Talking Movies

July 31, 2019

From the Archives: Transformers

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings us to where it all began with Sam Witwicky trying to impress his hot classmate by buying his first car, and not bargaining on that car being an alien robot or his grandfather’s glasses being key to ending an alien civil war.

Two warring factions of a race of sentient robots invade Earth searching for the powerful Allspark which alone can end their battle. A geeky teenager who holds the key to its location will be protected by one of the most iconic characters of the 1980s.

If that last sentence sounds a bit like a description of Die Hard 4.0 that’s because Transformers, like Die Hard, is a blockbuster that just scraped the American PG-13 rating but is really not aimed at kids so much as kidults. Transformers is the blockbuster that saves this underperforming summer of wet weather and wetter sequels. Which is quite something given that it’s directed by Michael Bay, the man who gave us Pearl Harbour, a cinematic atrocity that will live in infamy. But Bay, suitably chastened by the failure of The Island, has finally grown up. The fingerprints of his producer Steven Spielberg are all over this film. He has managed to make Bay stop editing his films like a 5 year old on a sugar rush and adopt a sceptical attitude to the godlike status of the American military. He has also, in a nod to another film he executive produced, turned the Decepticon Frenzy (the sneaky one who spied on people, here a small ghetto-blaster) into a robotic Gremlin who is mischievous as hell and even chuckles maliciously like the Gremlins.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is our typically nerdy Spielbergian hero, desperately trying to impress classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox) with his first car. The car though is the Autobot BumbleBee, sent to protect Sam, who can only communicate thru the car radio (frequently hilariously). Transformers is surprisingly funny. Between LaBeouf and John Turturro as a secretive government agent there are scenes in this film with so much neurotic bumbling going on that you half expect Woody Allen to show up demanding royalties. There’s a full very entertaining hour of Sam trying to impress Mikaela and failing miserably, and Bumblebee trying to keep Sam safe from Frenzy, Blackout and Scorponok (the Decepticons hunting him and hacking American military computers for the whereabouts of their leader Megatron) before the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, arrives on earth.

Prime, still voiced by Peter Cullen, is exactly as you remember him. Rendered in the colours of Superman, willing to sacrifice his own life to save others, he remains one of the pre-eminent Jesus figures of pop culture. When that truck-rig emerges from a mythical mist you know he will still have never-ending reserves of compassion. Sadly his nemesis Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) is given too little time to make the menacing impression he really should. The last 40 minutes are an utter orgy of destruction on freeways and city streets but as Bay has made us care deeply about all these characters, human and robot, this is the most gripping pyrotechnics he’s ever delivered.

4/5

From the Archives: The Simpsons Movie

The second deep dive into the InDublin folder of the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up a not fondly remembered cash-grab.

Lisa gets a boyfriend, Bart searches for a new father figure, Marge reaches the end of her tether and Homer gets a pet pig which brings about apocalypse for Springfield….

If ever a film was critic-proof it’s The Simpsons Movie. Despite the lazy jokes at easy targets many people will proclaim this film to be a work of genius and dismiss as crazy talk the suggestion that it’s every bit as mediocre as the TV show has become. But when it takes 11 freaking writers to put together an 87 minute film you’re in deep trouble. Yes, there are some great moments; a sequence with Bart skateboarding naked across town for a dare is replete with visual gags, and another scene hilariously introduces a horde of animals drawn in the cutest aw shucks Disney style. Tom Hanks even has a wonderful cameo as himself, the most loveable Everyman film star on the planet.

But then there’s Lisa’s boyfriend Colin, who’s Irish, a guitar playing environmentalist, and not Bono’s son. Sadly his accent is neither Bono nor Colin Farrell but the sort of stage Oirish nonsense found in The Quiet Man. The plot itself is mildly amusing but in tackling environmental pollution it impressively manages to both repeat material from the TV show and lazily jump on the Al Gore bandwagon. Lazy is the watchword here, this film never convinces as a story that needed to be told on the big screen. The clever references and different layers of humour that made the show a phenomenon just aren’t present. The film begins with the family attending the Itchy & Scratchy movie, “I can’t believe we paid to see this when we could just watch it on TV for free!” You said it Homer…

2/5

July 28, 2019

Notes on The Current War

The late 19th Century duelling engineers drama The Current War was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Benedict Cumberbatch adds another name to his roll call of Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turing, and Dominic Cummings, playing another character with poor social graces and a conceited regard for their own high ability. Except that in this instance of course Thomas Edison is wrong. Simply wrong. As Michael Shannon’s George Westinghouse puts it if Edison gets his way and insists on direct current being the standard used then America will become a checkerboard of power plants as Edison constructs one every square mile because he refuses to use the superior system of alternating current. The film doesn’t hold back from how unpleasant Edison was in blackguarding Westinghouse’s AC because he lacked the mind necessary to solve the problem of its high voltage. The man, who once worked for him, possessed of that mind was Nikola Tesla; played here by Nicholas Hoult, and used sparingly, almost as if, like the Nolans with The Prestige, Tesla can only be a minor character in a film because there really is simply too much of the wizard about him.

Listen here:

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fergal Casey @ 9:34 pm

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“My business … repeat customers!”

Regular readers will be aware that repetition and novelty have been a recurrent topic here recently, and it’s time to think about the value of repetition as a business model.

 

Not all customers are created equal. This is a lesson that Hollywood seems to have forgotten. It’s said that Viennese cafes tolerated artists buying one cup of coffee and lingering for hours over it, taking up space they required for other purposes, because they knew they could sell the same artist a cup of a coffee a day for the next thousand days, whereas if they gave said artist the boot in favour of a newcomer that newcomer might buy two cups of coffee that day and then never return. Empty vessels make the most noise, and the internet over time has become a plaything for empty vessels deafening everyone else. Think on Snakes on a Plane, if you will. The jokes, the memes, the rewrites online by fans, which led, via internet buzz, to actual rewrites and reshoots to give ‘fans’ what they wanted: and these ‘fans’ then didn’t show up in cinemas. It’s easy and free to hit like, and make a comment, and josh about with strangers in a thread; it’s harder and costly to get out of the house and go see a dumb movie that has been made just as dumb as you calibrated it.

Customers are the ones who pay in to cinemas. President Bartlet declared that decisions are made by those who turn up. And yet Hollywood seems to be tacking away from that. Let’s take Star Wars. I saw each film in the only original trilogy on its re-release with my Dad. When the prequel trilogy came out I saw each movie twice with different circles of friends. When Disney took over Star Wars I was dragged kicking and screaming to see Han Solo go for coffee, the only time since Jurassic Park I’ve kept my eyes closed during a scene in the cinema; and not from fear but from displeasure – the whole reason I didn’t want to see the film was the blinding predictability of JJ Abrams not knowing how to get into the third act without killing a beloved character. And that was the end of me and Star Wars. From repeat customer to not at all customer. And the same thing happened with the Hobbit movies. I saw each Lord of the Rings instalment in the cinema at least twice. I didn’t see any of the Hobbit movies in the cinema. From repeat customer to not at all customer.

July 27, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XVIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Phase IV

FilmFour are showing Phase IV, Saul Bass’ singular movie as director, very late next Friday night. So late it’s technically Saturday morning at 2:20am. But it’s well worth watching. Mayo Simon, who also scripted the sequel to Westworld and The Man from Atlantis in the 1970s, provides the screenplay very reflective of its time. 20 years after classic creature feature Them! where the ants were scary for their size these ants are scary for their smarts, and the product not of atomic anxiety but burgeoning green consciousness. Them!’s practical monsters are replaced by wildlife photographer’s Ken Middleham’s stellar close-up photography of real ants. Who knows whether FilmFour are showing the version which restores Saul Bass’ original trippy finale, but the journey to it is wonderful as scientists under siege in their laboratory start to suffer paranoia and panic as ants seemingly become intelligent and aggressive. Michael Murphy as the naive idealistic scientist is unrecognisable from his Manhattan jaded sophisticate, while Avengers stalwart Nigel Davenport is customarily redoubtable as the cynical older scientist; whose determination to overcome his arm swelling to giant and useless size from an ant bite earned a special mention from Stephen King in Danse Macabre.

Oh, you thought I meant Phase 4!

No. No, I generally don’t have that much interest in business plans or announcements of new product lines. There is as much excitement to be gathered from Disney’s blustering about their plans to bother cinemas with a conveyor belt of green-screened grey-tinted generic CGI ‘spectacle’ as there is in learning about a new line of just super-duper hoovers from Mr Dyson. There are 5 TV shows that will no doubt be inexplicable without watching the films, so you have to shell out for your streaming subscription and head to the multiplex which might well be showing only Disney films because Disney might well have that much power soon. And in the multiplexes we will see Black Widow, surrounded by an air of pointlessness Natasha R having been killed off by the time Kevin Feige deigned to let her fly solo, Doctor Strange 2, bearing a notably silly title, and Thor 4, which seems suspiciously focused on Natalie Portman deigning to return to the MCU as female Thor and (insufferable since Veronica Mars) Tessa Thompson outing Valkyrie rather than on Taika Waititi’s winning comedy. Blade and Fantastic Four have no directors attached, but it doesn’t matter. Directors don’t matter. Edgar Wright was kicked off Ant-Man for having a directorial vision. Disney is wasting the time of directors like Scott Derrickson and Destin Daniel Cretton who will be remembered for their horrors and dramas, not their CGI assemblages. Shang-Chi and The Eternals will likely not be given the latitude that James Gunn was given to bring obscurities to success with Guardians of the Galaxy but instead rely on the Too Big to Fail ethos that now pervades the production and reception of the MCU. I see a lot of business here, but not much show.

July 24, 2019

From the Archives: Hairspray

The first deep dive into the last remaining cache of pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up one of James Marsden’s two quite mad 2007 feel-good musicals.

Baltimore, 1962: a young girl dreams of being picked as a dancer on a local TV show. She may be overweight but she can dance and her friendship with a black dancer may just be the beginning of the end for the racist policies of the network…

If you’ve watched Ugly Betty you’ll remember the joyous scene where Betty’s nephew Justin, stranded on the Subway while trying to get to Broadway, entertains the other passengers with a spirited rendition of Hairspray’s opening number ‘Good Morning, Baltimore!’. As show-openers go it’s quite a tune and it sets the tone for the rest of this film, joyously upbeat with a healthy serving of camp outrageousness, as can be seen in John Waters’ cameo during the song, which is far too good a comic moment to ruin here. Like Ugly Betty, Hairspray’s campness gives it a licence to make all manner of outrageous gags. Consider Corny Collins’ (James Marsden) lyrics introducing his show: “Where nice white kids lead the way/And once a month we have Negro day”. The music is at all times bouncy, apart from one suitably sombre ballad sung by Queen Latifah during a civil rights march, but it’s the lyrics that take your breath away over and over again with their barbed wit.

Tracy Turnblad is handpicked for the Corny Collins’ show after he sees her new moves, learnt from a black dancer (Elijah Kelley) in detention (in a typical gag only black kids and fat white kids seem to get detention in this school). Amber, the lead dancer, is fiercely resentful of this and her mother, the network director, goes all out to get Tracy off the show and get rid of her corrupting influence; she thinks TV should “push kids in the white direction”. Michelle Pfeiffer’s first song, done in the style of Marlene Dietrich, is a delicious introduction to her Aryan villain Velma Von Tussell. The large ensemble does justice to this camp material with a serious subtext. Zac Efron channels his inner James Dean as moody hunk Link (with whom Tracy falls head over heels in love) while Amanda Bynes is a revelation as Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton, gone are the irritating tics displayed in She’s the Man and in their place genuine comic timing. John Travolta is hilarious in drag as Tracy’s mother, who hasn’t left her house since 1951 because of anxiety over her weight. His song and dance duet with Christopher Walken is a highlight.

The film does sag a bit towards the end and you fear it’s running out of steam as the savage reality of racism deflates the camp exuberance but then the mad logic of musicals (think Singin’ in the Rain) comes into operation and the finale comes up trumps. It’s always sunny in Baltimore.

4/5

July 21, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XVII

As the title suggests, so forth.

A supposedly fine film I’ll never view again

I keep coming back of late to  a thought by GK Chesterton that I can’t seem to pin down anywhere in his voluminous writings. In which he said he didn’t mind how far an artist dipped the human soul into the mire so long as he didn’t break the mechanism. Well, Robert Bresson, J’accuse! You have broken the mechanism, and on purpose. I staggered out of Au Hasard Balthazar in the IFI this week considering that one ought not to praise excessive cynicism in art, because it is merely the other side of the coin of excessive sentimentality. If you want to criticise Spielberg or Capra or Dickens for sentimentality, that is to say painting in black and white with outrageous villains and suffering heroes, and no grey area of nuance, then you must also criticise Bresson for painting in black and black with outrageous villains and suffering jackasses (literally in this case) without any silver lining, a portrait painted entirely in black lacks also grey nuance, it is merely a picture of pitch. The rapist, thief, and murderer Gerard outdoes anything Dickens presents in Uriah Heep or Bill Sikes. He is pure evil, he inflicts suffering because he enjoys watching people and animals in pain, except that his blank face doesn’t seem to register much enjoyment of it. I have no idea what Bresson was getting at it in presenting Gerard’s rampage of brutality in southern France. And no interest in thinking more about this movie in order to find out.

The Wasp cries to be implicated in such mendacity

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Kevin Feige et al boasted at Comic-Con yesterday that Avengers: Endgame had just beaten Avatar to become the most popular movie ever. No, it didn’t. Because they didn’t adjust for inflation. It’s a lie. It’s not that hard to adjust for inflation, go to boxofficemojo.com and then plug the relevant figures into westegg.com/inflation/. It shouldn’t take you even two minutes. If you would be happy to never have your salary adjusted for inflation then by all means repeat this Marvel talking point. (Which is a lie.) If not…

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/avengers-endgame-passes-avatar-become-no-1-film-all-time-1225121

What is a film?

This may sound rather like a film critic having an existential crisis but it seems like a rather pertinent question now that we’re drawing the curtain on two decades of the 21st Century. Not least because the idea that Twin Peaks: The Return is one of the best films of the 2010s seems to collapse all ideas into gibberish. The idea that a film is real physical action captured in camera on a piece of celluloid, with additional material added to it later as it’s assembled into a coherent assemblage of images, before being run thru a projector and by flickering light taking up a huge space in a public place where an audience of strangers sit without interruption for 2 hours to watch a story that only needs 2 hours of motion doesn’t seem to hold true anymore – it’s a very 20th Century notion. What is a film now? By the year 2030 we might have to define it as something released by Disney into cinemas where disruptive, almost exclusively under-20s, audiences play with their phones while flickering light projects a digital record of a semi-coherent assemblage of digitally animated landscapes populated by digitally animated characters with occasional humans interspersed to keep the pretence that the digitally animated action unfolding onscreen means something. And as many of these pieces of art (sic) will not be remotely self-contained stories within 2 hours, the MCU having revived the idea of the matinee serial but made it into the main attraction, that won’t even hold true for a definition of this brave new world.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fergal Casey @ 3:18 pm

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Filed under: Uncategorized — Fergal Casey @ 3:17 pm

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