Talking Movies

June 27, 2013

The East

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Fight Club meets Point Break by way of Revenge as Brit Marling’s undercover corporate security operative infiltrates eco-terrorists led by Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page.

Sarah (Marling) is a former FBI counter-terrorist agent now working for Hiller-Brood, a corporate security firm led by the formidable Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). Audacious and well-resourced eco-terrorist collective The East have uploaded the first of four promised ‘jams’ punishing corporate boards for the sins of their companies. Sarah is tasked with infiltrating them, and drops out of suburban DC life to drift thru national parks and hop train carriages like a 1930s hobo looking for East fellow-travellers. Just as she’s despairing she is introduced to the group by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), and welcomed by leader Benji (Skarsgard) but disdained by his lieutenant Izzy (Page). Sarah manages to maintain her cover long enough to be implicated in a vicious jam of Big Pharma, but falling for the charismatic Benji, and his principled ecological ideals, sees her devotion to her mission wane…

Marling co-wrote the script as a starring vehicle but the film is all about Ellen Page. From the arresting opening in which Page threatens a Big Oil CEO, over horror imagery of oil seeping out of his mansion’s air-vents and sinks, she is extremely menacing. And this despite one shot where director Zal Batmanglij hilariously forgets to hide the massive height difference between the tiny Canadian (5’1”) and the mighty Scandinavian (6’6”). Marling is a better writer than actress and she and co-writer Batmanglij skilfully portray the group as dangerous lunatics akin to Martha Marcy May Marlene’s cult before deepening the portrayal. This is exemplified by the devastating drip-feed of information about Doc (Tony Kebbell), but Page benefits greatly as the forceful Izzy is so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, but is actually almost mythological in her convictions.

There is an awful lot of Tyler Durden in Skarsgard’s Benji, who proves his devotion to the maxim “the things you own end up owning you” by squatting in a decayed mansion. Batmanglij eschews the visual bravura Fincher brought to Fight Club because despite initial similarities to the work of its Mischief Committee the jams here lack that joyousness. Durden was unburdened by self-doubt, but these characters, despite the Big Pharma jam having the elegance of an Emily gambit in Revenge, do not take her joy in retribution but are troubled by their actions against Paige Williams (Julia Ormond) and the other directors. This doesn’t convince and never feels like anything but a sop to PG-13 morality. It weighs down a third act being almost fatally dragged under by a flight of characters, infuriating politico-economic naivety, and an unnecessary twist.

The East’s third act doesn’t do the rest of the film justice, but this is an absorbing thriller whose slow-burning character studies are a welcome relief in blockbuster season.

3.5/5

June 14, 2013

Man of Steel

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Zack Snyder reboots Superman as total fantasy, throwing an immense amount of sound and CGI fury at us, but succeeding only in obscuring his characters.

Jor-El (Russell Crowe), chief scientist of Krypton, commits heresy by the natural birth of his son Kal-El; as for centuries Kryptonians have been artificially bred for specific duties. But this regimented society is about to literally implode from its own hubris, despite a last-gasp coup by General Zod (Michael Shannon) to protect the race from the folly of their ruling council. All hope for Krypton’s future is dispatched by Jor-El, encoded in the cells of his son, to a distant planet once scouted for colonisation – Earth. Kal is raised as Clark by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent, who counsel him to keep his powers secret. Clark works menial jobs and secretly saves people. But when he hears of an anomalous object found by the military in the Arctic he drifts north, where his powers are observed by reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Her story is rubbished by her editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne), but soon all earth believes it because Zod has come, and he wants Kal-El…

Man of Steel makes you appreciate Superman Returns. Singer’s visual style often mistook ponderous for majestic, but Snyder fails to fashion an action sequence to match its airplane crash as his crash-zooms and shakycam render everything an incomprehensible haze of action. The much-touted Battle of Smallville is a blur of CGI explosions, the Superman flying effects are less convincing than Donner’s owing to constant whip-panning, and Metropolis’s destruction by a gravity machine (which sounds like a nifty bass line) doesn’t match Bay’s trashing of Chicago skyscrapers in Transformers 3. Snyder was measured in Watchmen, so this is retrograde for him, but perhaps it’s his directorial response to David S Goyer writing Superman as total fantasy unhooked from any reality. Krypton is a CGI nightmare filled with fantastical creatures out of the Star Wars prequels, and bears little resemblance to previous imaginings. The film abruptly jumps from the destruction of Krypton to grown-up Clark saving an oil rig, perhaps to anticipate audience annoyance at being told this origin story yet again.

But we are told it, in momentum-killing flashbacks which clumsily rehash Batman Begins, although Costner shines in them as the voice of Kansan decency; with one truly stunning scene. Goyer’s script too often sketches personalities. Luckily Cavill, once he dons the suit, transforms vocally and becomes a rather good Superman, and Adams is a fantastic Lois. Finally cinematically we have a reporter capable of discovering who Superman is by dogged investigating! Shannon injects some complexity into Zod, but the script raises notions of Spartan destiny and Christian choice and then does nothing with them. Commander Faora (Antje Traue)’s chilling line about a lack of morality being an evolutionary advantage is a typical example of undeveloped potential. Goyer’s contrivance to weaken Superman without introducing Kryptonite is so mind-blowingly inconsistent that you’ll become unengaged enough to notice Adams acts beside a fellow Smallville alumnus, and that Law & Order and West Wing stars save the world. Incredibly Goyer’s finale has two horrendous wrong notes, and these are huge clangers akin to Batman tossing Joker off a building and then giggling when he goes splat on the sidewalk…

Man of Steel largely eschews comedy and realistically choreographed action, but aggravatingly some of its characterisation is quite brilliant. Okay attempt, Zack… Who’s next?

2.5/5

June 12, 2013

Snyder’s Superman

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I’ve written two pieces about Zack Snyder and one about re-booting the Superman franchise, so here’s my clever ploy to avoid repeating myself by this time writing a blog about Zack Snyder’s re-booting of Superman.

Man of Steel hits cinemas this Friday. The promotional push has come oddly late, here at any rate, with nary a poster or TV spot visible until June 3rd for a movie out June 14th. But Warner Bros has obvious confidence in this project, muttering as they are of their expectations that it will break the $1 billion dollar mark, so it’s obviously a considered choice. But have Zack Snyder’s choices as the rebooting director been equally considered? It’s long been my contention that limits are good, that Tarantino’s CSI: LV special ‘Grave Danger’ is better than Death Proof and Kill Bill: Vols 1 & 2 because he had to creatively respond to artistic limitations rather than engage in his usual self-indulgence. Inglourious Basterds likewise needed to be a hit with some urgency so he had to rein himself in from his original grandiose vision. You could even speculate, as I have, that, given a small budget Richard Kelly’s imagination is focused onto small-scale scenarios which hum with wit and heart, but that given a large budget his vision becomes hopelessly diffuse as it expands over ever more elaborate conspiracies; always involving water, time-travel or aliens. I say this because I think that, unlike the unloved Sucker-Punch which was co-written and directed by Snyder as an R movie and then edited into a PG-13 after the shoot, receiving Goyer’s PG-13 Man of Steel script and bringing his flourishes to bear is the best thing that could happen to him creatively.

Snyder has cast intriguingly and well. Laurence Fishburne has the natural authority you want from a Perry White, Amy Adams has the comic timing and also the abrasiveness to be Lois Lane, and the double-act of Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents looks very promising. Russell Crowe as Jor-El looks like a solid choice, although it depends largely on the levels of pompousness depicted on Krypton – which we’re promised will be a caped society, whatever that means, perhaps Gerard Butler’s Sparta. By far the best choice is Michael Shannon as General Zod, a move every bit as bizarre as Scarecrow and French Connection star Gene Hackman putting aside grittiness and realism to don a comedy wig as Lex Luthor in 1978. Shannon, from the latest trailer, is bringing the baffled questioning tone of his Revolutionary Road madman as well as the customary menacing fury of Boardwalk Empire and The Iceman. Indeed the only obvious dud in the casting is picking Henry Cavill as Superman, so, only mildly important then… Cavill is physically perfect for the part, but being built like Superman is only half the task, you need the comic timing to be Clark too. Brandon Routh had the physique for Superman, but his Clark wasn’t very good, and the film suffered as a result. Cavill abundantly does not have great comic timing, which makes the promises from Snyder and Goyer that this Clark is an interpretation we’ve never seen before a worrying admission/pre-emption of comic timing failure.

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And comedy is the big worry when it comes to Man of Steel. The teaser trailer which made it look like Clark was going to spend the whole film moping around the Pacific Northwest ruing the Discovery Channel’s decision to once again not pick his crew to feature on the next season of Deadliest Catch started the concerns. The next trailer deepened those concern, eschewing as it did super-action and seeming to promise a deeply sombre Superman which would resemble nothing else so much as a dramatisation of Seth Cohen’s essay on the loneliness of being Superman which moved his teacher to tears… Finally we got a trailer that softened the pomposity of grand thematic statements about sacrifice, leadership, moral examples by showing us some super-action, but sadly said super-action looked as if it was directed by Michael Bay in blacks, blues, greys and red with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski on hand with his customary supernova to backlight the action. It also seemed to suggest this interpretation’s Lois might play like the reporter in Mr Deeds Goes to Town, debunking the small-town hero under the guise of romance and then feeling guilty. Except Goyer can’t write Capra. Indeed, under his own steam he’s given us Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Nick Fury: Agent of Shield and Jumper, while the Brothers Nolan, without him, have penned Memento, The Prestige and Inception. You feel sure the Nolans work hard to pen gags, but Superman cinematically needs some good gags or it will implode.

And then there’s the CGI… Brandishing the ‘Produced by Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight trilogy’ on your promotional material only goes so far. Nolan shoots on film, on location and in meticulously dressed sound-stages, and with largely practical effects – oftentimes where anybody else would just use ghastly CGI – rendered with a very precise eye for detail by cinematographer Wally Pfister. Snyder really … doesn’t. Zod’s CGI armour and awful looking spaceship stood out for me like a sore thumb, because, along with the CGI cape for Superman, they’re the sort of bizarre decisions that could really blight a movie. Richard Donner said his Superman aimed at not at reality but at verisimilitude, but it appears Snyder has with customary abandon decided to abandon verisimilitude and go for total fantasy. Partly this is because of the times we live in, but also partly because Snyder is not particularly attached to reality at the best of times. But no matter how sombre the trailers make it look, no matter how emotionally devastating the handling of Clark’s pivotal relationships are, and no matter how thrilling it is too see a Superman Begins in which his morality is in formation – and close to Hancock than himself as a result – the scripting by David S Goyer won’t matter a damn if you just tune out when you notice that, like certain action sequences in the blighted Star Wars prequels, not one thing onscreen is actually real. And Sucker-Punch does not inspire confidence there…

So, there you go. This Man of Steel has a strong chance of crash-landing, but it could soar – let’s hope…

June 8, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

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Steven Soderbergh’s final ‘final’ film as a movie director is a fitting send-off for one of the most interesting talents of the past quarter century.

Young Hollywood animal-handler Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) picks up Bob Black (Scott Bakula) in a gay bar in 1977 to the strains of Donna Summer, but soon finds himself in another world entirely – a Las Vegas Liberace concert, where he’s invited backstage to meet Bob’s former lover; whose friends call him ‘Lee’ (Michael Douglas). His concern for Liberace’s ailing poodle leads to a job offer, and soon Scott’s dreams of becoming a vet have been replaced by the reality of living privately as Lee’s boyfriend and publicly as his PA. But as power-tripping plastic surgery and mountains of cocaine warp their relationship in the 1980s Scott is in danger of being replaced by a younger model, just as an increasingly libidinous Liberace needs his guidance more than ever if he’s not to commit career suicide falling out of the closet.

Soderbergh combines here the intimacy of his early work, with the tinted stylishness of his middle period, and the long takes of his latter days. This is in service to the best script that Richard LaGravanese has penned in decades, which drips caustic putdowns; including a spectacular phone insult by Liberace’s domineering manager Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd). Michael Douglas had some great scenes in Wall Street 2, but this is best sustained performance he’s given in 13 years. Damon is inescapably too old for the role and so distorts the historical reality of the relationship’s beginning, but he is remarkably without vanity in donning his fake nose from Ocean’s 13 again as Scott is literally moulded by Lee. Damon’s character arc though loses momentum as it descends into cliché and a padded finale that sacrifices momentum to a completist instinct.

Soderbergh is commendably nasty in showing the ‘vanity gone mad to unconvincing effect’ horrors of plastic surgery in practice on both of the lead characters. And that’s before we get to Rob Lowe’s hysterically funny plastic surgeon Dr Starz whose eyes don’t seem to quite fully open anymore after a facelift, and who seems barely conscious at times as he pushes the pills of his ‘California diet’ to his equally blissed-out patients. The make-up effects for Lee, Scott and Starz are jaw-droppingly good, especially a stunning reveal at the close, and complement the dazzling costumes and interior bling of Liberace’s Vegas decadence. But at times Soderbergh’s film resembles such superficial glitter without any explicated substance, especially in Lee’s apparently devoted relationship to his Polish mother Frances (Debbie Reynolds) who passed on her devout Catholicism to him; which he somehow retains.

Did Liberace’s showmanship obscure and eventually destroy his musicianship, like Eugene O’Neill Senior sacrificing his talent for money, so that Soderbergh’s swansong is an allegorical warning for contemporary Hollywood?

4/5

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