Talking Movies

April 5, 2012

Titanic 3-D

James Cameron’s watery disaster epic returns to cinemas but it turns out that making it three dimensional was not the secret to making it good…

First off let’s be clear that the 3-D doesn’t add anything, in fact it’s very distracting. Not only do out of focus objects continually annoy you in the foreground, where they were clearly never meant to be the centre of attention of the shot, but the 3-D also renders many scenes hilariously fake; people might as well be standing in front of a painted backdrop at the port in France. And that’s before we get to the completely CGI tracking shot swooping over the ‘digitally recreated’ ship, which was so revered at the time. I was unimpressed then; owing to the fact that it was a boat, we’d all seen boats, and this one didn’t look particularly realistic; but now I can only hoot in derision as the 3-D enables you to note that passengers wobbling about look as realistic as if Morph from Take Hart was taking a stroll.

Viewing Titanic in retrospect it’s hard not to see a good deal of Revolutionary Road’s Frank and April Wheeler in Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet); from their baffling insistence on inserting each other’s name into every second line of dialogue, to Winslet’s whingeing about the stifling nature of prosperity. ‘Poor little rich girl’ is indeed an apt term as Cameron never rises beyond the social and gender politics of a music video, or indeed the aesthetics; Exhibit A, Rose running thru the engine room’s beautiful steam in her white dress. This is fantasy, not history. It is embarrassing to sit thru a movie from the writer of the quotable Aliens and Terminator 2 that suddenly displays an absolute cloth ear for dialogue. The painful Freud and Picasso gags render the already dreadfully hammy Billy Zane and his retinue absolute pantomime villains by making them preening, ignorant, sexist snobs.

The best moments are dialogue free; the moving silent montage as the quartet plays ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, Bernard Hill’s captain mutely deciding to go down with the ship, Victor Garber’s devastated shipwright waiting for his flawed design to buckle. It’s nice to see members of the Cameron repertory company Bill Paxton and Janette Goldstein appear in small roles, but they hammer home that while Cameron’s sinking is an impressive technical achievement, it’s too little too late. It’s impressive because the huge set gives it alarming reality, but unlike Avatar there hasn’t been enough action to hide the flaws leading up to it. I’ve always suspected that this movie was Too Big to Fail and that’s why the MPAA, subconsciously mindful of collapsing a studio, rated it PG-13 not R in spite of Winslet’s nude scene being dubbed by her character’s narration “the most erotic experience of my life”. With great budgets come great responsibility, and Cameron seems to have decided that a very stupid across the tracks romance was the only way to get Titanic financed. He might well have been right. Unfortunately, that unbearably idiotic story is what sinks the film.

If you want a more satisfying experience of what Cameron might originally have had in mind then watch 1958’s A Night to Remember and the last hour of Terminator 2

1.5/5

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March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence is on imperious form as survivalist heroine Katniss Everdeen but she outshines everything else in this frustrating adaptation of the hit novel.

The Hunger Games opens in a manner uncannily like her breakthrough movie Winter’s Bone with Lawrence again in the American South mothering a younger sibling owing to an absent father and an incapable mother. Katniss lives in District 12 of a futuristic America known as Panem. This is dirt-poor Appalachian coal-mining territory, and she hunts squirrels and game with a home-made bow and arrow to survive. Every year, as a requirement of the Treaty of the Treason which ended the Civil War 74 years before, each of the 12 Districts sends two ‘tributes’, picked at random from their citizens aged between 12 and 18, to the Capitol to take part in a sadistic reality TV show where they fight to the death until only one ‘victor’ remains. Katniss’ 12 year old sister Prim is picked and Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place and pit herself against the Spartans/psychopaths of Districts 1 and 2 who train only for this purpose.

Katniss and her neighbour Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked away to the Capitol by Effie (Elizabeth Banks) for a brief communal training period with the other tributes. They also get a makeover from Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and are advised by gloriously irascible mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former victor, to make themselves as likeable as possible to the television audience to attract sponsors; who can drop vital supplies into the ‘wilderness’ where the games are held. Banks is very funny delivering callous lines but I didn’t recognise her for ages because, like everyone else in the Capitol, she resembles a colour-blind New Romantic who sneezed in the make-up box. Well-to-do weasel Peeta takes Haymitch’s advice and declares his hitherto unsuspected love for Katniss on television to compensate for his lack of survival skills by creating a star-cross’d lovers narrative. Katniss’ reaction should get cheers… A crazily bearded Donald Sutherland is the President of Panem, who rebukes Wes Bentley’s conniving game-maker for allowing Katniss to endanger the purpose of the games with her seditious gestures. The tense games themselves are thrillingly realised, replete with shifting strategic alliances and obliquely brutal murders.

Lawrence is, predictably, a great action heroine. Intriguingly she is so in the Cameron maternal action heroine mould. Like Ripley in Aliens she combines a will of steel with being a surrogate mother. Katniss cares for the very young District 11 tribute Rue with such obvious love that she incites a riot in District 11. The flaws in The Hunger Games lie elsewhere. Director Gary Ross consistently shoots with an inexpertly adopted shaky-cam that true shaky-maestros Abrams or Greengrass would disavow as amateurish. Presumably he thinks he needs it to connect to a teenage audience, but it’s quite annoying. Amazingly though his recurring showily out of focus backgrounds and persistent close-in focus on the faces of his actors mirror the problems in the script he wrote with Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins. This film is infuriatingly lacking in scope. When action erupts we have no map of the environment it’s erupting within. When rebellion is whispered about we have almost no information about the history of Panem or what this society is actually like now.

This is a good film, but given the reputation of the novel any adaptation that’s less than great sends you scurrying to read the book.

3/5

December 22, 2011

Fanboys Vs Paul

At what point on the homage-o-meter does a film become so dependent for its laughs on just referencing other films that it simply ceases to exist in its own right?

I’m posing this question because I quite recently watched both Paul and Fanboys which are so referentially dependent that taking away that crutch of familiarity would cripple both. Paul would be less hobbled than Fanboys, because it’s operating on a higher level of comedic sureness, but the two films share the same basic DNA – nerds go on a road trip and things get very silly, with copious references to late 1970s/early 1980s pop culture, and Seth Rogen even appearing in both movies. There is obviously a huge difference in budgets between the two films, evident in looking at the star wattage of the casts. Sam Huntington, Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, and Kristen Bell for Fanboys weigh in substantially lighter than Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, and Kristen Wiig for Paul. But that’s not that clinching, throwing money at bad jokes doesn’t make them funny.

Huntington is a gifted comedian who was a sublime Jimmy Olsen, Jay Baruchel is a reliable comedic presence, and Kristen Bell rarely gets to be as awesome in film as she was as Veronica Mars but she’s always got that charisma in reserve. Dan Fogler, however, sums up the problem with Fanboys. I’ve been mystified by Fogler’s rise because I don’t think he’s particularly funny in Balls of Fury, Good Luck Chuck, or Fanboys. Indeed the only time I’ve been impressed by him was in Love Happens where in a straighter role than usual he was quite good, even damn good in one serious scene. Fanboys sees him purvey his usual brand of crude, physical humour (constant dry humping) and he puts so much obvious energy and commitment into his performance you actually feel bad singling him out as a synecdoche of the film’s failings.

Fanboys is a film where the script constantly falls back on crudity and slapstick and asks its performers to mug like hell to hide the shortcomings of the material. It is intermittently amusing, but, with some exceptions, those laughs come from references to the Star Wars film, or from the efforts of cameoing stars whose presence are the only reason jokes work – think Carrie Fisher saying “I know” when someone says “I love you”, or William Shatner boasting “I’m William Shatner, I can score anything”. Even Rogen’s dual roles only work because of the sublime moment where as a Trekkie his beloved Kirk statue is destroyed and he cradles it shouting “KHAAAAAAAAAAN!” Take away the famous actors in tiny roles, and you’re left with a deeply suspect attempt to graft an emotionally manipulative arc about a dying friend’s last wishes onto raucous road trip comedy.

Paul by contrast has a far less weighty arc that works much better. It just wants Pegg to get a girlfriend and Frost to finish writing his novel as the transformative result of encounter with runaway alien Paul. It’s a funnier film than Fanboys because, though Paul’s dialogue is crude and the Kristen Wiig sub-plot is foul-mouthed and oddly mean-spirited, there is still more comedic gold left when you sift away the referential gags. Those references to Lucas, Spielberg, Zemeckis and Landis are hysterically funny, not least the moment when our heroes walk into the Roadhouse to find the band playing the Cantina music. But they are equalled by the absurdity of Jason Bateman’s character name, and the peerless Kristen Wiig’s crestfallen reaction to Pegg telling her she ‘should go’, meaning to visit the UK, but she takes it as meaning to just go away.

Paul is better than Fanboys but, while it’s hilarious to see Paul offering Spielberg advice on the phone on creating E.T., does Paul just feature too many referential gags versus original gags compared to the previous two Pegg/Frost movies directed, and crucially co-written, by Edgar Wright? Sigourney Weaver’s appearance saw me start a mental timer until the line ‘Get away from her you bitch!’ was referenced, and of course it was. Are Pegg and Frost compensating for the loss of Wright’s flair for visual absurdity by gripping ever more tightly their pop culture talismans? If, by some miracle, you could find a viewer entirely unfamiliar with cinema and pop culture from 1974 onwards would they still find Paul, and especially Fanboys, funny at all? Or would they merely look baffled and say ‘I don’t get it, what’s meant to be so funny about that line?’ Obviously though such an ideal viewer is impossible as Lucas and Spielberg colonised the popular imagination in a manner most film-makers can only dream of.

Still, it must be asked at what point doffing the cap to Lucas and Spielberg becomes a despairing admittance of defeat at ever conjuring up something equal to their magic?

October 26, 2011

Top 10 Scary Movies

Hallowe’en is almost upon us! This weekend Contagion, Demons Never Die, Paranormal Activity 3, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and others will all contend for the horror audience at the multiplexes, while the Screen’s Monster Mash and especially the IFI’s Horrorthon with special guest (and cult hero) Michael Biehn (Aliens, Planet Terror) will cater for the hardcore ghouls. But if you’re staying in for TV or DVD scares instead here’re quality shockers to get you thru the horrid holiday.

(10) Psycho
Hitchcock’s 1960 low budget classic influenced all the other films on this list as it dealt a tremendous hammer blow to restrictions on cinematic violence. Hitchcock’s direction is almost parodically showy as the first act of the film is essentially an enormous shaggy-dog story, setting up a number of prolonged blackly comic sequences. Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates is a terrific resonant villain, especially in the chilling final scene scored by Bernard Hermann with full-on Schoenbergian atonal serialism, while the shower scene with Janet Leigh being slashed to Hermann’s bravura stabbing violins orchestration remains an iconic ‘pure cinema’ scare.

(9) The Host
You may not have heard of this one before but this recent Korean effort is already well on its way to classic status. A hilariously dysfunctional Korean family try to save their abducted youngest member from a mutated monster created by American polluters. Brilliant special effects create scares aplenty while the script is both scathing of American power politics and sublimely absurdist. This pre-dates Rodriguez’s Planet Terror in collecting misfit characters with useless skills, like a hesitant Olympic archer and a Molotov cocktail flinging former student radical, and paying off those set-ups in hilarious and unexpected ways.

(8) Halloween
John Carpenter was probably gazumped by Black Christmas to creating the slasher flick but he certainly codified the conventions of the genre with this 1978 movie. I’ve long thought Carpenter a deeply over-rated director but this film, powered by his deceptively simple yet still creepy music, features numerous sequences of nerve-rending suspense as Jamie Lee Curtis’s baby-sitter is stalked by the homicidal madman Mike Myers in his William Shatner mask. Treasure Donald Pleasance as the psychiatrist Loomis as he dead pans his reply to Curtis’ question “Was that the boogieman?” – “Yes, as a matter of fact it was”.

(7) Night of the Living Dead
George Romero usually gets far too much credit for what is tangential social satire in his Dead films, but there’s no doubt that he invented the modern zombie genre with this piece. By not cutting away when the undead started munching human flesh, and concentrating the action in a claustrophobic setting where the mismatched survivors turn on each other under the constant strain of both repelling the zombies and dealing with the ticking time-bomb of their infected, he gave us the still resonant archetypal zombie set-up. The ending is as chilling as in 1968.

(6) The Exorcist
This 1973 shocker, scored by Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and directed by William Friedkin at the short-lived height of his powers, remains one of the highest grossing movies ever made. Stephen King thought its secret was that it struck a nerve with parents concerned that they had somehow lost their children to the dark side of the 1960s, while simultaneously attracting those self-same kids eager for transgressive thrills. It’s equally likely that such frighteningly realised demonic possession just freaks people out, especially when Max Von Sydow’s stalwart priest realises he’s once again facing the originating villain, Lucifer.

(5) The Evil Dead
The Evil Dead is not a comedy-horror classic like its acclaimed sequel Evil Dead 2, but an extremely gruelling gore-fest that bookends the extreme horror tendencies of the 1970s. Director Sam Raimi made his name directing his school friend and subsequent cult legend Bruce Campbell as plucky college student Ash, fighting off evil spirits inadvertently summoned by his friends by reading an arcane tome at a remote cabin in a forest where even the trees turn out to be evil, damn evil, and prone to doing things that are still controversial. Prepare to lose your lunch.

(4) 28 Days Later
Alex Garland’s first original screenplay was blatantly a zombie reworking of The Day of the Triffids, but there are worse templates than John Wyndham’s particular variety of realistic sci-fi. The post-apocalyptic concerns of that classic became horror gold through Danny Boyle’s customarily frenetic direction of the terrifyingly energetic Infected pursuing Cillian Murphy thru an eerily deserted London. The obligatory survivors turning on each other motif is enlivened by the quality of rhetoric given to Christopher Eccleston’s barking mad soldier, while the climactic eye gouging is perhaps the most horrific act ever committed by any screen hero.

(3) Don’t Look Now
1973 classic Don’t Look Now is on the surface an art-house study, rendered in editor turned director Nicolas Roeg’s typically disjunctive style, of a couple consumed with grief over the death of their daughter trying to forget their loss and begin again by travelling to Venice. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland though begin seeing a red coated little girl tailing them at a distance thru the streets, and become convinced that it may be their dead daughter, leading to an ending so genuinely nightmarish that it will freak you out even if you’ve seen it before.

(2) Alien
Alien is a great horror film which skilfully masquerades as sci-fi, including the score from Jerry Goldsmith at his most dissonant. Ridley Scott firmly establishes the characters before bumping them off in his Gothic space-ship full of dark shadows and dripping roofs. Stephen King has noted that the absence of almost any action for the first hour leaves the audience extremely nervy for when events finally occur. The alien attacks are superbly orchestrated and you’d need nerves of steel not to do a sitting high jump at least twice in the final 20 minutes. Don’t watch while eating…

(1) Scream
Neve Campbell confidently carries this 1996 classic directed by rejuvenated horror maestro Wes Craven from Kevin Williamson’s razor sharp script. Scream is a blackly hilarious self-aware dissection of the clichés of slasher movies which is also simultaneously a genuinely brilliant slasher flick filled with gory attacks and jump out of your seat moments. Williamson’s delicious dialogue is brought to memorable life by an ensemble cast on truly top form, including star-making turns from Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Rose McGowan and Skeet Ulrich. Enjoy, oh, and please do remember, “Movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative…”

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.

September 9, 2009

15 Minutes of Avatar

If Sigourney Weaver wasn’t in the cast you’d have the horrible suspicion that the writer/director behind this film was not James Cameron but George Lucas…

Cameron’s return came with not just a trailer but world-wide screenings of 15 minutes of scenes from the first and second acts of Avatar, chosen to give a taste of the film without revealing spoilers, as he explained in his introduction. They should then give a good flavour of what to expect from the 3-D CGI animation/live-action mash-up extravaganza that is Cameron’s first film since Titanic, but the taste is sweet and sour.

The first scene showcased was a briefing about the extremely hostile inhabitants of a planet the military was trying to colonise (how very Aliens) but as you paid more attention you realised with a shock that this wasn’t bad motion-capture CGI but actual actors, 3-D had somehow made flesh and blood look oddly unconvincing compared to the CGI animation that followed. The next scene where Sigourney Weaver explains the preposterous plot to Sam Worthington improves on that unsettling experience dramatically but most of the film will obviously be the CGI animation adventures of Sam Worthington in his alien avatar body goofing around on the planet. And the plot is preposterous. Worthington, a crippled military hard-man, has his mind inserted into the big blue body of a humanoid alien inhabitant of the planet, and ends up closely resembling Joshua the dog-man from Cameron’s TV show Dark Angel.

Is Terminator: Salvation’s star really the right choice to carry such a huge film? For a long time I thought it was Sam Huntington (sublime as Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns) who had got this part, which would have made for a funnier contrast between avatar and human rather than the pathos Cameron is aiming for, but arguably also made us root for the hero more. Worthington’s not that charismatic a presence in the footage screened and he’s not helped, as he blunders about shooting at various ill-tempered beasties, by a script packed with very obvious punning which recalls The Phantom Menace painfully at times. Zoe Saldana’s sexy tough as nails native alien love interest comes right out of the Ripley/Sarah Connor stable of Cameron heroines but her accent is right from the Jar Jar Binks School of Racial Stereotyping.

As for the 3-D, if you like seeing shell-casings fly towards you or fronds sweep around as the camera tracks then the 3-D is great, and scenes of night-time phosphoresce are stunningly beautiful. However the action depicted feels very, very familiar – in one scene Worthington has to tame what is basically a pterodactyl and then fly off on it to, oh who cares? And ow! why do my eyes hurt? Avatar has all new glasses for the latest refinement of the technology but (leaving aside the fact that since 3-D’s first appearance in the 1950s an ever-increasing percentage of the population has to put 3-D glasses over glasses) 3-D is still at best a draining experience, and at worst a painful one, which is why most 3-D films in this latest wave have been around 80 minutes long. Avatar will probably march towards the 150 minute mark, and, combined with action that’s distinctly déjà-vu of Jurassic Park, Star Wars, et al, that’s a hard sell…

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