Talking Movies

May 22, 2018

From the Archives: Stop Loss

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives turns up a very under-rated Iraq war film featuring strong supporting turns from Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The Iraq War has become a continuing nightmare for the United States military to set beside Vietnam. Surprisingly it’s also become impossible terrain for American film-makers compared to the cinematic response to Vietnam. It falls to writer/director Kimberly Pierce to make the finest film about the Iraq War to date. This is her first feature since 1999’s acclaimed Boys Don’t Cry and Pierce has waited a long time to provide another absorbing and heartbreaking slice of small town Americana. The film opens with an action set-piece in Iraq that conveys tedium, paranoia, fear, bloodlust and chaos more effectively than the entirety of Brian De Palma’s Redacted. The real focus of this film is the psychological battle on the home-front back in Texas.

There is no place for a warrior in a stable society. This is a melancholy truth that has found expression over and over again in fiction, if you set out to protect your home your violent deeds will unfit you for ever living there again. “I’m going to miss blowing shit up” laments Channing Tatum’s Steve Shriver as he hands over his weapons for discharge from the army having served his required tours of duty. What exactly are these men going to do back in their small town? Jobs are scarce, they’re adrenaline junkies and scarred by the savagery they’ve witnessed and been forced to commit in Iraq. The dilemma is best exemplified by the out of control Pt. Tommy Burgess. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a supporting role as the violent alcoholic Tommy is as superb as his performances in Brick, The Look-Out and Mysterious Skin have led us to expect. Burgess and Shriver desperately need their commanding officer Brandon King to keep them in check. King is leaving the military…until he finds the President has signed an order keeping him in the army against his will.

Ryan Phillipe is impressively mature as the righteously indignant Staff Sergeant Brandon King who thinks he should not be asked to pointlessly lead more men to their deaths. Australian actress Abbie Cornish is a fine foil as Michelle, Shriver’s neglected girlfriend who offers to drive King to Washington. There are echoes of Phillipe’s previous role in Flags of Our Fathers. King is convinced that he can just take the matter up with his local Senator who welcomed him home but he quickly learns the harsh truth. You’re a hero when you’re fighting, but when the war finishes or you’ve gone AWOL from a Stop-Loss, they don’t want to hear about you anymore. The shadow of Vietnam hangs heavy over this film as King suddenly realises his choices are return to Iraq or flee to Canada, start a new life there and never be able to return home again. This is never preachy, always compelling and emotionally taut. An absolute must see.

5/5

July 31, 2015

Don’t Mess With Veronica Mars

The second novel in the Veronica Mars mystery series has been published, and creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are talking about reviving the TV show for an 8 episode run in the vein of True Detective. What better time to fondly remember one of the last decade’s best shows? Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on Veronica Mars.

Logan: I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me.

Veronica: Epic how?

Logan: Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, blood shed. Epic! But summer’s almost here. And we won’t see each other at all. Then you’ll leave town, and it’s over.

Veronica: Logan…

Logan: I’m sorry. About last summer. If I could do it over…

Veronica: C’mon… Ruined lives? Blood shed? You really think a relationship should be that hard?

Logan: No one writes songs about the ones that come easy.

It may seem odd to talk about Veronica Mars as a romantic show, but there’s a reason the ‘epic love’ scene was reprised in the 2014 movie; the show could be swooningly romantic, as evidenced by the giddy crane-work when Veronica kissed Logan for the first time in season 1. That was also one of the most shocking moments of season 1, not only because it felt like Veronica was betraying her dead best friend Lily by moving in on her boyfriend, but also because the pilot had introduced Logan with Veronica’s caustic voiceover: “Every school needs its psychotic jackass. Logan Echolls is ours”. Veronica’s on-off romance with Logan was not unlike Rory Gilmore’s with the equally charismatic but erratic Jess. There were nicer boys than Jason Dohring’s movie-star scion Logan, like Teddy Dunn’s Duncan Kane and Max Greenfield’s rookie cop Leo, but Leo’s fate was the voiceover gag; “It’s the old story. Girl meets boy. Girl uses boy. Girl likes boy. Boy finds out, girl gets what she deserves”; while Duncan’s entanglement with the ill-fated Meg saw Veronica nobly sacrifice her own relationship with Duncan to help him and his baby daughter evade the FBI and the Manning family, sadly pinning to her mirror a note saying ‘True love stories never end’. Season 3’s ‘nice boyfriend’ Chris Lowell’s Piz was the nicest boyfriend of all, and, in incredibly revealing commentary on the season 3 finale, Thomas noted that when Logan extravagantly apologises to a bruised Piz for beating him up earlier over a leaked sex-tape, Piz looks totally defeated; because he knows that Veronica, well-intentioned but ruthless, is the kind of girl who will only ever end up with the kind of guy who, repeatedly, has beaten people to a bloody pulp with his bare hands for hurting her.

Click here to read the full article on how Veronica Mars handled female friendship, a father-daughter detective agency, and how the sunny setting belied a dark heart of noir cynicism.

July 19, 2010

Inception

“Have you ever had a dream Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you found yourself unable to awake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the real world and the dream world?” Among the many achievements of Christopher Nolan’s latest film is that it answers Morpheus’ rhetorical question…

I’m not idly linking Inception to The Matrix as Nolan is in dialogue with it as well as his own opus. Following a typically stylish/puzzling opening we follow corporate spies Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they bungle an industrial espionage job in a Japanese mansion highly reminiscent of Ras Al’Ghul’s mountain lair in Batman Begins. They are unexpectedly offered a way out of their predicament from a former mark Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito wants them to reverse their usual modus operandi of ‘extracting’ secrets and instead attempt inception – to plant the seed of a destructive idea in the mind of his business rival (Cillian Murphy) – which Arthur, almost imitating Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects, opines can’t be done. Cobb though takes the job, as Saito offers the bait of freeing himself from outstanding legal troubles which have prevented him returning to his family in America. Nolan’s ‘existential heist movie’ then becomes a joyous globe-trotting exercise in assembling a team for the caper – picking up a forger in Mombasa (Tom Hardy), an architect in Paris (Ellen Page), and a seriously dodgy chemist, before training (in shared dreams) in a warehouse and making contact with the mark, who complicates their plans…

That description should tell you that Nolan has somehow made a ‘realistic’ film about larceny where the scene of the crime is your unconscious mind. This depiction of the unconscious owes nothing to Dali, Freud or Jung. His thieves keep their dreamscapes impeccably realistic to dupe the mark into believing that the dream world is real. Only Ariadne’s initial gleeful construction of architecture free from the laws of physics, and collapsing dreams and malevolent subconscious projections shatter that verisimilitude. Nolan’s interest here is not plot twists or fractured chronology but layering levels of reality. This allows him the blockbuster action tension of the double jeopardy at the end of The Matrix, with Neo fighting Smith while a Squiddie assaults the Nebuchadnezzar, but even more heightened. How exactly these thieves insinuate themselves into their subjects’ dreams and manipulate them though is anything but popcorn as its conceptual simplicity but sheer craziness in execution means you must stay as alert to what is happening at every moment as with Memento. The device which allows the team to synchronise their dreams and instantly fall asleep is similar to its equivalent in The Matrix but (gloriously) its working is never explained scientifically in this ‘sci-fi thriller’, which instead prioritises Edith Piaf and inner ear discomfort in the explanation of the ingenious ‘kicks’ for waking up.

Nolan’s films obsessively follow characters wracked by guilt over the deaths of people close to them who embark on quests for justice or vengeance and Cobb is an interesting variation on this archetype. DiCaprio is strong as a haunted hero running from his guilt, aided by Hans Zimmer’s unsettling reworking of his Two-Face musical theme, and is supported by an impeccable ensemble. Page is terrific as Ariadne. Both the newest member of the team, through whose eyes we come to understand this universe’s rules, and the most grounded, it is she who pushes Cobb towards finally exorcising his demons before they endanger the team. Hardy shows immense range after his bravura turn in Bronson by being wonderfully insouciant as the forger Eames, while Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt is once again effortlessly charismatic as the quick-thinking point-man Arthur. He steals many scenes from DiCaprio and memorably gives an outstandingly delivery of one delightful word.

Inception combines caper movie with sci-fi thriller, underpinned by a meaty character arc about guilt that takes advantage of being able to give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, to dazzle both eyes and mind. Essential viewing.

5/5

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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