Talking Movies

September 27, 2019

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

February 14, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXIV

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a blog post proper? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-fourth pormanteau post on matters of course!

The Valley of the Short

National Geographic’s Valley of the Boom has been an odd watch. Coming off the back of 4 seasons of The West Wing re-runs on TG4 it’s been quite nice to see Bradley Whitford in light suits walking around corridors again, but this time affecting a drawl and dispensing gnomic wisdom. Elsewhere it’s been fascinating learning about Facebook before Facebook in the shape of TheGlobe.com, but there’s no compelling reason this couldn’t all have been a documentary; even if that would mean losing Josh Lyman himself. Making it a docudrama is a baffling decision, and one which ‘creator’ Matthew Carnahan seems to have interpreted as license to war on the fourth wall to make sure we understand that what little drama there is is not as factual as the documentary surrounding it. Interestingly enough in light of Vice’s suffering the law of diminishing returns when employing the tricks of The Big Short the deployment of those self-same tricks here actually work reasonably well, and even include a musical number; something filmed for but dropped from Vice.

You Don’t Know Dick

All roads lead back to Vice… The more I’ve thought about Vice the more uneasy I am about it. McKay’s interest in Dick Cheney is that which animates all Presidential biographers – the years in the Oval Office. So why bother making a film about the years leading up to it as well, and not just zero in on those eight years? Those eight years, after all, are what really (and clearly) gets McKay’s goat. And yet Vice gallops thru them, offering Cheney’s infamous (and cheerfully repeated by myself and Emmet Ryan during writing sessions, explicitly mentioning that Vice-Presidential imprimatur) “Go F*** Yourself” to Senator Patrick Leahy, and his accidental shooting someone while hunting, almost totally decontextualised, purely because they had to be included; because they’d been fodder for the SNL writers, as McKay once was. The scene in which Cheney demands to see all intelligence, no matter how flimsy, is presented as his quest for a fictional casus belli to invade Iraq. I’ve been thinking though of how that scene could be written, with the same misgivings by the agency directors, and the same outcome, but an entirely different and equally plausible motivation for Cheney’s actions. The truth is that is possible for many scenes in Vice, because McKay always assumes the absolute worst of Cheney, usually in the absence of any information whatsoever. So try this on for size as reason for trampling the constitution beneath his feet:

CIA: There’s only one source for that, Mister Vice-President, that’s why it’s not included.

CHENEY: I want to see everything.

FBI: But, Mister Vice-President, we have to sift thru the intelligence to determine what’s credible.

CHENEY: Do you? Is that what you did when you dismissed as ‘racial profiling’ a flag on an Arabic man saying he didn’t need to learn how to land the plane, just how to fly it? 3,000 Americans are dead because we dropped the ball. We dropped the ball, and they died. So from now on I see EVERYTHING. I don’t care how ‘credible’ you think it is. I need to see EVERYTHING. We are not going to have another 9/11, not on my watch. Now get out of here, and don’t fumble the f****** ball again…

And now perhaps imagine how McKay would handle a similar scene involving President Obama justifying lethal drone strikes on American citizens without any due process.

 

Our long national nightmare is over

And once again with The West Wing re-runs on TG4, because Declan Rice’s statement last night contained a fatal phrase that immediately had me humming Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore ditty. I have felt, almost from the beginning of this will he/won’t he saga, that it was unseemly. And as it progressed I felt it was increasingly humiliating for us to be so desperately begging someone to play for us. Especially as he is ‘a proud Englishman’. Sing it!

But in spite of all temptation

To belong to other nations

He remains an Englishman!

January 27, 2019

Notes on Vice

Postmodern Dick Cheney biopic Vice was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Vice, perhaps fittingly, stands in relation to writer/director Adam McKay’s The Big Short as George Bush Jr stands in relation to Jeb Bush; not nearly as competent but more likely to be showered with unearned prizes. The Big Short was sprawling, but, despite following three storylines; Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling, Finn Wittrock and Brad Pitt, and Christian Bale; was surprisingly focused in explaining the housing bubble and credit crunch they were all betting on. You would think that following just one character, Dick Cheney, would make for a tighter movie. And you would be wrong. This is a ramshackle mess; exemplified by its opening in 1963, purposelessly jumping forward to 9/11, and then back to 1963 again, followed by opening credits that feel like they belong in an early 1970s crime movie, about 15 minutes in.  There’s another two hours to go after that conceit and McKay has here achieved the unenviable and baffling feat of making a film that is both far too long yet also doesn’t go into enough detail on anything.

Listen here:

November 15, 2018

From the Archives: Casino Royale

An unprecedented journey into the past finds amidst the uncollected material from even before the pre-Talking Movies archives a review of the film that brought James Bond back from the dead, where, in retrospect I find that I had been very willing to leave him after suffering thru Brosnan’s quartet.

I hate 007. It’s important to clarify this at the beginning so you will understand that it is through extremely gritted teeth I have inform you that not only is Casino Royale brilliant, but it is brilliant in all the specific areas where a Bond film has no right to be even half-decent. Specifically a strong female character, an element of realism, a coherent plot, a lack of cheesiness, a believable torture scene and Bond displaying human emotions.

The screenplay is credited to three people. The writing partnership of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade who wrote the last three execrable Bond films drafted the script, which was then completely rewritten by one Paul Haggis. I am not a fan of Haggis. I had a mean gag lined up about him being renowned in Hollywood by which I would mean not his back-to-back Screenplay Oscars for Crash and Million Dollar Baby but rather his ability to make Oliver Stone look subtle. It is with seething fury then that I have to tell you his contributions to this film are masterful. He locates Bond firmly in the real world of post 9/11 intelligence, complete with MI6 cleaners to get rid of dead bodies. We meet 007 assassinating crooked agents and investigating two bomb plots, all with thrilling believability, before he finally discovers who is financing these terrorist activities: a private banker named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen).

Bond must defeat Le Chiffre at a high stakes poker game at the Casino Royale where his buy-in is supplied by Treasury official Vesper Lynd. Their first meeting on the train to Montenegro is delicious. Over dinner the pair verbally dissect each other’s characters based on their first impressions of each other. Bond is cruel but Vesper hurts him back with interest. Eva Green plays the first Bond girl who really is his equal. Furthermore in his relationship with Vesper we actually see James Bond displaying human emotions! There is a scene with Vesper slumped in the shower trying to wash blood off her hands after helping James in a gruesome murder which is jaw dropping: Bond makes no gags and does not try to take sexual advantage but actually just sits next to, and comforts, her.

The much touted castration torture scene meanwhile is gruellingly tense, blackly comic and utterly believable. This film has no Bond jokes. The funniest gags in the film are funny simply because they are unexpected unlike the double entendres of yore. David Arnold refrains from using the Bond theme for the entire film making its entrance incredibly impressive. Indeed the film’s final Get Carter style image confirms that Daniel Craig’s gritty Bond is in debt to Michael Caine’s unglamorous 1960s spy Harry Palmer. What’s more this scene makes us as impatient for a sequel as the promise of The Joker which ends Batman Begins. Damn…

4/5

July 24, 2018

From the Archives: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archive dredges up a sequel that really should have stayed hidden deep down.

There are some spooky things about this film, none of them to do with the plot. It’s been ten years since the first X-Files film Fight the Future, six years since the show ended, and eight years since everyone stopped caring. So why release this film against the all powerful Dark Knight when it’s so obviously a Hallowe’en film? Every scene takes place in a snowy West Virginia winter and the story eschews alien conspiracies for straight horror. Even odder, given that The Dark Knight is a triumphant sequel, original show writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz are pitting against it a sequel that is not faster, harder and better. Where Fight the Future went for big effects (remember the glorious tastelessness of its opening Oklahoma bombing recreation?) this is a sequel that aims to be quieter (!!), and fails…

This film believes itself to be a low-key emotional character study spliced with some deliciously grotesque shlock horror. Fox Mulder is a broken man (we know this because he has a beard) while Dana Scully is working as a doctor in a Catholic hospital. Scully is asked by the FBI to bring Mulder in for a consult on the case of a missing agent, as the only leads come from a psychic paedophile priest Fr Joe, played with surprisingly unshowy aplomb by Billy Connolly as a man tormented by his instincts and desperate for redemption and forgiveness. Mulder is rejuvenated by the case (he shaves off his beard) but Scully remains sceptical, some things never change.

This film never descends to George Lucas dialogue but most scenes between Mulder and Scully take five minutes to run thru three simple ideas; “You need to trust people again, take this job Mulder”, “This job has too much darkness Mulder, you should drop it”, and “This job is all I know how to do Scully”; these longeurs lead to musings –  like the hilarious notion that the militant atheism of Dawkins, so hip since 9/11, will be infuriated by the unashamed leaps of faith taken by Mulder and Scully in believing in the supernatural. Scully may doubt the existence of God as much as ever but she still curses him…

This film is too low-key for its own good. Chris Carter directed episodes of the TV show with more visual flair than he displays here. Amanda Peet and Xzibit do their level best with under-written roles as FBI agents. Callum Keith Rennie, a Canadian character actor best known for his Cylon in Battlestar Galactica and undercover cop in Due South, outshines them in lead support as a sinister Russian serial killer/organ-harvester. A suspenseful chase scene involving him is a highlight but such moments are offset by Scully’s sub-plot which is insultingly emotionally manipulative. It’s nice to see Mulder & Scully together again as older characters, but it would be better if they were in a worthy conspiracy laden sequel and not merely an efficient horror movie.

3/5

April 22, 2015

The Good Lie

Quebecois director Phillipe Falardeau makes his first Anglophone feature with a riveting tale of colliding cultures inspired by a true humanitarian crisis in 1980s Sudan.

The-Good-Lie-3

Rural Sudan in the 1980s would be recognisable to a Sudanese villager of the 1880s or 1780s. A simple life of cattle-farming is carried on, with tribal traditions intact. Brothers Theo (Okwar Jale) and Mamere (Peterdeng Mongok) bicker over a game of naming ancestors, while sister Abital (Keji Jale) despairs of them. And then civil war erupts around them, with helicopters raining gunfire on the village. As the elders grab spears to repel invasion, the three siblings run for safety. However, safety is a perilous thousand mile trek to a Kenyan refugee camp, during which they meet brothers Jeremiah (Thon Kueth) and Paul (Deng Ajuet). Thirteen years later the adult Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Abital (Kuoth Wiel), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), and Paul (Emmanuel Jal) are sent to Kansas City, Missouri, to be helped successfully integrate by employment agent Carrie (Reese Witherspoon).

Ah, Reese Witherspoon… The Good Lie is an engaging film, but the first 35 minutes are by far the most interesting, because thereafter Witherspoon and Corey Stoll as her taciturn but secretly compassionate boss Jack take the focus away from the Lost Boys of Sudan. Without going into Marxist overdrive, it’s not reasonable to criticise this shift in narrative focus, because it is so self-evident a truth that there is no way this movie gets a $20 million dollar budget without Witherspoon and Stoll being given leading roles. It is though admissible to lament this self-evident truth. The reality that in 1987 a lifestyle belonging to bygone centuries was still alive is fascinating, the realities of growing up in a ‘temporary’ refugee camp intrigues, but these stories are displaced by a ‘Coming to America’ culture clash, played for odd laughs.

Falardeau’s last film, Monsieur Lazhar, showed his enormous skill in working with child actors, as well as his concern (building on Congorama) in exploring collisions between cultures. He elicits wonderful characterisations from his child stars, especially the responsible Theo, and from the adult actors Duany and Jal who are both former child soldiers. But the culture clash feels patronising, even though American culture, much like PC Montreal in Lazhar, doesn’t seem as shining as one might expect when interrogated by refugees. Screenwriter Margaret Nagle (Boardwalk Empire, Warm Springs) doesn’t shrink from portraying the heartless bureaucratic insanity (that only increases after 9/11) of the American government. She also encapsulates the horror of civil war in a tense moment when the young Jeremiah takes a bible from Theo after he joins them, and you’re unsure if Theo’s led his siblings into danger.

The Good Lie is a solid but frustrating movie that makes you wish Falardeau had instead been let loose on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story about literal African-American culture clash.

3/5

September 11, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s swansong as a leading man sees him play a German spymaster in Anton Corbijn’s low-key intelligence thriller.

AMWM3

Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is the harassed spymaster of a clandestine unit of German intelligence. Officially Gunther, his loyal lieutenant Irna (Nina Hoss), and Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Maximilian (Daniel Bruhl in a mystifyingly small part); the youngsters who do the physical side of operations; don’t exist, but they keep post 9/11 Hamburg safe from terrorist cells exploiting its port city porosity. Getting in their way is human rights lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams), who is attempting to get Chechen illegal immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) the fortune his despised war-lord father left in the hands of discreet banker Brue (Willem Dafoe). Gunther wants to turn Annabel, and so use both his existing mole Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi) and suspected terrorist Issa to snare the respected Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi); who Gunther suspects of covertly using Islamic charities to fund terrorism. Enter the CIA…

Rock photographer Corbijn’s first two films as director, Control and The American, were visually striking, and A Most Wanted Man has equally interesting work right from the opening when the lapping harbour water Issa emerges from becomes shifting whiskey in Gunther’s glass. Corbijn makes great use of shifting focus in a lengthy interrogation, stages a long-take on a ferry very disconcertingly, and hammers home the paranoia of surveillance with Niki and Maximilian’s constant unobtrusive tailing of suspects. The nitty-gritty procedural approach to intelligence work is always absorbing, and Robin Wright’s cameos as inveigling Company woman Martha Sullivan are nicely done. But the extended breaking of Annabel, even though it’s probably quite realistic, sucks all momentum out of proceedings. And then just when things have got properly tense again with Gunther laying a trap, the trademark le Carre letdown is sprung.

An emotionally devastating twist is casually thrown in, but screenwriter Andrew (Lantana) Bovell cannot salvage the unsatisfactory finale which, in typical le Carre style, ends not with a bang but a whimper. le Carre may have had the inside scoop on the Cold War when he started writing, but it’s been fifty years since Kim Philby blew his cover, and it’s hard to think of a profession less likely to spill new trade secrets to former members of the guild, so this can’t be le Carre giving us the real scoop on how post-9/11 intelligence works so much as le Carre giving us his own bleak weltanschauung. It is one he shares with Cormac McCarthy: storytellers who create protagonists and antagonists, place them in peril, but then, because they have no real interest in storytelling, lose interest in their creations.

A Most Wanted Man is a pretty good leading man send-off for Hoffman; particularly the poignant last image in which Hoffman walks out of shot and our lives; but its ending lets it down.

3/5

April 26, 2011

Revue: Attempts on Her Life: Review

A postmodern play is what we mean when we point at something and say, ‘This is what we mean by a postmodern play’…

A review of a play should be impartial and objective. It’s never a good idea to review a play when you know people acting in it. Having said which I’ve already done so to an extent when reviewing Death of A Salesman last summer. But of course I never knew Rory Nolan half as well back in 2001 when he was my Dramsoc committee liaison as I do some of the people in this play. Can we get around this? Perhaps..

SCENE 7. ARGUMENTS.

BORIS, GODUNOV, and JOHNSON are onstage. They can be any age and either sex. They are panellists on a TV show, or maybe politicians at a debate, you decide.

BORIS: It’s weird beyond belief. I approve.

GODUNOV: But is it good-weird or bad-weird?

BORIS: Can one apply such banal terms to post-modern theatre? It exists, it breathes; one cannot pigeonhole it into such bourgeois categories as good or bad.

JOHNSON: But surely a play has to achieve something other than simply being?

BORIS: You would like a tidy linear plot and developed characters progressing along a satisfying and predictable emotional arc, would you? Anything else we can do for you while we’re rolling back theatrical history? Bring back the Lord Chamberlain? Maybe we could ban women from acting again…

GODUNOV: I think that what Johnson meant was that a post-modern play whose sole content is reiterations of how impeccably post-modernist it is becomes as self-defeating as a woman Irish poet whose sole subject for poetry is the trials of being a woman Irish poet, to the point where you must ask if it’s such a chore trying to fit into the patriarchal tradition of Yeats why not just chuck it for something more congenial like novel-writing. Seems to work out nicely for Emma Donoghue…

BORIS: There you go again. You have an obsession with every work of art being pre-digested for your facile consumption, rather than struggling against patriarchy.

JOHNSON: I fear Boris that we are getting away from the play.

BORIS: Yes. We are. I thought a triumphant scene was the superbly combative Aisling Flynn talking down Ian Toner in the panel discussion tentatively chaired by Sam McGovern.

GODUNOV: Yes, he did catch rather well the host awkwardly caught between both trying to start fights and defuse excess tension at the same time.

BORIS: Shut up, Godunov. Yes, it was a pitch-perfect parody of the sort of spats over modern art once catches on Newsnight Review of a Friday. I also admired the deranged quality of Fiachra MacNamara’s monologue while blindfolded and being whipped by a girl wearing a pig-mask and shouting thru a microphone.

JOHNSON: The blunt satire of the second scene with the children’s entertainment turning into a discussion of atrocities bothered me by its tremendous lack of subtlety. Does one need really need to jackhammer at obvious truths like that? But I must ask you one question Boris. Did it not bother you that for large chunks of the play you had absolutely no idea what was going on? I’m thinking of that amusing but baffling Pinter homage where Toner and McGovern seemed to be either ad-men or hit-men, writing a personal ad or an obituary, with a mysterious suitcase bothering their efforts.

BORIS: I understood everything that happened.

GODUNOV: I beg to differ. You turned to me during the scene with the six actresses doing the satirical car adverts in different languages to ask in a terrified whisper if that man was meant to be on stage or had he just wandered in off the street?

BORIS: I was merely adding to your confusion to amplify the intended artistic effect…

JOHNSON: The scene deconstructing pornography I thought was another highlight.

BORIS: It appealed to your low taste for moralism in art did it?

GODUNOV: Why must you constantly sneer at any attempts to find meaning in life?

BORIS: Because one cannot find meaning in life! Crimp’s entire gestalt is that no play can represent accurately even one person, so how on earth could a play seek not only to create multiple ‘realistic’ characters but then have the audacity to claim that they represent the universe in some sort of microcosm, and that the play can thus make ‘important’ points about society? The only point it can make is the inadequacy of its ability to make points.

JOHNSON: You ascribe a Beckettian impulse to Crimp then, the compulsion to speak, mixed with the awareness of the inability to say anything worth speaking of?

BORIS: Don’t bring your philosophical poppycock into this, Crimp is operating on a purely aesthetic level. I have no idea what I mean by that. Or do I? …

GODUNOV: Are you attempting to say that we must not look for any deeper meaning? That Attempts on Her Life represents merely post-modern theatre’s abdication of the urge to create versions of reality in favour of merely stringing together disparate scenes containing blunt anti-capitalist satire? Didn’t 9/11 make that sort of posturing an embarrassment? If western civilisation is not inviolable what is the point of deconstructing it?

BORIS: Well, one could say the same about resisting the Nazis after the tide turned in Africa or in Russia. The battle against patriarchal structures is never futile. Vive La Resistance. You will notice the ‘La’…

JOHNSON: I think Boris that you have lost your mind.

BORIS: I’m in the good company of Nietzsche in that case.

GODUNOV: And I keenly resent the implication that I am a Nazi.

It’s hard not to feel that Enron shows the influence of Attempts on Her Life while simultaneously abjuring it. They’re both Royal Court productions but separated by a traumatic decade. There are a number of inexplicable musical numbers in both plays although neither is a musical, in both actors double up and a huge cast run thru many different cipher characters, and multi-media is also a commonality with large screens bombarding the audience with subliminally fast images of modern life; but the differences are huge. The blunt satire of capitalism remains, but the generalised anxiety of Martin Crimp is replaced by a sharp focus on the fall of one company by Lucy Prebble, who also develops four stable characters amid the slapstick in order to give us an emotional anchor, and has a solid plot in the downfall of Enron’s insane accounting system to drive things forward in a semi-linear fashion. In other words Attempts on Her Life is an important play but it’s not a trailblazer, nothing can follow it, other writers can only plunder from it what they like best and incorporate it into their own more traditional work – after all if one actually wants to say something about society it’s not really that satisfying only having a dramatic framework that deconstructs the validity of any and all attempts to say anything about society.

3/5

January 28, 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

(10) Whip It!
Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Ellen Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother’s ideal of beauty pageants by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Filled with sparkling turns from a female comedic ensemble, and some well-choreographed and bone-crunching stunts, the creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, but the third act is pleasingly subversive on two counts.
(9) Avatar
This is closer to the Cameron of Aliens than we could have hoped for. The script appears to have been generated by the same computers as the impressive bespoke special effects but, Worthington aside, the actors sell it well, aided by the fact that Cameron remains a master of emotionally manipulative action sequences; with the 9/11 style destruction of Hometree genuinely upsetting while the final half-hour is pulse-poundingly emotive and well orchestrated.
(8) Kick-Ass
A little gem of ultraviolent comic-book capers from the imagination of Mark Millar this faithfully follows the origin myth template but without PG-13 imposed morality; Batman would be feared by criminals because he acted like Big Daddy, gangsters would react like Mark Strong’s exasperated Don. Matthew Vaughn’s script improves on its source material in mining an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos in the Big Daddy /Hit-Girl relationship.
(7) Let Me In
Matt Reeves follows Cloverfield with an incredible stylistic switch but retains his stark vision. This intimate horror features a number of nail-biting suspense sequences and improves on the Swedish version by making Abby scarier and more manipulative, with Owen more complicit, and by re-instating moral horror into this coming-of-age story. Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more affecting.
(6) Iron Man 2
A fine and very fun film with excellent cleverly counterpointed performances from Downey, Cheadle, Rourke and Rockwell as a consulting villain and a real villain, and a responsible hero and a drunken hero. The first act moves at an insane pace verbally and is full of wonderful comedic touches. So what if Nick Fury solves the plot for Tony Stark, my gripe is with the inconsistent relationship between Pepper and the poorly used Black Widow and the déjà-vu action finale.


(5) Scott Pilgrim Vs the World
The comedy of the year is deliriously nonsensical, filled with joyous touches, played perfectly by the youthful ensemble (aided by insane cameos), and is chockfull of superb visual gags. It is, like Wright’s Hot Fuzz, a bit too long but this is as crazy and original as big studio films get and, like (500) Days of Summer , characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re as fickle as Ramona with men or as shallow/cruel as Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her.
(3) The Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog’s ecstatic madness finally returns to his dramatic features in an examination of the bliss of evil. He drags a barnstorming performance worthy of Klaus Kinksi out of Nicolas Cage and plasters the insanity of his recent documentaries onto what is structurally a solid police procedural, before you add iguanas and drugs, and nonsense, lots of nonsense. This black comedy towers above Ferrara’s portentous original aided by a surprisingly reflective ending.
(3) A Single Man
Colin Firth’s stunning performance is only one of many dazzling elements in a heart-breaking film punctuated by outstanding moments of black comedy and shot with an amazing eye for style, sartorial and visual. Director and co-writer Ford has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships and the crushing nature of bereavement and grief which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines.
(2) The Social Network
The founding of Facebook was played out with amazing scenes, lines, and ideas and gripped like a vice with a constant unnerving tension surrounding the actions of central villain Mark. There were echoes of Fincher past in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rumbling beats, especially underneath Sean’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo, and Sean was in a way the Tyler of this tale, whose rejection leaves no happy ending. Sorkin’s script has witty repartee but its emotionally raw opening scene sets the movie’s tone. Favouring Fincher’s pessimism over Sorkin’s optimism makes this an uneasy masterpiece.


(1) Inception
Nolan wins not just for the tremendous redemptive emotional kick the whole movie builds to, when you read the film on its most superficial level where it’s too neat structurally for its own good, but because once you look deeper you realise that this is a puzzle piece worthy of a UCL English graduate; it supports many contradictory readings, none of them definitive. See a loose thread and pull and the garment does not unravel, it changes pattern and remains coherent. ‘Ellen Page’s character is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with DiCaprio’s character is because she’s a therapist hired by the rest of the team to exorcise Mal from his memory… This is a blockbuster rubik’s cube of a caper movie combined with sci-fi thriller, which exploits the ability give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, in order to dazzle both eyes and mind with spectacle, ideas, and meaty drama.

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

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