Talking Movies

June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

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I come not to praise Seth MacFarlane, nor to bury him, but to consider his failure with a comedy-western alongside Damon Lindelof’s Cowboys & Aliens.

I found A Million Ways to Die in the West to be oddly reminiscent of early Woody Allen films like Bananas; intermittently hilarious, but not really a film. But if Woody pre-Annie Hall was simply stitching together sketches without anything but the most broadly-drawn larger narrative purpose, then it seemed like the reverse was happening to MacFarlane – making ‘a Western, goddamnit!’ sucked the humour out of his comedy-western script. And so to a knotty point – there was a grindingly efficient story structure at work, but the central comic conceit of MacFarlane’s movie was unclear. Critic Joe Griffin pitches the film as – “it’s a normal guy with 21st century sensibilities who lives in the violent frontier of the Old West and is dragged into a typical Western story.” This nails MacFarlane’s interactions with Amanda Seyfried, which come close to replicating the clinical psychoanalysis terms Woody uses with Louise Lasser in Bananas with an almost identical purpose – the comedy of language entirely inappropriate to the situation. But the first genuinely funny moment is MacFarlane’s later riff on the dead mayor, which literally comes out of nowhere. Along with the inevitably blood-soaked county fair, it suggests that the titular conceit of horrible deaths would’ve been a far better source of thematic comedy. Instead MacFarlane decides to mine comedy by working the most exhausted seams of the rom-com with Charlize Theron; even down to the obligatory big lie – she chose not to tell him she’s married to terrifying Liam Neeson. Only very occasionally (to wake the audience) does he sprinkles absurdist comic moments; and meanwhile he’s also trying to touch every Western generic base.

Griffin writes “This, I think, is what happens when someone has had too much control on a project so early in his film career.” MacFarlane is the star, director, co-writer, and producer of A Million Ways; and his co-writers are his Ted and Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. That’s a lot of control. To put it in context, it’s more than M Night Shyamalan ever managed to acquire at the height of his hubris. It’s undeniable that without the success of Ted it’s unthinkable that MacFarlane would have been allowed to cast himself as the physical lead, and it’s probably equally unlikely that Wellesley and Sulkin would alienate their TV day-job boss by proposing a page-one rewrite of his pet film project. I have to agree with Griffin because getting too much control because of success is part and parcel of the disastrous creative bubble I described in 2011 which I predicted would scupper The Dark Knight Rises; Wellesley and Sulkin wouldn’t be silent because they wouldn’t want to rain on MacFarlane’s scripting parade, they’d be silent because they’d be doing the Macarena in the middle of the parade. Because they’d written Ted they’d assume whatever any of them suggested would be equally awesome, and so nobody cries halt until the train has gone far over the horizon. But I want to dissent against myself and speculate that what happened in the Million Ways writers’ room (story structure and Western tropes pushing out badly needed jokes) was the same as the fiasco that occurred not so long ago in another writers’ room not so very far away…

Cowboys and Aliens

 

Remember 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens? No, well, don’t feel bad. Here’s what its co-writer Damon (LOST) Lindelof had to say about it in an extremely interesting 2013 interview: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.” Cowboys & Aliens was supposedly based on a comic-book by Scott Mitchel Rosenberg, which, from the small sample available on Amazon, appears to proudly wear ‘guilt over the treatment of Native Americans in times gone by’ on its sleeve. That suggests that Ace Ventura creator Steve Oedekerk was right to create a fun screen story distinct from the comic-book. And then rewrites began… Of the credited writers a draft was done by Mark Fergus & Howard Ostby (Iron ManChildren of Men), whose credits suggest that a more serious tone had begun to emerge. Which is presumably why Lindelof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, M:I-3, Star Trek) were brought in to do the final draft of the script. Add some humour? Some nonsense? Yeah, well, obviously that didn’t work. But look at what Lindelof characterised as a genre trapping of the Western: Native American allies. What?! That would certainly be news to the Duke…

In 1991 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr took aim at America’s universities in his polemic The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger was extremely alarmed at the mass of evidence that political correctness had triumphed over sanity: “When a student sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual,’ a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: ‘This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.’” (117) In his 1982 novel Before She Met Me Julian Barnes had a history professor baffled by the genuine horror and anger of a student whenever the wrong side triumphed in any given stand-off. Schlesinger Jr was damning of attacks on ‘Eurocentric’ American history, and it was essentially an appeasement of Barnes’ fictional student; by rewriting history. In one district where Native Americans had political clout it was taught that their tribal politics had influenced Thomas Jefferson every bit as much as European Enlightenment. It had not, as Schlesinger Jr flatly stated. And yet… In Sleepy Hollow, co-created by Cowboys & Aliens scribes Kurtzman and Orci, we find Ichabod Crane noting how in his 1770s existence Native American tribal politics had been a pivotal influence on Thomas Jefferson. A throwaway cute line; to anyone who hasn’t read Schlesinger Jr’s book. If you have, you’re stunned that this is not meant as a joke or provocatively revisionist statement; it is simply stated as true when it is not.

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MacFarlane, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof were all born in 1973. This puts them in college at Brown, Wesleyan, UT Austin, and NYU Film School, respectively, during the height of the ‘Death to DWEMs’ tide that Schlesinger Jr was trying to turn back. I honestly think every time somebody sits down to write anything Western-related in Hollywood these days they get some epic pol.sci/film studies college flashback. As a result, in between apologising to Native Americans, rewriting the role of women in the West, inserting grim truths about the lawlessness and brutality of life then, demythologising Wayne and Ford’s back catalogue, and faithfully inserting and then attempting to subvert in the accepted revisionist mode every Western trope they were ever taught, they lose any sense of fun. Lindelof posited “a Western that had aliens as bad guys” as “the cooler movie”, and yet Cowboys & Aliens is entirely lacking any sense of being a cool adventure. It is, indeed, simply unthinkable that anybody could produce a Western right now that is exuberant fun; nobody would give you the finale of Rio Bravo. I think that may be a combination of film school prioritising, nay, canonising, serious Westerns like The Searchers and Red River over entertainments like El Dorado and Gunfight at the OK CorralRio Bravo isn’t a silly movie, but it is unabashed adventure played with great humour. But Lindelof’s description of embracing “the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies” suggests an inability to take the Western genre as it was, not as it ought to have been…

The complete failure of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t stop the even more epic failure of The Lone Ranger following it down the trail two years later. The savage darkness of The Lone Ranger was completely unsuitable for a Disney blockbuster supposedly aimed at kids, but it fitted perfectly the template of the Western produced by people Schlesinger couldn’t save. It’s admirable to insert a Sergio Leone tone into a Western romp for children, only if you also take that bloody-minded approach to your contemporary blockbusters and give us Transformers directed by Ken Loach as the working poor fighting against transforming robots who’re the highest form of capitalism. Really I think the idea of the Western as conceived by the children of 1973 is fundamentally incompatible with exuberance. In the 1970s radical directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill and Michael Cimino couldn’t wait to make a Western. But the revisionist Western wasn’t what audiences wanted. Nicholas Jarecki on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast recently made some interesting points about ‘genre exhaustion’, when an audience has seen every possible permutation arising out of a generic set-up. I don’t believe that’s what happened to the Western in the 1970s. I follow Stephen King in believing that George Lucas took the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the Western and simply, in a belated emulation of JFK’s call for a New Frontier, relocated it in space. And, as Spielberg’s Western framing at the end of The Last Crusade transparently indicates, crying for the death of the Western is like bemoaning the death of the dinosaurs while looking at flying birds: dinosaurs aren’t dead, they evolved.

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If the blockbuster is the repository of the spirit of exuberant fun that lights up Rio Bravo, what does that make the contemporary Western? Well, it’s tempting to twist Lindelof’s words and say merely the outward trappings of the genre, stripped of its soul. Since Heaven’s Gate we’ve had serious Westerns like Dances with WolvesOpen RangeWyatt EarpUnforgivenTombstoneThe Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford3:10 to Yuma, and Seraphim Falls. We’ve had comedy mash-up disasters like Wild Wild WestCowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. And we’ve had nothing like a Rio Bravo… It’s admirable to try and cinematically reinstate the reality of the shameful treatment of the Native Americans in the Old West. But this admirable endeavour may run up against a problem if it’s part of a wider refusal to accept the Western genre for what it was and to believe that it can simply be rewritten to make it what it ought to have been. Such a massive undertaking may be more than the genre can accommodate, in one important respect – it can make for a good film, a good Western, but not a fun film. A Million Ways is not a fun film, even though it’s meant to be a comedy. And I think it’s because MacFarlane tried to hit every base; Native Americans as allies, the brutality and lawlessness of the West, rewriting the role of women (with particular emphasis on the brothels), the exploitation of Chinese labour; because he is one of that generation that can’t see a Western without giving a lecture on its propagandising.

MacFarlane certainly won’t be getting A Million Ways 2 off the ground, and his fiasco has probably scuppered any competent Destry Rides Again for the 2010s that was out there. But, considering Lindelof’s tropes, surely Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino comes closer to the cool movie that Lindelof wanted than Cowboys & Aliens. It shouldn’t be impossible to combine the 1973 generation’s ideal Western with exuberant fun – maybe it just needs Clint back in the saddle…

June 25, 2014

Aristocrats

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Director Patrick Mason returns to the Abbey for a new production of 1979’s Aristocrats, Brian Friel’s Chekhovian study of a Catholic Big House in decline.

The peculiarity of Ballybeg in having a Catholic Big House has attracted Chicagoan academic Tom Hoffnung (Philip Judge). As he researches the history of the well-to-do O’Donnell family since 1829, he is privy to gossip from helpful local fixer Willie Diver (Rory Nolan). Willie is devoted to the eldest daughter Judith (Cathy Belton), whose life is now spent caring for her invalided father (John Kavanagh) and the eccentric Uncle George (Bosco Hogan). Tom’s visit is peculiarly opportune for getting family gossip as youngest daughter Claire (Jane McGrath) is getting married, and so middle daughter Alice (Rebecca O’Mara) and oddball son Casimir (Tadhg Murphy) have returned to the fold. However, while Casimir has left wife Helga in Hamburg, Alice has brought acerbic husband Eamon (Keith McErlean). And Eamon is a truth-teller when it comes to his peasantry and the O’Donnell gentry…

Uncle George who shuffles about silently avoiding people is a character straight out of Chekhov. But Aristocrats, while it has some very funny moments (not least imaginary croquet), is primarily a very sad play. Judith’s speech about how she manages to be ‘almost happy’ within a strict routine of servitude, which she does not want disturbed, is made all the more heart-breaking by the ingratitude of her stroke-stricken father; who continually refers to Judith’s great betrayal, unaware that it is she who tends to him. Casimir’s relating how his father told him his eccentricities could be absorbed in the Big House whereas he would be the village idiot in Ballybeg is equally distressing as it has led him to narrowing his life to avoid pillory. And, in Sinead McKenna’s evocative lighting design, behind everything – Judith’s past role in the Troubles.

Francis O’Connor’s set, a detailed drawing room with abstracted staircases and doors behind it and an imaginary wall to a lawn, strikes a balance between verisimilitude and artifice that my sometime co-writer John Healy pointed out to me was reflected in the acting styles; naturalistic for the ‘native peasantry’ Willie and Eamon, more mannered for the self-conscious gentry in decline – especially Alice’s performative alcoholism and Casimir’s apologetic tics. The set also reflects Friel’s concern with the ghostly technology; absent daughter Anna (Ruth McGill) can record a message, Father’s rantings can be relayed downstairs. Catherine Fay’s 1970s costumes (especially for Alice and Willie) are impeccable, while Mason lives up to Eamon’s programmatic ‘This has always been a house of reticence, of things left unspoken’ by offering muted hints that Eamon fathered Judith’s child, and that Eamon and Alice will be happy.

My fellow academic Graham Price would no doubt note the contrast between McGahern’s vision of the Big House; a place of learning; and Friel’s vision; a place where objects are named after Chesterton, Hopkins and Yeats, but it is severely doubtful that the self-absorbed status-conscious O’Donnells who did so ever emulated their intellectual curiosity.

3.5/5

Aristocrats continues its run at the Abbey until the 2nd of August.

June 20, 2014

3 Days to Kill

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Kevin Costner tries to do a Liam Neeson and escape blockbuster supporting roles by fighting international villains in Paris while looking after an estranged daughter.

CIA asset Vivi (Amber Heard) is dispatched to Eastern Europe to kill The Wolf (Richard Sammel), who will be at a hotel overseeing a transaction by his lieutenant The Albino (Tomas Lemarquis) (yes, the names are absurd; Luc Besson spits on reality). The transaction, a dirty bomb, will be sabotaged by local CIA agent Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), and Vivi is not to interfere. The operation, however, goes gruesomely sideways. Ethan wounds The Albino, but collapses before capturing him. Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Ethan retires and returns to Paris to reconnect with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and daughter Zooey (Hailee Stainfeld); and awkwardly share his CIA hideout with Malian squatters. But Vivi knows Ethan is the only person who can identify The Wolf. She offers an experimental drug to prolong his life in return for some freelancing…

One-man studio Besson produces demented action films: Mark Millar’s bombastic comics moments (Black Widow catching a gun dropped from a chopper above while she’s jumping between buildings in The Ultimates) threaded together with basic plotting. But 3 Days to Kill, from a surprisingly sadistic early killing, isn’t the house style of knowing nonsense and crunching violence. McG fashioned some amusing sequences in This Means War, but, bar some moments in the hotel cold open, his action directing in a washed-out Paris is not very impressive. More worryingly this is an action movie that is seriously lacking in actual action. 3 Days to Kill can come across as an early draft of Taken; written as a serious drama about estranged father-daughter parenting. Except that such ‘serious drama’ includes ludicrous unfunny business with a purple bike, and electrocuting fixers for parenting advice.

All I can think is that Besson and Adi Hasak wrote tongue-in-cheek, but, bar a pointedly directed comedy scene with a ‘real Italian’ accountant for The Albino, that tone just got lost in McG’s shooting; which prevents Mitat (Marc Andreoni) from emulating Inspector Tarconi in The Transporter. Amber Heard tragically disappears for lengthy stretches, but in her occasional appearances Besson seems to be tapping into the hypersexualised persona she’s honed in films like The Rum DiaryThe Informers, and The Joneses. Vivi’s always dressed in some sort of leather and outré hairstyle, attends Crazy Horse cabaret to flirt with naked girls, makes both driving and injecting a cancer drug seem sexual, delivers what may be 2014’s filthiest PG-13 gag, and (in what may or may not be a hallucination by medicated Ethan) does rifle drills under Roger Rabbit red spotlights.

Costner was always a still centre as a leading man rather than a warm presence like Neeson, and his tonally confused Bessoner surely won’t reinvigorate his leading man career.

2/5

June 19, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

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John Green’s best-selling ‘dying teenagers in love’ YA novel gets a cinematic adaptation so perfectly dreadful it will make you question the book’s stellar reputation.

Our heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is dying of cancer. She is dragged by her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) to support meetings in a church basement, presided over by an Evangelical figure of fun who could’ve walked straight out of Fight Club. But one day Isaac (Nat Wolff), a sardonic teenager blinded in one eye by cancer, brings along to group his best friend Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cocky teenager who lost a leg to cancer. There is an instant spark of attraction between Hazel and Augustus, and soon she has him reading her favourite cancer novel An Imperial Affliction. Augustus pesters the exiled author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) until Van Houten’s helpful assistant Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek) invites them both to Amsterdam. But Hazel’s father Michael (Sam Trammell) urges Augustus not to push the physically frail Hazel…

The Fault in Our Stars is most interesting for its part in Shailene Woodley’s sustained campaign to become Jennifer Lawrence. J-Law was unconsciously unguarded in interviews, Woodley makes bizarre pronouncements. J-Law fronted The Hunger Games, Woodley (after consulting J-Law, she let everyone know) fronted Divergent. J-Law won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, Woodley attempts a serious role with an ersatz J-Law performance. Woodley was terrific in The Descendants, but here she seems to vocally channel J-Law in scenes where she’s upset or excited. And then there’s Elgort… Elgort renders Augustus an arrogant water-polo player from The OC. One assumes that Augustus is intended to be more charming, perhaps closer to a Damon Salvatore; but even the swaggering Ian Somerhalder couldn’t rescue Augustus’ excruciatingly stilted dialogue. It genuinely shocks that (500) Days of Summer’s Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber adapted.

From the sub-Mametian insistence of the lovers on calling each other Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, to Hazel Grace’s use of the word hamartia, to Augustus’ involved (and not particularly metaphorical) cigarette metaphor everything in this film feels painfully affected. I haven’t read the book, but I’m not sure these touches could’ve worked even in print; especially the excruciating moment when deeply inappropriate PDA in the Anne Frank House is applauded.Director Josh Boone’s autumnal palette complements the actual and soundalike Coldplay that soundtracks the relentlessly weepy forced march to the movie’s crux: like The Lovely Bones and The Da Vinci Code sex is everything – being in heaven, being God; not as good or important as having had sex. Dafoe’s mercifully abrasive cameo as the novelist telling them home-truths cannot shift these insufferable lovers’ minds onto more transcendent philosophical concerns.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we encourage producers to make dross like this by going to bad movies, knowing they’re bad.

1/5

June 18, 2014

Politik: Part III

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It has been, mercifully, over two and a half years since this blog strayed in the direction of politics; and yet now, regrettably, it’s happening.

I don’t really have much to say on the matter of the banking inquiry fiasco. I’m far more interested in pointing out two things that Pat Leahy said in his 2013 book The Price of Power which, when combined, seem to cut through the contradictory messages coming from the government in recent days. First Enda wanted a committee majority to set the terms of reference, because without being in charge of setting the terms of reference, the government would not go ahead with the inquiry. Then he seemed to say the government didn’t want to interfere because that would politicise the inquiry; so there would no be whip imposed on the members of the committee. …However, they would still be working off the terms of reference he had politically imposed.

Here’s Leahy’s sardonic record of the failed Oireachtas powers referendum in 2011:

“The referendum was narrowly defeated, to the great annoyance of many in government who had planned a lengthy and detailed embarrassment of Fianna Fail’s stewardship of economic and banking matters in an inquiry held under the new, enhanced powers.” (167)

And here is Leahy’s unrelated commentary on the expert group’s report on abortion in 2012:

“After the expert group delivered its report, Labour was in a far stronger position. Labour officials had worked carefully and discreetly on the terms of reference for the expert group with a view towards ending up with exactly the sort of report that the group ultimately produced. According to one person who was closely involved in the process at all times, ‘Getting the terms of reference we wanted was absolutely critical. In many respects that was the key battle.’ The direction given to the group largely determined its eventual findings.” (235)

Draw your own conclusions on whether that means the banking inquiry is intended to actually investigate what happened or merely to embarrass Fianna Fail in time for the next election.

*Pat Leahy’s excellent The Price of Power: Inside Ireland’s Crisis Coalition is published by Penguin.

June 13, 2014

Benny & Jolene

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Submarine star Craig Roberts and Fresh Meat actress Charlotte Ritchie are the titular folk-duo in this intermittently amusing music mockumentary.

Folk musicians Benny (Roberts) and Jolene (Ritchie) have been friends since she rescued him from drowning (in the shallow end of the pool) in secondary school. They are about to release a new album of their traditional folk music, but everything is about to change. Their hapless manager (Keiron Self) has got them onto morning television shows, where Benny is obviously terrified at the prospect of stardom and Jolene naively enthusiastic, but making a commercial breakthrough means changing their sound at the behest of their new record label; whose instructions are relayed via PR guru Nadia (Rosamund Hanson), instructions which are always ‘more poppy and more sexy’. Jolene’s journalist mother Rosamund (Dolly Wells) is aghast at Jolene’s explicit lyrics when she attempts to follow this directive, but her horror is nothing compared to Benny’s as Jolene tramples on their friendship.

Benny & Jolene has a certain endearing charm due to its obvious shoestring budget and semi-improvisatory feel. But that’s not enough to carry a film for 90 minutes. Luckily Roberts, Ritchie, Wells and Self are all on fine form, with Roberts’ imploding shy Benny a world away from his self-confident alienated teen in Submarine, and Wells’ wise mother a warm presence. Self also impresses as the inept band manager who is bullied by record label men and TV line producers with equal contempt. Hanson, however, is largely reprising her performance as Warwick Davis’ moronic PA in Life’s Too Short, and isn’t asked to flesh out her character. More worryingly the music mockumentary set-up; that we’re going to follow the inevitable selling-out of Benny & Jolene; is haphazardly abandoned to focus instead on the angst of Benny’s unrequited love for Jolene.

Benny & Jolene has been pitched as somewhere between Spinal Tap and pre-Annie Hall Woody Allen, but it runs out of comic invention startlingly quickly. Benny gets pushed into the background as Jolene is groomed for stardom, causing their musical dynamic to implode as she writes ‘poppy, sexy’ songs like the awful ‘Hard/Soft’. That song’s origin is an initially amusing but ultimately overplayed conceit, and by the end such conceits have disappeared into a joyless exercise in story structure. But the point of story structure for comedy from A Night at the Opera to This is The End is merely to provide a flimsy thread of logic to connect episodes of utter nonsense. You don’t watch Annie Hall to appreciate Annie’s growth in confidence as a performer and a person; you watch it to see absurdity like Marshall MacLuhan’s cameo.

Benny & Jolene’s best scenes come early on (like the duo’s encounter with a terrifically abrasive TV producer) but writer/director Jamie Adams’ feature debut betrays his television background – he runs out of cinematic ideas.

2.5/5

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