Talking Movies

September 27, 2019

What the Hell is … An Objective Correlative?

I’m interested both in the origin of the term and its usage now, both actual and potential, and the difference between the two…

TS Eliot coined the term ‘objective correlative’ in his infamous critical essay ‘Hamlet and His Problems’ to describe an ideal objectivity that the artist would achieve between the impulse to create and the finished work of art.

More specifically, suppose that a dramatist wishes to write a play about war, having served in a war. Eliot would instantly insist that the dramatist distance themselves from what they’re proposing to create, for the play to have any value it must speak to people who have not been in a war, the playwright must find an objective correlative that converts their personal experience into universally accessible art. Eliot’s essay is infamous because in it he denied Hamlet masterpiece status because he claimed Shakespeare had been too close to the raw emotion of the loss of his son, to properly explore the theme of father-son grief, and so his play did not find an objective correlative of that emotional state, but was intensely subjective.

Eliot’s audacity is amazing but the same sentiment is found self-reflexively in John McGahern’s preface to the second edition of The Leavetaking: “I had been too close to the ‘Idea’, and the work lacked that distance, that inner formality or calm, that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess.” McGahern thus rewrote the entire first half of his novel because he felt he had been too close emotionally to his subject and that it had been subjective more than it had been objective as art.

I think that objective correlative went from being used by people who’d read Eliot’s essay to other critics who’d only read it in the context of critical writings by those people, to eventually leaping from academia into popular criticism where it was used by people who hadn’t read any of the essays that came before them.

Barack Obama, in his discussion of religion and politics in The Audacity of Hope, invokes an equivalent of TS Eliot’s objective correlative, demonstrating its application not just to art but to any intellectual pursuit in which the subjective and the objective collide. Obama’s argument is that no argument on an emotive issue involving religion and politics can get anywhere if people merely quote Scripture or Thomas Jefferson at each other. What must be done to take the emotive heat out of the argument is to convert subjective religious values into their objective correlative – arguments invoking universal values, which can be accommodated in political discourse without everyone losing their minds.

February 14, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXIV

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

The Valley of the Short

National Geographic’s Valley of the Boom has been an odd watch. Coming off the back of 4 seasons of The West Wing re-runs on TG4 it’s been quite nice to see Bradley Whitford in light suits walking around corridors again, but this time affecting a drawl and dispensing gnomic wisdom. Elsewhere it’s been fascinating learning about Facebook before Facebook in the shape of TheGlobe.com, but there’s no compelling reason this couldn’t all have been a documentary; even if that would mean losing Josh Lyman himself. Making it a docudrama is a baffling decision, and one which ‘creator’ Matthew Carnahan seems to have interpreted as license to war on the fourth wall to make sure we understand that what little drama there is is not as factual as the documentary surrounding it. Interestingly enough in light of Vice’s suffering the law of diminishing returns when employing the tricks of The Big Short the deployment of those self-same tricks here actually work reasonably well, and even include a musical number; something filmed for but dropped from Vice.

You Don’t Know Dick

All roads lead back to Vice… The more I’ve thought about Vice the more uneasy I am about it. McKay’s interest in Dick Cheney is that which animates all Presidential biographers – the years in the Oval Office. So why bother making a film about the years leading up to it as well, and not just zero in on those eight years? Those eight years, after all, are what really (and clearly) gets McKay’s goat. And yet Vice gallops thru them, offering Cheney’s infamous (and cheerfully repeated by myself and Emmet Ryan during writing sessions, explicitly mentioning that Vice-Presidential imprimatur) “Go F*** Yourself” to Senator Patrick Leahy, and his accidental shooting someone while hunting, almost totally decontextualised, purely because they had to be included; because they’d been fodder for the SNL writers, as McKay once was. The scene in which Cheney demands to see all intelligence, no matter how flimsy, is presented as his quest for a fictional casus belli to invade Iraq. I’ve been thinking though of how that scene could be written, with the same misgivings by the agency directors, and the same outcome, but an entirely different and equally plausible motivation for Cheney’s actions. The truth is that is possible for many scenes in Vice, because McKay always assumes the absolute worst of Cheney, usually in the absence of any information whatsoever. So try this on for size as reason for trampling the constitution beneath his feet:

CIA: There’s only one source for that, Mister Vice-President, that’s why it’s not included.

CHENEY: I want to see everything.

FBI: But, Mister Vice-President, we have to sift thru the intelligence to determine what’s credible.

CHENEY: Do you? Is that what you did when you dismissed as ‘racial profiling’ a flag on an Arabic man saying he didn’t need to learn how to land the plane, just how to fly it? 3,000 Americans are dead because we dropped the ball. We dropped the ball, and they died. So from now on I see EVERYTHING. I don’t care how ‘credible’ you think it is. I need to see EVERYTHING. We are not going to have another 9/11, not on my watch. Now get out of here, and don’t fumble the f****** ball again…

And now perhaps imagine how McKay would handle a similar scene involving President Obama justifying lethal drone strikes on American citizens without any due process.

 

Our long national nightmare is over

And once again with The West Wing re-runs on TG4, because Declan Rice’s statement last night contained a fatal phrase that immediately had me humming Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore ditty. I have felt, almost from the beginning of this will he/won’t he saga, that it was unseemly. And as it progressed I felt it was increasingly humiliating for us to be so desperately begging someone to play for us. Especially as he is ‘a proud Englishman’. Sing it!

But in spite of all temptation

To belong to other nations

He remains an Englishman!

January 27, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part X

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting. What a week it’s been in the continuing cultural meltdown two tribes go to war turn it off and on again freakout of Trump’s America…

Playing a Trump Cad

I have recently fallen into the seductive but dangerous trap of watching the movies I recommend as TV choice for the week on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle. And so yet more of my free time enjoyably disappeared re-watching Speed for the first time in a while. As I mightily enjoyed Dennis Hopper’s villainy; whooping it up as he snarled Joss Whedon’s quotable dialogue at Keanu Reeves; and sat thru numerous TV spots for Christian Bale in Vice, I had a light-bulb moment. The perfect actor to play Donald Trump is the late, great Dennis Hopper. His performance in Speed, notably the comic timing, the sneering and taunting, along with notes from his sinister turn as the unpredictable, childishly explosive, sexually aggressive Frank in Blue Velvet, would provide an admirable palette for portraying President Trump in the Oval Office. Were it not for the fact that we are talking about the late, great Dennis Hopper. I’ve previously sighed over Michael Shannon’s comments about his aggressive lack of interest in playing Trump, even as he is happy to portray Guillermo Del Toro’s latest one-dimensional villain. Trump’s speeches are rarely played uninterrupted on Sky News for as long as Obama’s were, but one of the rare occasions they gave him some airtime I was taken aback at what it reminded me of – for all the world he was performing the opening monologue on a late night talk-show. His satirical invective was aimed at very different targets, but the madly free-wheeling style following the ebbs and flows of audience feedback was like an improv comedian ditching his script to go after the trending topics on Twitter. The ad hominem attacks of Trump aren’t so dissimilar to Colbert mocking Trump’s Yeti pubes or Meyers mocking a Trump’s aide receding hair. That bullying joy in cruelty, aligned with the obvious insecurities that drive Trump, seems like fertile ground for any actor. But especially for an actor who used his magic box of memories for any number of undesirables; determined to find motivations that made monsters someone whose skin he could inhabit.

 

The means defeat the ends: Part II

Back in September I pointed out the commercial shortfall of the Hobbit trilogy owing to the artistic shortcomings justified in the name of making it … commercial. It turns out that I took my eye off the ball since then and have only just noticed another example. Back in 2011 the studio was volubly unhappy with David Fincher spending an unconscionable 90 million dollars on making The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They felt that for what it was, an R-rated thriller, it could have cost a lot less. An awful lot less, especially if directed by somebody else who wouldn’t shoot every scene about 60 damn times. So Fincher was thrown overboard, and with him Rooney Mara and Steve Zaillian (and possibly the non-committal Daniel Craig), and Fede Alvarez came onboard, but not, as initially assumed, Jane Levy. Instead Claire Foy took over as Lisbeth Salander, and, with the budget being watched like a hawk, the movie came in at only 43 million dollars. See, Fincher?! SEE??!! That’s what line-producing looks like. And then The Girl in the Spider’s Web only made 35.1 million dollars worldwide. As opposed to Fincher’s effort netting 232.6 million worldwide… Oops. So that’s a profit (sic) of 142.6 million dollars being replaced by a loss (sic) of 7.9 million dollars in the quest for greater profit. Once again the studio confused shaking the cash tree with cutting down the cash tree. As my sometime co-writer John Healy noted he wouldn’t have even have watched the first one if Fincher hadn’t been involved. The ends (making mucho money) justified the means (firing Fincher, Mara, Zaillian, and trimming runtime and budget). And, the ends, of making mucho money, were defeated by the means employed.

December 9, 2018

From the Archives: W

A penultimate dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up Oliver Stone’s forgotten and rather pointless George Bush Jr takedown.

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This George W Bush biopic reunites Oliver Stone with his Wall Street co-writer. It is thus very disappointing that there is no trace of that film’s searing indictment of American greed, but perhaps even more amazingly the man who directed JFK has lost his visual flair.

W is a very odd film, it’s not satire and it’s not a factual drama. It attempts to straddle, and falls short of, both genres. 13 Days made the Cuban Missile Crisis gripping simply by showing how Kennedy dealt with it blow by blow. Channel 4’s The Deal made the trade between Brown and Blair fascinating, even if it was largely speculative. BBC 4’s The Alan Clark Diaries made real politics hilarious. W hopelessly tries to combine all three approaches. We follow the run-up to and fall-out from the Iraq War, while flashing back to the pivotal moments in W’s life that led him to the White House. Stone though has nothing to say about these moments except that Bush has ‘daddy issues’, and that’s why he went to war. This insight isn’t profound or original but could have been heard in bars, on both the sides of the Atlantic, after too many drinks, for the last five years.

James Cromwell alone among the cast does not try to imitate his character and so nicely counterpoints Brolin’s Jr. Cromwell’s George Sr (or Poppy) appears cold and disapproving but we realise that his shepherding of his son Jeb rather than W towards the Presidency is because he wishes to shelter W from the strain of a job that does not suit his temperament. Josh Brolin is extraordinary as W. He perfectly captures the voice and mannerism of Bush Jr but also makes us care deeply for this uncomplicated jock. When W loses a 1980 run for Congress and storms into his backyard exclaiming “I’ll never be out-Texased or out-Christianed again!” we feel his pain more than the obvious satirical anticipation of his 2000 run for Presidency that Stone intends. W’s born-again Christianity is handled with surprising (and welcome) warmth, but while personally Bush saw the light, politically it led him to some dark places. However to expect that sort of complexity is to want a different, less obvious, film.

And Stone does get very obvious… Jeffrey Wright plays Saint Colin Powell while Richard Dreyfuss needs a moustache to twirl villainously as Dick Cheney. Characters say in private their most infamous public gaffes while Condoleeza Rice is written out of history, perhaps because Thandie Newton’s forced attempts to get Rice’s voice right make her screen presence too painful to dwell on. George Bush is not a bad man, he’s just a very bad president, the worst since Herbert Hoover, who also made way for a charismatic Democrat offering change, FDR. But, Oliver, we already knew that…

2/5

September 9, 2018

You get Hoynes/Trump!

It’s been a nostalgic blast watching The West Wing from the start on TG4 this past week. Coming at the exact moment that Bob Woodward’s new book of nasty quotes and the New York Times’ anonymous op-ed painted a picture of the workings of a very different Oval Office it led to disquieting thoughts about Presidents Bartlet, Obama and Trump.

The Ringer recently produced a list of the 100 best TV episodes since 2000. I got the impression reading that one contributor would almost rather say ‘not anti-hero’ than ‘hero’ because if they said hero that would bespeak not being the kind of world-weary sophisticate who writes for The Ringer. This excerpt is fairly characteristic of them:

I don’t disagree about the Bartlet hagiography, but to me that’s almost a charm of the show; in the world of Walter Whites and Hannah Horvaths and the sociopaths of Succession, the idea of the “good guy we’re rooting for” is almost quaint.

But… if the media, especially the unlimited digital ink allowed by the internet, spends its time praising only anti-heroes, difficult men… and the Emmys and Golden Globes go only to shows on cable about anti-heroes, difficult men… and both the media and industry generally deride when they don’t ignore shows  (usually on network, like, say NCIS) that feature principled heroes, can both media and industry (as seen at every awards show) really get up on such a moral high horse when an anti-hero, difficult man becomes the President? If Obama now says Trump is a symptom not the cause, is the media and industry not partially culpable? Did they not prepare the culture to bring forth just that?

Years ago I wrote but never posted a lengthy piece based around a reading of a segment of Obama’s Dreams From My Father and the complaints on BBC of a Hillary Clinton staffer that Obama had had an unfair advantage because pop culture had prepared the way for a black President via Morgan Freeman and Denis Haysbert but there was nobody similarly making straight a path in the wilderness for Hillary. But if Deep Impact and 24 were literally held to have given Obama an advantage then surely The West Wing must have contributed mightily too. During the dark days of Bush Jr’s inarticulate incompetence there was a President who was charming, articulate, intelligent, a university lecturer; he was fictional, but you can’t have everything; and Bush Jr was replaced by a President who was charming, articulate, intelligent, and a university lecturer.

But then after a decade of anti-heroes, difficult men, what do you know but the American public went and elected one of those cultural icons as President – the anti-hero-in-chief. Where could they have got such a weird idea?

Oh, for one of those crassly commercial network notes now! “Can you make President Trump more likeable?”

July 20, 2018

At least we still have… : Part IV

The fourth 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.

As I wrote in my Top 10 Films of 2012 here when praising Damsels in Distress, the desire of Greta Gerwig’s daffy character to improve the global psyche with her creation of future international dance craze the Sambola seemed rather less daft after PSY’s eccentric ‘Gangnam Style’ stormed the world after the film’s release. Featured prominently at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang some months ago, this still led to an irresistible grin whenever played; despite the fact nobody has ever known what the lyrics are about, other than the vague impression that this is the Seoul version of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly.

And if I think of the 2012 election duel between Obama and Romney I will immediately think of this parody. Sure, not all of College Humour’s video works as well as you’d want, but when it hits the heights of this particular verse it’s irrepressible:

I got distinguished hair

And a private jet that flies me way up in the air

Buy and sell your company with so much savoir faire

I bought a mansion for each one of my two dozen heirs

Romney’s wrong-footing of Obama in the first minute of the first debate is almost worthy of a mention here in its own right. Obama had clearly prepped to face off against the accustomed robotic Romney. Little did he suspect that Romney’s operating software had been given a Reagan upgrade – and when his handler keyed in the command for ‘execute joke’ he did it perfectly, leaving Obama stunned; he was not prepared for this level of charisma. Obama staggered thru that debate looking punch-drunk before recovering his poise for the next two, but to think that Romney was pilloried in 2012 for his ‘binders full of women’, and everyone was glad that the RNC intimated that he should stop seeking to run again in 2016. Oh, what people wouldn’t give now to have had Romney as the GOP candidate in 2016 rather than Trump and his ‘binders full of payoffs to women’ (sic).

January 25, 2017

That’s “Mr. President The Donald” to you…

Yes, it’s time for one of the regrettable lapses into politics on this blog; occasioned by the vitriol thrown at Donald Trump’s Presidency, which is of dubious historical merit when considered under the headings of mandate, legitimacy, and suitability.

donald-trump-got-only-8-words-into-his-campaign-before-we-found-a-seriously-questionable-fact

MANDATE

Donald Trump got 46% of the popular vote.

Bill Clinton got 43.01% of the popular vote in 1992.

Woodrow Wilson got 41.8% of the popular vote in 1912.

Armando Iannucci is one of many people to claim that Trump has no mandate, because more people voted for someone else.

Well, the only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to win over 50% of the popular vote, isn’t it?

If a candidate must receive more than 50% of the popular vote to have a mandate, then no Democrat President in the 20th and 21st centuries has ever had a mandate except Franklin D Roosevelt, Lyndon B Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

By contrast every Republican President from William McKinley’s 51% in 1896 onward has had a mandate, except Richard Nixon, George W Bush, and Donald Trump; and Nixon and Bush both achieved over 50% of the vote on re-election.

 

LEGITIMACY

The electoral college system is silly, but it’s been silly for a long time now.

Andrew Jackson blew a gasket in 1824 when he was denied the Presidency.

But it wasn’t fixed then.

Rutherford B Hayes ended Reconstruction in 1876 to be let be President.

But it wasn’t fixed then.

Nor in 1888, nor in 2000, because, like AV in England, it is politically insoluble.

If you weep for Hilary Clinton’s near 3 million votes and no Presidency, did you also weep for Nigel Farage’s 5 million votes and only 1 (previously filched Tory) seat in 2015?

Hilary Clinton effectively built up massive and useless majorities in safe seats, while Donald Trump eked out tiny majorities in seats that could be flipped, and so won with equal legitimacy as David Cameron did in 2015.

 

SUITABILITY

Trump as an unsuitable character to be President…

More unsuitable than Johnson, who boasted that he’d had more women by accident than JFK had on purpose?

More unsuitable than JFK, who was so out of control new Secret Service agents were aghast at being assigned hooker detail?

More unsuitable than Nixon and Reagan, who both committed treason to win the Presidency?

Should the Republicans only be allowed to nominate candidates approved by the Democrats?

Would the Democrats then be happy to only nominate candidates approved by the Republicans?

Wasn’t that instinct what led to Watergate – Nixon trying to swing the nomination towards McGovern because he felt, and rightly so, that he could easily destroy him in the campaign proper?

 

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

Donald Trump is the President.

He has more of a mandate than Bill Clinton  in 1992, Richard Nixon in 1968, and Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

He has the same legitimacy as John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W Bush.

And he has fought fewer duels than fellow populist and all round short-fuse exponent Andrew Jackson.

 

All three strands are ahistoric rationalisations obscuring the raw howl  ‘I voted for the other candidate!’.

Well, in a two-party system, there is a 50/50 chance that the other candidate wins every 4 years.

And then you wait for the next roll of the dice in 4 years and place your money on your candidate again.

August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

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Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

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Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

July 10, 2014

Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater unveils a coming of age film 12 years in the making and the result is a dazzling technical achievement of great heart; whose humour belies its length.

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Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) is a normal six year old living in Texas with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and bullying sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). He only sees his divorced dad Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) at weekends, and enjoys escaping from his proper mother’s care to the more freewheeling parenting of his muscle-car driving father. It’s a normal boyhood, and time rolls by… And it really does roll. Mason Sr becomes more responsible, Mason’s mom finds happiness elusive, Samantha becomes an ally not a nemesis, and Mason Jr starts to develop his own personality in response to the various people who surround him and the times he lives in (the transition from Bush to Obama, anger to hope to disillusionment). To reveal more details would deprive you of the pleasure of Linklater’s seamless transition between years, teasing misdirection, and subtle reveals.

Astonishingly Linklater made 10 films while chipping away at this film; yearly vignette by yearly vignette. His absolute faith in child actor Ellar Coltrane, and his own daughter Lorelei, are rewarded by performances that begin in wonderful comedy and grow, through some shocking scenes, to encompass genuine depth of feeling as their characters mature. Lee Daniel and Shane F Kelly meanwhile manage to shoot Texas with such rigorous continuity that at times the joins between years aren’t even noticeable if Mason Jr hasn’t changed hairstyle or grown a few inches. This is a rare occasion when the term novelistic is deserved. Boyhood has the narrow focus on a handful of characters and their interactions of The Art of Fielding, but the longer span of time to probe psychological formation of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’s bildunsgroman; and Linklater’s innovation of charting the passage of time by the actual passage of time is jaw-dropping. Arquette’s entire run on Medium is encompassed (and observable in her varying hairstyles) as her character grows older but more brittle not wiser, and skinny Hawke noticeably physically fills out in a career-best performance of serious comedy. Boyhood is also richly novelistic with interpretation…

Mason Sr at first seems an archetypal deadbeat dad. But over time we see he’s quite wise; his rebelliousness is very much a surface affectation thrown off for mellow acquiescence with the way of the world. Which leaves you wondering, will Mason Jr follow that same arc? Arquette’s mom seems to be the sensible one, but over time we see she’s actually sensible in everything except matters of the heart where she’s quite hopeless. And, in a sly critique of divorce, what Mason Jr would regard as his unique personality; artsy, ditching Facebook to live an authentic life, given to paranoid riffs about the evils of the NSA;  is largely a rebellion against the hypocritical, brutal, ‘Duty, Honour, Country’ Christian authoritarianism foisted on him by stand-in fathers. But the amazing late exchange between father and son – “Yep, I’ve finally become the boring, castrated guy your mom always wanted. And she could have had it too, if she’d just been a bit more patient, and a bit more forgiving.” “And it sure would have saved me a parade of drunken assholes” – obscures the fact that an unexpected gift, not from Mason Sr, is what helped Jr find his metier in life…

Boyhood is probably the film of 2014. See it on the big screen to be wowed by life itself; your own nostalgia mixes with Mason Jr’s impressively realised youth.

5/5

December 20, 2011

The Rises and Falls of Michael Moore

Michael Moore is still making entertaining documentaries using the same methods he’s employed for the past 20 years, so why does no one care anymore?

I had this thought when I heard that Moore was in town doing a show in the Grand Canal Theatre to promote his new book, and realised that, no matter how good this new book was, only a fraction of the number of people who proudly displayed Stupid White Men on their book-shelves as a symbol of right-on resistance to George Bush Jr would bother to buy this one. It’s not like Moore’s writing has suffered an obvious fall-off and that’s the reason that people are eschewing it. Stupid White Men is very funny but also very sketchy at times in its logic and arguments, while Dude, Where’s my Country? is filled with excruciatingly childish sneering at conservatives. But both sold phenomenally well. No, whatever the quality of this book its reception will be muted because Moore’s time as de riguer reading has simply passed.

Moore’s time was quite short, lasting only around 4 years or so, but of course it wasn’t his first coming. Roger & Me launched Moore to fame in America in 1989, and set the tone for his whole career with its partisan satirical railing against corporate greed in the traditionally more neutral documentary genre. I fondly remember Moore’s TV show appearing on Channel 4 in the mid-1990s where he door-stepped businessmen and generally afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. He faded out of view for quite some time and then, almost out of nowhere, Bowling for Columbine and Stupid White Men gave him a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic. I welcomed him back as an old friend while watching Bowling for Columbine but it was clear that attacking capitalist excesses wasn’t enough anymore. He aimed higher, and ironically brought himself down.

Fahrenheit 9/11 went after George Bush Jr on a petty if entertaining level but was undone by its own indiscipline. Despite the opprobrium heaped upon it, it is a very good polemic – either side of a truly terrible half-hour about Iraq and vague conspiracy theories. More people saw this any of Moore’s other films and that’s why it was dangerously ill-judged. Fahrenheit 9/11 was designed to topple Bush from power but instead he was re-elected with a thumping majority. I think ordinary cinema-goers were inclined to view Moore’s film as a failure in propagandising, both because of its practical lack of success and its aesthetic clumsiness, and the more political among them were inclined to blame him for Bush’s victory by his populist rabble-rousing spurring the GOP into more effective voter-turnout drives. But if this was when Moore’s stock fell other circumstances wiped it out.

The tide turned quickly for a President who had boasted of spending his huge political capital, and after Hurricane Katrina, and with increasing popular discontent with the fiscal and emotional cost of the never-ending occupation of Iraq (especially its maiming of a generation of volunteer soldiers), Bush was as toxic electorally as Moore had wished to make him. Sicko thus appeared when it was already clear that Bush’s neo-conservatism was out of favour, and Capitalism: A Love Story was released at a time of utter irrelevance for any American elections. The replacement of Bush with Obama was, for the rest of the world, akin to Hunter S Thompson’s characterisation of the political demise of Lyndon B Johnson – an evil king had been overthrown, and now we all could stop worrying about over-reaching American politics. And that meant not caring about American healthcare or capitalism either…

Which is a pity because Capitalism is a fascinating watch, filled with archival gold and provocative arguments, while Sicko’s polemic for a better healthcare system is quite devastating, and might have aided Obama’s strenuous and half-successful efforts at reform – except of course that no American conservative would watch it, never mind a Tea Party member. Americans seem to have turned away from Moore as being either counter-productive or treasonous, while the rest of the world apparently has turned away from his work because it’s simply become bored with an America that patently has lost the ability to project its power as it once did, either economically or politically, and is so dogged by polarised partisan infighting as to arguably be on the verge of a constitutional crisis; because if the legislature refuses to engage with the executive but merely engages in monolithic opposition deadlock ensues.

I strongly believe that within the next thirty years we will all have absorbed, by a process of osmosis, a basic knowledge of Chinese history and culture merely as necessary background noise to understanding what will then be the world’s pre-eminent country. We will know exactly what Confucius said, and be able to talk about the origin myth of modern China in the Opium Wars with the British, and know when the various dynasties ruled as readily as we roughly know when various houses of monarchy were on the throne in England. Part of that realpolitik adjustment might already have begun in an abjuration of interest in American politics as it can now be regarded as purely a domestic American concern with greatly decreased international impact. Moore’s future success might then be dependent on American domestic politics again forcefully impacting the rest of the world.

Can Michael Moore stage another comeback? The odds are stacked against him, but who knows, the Tea Party may yet do the unthinkable for them and make him fashionable again.

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