adrianne Palicki tackle  Cobra’s evil Jonathan Pryce, Arnold Vosloo, Lee Byung-Hun, and Ray Park in a  script from Zombieland’s writers – now  with added Tatum!

 

The Lone  Ranger

Pirates of the Caribbean shipmates  Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp lurch aboard a tremendously over-budget  revisionist take on the Lone Ranger character. It has the same release slot as  the first POTC, August 9th,  but the self-indulgence involved in this movie’s budgeting farces makes you  think it’s more of a POTC 3 endeavour.  Armie Hammer is the masked avenger who’ll be playing second fiddle to Depp’s  super-authentic Native American tracker Tonto.  Helena Bonham Carter also  appears, even though Tim Burton is not directing. Mind you, Verbinski does share  some traits with Burton; he also gets fixated on quirkiness and loses sight of  his story and his bland heroes.

 

Elysium

August sees District 9 writer/director Neill Blomkamp make  his Hollywood debut with a sci-fi that pits the 1% in the shape of Jodie Foster  against the 99% in the shape of a bald Matt Damon. Blomkamp’s South African  colleague Sharlto Copley is also in the cast as is I Am Legend’s Alice Braga. This is set in a  2159 world where the poor live in overcrowded slums on Earth while the rich  orbit above in an immaculate spaceship. The concept sounds not dissimilar in  feel to the Total Recall remake. But  that could be because this film’s been much delayed by reshoots and  rescheduling; which might suggest grave studio concerns.

 

Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron hasn’t made a film  since 2006’s Children of Men, perhaps  because he’s returning in October with another film which is more about its own  shooting style than anything else. It’s in 3-D, it’s incredibly CGI heavy as it  tries to grasp weightlessness, and the opening sequence is shot in one  continuous silent 17 minute take. Sandra Bullock stars, with support from George  Clooney, as astronauts who survive a catastrophic incident aboard a space  station and have to find a way to return to Earth. Every actress in Hollywood  seems to have been interested in this script, but not to the point of committing  to it; which raises suspicions…

 

The  Counsellor

The 2000s were marred by two notable  co-dependencies; Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott;  which hurt all involved. Let us hope that poor Michael Fassbender is not  getting sucked into the sinkhole that sunk Crowe’s leading man career as he  reunites with his Prometheus director  Scott for a drama about a lawyer getting in too deep with his drug-trafficking  clients. The cast includes Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris, logically enough,  and Javier Bardem, also logically enough; as this is No County for Old Men novelist Cormac  MacCarthy’s first original screenplay. Expect terse dialogue, stark amorality,  brutal violence and no catharsis.

February 6, 2013

Warm Bodies

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Nicholas Hoult apropos of Shaun of the Dead’s marketing shows us what a proper ‘zom-rom-com’ looks like, and it looks much like any other rom-com.

R (Hoult) is a hoodie-wearing slacker who lives at an abandoned airport, listens to his extensive vinyl collection on a private jet, slouches at a bar with his best friend (Robb Corddry), and from time to time shuffles into the city for some fresh human brains. As zombies are wont to do… Julie (Teresa Palmer) is the jaded daughter of General Grigio (John Malkovich), the hardliner entrusted with safeguarding the walled city. Sent into the dead zone with her boyfriend (Dave Franco) and best friend (Analeigh Tipton) to scavenge for medicine she’s ambushed by R’s pack, but he chooses not to eat her and classic rom-com structure develops. Will she love him when she finds out his secret is that he ate her previous boyfriend? And what exactly has changed in R that makes him capable of such human feelings?

So, how do you make zombies sexy? You don’t, you make them not zombies. A perfectly sound solution but you’d hope that someone of the calibre of writer/director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) would’ve gone deeper. Hoult’s voiceover is nicely sardonic, especially in his delightful scene-setting monologue, but if you’ve seen any episode of Dexter you’re wise to some of its tricks already. Corddry is damn good in support portraying seemingly impossible emotional ‘exhumation’, and Tipton has a wonderfully comic awkward exchange with Hoult in slacker shrugging. Palmer though struggles not to come off as simply blonde Bella Swann at critical moments… Ultimately Warm Bodies just cheats too much for its own good. Levine, in his first PG-13 outing, has to neuter the zombies’ appearance and behaviour, so that they don’t alienate with Romero-style bloody dismemberments of living human victims.

This is a difficult balancing act given the film’s brilliant innovative touch; that eating brains allows zombies to experience the memories of the human they’re munching on; powers the unlikely romance. Levine thus unveils a CGI version of Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton army as Boneys, the bad zombies who always eat people, and in one instance attack in a sequence lifted from I, Robot. At a certain point though the featured zombies aren’t really zombies anymore; more people who are so very, very, very drunk that they can no longer remember with certainty their own names or where they live, and find it equally challenging to think of things to say and then articulate the words intelligibly. Montreal is brilliantly rendered as post-apocalyptic wasteland but this is just an amusing rom-com – the power of love is the ‘cure’ for ‘zombieism’…

It seems George Romero’s heroes instead of going in for head-shots should have just stood with a boom-box over their own heads blasting out Huey Lewis and the News.

2.5/5

2013: Hopes

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Stoker

March sees the acclaimed South Korean director and Tarantino favourite Chan-Wook Park (Oldboy, Thirst) make his enigmatic English language debut with a movie scripted by the unlikely personage of Prison Break star Wentworth Miller. Riffing on Hitchock’s 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt and the Southern Gothic literary tradition this slow-burning psychological horror sees Mia Wasikowska’s unhealthy affection for her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) gradually transform into a possibly equally unhealthy suspicion to the point of madness when he comes to live with her recently widowed mother Nicole Kidman. Park has a wonderful eye for startling compositions and a willingness to challenge his audience with his pacing so this intrigues.

 

Mud

April sees the great Michael Shannon reunite with his regular collaborator the singular writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) but this time Matthew McConaughey is the focus as his roguish fugitive is helped evade bounty hunters and reunite with his lover Reese Witherspoon by two innocent teenage boys. Sam Shepard and Sarah Paulson round out the impressive cast in an Arkansas-set tale that’s been likened in feel to Huckleberry Finn. Nichols has adopted a more mobile style of directing for this endearing drama, written especially for McConaughey after Lone Star, which is also a world away in tone from the intensity and ambiguity of his apocalyptic drama Take Shelter.

 

The Iceman

Michael Shannon takes centre stage though as a notorious Mob hit-man Richard Kuklinski in this dark drama. Winona Ryder is his wife Deborah, who has no idea that this warm-hearted family man is also a cold-blooded contract killer with a huge and lengthening roll-call of victims. Director Ariel Vroman has rounded up an impressive supporting cast that includes Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, James Franco and Robert Davi. But the real draw here is, as ever, Shannon. He has a remarkable ability to project menace from a still centre as you sense bubbling fury beneath his calm face, and the ambiguities of this role recall his tour-de-force in Take Shelter.

 

Iron Man 3

April 26th sees the return of the only indispensable Marvel Studios property. Director Shane Black provided Robert Downey Jr with the definitive outing of his fast-talking ironist persona in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang so it’s a mouth-watering prospect to see Downey Jr again delivering Black dialogue. But… the pall of The Avengers hangs over this movie, which we’re promised sees Tony Stark suffering PTSD, before being attacked by Ben Kinsley’s not racist at all (now) super-villain The Mandarin. Rebecca Hall and Guy Pearce’s rival scientists join regulars Gwyneth Paltrow and Jon Favreau in the cast but can Downey Jr and Black really do sombre? And should they try?

 

Star Trek: Into Darkness

In 2009 I griped about both the intellectual con-job involved in the in-camera ret-conning plot and the poor villain of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek debut, but both gripes are now redundant. Rumours of Klingons conflict with Benedict Cumberbatch being Khan, but who cares? Cumberbatch is a genius terrorist destroying Starfleet from within and the crew of the USS Enterprise must travel into a warzone to stop him. May 17th should see another exuberant romp underscored with much seriousness as we fret about the fate of Zachary Quinto’s Spock. The only fly in the ointment is Peter Weller joining the cast. Have you seen 24: Day 5? Shudder.

 

The Wolverine

Yes, the first Wolverine movie in 2009 resembled a bad episode of Smallville at times, but it still had some good elements that could profitably be built on. Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) should bring more intelligence to proceedings and given Mark Millar’s new comics consultant role at Fox we can hope that the script is slightly more together as well. Plus this one’s got ninjas. And everything’s better with ninjas. And not just any old ninjas either, Will Yun Lee appears as the Silver Samurai. And Famke Janssen returns as Jean Grey! July 26th might see this franchise renew itself as effectively as its laconic super-healing hero.

 

The Dallas Buyers’ Club

Quebecois writer/director Jean-Marc Vallee follows his unsettling and emotional Cafe de Flore with a 1980s set film about the real life AIDS victim Ron Woodroof. A womanising homophobic Texan, he defied not just his doctors, but his own prejudices and the federal government to smuggle in from Mexico alternative drug treatments for himself and his fellow HIV+ victims. It stars, wait for it, Matthew McConaughey; who’s this year confirming his rebirth as a serious actor; with Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner. Vallee’s last Anglophone movie, Young Victoria, was essentially a cinematic curtsy by scriptwriter Julian Fellowes to the Famine Queen, so let’s hope this receives Vallee’s magic.

ONLY-GOD-FORGIVES

Only God Forgives

Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn and his Drive leading man Ryan Gosling reunite for another unhinged movie. I’m not kidding, Gosling said Refn’s script was the strangest thing he’d ever read. Shot on location in Bangkok, Gosling plays Julian, an Englishman running a boxing club as a front for his family’s drug-smuggling. Kristin Scott Thomas is his terrifying mother Jenna who instructs him to hunt down and kill the man who killed his brother. Refn has described this as a Western that takes place in the East, and a fairytale with Gosling as a cowboy. So expect virtuosity in visuals, sound, acting, oh, and some truly horrendous violence.

 

Carrie

Hallowe’en sees Stop-Loss director Kimberly Pierce’s delayed remake of Brian De Palma’s classic horror based on Stephen King’s hit debut novel. There are good and bad elements at work here that make this a toss-up between good and disaster. Chloe Moretz is the victimised teenager, Julianne Moore her crazy mother, Judy Greer the nice teacher, and Youth in Revolt’s Portia Doubleday the alpha mean girl. That’s a fine cast under a talented director. But, this has been mysteriously delayed, it’s been written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa who scripted the misfiring Spider-Man musical, and he’s promised to stick closer to the novel King insisted De Palma had improved on with his film.

 

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness will perforce be put to one side for a rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

 

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

On November 22nd the all-conquering Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss Everdeen for the second of four films adapted from Suzanne Collins’ best-selling YA trilogy. Having won the Hunger Games despite her seditious gestures Katniss finds herself thrown back into the fray as the 75th Hunger Games – the Quarter Quells – introduce new allies and enemies; including showy turns from Jena Malone and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson all return but, more importantly Gary Ross doesn’t; having been replaced in the director’s chair by Francis Lawrence who will presumably introduce a more considered visual style, more layered villains, and better action.

 

Twelve Years a Slave

Acclaimed director Steve McQueen’s first movie without Michael Fassbender in the lead role sees him instead working with Red Tails screenwriter John Ridley to adapt the true story of a free black man from the North who was kidnapped and forced into Slavery in the Antebellum South. The peerless Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as the indomitable hero Solomon Northrup. McQueen has rounded up an incredible supporting cast (Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Fassbender, Ruth Negga, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Scott McNairy, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch) but this film will undoubtedly belong to Ejiofor and McQueen’s visuals which may well become less abstract in dealing with this topic.

 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Yes, Peter Jackson, deserved everything he got at Christmas: to wit, being kicked like a dog with mange. But, even if the opportunistic and very ill-advised decision to adapt one short novel into three epic films represented the darkest hour for decent storytelling in the eternal battle between art and commerce, at least we won’t have to sit thru an hour of filler introducing dwarves we couldn’t care less about before the action starts with this second instalment. And we get to hear Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman together again! Freeman and Ian McKellen were reliably fantastic, let’s just hope this next film matches them.

February 1, 2013

Men at Lunch – Lon sa Speir

Men-at-Lunch

This documentary examines the famous 1932 photograph Lunch Atop a Skyscraper depicting 11 steel workers perched on a girder above Manhattan while building 30 Rock.

This TG4 originated feature, narrated by Fionnula Flanagan, tries to identify the anonymous 11 men in the photograph with research in the archives of the Rockefeller Centre that compares the diners with figures in other contemporaneous photos taken by the daredevil press photographers of the equally death-defying steelworkers. Director Seán Ó Cualáin follows the trail of clues into the bunker west of NYC that houses Corbis’ originals of their treasure-trove of iconic photographs. On a side-note Pennsylvanians should definitely head to Corbis’ underground lair in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Sadly what appears to be an original glass negative is now shattered, but it seems to confirm there was no trickery involved in the photo. It was as dangerous as it looks, and 2 of those men eating lunch may have been from the remote Galway village of Shanaglish…

Matt O’Shaughnessy and Sonny Glynn to be precise, as vouched for by Boston man Pat Glynn who recognised his father and uncle in the photo one day – not least because of the characteristically intimidating stare given the camera by his father; who may have been drinking poitin on the job… Both men did leave the small village of Shanaglish to work in New York on the lucrative but extremely dangerous skyscraper construction boom of the roaring 1920s. But did they then become immortalised by the skyline they helped to build? Perhaps, perhaps not, it’s hard to be definitive. Dan Barry of the New York Times certainly wishes to believe so, not least because of some amazing coincidences. But then, as the film explains, with eloquent testimony from Irish-American Peter Quinn, many Americans insist their ancestors are in the photo.

There is in fact too much harping about the photo’s deep positive meaning throughout. If you’re wary of American exceptionalism even as Francis Fukuyama, or know the deep suspicion with which non-WASP immigration has historically been regarded in American politics, then you may get fed up of this section; but it’s quickly dispensed with for detective work. Sadly 9/11 and the construction of the Freedom Tower are then unnecessarily tacked on at the end. The building of 30 Rock is fascinating in itself. The architects and chiefs planned a certain number of deaths per number of storeys completed. Chilling? Yes. Reminiscent of how the pyramids were built? Even more so. The names of the men who commission these buildings are remembered, but the people who actually hauled the stones or raised high the steelwork are forgotten. That is, until now.

This is an interesting film that occasionally pushes its luck too far, but has the horse sense to change direction just in time to keep the audience consistently engaged.

3/5

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