Talking Movies

March 3, 2019

Notes on The Aftermath

Keira Knightley’s new post-war romance was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

The Aftermath seems to be attempting to surf on the eddies left by Atonement, but this is a far more muted drama, and its startlingly more explicit affair comes out of nowhere. Indeed one imagines that pages 55 and 75 has been stapled in reverse order in the shooting script. Knightley’s character lost her son in the Blitz, Alexander Skarsgaard lost his wife in the firebombing of Hamburg. Yet there is no reason for her jumping from ‘I hate the Germans, they killed my son’ to jumping Skarsgaard. But if only it had come after the film’s best scene, where Knightley plays the piano. The first time she has properly played since her son died, using the copy of Debussy’s Claire de Lune inscribed by Skarsgaard’s dead wife. As Skarsgaard’s daughter joins in, and all are then reduced to tears by Knightley’s broken monologue about her dead son Skarsgaard sits down to comfort her. That scene should precede their affair…

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July 9, 2018

From the Archives: Wanted

Another excursion to the pre-Talking Movies archives returns with the most outre blockbuster of summer 2008.

Just when it looked like the summer blockbusters had settled for polite dullness along comes Wanted, which in its finest moments resembles nothing so much as In Bruges on speed. Not having read the graphic novels I can’t speak as to how faithful an adaptation this is, but having read other comics by Scottish writer Mark Millar (who co-produced this film) I can say that it displays an appropriate love of  outrageously cool violence and profane dark humour. Timur Bekmambetov is a name we should all learn to remember because, following up the promise of his Russian films Night Watch and Day Watch, this film is shot with more flair and a deeper sense of fun than most of 2008’s other popcorn blockbusters combined.

Atonement star James McAvoy is a humdrum accounts manager, put upon by his boss, cheated on by his girlfriend (with his best friend for added insult) and reduced to popping pills to combat his superbly staged anxiety attacks. Until a woman shows up, who explains the heightened senses he experiences when stressed are really the 400 beat a minute heart rate that marks him as one of The Fraternity, a 1,000 year old organisation of elite assassins who read codes in the weaves of a loom for the names of mass murderers that fate decrees must die before they start their murderous ways. The first hour of Wanted is ridiculously exhilarating as the obligatory training at the hands of the mentors become funnier and more unexpected than ever before.

Things inevitably run out of steam in the middle but thankfully the film ends with a truly deranged action finale dripping with priceless moments. Treasure the sound effect of the year as a rat, about to explode, utters a squeak which betrays a note of some concern. Wince as a man is shot thru the eye and then shot thru it again and again as his corpse is used as a human shield. Savour the wise old man Morgan Freeman delivering an expletive better than Samuel L Jackson…

Finally rejoice in the awesomeness of Angelina Jolie. I was unmercifully hostile to A Mighty Heart which I said failed because her public persona swamped her acting. Personas are odd things. John Wayne took a number of years to create the persona of ‘John Wayne’, perfected in Stagecoach and re-hashed for the next 37 years. Angelina Jolie’s persona is more a purely public creation that cannot be captured on celluloid. Her smash hit Mr & Mrs Smith centred on a tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt, and so was a heightened expression of the comic book which is her life. Well… her preposterous sexuality, sly humour and dark allure are it turns out perfect casting for an assassin of few words called Fox. Her performance alone makes Wanted a must-see.

4/5

May 31, 2018

From the Archives: The Edge of Love

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals an inert biopic of Dylan Thomas that presumably sent Matthew Rhys scurrying back into the comforting arms of well-written television roles.

Keira Knightley stars in a film written by her mother Sharman Macdonald. One hates to toss around words like nepotism but I would be very surprised if another actress would have been so eager to get this project green-lit. Macdonald is an established playwright, The Winter Guest being her most famous work, and director John Maybury previously directed Love is the Devil, another art-house biopic about a self-destructive artist. Sadly this film about poet Dylan Thomas falls far short of his take on painter Francis Bacon. Brothers & Sisters star Matthew Rhys is magnificent casting as the saturnine poet but the film seems to shy away from Thomas’ mile-wide self-destructive streak until near the end when it belatedly remembers that the man could be a total bastard and that he dedicatedly drank himself to death before he turned 40.

The Edge of Love begins promisingly with a vividly impressionistic take on the horrors of the Blitz, all soft-focus reds and blacks. There are some visual echoes of Atonement though which really hurt this film which lacks the emotional power and crisp scripting of that masterpiece. Keira Knightley (with a passable Welsh accent) is Vera Phillips, an ex-girlfriend of Dylan from Wales, who randomly meets him in war-torn London. A messy love quadrangle quickly forms with Dylan, his wife Caitlin, (Sienna Miller acquitting herself well once she dispenses with a half-attempted Irish accent) and Matthew Killick, a standout performance by Cillian Murphy as a stolid English soldier who is the voice of reason amidst all these selfish Celtic lunatics.

Sadly once Killick leaves to serve in Greece the film’s momentum goes with him. The script becomes so dramatically inert that you recoil in horror on hitting the hour mark as you realise there’s still another 50 minutes to go, which alternate between the incredibly boring and the absolutely infuriating. How you can possibly take the life of Dylan Thomas, add abortion, attempted murder and infidelity and induce yawns is beyond me. The best you can say about The Edge of Love is that it is ‘interesting’, by which of course one means that it assembles a number of good ideas and then leaves them lying around waiting for a coherent script. Killick’s shell-shock for instance is ‘explored’ through ridiculous scenes like him slapping a preposterously irritating woman from the BBC who sneers at his war service.

This film fails miserably at getting inside Dylan Thomas’ head no matter how many lines of poetry it has Rhys sonorously mumble in voiceover. It never really gets to grips with the tormented marriage of Dylan and Caitlin and in fact it really only succeeds, intermittently, in portraying female friendship forged by a connection to a charismatic but repellent man. And that really isn’t enough to sustain nearly 2 hours of cinema.

2/5

June 7, 2011

James McAvoy needs a new agent

INT.HOLLYWOOD OFFICE-DAY
DELANEY, agent to a galaxy of stars, well, James McAvoy and Mark Pellegrino, sits at his desk lovingly watering his potted plant while JAMES MCAVOY, paces around the office restlessly, waves his arms passionately, and complains volubly…

MCAVOY: It’s happened again! Again!
DELANEY: What? That I got you the lead role in a great film, yeah, you’re welcome.
MCAVOY: Pshaw! I’ve been upstaged as the lead in a great film, again, you mean!
DELANEY: What do you mean ‘again’?
MCAVOY: This is continually happening to me. Take The Last King of Scotland.
DELANEY: I did, you wanted that! You’re Scottish.
MCAVOY: Yes, I wanted it but look what happened. Forest Whitaker won the bloody Oscar for his supporting role. Best Actor for a supporting role! And I didn’t even get nominated!
DELANEY: Yeah, but then I got you Atonement.
MCAVOY: Where I was upstaged by a 12 year old girl! Who also got nominated! When I didn’t. Again!
DELANEY: She’s a very good actress.
MCAVOY: I’ll grant you that. (beat) Perhaps no one could have seen that one coming. But, Wanted, there’s no excuse for that.
DELANEY: You loved Wanted! When I told you I had the lead role in a Mark Millar action-movie, Mark Millar, Scottish comics genius, you nearly we-
MCAVOY: Yes! Yes, that’s true. But… if you’d told me Angelina Jolie was going to be playing Fox I would have thought twice about it, because she upstaged me! And she was always bound to upstage me from that role.
DELANEY: And your gripe with X-Men: First Class is what exactly?
MCAVOY: What do you think, Delaney? Fassbender upstaged me!
DELANEY: Well, couldn’t you have tried harder?
MCAVOY: Tried harder! Tried harder? He clearly had the better part!
DELANEY: What? That’s insane. Your name comes first on the cast-list. I checked before I told them you’d consider it. Only the best for my MacAvoy!
MCAVOY: Answer me this. What do I do in the movie that’s cool?
DELANEY: You drink from that silly long tubey glass, and hit on girls, oh, and read people’s minds, oh, oh, and make them do stuff they don’t want to.
MCAVOY: No, that’s funny, that’s what I do that’s funny, what do I do that’s cool?
DELANEY: Um…
MCAVOY: Nothing that’s what! Professor X wanders around like a spoilt rich kid, ignoring the fact that Mystique is plainly in love with him, and that the world does not want to sit down by a campfire and sing Cumbaya with the mutants. Meanwhile freaking Fassbender is…is… just…
DELANEY: Fassbendering?
MCAVOY: YES! He’s off in Argentina killing Nazis like he’s wandered in from some sort of deleted storyline from Inglourious Basterds while I’m doing my best to be as sleazy as Patrick Stewart’s proposed take on Professor X in Extras!
DELANEY: So, what’ s your point?
MCAVOY: My point, and I want you to pay very close attention to this because I’ve been talking to Pellegrino and so have a very realistic appreciation of the chances of you actually grasping this, is that – just because a name comes first in the list of characters or in the cast-list doesn’t mean that it’s the best part in the movie.
DELANEY: Wh-what?
MCAVOY: Sometimes, and I’m sorry for this because I know this will wound you deeply, it is actually necessary to read the script first and not just the list of characters before deciding what part is the best part.
DELANEY: Read…. Read…. (Delaney starts to hyperventilate)
(McAvoy walks over and places a finger to Delaney’s forehead)
MCAVOY: Just breathe. Calm your mind. Be Calm.
DELANEY: (Delaney’s equilibrium is magically restored) Read… the script?!
MCAVOY: Yes, or which would be better, just get Janine to read the script for you.
DELANEY: But what would she know about something like that? I’m the agent, I’m the litmus test of dramatic quality around here. She’s just the secretary.
(McAvoy hits speakerphone switch.)
MCAVOY: Janine, did you by any chance read the script for X-Men: First Class when it was lying around the office a while back?
JANINE (O/S): Yes.
MCAVOY: Now, Janine, don’t think about this, just answer instantly, which is the better part in your opinion in that script, Xavier or Erik?
JANINE (O/S): Oh, Erik of course. Erik is just a more complex and challenging role. He’s got such a compelling and justifiable motivation for his actions that it just completely skews all traditional comic-book morality. It’s probably Vaughn’s touch after co-writing Kick-Ass, but it’s hard not to think that he’s portraying Erik much like Big Daddy, as a dark superhero rather than as a super-villain.
MCAVOY: Thank you, Janine. (He clicks off speakerphone switch) You see?
DELANEY: X-traordinary. I’ve never seen anything like this before…
(McAvoy groans and slumps in chair.)

February 8, 2011

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro’s celebrated novel is brought to affecting life by a glittering trio of English stars: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and a villainous Keira Knightley.

Mulligan is Kathy, our narrator, a pupil at isolated English boarding school Hailsham. Her fellow pupils with whom her life will be intertwined both at school and afterwards are Tommy (Garfield) and Ruth (Knightley). The first act sees superbly cast child actors play these three characters on the cusp of adolescence. Life at Hailsham can be idyllic, with its emphasis on artistic and sporting excellence, but Tommy despite being big-hearted is a failure in both these fields and so frequently, despite the best efforts of Kathy, explodes in impotent rages. Ruth meanwhile quietly observes their growing intimacy from a distance, and manipulates events to her own ends. Their existence, however, is more seriously unsettled by a new teacher (Sally Hawkins). Her insinuation that there is something sinister about the isolation of the school is keenly rejected by Charlotte Rampling’s charismatic headmistress…

Alex Garland’s lucid screenplay inevitably loses some of the texture of Ishiguro’s novel but captures the essence of its technique by subordinating the central mystery to the emotional turmoil of the characters. Ruth changes the course of all of their lives by an act which is subject to different interpretations, and so they leave Hailsham for The Cottages where, for the first time, they meet students from rival boarding schools. Domhnall Gleeson and Andrea Riseborough appear as a couple from an Irish school who challenge the Hailsham worldview and in doing so unwittingly break the bonds that have kept Kathy, Tom and Ruth so close… Garfield is endearingly gawky as Tommy while Mulligan is a rock of compassion and Knightley in a bold move chooses the smallest role of the triptych as the villain and excels. Except Ruth’s adolescent action had a different motivation than we thought and years later, in a role-switch from Atonement, she is eager to amend for her romantic meddling and reunite the scattered trio.

But this is not a story of everlasting love for Valentine’s Day. No love is everlasting, adolescent jealousy can leave permanent emotional scars, some sins cannot be atoned for nor their consequences reversed, and no one ever has enough time on this earth. Mark Romanek draws great performances from his cast in a setting of emotional realism but stylistically his direction is self-effacing to the point of anonymity. The novel is obviously truncated with some ideas sadly abandoned, as well as the greatest gag of the novel, which Ishiguro then converted into the most upsetting scene of the novel within paragraphs. I was lamenting the absence of the gag and that scene when Garland inserted it as the final scene, which left me in tears.

On a scale of 1 to Atonement this scores about a 7 for heartbreaking.

4/5

March 15, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

There’s been an odd prevalence of live blogs surrounding this year’s “goddamn meat-parade” – as George C Scott so memorably described the Oscars. This blog did not do a live commentary on the Oscars for three reasons. Firstly, I rather like sleeping at night and think that many other people share this strange attitude. Secondly, I don’t believe that even Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie writing together could possibly write anything funny or insightful enough LIVE! to justify a live blog. Thirdly, the Oscars are (whisper it) (no in fact bellow it!) POINTLESS!

There are 5,777 voting members of the Academy. These individuals do not have a better idea of what makes a great film than any other 5,777 random individuals around the world. There was a reason that JFK told Ben Bradlee what he’d learned from the Bay of Pigs was this – “Don’t assume that because a man is in the army that he necessarily knows best about military strategy”. If you doubt that consider these three facts.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Alfred Hitchcock, director of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, was not truly exceptional enough in his field to win a Best Director Oscar.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, was.

The Academy nominated both Apocalypse Now and Kramer Vs Kramer for Best Picture of 1979 and thought that the film which would have most impact on popular culture, which pushed the boundaries of film-making, and which would endure and be fondly remembered was…Kramer Vs Kramer. I love the smell of dumbness in the Kodak.

According to the Academy the best 10 films of the Zeros were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker.

Not Memento, Moulin Rouge!, The Two Towers, Master & Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Good Night and Good Luck, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

Or Amores Perros, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rules of Attraction, X-2, Mean Girls, Brick, The Prestige, Zodiac, Hunger and Up in the Air.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that Christoph Waltz gave a great performance in Inglourious Basterds. We don’t need the Academy’s nominations to help us tell the difference between a good blockbuster with commercial clichés and a bad Oscar-baiter with its own set of equally rigid (but more idiotic because they’re ‘edgy’) clichés (Little Miss Sunshine, I’m looking at you). Maggie Mayhem tells Bliss in Whip It “Be your own hero”. Follow her advice, trust your own instincts…

October 13, 2009

Films of the Decade?

Lists are generally easy when you don’t think about them too much. Easter 1998, lying in the grass on a sunny Kingston Hill, I and my friend John Fahey paused from football and in about 5 minutes picked out the one film that defined its decade, right back to the 1930s.

1990s – Pulp Fiction
1980s –Wall Street
1970s – All the President’s Men
1960s – Goldfinger
1950s – Ben-Hur
1940s – Casablanca
1930s – Gone with the Wind

Looking back at that list over 11 years later it holds up pretty well for what was a pretty facile exercise in that each film can arguably be held to represent a particular cultural zeitgeist in each decade (even if one has to reach to shoe-horn in Ben-Hur) with the arrival of Gone with the Wind just before the world plunges into World War II seeming particularly apt, indeed its still unbeatable box-office success may be because people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling thru it all. Now trying to do an equivalent list of the top 10 films of just this decade seems well nigh impossible… How do you make a list of the best films of the 2000s hereinafter known as the Zeros? I have no idea, well, that’s not true, I have too many ideas, hence the utter agony of trying to construct the list…

Should you simply pick the 10 films that you liked best? (The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings) Or should it be 10 films that in some (in)tangible way seemed to sum up the decade? (Fahrenheit 9/11) If you choose the latter route do you pick films that were influential over films that came later that were better but needed the initial film’s breakthrough? (Brokeback Mountain, Milk) Even more importantly do you pick films that you didn’t like or didn’t see just because you know they’re ‘important’? (Crash, Babel) Do you act like a pretentious film critic and load the list with foreign films that only 45 people in the country ever saw because they were at the press screenings too? (Waltz with Bashir) Or is allocating a set number of places for foreign films an unforgivably tokenistic way to get round the problem of popular imagination being largely defined by American releases? (Mesrine: 1& 2)

Does a film need to be set in its own decade to actually define that decade or can it do so by allegory? (Good Night and Good Luck) Do films reflecting the awesome impact of 9/11 and Iraq inherently capture the decade in a way films that blithely ignore those events simply cannot? (War of the Worlds, Land of the Dead) Does torture porn reflect/critique the Abu Ghraib mindset and therefore demand a place on any serious list even if you despised it? (Hostel) Do you just try to be comprehensive by shoe-horning in as many genres as possible into your top 10? (Superbad, The Fog of War) If a genre dominates a decade does it deserve disproportionate weighting, like Spider-Man and The Dark Knight both getting into the Top 10 as opposite ends of the comic-book spectrum?

At the moment I’m thinking that films which have stood the test of time and have matured deserve places most. So, here’s the top 20 films of the decade:

2000-2002

Memento    Almost Famous    Moulin Rouge!    Donnie Darko    The Lord of the Rings    Ocean’s Eleven                                                          

2003-2006

The Rules of Attraction    Master & Commander    Mean Girls    Good Night and Good Luck    Brick    Casino Royale    Stranger than Fiction

2007-2009

Zodiac    Atonement    I’m Not There    Wanted    Caramel    The Dark Knight    Milk                           

 

As of right now…

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