Talking Movies

April 13, 2020

Any Other Business: Part L

As the title suggests, so forth.

Modern Family goes big

11 years is a long time for a sitcom to run, Cheers and MASH did it, but they didn’t have child actors built into the premise of the show like Modern Family did. Modern Family is the only American network sitcom that I would stand beside Arrested Development, and for much the same reasons. The faux docu-format, the lack of a soundtrack, and the delight in absurdity made it stand out in a world befouled by Chuck Lorre crudities. What made Modern Family so great for so long was the sheer variety of comedy in play: cross purposes, mistaken identity, sight gags, slapstick, word play, parody. Its weakest moments came in seasons that wobbled towards parody in the way that the final Naked Gun movie seemed to run out of comic invention and leaned too heavily into parody and ex nihilo zaniness. The triumph of the show is that it managed to course correct, perhaps as the maturing of the child actors into adults opened up new realms for the writers to explore. As a result this final season, now airing on Sky One, has had episodes; in particular ‘The Prescott’; that have been dizzying in the sheer number of plates kept spinning for twenty minutes, while the ‘Paris’ special feels like a North by Northwest moment as the writers grabbed one last big chance to do stuff they’d always wanted to but never got to.

Supernatural returns

E4 have finally got round to airing season 14 of Supernatural, two years after season 13. Since then RTE2 have shown the second revival of The X-Files, which seemed at times to be directly pitting itself against its spiritual descendant. Supernatural is not the show it was back in 2005, not least because someone turned on the lights in season 6 after creator Eric Kripke left and they’ve never been turned off again since, which has changed the goriness and mood of the show. But starting season 14 now is an odd moment, because you can’t but be aware that season 15 is coming to an end in America, and its final episode will be the finale for the entire series. Supernatural began in 2005, first aired in Ireland on TV3 in summer 2006, and will likely finish its run on E4 in 2021 or 2022 depending on their dilatoriness. That is an incredible amount of time to have spent with the characters of Dean and Sam Winchester, and their treasured Chevy Impala – which as we know from Chuck turned out to be the most important object in the history of the universe.

The democratic revolution continues

Today is the first day of a further three week period of what feels rather like martial law, imposed by a government rejected by the people but which has refused to leave office – and nobody in the media seems to want make a fuss about that. Far from all being in this together the Garda Commissioner has been actively encouraging people to inform on their neighbours. That feels a bit too much like Soviet Russia for my liking, and, it should be noted, comes just months after Drew Harris wanted access to everyone’s business on their phone ‘to fight serious crime’. That was before the pandemic. As the idea of testing and tracing for a relaxation of lockdown in Germany involves accessing data on phones it’s not hard to see Drew’s snooping being double downed as ‘for the sake of public health’. And yet… a temporary crisis is always a perfect moment for doing away with civil liberties on a permanent basis. By all means lockdown the country for public health, but let’s have more discussion. And if a national crisis needs national unity then form a national government. The refusal to do so should be seen for what it is, and discussed for what it is, a shameful attempt by Fine Gael to profit politically from a pandemic. Their failed election campaign centred on scaremongering that only they could handle the crisis of Brexit. And now they cling stubbornly to power to … make their point that only they can handle a crisis…? Remember Varadkar blustering he wanted to go into opposition? What exactly does it take for Fine Gael to leave government when they lose an election? Must we send the entire Cabinet abroad for St Patrick’s Day and change all the ministerial locks?

December 23, 2019

From the Archives: Alvin and the Chipmunks

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

This is a silly film, as almost goes without saying when discussing the adventures of a trio of singing chipmunks, but not without merit. There are some good jokes and the three chipmunks are splendidly animated and voiced. Theodore the youngest Chipmunk is unfeasibly adorable, Simon is given a number of good lines as the smart one, while the cocky Alvin is not as good as you remember from the 1980s cartoon show but does get a hilarious moment when his voice goes low after inhaling helium from a balloon. He uses this new voice to say the words “major rock stars” to their manager/songwriter/surrogate father Dave. It’s hard to not keep mentally putting a moustache on Jason Lee’s Dave Seville as he uses the exact same voice he does for his famous lead role in TV’s My Name Is Earl. Former Point Pleasant star Cameron Richardson stands around and looks pretty in a hardly written at all role as Dave’s ex-girlfriend who is assigned to cover his rise to fame in her capacity as a photo-journalist and who left him because of his inability to handle responsibility.

What’s sort of snooze-inducing about this film is its unstinting adherence to the formulaic set-up of what a kid’s flick ought to be, but then such laziness should not surprise given that the screen story was penned by Jon Vitti one of the many under-achieving writers who managed to bore us all into a coma with The Simpsons Movie. Of course the Chipmunks will win over Dave’s affections after initially sabotaging his life, of course they’ll alienate his ex-girlfriend from him and then his love for them and his willingness to take on the responsibility of being their adoptive father will win her back by showing that he’s matured. Of course they’ll fall out with him in the second act and be seduced by the dark side of fame and excess offered by ‘Uncle’ Ian, who will of course plot to drive a wedge between them and Dave which will only be solved by an intricate reconciliation/musical number in the finale.

David Cross has great fun playing record label executive Ian Hawke, a college friend of Dave who endlessly patronises him. He steals the Chipmunks away from Dave and flogs an endless amount of crummy Chipmunk merchandise while working them to exhaustion on punishing tour schedules, only keeping them going with extravagant coffees. This isn’t wonderfully written material by any means but Cross (Dr Tobias Funke on Arrested Development) makes the most of it. His final lines, cursing in Spanish before unleashing an Empire Strikes Back style bellowing ‘NOOOOOOOOO!!!!’, are almost enough to make up for the shortcomings elsewhere. This is a fun enough film that will keep kids entertained but their parents will frequently find their attention wandering.

2/5

November 7, 2019

From the Archives: The Brothers Solomon

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

When their beloved father goes into a coma socially inept brothers John (Will Arnett) and Dean Solomon (Will Forte) try to give him something to live for by providing a grandchild. However when their dating skills prove non-existent they turn to a surrogate mother Janine (Kristen Wiig) with a jealous ex (Chi McBride)

Will Forte is not Will Ferrell, but he probably thinks he is, they both worked on Saturday Night Live after all. Like the painfully unfunny film appearances of SNL star Molly Shannon (Year of the Dog anyone?) Will Forte proves that not everyone on SNL should be encouraged to traipse over to Hollywood. He wrote this film as well as co-starring in it so the blame for the deplorable lack of comedy can be placed firmly on his shoulders. The idea that being able to make sketch comedy, which relies on beating a joke around for 3 minutes till you’ve exhausted it, qualifies you to make films where you have to construct a 90 minute story with organically occurring jokes is a puzzling one. If you can hop up the stairs a couple of steps at a time it doesn’t mean you should suddenly run out and take up pole-vaulting.

The idea of making fun of two social misfits instantly recalls Dumb and Dumber but this is even more suspect and mean-spirited and at least that had some hilarious gags, before the Farrelly Brothers lost their funny bones. There are some funny moments. Chi McBride’s first appearance is comic and menacing at the same time as he takes umbrage wherever he can find it, accusing the whole world of being racist when it’s not. Could this have gone somewhere? Yeah, but a sketch show writer…oh forget it. There’s an incredibly uncomfortable sequence which features the brothers trying to prepare for parenthood by observing children at the playground and offering them ice-cream. Hmmm. There’s also an outrageous gag at an adoption agency involving a misunderstanding about a photo which provides Will Arnett with the best line of the whole movie.

Will Arnett (beloved as Gob on Arrested Development) can work wonders with weak material, as Blades of Glory showed, but this script defeats even him. Things get so tedious after a while that you start playing spot the TV actor. Oh look, there’s Jenna Fischer from the American Office in a cameo, hey, that’s depressed old Ted from Scrubs, and who’s the surrogate mother, why it’s a look-alike of Sarah Paulson from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The face that should occasion panic is Heartbreak Kid and The Invasion star Malin Akerman, a cinematic hoodoo this year. The sky banner that goes on forever and has the entire cast of supporting characters reading it is the highlight of the whole film. It is actually hilarious and worth seeing but as Dr Johnson once said: worth seeing, yes, but it’s not worth going to see.

1/5

October 21, 2016

Keeping up with the Joneses

Director Greg Mottola returns to cinemas for the first time since Paul, but working with inferior material to his recent Rogen, Pegg, and Sorkin scripts.

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Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) is an ineffectual HR drone who is genially disregarded by all the people with security clearance at major weapons manufacturer McDowell-Burton International. His wife Karen (Isla Fisher) is dissatisfied designing an absurd bathroom for obnoxious neighbours the Craverstons (being a largely wasted VEEP star Matt Walsh as Dan and Maribeth Monroe as Meg). As the Gaffneys agonise over how to utilise their sons’ time at summer camp to revitalise their marriage new neighbours arrive; the uber-stylish uber-sophisticated Joneses, Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie (Gal Gadot). Jeff is surprised at Tim, the travel writer who blows glass sculptures as a hobby, befriending him. But Karen grows suspicious that Tim and Natalie are actually spies, and when Jeff takes his concerns to MBI security officer Carl Pronger (Kevin Dunn), the Gaffneys enter the sinister world of ‘The Scorpion’.

What exactly is Greg Mottola, director of Arrested Development, The Newsroom, Superbad, Paul and Adventureland, doing helming this action-comedy? This is the comediocre terrain of hack auteurs like Shawn Levy or (shudder) Paul Feig. Mottola has some fun playing on the remarkable coincidence that Gadot & Hamm are both 7 inches taller than their counterparts Fisher & Galifianakis. There’s a lot of looming… It’s a treat to hear Gadot berating Hamm in rapid-fire Hebrew insults, but there’s not a whole lot else going on. Mottola shoots action with pleasing commitment to practical stunt-work, and throws in gleefully parodic action-hero slo-mo and hero shots of Gadot and Hamm, but the lack of any real driving comedic intent is almost metatextually reflected in Andrew Dunn’s cinematography being remarkably soft-focus; as if he was massaging out the cast’s wrinkles in Murder, She Wrote.

Michael LeSieur’s screenplay is a strange beast, and it’s hard to see what in it attracted Mottola. This film is obviously in debt to Mr & Mrs Smith, and even that had longueurs, but Keeping up with the Joneses lacks that movie’s over-arching sense of fun; which kept the wheels spinning when there were no actual jokes. Here LeSieur has very few actual jokes at all, and, in sending Jeff on trips to exotic snake restaurants with Tim, slips into what feels like a tip of the hat to David Duchovny’s intermittently interesting satire The Joneses; where perfect new neighbours are actually a guerrilla sales team. Depressingly early on you realise this is another major studio comedy that has tidy plotting and neat character arcs, and basically no jokes. When exactly did that approach to writing ‘comedy’ become conventional wisdom?

Keeping up with the Joneses just about holds the attention, but given the calibre of talent involved you just wonder how nobody noticed that it wasn’t actually … funny.

1.5/5

September 8, 2010

The Runaways

Twilight co-stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart re-unite for a biopic of 1970s all-girl rawkers The Runaways featuring a number of classic songs, by other bands…

Writer/director Floria Sigismondi’s opening image of a drop of menstrual blood falling on the ground, as an unprepared Cherie Currie (Fanning) dashes to a toilet during her first period, promises an innovative feminist rock flick. Instead we cruise along the boulevard of rock cliché as singer Cherie finds booze and pills the only way to handle the sudden transition from miming Bowie at school talent shows to rocking Japan after she joins Joan Jett (Stewart) in The Runaways. Jett is the feminist, refusing her patronising teacher’s insistence that she remain unplugged and learn ‘On Top of Old Smoky’, “I know you play ‘Smoke on the Water’. Teach me that one!”, but both girls are barely characterised beyond facile pop-psychology about flakey fathers driving them to rock.

Fanning and Stewart wring substantial emotion from the weak material but against these blankly inarticulate girls, Whip It! star Alia Shawkat is literally silent as ‘the bassist’ for legal reasons, Michael Shannon has little trouble in stealing the film as their mentoring (and deranged) producer Kim Fowley. He even articulates the trangressiveness of Fanning’s performance by exclaiming “Jail-f******-bait, Jack-f******-pot!” on learning Cherie is 15. Just in case you didn’t get the in-camera apology Jett later complains that Cherie will ruin them on their Japanese tour by performing in a Cabaret style suspenders and corset outfit. Sigismondi frustratingly alternates between such sledgehammer subtlety and elliptical dreaminess. Lines like “Girls don’t play electric guitar” herald ‘This is a Man’s World’ on the soundtrack, while she hilariously literalises endless critical ramblings about the homoerotic attraction between singers and guitarists by having a dreamy love scene between Cherie and Jett soundtracked by The Stooges’ ‘I wanna be your Dog’. This incident is then never mentioned again as Cherie goes back to sleeping with their roadie.

Such inconsequential vagueness afflicts everything. The impression that Cherie quit mid-way through recording their debut album and that 8 months later the band imploded having only had fleeting success in Japan is totally wrong, but this is a film where you never see The Runaways hang out with The Sex Pistols at CBGB’s, you just see Joan spray-painting Sex Pistols on her t-shirt while their music plays. Sigismondi’s biggest problem is that while The Runaways paved the way for The Bangles and L7 their music has been justifiably forgotten. ‘Cherry-bomb’ is the only song they perform here which rises above being merely efficiently crunching mid-1970s hard rock and Jett plucking out the riff of her solo hit ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ only emphasises that. There is a trio of fine performances at the heart of this film but like the band this film may be classified ‘important’ rather than good.

2.5/5

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