Talking Movies

November 22, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXVII

As the title suggests, so forth.

The late Spielberg and the late Hitchcock

Having recently, finally, watched The Post, just because it was on prime-time Film4 twice inside a week, I regard my scepticism towards it as having been fully justified. A movie about the wrong newspaper and the wrong heroic actors who were all not breaking a huge story, and featuring an intolerably annoying lead performance even for Meryl Streep, it’s only value was it that it set me to thinking about the late Hitchcock and the late Spielberg. It is no secret that Spielberg found it so hard to get financing for his ponderous Lincoln that it looked like it might end up like Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra – a cable TV movie in America, given a small art-house release in Europe. Such an outcome would have been a shocking fall from grace from a man who made his name being a crowd-pleaser par excellence.  But the truth is that Spielberg has entered a phase of decline in that regard. Since nuking the fridge in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Spielberg has struggled to find an audience. His 2010s output (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, War Horse, LincolnBridge of Spies, The BFG, The Post, Ready Player One) has been prolific, but desperately uneven when it comes to connecting with an intended blockbuster audience, and the more niche trilogy of Constitutional Amendment films plagued by dull writing. The technical mastery is still there, but, like the late Hitchcock (Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot), it is in service of poor to middling scripts – so that outre camera moves stand out more and more than they would have in previous decades where the entire films were good, not just certain sequences or conceits standing out like oases in a desert. The fact that Spielberg’s next film is an unnecessary remake of West Side Story worked over by his Munich and Lincoln writer Tony Kusher does not inspire confidence that Spielberg can pull out of this slump, and that’s before you realise the star is … Ansel Elgort.

Yippee Ki Yay Memoriser!

A Die Hard Christmas jumper having just arrived in the mail I found myself wondering the other day whatever happened to its director John McTiernan. Lawsuits. Indictments. Jail. His Wyoming ranch being liquidated. And not a film made since 2003’s Basic. In fact, it’s kind of remarkable that McTiernan only made 11 films in his 18 active years, (allegedly he is making sci-fi blockbuster Tau Ceti Four with Uma Thurman, but I will believe that when I see it), but those films include both impeccable classics and unwatchable disasters. How can someone capable of Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard with a Vengeance have ended up battling studio incompetence and his own poor choices to have come away carrying the bag for Last Action Hero, The 13th Warrior, Rollerball and Basic? McTiernan has given some extensive and revealing interviews explaining how things went sideways so often, and he seems to have had a lot of bad luck. But one thing he said leapt out: while studying at the AFI a crazed teacher insisted on him memorising movies – shot for shot. On the grounds that a concert pianist would commit piano concertos to memory, and when asked to improvise a cadenza would have those to draw on, so a film director should have a set of classics in his cerebellum to creatively rework when needed. And so McTiernan said he had memorised every shot in A Clockwork Orange, among others. Which leads to one to think about his films in terms of such classicism. I can easily believe that it is possible to memorise every shot in Die Hard, with especial relish for the many delightful focus-pulls, but Rollerball?… Can the decline of McTiernan’s artistic clout in the editing room be directly seen in the betrayal of the principle of memorable shots rather than hyper-cut gibberish?

June 19, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

John Green’s best-selling ‘dying teenagers in love’ YA novel gets a cinematic adaptation so perfectly dreadful it will make you question the book’s stellar reputation.

fault-in-our-stars-poster

Our heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is dying of cancer. She is dragged by her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) to support meetings in a church basement, presided over by an Evangelical figure of fun who could’ve walked straight out of Fight Club. But one day Isaac (Nat Wolff), a sardonic teenager blinded in one eye by cancer, brings along to group his best friend Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cocky teenager who lost a leg to cancer. There is an instant spark of attraction between Hazel and Augustus, and soon she has him reading her favourite cancer novel An Imperial Affliction. Augustus pesters the exiled author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) until Van Houten’s helpful assistant Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek) invites them both to Amsterdam. But Hazel’s father Michael (Sam Trammell) urges Augustus not to push the physically frail Hazel…

The Fault in Our Stars is most interesting for its part in Shailene Woodley’s sustained campaign to become Jennifer Lawrence. J-Law was unconsciously unguarded in interviews, Woodley makes bizarre pronouncements. J-Law fronted The Hunger Games, Woodley (after consulting J-Law, she let everyone know) fronted Divergent. J-Law won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, Woodley attempts a serious role with an ersatz J-Law performance. Woodley was terrific in The Descendants, but here she seems to vocally channel J-Law in scenes where she’s upset or excited. And then there’s Elgort… Elgort renders Augustus an arrogant water-polo player from The OC. One assumes that Augustus is intended to be more charming, perhaps closer to a Damon Salvatore; but even the swaggering Ian Somerhalder couldn’t rescue Augustus’ excruciatingly stilted dialogue. It genuinely shocks that (500) Days of Summer’s Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber adapted.

From the sub-Mametian insistence of the lovers on calling each other Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, to Hazel Grace’s use of the word hamartia, to Augustus’ involved (and not particularly metaphorical) cigarette metaphor everything in this film feels painfully affected. I haven’t read the book, but I’m not sure these touches could’ve worked even in print; especially the excruciating moment when deeply inappropriate PDA in the Anne Frank House is applauded. Director Josh Boone’s autumnal palette complements the actual and soundalike Coldplay that soundtracks the relentlessly weepy forced march to the movie’s crux: like The Lovely Bones and The Da Vinci Code sex is everything – being in heaven, being God; not as good or important as having had sex. Dafoe’s mercifully abrasive cameo as the novelist telling them home-truths cannot shift these insufferable lovers’ minds onto more transcendent philosophical concerns.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we encourage producers to make dross like this by going to bad movies, knowing they’re bad.

1/5

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