Talking Movies

June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

I come not to praise Seth MacFarlane, nor to bury him, but to consider his failure with a comedy-western alongside Damon Lindelof’s Cowboys & Aliens.

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I found A Million Ways to Die in the West to be oddly reminiscent of early Woody Allen films like Bananas; intermittently hilarious, but not really a film. But if Woody pre-Annie Hall was simply stitching together sketches without anything but the most broadly-drawn larger narrative purpose, then it seemed like the reverse was happening to MacFarlane – making ‘a Western, goddamnit!’ sucked the humour out of his comedy-western script. And so to a knotty point – there was a grindingly efficient story structure at work, but the central comic conceit of MacFarlane’s movie was unclear. Critic Joe Griffin pitches the film as – “it’s a normal guy with 21st century sensibilities who lives in the violent frontier of the Old West and is dragged into a typical Western story.” This nails MacFarlane’s interactions with Amanda Seyfried, which come close to replicating the clinical psychoanalysis terms Woody uses with Louise Lasser in Bananas with an almost identical purpose – the comedy of language entirely inappropriate to the situation. But the first genuinely funny moment is MacFarlane’s later riff on the dead mayor, which literally comes out of nowhere. Along with the inevitably blood-soaked county fair, it suggests that the titular conceit of horrible deaths would’ve been a far better source of thematic comedy. Instead MacFarlane decides to mine comedy by working the most exhausted seams of the rom-com with Charlize Theron; even down to the obligatory big lie – she chose not to tell him she’s married to terrifying Liam Neeson. Only very occasionally (to wake the audience) does he sprinkles absurdist comic moments; and meanwhile he’s also trying to touch every Western generic base.

Griffin writes “This, I think, is what happens when someone has had too much control on a project so early in his film career.” MacFarlane is the star, director, co-writer, and producer of A Million Ways; and his co-writers are his Ted and Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. That’s a lot of control. To put it in context, it’s more than M Night Shyamalan ever managed to acquire at the height of his hubris. It’s undeniable that without the success of Ted it’s unthinkable that MacFarlane would have been allowed to cast himself as the physical lead, and it’s probably equally unlikely that Wellesley and Sulkin would alienate their TV day-job boss by proposing a page-one rewrite of his pet film project. I have to agree with Griffin because getting too much control because of success is part and parcel of the disastrous creative bubble I described in 2011 which I predicted would scupper The Dark Knight Rises; Wellesley and Sulkin wouldn’t be silent because they wouldn’t want to rain on MacFarlane’s scripting parade, they’d be silent because they’d be doing the Macarena in the middle of the parade. Because they’d written Ted they’d assume whatever any of them suggested would be equally awesome, and so nobody cries halt until the train has gone far over the horizon. But I want to dissent against myself and speculate that what happened in the Million Ways writers’ room (story structure and Western tropes pushing out badly needed jokes) was the same as the fiasco that occurred not so long ago in another writers’ room not so very far away…

Cowboys and Aliens

Remember 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens? No, well, don’t feel bad. Here’s what its co-writer Damon (LOST) Lindelof had to say about it in an extremely interesting 2013 interview: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.” Cowboys & Aliens was supposedly based on a comic-book by Scott Mitchel Rosenberg, which, from the small sample available on Amazon, appears to proudly wear ‘guilt over the treatment of Native Americans in times gone by’ on its sleeve. That suggests that Ace Ventura creator Steve Oedekerk was right to create a fun screen story distinct from the comic-book. And then rewrites began… Of the credited writers a draft was done by Mark Fergus & Howard Ostby (Iron ManChildren of Men), whose credits suggest that a more serious tone had begun to emerge. Which is presumably why Lindelof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, M:I-3, Star Trek) were brought in to do the final draft of the script. Add some humour? Some nonsense? Yeah, well, obviously that didn’t work. But look at what Lindelof characterised as a genre trapping of the Western: Native American allies. What?! That would certainly be news to the Duke…

In 1991 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr took aim at America’s universities in his polemic The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger was extremely alarmed at the mass of evidence that political correctness had triumphed over sanity: “When a student sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual,’ a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: ‘This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.’” (117) In his 1982 novel Before She Met Me Julian Barnes had a history professor baffled by the genuine horror and anger of a student whenever the wrong side triumphed in any given stand-off. Schlesinger Jr was damning of attacks on ‘Eurocentric’ American history, and it was essentially an appeasement of Barnes’ fictional student; by rewriting history. In one district where Native Americans had political clout it was taught that their tribal politics had influenced Thomas Jefferson every bit as much as European Enlightenment. It had not, as Schlesinger Jr flatly stated. And yet… In Sleepy Hollow, co-created by Cowboys & Aliens scribes Kurtzman and Orci, we find Ichabod Crane noting how in his 1770s existence Native American tribal politics had been a pivotal influence on Thomas Jefferson. A throwaway cute line; to anyone who hasn’t read Schlesinger Jr’s book. If you have, you’re stunned that this is not meant as a joke or provocatively revisionist statement; it is simply stated as true when it is not.

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MacFarlane, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof were all born in 1973. This puts them in college at Brown, Wesleyan, UT Austin, and NYU Film School, respectively, during the height of the ‘Death to DWEMs’ tide that Schlesinger Jr was trying to turn back. I honestly think every time somebody sits down to write anything Western-related in Hollywood these days they get some epic pol.sci/film studies college flashback. As a result, in between apologising to Native Americans, rewriting the role of women in the West, inserting grim truths about the lawlessness and brutality of life then, demythologising Wayne and Ford’s back catalogue, and faithfully inserting and then attempting to subvert in the accepted revisionist mode every Western trope they were ever taught, they lose any sense of fun. Lindelof posited “a Western that had aliens as bad guys” as “the cooler movie”, and yet Cowboys & Aliens is entirely lacking any sense of being a cool adventure. It is, indeed, simply unthinkable that anybody could produce a Western right now that is exuberant fun; nobody would give you the finale of Rio Bravo. I think that may be a combination of film school prioritising, nay, canonising, serious Westerns like The Searchers and Red River over entertainments like El Dorado and Gunfight at the OK CorralRio Bravo isn’t a silly movie, but it is unabashed adventure played with great humour. But Lindelof’s description of embracing “the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies” suggests an inability to take the Western genre as it was, not as it ought to have been…

The complete failure of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t stop the even more epic failure of The Lone Ranger following it down the trail two years later. The savage darkness of The Lone Ranger was completely unsuitable for a Disney blockbuster supposedly aimed at kids, but it fitted perfectly the template of the Western produced by people Schlesinger couldn’t save. It’s admirable to insert a Sergio Leone tone into a Western romp for children, only if you also take that bloody-minded approach to your contemporary blockbusters and give us Transformers directed by Ken Loach as the working poor fighting against transforming robots who’re the highest form of capitalism. Really I think the idea of the Western as conceived by the children of 1973 is fundamentally incompatible with exuberance. In the 1970s radical directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill and Michael Cimino couldn’t wait to make a Western. But the revisionist Western wasn’t what audiences wanted. Nicholas Jarecki on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast recently made some interesting points about ‘genre exhaustion’, when an audience has seen every possible permutation arising out of a generic set-up. I don’t believe that’s what happened to the Western in the 1970s. I follow Stephen King in believing that George Lucas took the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the Western and simply, in a belated emulation of JFK’s call for a New Frontier, relocated it in space. And, as Spielberg’s Western framing at the end of The Last Crusade transparently indicates, crying for the death of the Western is like bemoaning the death of the dinosaurs while looking at flying birds: dinosaurs aren’t dead, they evolved.

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If the blockbuster is the repository of the spirit of exuberant fun that lights up Rio Bravo, what does that make the contemporary Western? Well, it’s tempting to twist Lindelof’s words and say merely the outward trappings of the genre, stripped of its soul. Since Heaven’s Gate we’ve had serious Westerns like Dances with WolvesOpen RangeWyatt EarpUnforgivenTombstoneThe Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford3:10 to Yuma, and Seraphim Falls. We’ve had comedy mash-up disasters like Wild Wild WestCowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. And we’ve had nothing like a Rio Bravo… It’s admirable to try and cinematically reinstate the reality of the shameful treatment of the Native Americans in the Old West. But this admirable endeavour may run up against a problem if it’s part of a wider refusal to accept the Western genre for what it was and to believe that it can simply be rewritten to make it what it ought to have been. Such a massive undertaking may be more than the genre can accommodate, in one important respect – it can make for a good film, a good Western, but not a fun film. A Million Ways is not a fun film, even though it’s meant to be a comedy. And I think it’s because MacFarlane tried to hit every base; Native Americans as allies, the brutality and lawlessness of the West, rewriting the role of women (with particular emphasis on the brothels), the exploitation of Chinese labour; because he is one of that generation that can’t see a Western without giving a lecture on its propagandising.

MacFarlane certainly won’t be getting A Million Ways 2 off the ground, and his fiasco has probably scuppered any competent Destry Rides Again for the 2010s that was out there. But, considering Lindelof’s tropes, surely Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino comes closer to the cool movie that Lindelof wanted than Cowboys & Aliens. It shouldn’t be impossible to combine the 1973 generation’s ideal Western with exuberant fun – maybe it just needs Clint back in the saddle…

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June 13, 2014

Benny & Jolene

Submarine star Craig Roberts and Fresh Meat actress Charlotte Ritchie are the titular folk-duo in this intermittently amusing music mockumentary.

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Folk musicians Benny (Roberts) and Jolene (Ritchie) have been friends since she rescued him from drowning (in the shallow end of the pool) in secondary school. They are about to release a new album of their traditional folk music, but everything is about to change. Their hapless manager (Keiron Self) has got them onto morning television shows, where Benny is obviously terrified at the prospect of stardom and Jolene naively enthusiastic, but making a commercial breakthrough means changing their sound at the behest of their new record label; whose instructions are relayed via PR guru Nadia (Rosamund Hanson), instructions which are always ‘more poppy and more sexy’. Jolene’s journalist mother Rosamund (Dolly Wells) is aghast at Jolene’s explicit lyrics when she attempts to follow this directive, but her horror is nothing compared to Benny’s as Jolene tramples on their friendship.

Benny & Jolene has a certain endearing charm due to its obvious shoestring budget and semi-improvisatory feel. But that’s not enough to carry a film for 90 minutes. Luckily Roberts, Ritchie, Wells and Self are all on fine form, with Roberts’ imploding shy Benny a world away from his self-confident alienated teen in Submarine, and Wells’ wise mother a warm presence. Self also impresses as the inept band manager who is bullied by record label men and TV line producers with equal contempt. Hanson, however, is largely reprising her performance as Warwick Davis’ moronic PA in Life’s Too Short, and isn’t asked to flesh out her character. More worryingly the music mockumentary set-up; that we’re going to follow the inevitable selling-out of Benny & Jolene; is haphazardly abandoned to focus instead on the angst of Benny’s unrequited love for Jolene.

Benny & Jolene has been pitched as somewhere between Spinal Tap and pre-Annie Hall Woody Allen, but it runs out of comic invention startlingly quickly. Benny gets pushed into the background as Jolene is groomed for stardom, causing their musical dynamic to implode as she writes ‘poppy, sexy’ songs like the awful ‘Hard/Soft’. That song’s origin is an initially amusing but ultimately overplayed conceit, and by the end such conceits have disappeared into a joyless exercise in story structure. But the point of story structure for comedy from A Night at the Opera to This is The End is merely to provide a flimsy thread of logic to connect episodes of utter nonsense. You don’t watch Annie Hall to appreciate Annie’s growth in confidence as a performer and a person; you watch it to see absurdity like Marshall MacLuhan’s cameo.

Benny & Jolene’s best scenes come early on (like the duo’s encounter with a terrifically abrasive TV producer) but writer/director Jamie Adams’ feature debut betrays his television background – he runs out of cinematic ideas.

2.5/5

December 9, 2013

Christmas Movies in Meeting House Square

‘Christmas on the Square’ takes place this year in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar from December 17th – 21st. 11 festive screenings over 5 days will play Old Hollywood gems such as Some Like it Hot and Holiday Inn alongside more recent classics like Annie Hall and Die Hard and perennial family favourites such as Elf and The Muppet Christmas Carol.

MHS Screen 2

Online booking is now open at www.entertainment.ie/meetinghousesquare. Free blankets will be handed out to keep warm and a selection of hot drinks (including traditional mulled wine, hot chocolate, tea, and coffee) and festive food will all be available for purchase.

Tuesday, December 17th

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 5pm

Ron Howard’s remake of the classic cartoon about a creature intent on stealing Christmas throws a ton of CGI and crazy sets at the screen and elides a good deal of the absurdity of Dr Seuss’ original rhymes, but Carrey’s improvisations impress.

Cast: Jim Carrey and Taylor Momsen

Running time: 104 mins

Cert: PG

Holiday Inn, 8pm

At an Inn which is only open on holidays, a crooner and a hoofer vie for the affections of a beautiful up-and-coming performer. Based on a story idea by Broadway song-writing legend Irving Berlin this flick also includes an animated sequence mocking FDR.

Cast: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds

Running Time: 100 mins

Cert: G

Wednesday, December 18th

Elf, 5pm

After inadvertently wreaking havoc on the elf community due to his ungainly size, a man raised at the North Pole is sent by Santa Claus to the U.S. in search of his true identity. Can he romance a cute colleague (Zooey Deschanel) and reconnect with his father?

Cast: Will Ferrell and James Caan

Running Time: 97mins

Cert: PG

Some Like it Hot, 8pm

When two musicians witness the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, they flee 1920s Chicago in an all female band disguised as women, but complications set in when they meet singer Sugar Kane… Think of it as Billy Wilder doing Shakespeare’s cross-dressing rom-coms.

Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis

Running Time: 120 mins

Cert: PG

Thursday, December 19th

Polar Express, 5pm

On Christmas Eve, a doubting boy boards a magical train that’s headed to the North Pole and Santa Claus’ home. Director Robert Zemeckis uses motion capture to allow Tom Hanks play multiple roles but the uncanny valley phenomenon sinks scenes that aren’t spectacular musical numbers.

Cast: Tom Hanks and Chris Coppola

Running Time: 100 mins

Cert: PG

Bridget Jones, 8pm

A British woman is determined to improve herself while she looks for love in a year in which she keeps a personal diary. King of the British rom-com Richard Curtis pens the screenplay for this incredibly commercially successful contemporary riff on Jane Austen scenarios.

Cast: Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant

Running Time: 97mins

Cert: 15

Friday, December 20th

The Muppet Christmas Carol, 5pm

The Muppet characters tell their idiosyncratic version of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of an old and bitter miser’s redemption on Christmas Eve. Michael Caine is rather good as Scrooge, but this is all about Kermit, the Great Gonzo and Miss Piggy as Dickensian characters.

Cast: Michael Caine and Dave Goelz

Running Time: 85

Cert: G

Trading Places, 8pm

A snobbish investor and a wily street con artist find their positions reversed as part of a bet by two callous millionaires. Writer/director John Landis came to this off a streak of classic comedies that included Animal House and The Blues Brothers.

Cast: Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis

Running Time: 116 mins

Cert: 15

Annie Hall, 11pm

Neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer falls in love with ditzy singer Annie Hall in Woody Allen’s classic 1977 breakthrough. The many highlights include the Marshall MacLuhan cameo, Christopher Walken’s crazed monologue, and Alvy’s flashbacks to his Brooklyn childhood; depressed by the universe’s finite expansion.

Cast: Diane Keaton and Woody Allen

Running Time: 93 mins

Cert:  PG

Saturday, December 21st

Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 8pm

Brian (Graham Chapman) is born on the original Christmas, in the stable next door to Jesus. He spends his life being mistaken for the messiah, but along the way gets lessons in Latin from a centurion, and ponders Roman’s rule’s good points.

Cast: Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Michael Palin

Running Time:

Cert: 15

Die Hard, 11pm

Vacationing NYPD cop John McClane tries to save estranged wife Holly Gennaro when her office party is taken hostage by German terrorist Hans Gruber during a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles. Director John McTiernan spectacularly orchestrates arguably the ultimate action film.

Cast: Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman

Running Time: 131 mins

Cert: 15

Ticket prices:

Adults: 5 euro

OAP/Student: 4 euro

Child: 3 euro

Family (2&2): 15 euro

Group of 10 people: 45 euro

Meeting House Square (MHS) is a unique outdoor space and venue in the heart of Temple Bar, Dublin’s Cultural Quarter. You can simply turn off the rain at the flick of a switch as the new bespoke retractable canopy blooms on Meeting House Square.

‘Christmas on the Square’ is presented by Temple Bar Cultural Trust and Dublin City Council.

September 1, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer would be the best romantic comedy of the year but for the small fact that it’s really the perfect anti-romantic comedy.

It casually dispenses with the great mind-numbing cliché of romantic comedies whereby a secret comes to light in the second act that scuppers the relationship until a grand romantic gesture is made in the third act by one of the sundered lovers which leads to a happy ever after reconciliation, and pass the sick-bucket please. Here, thanks to a sublimely fractured chronology, we see office assistant Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and greeting card writer Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) break up (because Summer’s just not happy anymore, not because of some contrived plot device) before we’ve even seen them get together as a couple. Not of course that Summer ever admits to herself or Tom that they are a couple. A refreshing change from rom-coms featuring the male with commitment issues here we have the (common in real-life but scarce on the ground in movies) female with terminological issues: ‘boyfriend’ is out, it’s more ‘the guy I’m seeing’, or ‘the guy I’m sorta seeing’, or ‘this guy I’m hanging with, I may possibly start seeing in the future, I don’t really know…’

Events occur mostly chronologically but with jumps forwards and backward to replay events so that we get an emotional oomph from scenes we thought we understand playing differently in context, like Summer being bored by Tom’s quirky humour which it transpires is a riff she had started earlier. It is important to note that this film is not a non-stop laugh marathon, but it is always warm, and filled with touches that would not look out of place in Annie Hall; such as an extended split-screen sequence depicting Tom’s expectations of a party hosted by Summer versus reality, a sparingly used droll narrator, Tom’s lists of Summer’s traits that he adores being identical to his post-breakup list of Summer’s traits that he despises, and Tom’s friends desperately calling in his 12 year old sister Rachel (wise beyond her years, of course) for an intervention to stop his distraught crockery-smashing.

Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber penned Pink Panther 2 and this is extremely clever atonement because (500) Days is a systematic deconstruction of the tropes of rom-coms which annihilates the concept of idealised soul-mate romance they perpetuate. Zooey Deschanel is luminous when she needs to be but her character is also deeply flawed, as indeed is the always excellent Gordon-Levitt, whose everyman Tom has settled for second-best in life and thus treats Summer as a Hollywood style ticket to redemption. The ending manages to be hilarious, realistic and life-affirming while being deeply subversive of the genre. If you’re sick of the Sandra Bullock rom-com conveyor belt then you should catch Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt being both charming and emotionally realistic and soak up the feel-good factor of an indie rom-com with the most joyous musical number since Enchanted’s Central Park extravanganza.

4/5

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