Talking Movies

May 31, 2018

From the Archives: The Edge of Love

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals an inert biopic of Dylan Thomas that presumably sent Matthew Rhys scurrying back into the comforting arms of well-written television roles.

Keira Knightley stars in a film written by her mother Sharman Macdonald. One hates to toss around words like nepotism but I would be very surprised if another actress would have been so eager to get this project green-lit. Macdonald is an established playwright, The Winter Guest being her most famous work, and director John Maybury previously directed Love is the Devil, another art-house biopic about a self-destructive artist. Sadly this film about poet Dylan Thomas falls far short of his take on painter Francis Bacon. Brothers & Sisters star Matthew Rhys is magnificent casting as the saturnine poet but the film seems to shy away from Thomas’ mile-wide self-destructive streak until near the end when it belatedly remembers that the man could be a total bastard and that he dedicatedly drank himself to death before he turned 40.

The Edge of Love begins promisingly with a vividly impressionistic take on the horrors of the Blitz, all soft-focus reds and blacks. There are some visual echoes of Atonement though which really hurt this film which lacks the emotional power and crisp scripting of that masterpiece. Keira Knightley (with a passable Welsh accent) is Vera Phillips, an ex-girlfriend of Dylan from Wales, who randomly meets him in war-torn London. A messy love quadrangle quickly forms with Dylan, his wife Caitlin, (Sienna Miller acquitting herself well once she dispenses with a half-attempted Irish accent) and Matthew Killick, a standout performance by Cillian Murphy as a stolid English soldier who is the voice of reason amidst all these selfish Celtic lunatics.

Sadly once Killick leaves to serve in Greece the film’s momentum goes with him. The script becomes so dramatically inert that you recoil in horror on hitting the hour mark as you realise there’s still another 50 minutes to go, which alternate between the incredibly boring and the absolutely infuriating. How you can possibly take the life of Dylan Thomas, add abortion, attempted murder and infidelity and induce yawns is beyond me. The best you can say about The Edge of Love is that it is ‘interesting’, by which of course one means that it assembles a number of good ideas and then leaves them lying around waiting for a coherent script. Killick’s shell-shock for instance is ‘explored’ through ridiculous scenes like him slapping a preposterously irritating woman from the BBC who sneers at his war service.

This film fails miserably at getting inside Dylan Thomas’ head no matter how many lines of poetry it has Rhys sonorously mumble in voiceover. It never really gets to grips with the tormented marriage of Dylan and Caitlin and in fact it really only succeeds, intermittently, in portraying female friendship forged by a connection to a charismatic but repellent man. And that really isn’t enough to sustain nearly 2 hours of cinema.

2/5

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From the Archives: Speed Racer

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings up a justly forgotten disaster from the Brothers Wachowski, hammering home the lightning in a bottle good fortune of The Matrix.

Speed Racer is meant to be a family friendly CGI heavy summer blockbuster. It is however incredibly bizarre, and also camp, if we use feminist critic Susan Sontag’s definition that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”. There are scenes in Speed Racer that will make you want to bound out of the cinema as characters dressed in day-glo colours stand around beside hideously fake CGI backgrounds before getting into garish CGI cars. Kym Barrett, costume designer for Baz Luhrmann’s camp classics, designed the clothes but the Wachowskis don’t seem to have realised that they’ve ordered up the décor for a different film than the one they think they’re making.

The young (and implausibly named) Speed Racer idolises his dead racing driver brother Rex and grows up to emulate him as the flashback heavy opening action sequence pithily explains. Into the Wild star Emile Hirsch plays the adult Speed, who must be one of the blandest heroes to grace the screen this decade. Indie queen Christina Ricci’s presence in the film as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie is equally baffling. Sure she eventually gets to drive, pilot a helicopter and do kung-fu but it’s not like this script could have been confused with Bound when it arrived in her post-box. The Wachowskis are trying so hard here to make a kid’s film (Look at the monkey! Look at the silly little monkey!) that they seem to forget where their own strengths actually lie, while one must question the grotesque scene involving fingers being eaten by piranhas as being radically unacceptable for a kid’s film.

The film comes alive only in a very silly Matrix parody kung-fu fight. It is a merciful respite from the choppily edited incoherent CGI action which quickly becomes quite gruelling, you realise with horror halfway through the endless desert rally that this is only the second act and that there’s still a third act epic Grand Prix to go. Surprisingly (I say this as someone who always rooted for Locke against Jack) LOST star Matthew Fox is the best thing about Speed Racer. Fox is really enjoying playing the menacing, mysterious and masked Racer X. He is operating at a very high level of fun indeed for it to be obvious in such a taciturn role that he is Fassbendering his way through the movie. Yes, that’s a word, now. To Fassbender: to very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work. See Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who spends the entirety of 300 grinning like an idiot.

Why the Wachowskis chose to bother with live action rather than a purely animated adaptation of the 1960s Japanese TV cartoon will forever puzzle. They will never lose one element of their craft though as Speed Racer has 2008’s most insanely euphoric finale.

2/5

May 21, 2018

From the Archives: Fool’s Gold

A dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals a true nadir that may well have inspired the mending of his ways that became the McConnaisance.

It’s rare that a film can cause vitriol to dry up, but this film fails so comprehensively that it is hard to know where to begin. So I shall start with accents, to groan hereafter at everything else. Donald Sutherland is meant to be British and so intermittently adopts the sort of plummy accent used by toffs in the 1950s, the rest of the time he uses his normal accent. Why he is in this film is a mystery. We should all thank God that he accepted the great role of Tripp Darling in Dirty Sexy Money which should keep him too busy for the foreseeable future to do dreck like this. Ewen Bremner is meant to be Ukrainian which he plays by adopting the sort of super-Scottish accent which English people have always thought sounded rather Polish. Ray Winstone meantime is distractingly trying to hide his cockney inflections behind a Kentucky Fried accent.

Matthew McConaughey tries his damndest to do his best Owen Wilson impersonation but fails miserably while Kate Hudson who is at least semi-conscious has the good grace to look miserable throughout in obvious shame at having stooped so low for the sake of an easy paycheque. To say this film fails is to state the obvious. It’s not a romantic comedy or an action adventure or any combination of the above. Its tone veers wildly and it appears to be terminally confused as to whether it’s pitching for a 12s audience or a 15s audience. There are only three laughs in the entire film. Two of which are provided by Kate Hudson hitting annoying men very hard with blunt objects. First she knocks out McConnaughey with a walking stick (more of that sort of thing!) and then nearly castrates the uber-annoying walking cliché gangsta rappa with a well aimed shovel blow while on a motorbike. The third act offers some perfunctory satisfaction as various plot machinations finally click but this is a thoroughly disheartening experience.

What really baffles is how all concerned could have gone through a whole film-shoot making something they knew to be rubbish. Did no one have the guts to stand up and demand an on-set rewrite to inject some good lines into the mechanically plotted proceedings at least?

0/5

May 7, 2018

From the Archives: Street Kings

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals a neglected but dramatically rich highpoint in Keanu Reeve’s post-Matrix career.

The LA Tourist Board is almost certain to take out a contract on the life of David Ayer after seeing this film. The writer/director who gave us Harsh Times and Training Day adds another entry to his steadily growing resume of violent films depicting Los Angeles as Hell on Earth, populated entirely by vicious criminals and corrupt cops. Thankfully there is another element to this tale which makes it praiseworthy and that is the story and screenplay credit for James Ellroy, the celebrated novelist whose work provided the source material for 1997’s masterful LA Confidential. This film does not approach the sheer depth of character and artful plotting of that masterpiece. It does however complicate Ayer’s simplistic worldview.

Keanu Reeves is a loose cannon cop, “the tip on the spear” as his superior calls him, a blunt instrument who kills the worst criminals. The almost too clever opening sequence of the film sees a dishevelled boozing Reeves attempt to sell a machine gun from the back of his car to Korean gangsters who beat him up and steal said car after he unleashes a slew of racial epithets. Reeves tracks them to their house, retrieves a concealed gun and body armour from his car and blows the Korean villains away to save two teenage girls they had kidnapped. He then carefully stages the scene to make it look like they shot first, the “exigent circumstances” which allow him to act on his Dirty Harry impulses without legal consequences. But, just like the implacable Harry Callahan, Reeve’s Detective Tom Ludlow is also powered by a tremendous sense of justice as well as vengeance. When wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner Reeves cannot let it go. He jeopardises the elaborate cover-up by his friends in the department in his single-minded search to find out who the cop-killers are by painstaking detective work before killing them for their crime. This part of the film is superb as Ludlow’s good qualities act as a tragic flaw hastening his own downfall.

A fine cast sees Chris Evans stand out as Detective Diskin, who helps Ludlow while being shocked by his tactics. Hugh Laurie is nicely sinister as the head of Internal Affairs but Forest Whitaker is quite awful as Ludlow’s boss – his dialogue is so many cop movie clichés strung together that it actually becomes unintentionally hilarious. Ultimately though this is Reeves’ film and this is one of his best roles. Ludlow’s unstoppable thirst for answers and vengeance, regardless of the consequences for himself, causes him to stumble into a much bigger conspiracy which reveals to him that his violent tendencies may have been exploited by smarter people… Sadly at this point labyrinthine noir gives way to a simplistic Hollywood ending. But despite its flaws this is grittiness well worth seeing.

3/5

From the Archives: Shine A Light

A dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds a review of a Rolling Stones concert movie directed by Martin Scorsese, and hopefully their upcoming gig in Croke Park is better…

The first thing to be said about this film is that it is ear-piercingly loud, so, just like any real gig then. The next thing to be said is that this is a fine concert film, until the gig starts. Scorsese, doing his best Woody Allen impression, is driven demented by the Stones’ refusal to give him a set-list until the last possible moment, making it impossible for him to plan his shots… This sequence, shot in black and white, is endearing and funny and is lamentably ended when Bill Clinton introduces the Stones who roar on stage to ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. Then they play 3 songs you’ll never have heard of but then Jack White appears as a guest, hurrah! And sings a duet on a terrible song you’ll never have heard of, hum. But wait, ‘Tears Go By’, it’ll just be hits for the rest of the gig right? Sadly it won’t.

It is a full 90 minutes into the film before the first recognisable song since ‘Tears Go By’ appears and it is the sublime ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. It is miserably followed up by a duet with Christina Aguilera before the Stones exit on ‘Start Me Up’. They then encore with ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Satisfaction’ before leaving the building, allowing Scorsese a very silly CGI aerial swoop up from the theatre to observe his beloved NYC. The title track ‘Shine a Light’ appears as the soundtrack for the closing credits. This film is wretched beyond belief because the Stones set-list aggressively ignores their hits. Instead we are trapped in utter boredom, unable to wander off for a pint as you do at real gigs when the band gets obscurantist.

Boredom is a dangerous thing, which makes you ask bothersome questions. Is Keith Richards wearing a Pirates of the Caribbean badge while modelling homeless chic? Why is the front row entirely made up of Aryan buxom blondes? How does poor old Charlie Watts, the most grounded of the Stones, put up with the others? Could Mick Jagger look anymore of an idiot buzzing about the stage like a demented fly when he’s pushing 65? Why does Jagger persist in trying to sound like a black Southern blues singer when guest Buddy Guy shows just how brittle his affectation really is? Would backing singer Lisa Fischer win the cleavage of the year award if TV3’s much missed Popcorn was still running? Why can I only hear the saxophones amidst the general feedback and amplification? Is Richards’ guitar even plugged in?!

Scorsese intercuts the gig with absorbing snippets of TV footage of the Stones over the years. Not the smartest of moves though as the gig is so boring that by the end you begin to think you’ve been sitting in the cinema since the late 1960s….

1/5

May 5, 2018

From the Archives: 10,000 BC

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals what is stunningly the only Roland Emmerich movie I have ever reviewed, despite writing and co-directing a play called Roland Emmerich Movie.

One leaves the cinema at the end of 10,000 BC confident that a truly probing film-maker has left no cliché unused, no platitude un-uttered and no trace of logic intact. Roland Emmerich is the Jedi master of the cheesy blockbuster with this film being almost a summation of his entire career. Universal Soldier, Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot, and The Day After Tomorrow are here all rolled into one bombastic CGI-wrapped bundle. Emmerich has made a nonsense of cybernetics, Egyptology, patriotism, crypto-biology, patriotism again, and climatology and has now decided to add pre-history, geography and Egyptology (again) to the list of disciplines whose experts he has driven demented.

D’Leh (Steven Strait), a hunter of mammoths, is in love with Evolet (Camilla Belle) a girl with blue eyes (remember that, it’ll turn out to be important later on) but constantly broods over his father’s desertion of the tribe years earlier. When Evolet, who has perfect teeth but Groucho Marx eyebrows, is kidnapped along with half the tribe by vicious slave traders he sets out to find her guided by his mentor Tic-Tic (Cliff Curtis). Hilariously despite living in snowy mountains the entire tribe is obviously Aboriginal or Maori, except the Caucasian romantic leads. 2 days trek leads them from a mountain top to a jungle (go figure) where they encounter giant carnivorous ostriches. Introduced blatantly in the style of one of Spielberg’s velociraptor sequences Emmerich eventually pulls back the camera and has to admit they’re not actually dinosaurs, they’re giant birds, after all having dinosaurs co-exist alongside humans would be silly….

A few more days trek leads our heroes to the plains of Africa and the Masai Mara, two more days and they’re in Egypt (presumably why Omar Shariff is narrating) and pyramids are being built a mere 7,000 years before their actual construction. Our heroes have wandered into a PG-13 version of Apocalypto and encounter some effete Egyptians, which always signifies e-vil in an Emmerich film. Guess what? There are prophecies involving celestial constellations and The One (I’m not making this up), and a Spartacus style slave revolt with bad CGI mammoths. All of which should be enough to make your floating ribs part from their moorings under the strain of trying not to laugh or urge characters to check someone is really dead before turning their back on them.

Roland Emmerich doesn’t do subtle. Billy Wilder held that a film worked better if its plot points were not immediately obvious. Roland Emmerich likes to announce his plot points with a trumpet fanfare in the soundtrack. It’s less a film and more of an illustrated guide on how to write a really cheesy, dumb blockbuster. This is a very bad film indeed but it’s gloriously ludicrous. I haven’t enjoyed myself this much watching rubbish in quite some time.

2/5

From the Archives: Son of Rambow

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives turns up a neglected British comedy whose child stars went on to interesting careers while its director waited nearly a decade for Sing.

Garth Jennings, director of the flawed but fun Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, fulfils his obvious potential with a very funny and charming slice of 1980s nostalgia. Directed from his own script, which he was working on prior to Hitchhiker’s, this is very obviously a deeply personal project. Fantastic young lead actor Bill Milner (think a less annoying Freddie Highmore…) plays Will, a shy child who lives with his widowed religious mother and has little contact with the rough side of life…until a detention-worthy encounter in the school corridor with Carter, whose introduction is a visual triumph. Will Poulter is fantastic as Lee Carter, the coolest kid in school. Every school had one of these, a bad boy with a heart of gold…maybe. But not every school had one who got up to such demented antics involving flying plastic dogs…

It’s a great pity that this film is being released after the similarly themed Be Kind Rewind as this is far, far funnier. Jennings’ staging of the boys’ production of insane home movie Son of Rambow is just inspired, with endless quirky and inventive stunts. The warmth of the script has attracted a nice supporting cast of British actors including comedy legend Eric Sykes. Spaced star Jessica Stevenson stands out in an unusually dramatic turn as Will’s mother, a leading member of the Plymouth Brethren who disavow music, films and television. Will thus has to sit outside while TV documentaries are shown in class, which leads to a wonderful running gag, and also his fateful encounter with Carter.

Featuring the coolest New Romantic French exchange student of all time among other joys this does occasionally dip into cliché with its ‘touching’ message about childhood friendship and the liberating joy of cinema. But it’s all done with such obvious affection for the perils of watching Rambo at too young an age that it can be forgiven its faults. Son of Rambow is reminiscent of Grosse Pointe Blank in being a film so warm-hearted and fun that it can make you nostalgic for a 1980s adolescence you never even had.

4/5

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: There Will Be Blood

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds my sceptical review of the greatest film performance of all time in a work of staggering genius.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar winning saga of oilmen in early 20th Century America opens with a dialogue free 15 minutes. In them, Daniel Day-Lewis’ monstrous capitalist Daniel Plainview scratches in the ground for gold before striking oil for the first time. Every critic worth their salt has jumped on board the ‘Hey let’s compare 2001 and There Will Be Blood’ bandwagon and so will I. Comparisons to the opening sequence of 2001 are, indeed, apt. Both sequences showcase a director more intent on confirming their auteur status by showing off their long tracking shots than on actually telling a story or giving a proper introduction to the characters. It is not coincidence that the scores of both films are given such praise, oftentimes nothing else of value is happening.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score is tremendous. He early on uses a very 19th Century style of lush Romanticism that stretches harmony to breaking point before settling into a more modern dissonant and percussive mode that conveys the energy and darkness of Plainview. There are sequences when Greenwood’s use of pure percussion with gradually added staccato strings overshadows the boring visuals it scores. The problem is that screenwriter/director Anderson is so deeply in love with his pointless tracking shots (see Magnolia…) that it works against his storytelling. Major themes are flagged and then never engaged with. You keep waiting for the film to kick up a gear, then realise it’s never going to interrogate God versus Mammon, or do more with charismatic charlatan preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The final half-hour is terrific but it sees the film veers towards deranged comedy including Day-Lewis’ infamous delivery of the line “I drink your milkshake!”, which is, by itself, worth sitting through 157 minutes for.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance could never justify its hype as one of the finest in the history of cinema. The surprise is that it’s not even the finest of his career. His Oscar seems to be an apology by the Academy for not recognising his terrifying turn as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. The first sign that something is rotten in the state of Daniel comes with his first speech, delivered in an accent suspiciously like his 1870s fop Newland Archer, from The Age of Innocence. Later he starts phrasing like Anthony Hopkins before finally edging towards Sean Connery’s accent.

This film is a classic example of the dangers of hype. Seen blind Day-Lewis gives an accomplished performance in an overlong film that meanders badly but has some wonderful set-pieces of oil accidents, deranged greed and religious mania, with a number of truly memorable exchanges between Plainview and Sunday. Seen after all the Oscar hoopla you downgrade a respectable 3 star film to 2 stars. This is worth seeing, just disregard the hype.

3/5

From the Archives: The Cottage

A dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals a gruesome little attempt at a black comedy with Andy Serkis still struggling to get good roles in his own physical right.

Andy Serkis’ starring role in The Cottage confirms his status as one of the most under-appreciated actors of our time. He’s been disguised by motion capture in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong and, apart from a hypnotic cameo as Moors Murderer Ian Brady in Channel 4’s award-winning Longford, his appearances in his own physical right have been restricted to truly terrible British films like Deathwatch. Well guess what? Playing a similar role to his gruff psycho in Deathwatch Serkis’ talent is once again wasted on a diabolical British script. This horror-comedy is literally a film of two halves. It starts off wanting to be a Joe Orton play, realises it has no jokes and then becomes an incredibly gruesome shlock-horror with no soul.

Writer/director Paul Andrew Williams made a big splash critically with his acclaimed thriller London to Brighton. His follow-up should, if patriotic reviewing for once takes a second place to honesty among the hacks of Fleet Street, be a career ender. I really did try to give this film every possible chance. It begins very much as a poor man’s Joe Orton scenario with two exhausted men, one a criminal (Serkis) and the other his mild-mannered brother (Reece Shearsmith), arriving with their hostage (Jennifer Ellison) at a decrepit cottage in rural England. Shearsmith’s hen-pecked character has agreed to help in this insane scheme of kidnapping the daughter of not just any crime boss but the crime boss Serkis character works for (!) in order to get his sibling to sign over half of their mother’s house to him. Lad’s mag favourite Jennifer Ellison has been cast apparently purely for the dimensions of her chest which is lovingly lingered over by the camera on more than one occasion. Her character is meant to be the foul-mouthed wise-cracking British equivalent of a Ripley or Buffy. The difference between that obvious intention and the awful reality of her performance is the scariest thing in the film.

Joe Orton’s pitch-black comedies like Loot usually included some jokes. There are no jokes in this film. It feels like having failed on that front Williams just threw his hands up in despair half way through and changed to a gross out horror film. Watching Reece Shearsmith have half his foot cut off by an expertly wielded shovel and then hobble through the rest of the film with an exceedingly bloody stump is just one of the most repulsive sights that cinema will offend with this year. There is nothing in this ‘horribly scarred farmer goes mad and becomes a cannibal preying on strangers in rural England’ set up that hasn’t been done and parodied a million times before. This is lazy, unfunny, sexist, grotesque rubbish and to be avoided if for no other reason than to save Williams from himself…

1/5

From the Archives: Meet the Spartans

A deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives turns up a film I honestly don’t remember seeing, so comprehensively did my mind rebel against its attempts at parody; the mind boggles that Robot Chicken was contemporaneously gloriously ripping Star Wars.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that if you pay money to go to see this film then you are directly contributing to the decline and fall of Western Civilisation. Plato and Sophocles, Marcus Aurelius and Virgil, Aquinas and Dante, JS Mill and Dickens, Bertrand Russell and TS Eliot – just consider the long line of great philosophers and artists that ends now, in 2008, with Paris Hilton and Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer.

Hard as it may believe these two men are happy to take credit not only for this atrocity but for Date Movie, Epic Movie and Scary Movie, which represent the pickings of puerile trash from this decade’s celluloid garbage can. Following 300’s plot ‘faithfully’, Leonidas, a butch Spartan, assembles an elite 13 warriors headed by Kevin Sorbo (remember Hercules on Sky? Didn’t think so) and marches to war against Xerxes who attacks them with wave after wave of celebrity culture ‘parody’.

Sean Maguire (used to be in Eastenders) badly tries to imitate Gerard Butler’s gruff hero King Leonidas while Carmen Electra (used to be topless) stands around in various states of undress as the Spartan Queen. The problem once again is that this ‘franchise’ parodies a film that was already funny to begin with, and does it armed with an arsenal of no brains and less jokes. Friedberg and Seltzer have decided that the homo-eroticism of 300 is a goldmine for comedy. It might be if this was a 1971 ‘comedy’ and 300 had been remotely serious, but 300 is a riot of a film with more tongue in cheek bombast than Brian Blessed at a Flash Gordon convention. This cost very little to make, Saturday Night Live sketches have a bigger budget, but these films are so bad they don’t even belong on SNL; which would be the obvious home for even one good sketch that cleverly re-staged a single scene of a film. Instead we get 300 with penguins, fart jokes and various horrible things being spat and regurgitated into faces.

There are no jokes in this film. Not one, there are no intentional laughs to be had. The hilarity of this film such as it is comes from the fact that it its audience into anthropologists. We are in a strange world trying to recognise when the members of a tribe called ‘actors’ are delivering a ‘punchline’ – a ritual found in members of a sub-culture called ‘comedians’ to indicate that a physical response of joviality has now been earned. Usually there is a minor pause between lines to indicate a real zinger is on its way, this is followed by a longer pause to allow for laughter by the audience, so that ensuing dialogue is not drowned out by the sounds of mirth. Needless to say these pauses are totally unnecessary…

1/5

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