Talking Movies

January 13, 2020

From the Archives: Dan in Real Life

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Steve Carell partly redeems himself for Evan Almighty by returning to safer Little Miss Sunshine territory and playing his lead role of widowed newspaper advice columnist Dan Burns with a winning mix of sarcasm and sadness. Whether anyone will have the stomach for this film in January is another question as it is painfully accurate in its depiction of the nightmarish quality of a cold Christmas spent in too close proximity to one’s family where unasked for advice and old scores being settled drives everyone to solitary long walks. The extra awkwardness Dan suffers from meeting a woman in a bookstore (a cringe-worthy scene), talking to her for hours and then parting, only to find she’s his brother Mitch’s new girlfriend when he arrives back at the family home becomes quite tiresome and necessitates a jarring dive into slapstick comedy.

This film suffers all through from the great problem with the end of Annie Hall. When Woody Allen muses that he’s happy that he met Annie because she’s such a wonderful person you struggle to think of a single thing she did or said that was wonderful. Here we are simply told Juliette Binoche is smart, funny, etc. No evidence is offered. She has no sparkling lines, any insights her character offers seem mere pretentiousness. The biggest problem is her obnoxious and quite cruel selfishness. She wants to go out with Mitch but at the same time she enjoys and encourages Dan to moon around carrying a torch for her. When he decides to enjoy himself on a date with local girl Ruthie Draper her reaction is bitchy in the extreme. And okay, it’s like, official, I’m setting up the Irish Chapter of the Emily Blunt Fan Club here. She only appears for about 5 minutes as Ruthie Draper and she’s largely there as a plot device and as the wonderful pay-off for a gag. When she popped up an hour in it seemed possible that the film was finally about to move up a gear, but no such luck.

The fact that Mitch is played by Dane Cook of Good Luck Chuck infamy makes the choices of Binoche’s Anne-Marie all the more unsympathetic especially as she seems to deliberately and tauntingly cultivate a relationship with Dan’s three daughters who are all currently mad at their father for justifiable and hysterical reasons respectively. The best female performance comes from Alison Pill as Dan’s 17 year old daughter Jane who is tough and sensible and has to give dad a good-talking to more than once. It’s hard to see why America’s National Board of Review chose this as one of their top 10 films of 2007. Dan in Real Life is not fun or rewarding enough to measure up to writer/director Peter Hedges’ previous film Pieces of April.

3/5

From the Archives: The Kite Runner

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Gruelling is the best word to describe this film. Indeed it’s hard to fathom how such an unrelentingly depressing story could ever have become a world-wide best seller. But then maybe Troy screenwriter David Benioff has sprinkled his own peculiar variety of anti-gold dust over the original novel. After all German-Swiss director Marc Forster has a much better track record than Benioff having brought us Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland and Stranger than Fiction. Forster is almost physically incapable of making an uninvolving film and The Kite Runner grips like a vice throughout. However that’s not because you’re emotionally engaged with the characters, it’s more that you’re scared, rightly wary of what new horror Forster intends to visit upon the audience.

The story centres on the relationship between two young boys, Amir and Hassan, in 1978 Afghanistan. Amir’s father is rich and Hassan is the son of his loyal servant Ali. Hassan thus shows fanatical devotion to Amir but asserts this loyalty to the wrong bullies and gets raped by a gang of older boys. The terrifying villain of the piece Assef is (like the infamous Fascist Captain in Pan’s Labyrinth) just too many kinds of evil all rolled into one, without any redeeming features or quirks, to actually convince as a character. Assef in 1978 is a racist despising Hazzara Afghans, a rich snob who exults in his wealth and Pashtun breeding, and a homophobe who rapes Hassan to teach him a lesson. Assef in 2000 is a Taliban official who is now a bisexual paedophile, when he’s not stoning women to death for committing adultery. If you’ve managed to sit through the rape, you have a graphic stoning to death of a woman for committing adultery and a bloody slingshot to the eyeball still to come…

The Kite Runner fails because Amir is so incredibly horrible to Hassan after the rape. Nothing he does can achieve redemption as Hassan has the patience of a saint in all his scenes while Amir is never likeable. In addition despite the laudable use of subtitles and Afghan actors this film arguably falls into the old trap of using an ‘American abroad’ approach by having Scottish born Khalid Abdalla play the adult Amir. If this is an attempt to focus our sympathies with the San Francisco dwelling older Amir then it doesn’t work. Amir cannot find ‘a way to be good’ as the trailer so pompously promises. While it is interesting to see the Western influence in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion and the realities of life under the Taliban it’s not enough to make the misery worth while. You would not recommend this to friends.

2/5

From the Archives: Paranoid Park

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Director Gus Van Sant embarrasses himself…again. Seriously, does anyone even remember the Gus Van Sant who made indie classics Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho? I mean at this point I’d settle for the flailing idiot who directed Good Will Hunting and the epically pointless shot by shot remake of Psycho. Instead we get the 2000s version of the director. The man who thinks that setting his films in high school and using unknown actors improvising their own minimal dialogue somehow makes him more ‘authentic’. In fact there are no more contrived films out there than this parody of an art-house drama. Atonement is being released in America as an art-house drama; it has a complicated structure, a daring theme and a great storyline. Paranoid Park’s scenes could have been cut together by monkeys for all the thought that goes into the structure of the hardly there at all story, while Van Sant is so busy ticking what he regards as the ‘art-house boxes’ that he forgets to say anything.

This film starts off with some impressive dream-like tracking shots following skateboarders at the eponymous illegal skateboard rink. Unfortunately Van Sant then shoots the entire film in the same dazed fashion. This film’s already short running time would be even briefer if you cut away every pointless tracking shot that follows alienated teen Alex down a school corridor, more often than not in slow motion, for no reason other than to allow the soundtrack to feature some impeccably obscure alt-rock track. If you want to see a tracking shot that has some purpose to it look at the already legendary Dunkirk sequence in Atonement, if you want to see a director betting his producer how many pointless tracking shots he can cram into 86 minutes watch Paranoid Park. It’s hard to emphasise just how little happens in this film. In the teenage wasteland of Portland, Oregon that Van Sant depicts Alex refuses his friend’s Macy’s suggestion that he’s upset by his parent’s divorce muttering, “There’s bigger problems…everybody’s parents get divorced”. Some vague bitching about Iraq follows but Alex talks to no-one about his secret guilt.

Van Sant fails to make us care about Alex’s predicament and his ‘ending’ is an absolute disgrace. This film also features one of the most needlessly gruesome sights of the year as the security guard, whose accidental homicide provides what little plot there is, survives being sliced in half by a train for, oh, about 30 seconds, and spends those seconds dragging his torso towards Alex trailing his guts and his spinal cord behind him. Nice. Yeah, for a George Romero zombie flick maybe…The best scene in this film comes when Alex’s younger brother does a word for word re-enactment of a scene from Napoleon Dynamite. And I don’t even like Napoleon Dynamite

1/5

December 23, 2019

From the Archives: I’m Not There

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Crazy/Brilliant, that’s not an ‘either/or’ approach to this film where you’ll consider I’m Not There to be either crazy or brilliant. No, it’s ‘both/and’, this is one of the best films of 2007; yes, it features one of the craziest concepts ever to cobble together enough financing to get made but its execution is superb in every respect. To even attempt an explanation of the structure of the film would be madness as writer/director Todd Haynes does not follow chronologically the career of Bob Dylan but cross-cuts between different aspects of it. At no point is Dylan’s name mentioned, this is not a biopic, it is inspired by his music ‘and many lives’. It could have been an unholy mess but the intercutting of different actors and settings makes perfect sense in its own deranged fashion.

The story begins with Ben Whishaw as the poet Dylan answering police questions about himself and doing the whole Greenwich Village routine. A guitar-picking black kid calling himself Woody Guthrie is Dylan’s earliest hero-worshipping incarnation, he becomes Christian Bale’s uncanny impersonation of the protest singer Dylan while Heath Ledger’s mumbling actor Jack Rollins is the embodiment of the mid to late 1960s Dylan, drunk on his own fame, married but endlessly womanising and refusing to engage with the world in his songs because it can’t be changed. Richard Gere is the outlaw Dylan trying to escape into a mythical Old West while Bale returns as the late 1970s Dylan embracing evangelical Christianity. Cate Blanchett steals the acting honours by doing a tremendous version of the Dylan that toured England in 1966 and was given the hostile reception recorded in DA Pennebaker’s documentary Don’t Look Back.

Todd Haynes redeems the disastrous hash he made of depicting glam rock in Velvet Goldmine by using this demented set-up as a means to make Dylan’s songs incredibly fresh. Woody Guthrie’s early dirty blues rendition of ‘Tombstone Blues’ sets the scene for terrific use of many songs, probably the best of which is ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, which is made to seem a sarcastic attack on Bruce Greenwood’s sneering BBC journalist Mr Jones. The song is subsequently dissected by the Black Panthers for hidden meanings. That could be a metaphor for this film. Haynes has produced such a rich ensemble of performances (even minor turns like David Cross as Allen Ginsberg and Julianne Moore as Joan Baez), beautifully re-created film styles, and tremendous evocation of golden-green rural America (as well as capturing the disoriented vibe of Dylan in Britain in 1966 – the moment when the Beatles appear in a Help! pastiche is priceless) that this is a film which will repay subsequent re-watching and that should be seen by all Dylan fans, or people with any interest in pop culture, or…hell just anyone who’s awake!

5/5

From the Archives: Alvin and the Chipmunks

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

This is a silly film, as almost goes without saying when discussing the adventures of a trio of singing chipmunks, but not without merit. There are some good jokes and the three chipmunks are splendidly animated and voiced. Theodore the youngest Chipmunk is unfeasibly adorable, Simon is given a number of good lines as the smart one, while the cocky Alvin is not as good as you remember from the 1980s cartoon show but does get a hilarious moment when his voice goes low after inhaling helium from a balloon. He uses this new voice to say the words “major rock stars” to their manager/songwriter/surrogate father Dave. It’s hard to not keep mentally putting a moustache on Jason Lee’s Dave Seville as he uses the exact same voice he does for his famous lead role in TV’s My Name Is Earl. Former Point Pleasant star Cameron Richardson stands around and looks pretty in a hardly written at all role as Dave’s ex-girlfriend who is assigned to cover his rise to fame in her capacity as a photo-journalist and who left him because of his inability to handle responsibility.

What’s sort of snooze-inducing about this film is its unstinting adherence to the formulaic set-up of what a kid’s flick ought to be, but then such laziness should not surprise given that the screen story was penned by Jon Vitti one of the many under-achieving writers who managed to bore us all into a coma with The Simpsons Movie. Of course the Chipmunks will win over Dave’s affections after initially sabotaging his life, of course they’ll alienate his ex-girlfriend from him and then his love for them and his willingness to take on the responsibility of being their adoptive father will win her back by showing that he’s matured. Of course they’ll fall out with him in the second act and be seduced by the dark side of fame and excess offered by ‘Uncle’ Ian, who will of course plot to drive a wedge between them and Dave which will only be solved by an intricate reconciliation/musical number in the finale.

David Cross has great fun playing record label executive Ian Hawke, a college friend of Dave who endlessly patronises him. He steals the Chipmunks away from Dave and flogs an endless amount of crummy Chipmunk merchandise while working them to exhaustion on punishing tour schedules, only keeping them going with extravagant coffees. This isn’t wonderfully written material by any means but Cross (Dr Tobias Funke on Arrested Development) makes the most of it. His final lines, cursing in Spanish before unleashing an Empire Strikes Back style bellowing ‘NOOOOOOOOO!!!!’, are almost enough to make up for the shortcomings elsewhere. This is a fun enough film that will keep kids entertained but their parents will frequently find their attention wandering.

2/5

From the Archives: P.S. I Love You

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Merciful Zeus! Was the Cecilia Ahern novel really this bad?! Disregarding the fact that this film shows all the emotional maturity of a moody teenager, and an insulting approach to bereavement and grief that staggers the mind even by lobotomised Hollywood standards, this trash is disgracefully long. No romantic comedy should last more than 90 minutes. To hit 2 hours and 10 minutes with this diabolically unfunny enterprise shows an amazing lack of cop-on by all concerned. Director Richard LaGravenese has a track record though, having scripting painfully extended films like The Horse Whisperer and The Mirror has Two Faces. If I was going to be mean I would point out that Hilary Swank gets fired in the first 15 minutes and apparently lives on air for the next year, and make some reference to the surname of a writer and certain tribunals, but it’s Christmas time so there’ll be no savage political tangents.

Instead we’ll savage the stupidity of this film, beginning with the ‘acting’. Gerard Butler’s Irish accent as the late Gerry is a sociological essay waiting to happen. It’s accepted in Hollywood that a stage-Scottish accent is merely an amped-up stage-Irish accent with rolling r’s. Gerard Butler though IS Scottish, so what the hell was he thinking when he decided to reverse that procedure to do an Irish accent? He is nightmarishly confused here; swinging between a stage-Irish accent, his own Scottish brogue, and that bizarre Irish-American mobster accent that recent TV show The Black Donnellys quickly abandoned. The decision to move the story to America but keep Gerry Irish is baffling anyway and cringe-worthy as it necessitates a trip to the auld sod for some ‘hilarious hi-jinks’ by the American girls in the third act. Quite why so many capable actors opted to appear in this dreck is an enigma. The presence of Buffy star James Marsters is referenced by an in-joke about vampire slaying not being a profession for Swank’s heroine Holly. He is utterly wasted in a tiny role as Gerry’s business partner, his only notable contribution being a well deserved put-down of Lisa Kudrow’s disgustingly materialistic chat-up lines. As for the awful cameo by Grey’s Anatomy and Supernatural star Jeffrey Dean Morgan the less said the better…

There’s only so much you can hurt a film in a review. I can’t even begin to scratch the surface of how insultingly this film portrays grieving. Apparently all you need to work through grief is to sing along to Judy Garland films, eat take-out, not clean your house and hope your loved one is psychic enough to continue corresponding with you. P.S. I Love You is savagely life-wasting trash. Compared to The Jane Austen Book Club which was absurdly enjoyable and like drinking cappuccino this is unbearably dreadful and like drinking weed-killer.

1/5

December 22, 2019

From the Archives: Youth without Youth

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

One of the worst films of the year, this should be held as proof that Francis Ford Coppola may know how to make wine but he long since forgot how to make films. After a decade away it would appear that Coppola saw Donnie Darko and decided that what he really needed to do to add to the legendary reputation of his last two films, Jack and The Rainmaker, was to make his own version of Donnie Darko. His wine business has after all left him in the happy position of being able to entirely self-finance his films and he has droned on about his insane desire at the age of 68 to be a young independent film-maker tackling unusual subjects. It is hilariously appropriate to title the film Youth without Youth, as this is Donnie Darko without its wunderkind writer/director Richard Kelly’s youthful sensibility.

Imagine Donnie Darko with an older hero, no jokes, no dramatic tension, no interesting scenes, no characterisation and enough pretension to out-do a Parisian coffee shop full of philosophy students. Coppola’s ‘script’ is a boring trawl through endless unexplained ideas which even lead actor Tim Roth has admitted not understanding in the slightest. Roth stars as 70-year-old linguist Dominic Matei whose life’s search for the original source of human language is rejuvenated by a lightning strike that restores him to his 35-year-old self, with two co-existing personalities, which makes him a coveted specimen for evil Nazi scientists….Don’t ask, this film hops genres every time you yawn. In the hands of Tom Stoppard this could have been made interesting. But then in the hands of Tom Stoppard anything can be made interesting as his approach combines fearsome intelligence with a love of comedy. Coppola though seems to be getting ever more pompous as he gets older. Witness the ‘written and directed by’ credit he insists upon claiming even though he then has to admit that this film is based on the supposedly amazing writings of Romanian philosopher/historian Mircea Eliade.

There is no trace here of the man who made The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. There is though, God help us, a trace of the man who made Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Alexandra Maria Lara, so good in Control, has the thankless task of playing both Tim Roth’s dead love from the 1890s and a lookalike Belgian schoolteacher in the 1950s who falls in love with Roth’s Matei who is only using her for her ability to channel the spirit of a 1200s Indian princess-philosopher. This will allegedly help him to finish his life’s work although that seems logically impossible if you’re still conscious enough to think about it at that point. The final image of the film is so obviously meant to be a shockingly intelligent twist that the only correct response is derisive laughter….

1/5

From the Archives: Talk to Me

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

This would be one of the films of the year, if it ended just 20 minutes sooner than it does. Petey Green was a DJ in Washington DC in the late 1960s and Don Cheadle is terrific as this ex-con keeping it real on the airwaves. Martin Sheen plays EG Sonderling, the head of the WOL radio station that broadcasts Green’s show. In one episode of Sheen’s political show The West Wing a character made reference to DC being one of the blackest cities in America, but that you would never guess it from the exclusively white faces of the corridors of power in Washington. Sheen is tremendous here in a supporting role as his character changes from utter hostility to Petey Green to a great respect for Green’s truth-telling about the city’s racial divide.

Cedric the Entertainer, who disgraced himself in last week’s Code Name: The Cleaner, has a wonderfully droll small role as a Barry White-voiced DJ in this film which offers an incisive interrogation of black American culture. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is Cheadle’s match as black radio executive Dewey Hughes. The dramatic crackle between these two men, especially in an electrifying pool game where they verbally dissect each other, is of the highest calibre. It is two great actors sparking off each other using a script that is literate, detailed and engaged. In a desperate attempt to avoid using the racial epithet that usually follows the prefixes field- and house- in American slang let us describe Hughes and Green as they do each other. Green regards Hughes as a collaborator with the white man, talking frightfully proper English, dressing in a suit and sucking up to merit a patronising pat on the head. Hughes regards Green as a willing victim, who will spend his life in and out of jail, while boasting about how ‘real’ he is, and asking for a handout.

How these men find common ground is brilliantly handled and the period setting is tremendously evoked while everyone deserves especial acclaim for the sequence that follows the death of Martin Luther King. Nowhere has that assassination been portrayed to such devastatingly emotional effect, the impact here is so great that you may well end up crying at an event that happened 39 years ago. Primarily though this is a very funny film, especially Hughes’ initial attempts to get Petey Green on the air. The last 20 minutes stray from the radio station, as Hughes masterminds Green’s transition to TV star and stand-up comedian, and act as an epilogue to the main drama. As epilogues go it’s involving but it destroys the film’s momentum so that the end becomes something of an anti-climax. For all that though Talk to Me is both entertaining and has an important message, it deserves a wide audience.

4/5

From the Archives: Enchanted

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Disney does self-parody, and it’s awesome. Shrek is exposed as the under-achieving mean-spirited wretch it always was by Disney’s generous ribbing of their own fairytale animations. This is one of the best films of the year, in which the flaws (such as the hilariously confused message about marriage and romance) do not matter as they are mere quibbles beside everything that is done superbly. The cast is even littered with cameos by voice actors who worked on old Disney films to announce that the Empire of the Mouse is striking back. The hilarious trailer tells you all you need to know about the plot. Amy Adams (who’ll always be a meteor-freak-of-the-week on Smallville to me) is perfect casting as the hopelessly naïve animated fairytale princess-to-be Giselle of Andalasia, who gets a harsh reality check when thrown down a well from which she emerges into live-action NYC, even if she does succeed in getting cockroaches to help with household chores by singing to them.

McDreamy, I mean Patrick Dempsey, plays Robert Phillip, the archetypal hard-hearted New York divorce lawyer. His calculated wooing of Nancy (played by Broadway star Idina Menzel) is chaotically upset by the arrival of Giselle in his life and the obvious bond between Giselle and his young daughter. The big musical number in Central Park doesn’t have the greatest tune but it’s performed with enough energy to make up for it as, much to Phillip’s embarrassment, buskers start to help out Giselle’s spontaneous singing. The song ‘True Love’s Kiss’ though has a great melody and also provides one of the best gags in the film, of course it involves James Marsden. Marsden as Prince Edward is an absolute scream in this film. His prince is dashing in animated Andalasia but a snobbish, misogynist ninny in NYC. He scoops up most of the film’s best lines including the priceless “Thank you for taking care of my bride, peasants!”

Sometimes progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, compare the grotesque humans of CGI animation with the traditional method here which perfectly renders Timothy Spall’s Nathaniel, servant of the evil Queen who helps her in her quest to stop Giselle marrying Prince Edward and so taking her throne. Spall follows Edward into the real world and dons ‘disguises’ and a series of increasingly ludicrous/racist foreign accents as he tries to feed a poisoned apple to Giselle. He’s such a failure at being evil that eventually the wicked queen herself makes the leap into NYC. Susan Sarandon as her physical incarnation is so heavily fright-made up that she looks like her old Rocky Horror co-star Tim Curry’s Dr Frank-N-Furter. Her grand entrance at the film’s finale in the style of General Zod trashing NYC in Superman II is to be relished, but then so is everything in Enchanted. Truly essential viewing.

5/5

From the Archives: Bee Movie

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

This is a bit of a conundrum to review. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good movie that features some hilarious gags. It is certainly several leagues above Dreamworks’ previous animated feature this year, the dire Shrek the Third. Jerry Seinfeld, who finally stopped doing stand-up to make this film, has really thought out the internal logic for his epic about bee society. The depiction of the worker bees that leave the hive to collect pollen is hilarious as they’re all jocks in a Top Gun style fighter squadron valorised by the rest of the hive. The sequence where Barry B Benson (voiced by Seinfeld) finally achieves his dream and flies with them on a sortie through the city is genuinely exciting. The problem is that while there are a number of great gags which are truly of the calibre you expect from a Seinfeld script the movie overall feels somewhat flat. This oddly deflating vibe is exemplified by the use of Chris Rock, who is hilarious but appears in just three scenes as the voice of a mosquito.

Despite the spirited protestations of Dreamworks Animation supremo Jeffrey Katzenberg there is no doubt that this film is less in thrall to celebrities than previous Dreamworks fiascos like Shark Tale. The presence of Patrick Warburton, who voices ultraviolent bodyguard Brock Samson in cult animated show The Venture Brothers, is testament to that. I have no idea what Warburton looks like, he’s a voice actor, and he’s hilarious as Ken, Vanessa’s jock boyfriend who has absurd self-confidence. In Shark Tale celebrities whose voices aren’t particularly memorable were made obvious by making all the anthropomorphic fish look exactly like the person voicing them. The characters were then made exactly like the screen persona of these stars. Which it must be admitted is about as far removed from the idea of an actor bending themselves into a role as is possible to imagine. Here Seinfeld is recognisable as a bee but no one else really is bar real human characters like Ray Liotta and Sting (both mocking themselves with gusto) and a gag about B Larry King.

The plot is very similar to Antz with an extremely neurotic Jewish insect (seriously, the amount of Jewish references here would appear excessive in a Woody Allen film) agonising over his life and his attempts to become an individualist in a conformist society. This is done in typically melodramatic Hollywood fashion by suing humans for stealing honey. The bees are helped by Renee Zellweger’s kind-hearted florist Vanessa for this showdown which should theoretically enable Barry’s hive to have more time for leisure and a life outside of work. But that’s not the end of the story. Seinfeld cleverly subverts the clichés established by Dreamworks’ ‘subversive’ films but it still doesn’t make this essential viewing.

3/5

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