Talking Movies

April 30, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XVI

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

To Be Young, Gifted and Bad

FX’s Legion came in for some harsh criticism here recently so here’s some cheerleading of a show that is actually telling a story with minor characters in the X-Men universe, Fox’s The Gifted. The Gifted reminds me both of Heroes (the powerless but still commanding father of teenage mutant girl) and Dark Angel (relentless pursuit by shady government agency, a decrepit building that looks like the Pulse hit it), so even while it was still in its first season it felt like the return of a long lost friend. The most interesting element of the show has probably been Polaris being tempted by the dark side, as it were. The stunning finale in which she gave vent to her fury was a masterstroke in developing a villain from hugely misguided good intentions. But there were plenty of other interesting elements in the show, a highlight being 3 x 1: the cloned daughters of Emma Frost, who entice mutants to join the Hellfire Club. The perfectly synchronised movements, the identical dresses, the sharing of sentences between all three sisters, the telepathic mind-games – all were touches both chilling and exciting.

Stop. Sip. Sleep. Wait, what?

Another Any Other Business, another gripe at government-funded nonsense… From the very first time I saw this short advertisement by the Road Safety Authority it has bothered me, because it offended my sense of logic. Why would you drink the coffee and then attempt to get a 15 minute nap?! If you were fatigued, wouldn’t you have the nap first, then drink the coffee to energise yourself anew? I mean, don’t many people stop drinking coffee a certain amount of time before they go to bed because otherwise they won’t be able to sleep? Who approved this?

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Uneasy lies the studio head that pays The Crown

Claire Foy says she feels naive she didn’t ask for the same pay as Matt Smith for The Crown. Except, as the producers initially made plain, and which was the truth, she didn’t get paid less because she was a woman and he was a man, she got paid less because she was Little Dorritt and he was Doctor Who. I thought Foy was great in Little Dorritt and followed her career with interest, but I suggest most people would have recognised Matt Smith when they saw trailers for The Crown, and not known who she was. The bigger star gets paid more, just as the bigger star gets billed first; unless they get billed last – witness bizarre fights like Dunkirk’s scramble to be the last ‘And…’. Jennifer Lawrence got paid more for Passengers than Chris Pratt. She also got first billing, despite the fact that structurally his character was the lead, and as a result he had more screen-time. Pratt got paid 8 million dollars less for doing more work than Lawrence, but nobody cried foul. Why weren’t they paid the same? If your answer is the truth; J-Law is a bigger deal than CP; why doesn’t that apply to The Crown too? Foy is as big a deal as Smith now, probably bigger – look at the forthcoming Lisbeth Salander reboot sequel. But she wasn’t then, so giving her ‘back pay’ seems very odd, and merely, par Bret Easton Ellis, a corporate gesture to just make the internet noise stop.

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March 4, 2018

Why shouldn’t Fast & Furious 8 win the Best Picture Oscar?

The obvious answer is because it wasn’t nominated, but there’s an awful lot to be said about that obvious fact.

George Bernard Shaw once complained, after hearing one too many twits at dinner parties dismissing Wilde as facile, that he seemed to be the only man in London who could not sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. Fast & Furious 8 would, Vin Diesel promised, star Dame Helen Mirren and win the Oscar for Best Picture. It achieved one of those impossible missions. And probably the one more worth achieving. Can one say that Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture because it was facile? Surely not, because, like Wilde, if it was really that easy then every studio would be able to make their own Fast & Furious at will, and they cannot. This film saga has liberated itself from realism, probability, physics, logic, and continuity in a manner that defines gleefulness. The only people who can save the world are petrol-heads, people escaping explosions or jumping off bridges or falling cars can always land just where someone is driving to pick them, cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, and again cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, the State is welcomed into the family after murdering one of the family because of insinuations that he has a forgiveness-worthy back story. This is glee incarnate.

And glee does not win Oscars.  Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture for the same reason that The Dark Knight was nominated on the understanding that nobody was to actually vote for it. One of my regular theatre cohorts dropped the Freudian slip/zinger “The Dark Knight is great but obviously it wouldn’t the Oscar” when discussing Fast 8 and the Oscars. Think about that, a film is great, but obviously it can’t win the Oscar. Why? Well, because it’s just, um, too popular… A mantra here at Talking Movies is that is what good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good. That would ring alien to Oscar voters, and that’s not my opinion, it’s an empirically observable trend.

Consider the 1980s. Here are the films that topped the North American Box Office and the films that were awarded Best Picture year by year:

1980 The Empire Strikes Back

1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark

1982 E.T.

1983 Return of the Jedi

1984 Beverly Hills Cop

1985 Back to the Future

1986 Top Gun

1987 Three Men and a Baby

1988 Rain Man

1989 Batman

 

1980 Ordinary People

1981 Chariots of Fire

1982 Gandhi

1983 Terms of Endearment

1984 Amadeus

1985 Out of Africa

1986 Platoon

1987 The Last Emperor

1988 Rain Man

1989 Driving Miss Daisy

Only Rain Man won both the commercial and Oscar stakes, but some of the others were damn close. Ordinary People was 11th, Chariots of Fire 7th, Gandhi 12th, Terms of Endearment 2nd, Amadeus 12th, Out of Africa 5th, Platoon 3rd, The Last Emperor 25th, and Driving Miss Daisy 8th at the North American box office in their year of release.

Consider the 1990s, when two films topped the North American box office and were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour.

1990 Home Alone

1991 Terminator 2

1992 Aladdin

1993 Jurassic Park

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Toy Story

1996 Independence Day

1997 Titanic

1998 Saving Private Ryan

1999 The Phantom Menace

 

1990 Dances with Wolves

1991 The Silence of the Lambs

1992 Unforgiven

1993 Schindler’s List

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Braveheart

1996 The English Patient

1997 Titanic

1998 Shakespeare in Love

1999 American Beauty

Oscars were still going to reasonably popular films. Dances with Wolves was 3rd, The Silence of the Lambs 4th, Unforgiven 11th, Schindler’s List 11th, Braveheart 18th, The English Patient 19th, Shakespeare in Love 18th, and American Beauty 13th at the North American box office in their year of release. But the Weinstein campaign that successfully prevented the seminal, serious, and popular Saving Private Ryan from taking the Oscar in favour of their slight but aggressively campaigned for confection bode ill.

Consider the 2000s, and you’ll see the people’s choices at the North American box office getting worryingly and increasingly ever further from the Oscar’s choices.

2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas

2001 Harry Potter 1

2002 Spider-Man

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Shrek 2

2005 Revenge of the Sith

2006 Pirates of the Caribbean 2

2007 Spider-Man 3

2008 The Dark Knight

2009 Avatar

 

2000 Gladiator

2001 A Beautiful Mind

2002 Chicago

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Million Dollar Baby

2005 Crash

2006 The Departed

2007 No Country for Old Men

2008 Slumdog Millionaire

2009 The Hurt Locker

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The Oscars now start to veer sharply away from reality… Gladiator was 4th, A Beautiful Mind 11th, Chicago 10th, Million Dollar Baby 24th, Crash 49th, The Departed 15th, No Country for Old Men 36th, Slumdog Millionaire 16th, and The Hurt Locker 116th at the North American box office in their year of release. Where The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier in the 1980s when all other 9 films placed 12 or higher, now we find Million Dollar Baby at 24, and then beyond it Crash, No Country for Old Men, and The Hurt Locker. Where in the 1990s only 4 films placed lower than 12, now only 4 films placed 12 or higher – something is definitely up.

Consider the 2010s, a decade in which the Oscars have for eight years ostentatiously disdained the North American box office.

2010 Toy Story 3

2011 Harry Potter 7

2012 The Avengers

2013 Catching Fire

2014 American Sniper

2015 The Force Awakens

2016 Rogue One

2017 The Last Jedi

 

2010 The King’s Speech

2011 The Artist

2012 Argo

2013 12 Years a Slave

2014 Birdman

2015 Spotlight

2016 Moonlight

2017 The Shape of Water (?)

edward-norton-and-michael-keaton-in-birdman

Oh dear… The King’s Speech was 18th, The Artist 71st, Argo 22nd, 12 Years a Slave 62nd, Birdman 78th, Spotlight 62nd, Moonlight 92nd, and (sic) The Shape of Water 46th at the North American box office in their year of release. Remember the good old days in the 1980s when The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier as all the other films were placed 12 or higher? Remember the 1990s when only 4 films placed lower than 12? Or the 2000s when 4 films placed 12 or higher? Now only 1 film out of 8 has even broken into the top 20, and 5 films out of 8 couldn’t even crack the top 50.

What is good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good, clearly has no currency as a mantra for the Oscar voters.

Bret Easton Ellis on his Podcast has persuasively trashed the Oscars from their inception as a ruse to pretend that the Hollywood studios were interested in art not money by parading a social conscience and worthy/boring movies for public notice. Talking Movies some years ago argued the Oscars were out of step, with many awards effectively do-overs, such as James Stewart winning Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story not Mr Smith Goes to Washington. But the Ellis verdict doesn’t sit with the notion in this piece that films which top the North American box office were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour. Boxofficemojo.com only has detailed figures going back to 1980, the less documented Filmsite.org has errors that render it unreliable, so we’re forced to Wikipedia to allow us tentatively examine if there is a basis for saying that the biggest film of a year once customarily won the biggest Oscar prize, not just occasionally.

1930 Tom Sawyer

1931 Frankenstein

1932 Shanghai Express

1933 Cavalcade

1934 Viva Villa!

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 Modern Times

1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

1938 Alexander’s Ragtime Band

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

1930 All Quiet on the Western Front

1931 Cimarron

1932 Grand Hotel

1933 Cavalcade

1934 It Happened One Night

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 The Great Ziegfeld

1937 The Life of Emile Zola

1938 You Can’t Take It with You

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 Sergeant York

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 For Whom the Bell Tolls

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Bells of St Mary’s

1946 Song of the South

1947 Unconquered

1948 The Red Shoes

1949 Samson and Delilah

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 How Green Was My Valley

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 Casablanca

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Lost Weekend

1946 The Best Years of Our Lives

1947 Gentlemen’s Agreement

1948 Hamlet

1949 All the King’s Men

 

1950 King Solomon’s Mines

1951 Quo Vadis

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 The Robe

1954 Rear Window

1955 Cinerama Holiday

1956 The Ten Commandments

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 South Pacific

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1950 All About Eve

1951 An American in Paris

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 From Here to Eternity

1954 On the Waterfront

1955 Marty

1956 Around the World in 80 Days

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 Gigi

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1960 Spartacus

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Cleopatra

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 The Bible

1967 The Graduate

1968 2001: Space Odyssey

1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

 

1960 The Apartment

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Tom Jones

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 A Man for All Seasons

1967 In the Heat of the Night

1968 Oliver!

1969 Midnight Cowboy

1970 Love Story

1971 Fiddler on the Roof

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 Blazing Saddles

1975 Jaws

1976 Rocky

1977 Star Wars

1978 Grease

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

 

1970 Patton

1971 The French Connection

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 The Godfather: Part II

1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1976 Rocky

1977 Annie Hall

1978 The Deer Hunter

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

Now then, while there are a lot of boring/worthy films crowding out crowd-pleasers in those years, my impression wasn’t entirely unfounded. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s the Best Picture Oscar went to the North American box office champion a regulation 3 times per decade. In the 1960s and 1970s that rose to a regulation 4 times per decade. And then from 1980 to 2018 reverse all engines: instead of 4 times per decade, it has happened 4 times in 4 decades. Something has changed… The Dark Knight would probably have picked up the Best Picture Oscar had it been a film of the 1960s or 1970s, been as great as it was, and been as popular as it was. Unfortunately it arrived a truly obscurantist time for the Oscars, as the very next year the Oscars suckered viewers by nominating Avatar, a genuinely phenomenally popular film, and then awarding the Oscar to The Hurt Locker, which set a new record for unpopularity; being the 116th most popular film at the North American box office in the year of its release. You have to go to the second page of the 2009 statistics on Boxofficemojo.com to find it.

What seemed a deliberate slap in the face to the audience set up this current decade’s obstinate obscurantism and has reaped the appropriate result, fewer and fewer people watching. Now, one shouldn’t automatically equate popularity with artistic merit, but I can’t see that Fast & Furious 8’s glee is completely alien to 1963’s Oscar-winner Tom Jones, nor can I see that its crowd-pleasing is markedly different to 1976’s Oscar-winner Rocky. If it is well-crafted and pleases so many people globally why is it treated like the damn plague? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to announce that the winner at the North American box office would automatically be given the Best Picture Oscar? Or that the nominees for Best Picture would simply be the top 10 films at the box office? Instead the Oscars wring their hands: Why is nobody watching? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters not young and hip enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters too young and hip? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the nominations not diverse enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Yes! We must make the voters more diverse to produce more diverse nominations, that will make people watch, yes? (No, nobody saw the movies)

The Oscars have tied themselves into knots responding to vitriolic campaigns about their supposed racism lest, in the pompous Guardian terminology, they become increasingly insular and irrelevant if they ignore these sorts of institutional biases. And yet, even just going with the rigorously documented last 4 decades, the Oscars have already demonstrably become insular and irrelevant over these recent decades by becoming like a snooty waiter who when asked what’s good on the menu, laughs and says “Well, we have some fine fare for ourselves in the kitchen, but that’s not for the likes of you, eat the slop you’re given”, and clearly have no intention doing anything about that. It’s almost comical after the viewing figures turn out poorly every year to see them scrabble for any and all solutions except the actual, obvious one: nominate popular films, and not just for show, to win, like in the 1970s.

It might concentrate a few minds in Hollywood to automatically give the Oscar to the box office winners, because if you don’t value your stock in trade, and thereby show your contempt for your audience, how exactly do you expect the audience to feel about that – it’s pretty remarkable to expect them to tune in in their billions to watch you slap yourself on the back for movies nobody saw because in large part nobody wanted or would want to see them. It might also make global blockbusters a bit better to have people not simply start shooting with a shoddy script because they know all they need is CGI visuals when this is going to sell mostly in foreign language markets. The decline of the North American box office in its importance to Hollywood is fodder for a whole series of posts, but re-attaching the Oscars to domestic popularity might work on ego if pride is not enough to get people to stand over their work for the masses.

Fast & Furious 9 needs to win the Best Picture Oscar as a grand apology for the ridiculous conduct of the Oscars for many, many years. Make it happen, Hollywood.

January 31, 2018

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part VII

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.

Dead Sparrow

When a movie has its release date shifted repeatedly, when its trailers shout about how many Oscar nominations and actual Oscars its cast and crew have, and when its studio eventually abandons it in the betwixt Oscars and between blockbusters wastelands of March you can draw your own conclusions. Jennifer Lawrence could really use a hit about now, after Passengers and mother!, to prove she can top the box office when not Katniss, and it looks like this creepily hyper-sexualised retread of Nikita is not going to be it. So, far from her deigning to return for another X-Men movie in November, as it initially appeared, it now looks a lot more like the X-Men are doing her a solid by putting her in a big movie guaranteed to achieve a review-proof basic level of box office gold.

 

“You should pick a name that is not my company”

It’s hard to get very excited about the commercials for summer blockbusters that used to be such an attraction of the Superbowl. Too much CGI, too many comic-book movies, too many remakes, reboots, and spin-offs. But if like us you are less interested in the football than in seeing if Justin Timberlake does or does not do a Prince tribute in the Mini Apple, there is one bizarre series of ads this year that will be right up your alley. Check out Keanu Reeves advertising website builder Squarespace via the emotional rollercoaster of creating the website for his own motorcycle company, Arch Motorcycle. Click through for the longer version: https://www.maxim.com/entertainment/keanue-reeves-super-bowl-commercial-2018-1

 

“It’s meant to be ironic” “Excuse me, you need to go back to grad school”

Just over a month after a lengthy piece hereabouts on the Roger Moore Bond movies, occasioned by ITV 4’s absurdist week of nightly 007 outings, comes depressing news. Netflix has put up the Bond back catalogue and the snowflakes, or Generation Wuss as Bret Easton Ellis dubbed them, are not impressed. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-5315501/Millennials-watching-old-James-Bond-not-impressed.html) So of course they are performing their displeasure in public, online, as always. I’m not tackling those comments here, but the flap instantly made me think of this scene in Donnie Darko, and how those of us who grew up watching Bond and didn’t turn out moral monsters are now in the role of Drew Barrymore; being hectored not by an uncomprehending older generation, but by youngsters. The ‘you need to go back to grad school’ jibe is also strangely relevant, as these hurlers on the ditch utilise a Newspeak of academic jargon to bludgeon anyone who disagrees with them. Poor old 007…

January 4, 2018

ADIFF 2018: Paul Schrader

Acclaimed director and screenwriter Paul Schrader will receive the prestigious Volta Award and present his new film First Reformed at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried and Paul Schrader during the ‘First Reformed’ photocall at the 74th Venice International Film Festival at the Palazzo del Casino on August 31, 2017 in Venice, Italy

Paul Schrader, renowned director of Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, The Comfort of Strangers, Light Sleeper, The Canyons and Affliction, and screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, will visit the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (21st Feb- 4th March) to receive a Volta Award at the Irish Premiere of his new film First Reformed on Thurs 22nd February 2018 at 6pm, and will also curate a special season of screenings and events that includes an in-depth Public Interview.

Gráinne Humphreys, Festival Director, says “Paul Schrader started his career as one of the talented young filmmakers who were at the centre of an extraordinary renaissance of American cinema in the 1970s. Schrader has also had a remarkable career as a director and, as a critic, he’s a passionate advocate and interrogator of film culture. I know my excitement at his visit and the Irish Premiere of First Reformed will be shared by many of Dublin’s cinema fans and we’re delighted to be honouring him with ADIFF’s prestigious Volta Award”. Previous winners of ADIFF’s Volta Award include Al Pacino, Julie Andrews, Danny DeVito, Daniel Day-Lewis, Joss Whedon, Brendan Gleeson, Angela Lansbury, Stanley Tucci, Stellan Skarsgård, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Ennio Morricone. The Award is named after Ireland’s first dedicated cinema, the Volta Picture Theatre on Mary Street in Dublin, which was opened on the 20th December 1909 by an enterprising young novelist named James Joyce.

In First Reformed, ex-military chaplain Toller (Ethan Hawke) is tortured by the loss of the son he encouraged to enlist and struggles with his faith. A faith that’s challenged by befriending a radical environmentalist, Michael, and upon learning of his church’s complicity with unscrupulous corporations.

Schrader will also be this year’s ADIFF Guest Curator, selecting and introducing three films that have inspired his own work as a filmmaker including Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Yasujirō Ozu’s An Autumn Afternoon (1962), and Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970).

Tickets for the Irish Premiere of First Reformed and the Paul Schrader season are available now via the ADIFF Box Office (www.diff.ie or 01 687 7974). Discount packages are available for the full Paul Schrader season and for First Reformed + the Paul Schrader Public Talk.

SCHEDULE Paul Schrader – ADIFF 2018 Guest Curator

Thursday 22nd February
18.00 (Cineworld) First Reformed (Irish Premiere with Q&A and Volta Award Presentation)

Friday 23rd February
14.00 (Lighthouse Cinema)  – Pickpocket (1959), introduced by Paul Schrader
16.00 (Lighthouse Cinema) – Performance (1970), introduced by Paul Schrader
18.45 (O’Reilly Theatre) – Paul Schrader Public Interview 

Saturday 24th February
14.00 (Lighthouse Cinema) – An Autumn Afternoon (1962), introduced by Paul Schrader

August 12, 2016

Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates

Zac Efron and Adam Devine need nice girls to accompany them to Hawaii for their sister’s wedding. Instead they get Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick.

Aubrey-Plaza-sunglasses-2

The inseparable Stangle brothers Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) live together in a chaotic flat, work together selling liquor to the harassed likes of Marc Maron, and party together just a bit too hard. And so their parents (Stephen Root and Stephanie Faracy) insist that they both find nice girls to bring as wedding dates or be barred from the wedding of their beloved younger sister Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard). The idea being that the brothers rile each other up when they go stag, whereas some respectable girls will calm them down. But when their Craigslist ad goes viral, they get royally played and end up taking Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick). Soon the self-absorbed co-dependent hedonistic BFFs Tatiana and Alice have wreaked more destructive chaos on the wedding than the brothers stag ever could have.

Bill Nighy at a 2009 L&H Q&A promised with perfect deadpan that The Boat That Rocked contained “a lot of stupid jokes … profoundly stupid jokes.” One might say that Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates is a stupid comedy, a profoundly stupid comedy, without many jokes. It is in fact a variation on the great transatlantic comedy chasm, but unlike previous summer puzzlers Let’s Be Cops and The Heat this is not an obvious thriller script repurposed as a comedy by the addition of crassness, crudity, and mugging for laughs rather than the insertion of jokes and comic characters. Bad Neighbours writers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien have penned a cookie-cutter Apatow gross-out rom-com about accepting responsibility, but without Rogen or Hill to riff absurdly, the improvisation encouraged by SNL director Jake Szymanski produces little of true value.

Continuing the trend noted by Bret Easton Ellis whereby gay characters fade out of spectacle aimed at the international market but proliferate in domestic fare, we have stand-up Alice Wetterlund as Cousin Terry; a bisexual yuppie tormenting Mike in a fashion not dissimilar to Kieran Culkin’s constant poaching of Anna Kendrick’s boyfriends in Scott Pilgrim. Except that, as with Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani’s bizarre cameo as a masseur, in the absence of charm and wit you find yourself unsure how to interpret this. Laughing at and with minorities at the same inclusive time? Is it a bold move or sheer laziness to have Jeanie’s black fiancé Eric (Sam Richardson) be so unambiguously boring? Is the movie’s apparent need for Beard to do what Plaza and Kendrick presumably wouldn’t slightly creepy or predictable? And can zippy pacing and breeziness overcome inanity?

Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates, like Suicide Squad, contains lines in TV spots and trailers that don’t appear in the movie. But we don’t need Szymanski’s director’s cut.

2.5/5

June 27, 2016

5 Dispatches from Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day has been all over our TV screens, and the sequel, while entertaining enough, is never going to trouble it in popular esteem or take pride of patriotic bombast place in Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre. Here are observations on it.

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1. Hansoloitis

“It doesn’t need matter that you come back, just how you come back” proclaimed Longmire’s gruff season 4 tag-line; and Independence Day: Resurgence bungles beloved characters as badly as The Force Awakens. It’s always great to see Judd Hirsch, but that doesn’t mean he can literally just drive around in a parallel universe to the forward drive of the plot without seeming superfluous. Vivica A Fox’s return is on every level as baffling as Bill Pullman being given a kind of rousing speech to kind of deliver to Jeff Goldblum with kind of the intention of being overheard by pilots, but only kind of, to the point where even the orchestra string section doesn’t know whether to swell or not. And then there’s the great dilemma: is it okay to kill fan favourites just to ‘raise the stakes’?

2. Turn on the bright lights

If The Bling Ring is the most over-lit film of our times, I have rarely wanted to scream ‘Turn on a bloody light!’ as much as for Independence Day: Resurgence. Markus Forderer aggressively discards the lighting schema established in 1996 by Karl Walter Lindelaub. This is possibly Emmerich’s murkiest film since Ueli Steiger hid Godzilla in night, rain, and shadow, and for no very clear reason. It hides scale in the African scenes, muddies action within the alien mothership, and gives the impression that commands are issuing from a bunker with a half-capacity generator.

3. Practical Magic

It is startling to see the practical VFX in the original Independence Day. Aliens that are CGI creations in Independence Day: Resurgence are costumes and puppets in the original. It’s odd to think that Independence Day by dint of being released in 1996 still had regard for tangible reality in blockbuster visuals; models of the White House et al blowing up mingled with real people and cars being yanked about on wires. And now, no, now we mostly get the same ‘awe-inspiring’ CGI as X-Men: Apocalypse. It is of course probably impossible to depict a city being ripped into the air by the gravity of a passing spaceship using models. But even trying and failing to get it all would sure have more impact than watching actors do their ‘amazed at the storyboard for the shot’ expression.

4. ‘Baby’

Bret Easton Ellis lamented that the growing importance of Chinese cinema audiences was leading to a quiet purging of gay characters from blockbusters. He feared supporting characters, like Harvey Fierstein in Independence Day, would be edited out by notes with an eye on the Chinese market, and gay characters, while happily surfing the zeitgeist in television, would disappear from American blockbusters. But Roland Emmerich, while pushing Chinese products and heroic Chinese characters, also reveals that Brent Spiner and John Storey’ Drs Okun and Isaacs are a gay couple. Almost entirely via body language and the word ‘baby’, as if chuckling that he might hoodwink the Chinese censor by insisting they’re just work colleagues, the censor has imagined something that’s not there in translation.

5. Funny haha

Aside from the unintentional hilarity, pointed out to me by John Healy, of cold fusion weapons, this isn’t very funny. Goldblum’s nods to Emmerich trademarks lack pizzaz, and new characters make little impression without memorable zingers. Emmerich co-wrote with trusted collaborators Dean Devlin and James Vanderbilt, and James A. Woods and Nicolas Wright (who starred in White House Down, in which everything paid off). How did writers so attuned to blockbuster structure under-nourish humour and over-complicate plot?

February 3, 2016

The Great Star Wars Lie

You are being lied to, repeatedly and with purpose, by massive entertainment corporations using a media all too happy to shill for the sake of Hollywood glamour driving traffic numbers.

download

I’ve been writing about this truth for almost as long as I’ve been writing this blog. A series of articles in February – April 2010 ruminated on Avatar and its reception, and I posed one very simple question back then which is even more relevant now: why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Summer 2007 was a nadir for sustained mendacity: almost a case of “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spider-Man 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. But now we have a new whopper on our hands: The Force Awakens. Back in 2010 I noted that banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable, and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film made after 1982 that makes the all-time Top 10 once you adjust for inflation.

Yet right now we are being repeatedly whacked over the head with the notion that The Force Awakens is the most popular film in the history of popularity and film. And thankfully Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com has weighed into the fray with a truly irrepressible combo of sarcasm and statistics:

If you squint and fudge in just the right light, The Force Awakens is now sorta-kinda the biggest hit in United States history, and has maybe a 50/50 shot of catching Avatar for the No. 1 global spot.

Actually, a further word on Disney’s loud crowing this week about SW: TFA having reached the status of Biggest Movie Ever. That word would be “oh no, you don’t.” If you adjust for inflation — which is, y’know, how actual economic comparisons are done — it’s not even close. According to Box Office Mojo’s seemingly reasonable calculations, The Force Awakens is now roughly the No. 21 movie of all time, well below such titles as The Lion King, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Exorcist. It will certainly climb a fair bit higher, but I’m not convinced it will earn the extra $300 million required to catch Doctor Zhivago at No. 8. And I would bet Donald Trump’s bottom dollar that it won’t get anywhere near the all-time champ, Gone With the Wind, which made almost $200 million in 1939 dollars, in a nation with less than half our current population where the typical movie ticket cost less than a quarter.

The new Star Wars is a big movie, for sure. But it’s not quite as ginormous and culture-dominating and universally beloved as Disney wants us to think it is. The bigness of TFA, or at least the idea of its bigness, is a central element of the Mouse House strategy to spin Star Wars into a marketing, merchandising and entertainment empire.

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Since he wrote that piece The Force Awakens has climbed up to reach 11 on the all-time list, but is still nearly 200 million shy of catching Doctor Zhivago. It would need to double its gross to date to topple Gone with the Wind… But what does it all betoken?

O’Hehir sees deep cynicism in The Force Awakens’ marketing style of lying constantly about record-breaking popularity. Back in 2010 I wrote that the obsession with opening weekends was a betrayal of proper cultural criticism, never mind the lasting quality of the film feel the quantity of its inflated takings, and was actually lobotomising cinema. 2007’s summer of the threequel proved enough eye candy and CGI could, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend; which word of mouth would then collapse precipitously. I hoped Avatar had firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends by starting slow, not breaking any records, being almost dismissed as a failure for that, but then, when its takings didn’t collapse but remained constant week after week, being trumpeted as a phenomenon. But then Shutter Island was hailed as Scorsese’s most successful opening weekend, and Tim Burton’s Alice the most successful 3-D film opening weekend.

Now I think that nothing is ever going to change this hyperbolic approach, because, even more than the cynicism O’Hehir identifies, I believe it betokens desperation. Adjusting for inflation raises the extremely uncomfortable truth for Hollywood that people are historically uninterested in cinema-going, no matter how many sensational headlines about record box-office business are fed out like so much pigswill.

I called for a ruthless insistence that Avatar’s box-office gross be discounted for inflation, because it hadn’t even dented the actual all-time Top 10. But now I think the best approach is mockery. The Force Awakens’ need to scream from the rooftops how popular is it is no less pathetic than Betamax’s plaintive advertisement in the 1980s reminding people it was still in the game. If you were really ginormous, culture-dominating and universally beloved you wouldn’t need to tell people you were quite so much.

Cinema is no longer as important as it once was. The archetypal Saturday night movie memorably recounted by Gus Van Sant on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, where the entire high school rocked up to the cinema because that’s what you did on Saturday night before anything else you might get up to, is long vanished. No amount of hype will bring that world back, just like no amount of fraud can hide the fact you can’t buy a house for the same price your parents did because of inflation, and that inflation didn’t magically not affect cinema tickets too.

Every time you hear The Force Awakens being trumpeted as uber-successful, so much winning it would make Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen tired of winning, remember you’re hearing a desperate plea for relevance rooted in insecurity. And think of this.

January 8, 2016

Bret Easton Ellis: Page to Screen

Bret Easton Ellis has written seven books, four have been filmed, and two of those have been set in Los Angeles. And yet they are by far the weakest of the Ellis adaptations… Here’s a teaser of my piece for HeadStuff on those adaptations.

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“I stand back from the unfinished canvas. I realise that I would rather spend my money on drugs than on art supplies” – The Rules of Attraction (novel)

While Hollywood was premiering his debut, mangled to appeal to perceived Reaganised teenagers, Ellis published his sophomore novel The Rules of Attraction, in which the influence of Reaganism is present in the Freshmen wanting a weight room and vetoing Louis Farrakhan as a speaker. Camden College life in the 1985 Fall term is narrated in short vignettes by Sean Bateman, Paul Denton, Lauren Hynde, and some secondary characters. An unreliable picture emerges from their overlapping experiences at parties, cafeteria lunches, hook-ups, classes, and trips to town. Denton narrates a secret affair with Bateman, Bateman narrates a minor friendship with Denton, Bateman and Lauren hook up for a disastrous relationship which both record very differently, and Bateman’s secret admirer (who he thought was Lauren) kills herself when he sleeps with Lauren. STDs and abortions are the frequent price of the casual sex merry-go-round of Camden’s never-ending party, and Lauren pays in full. Ellis’ dialogue is a marvel, with one-liners aplenty in concisely captured conversations, while the trademark pop culture references (everybody is listening to Little Creatures) are married to more nuanced narration. Denton, the most self-aware and self-critical character, eschews auditioning for the Shepard play because his life already is one. Spielberg is memorably critiqued for being secular humanism not rigorous modernism, but mostly these intelligent characters play dumb because excess is what’s expected.

“What does that mean? Know me? Know me? Nobody knows anyone else. Ever. You will never, ever know me” – The Rules of Attraction (film)

Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary adapted and directed the novel, and Ellis dubbed the 2002 film “the one movie that captured my sensibility in a visual and cinematic language.” The rise of independent cinema meant Avary could cast James Van Der Beek as Bateman without bowdlerising the novel. The film is alternately shocking (it opens with the rape of Shannyn Sossamon’s Lauren), hilarious (Denton [Ian Somerhalder] and Dick [Russell Sams] perform an entirely improvised dance to ‘Faith’ in their underwear), and romantic (an extended split-screen sequence shows Bateman and Lauren finally meeting at their Saturday morning tutorial). Avary stylishly plays out the climactic ‘End of the World’ party from three viewpoints before winding back to the start of term, and situates Camden in a temporal twilight zone; with broadband internet but a 1980s soundtrack of The Cure and Erasure. Avary radically changes Lauren’s character, by throwing many of her traits onto loose roommate Lara (Jessica Biel). Lauren is now a virgin, waiting for Victor to return from Europe, whereas in the book she waited on Victor while sleeping with Franklyn. From being a mirror of Bateman, who sleeps with her friend while being in love with Lauren, she becomes a Madonna. There’s no longer an alienated road-trip with Sean ending with an abortion, just as Sean’s affair with Denton is reduced to one split-screen scene implicitly showing Denton’s fantasy. Avary’s changes make more violent and consequential Bateman’s successive breaks with Lauren and Denton, when she tells Bateman he will never know her, and he repeats her lines to Denton. Denton and Lauren’s snowy encounter after the ‘End of the World’ party, scored by Tomandandy with electronic eeriness, becomes a haunting summation: “Doesn’t matter anyway. Not to people like him. Not to people like us.” Lauren’s momentary self-condemnatory thought, unsaid in the novel, is spoken and brings things close to Gatsby’s “careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money.”

Click here to read the full piece on HeadStuff.org.

December 13, 2015

Speed-reading towards illiteracy

Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller gave an interview recently to BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, which poses some intriguing questions about how new cinemagoers experience the medium.

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Miller cited Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By as a seminal text; the entire language of cinema was defined pre-sound. Miller was intrigued by the notion that there was a pure film language not reliant on the spoken word, and he decided to tell stories through that language; going so far as to describe Mad Max: Fury Road as a silent movie with sound – what matters is that one shot leads into the next shot to a purpose. As Miller notes this kind of cine-literacy is an acquired language, and a recent one; but it is one that can be mastered, in all cultures, before we’ve got a handle on actual literacy. But it’s his remark that we’re now all speed-reading stories (backed up by some statistics), that is a lit match tossed into a powder keg… Mad Max 2 had 1,200 shots, Mad Max: Fury Road had 2,900 shots, while Miller was told Jurassic Park had 950 shots, and Jurassic World by his estimation had more than triple that.

If we’re speed-reading stories, are we speed-reading into illiteracy? Back in 1997 Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese bemoaned the cine-illiteracy of young audiences:

ALLEN: I was talking to some college kids the other day, and they were bright kids who were going to a good college, and they had no idea about great directors. These bright college kids have no knowledge whatsoever of Truffaut’s films or Fellini’s films. And yet the universities do encourage them to read Mark Twain and Flaubert and Melville. … So many film students are film illiterate. They’re not unsophisticated. They probably know more about steadicams and special effects than the average audience. The guy who drives your cab will use those terms when talking about a film, but they’re illiterate in terms of —

SCORSESE: The lineage.

ALLEN: They’ve never seen any of these films. I think they have a different attention span. [My italics]

I admit my culpability in having that different attention span Woody Allen fretted over. I saw Scream as a teenager and was blown away by it. When I subsequently saw Hallowe’en I was inevitably bored by its slow pacing compared to its younger rival. I knew that without Hallowe’en there would be no Scream, I understood the lineage, I respected the execution, but I couldn’t stop myself wishing Carpenter would hustle things along a bit. As a result I’ve never re-watched Hallowe’en, while Scream remains one of my favourite and oft re-watched films. In 1997 Scorsese bemoaned his inability to be influenced by younger film-makers: “The young people today are the 21st century. I’m 20th century, I can’t help it. It’s hard to let new stuff in.” And there’s an equal generational problem in film criticism. The New Hollywood has been so valorised by audience that Bret Easton Ellis and Quentin Tarantino bemoan the 1980s to each other as the nadir of American movies. Whereas Back to the Future Day demonstrated the impact that decade’s movies had on their audience.

Miller extols the virtues of Buster Keaton and the montage technique of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, but will the youngsters who lapped up Mad Max: Fury Road delve back into cinema history to watch the movies that inspired Miller’s visual storytelling? No. If you are used to 2,900 shots a movie something that’s less than a third of that will bore you senseless. What was already a problem in 1997 is only going to get worse. ‘Jurassic World is a mere inept retread of Jurassic Park’ howl we who saw the original in the cinema. But, like a dead owl, the kids going to Jurassic World don’t give a hoot. They probably haven’t watched Jurassic Park all the way through because they find it unbearably slow-moving. This might explain the Russos’ baffling belief that the execrable Captain America 2 deserved an Oscar for casting Robert Redford and throwing 1970s paranoia shapes.

1970s paranoia was an organic cinematic response to the mood engendered by Watergate and Vietnam, and, like all movements that begin organically, when it became a commercial affectation it died a horrible death. The idea that Captain America 2 in rehashing a trope that was valid and original 40 years ago somehow itself becomes pertinent and (coughs in disbelief) original is as absurd as Gareth Edwards believing that his 2014 Godzilla is a good parallel for the trauma of Fukushima. If Sion Sono’s 2011 Himizu can react almost instantaneously to Fukushima in a valid and original cinematic fashion what makes Edwards think that Hollywood rehashing its interpretation of a 60 year old Japanese response to an entirely different national trauma is anything but a crass attempt to attach spurious relevance (via some extremely patronising cultural voiceover work) to the commercial imperative of rebooting a dormant franchise. But here’s the kicker – it doesn’t matter. None of the fulminations of film-makers or critics or punters of a certain age matter. My complaint that Jurassic World is not as good as Back to the Future doesn’t matter. Logic doesn’t even matter. The 12 year olds who go to Captain America 2 and Godzilla will likely never watch All The President’s Men or The Parallax View or Gojira because they’re too slow-moving and boring. 2045 will see Jurassic World as fondly remembered as Back to the Future is now, and all us haters will be so many Bret Eastons moaning that the 2010s were the nadir of American movies.

Perhaps we’re not speed-reading into illiteracy so much as into an eternal kinetic present. The past is a foreign country, they edit films boringly there.

December 5, 2015

Enjoy

The work of Rough Magic SEEDS participants Zoe Ni Riordain and Cait Corkery is showcased at the Project Arts Centre in this off-beat Japanese story.

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I’ll freely admit defeat in being able to remember the character names, but I’m in good company; the New York Times gave up on them too. There are three older workers in a comic-book cafe in downtown Tokyo (Gerard O’Keefe, Dylan Coburn Gray, John Doran). Two of them are in crisis because a new part-time worker (Ashley Xie) is dating the other member of their Gen X trio. And this girl is only 22. Which blows their minds. The younger workers at the store (Emmet Byrne, Daryl McCormack) don’t care that much, they’re more concerned about one of the Gen Xers melting down at them for their treatment of a homeless guy trying to shuffle into the store. And that’s a whole other story, involving that Gen Xer and his thirtysomething girlfriend (Erica Murray) breaking up with no small bitterness.

It’s kind of hard to keep track of the characters anyway, as playwright Toshiki Okada (translated by Aya Ogawa) mischievously has them narrate what other people say and conduct dialogue on someone else’s behalf to the point where you can momentarily forget whether or not someone is speaking as themselves. And that’s before you add in the disconcerting pre-recorded voiceover of the character’s thoughts which the actors loop into onstage. It’s quasi-reminiscent of Neutral Hero at the 2013 Theatre Festival, down to the long monotone pastiche Bret Easton Ellis narrations; but this is far livelier. John Doran’s long drones are played for huge laughs, his ability to keep going on nigh-endless tangent-heavy qualification-ridden over-elaborate interrogations of the simplest of actions like a Pinter character mashed up with Michael Cera’s Scott Pilgrim spectacular. Oh, plus the third act is largely karaoke.

Dylan Coburn Gray seemed on the brink of corpsing, hardly surprising given that he had to perform lyrics about mundane blanking by old friends to ‘With or Without You’ and societal pressure to ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby,’ but his was the stand-out performance as the most complicated Gen Xer. Alongside Murray and Breffni Holohan he imparted a growing emotional charge to the karaoke as ‘Someone Like You’ sound-tracked a brutal break-up injunction to just die already, before he revealed his character’s fear of the future. Corkery’s set sadly eschews any comic-book touches, but her costume designs delineate the characters’ attitudes: sharpness for the thirtysomething women, sober matching colours for the twentysomething men, and hipster colour clashes for the Gen Xers. Numerous flubbed lines suggest Ni Riordain could’ve used more rehearsals, but it also made the Cube feel like Dramsoc.

UCD Dramsoc at its best, in the old LG space, a clique of people passionate about theatre crowded into an over-heated cauldron to see a production give it everything.

3.5/5

Enjoy continues its run at Project Arts Centre until the 5th of December

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