Talking Movies

May 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

If not Lazenby, then who?

Almost anyone. But seriously, folks. There were any number of actors in England in 1968 who could have done a better job of picking up the keys to Sean Connery’s Aston Martin. A three-cornered discussion with Friedrich Bagel and The Engineer produced this shortlist of contenders:

Rod Taylor, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Terence Stamp, Anthony Hopkins

Patrick McGoohan, Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Lee, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Edward Fox

Now, not all of these people would have been asked, in order to keep the budget down. And some of them would likely have refused (contemptuously in some cases) had they been asked. But Sean Connery was not unknown when he was cast. Far from it, he had already appeared in Darby O’Gill and the Little People and his supporting role in The Longest Day would have been appreciated by British TV audiences who, between 1959 and 1961, had seen him as Count Vronsky, Hotspur, Macbeth and Alexander the Great. He was not an unknown, he was quite well known to British audiences as a leading man playing historic roles. Lazenby by contrast was quite well known to British audiences for advertising Fry’s chocolate bars.

The critical rehabilitation narrative

I’ve been thinking recently about what we might dub the critical rehabilitation narrative. Nothing seems to please some critics more than to discover neglected masterpieces, to rescue from the discard bin gems that were unappreciated at the time. The only problem is sometimes the critics are very pleased with themselves, their wider critical narrative powers along, and it’s only a minor detail that the film in question is still rubbish. That’s not to say that it is wrong to revisit films and see if they were misjudged; after all Fight Club suffered hugely from being released so soon after Columbine. But sometimes there is much to be said for reading the original reviews and getting a bracing perspective, like disinterring The Cabinet of Dr Caligari from the reverence of generations of film students and discovering in Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture that its own writers disowned the finished film for changes made to its finale which they regarded as dangerously reversing its political message, and doing so at a time that imperilled the nascent republic. Or realising that Matthew Modine saying recently that Full Metal Jacket has aged better than other Vietnam films because it’s finale of urban insurgency could be in Iraq only proves the point of the objections made by critics on release. Because of the WB indulging Kubrick’s power-tripping laziness he had departed from the novel’s jungle war conclusion to instead depict the (easily manufactured in England) ruined city of Hue, because he couldn’t be bothered leaving England. And it would be hard to easily manufacture in England a jungle war. Just as well Vietnam wasn’t noted for being a JUNGLE WAR. Revolution was reviled on release and exiled Pacino to Broadway. But Revolution is an unfocused film of baffling decisions, like shooting it entirely in England and not having Annie Lennox sing, rather than an outright atrocity. Watching its depiction of the start of the American Revolution, the mob bullying, the expropriation, the self-interested and abrasive self-righteousness is oddly reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago’s portrayal of the Bolsheviks. It’s hard not to think that this enraged American critics at the time, who sublimated that rage into attacks from other angles. And yet the final minutes of Revolution feature a truly astonishing tracking shot, a technical marvel and a triumph of production design, that I have never ever heard anyone praise or even mention. If you can’t do the hard work of salvaging the good from amidst the bad then what is the point of critical rehabilitation?

May 18, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXII

As the title suggests, so forth.

The End of the Beginning

Today is the first day of Status Vermillion, in which we are permitted to socialise outdoors, if we comport ourselves like the Dave Brubeck Quartet after Paul Desmond has blown up at Joe Morello for drumming too damn loud and Dave Brubeck and Eugene Wright are both keeping a wary distance. And a few days ago Movies@Dundrum revealed a sketch of their plans for August 10th, the red letter day on which cinemas here will re-open. None of the studios want to suffer a tent-pole collapsing because audiences are scared to congregate, although rumour has it Christopher Nolan had to be talked off the ledge by the WB on letting Tenet try that stunt, so there will be a dearth of new releases. Movies@Dundrum intends therefore to revive The Lord of the Rings as well as The Little Shop of Horrors alongside more recent crowd-pleasers A Star is Born and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, entice the kids with The Iron Giant, Fantastic Beasts and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and bring back A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood which was coming to the end of its run when all this unpleasantness began and its star famously came down with the coronavirus. Will this initial comfort programming work? Will the lure of seeing the battle of Helm’s Deep on the big screen once again lure me out of hiding? I don’t know. Certainly not at this remove, when August 10th when all this ends is a date further away from now than is March 13th when all this began. I also don’t know how sustainable a cinema run as in the panicky days of mid-March with mandatory empty seats every other seat can possibly be. In the unlikely event we make it to August 10th on the ridiculous road-map laid out by the ridiculous rejected government it will still only be the end of the beginning when it comes to living with this plague.  (Oh look, I paraphrased Churchill.)

Tarantino and the obscurantist imperative

I had the misfortune last week to watch Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies last week on Sony Movies. Why did I put myself thru this agony? Because they included Sharon Tate’s turn in The Wrecking Crew, as featured prominently in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, and as curated by Quentin Tarantino last summer for Sony Movie Classics for his Ten Swinging Sixties picks:

  • Gunman’s Walk (1958)
  • Battle of the Coral Sea (1959)
  • Arizona Raiders (1965)
  • The Wrecking Crew (1968)
  • Hammerhead (1968)
  • Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
  • Cactus Flower (1969)
  • Easy Rider (1969)
  • Model Shop (1969)
  • Getting Straight (1970)

What is the point of getting upset about audiences not realising that Leonardo DiCaprio has replaced Steve McQueen in a real scene from The Great Escape when you indulge in this sort of too cool for film school buffoonery? To realise that DiCaprio has digitally been stood in for McQueen you would need to have seen The Great Escape, but it’s a big brash blockbuster, so if famous film directors never recommend it why would you watch it when you could get kudos from them for instead watching something nobody’s ever heard of? Tarantino’s obscurantist imperative comes back to haunt him… He had the opportunity to showcase 10 films from the Columbia back catalogue and these are what he chose? If you want proof of how obscurantist they are just consider that Mike Myers clearly lifted the Fembots for Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery from a brassiere sub-machine gun modelled for Dean Martin in one of the Matt Helm movies. Dino even makes an inferior calibre joke to Dr Evil. Myers knew he could get away with this, because nobody would remember seeing the conceit bungled 30 years earlier. These ten picks are for the most part not fondly remembered movies, because for the most part these are not good movies. Dean Martin is far too old for the part of Matt Helm, the promotion of his music and dissing of Sinatra is self-indulgent rather than amusing, the first film exemplifies the sheer dullness of the series with an endless scene of Dean discussing the plot with a woman sans any jokes, and, above all, his four movies are creepily sleazy in their depiction of women and actually have less self-awareness and sense of humour than the Bond films they are supposedly sending up. The only 1960s Bond that comes close to them comes after them: the tasteless dinner scene in OHMSS.

May 5, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXI

As the title suggests, so forth.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; I must whirl about like a dervish, to dub it merely bad a disservice

I’d heard enough mutterings about OHMSS being a great Bond film to start questioning whether I had in fact been wrong when I watched it in the late 1990s and thought very little of it. So I watched it again on ITV 4. No, it really is awful. In fact embarrassing is the mot juste. There is a level of professional incompetence that takes the breath away. It’s directed by Peter Hunt, the editor of the first five Bond movies, who was 2nd unit director on You Only Live Twice. It’s edited for him by John Glen, uncredited second unit director on The Italian Job and future director of all the 1980s Bond movies. How can these two men’s footage be so jarring and awful when working together? ALL the fistfights are dreadful. It’s almost as if Hunt arrived in with no properly shot action footage at all, just random shots that did not match up in choreography or angles. And so they just edited like billy-o with what little they had to create the facsimile of a fight with unintentionally funny sound effects.  John Barry’s OHMSS theme is majestic in David Arnold’s 1997 re-orchestration, but here is blighted by eccentric instrumentation, which I consider the musical equivalent of Lazenby’s casino appearance literally wearing Austin Powers’ frilly shirt. Who thought either touch was a good idea? How did the costume designer so often leave Lazenby looking like a beanpole when suited? Why do the corridors and interiors of luxury hotels not look remotely plush? Did Ken Adam’s absence cause an explosive decompression in classiness? The air of slapdashery even extends to Bond’s car! There are the baffling executive decisions: recasting Blofeld from Mitteleurope-accented scarred Donald Pleasance to American-accented unscarred Telly Savalas, throwing out continuity with the last film so Bond having met Blofeld in the last film now has a ‘Is everybody here very stoned?’ moment of not recognising him, and, perhaps most damaging of all, revoking Roald Dahl’s license to improvise with a vengeance. Adapting Fleming’s novel faithfully may have sunk the film. The dinner with Blofeld’s girls could have come straight from a Carry On movie, and the romance between Lazenby and Diana Rigg is never remotely convincing; not least when the movie forgets her for about half an hour and then has 007 propose to her about four scenes after he’d made plans to again bed two girls and add a third to the roster.  Imagine how devastating the end of this film would be if it had been Sean Connery and Honor Blackman at the end of Goldfinger, that’s how badly wasted it is on these two ciphers. How this is being given the critical rehabilitation shtick blows my mind. I can only assume that Christopher Nolan’s fondness for OHMSS is based not on the merits of the actual movie but on some sort of fever dream in which he’s mashed up Diana Rigg’s wit and athleticism as Mrs Peel from The Avengers with action scenes from Where Eagles Dare and loved that movie. … … To be honest as I think about it…. Where Avengers Dare sounds like a movie I’d pay good money to see.

When shall we big screen again?

As we begin yet another final extension of Status Burgundy, with our inner boundary maven now measuring 5km from home instead of 2km, we at last have a date set in stone (sic) for the re-opening of cinemas – August 10th. Set in stone insofar as all of this great five phase plan could be chucked at the first sign of trouble. And, as noted hereabouts before, whether anybody shows up on that date is another matter entirely, and even if people do show up in droves they won’t be allowed in in droves as the 50% (at best) capacity for social distancing will once again come into play as it did in the desperate days of mid-March. Will cinemas anymore than restaurants remain going concerns if forced to operate at half-tilt (or less) revenue and full-tilt (or more) expenses for an extended period of time? Who can tell…

Cameron Diaz retired?!

Oops… Seeing a recent interview in which Diaz expressed her lack of interest in returning to acting took me back to the end of 2009 when Brittany Murphy died, and it only became apparent in retrospect that something had gone badly wrong with her film career after 2005. The fact that her movies kept premiering on TV for another three years after her profile dimmed at cinemas kept her artificially in the public eye. So it was that as Diaz’s turns in The Green Hornet and The Counsellor kept popping up as staples of late night programming, and her 2014 films Sex Tape, Annie and The Other Woman trundled onto television, that I didn’t notice there were no new Diaz films. Even as I was writing before Christmas about the star wattage of the original Charlie’s Angels it didn’t strike me that Diaz was actually now a retired film star rather than just someone who probably had something new coming out sometime.

April 10, 2020

Top 5 Connery Bonds

As we now look forward to another 3 weeks of Status Burgundy, which by its sheer duration might be more appropriately thought of as Status House Arrest at this point, let us give thanks for ITV 4’s insistence on continually airing one of the crown jewels of 1960s cinema – the first five Connery Bonds.

5) Dr No

Joseph Wiseman’s titular Spectre agent is revealed late in the film with icy dinner party repartee and sets an impressive bar, as does Ken Adam’s first ever expansive supervillain lair. We see Bond’s home, something apparently forgotten by Mendes and Craig when it came to puffing up his minimalist flat in Spectre, and get some nice ruthlessness from 007: “You’ve had your six”. Ursula Andress’ memorable entrance as Honey Ryder rising from the sea set the marker for Bond girls’ glamour, but this is in retrospect a surprisingly grounded film with Bond doing some dogged detective work.

4) From Russia with Love

The second Bond film has no Ken Adam, busy creating Dr Strangelove’s War Room, but from the dashing title credits composer John Barry really starts to impose himself with his brass heavy, jauntily heroic secondary Bond theme. There is trade-craft aplenty but the action is a bit disconnected and notably bound to the location of Istanbul until the finale which pays homage to North by Northwest twice over with its espionage on a train and then a helicopter attack. Robert Shaw’s muscular psychotic and Lotte Lenya’s high-kicking Spectre supremo are hugely memorable as archetypal villains.

3) Thunderball

I have warmed to Kevin McClory’s Bond production in recent years. Ken Adam launched a thousand parodies with his modernist cavernous Spectre office, complete with lethal chairs, not to mention the Spectre agent du jour, eye-patched Emilio Largo, maintaining a pool for sharks to dispatch incompetent henchmen and MI6 gadflies. Claudine Auger’s Domino is a more than just a very pretty face, with a character arc climaxing in monumental brass. Elsewhere John Barry’s sinuously sinister descending woodwind motif conjures underwater intrigue before boisterously matching director Terence Young’s showy underwater battle and bravura carnival chase with Hitchcockian assassination attempt.

2) You Only Live Twice

The men in blue boiler suits versus the men in grey boiler suits as Stephen King put it. Ninjas versus Spectres: inside a VOLCANO. Ken Adam spent £1 million on the volcano set, complete with functioning monorail, gantry, lift, and full-scale rocket model. The next year Harold Wilson devalued sterling. John Barry created a suspenseful space march for Spectre’s extraterrestrial sabotage, as well as the signature use of his secondary Bond theme for Little Nellie’s helicopter battle. Donald Pleasance revealed to us at last the face of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, quipping from Roald Dahl’s fantasia.

1) Goldfinger

The most quoted exchange in all the Bond films; “Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die”; sits among cinematic riches equivalent to Fort Knox. Ken Adam’s gargantuan and gleaming Fort Knox set, the garrulous Goldfinger and his lethal laser, the mute Oddjob and his lethal hat, Felix Leiter in the role of Triumph the insult comic dog. Honor Blackman, Shirley Eaton and Tania Mallet are the knockout trio of English blondes in the series’ ‘traditional’ roles of the bad girl who dies, the good girl who dies, and the bad girl who lives. Sean Connery is in fine mid-season form as 007, matched by Blackman’s characteristic swagger; her Pussy Galore helping save the day when John Barry’s stirring Goldfinger march complements Guy Hamilton’s gorgeous direction, with more subtle push-ins and zoom-outs than Terence Young ever considered.

April 7, 2020

Any Other Business: Part XLIX

As the title suggests, so forth.

RIP Honor Blackman

Honor Blackman has died aged 94; she was the oldest surviving Avenger. I wrote last summer about what a disconcerting experience it was watching True Movies’ scrambled late night re-runs of The Avengers. I had only previously seen a handful of Cathy Gale episodes late at night on RTE 1 over 20 years earlier. As True Movies jumped between episodes and seasons of the first three years of the show it became evident that it was something of a miracle that it ever became the classic show it did. It was only when Blackman debuted in the first episode of the second season, ‘Mr Teddy Bear’, that things really started to click. The chemistry between Steed and Gale, and her judo prowess, defined the show as The Avengers. In retrospect she fared much better than Diana Rigg in transferring from The Avengers to Bond. I remember watching On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for the first time after devouring Channel 4’s re-runs of The Avengers in the mid-90s, and being immensely frustrated that Rigg’s Bond girl was so damn passive. By contrast Blackman as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger walked from a TV role into a movie role and traded away none of her antagonistic strength, flirtatious charm, and judo prowess. And that is not something that can be said, even now, for many actresses making that transition; just look at Jessica Alba’s failure to ever find a film role to remotely equal her star-making lead in Dark Angel.

Donnie Dumbo

Trump Delenda Est

I think at this point we can say that Trump has not grown into the job; he has actually got far worse. What can be said about a man whose ego is so monstrous that he has transformed press briefings on a pandemic into virtual campaign rallies, who is so incredibly incapable of not making a pandemic all about him that it drives hardened journalists to profanity in their disbelief? This is his shooting people on 5th Avenue moment. People have died, are dying, and will continue to die because of Donald J Trump’s ego. The bragging, the bluster, the bullsh-t, the strong impression of functional illiteracy; a ten year old is trying to run one of the world’s biggest countries, and not a smart ten year old, but the type of bully who when called upon to read aloud in class painfully plods along not reading so much as sounding out the letters he sees as he sees them as if he’s never seen them before in his life. It explains much when you actually allow yourself to admit that Trump probably cannot read. He can pick out certain words, and improvise around them, with his simplified vocabulary. But he cannot read. If you forced him to deliver a well-known Bible passage at a Mass, he would endure agonies, because it would be made obvious thru cutting off his favourite tactic of paraphrase and riffing. His decision to weigh in on the firing of Captain Crozier, who was actually trying to do his job, makes a lot of sense from that perspective: the peculiar gripe that this was not English Lit, don’t write a letter, just call someone, makes perfect sense coming from a man who cannot read. Mike Pence probably wouldn’t do a stellar job of steering America thru this pandemic, but, freed of Trump and the need to continually massage Trump’s ego, he might not make things worse by actively promoting snake-oil remedies from the White House. Invoke the 25th Amendment now.

March 26, 2020

Zhang Yimou presents Tour de France 2020

The French sports minister’s suggestion the Tour de France could be held behind closed doors caused much confusion yesterday. But this was not a comment lost in translation, there is in fact advanced pre-production on the plan with a film director, writes B. Bradley Bradlee from lockdown in Hubei province.

The spectators this year will be animatronic, but their clothes and hair will be changed daily to fool the peloton.

Roxana Maracineanu’s statement at first appeared to be garbled, and then after clarification simply insane. The Tour de France is after all defined by taking place outdoors, and with or without spectators the peloton rides as tight as a flock of birds and social distancing be damned. But the plan is as logical as only the French could think. Social distancing will not be enforced because the riders, their teams, and their accommodation will all in fact already be quarantined – as the race will take place behind closed doors, on a proposed 60 acre soundstage in the south of France.

This would be 43 times the size of the 007 soundstage at Pinewood and is already at an advanced stage of pre-production, preparatory to Chinese military flying in for construction in a planned 10 days. A number of animatronic spectators are already being manufactured, with a bewildering array of costumes and wigs being sourced so that the peloton will believe them to be different each day. A small herd of goats will be installed on a mountain laid with real grass so that a sniper operating a zipline camera can recreate the effect of animals fleeing the noisy helicopter camera.

Zhang Yimou, acclaimed film director and maestro of the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony, is masterminding this production. He is also on lockdown in Hubei province and spoke to us across the balcony. “This is for me like taking a theatre production on a cruise ship, you can’t go back for anything you forgot once you’ve started, so it’s high-stakes. Once the riders and their teams are in, that’s it. The ‘hotels’ better have all the rice and pasta they need…” We asked how the Tour would showcase France while indoors? “Huge greenscreen backgrounds, cutting edge! Real time footage of Provence”.

As well as complicated projections in the background for television, the physical space the riders travel thru will be something between an Escher staircase and a Victorian stage spectacle involving levers and pulleys. While unwilling to reveal details of how he would achieve an undulating terrain the director cackled, “The King of the Mountains will be as confused as he is exhausted by the end of this trek”. Apparently the French are resisting having Chris Froome mauled by a lion who will then be shot live on air. The director grumbled about Coppola being allowed to kill a water buffalo, and insisted that getting #ClaudetheLion trending on Twitter could only add to the publicity of the race. When pressed he admitted drinking an awful lot of green tea during this lockdown, but insisted the idea still had genuine artistic merit.

B. Bradley Bradlee is fictional editor emeritus of The New York Times. He is currently a quarantined roving reporter for the German weekly Die Emmerich-Zeitung.

March 13, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXVIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Alas, Max Von Sydow

Another great has left the stage. 13 years younger than Kirk Douglas, Von Sydow was still working in high-profile productions. Indeed he worked for so many decades that one could say there are multiple Von Sydow personae. There is the Bergman art-house God that my mother remembered from The Virgin Spring, beating himself with sticks to build himself up for his vengeful rampage. There is the priest from The Exorcist and assassin from Three Days of the Condor which properly established him with American audiences after his underwhelming Hollywood debut The Greatest Story Ever Told. Then there was the first von Sydow I encountered, unrecognisable as Ming the Merciless in the gloriously silly Flash Gordon. He was already very old when I came across him as another villain, this time in Minority Report. And then I started coming across him in the art house as a tremendous supporting player in Intacto and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is astonishing to think that while Kirk Douglas thru ill health and bad luck had his last important roles in the early 1980s Von Sydow was still working in his 90s and goes out with cameos in The Force Awakens and his role as the Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones as recent reminders of his potency.

The Desplat Factor

I have, of late, been trying to distil down the elements needed to reproduce the essential Wes-ness of a Wes Anderson film. Some are practical for guerrilla film-makers, others less so. Colour coded costumes, hand-crafted sets of increasingly outrageous artificiality, whip-pans, tracking shots, overhead shots, especially of handwritten notes, and the laying out inventories, droll narration … Bill Murray. And, one might add, a score by Alexandre Desplat. Which itself may or may not be connected to the increasingly outrageous artificiality of Wes Anderson’s cinemascapes. Certainly I still regard The Darjeeling Limited as the highpoint of his work, and it was after that film, which used pre-existing music, that he replaced Mark Mothersbaugh, the composer for his first four films, with Desplat for his next four films. I rather liked Desplat’s largely percussive score for Isle of Dogs, but was not particularly taken at the time by either his Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel work. Although the latter is growing on me as I soak it in. I think my objections circle a certain childishness at the core of the Desplat/Anderson enterprise. The score for Fantastic Mr Fox had a childlike quality, which was entirely appropriate to the material. But The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film I thought soured in dialogue and action by an unexpectedly mean spirit, seemed to be given the same treatment. And in both cases they shared their approach with Moonrise Kingdom where, in thrall to the featured music of Benjamin Britten (especially his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) Mr Desplat’s orchestration was explained in ‘The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe Part 7’. Ralph Vaughan Williams held that a composer lacking confidence in their themes could be depended upon to orchestrate all hell out of them. Desplat’s work for Anderson though is a horse of a different colour. The orchestration is sparse but determinedly eccentric, with featured unusual instrument after featured unusual instrument [“Not to speak of the glockenspiel” “The glockenspiel?” “I asked you not to speak of it”]. And this complicated curating of harps, flutes, piccolos, pizzicato strings, electric guitars, ukuleles, classical guitars, dangling blocks, sixteen bass baritone singers, balalaikas, celestes, banjos, tubular bells, cymbals, timpani, vibraphones, xylophones, triangles, clarinets, French horns, tenor saxophones, trombones, tubas, trumpets, organs, snare drums, bassoons, pianos, and, yes, glockenspiels, is far more important than his simple melodies: timbres are more important than themes. In a sense that’s a musical reflection by Desplat of style being more important to Anderson than substance. Has Anderson fallen into the same trap of Tarantino, of losing touch with basic reality and human emotions in favour of constructing his own Neverland ranch? We shall see later this year…

No Time to Die Edit

Now that the release of No Time to Die has been pushed to November it might be an idea for Cary Fukunaga to go back into the editing suite and make some cuts. The already ramping up publicity push had unwisely seen Lashana Lynch brag about how 007 got put in his place for sexual harassment in this movie. Coming just weeks after Birds of Prey bombed after a publicity campaign that couldn’t stop talking about everyday sexism, male gaze, and misogyny, you have to ask the question staff most feared hearing from President Obama – ‘Who thought this was a good idea?’ The trailer had already seen my tepid interest evaporate. Craig looks as past it physically as Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, but without even the lingering interest in the role. The moment where the security guard has no idea who Bond is clearly is meant to be hilarious and subversive, and yet it makes no sense; MI6 would remember. Think of the scene at the start of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation where a similar character realises who Ethan Hunt is, “I’ve heard the stories. They can’t all be true…” Lashana Lynch’s dialogue and smirks in the trailer quickly pegged her character as insufferable and, once again, made you yearn for any Craig-era Bond girl to measure up to Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. But the idea that No Time to Die will see Bond, and by implication the audience, receiving an endless series of lectures makes one think again on the reasons for delaying it. Quite simply, this film cannot fail or it sinks MGM. But… even if everyone is primed to go back into packed cinemas in November, will anybody bother if the cast and crew of the film keep telling them it’s not a rollicking adventure but a vitally necessary lecture on their implicit biases? The evidence of Birds of Prey, Charlie’s AngelsTerminator: Dark Fate, and Ghostbusters (2016) suggests not. Films that wish to lecture a pre-existing audience must reckon with that audience not showing up, and the supposedly untapped new audience of people on Twitter that like and retweet that pre-existing audience getting owned will also not show up, they never do. Which means of course that no one shows up. And then goodbye MGM. Time to edit?

February 28, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXVII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Reloaded Revisited

I recently watched The Matrix Reloaded all the way thru for the first time in many years when Sky One idly decided to screen it. Oh, the wasted intellectual time and energy that went into trying to make this movie more than it was when it came out in May 2003. To indulge in hyperbole, between May and November 2003 sci-fi fans engaged in more delusional counterfactual speculations and fantasias than people wasting their time trying to disprove Darwin since 1859. Some of these fantasias were rather good, unfortunately the execrable Revolutions dynamited all the sophisticated ways that people had sought to frame Reloaded as both smarter and more successful artistically than it was. It is awful. It is memorable in places. But that is not enough to make it not awful. The film is almost an object lesson that merely subverting expectations doesn’t actually achieve anything. Cutting your climatic action sequence to pieces at the start and end of a film, ending a film with the climactic action beat being impenetrable polysyllabic gobbledegook in a room, having your plot be a ‘get that thing, to do this thing’ which only starts 40 minutes into the damn movie – all of these choices subvert expectations. And they are all awful. The proof of the pudding is that nobody has taken these models of subversion and run with them in the way that Skyfall and The Avengers both pilfered “The Joker planned to be caught. He wanted me to lock him up in the MCU!” from The Dark Knight. The Architect is memorable, but that scene is awful. Lines from it, bitterly engraved on my soul from fruitlessly going over and over the VHS, and from the memorable Ferrell/Timberlake MTV take-down of it, float across my consciousness from time to time. As Michael Gove lays the foundations for flouncing out of trade talks that haven’t even f***ing begun yet by announcing an impossible and arbitrary timetable one line seems … apropos. At some point it might even be uttered by M. Barnier to Gove. On being flatly told, “You’ll cave, Germany needs British car sales to survive”, he might riposte – “There are levels of survival we are prepared to accept”…

Billie Eilish mourns 007?

Oh dear, here we go again… Sam Smith’s derivative and embarrassing caterwaul ‘The Writing’s on the Wall’ should have tipped us off that Spectre‘s artistic decisions were not coming from the top drawer. Now we finally have Billie Eilish’s much anticipated Bond theme ‘No Time to Die’, and it is a mournful dirge. Why is it a mournful dirge? What happened to the musician who wrote the earworm hook of ‘Bad Guy’? Why is it that only Adele seems to have really nailed the archetypal Bond song in all of Daniel Craig’s outings? (Though Chris Cornell comes a close second).  Perhaps this was Eilish’s genuine musical response to seeing an early cut of the aged Craig in action, which should make us very afraid for what No Time to Die is actually like. I don’t know that there’s much that Hans Zimmer can do with this barely there song in the score, but that’s okay, John Barry twice magisterially ignored songs he didn’t like in favour of other songs for his Bond scores for Thunderball and The Living Daylights. Back in 2015 I suggested pressing Radiohead’s celebrated cover of ‘Nobody Does It Better’ from the mid-90s into action instead of Sam Smith. This time round I am not that exercised. I fear this song may accurately reflect a lethargic tiresome film.

December 22, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXIV

As the title suggests, so forth.

“Name” “Bond, James Bond” “And you are?” “Moneypenny, Miss Moneypenny”

Having seen the trailer for No Time to Die I think Daniel Craig should have retired with Spectre as he has clearly gone beyond the point where he is too old for the role of 007. He may be younger than Roger Moore was when he finally hung up the Walther PPK, but he is showing his age badly next to the even older Tom Cruise who is enthusiastically committed to TWO more Mission: Impossible films. But where to go next? Has, as John Fahey suggested to me, this iteration of Bond now exhausted the possibilities of its approach just as Brosnan’s did? Perhaps. Well then, we must recast, and rethink. First off, just cast Tom Hiddleston already before he gets to be too old to play the damn part. Next, cast Emily Blunt as Miss Moneypenny. Having seen Moneypenny in the field in Skyfall it should not be a stretch to imagine her in the field again. But in a rather different capacity. I started thinking about this when Patrick Doyle began wishing for a millionaire to finance his one hour episode versions of Ian Fleming stories done faithfully and therefore requiring Colin Firth. I noted Firth had somehow played both Bond and Mr Steed in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Oho! If Craig’s Bond leaned towards Jason Bourne, then Hiddleston’s Bond should lean towards John Steed. Imagine the elegant repartee of Steed and Mrs Peel in The Avengers becoming the verbal fencing of Bond and Moneypenny. Imagine Emily Blunt in black leather dispatching villains with judo kicks to the head. Imagine routinely getting a Bond film every two to three years made with practical stunts and action but more witty dialogue scenes and a production air of sprezzatura rather than the agony in the garden atmosphere that has produced only five films in 14 years for Craig.  What’s not to like?

June 29, 2019

On Rewatching Movies

The Atlantic recently showcased some findings from behavioural economists suggesting that we overvalue novelty and undervalue repetition, and it made me think about how I’ve been watching movies of late.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Do I anticipate Trump? Very well then I anticipate Trump.

I have been finding it hard, looking back to 2010 in the last few weeks, to get a handle on the contours of this decade, cinematically speaking. And I think some of that difficulty is owing to my not having rewatched as many movies as I would have done during the previous decade. This was a deliberate decision to use my time to add as many new titles to my ken as possible rather than simply rewatching what I had already seen. And that decision has been quite rewarding: I have seen more Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, and Mia Hansen-Love films than I would’ve had I not sought them out. But it seems there is an opportunity cost: if you focus on expanding your knowledge, it comes at the cost of deepening existing knowledge.

There is a lot to be said for repetition to really soak in a film. After all a vital check on whether a film really stands up is whether it can be rewatched with profit. I saw Birdman and High-Rise twice within days and loved them both times. In the case of High-Rise I had a totally different viewing experience each time: a crowded screening in IFI 2, where Stephen Errity and I managed to miss the opening scene, brought out the comedy of the film, whereas a deserted screening in IFI 1 with Paul Fennessy brought out the visual grandeur of the film. John Healy opines that repetition, like constantly catching snippets or indeed all of Jaws on heavy rotation on a movie channel, allows you enjoy lots of little details you’d otherwise miss without seeing it so often.

Little details can create what I’ve previously dubbed ‘mental architecture’. Watching The Matrix again and again and again you find yourself responding to someone asking your name with ‘Yeah, that’s me’ and only later realise you were quoting Keanu Reeves. Clambering off the floor with a somewhat awkward grace you realise later you were approximating how Keanu Reeves got up off his knees at the end of Constantine. In neither instance were these conscious emulations, simply physical or verbal replications of an oft-seen physical action or verbal response. The joy of repetition is that which comes from knowing a movie inside out: like watching a James Bond movie with my Dad, hooting at in-jokes about Ken Adam’s inability to stop blowing the budget on working monorails, or quoting along to The Matrix Reloaded line after line en masse with friends.

Whooping up Back to the Future Day on ITV 2 with my Dad back in 2015 wouldn’t have been half as awesome if we hadn’t watched each film repeatedly together over three decades. When Dad couldn’t countenance a full film I would summon from the DVR just the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, Donald Sutherland’s JFK monologue, the Joker’s attack on the van in The Dark Knight:

At the far left of the shelf of DVDs was a single unlabelled videocassette. Schwartz slid it out with a finger and popped it into the ancient VCR.

“What’s this?” Henry asked.

“You’ll see.”

Schwartz watched this tape alone sometimes, late at night, the way he reread certain passages of Aurelius. It restored some nameless element of his personality that threatened to slip away if he didn’t stay vigilant. (The Art of Fielding)

Repetition can allow us grasp a film from different angles, enjoy the red herrings we missed before, create personal in-jokes, and provide us with an idiosyncratic frame of reference. But it can also utterly surprise. I was experiencing the rare joy of sharing a friend’s first encounter with a classic in 2017 when I nearly gasped at Citizen Kane on the big screen. Donald Trump’s threat to Hillary Clinton during their debates that he would, if elected, appoint a special prosecutor to look into her situation, now found an incredible anticipation in Charles Foster Kane’s threat during his speech that his “first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W Gettys”. There was now a new meaning in an old text.

In the case of Citizen Kane and American politics life was imitating art, as Oscar Wilde opined happened more often than vice versa, and a piece of art that had seemed to have a stable meaning had had that meaning upended. Repetition is not old hat in a world of novelty and completist instincts. It is both a time machine, that can enable us remember the way we enjoyed a movie the first time we saw it and remember ourselves and the milieu of that experience, and a transmogrifier that reworks old movies into something we never suspected our contemporary.

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