Talking Movies

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

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

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

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July 13, 2018

At least we still have… : Part III

The third entry in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

‘This Deal’s Getting Worse All The Time’ is a marvel. I saw this sketch roughly a decade ago and rediscovered it recently, and couldn’t credit it how I could ever have forgotten it in the intervening years. Its 60 seconds are relentless in upping the ante with the constant repetition of ever more ludicrous alterations to the deal. The background shudders of laughter from Bobba Fett and the Stormtroopers are a joy, as are the particulars of Darth Vader’s humiliating alterations, and the icing on the cake is the voice of Lando himself, Billy Dee Williams, enabling all this nonsense.

‘Wrong Place Wrong Time’ reminds me of the sequence in Angel season 2 where an episode followed a villain who’d been disarmed by Angel in the season 1 finale and we saw the mundanity of pulling on shirts with one hand, looping pre-knotted ties over his neck, and looking in depression at his gathering dust guitar. But that this is not a Whedonesque fleshing out of a villain, but rather a Stoppardian absurdist tangent following the minor players in someone else’s story, with even more absurdity in its conception than that which Stoppard deployed when fleshing out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

What can one say about ‘Dr Ball MD’? Beyond that it is screamingly funny, and typical of the Robot Chicken approach to Star Wars. Take a ‘character’ onscreen for a few seconds in one Star Wars movie, give it a life of its own by granting it a personality combining Bones from Star Trek and Quincy ME, run up some idiotic 1970s TV show title credits, and then use this to mock the prequels and poke fun at moments in the original trilogy. And, once again, just like ‘This Deal’s Getting Worse All The Time’, all done within 60 seconds.

January 18, 2016

2016: Fears

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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

January 29th sees the release of a small (a mere $50 million dollar) personal movie by an auteur, truly un film de Michel Bay. Six military contractors (including The Office’s John Krasinski, 24’s James Badge Dale, and The Unit’s Max Martini) make a desperate last stand when a US consulate in Libya is attacked on the anniversary of 9/11. Chuck Hogan (The Town, The Strain), of all people, writes for Bay to direct; with the resulting Bayhem being memorably characterised by The Intercept as Night of the Living Dead meets The Green Berets.

Zoolander 2

February 12th sees the release of the sequel nobody was particularly asking for… It’s been 14 since Zoolander. An eternity in cinematic comedy as the Frat Pack glory days have long since yielded to the School of Apatow; itself fading of late. Seinfeld has refused reunions noting that the concept of his show becomes depressing with aged characters, but Stiller apparently has no such qualms about airhead models Derek (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) being on the catwalk. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kristen Wiig and Penelope Cruz bring new energy, but an air of desperation/cynicism hangs over this project.

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Gods of Egypt

February 26th sees Bek (Brenton Thwaites) forced to align with Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) when the god of darkness Set (Gerard Butler) assumes control of Egypt in a truly stupid blockbuster. But not as stupid as the reception it can look forward to after Deadline’s Ross A. Lincoln wrote “based on the statuary and monuments that have survived, not to mention thousands of years of other cultures commenting on them, they definitely weren’t white people with flowing, curly blond locks, and their gods were definitely not Europeans.” Lincoln’s argument dynamites Idris Elba’s role in Thor, which is not permissible, so logically (sic) it’s now racist to not depict the Egyptian gods as Egyptian, but it’s also racist to depict the Norse gods as Norse. If the gods of Egypt ought to look Egyptian, who, that’s bankable, can play them? Amir Arison, Mozhan Marno, Sarah Shahi, and Cliff Curtis wouldn’t merit a $140 million budget. And casting them because (barring the Maori Curtis) they hail from nearer Egypt than Gerard Butler, but are not actually Egyptian, is itself racist. Does Alex (Dark City) Proyas, who hasn’t directed anything since 2009, really deserve this firestorm for just trying to work?

Hail, Caesar!

The Coens stop writing for money and return to directing on March 4th with a 1950s Hollywood back-lot comedy. A lighter effort than Barton Fink, this follows Josh Brolin’s fixer as he tries to negotiate the return of George Clooney’s kidnapped star from mysterious cabal ‘The Future’ with the help of fellow studio players Channing Tatum, Alden Ehrenreich, and Scarlett Johansson. The relentlessly mean-spirited Inside Llewyn Davis was a surprise aesthetic nadir after True Grit’s ebullience, so we can only hope the return of so many of their repertory players can galvanise the Coens to rediscover some warmth.

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Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

Zack Snyder gave us the neck-snap heard around the world in Man of Steel. On March 25th he continues his visionary misinterpretation of Superman, and can also ruin Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, Alfred Pennyworth, and Doomsday. Ben Affleck and Jeremy Irons entice as Bruce and Alfred, and Affleck has undoubtedly got the script punched up by inserting his Argo scribe Chris Terrio into the mix, but Snyder is still directing. How Snyder ever got the keys to the DC cinematic kingdom is amazing, but when if he blows this he cripples The WB.

The Neon Demon

Keanu Reeves made a comeback in 2015 with John Wick and Knock Knock. But can he impart some of that momentum to Nicolas Winding Refn to help him recover from the unmerciful kicking he got for Only God Forgives? Refn is working on a third of Drive’s budget for this horror tale of Elle Fanning’s wannabe actress who moves to LA, to find her vitality drained by a coven led by Christina Hendricks. Details are very sparse, other than that it’s about ‘vicious beauty,’ but this could be intriguing, blood-spattered, gorgeous, and enigmatic, or a total fiasco…

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The Avengers 3 Captain America: Civil War

Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors who gave you the worst choreographed and edited fight scenes you’d ever seen in Captain America 2, return with …more of the same, because why bother doing it better when you’ll go see it anyway? May 6th sees Mark Millar’s comic-book event become a camouflaged Avengers movie as Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans’ superheroes fall out over the fate of Sebastian Stan’s reformed Bucky. Expect incomprehensible fights, the occasional decent action sequence, wall to wall fake-looking CGI, and more characters than Game of Thrones meets LOST.

Snowden

The master of subtlety returns on May 12th as Oliver Stone continues his quest to make a good movie this century. His latest attempt is a biopic of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose distrust of the American government should be catnip to Stone’s sensibilities. Zachary Quinto is journalist Glenn Greenwald, Shailene Woodley is Snowden’s girlfriend, and supporting players include Timothy Olyphant, Nicolas Cage, and Melissa Leo. Expect a hagiography with stylistic brio, and no qualms about whether the next large building that blows up might be on Snowden for blowing the lid on how terrorists were monitored.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Oscar Isaac is Apocalypse, the first mutant, worshipped for his godlike powers, who awakes in alt-1980 and turns Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to the dark side as one of his Four Horsemen alongside Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Angel (Ben Hardy). James McAvoy loses his hair from the stress of being upstaged by the powers of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and the ever-increasing star-power of Jennifer Lawrence. Director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-fold in 2014 was a triumph, but rushing this out for May 27th invites disaster; can enough time really have been spent on scripting?

Warcraft

Duncan Jones completes the Christopher Nolan career path by moving from Moon to Source Code to Warcraft. June 10th sees Vikings main-man Travis Fimmel daub on blue face-paint as Anduin Lothar. The battle with the Orcs has an interesting cast including Ben Foster, Toby Kebbell, Paula Patton, Dominic Cooper, and the great character actors Clancy Brown and Callum Keith Rennie. But its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Has there ever been a truly great adaptation of a computer game to a movie? And if Warcraft’s a good movie that’s unfaithful to the game will gamers stay away?

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Finding Dory

June 17th sees another unnecessary unwanted sequel to a beloved early Zeroes film. Why exactly do we need a sequel to Finding Nemo? Besides it being a post-John Carter retreat into an animated safe space for director Andrew Stanton? Marlin (Albert Brooks) sets out to help forgetful Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) find her long-lost parents, who are voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy. Other voices include Ty Burrell as a beluga whale, Kaitlin Olson as Dory’s whale shark adopted sister, and Ed O’Neill as an ill-tempered octopus. Stanton is writing too, but can aquatic lightning really strike twice?

Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek marks its 50th anniversary with this reboot threequel on July 8th, but the recent trailer didn’t whet any appetites. Despite having Furious maestro Justin Lin in charge and Simon Pegg as the final writer on a script with 5 credited scribes the footage was solely notable for (a) Kirk’s bad hair (b) a vaguely Star Trek: Insurrection with gaudier colours vibe (c) forced attempts at humour. Star Trek Into Darkness was a frustrating exercise in creative cowardice, a flipped photocopy of Star Trek II. Let us hope this time originality has been actively sought out.

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Ghostbusters

July 15th sees… another reboot. Paul Feig couldn’t stow his ego and just direct Dan Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters 3 script, so… “REBOOT!”. Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig are great, but Feig wrote this with Katie Dippold (who penned his execrable ‘comedy’ The Heat) so it won’t be. Feig’s drivel about gender-swapping hides an obvious truth. The Ghostbusters were all male because Akyroyd and Ramis wrote for themselves, SNL pal Murray, and Eddie Murphy; when Murphy dropped out, Zeddmore’s part shrank as his jokes were redistributed. Feig’s Ghostbusters are all female to cynically reposition attacks on his creative bankruptcy as sexism.

Doctor Strange

November 4th sees Benedict Cumberbatch swoosh his cape as Stephen Strange, (That’s Dr. Strange to you!), an arrogant surgeon taught magick by Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. Director Scott Derrickson is perhaps hoping to mash his resume of Sinister and The Day The Earth Stood Still, especially as Sinister co-writer C Robert Cargill has polished this. Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Rachel McAdams co-star, but before we get excited, this is Marvel. Marvel took the outré world of comic-books and cinematically rendered it as predictable, conservative, self-aggrandising, boring tosh. How off the leash do you bet Derrickson will get?

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The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Kit Harington is the titular movie star who is undone when Jessica Chastain’s gossip columnist reveals his correspondence with a young girl, and an unreasoning witch-hunt begins. And it’s the first movie written and directed by Xavier Dolan in English! So, why Fears not Hopes, you ask? Because Dolan in a BBC Radio 4 interview expressed nervousness that he didn’t instinctively understand English’s nuances the way he did with French, and because with big names (Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Michael Gambon) comes pressure to tone down material and make a commercial breakthrough.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Didn’t you always desperately want to know the back story of that throwaway line about how brave rebels died to smuggle out the plans for the Death Star? … Whaddya mean ‘No’?!! Do you have any idea how much money Disney has on the line here?? You damn well better develop an interest by December 16th when Oppenheimer of the Empire Mads Mikkelsen has a crisis of conscience and enlists the help of his smuggler daughter Felicity Jones. Disney paid 4 billion for the rights to Star Wars, they retrospectively own your childhood now.

November 25, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part I

“And that was the day the boy from Smallville became Superman…” 10 years is a long time for any TV show to run. When that show is the eternally misfiring Smallville, it’s an even longer time for a show to be part of your life…

Put it this way. Smallville has been running for so long that not only have season 1 meteor freaks like Adam Brody and Lizzy Caplan gone on to be the leads in their own TV shows, but Amy Adams has made the spectacular leap from meteor freak of the week to Lois Lane in Zack Synder’s forthcoming Superman: The Man of Steel. By the bitter end the only actor who’d stayed the course of the regulars was Tom Welling as Clark Kent, presumably the cursed role was only finally pried away from his cold dead hands, as even Allison Mack decided to eschew most of the final season and only belatedly arrived as a Chloe Ex Machina, just when John Glover showed up as Lionel Luthor to give some sense of an ending that synched with the 2001 pilot. The parallel careers of the runners-up for the role of Clark demonstrate exactly what Welling gave up by remaining always faithful.

Jensen Ackles didn’t get the role, and instead jumped straight back into Dark Angel, as his previous one-shot appearance became a regular role. When that ended he hopped onboard the final season of Dawson’s Creek. He was later terrific as the season 4 villain in Smallville, initially Lana’s charming boyfriend before his sinister machinations were unmasked, and then nabbed his signature role as Dean Winchester in Supernatural where his bad boy swagger was complemented by gory horror and sly humour. Ian Somerhalder didn’t get the role, and instead instantly shot a leading role in Roger Avary’s sublime The Rules of Attraction. He was terrific in Smallville season 3 as Adam Knight, loudly rumoured to be Batman. He wasn’t, of course, Smallville never delivered on awesomeness, and limped off to lick his wounds in O’ahu for the first season of LOST. Thankfully Somerhalder’s dark charisma finally found a role to popularly showcase it – the sociopathic vampire Damon in The Vampire Diaries.

Good actors weren’t the only people on the Smallville merry-go-round. Skilled writers came, tried to inject awesomeness, mostly failed, and quickly moved on. Jeph Loeb wrote for Smallville before moving on to LOST and then Heroes, but his contributions were rarely as distinctive as on those later shows. Drew Z Greenberg jumped from Buffy to Smallville where he penned some of season 3’s best episodes (the psychic who sees people’s deaths) before leaving. Steven S DeKnight jumped from Angel and made a pivotal contribution, forming the Justice League and penning damn near ¼ of season 5 to entice his associate James Marsters to star as season villain Braniac. The departure of creators Millar & Gough saw their lieutenants embark on an unintentionally funny Doomsday arc, before using a Kandorian clone of General Zod then a half-baked Darkseid as season villains, even as Geoff Johns simultaneously contributed a stunning two-part Watchmen homage and some terrific comics-based episodes of wit and depth.

The problem was that great writers were always struggling against a mediocre format. Miles Millar and Alfred Gough set up Smallville in such a way as to promote endless angst, and heavy handed hints of Superman adventures to come, while occasionally promising awesome adventures around the next arc, except those adventures never came – for 10 years. Season 2 of Smallville was a prime example. Indeed, it was almost unbearable in its angst quotient, which it mistook for deep drama. Spider-Man 2, which Millar & Gough co-wrote demonstrates to perfection their Smallville agenda for achieving emotional weight. Simply replace characters with their equivalents; Norman Osborn is Lionel Luthor, Harry Osborn is Lex Luthor, MJ Watson is Lana Lang, Aunt May is Martha Kent, Ben Parker is Jonathan Kent, Peter Parker is Clark Kent; and transfer their reluctance to give Superman a cape with Spider-Man’s baffling refusal to wear his mask, and you can see their one-size fits-all approach to writing superheroes.

It became clear as time went on that Millar & Gough didn’t really have a plan for resolving the central dilemma of their own concept – if Lex gradually became a supervillain wouldn’t he then, having earlier befriended Clark, know exactly who Superman was? The decision to kill Lex seemed to resolve that, while also making stark nonsense of the show’s own continuity as Lex’s dark future had been glimpsed by psychics, and foretold by prophecy. But then a cloned/resurrected Lex, possessing all his memories, triumphantly returned for the final ever episode. Only for Tess Mercer aka Luthessa Luthor to mind-wipe Lex, with a super-chemical compound, as her dying act. Lex remembered nothing of his friendship with Clark. And it turned out that all Clark needed to fly was an inexplicable voiceover appearance by Jor-El, after Darkseid had just socked Clark, introducing a montage of 10 seasons of Smallville as being the trials that he needed to embrace his Kryptonian heritage.

Clark just flying like it was second nature immediately after that was far too reminiscent of the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz – he had the power all along, he just had to believe it. The fact that he flew in season 4 also made it seem especially ridiculous. As for Lex’s mind-wiping, it was an ingenious save – and, like the equally neat LOST finale twist, entirely unrelated to everything that went before. It may well have been an ‘emergency finale device’ that’s been lying around for years in case the show got abruptly cancelled. But I won’t deny that Lex’s return was a joy. His first lines with Clark were the best written dialogue in Smallville for seasons: “Lex….” “You still say it the same way. Astonishment, with a hint of dread, but a hopeful finish.” The two montages that accompanied these turning points for Clark and Lex demonstrated something that I’ve always argued is TV’s greatest strength.

Its ability to develop character and accumulate experiences over a sustained period of time is unique. I stuck with Smallville despite its shortcomings because it wormed its way into my memories, and not just because for a while episodes were sound-tracked by chart-topping singles. I have vivid memories of discussing different seasons of the show with different people, as few people but me stuck with it for the whole run, and even our viewing motives changed. By season 8 I was chuckling at the stupidity of the show’s writing almost more than I was watching it for comic-book fun, and discussing it with others in that vein. But the montages reminded me why I’d loved the show in the first place – the heartbreak of the young Lex crying at the birthday party no one attended, the thrill of seeing Clark discover various powers for the first time. Smallville ran far too long but its Top 20 episodes would be superb.

It was great being reminded of the sublime moments the show had produced, many from a dynamic almost forgotten because those characters had long since left, but it was even better being told we had at long last reached the destination. In the closing minutes of the show we finally got to see Clark stop whining to Jor-El, put on the damn cape and fly, and rescue Lois by saving Air Force One. We heard Perry White as editor of the Daily Planet bark at Lois while she hassled an Olsen photographer (a dubious touch), as a white-suited (but with one hand black-gloved) Lex become President in 2018, before Clark ran out of the Daily Planet revealing the S under his shirt to the strains of John William’s score as the credits appeared in the 1978 font. Chloe’s statement to her son, “There’ll always be more adventures for another day”, summed up the enduring appeal of this iconic stable of characters.

So Smallville ended its decade long run as the longest running Superman TV series ever. It wasn’t always the best Superman TV series, but that’s something for Part II…

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