Talking Movies

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: There Will Be Blood

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

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

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

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

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

3/5

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April 25, 2018

From the Archives: Be Kind Rewind

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds what is the only Mos Def/Yasiin Bey movie I ever reviewed!

The trailer promises a wacky Jack Black comedy but this is really an exercise in whimsy with occasional moments of laugh out loud comedy. Maverick director Michel Gondry, after two films with the equally eccentric (and severely over-rated) screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, is now penning his own scripts. But his wafer-thin characterisation sees him relying far too heavily on the charisma of his leading men to carry the material. If you don’t like Jack Black or Mos Def then avoid this film, or go, but thank heaven for Danny Glover who lends gravitas as Mr Fletcher. Fletcher is the Fats Waller worshipping owner of the titular video store, named after a Waller song and housed in the building where Fats was born, which is now so decrepit that adopted son Mike (Mos Def) might demolish it by slamming a door. The store survives because of the number of stubborn/deranged people in the neighbourhood who refuse to switch to DVD. Mike is left in charge while Mr Fletcher investigates whether switching to DVD is the only way of raising enough money for repairs before a council demolition deadline

Enter disaster in the shape of Jerry (Jack Black), Mike’s best friend, who talks him into an attempt at sabotaging the local power plant (a sequence featuring a sublime visual gag) which leaves Jerry magnetised and thus all the store’s videotapes erased. Mr Fletcher’s best friend Ms Falewicz (Mia Farrow) demands Ghostbusters and Mike and Jerry, with no time to hunt down a replacement VHS copy, decide to make their own version with a camcorder, hilariously no-budget special effects, and Mike as Bill Murray…with Jerry as everyone else. This leads to crowds of new customers with requests for films that they want Mike, Jerry and leading lady (and drycleaner) Lorna to ‘Swede’ for them. Deeply demented versions of Driving Miss Daisy and Rush Hour 2 emerge and soon half the neighbourhood are joyously taking roles in the ‘Sweded’ films.

Be Kind Rewind is visually disappointing when set aside the quirkiness of Michel Gondry’s music videos and his best film to date Eternal Sunshine. Indeed the highlight of the film comes when he stops being restrained and indulges in some of his trademark in-camera special effects, using his long held patent on ‘how’d they do that?!’ trickery. The dazzling and hilarious long take in which Jack Black and Mos Def re-enact scenes from classic movies (including 2001: A Space Odyssey) using insanely inventive no-budget special effects is itself shot in an insanely inventive low-budget way. (Somewhere a post-modernist just got his wings). Oddly enough, like Cloverfield, the usual sentimental cliches of movie logic do not apply in this universe. The unexpectedly realistic ending means that Be Kind Rewind works best as a love-note to film-making and audience participation rather than as pure comedy.

3/5

July 7, 2016

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn returns with another artful garish provocation that elicited boos at Cannes. He must be doing something right.

the-neon-demon

Fresh-faced teenager Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in LA with dreams of modelling. She impresses agency head Roberta (Christina Hendricks), even though her photos do not; so much for would-be boyfriend/photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) hitching his wagon to her rising star. Roberta pushes her towards legendary photographer Jack MacArthur (Des Harrington) who is immediately wowed by her innocent looks and shoots her. His instant interest is shared by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces Jesse to her sharp-tongued model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). But when Alessandro Nivola’s designer is also entranced, leading to successive humiliations for Gigi and Sarah in favour of Jesse, their claws come out. And Jesse, after a trippy catwalk experience, finds herself isolated when events in the worst motel in Pasadena take a sinister turn courtesy of creepy manager Hank (Keanu Reeves).

Refn got a kicking for Only God Forgives that would’ve broken many directors, but, very impressively, The Neon Demon is made with supreme confidence, and with absolutely no apologies – even signed NWR as a statement of artistic singularity. Whereas Only God Forgives gestured towards total abstraction there is a semblance of story here, but, even though he collaborated with playwrights Mary Laws & Polly Stenham on dialogue, it’s in the ha’penny place to the visuals. And the visuals work because Refn knows Cliff Martinez can provide a synthesiser score of wide range that can interpret images: in particular Jesse’s catwalk encounter with a blue pyramid, water, and a red pyramid, which tips its hat to 2001’s Jupiter sequence, and seems to imply that Jesse has communed with the Platonic Ideal of beauty and is thereafter a different and blessed person.

Martinez’s score is quite haunting and beautiful in its ethereal approximation of the timbres of marimba and celeste, but it also embraces great Vangelis Blade Runner washes of synth, as well as juddering techno, contrapuntal melodies, and, for a climactic syncopated cue, almost wah-wah guitar effects. Reeves plays terrifically against type, and his enjoyment is mirrored by Refn mischievously cutting from his introduction to a huge white space where one character initiates another. The Rover cinematographer Natasha Braier observes the scantily-clad models with Kubrickian detachment, complementing a startling scene where Jesse appears faced with sexual assault but is treated as an objet d’art, not human but a personification of beauty. Early on, regarding lipstick names, Jesse is asked “Are you sex or are you food?” Refn seems to imply Jesse as embodiment of beauty can be anything, except a person.

This is more accessible than Only God Forgives, but there will still be walkouts, because this is unapologetically an NWR film: which means mesmeric pacing, semi-abstracted visuals, a foregrounding of music, and outré violence.

4/5

November 10, 2014

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan redeems himself after the patchy The Dark Knight Rises with a hard tack into heavy-duty theoretical sci-fi in a mind-bending, oddly abstract blockbuster.

interstellar_trailer2.0_cinema_1200.0

The McConaissance continues as Matthew McConaughey takes on the role of Cooper, a Texan engineer and pilot turned farmer in the near future. Cooper’s is a self-professed caretaker generation, trying to eke a subsistence living from a devastated planet with a collapsed population. Indeed Cooper’s daughter Murph is subjected to some Orwellian education about the futility of technological civilisation. But among the cornfields stalked by blight and storming dust-clouds there are still some people who dream big: NASA in hiding. Michael Caine’s wise professor and his icy daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway) convince Cooper to pilot their last ditch Lazarus mission, to travel through a wormhole next to Saturn in an attempt to find a new home for humanity. But as Cooper leaves an inconsolable Murph behind him, and joins fellow astronauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), he finds that the search for humanity’s salvation seems oddly underpinned by losing all traces of humanity…

Interstellar is a bold change of pace for the Brothers Nolan. The script, written by Jonathan Nolan and then reworked by Christopher, sketches in this future world in the manner of a John Wyndham novel; taking for granted that we know about the macro which we actually only learn about when it impacts the micro world of Cooper and Murph. This leads to some double-take moments, such as Bill Irwin’s comic relief, which are amplified by Nolan’s insistence on secrecy. Some familiar faces appear to shocking effect, which would be dissipated by mentioning them; but among them is a cheerful cameo from William Devane aka 24’s President Heller. Interstellar could best be described as a version of Sunshine written not by Alex Garland, but instead boasting a screenplay by Rod Serling based on a story outline by Carl Sagan. Hard science of a theoretical bent mixes with a soured vision of humanity’s worst tendencies being dominant.

Interstellar is unlikely to get as fond a welcome as previous Nolan movies, but it does have much in common with them; from the Twilight Zone finale like The Prestige, to simultaneous set-pieces as adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Cooper wrestle with similar dilemmas like Inception. Hans Zimmer’s score avoids nearing Richard Strauss’ template by borrowing Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible organ and plugging it into a million IMAX amplifiers; achieving solemnity (without melody) by dint of volume. The replacement of Wally Pfister as DP by Hoyte van Hoytema doesn’t jar, but the changeover is aided by the fact that a very different cinematic world is being captured than that of the Nolan/Pfister paradigm. Nolan wrings good performances from his large cast, with Mackenzie Foy blowing Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of the indomitable Murph, and McConaughey counteracting the heartless science of the Brand family with the emotional sensitivity of the Coopers.

Interstellar walks a tricky high-wire, attempting to create a heart-rending family saga dependent for its emotion on theoretical physics being literalised in a way that defeats traditional blockbuster visuals.

4/5

October 16, 2013

Castles, Candles and Kubrick

All Stanley Kubrick fans should move the dial to Newstalk this weekend for a documentary about the truncated Irish shoot of period epic Barry Lyndon.

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

As part of the autumn season of documentary radio on Newstalk 106-108 Pavel Barter produces this look at the story behind the making of Stanley Kubrick’s period adaptation Barry Lyndon in Ireland 40 years ago.

In the summer of 1973, director Stanley Kubrick arrived in Ireland to make his latest film Barry Lyndon. Having run massively over-schedule and over-budget with his space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick had followed that sci-fi folly up with a cheap and nasty quickie, A Clockwork Orange, which had proven massively controversial; its ultraviolence and rape coming in the same year as Dirty Harry and Straw Dogs. Now Kubrick was ready to take on Thackeray’s novel with the unlikely personage of Ryan O’Neal as the titular hero. All seemed to be going well as Kubrick shot in the Irish countryside with hundreds of costumed extras. But on an overcast night in January 1974, the director fled Ireland on a ferry from Dun Laoghaire. Within 48 hours the entire production had also abandoned their stations.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick tells, for the first time, the story behind the making of Barry Lyndon in Ireland, featuring interviews with cast and crew from the film. What role did Ireland play in the production of Barry Lyndon? Did Kubrick’s preceding film, Clockwork Orange, affect the production? It was widely rumoured he fled Ireland after a death threat which also caused him to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from circulation in Britain and Ireland until its posthumous re-release in 2000; a move that unjustly fostered its reputation as a great classic lost to censorship. It’s equally rumoured that he misinterpreted the death threat, which was from the IRA; enraged at the sight of hundreds of extras dressed as British soldiers in deepest Tipperary. Hopefully Barter’s documentary will get to the bottom of these urban legends.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick features contributions from Brian W. Cook (The Wicker Man, The Shining), Luke Quigley (Braveheart, In The Name of The Father), Terry Clegg (Gandhi, Out of Africa), Patti Podesta (Memento), and Gay Hamilton (The Duellists). They’ll shed light on working with the notorious perfectionist. Kubrick surpassed Hitchcock in the endless self-promotion stakes because he only directed 13 films, a fraction of Hitchcock’s output. Kubrick did endless takes without explaining what he wanted done differently, and shot every one of his few film with emotionless Ophuls glides, regardless of whether it suited that particular subject matter; yet his very reclusiveness and these eccentricities in shooting made him revered. Why is Barry Lyndon considered the greatest movie ever by fellow directors such as Martin Scorsese and Lars Von Trier? Tune in and find out.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick will air on Newstalk 106-108 on Saturday October 19th at 7:00am, with a repeat airing on Sunday October 20th at 6:00pm.

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