Talking Movies

October 15, 2019

From the Archives: The Invasion

Filed under: Talking Movies (Reviews) — Fergal Casey @ 6:15 pm

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

A NASA shuttle disintegrates on re-entry transmitting a deadly alien virus which removes people’s emotions. Can Claire (Nicole Kidman) keep her son safe from her infected ex-husband while a doctor (Daniel Craig) seeks to find a cure?

“And how many times must a film be remade, before it can be remade no more?” Bob Dylan didn’t say that but he didn’t have to sit through this baffling mess. The Invasion is archly titled to hide the fact that it is the third (!) remake of 1956 B-movie classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Directed by Don Siegel the original was a master-class of forced economy as he eschewed effects, instead creating an atmosphere of creeping unease and paranoia as the truth emerged. Siegel’s film was a political metaphor so effective it could chill the blood whether you regarded it as allegorical of McCarthyism or Communism. The original “pod-people” were polite…but a bit off, as Stephen King noted, they had no community spirit. By contrast the pod people in this film are all about community, they have no emotions but only because they seem to have achieved a blissful state of nirvana. But that’s not the first change to be noted.

The creeping unease and subtle exposition of Siegel’s version has been thrown out and replaced by an indecent haste to cut to the chase, which ironically makes the film less exciting as there’s no escalating paranoia. At points it looks like The Invasion was originally meant to be an intensely first person narrative from Nicole Kidman’s point of view with the presence of the pod people on the streets becoming ever more obvious and menacing. Sadly such subtlety, if that was the original intention, has been lost in the welter of changes made to Oliver Hirschbiegel’s original cut by the Wachowksi brothers. The constant jumpy cutting though betrays the heavy hand of studio executives as Hirschbiegel’s Downfall was replete with extended tracking shots while the Wachowkis have an elegance in visual storytelling entirely absent here.

Who knows who wrote what but it’s a safe bet the hilarious political message comes from the terminally confused Wachowski brothers whose V for Vendetta can easily be read as a paen to neo-conservatism if one was so michievously inclined….Here the pod people confront Nicole Kidman with the world they offer: no wars, no poverty, no rape, no murder, no exploitation of others because there are no others, we are all one. She promptly shoots them dead….as you begin scratching your head trying to figure out what on earth the film is trying to say. News reports show us Bush and Chavez signing trade agreements, the US occupation in Iraq coming to a joyous end, and generally world peace is breaking out all over. All of which will end if Daniel Craig’s doctor can find a cure for the alien virus. Craig gives the best performance but by the end even he looks defeated by the film’s logic…

1/5

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From the Archives: Resident Evil: Extinction

Filed under: Talking Movies (Reviews) — Fergal Casey @ 6:11 pm

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

The T-Virus has populated the world with zombies. A convoy of survivors led by Claire (Larter) encounters Alice (Jovovich) in the Nevada desert and gets drawn into her fight against the evil Umbrella Corp who created the virus.

When the hell did Resident Evil become a franchise? How is it even possible that Paul WS Anderson is still given big budgets for this dreck? Who out there keeps going to these damn films? Paul WS Anderson after showing some initial promise as a writer/director has become the Ed Wood of our times, only with a budget – which he is given repeatedly in his baffling capacity as Hollywood’s go-to-guy for bad horror adaptations of computer games. He has written, directed and produced everything from Mortal Kombat to Alien Vs Predator and has scripted all three Resident Evil films. Anderson, whether out of guilt that he got the job of writer/director on Resident Evil after horror legend George Romero was unceremoniously fired, or because he’s sick of the critical pastings he always receives, has lifted large chunks of George Romero’s Day of the Dead for his screenplay here. From the tension between military and scientists trapped underground, to the skeletal makeup effects for the long time undead, to the infected heroes who won’t admit that they’re now a threat to the notion that the real evil is inside the souls of humans, this film revisits themes and even scenes from that bleak 1985 film.

Sadly none of this gives any depth to Resident Evil: Extinction. What it does do is waste time that could be better used for zombie ass-kicking. Milla Jovovich now has super-strength and can use The Force (no, I’m not making this up). This means that watching Alice fight hordes of zombies you feel she’s in about as much peril as Buffy facing one vampire in a cemetery. The fight choreography should make this a lot of fun but here director Mulcahy fails badly. There are sequences in this film like an attack by a flock of infected crows and an assault by mutated zombies that could have been bravura set-pieces under the direction of Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) but are just insipid as orchestrated by Mulcahy.

Oded Fehr as Alice’s old comrade Carlos, Heroes star Ali Larter as Claire, Spencer Locke as convoy mascot K-Mart and Jason O’Mara as the Chairman of Umbrella Corp all give committed performances, but they’re working with thinly written characters. I’m happy to say Iain Glen enjoys himself far too much as Dr Isaacs, head scientist for the evil Umbrella Corp. Newcomers to this franchise would know they’re evil because they’re introduced to us by Dr Isaacs who, using the cinematic shorthand for villainy, is a ‘Sneering British Person’ who stops just short of ending his first appearance with a “MRHAHAHAHA!!!”. The film ends with this franchise’s irritating trademark: a CGI enhanced ‘shock’ pull-out shot and wait… What!! Another sequel?!

2/5

October 2, 2019

From the Archives: Michael Clayton

From the Archives:

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a fixer for a New York law firm whose looming bankruptcy distracts him from trying to stop his friend Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) destroying one of the firm’s most lucrative cases.

The Bourne trilogy seems to have become a veritable cash-cow for all concerned, allowing them to do resolutely un-commercial fare in between Bourne films. Here’s the directorial debut from Tony Gilroy, the co-writer of all three Bourne films, about a shady fixer for a law firm, Michael Clayton (worst title ever…). Perhaps it’s the influence of Gilroy’s Pulitzer Prize winning playwright father but there’s more than a hint of David Mamet’s coruscating plays about the opening voiceover monologue. Not at all what you’d expect for the start of a standard legal thriller it leads into a baffling but intriguing prologue that promises Gilroy is going to bring the same realism to this genre as he did to the spy genre in The Bourne Identity.

The film is structured as an extended flashback of the previous 4 days leading up to a replaying of the prologue which gains added meaning second time around. Gilroy has created two genuinely bruised characters in Michael Clayton and Arthur Edens, both men who have been ground down mentally by doing what they know to be wrong in their service of law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. Edens seeks redemption by leading the charge against his own side and scuppering their lucrative case representing the obviously guilty chemicals company U-North while Clayton seeks escape by investing in a restaurant venture that will allow him to bow out of being a fixer for the firm’s legal dirty laundry. It’s refreshing to see a Hollywood hero being harassed about money and perpetually worried about bankruptcy for the duration of a film, and that is exactly what happens to Clayton as his restaurant fails. However, we could have done with seeing Clayton in action as a fixer. We’re constantly told how good he is but in focusing on the worst four days of Clayton’s life Gilroy undermines that. Show, don’t tell. All we see is Clayton making a mess of everything and being belittled as useless, which is indeed how he appears to us the audience.

George Clooney is on fine muted form as the long-suffering Clayton while Tom Wilkinson fairly snarls thru the screen as Arthur Edens, a manic depressive gone off his meds in order to liberate himself from his evil corporation. Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder the chief legal counsel of U-North skilfully makes us hate Karen’s villainous actions while sympathising with her fragile emotional state, owing to the enormous pressure on her to succeed in a job she was groomed for but does not feel ready for. This film shares some qualities with Breach, another uncommercial venture by someone connected with the Bourne films. It is muted in tone, icily intelligent and features some intriguingly written characters. John Grisham for adults.

3/5

From the Archives: Across the Universe

Another rummage through the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers Julie Taymor’s under-watched and under-appreciated Beatles musical featuring the under-appreciated Joe Anderson.

Liverpudlian dock worker Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels to Princeton in the 1960s to find his long lost GI father but moves to New York with Max (Joe Anderson) and falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). When Max is sent to Vietnam, Lucy’s political activism tears her away from Jude…

Musicals, like Westerns, seem to be experiencing something of a renaissance. But both genres are nowadays farcically burdened with justifying their conventions and director Julie Taymor never quite establishes whether people are just going to burst into song randomly like in 1950s musicals or in archly contrived scenarios like 2002’s Chicago. Instead she throws both styles together, which works fine for the most part, but this is definitely more Moulin Rouge! than Chicago. Be warned, there’s a good deal of the overt theatricality you’d expect from a director with Godlike status on Broadway. The use of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ is fantastic as Max is accosted by a poster of Uncle Sam and choreographed sergeant majors at his army medical exam before a visual gag far too good to spoil here. However, this use of CGI and wooden masks presages the utter nonsense that begins when Bono arrives to sing ‘I Am the Walrus’. The use of photographic negative and trippy imagery that takes over proceedings quickly becomes very irritating and makes the running time of the film seem grotesquely overlong.

A simpler early sequence best exemplifies the cleverness with which Taymor approaches the songs. The extremely poppy ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is transformed into a slow minimalist heartbreaker of a song as lesbian cheerleader Prudence (TV Carpio) serenades the lead cheerleader while footballers tackle each other as a tumbling chorus. If you don’t like this sequence then you will hate this film and most probably punch the person behind you who mutters ‘That’s Awesome!!’ Taymor at her best is able to wring unexpected meaning from the over-familiar songs and brings out the sadness implicit in Lennon and McCartney’s fondness for minor key compositions. At her worst she completely loses the realism of the Jude/Lucy love story and the sly wit in making the songs emerge organically from action, indulging instead in symbolical visual zaniness that plays like a bad 1960s Roger Corman exploitation film.

Jim Sturgess as Jude can sing but he lacks charisma and Evan Rachel Wood is good as Lucy but not good enough to carry him, she should have really have been playing opposite Joe Anderson who is wonderful as the raffish Max. It takes heroic resolve to overlook Taymor’s wayward psychedelia but she does return to the realism of musicals so that the finale has a nice emotional oomph with the end credits a neat pay off for a gag we’ve been waiting for the whole length of the film. No I’m not going to tell you what it is, go see it yourself.

3/5

October 1, 2019

Judy

Renee Zellweger goes all in to win an Oscar playing troubled star Judy Garland in her last public concerts before her early death in 1969.

The finances of Judy Garland (Zellweger) are perpetually in a state of vague distress. When she is forced to house her children at the home of their father Sidney (Rufus Sewell), after her hotel releases her suite, she finds herself accepting a five week engagement in London over Christmas 1968 to try and raise some quick cash. Impresario Delfont (Michael Gambon), his fixer Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley), and bandleader Burt (Royce Pierreson) are unprepared for the ramshackle performer who arrives, despite her reputation. Adding to the volatility is her unwise romance with much younger musician Mickey (Finn Wittrock), who she meets at a party where daughter Liza (Gemma-Leah Deveraux) reveals she is about to star in a musical. Such breaks are beyond Judy at this point; her voice and body failing after years of substance abuse, these concerts become a swansong.

Judy isn’t as colourful as one might hope from director Rupert Goold of the Almeida Theatre. Instead it feels an awful lot like the sumptuous but sedate My Week with Marilyn, another BBC Films biopic of an American starlet in post-war London that was simply straining itself to earn Oscar nods. Production designer Kave Quinn and costume designer Jany Temime do a sterling job of recreating a late 1960s London that feels by turns swinging and solid, but the screenplay by Tom Edge; reshaping Peter Quilter’s play and fleshing out Judy’s mistreatment by Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery in a highly creepy performance perhaps informed by Harvey Weinstein); only occasionally reaches high notes of emotion or insight. On the whole proceedings are quite dull.

It’s hard not to think the film-makers in focusing on shows that lurched to shambolic collapse are trying to pull a Woodstock and valorise what was really a failure.

2/5

September 29, 2019

From the Archives: Death Proof

A dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up an exasperated review of a Tarantino film I think of as Riding in Cars with Bores.

Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) uses his death-proofed stunt car to murder a group of women in Texas. When he attacks again though, in Tennessee, he meets his match in the form of two stuntwomen…

I was a Taranteenie. I was 13 when Pulp Fiction came out which put me slap bang in the demographic thus labelled by The Sunday Times. My secondary school life in an all-boys school was filled with people reciting Tarantino dialogue, talking about the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs (which no one had actually seen) and listening to his super-cool soundtrack albums. Thing is Tarantino disappeared after Jackie Brown in 1998 and damn if us Taranteenies didn’t grow up. For fractured non-linear approaches to narrative we turned to Christopher (Memento) Nolan. For self-consciously stylish long takes and fixed camera directing we looked to M Night (Unbreakable) Shyamalan. When Quentin reappeared with Kill Bill we realised that he hadn’t grown up too, he’d regressed. Death Proof has so little emotional maturity it’s scary to think that a 44 year old man thinks it’s worth his while directing something this lightweight.

The first hour of this film is utterly appalling. Imagine being trapped somewhere and having to overhear three girls conduct a preposterously boring conversation about sex while one of them infuriates the others with irritatingly obscure pop culture references. Tarantino’s foot fetish has a justification in the context of this being a parody of exploitation cinema, and it does pay off with a wonderfully gory FX shot, but it’s starting to become just an annoyance, like his other trademarks, and not a little bit creepy. The only good thing about this first story is the slow introduction of Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike as once again Tarantino coaxes a revelatory performance from a faded star. The story of Mike’s second murder spree is much better as Zoe Bell steals the show…as herself (oh the in-jokery). Stuntman Mike is utterly unprepared to have the tables turned on him by two stuntwomen and the car-chases that follow are undeniably thrilling and go some way to redeeming the waste of Tarantino’s talent that we have hitherto endured.

Tarantino’s 2005 CSI special (effectively an 80 minute TV movie) shows he still has talent to burn, but only when he’s challenged. For CSI he had to tell a story in 80 minutes, on a low budget and within censorship restraints, and his response was suspenseful and emotional. Given licence by the Weinsteins to do whatever he wanted he has created here a folly that the term self-indulgent can’t even begin to adequately condemn. If you want to see everything that this film does not feature; female characters who are witty, assertive, sexy, smart as hell and tough as nails and don’t come across as just sad male fantasy; I seriously suggest that instead of going to Death Proof that you just tune into RTE 2 on Thursday nights and watch Veronica Mars.

2/5

September 27, 2019

From the Archives: Sparkle

Scraping the Mariana Trench of the pre-Talking Movies archives finds a English movie so completely forgotten it’s very title has been obliterated by Whitney Houston.

Sam Sparkes gets his start in PR by sleeping with his demanding boss Sheila. Little does he know he’s also sleeping with her daughter Kate. Hilarity ensues.

Insipid. That’s the best word to use when discussing Sparkle. It’s not enough to decry the film as a romantic comedy with no romance and fewer jokes. There’s many another film with those twin afflictions which has just about managed to scrape by on the enthusiastic playing and natural charisma of the leads. But here the lead actors don’t even seem to show any interest in trying to salvage something from the wretched material by sheer exuberance on their part. Stockard Channing wears the baffled appearance of someone wondering why The West Wing isn’t on TV anymore rather than expressing the diva quality attributed to her character Sheila. Meanwhile Amanda Ryan as her daughter Kate seems to have wandered in from auditions for Steven Poliakoff’s thoughtful drama Gideon’s Daughter. The real blame though must be placed on Shaun Evans as our hero Sam Sparkes. He’s not to blame for the diabolical script, however, he is to blame for not being able to carry a film. The sad truth is that Evans has no charm. Not only is this a basic requirement for a leading man in a romantic comedy but it’s even more vital when the plot is posited on this Liverpudlian likely lad scaling the London career ladder from wine waiter to PR PA by charm alone.

The triangle of Sam, Kate and Sheila is only one part of this film. Sam’s mother Jill Sparkes (Lesley Manville), her landlord Vince (Bob Hoskins) and his brother Bernie intertwine with the main story throughout the film before both strands resolve into an inter-connected finale but it has all the emotional punch of watching someone solve a Rubik’s cube. The entire film plays as merely an intellectual exercise in connecting plot strands for the sake of it as there is no real warmth for the characters detectable behind it. Bob Hoskins though seems to be enjoying himself as a shy quiet man and such casting against type, see his latest snarly menacing bald bloke turn in Hollywoodland by way of illustration, is quite refreshing for the audience too.

Buffy fans (meaning yes, me, I did this) will greet the appearance of Tony Head with a cheer and justifiably too as he is one of the few things in this film worth cheering. As Kate’s louche uncle (also named Tony), Head is a hoot. His priceless reaction to finding a cuddly blue dolphin toy delivered with his milk in the morning is one of the few, few reasons to smile during the last 40 minutes. This is one comedy that fails to shine. Somewhere in England there’s a community hall that still has a leaky roof because a grant was given towards this film’s budget by the National Lottery. Register your civic disapproval…

1/5

From the Archives: A Mighty Heart

Digging in the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-bait in which the show was stolen by the supporting players.

Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is kidnapped by terrorists in Pakistan. Through the eyes of his pregnant wife Marianne we follow the frantic search operation to find him.

A Mighty Heart is based on a true story. Daniel Pearl was captured by Islamist extremists in Pakistan in early 2002 and held as a captive before being beheaded, an act of depravity videoed for posterity by his captors. Michael Winterbottom adapts the style of Paul Greengrass, the shaky hand-held camera and documentary feel, to recreate a sense of urgency given that we all know how the story ends. He is helped by an extremely impressive sound design which lets the chaotic roar of Karachi envelop the audience placing us in the midst of a strange city, with many rules for the safety for Western journalists. The most important rule is to always meet a contact in a public place. We see Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) being told this repeatedly before meeting his contact. When the contact doesn’t appear, Pearl leaves, only to be abducted and used as a bargaining chip to get Guantanamo Bay shut down.

The ensemble of this film is very strong. There are standout performances though from Futterman who convinces us of Pearl’s quiet integrity and courage, Archie Panjabi as the pugnacious Indian Wall Street Journal reporter with whom the Pearls are staying, and Irrfan Khan as the Captain in charge of Counter-terrorism (Pakistan’s Jack Bauer, even down to torturing suspects). In its dogged reconstruction of the intelligence operation tracking down Islamist suspects this film comes close in feel to last year’s acclaimed mini-series The Path to 9/11. While that featured Harvey Keitel’s best performance in years as the doomed FBI agent John O’Neill the responsibility of playing a real person has the opposite effect on the lead of this film.

Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl gives a performance designed to win Oscars but that intention is so obvious it backfires. All you can think about is what a ‘performance’ Angelina is giving: look at her curled hair, her darkened pigmentation, her French accent…if she ‘acts’ any harder she might pull something. She’s at her best here in her quiet moments as shouting scenes play like a reprise of the showiness that won her an Oscar for her sociopath in Girl, Interrupted. John Wayne took a number of years to create the persona of ‘John Wayne’ that he perfected in Stagecoach and lived off for the next three decades. Angelina Jolie though has not created a film persona like Wayne’s, she has created a purely public persona that cannot be captured on celluloid. Her sole smash hit of the last decade was Mr & Mrs Smith. Centred on a tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt this was a heightened expression of the comic book which is her life. The baggage of tabloid headlines she brings to this film fatally undermines it. Marianne Pearl should have been played by a lower profile actress…

2/5

September 24, 2019

Ready or Not

Samara Weaving follows up McG’s The Babysitter with a considerably more tonally consistent horror-comedy from the directors of Devil’s Due.

Grace (Weaving) is getting married to Alex (Mark O’Brien). Alex is a scion of the fabulously wealthy Le Domas family, headed by Tony (Henry Czerny) and Becky (Andie MacDowell). Grace is unsure of her welcome to this dynasty. Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni) seems to silently hate her guts. Alex’s brother Daniel (Adam Brody) is creepily attentive, his wife Charity (Elyse Levesque) contemptuous; her default setting. Alex’s drug-addled sister Emilie (Melanie Scrofano) and her husband Fitch (Kristian Bruun) only finally arrive for the afters. But Grace feels wildly unwelcome when she pulls the wrong card from a vintage box for the wedding night ritual family game. Instead of cribbage or old maid she gets hide and seek. And when the family fortune derives from a pact to literally make devilishly good board games, hide and seek will be a lethal affair…

It is semi-remarkable that this is the work of directing duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, who made the found footage Rosemary’s Baby riff Devil’s Due that (apparently unwittingly) used the Euro sign as a Satanic symbol. Admittedly Ready or Not boasts a far better script, by Guy Busick (Urge) and (no, not that) Ryan Murphy, but it also looks gorgeous. Andrew M Stearn’s production design for the De Lomas mansion and grounds are lit by Brett Jutkiewicz to bring out the warmth of the wood panelling and lamps and to cast us into a more Fincheresque colour scheme outdoors. Meanwhile in support John Ralston as major-domo Stevens gamely plays a kitchen sequence of Hitchcockian delight and a truly delirious conceit that would do Scream proud; featuring the most improbable and incredibly inopportune rocking along to Tchaikovksy’s 1812 Overture imaginable.

4/5

September 22, 2019

From the Archives: Superbad

Another rummage thru the pre-Talking Movies archives finds me grappling with the Seth Rogen paradox for the very first time.

Two sex-starved teenage boys Seth and Evan try to exploit the last high-school party before graduation by agreeing to get liquor for the girls they want to hook up with. However their plan goes hysterically awry when they run into two cops.

It seems to be becoming obligatory to kneel before writer/director/producer Judd Apatow and hail all his works as being The Second Coming of American Comedy. It’s all very well to celebrate the revival of the R rated comedy purely for being R rated but surely the first concern in judging a comedy should be how funny it is, not how dirty the jokes are. The truth is that Knocked Up and Superbad are filthy minded and mouthed comedies that are actually no more abundantly supplied with laughs than something like the work of Mike White and Jack Black. What distinguishes the Apatow/Rogen oeuvre is both the sheer amount of references to sex and the crudity of those remarks.

Seth Rogen, the star of Knocked Up, co-wrote Superbad and has a supporting role in it while Apatow of course produced in his capacity as a one man studio. The plot is concerned with how Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) can have sex before leaving High School. The answer? Alcohol: “You know when girls say ‘I was so drunk, I don’t know what I was thinking’? We have a chance to be that mistake!!”. But here’s the rub, the story sheers off into two strands. One strand follows Seth and Evan desperately trying to acquire booze for the party hosted by Jules (the husky voiced Emma Stone). The other sees uber-nerd Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) fall in with two lunatic cops played by Rogen and Bill Hader. Literally every scene of his adventures with these cops is screamingly hilarious. The other strand with Seth and Evan isn’t, as it’s so focused on gross out moments that it frequently forgets to be funny. Being extremely realistic about the stupidity of teenage boys is not a good enough reason for not having enough jokes in a comedy.

Indeed you can’t help but feel that all the talking dirty is some way of hiding away the sentimental soft-spot Rogen and Goldberg have for their characters, hiding away the most appealing side of their writing in favour of the most easy headline grabbing controversial side. Indeed the unlikely sweetness is reminiscent of previous Apatow /Rogen works. The characters of Jules and Evan are extremely likeable and in the denouement incredibly and sensibly honourable. Seth and Becca (Martha MacIsaac), respectively, learn from them how to behave like decent human beings. Was that emotional maturity the reason Rogen and Goldberg wrote the filth, as a necessary part of a character arc, or was it just a handy way of positioning their film in the marketplace? It’s impossible to know but it produced one of the best comedies of the year in either case.

3/5

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