Talking Movies

November 30, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Michelle Quance/VARIETY/Shutterstock (10404629aa)
Noah Baumbach and Adam Driver
Variety Studio at Toronto International Film Festival, Presented by AT&T, Day 3, Canada – 08 Sep 2019

Contours of the Decade: Noah Baumbach

In the continuing struggle to perhaps impose some sort of order and coherence on a decade of cinema in time to produce a Top 10 list at the end of the year it’s interesting to consider how Noah Baumbach has fared as director. Greenberg, Frances Ha, While We’re Young, Mistress America, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Marriage Story. Six films as writer/director is a pretty good decade’s work by anybody’s estimate, and more so when you realise that only one of those six is not top drawer. It’s been a decade of collaboration, four films with Adam Driver in some capacity, two films with Greta Gerwig as co-writer and star as well as one with her in a supporting role, and three films with Ben Stiller rediscovering his talent. Perhaps most interestingly while critics seemed to shape a narrative that, after the exhaustingly abrasive Greenberg, Baumbach’s films had been given soul by Gerwig, that demonstrably was not the case. Even after While We’re Young it was clear Baumbach was more optimistic even without Gerwig than he had been previously. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) made clear that in fact the change in Baumbach was one of maturity. Where Gerwig without Baumbach stuttered with the cliched and sour Ladybird, Baumbach without Gerwig was operating on a new plane. Compare the fathers played by Jeff Daniels in 2005 and Dustin Hoffman in 2017 and you will be struck by the notion that this is essentially the same character, but now viewed by an older artist with a correspondingly more mature and therefore forgiving eye.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fergal Casey @ 10:04 pm

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From the Archives: Rescue Dawn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down on his first mission over Vietnam. Captured by the Vietcong he plots to escape and find his way home.

Christian Bale adds another impressive characterisation to his resume playing real life Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler. Rescue Dawn is inspired by events in Dengler’s life previously documented by the legendary (by which I mean famously bat-crazy) German director Werner Herzog in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Bale expertly plays a German who has become an American citizen and whose accent is American, but not quite genuine, and whose mental state could best be described as…peculiar. Herzog, the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo is quite at home in this cinematic territory of insane heroes in the jungle and produces his best fictional feature in years. Werner Herzog is after all the man who dragged a boat over a mountain for the making of Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century rubber baron in Brazil who wanted to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon.

Herzog brilliantly uses minimal dialogue for the first half hour to tell the story of Dengler’s capture and torture at the hands of the Vietcong thru the medium of pure cinema. He wordlessly conveys the utter terror of the Vietcong whenever an American airplane screams overhead. Herzog achieves a sense of location few Vietnam films have, even Apocalypse Now’s intense feeling for its locale is eclipsed by his extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography which makes the lush jungle almost another character. Bale’s time in the POW camp moves out of this art-house territory towards more mainstream fare, and the film slows down and becomes less distinctive. The men sit and bitch about being prisoners of war, plot escape plans (as all prisoners of war seem to spend most of their time doing, to the detriment of their guards’ nerves) and try to raise morale by fantasising over their favourite meals. Herzog inserts some excellent gags here but never lets you forget that Dengler is a very odd hero figure for these men to rally round.

The relationship between Bale and Steve Zahn as a fellow American prisoner in the small Vietcong camp is highly convincing but Jeremy Davies is endlessly irritating as the only other American POW. Davies has been using the same mannered tics since 1994 and has blighted films from The Million Dollar Hotel to Solaris. His popularity with casting directors continues to mystify. Steve Zahn, by contrast, grasps with both hands the chance to do something more substantial than his usual comedic sidekick roles and delivers a touching portrayal of man worn down by despair and malnutrition. Herzog’s languid pacing in this film, particularly in the second act, may irritate people raised on MTV editing but the majesty of the landscape and the emotional depth he achieves is more than adequate recompense, Rescue Dawn is an offbeat take on a familiar genre, welcome to the extreme as a matter of course.

3/5

From the Archives: Sleuth

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

On his sprawling country estate, an aging writer (Caine) matches wits with the struggling actor (Law) who has stolen his wife’s heart.

If you don’t know who Harold Pinter is then avoid this film like the plague. If you do know who Harold Pinter is, Nobel Laureate and Attendant Lord of British Theatre from the 1950s onwards, then you will find this film quite rewarding but not entirely dramatically satisfying. There’s a Pinter pause in the very first piece of dialogue that will unnerve the hell out of cinemagoers that have just wandered in by chance to a Jude Law film and will alert theatregoers to the fact that this is really Harold Pinter’s latest play. This is the real deal; a comedy of menace as two men fight each other with veiled verbal threats in a confined space, trying to assert control over each other, and over the woman they both want to possess, who is absent for most of the film. Sleuth features one of the most riveting opening sequences of the year as Branagh ditches his customary extremely mobile camera for fixed set-ups and long-shots, it is a full 12 minutes before the first close-up, on Michael Caine for “I understand you’re f***ing my wife”.

Law is there to discuss a divorce for Caine’s wife but Caine has a different sort of proposition for Law and the mind-games between the two escalate quickly. The original Anthony Shaffer play was filmed by legendary All About Eve director Joseph L Mankiewiecz in 1972 as his swansong. One of the best films of the 1970s it was twisted, funny and Laurence Olivier and Caine faced off against each other in a clash of RADA and cockney accents that mirrored the class divide between their characters. That tension has been replaced by a homoerotic undertone highly reminiscent of Pinter’s play No Man’s Land that doesn’t really work. Olivier’s dangerous eccentric lived in a house cluttered with useless bric-a-brac, Michael Caine’s modernist open-plan house is made to appear equally sinister thru Branagh’s clever use of lighting.

Sleuth is so strongly dependent on its plot-twists that it’s almost impossible to write about it without ruining it. Instead let us mock Jude Law. One of the twists in Sleuth depends entirely on acting ability. That twist is of regretful necessity thrown away here because while Law may be under the impression that he can do more than stand in front of the lights and look pretty, Pinter is not. His version from that point onwards departs radically from the original’s plot points becoming a depiction of malevolent psychological cruelty rather than a joyously frantic game of cat and also-cat, but Law’s acting cannot sustain such intensity, so after 86 minutes we simply end with a whimper. Sleuth must therefore be ranked as one of the most interesting failures of 2007. But I’d rather have this intelligent attempt, even with Jude Law, than the polished mediocrities that clog up the multiplexes, any day.

2/5

Top 5 Hitchcock Films not directed by Hitchcock

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 9:52 pm

(5) Seven

David Fincher has displayed a flair for showy suspense in a number of his films, think of the taut escape thru an open plan house in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and this strikingly old-fashioned movie could be the work of the Hitchcock of Frenzy.

 

(4) What Lies Beneath

Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 homage to Hitchcock amazingly features both jokey references and real terror. Zemeckis deliberately structures the start of the film as a Rear Window clone, only to reveal that’s all been a shaggy dog story. What follows could come straight from Hitchcock’s steamer trunk of unfilmed ideas, a particular highlight being when Michelle Pfeiffer is drugged and left to die in a slowly, very slowly filling bath-tub.

 

(3) Charade

Stanley Donen borrows Cary Grant for a jaunt four years after North by Northwest in a caper that is both slyly sending up Hitchcock and yet also following his playbook for real.

 

(2) The Big Clock

Charles Laughton had starred in Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock’s last British movie, and he plays a marvellous villain here as the murderous newspaper editor who instructs his investigative journalism team to solve the murder he’s committed but which he’s framed the head journalist for. Ray Milland would go on to appear in Dial M for Murder.

 

(1) Les Diaboliques

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot allegedly stole the rights to the novel from under the nose of Hitchcock by a matter of hours, so the writers made it up to Hitch by penning their next novel for him. It became Vertigo… Clouzot’s 1955 masterpiece sees Vera Clouzot and Simone Signoret plot to murder their brutish husband and lover respectively. Their ingenious plan springs a leak, however, when his body disappears… Clouzot eschews music except for the dissonant opening credits, and racks the tension higher and higher, with a French Columbo and an exceptional final suspense sequence.

November 27, 2019

From the Archives: The Darjeeling Limited

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Three estranged brothers travel thru India on a spiritual journey, a year after their father’s death. But it quickly becomes less conciliatory than hoped for.

This is a Wes Anderson movie for people who hate Wes Anderson movies. The trademark whip-pans are present and correct but here the story doesn’t feel constrained by them. The tracking shots between rooms through walls that blighted The Life Aquatic by sheer overuse are quite charming here. Hell, even Bill Murray, who runs for and misses the titular train in the hilarious opening sequence, uses more facial expressions in his cameo than in the entirety of The Life Aquatic. It is a truly wonderful moment when we go into slow-motion as Murray hopelessly sprints for the train and a very distinctive nose emerges beside him as Adrien Brody overtakes him, catching the train at the last possible second. Watching the impossibly gangly Brody run in slow-motion is almost reason enough to see this film.

Brody steals the acting honours, as you might expect. As Peter, a man unsure if he’s really ready to have a child (because of his own troubled upbringing), haunted by the death of his father a year previous, and extremely wary of his older brother, he is nuanced and engaging. Surprisingly Owen Wilson (swathed in bandages throughout) is close behind him as the domineering older brother Francis, whose attempts at reconciliation on this spiritual pilgrimage are thwarted by his own controlling personality which has made detailed itineraries for them all. Jason Schwartzman is in the film. Why? He and his cousin co-wrote it. As the youngest brother, the failed author Jack, he is the weak link of the film but not even his blankness can detract from The Darjeeling Limited’s truly magical quirkiness.

The spiritual journey thru India inevitably goes wrong and, amidst much sibling bickering, the trio are thrown off the train. Anderson at this point casts in the stuff of real drama to the mix, with a revealing extended flashback to the funeral of the brothers’ father a year earlier, and the result is surprisingly affecting. Anjelica Huston’s subsequent cameo as their mother is quite magnificently fitting and leads to an enigmatic tracking shot of imaginary connections between characters in the film that is wonderfully sweet and sums up the charm of the whole enterprise as the brothers do finally arrive at a sort of spiritual epiphany and reconciliation with each other as a result of all their mishaps. It’s a pity Anderson prefaces this film with his execrable short Hotel Chevalier, which will be screened before this in all cinemas. You do not need to see it to enjoy The Darjeeling Limited. It is a cheap exploitation flick whose sole purpose is to showcase Natalie Portman’s first and last nude scene as she was horrified to find that for months the only part of the short film that was leaked onto the internet was her nude scenes. The Darjeeling Limited itself is endearing and substantial, get a ticket.

3/5

From the Archives: August Rush

Filed under: Talking Movies (Reviews) — Fergal Casey @ 5:25 pm

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Classical cellist Lyla and rock singer Lewis only meet each other for one night but it produces a son August Rush who, unbeknownst to either, survives childbirth. He escapes the orphanage and heads to New York to find his parents.

Where to begin the evisceration? A musical with no musical numbers worth speaking of, there’s a start. Across the Universe, flawed as it was, featured a cast breaking into Beatles songs at the drop of a hat. Here the most tuneful thing we get is Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’, after that it’s just occasional bad rock songs whined by Rhys Meyers in clubs and annoying guitar slapping by Freddie Highmore supposedly showing off what a prodigy he is. The characters are all simpletons. I’m not sure if that’s an actual conscious intent, they are after all spouting some of the most cringe-inducing dialogue since the Star Wars prequels so it could just be the actors’ brains going into lockdown, refusing to believe such writing is possible. The early scenes between Lyla and Lewis have to be groaned through to be believed.

The film picks up somewhat when ‘orphan’ Evan arrives in New York but even that is unintentionally hilarious. He stands swaying to the ambient noise of the city and it’s meant to be fearfully emotive of his special gift for hearing the music in nature, which will allow him locate his parents. Unfortunately it is more reminiscent of the Irish character Tyres in Simon Pegg’s TV show Spaced who could groove along to a beat made out of the noise of a traffic light and a beeping motorist. There is literally no end to the annoying elements of this film. August (as Evan is quickly renamed) always slaps the guitar, never strumming, while in Juilliard his curriculum is so basic for the age group depicted as to cast doubt on its reputation…

When August falls in with a group of musical urchins it feels like the credits should read ‘Story by Charles Dickens’ as it’s pure Oliver Twist meeting the Artful Dodger, with Robin Williams’ role halfway between Fagin and Bono. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is pretty but can he act? The rest of the cast can’t, except Terrence Howard and Williams who in some scenes look like they’ve gone to the bother of inventing a back-story for their characters. The screenwriters never bothered so kudos for personal initiative. Too bad we’re left assuming motivations though…especially as you know they’re probably operating several levels of intelligence above the script. There is an hour of story here, it’s dragged out for two and feels like three. The boredom becomes so acute that when Becki Newton appears you will scream, “Hey it’s Amanda from Ugly Betty! What, no! Don’t leave after one scene, come back and say something cutting, surely there’s someone with a cold sore you could go make fun of”. This atrocity gets a star purely because Rhys Meyers looks like he’s having fun showing off his cheekbones again…

1/5

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fergal Casey @ 5:19 pm

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November 24, 2019

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fergal Casey @ 3:05 pm

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November 20, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXII

As the title suggests, so forth.

star-wars-episode-9-confirmed-cast-and-returning-characters.jpg

“There are now seven different drafts of the speech. The President likes none of them”

With apologies to The West Wing. It’s been pretty entertaining hearing about apparently unbridled panic in private at Disney as they try to fix Star Wars without ever admitting in public that they broke it. Reshoots continuing until within six weeks of release. Test screenings of five cuts of three entirely different endings. These are the rumours, and great fun they are if you checked out of this cash-grab when Han went for coffee and was never seen again as he got into a lively debate about whether he or Greedo shot first with some patrons of the Westeros Starbucks. A particularly entertaining rumour has people shouting abuse at the screen as they attempted to walk out of a test screening after a bold artistic decision. Said bold artistic decision synching up with everything that has gone wrong so far it seems almost plausible. And yet… I half wonder if Disney aren’t faking footage of a mind-blowingly awful finale so that when by contrast a merely bad finale arrives people won’t be relieved and forgiving. Call it the old Prince Hal gambit. If this bold artistic decision is actually real and in the final cut it constitutes a piece of cultural vandalism that puts one in mind of Thomas Bowdler correcting Shakespeare by giving King Lear the rom-com ending it so clearly needed.

 

Very poor choice of words

I was minding my own business in Dundrum Town Centre the other day when suddenly a large screen started cycling thru shots from the new Charlie’s Angels, before ending with the misguided tagline – ‘Unseen. Undivided. Unstoppable.’ As the Joker aptly put it, very poor choice of words, as indeed Americans have left the movie monumentally unseen. There are a lot of reasons you could proffer about why, but let’s start with the poster. Elizabeth Banks’ name appears THREE TIMES. From Director Elizabeth Banks. Screenplay by Elizabeth Banks. Directed by Elizabeth Banks. ‘From Director…’ usually is accompanied by old hits, like Fincher being dogged by Seven until The Social Network, but not in the case of Banks, for obvious reasons. This is her first credit on a screenplay. This is her second feature as a director. The first was Pitch Perfect 2. Perhaps easing back on the Banks angle might have been wise. Maybe it would have been even wiser to have realised the problem isn’t the poster, it’s the people on it. Kristen Stewart and… two other actresses. Think of the combined star power of Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu in the year 2000 when their Charlie’s Angels was 12th at the North American Box Office for the year. Now look at this poster again and think of the combined star power of Kristen Stewart and effectively two British television actresses. Things get even worse when you see the trailer and it presents Stewart, the star, as effectively being the quirky comic relief to two nobodies. This film needed a poster with Stewart flanked by Emma Stone and Maggie Q to even get to the same starting gate as the Barrymore-Diaz-Liu effort.

Terminator 6 or 24: Day 5?

Terminator: Dark Fate has bombed at the box office, and hopefully this third failed attempt to launch a new trilogy will be the end of that nonsense for the forseeable future. By the grace of God I did not have to review it, but I would have had no compunction in mentioning its opening shock while doing so. One of the frustrations of reviewing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was that the ending by dint of being the ending was considered unmentionable by good manners, even though it was an ending which made pigswill of much of the entire movie and it seemed Tarantino was deliberately taking advantage of such good manners in an act of tremendous bad faith. However, Terminator 6 in the opening minutes made an artistic decision that, once I had heard it as a rumour, struck me as entirely plausible given its similarity to the equally obnoxious opening of 24: Day 5. Denis Haysbert famously refused to return as President Palmer just to be killed off after mere seconds in the opening scene as a shock to launch the season until he was guilt-tripped into it by being told the entire season had been written around it. In retrospect he says he should have held out. That decision, to kill Palmer, was indicative of how Day 5 was going to lose its way to the point that I simply stopped watching; abandoning a show I had loved from its first episode on BBC 2 in 2002. The end of 24: Day 4, with Jack walking away into a hopeful sunrise after a phone call of mutual respect with President Palmer, was the perfect ending, for both characters and the show. But then the show had to keep going because money, so those character arcs were ruined, and, indeed, Day 1 of 24 (saving Palmer from assassination) became a complete and utter waste of time, and all emotional investment in his character over subsequent seasons was also a waste of time. Bringing back young Edward Furlong in CGI just to kill him off in the opening minutes of Terminator 6 was equally bone-headed. Suddenly the first two Terminator movies, the classics, were now a complete and utter waste of time. The last minutes of Terminator 2, which must rank among the greatest endings in cinema, were old hat to the eejits behind Terminator 6. If you want to make a mark on something you’re new to, it’s inadvisable to wildly antagonise all the fans who are the reason there is something for you to be a new writer or director to in the first place. If you want to create new and exciting characters, you have to write new and exciting characters, not just kill off important and beloved characters as if that magically and automatically made your new ciphers equally important and beloved. Tim Miller and Manny Coto. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.

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