Talking Movies

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: The Jane Austen Book Club

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Following her husband’s decision to end their marriage Sylvia’s friends console her by starting a Jane Austen book club and trying to set her up with its sole male. Romance at the club though takes a familiarly Austen twist.

Sometimes bad books are the best ones to adapt. I remember this book getting slated on its release for having the temerity to include Jane Austen in the title when it was mere frothy chick-lit. Well guess what? In the hands of Little Women screenwriter Robin Swicord, who also directed, it becomes as refreshing as a cappuccino. This film is not going to win much critical acclaim for startling insight but its darned enjoyable and that’s a high achievement. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is distraught at her philandering husband ditching her after a speech in which he seems to imply he deserves a medal for staying married for 20 years. Her single friend Jocelyn (Bello) sets up a Jane Austen book club, which will read one Austen novel each month, and invites a younger man she meets a dog breeder’s conference to join. Her plan is to set him up with Sylvia. In a riff on the plot of Emma Jocelyn is blind to her own feelings and when, after Grigg has done everything in his power to woo her, he starts to show interest in Sylvia she gets jealous.

Mario Bello and Hugh Dancy are the heart of the film and both give winning turns. Emily Blunt though steals the show. She gives a tremendous performance as Prudie, the buttoned down daughter of a hippie, who is fatally attracted to a flirtatious student as she falls out of love with her good ole boy husband. This is a world away from her hilarious scene stealing in The Devil Wears Prada. Her performance here is very controlled as she brilliantly conveys that Prudie is battening down a lot of passion in a desperate effort not to become her mother, who briefly appears in an over the top cameo by Lynn Redgrave. Prudie has fallen out of love with her husband Dean (Marc Blucas: Buffy fans still hate him for a short-lived role) who places his career before their marriage. She thus picks Persuasion, Austen’s novel about giving love a second chance, for her turn in hosting the book club.

The highlight of the film comes as Blunt has a very LA Story moment when about to make a calamitous decision with Kevin Zegers’ tempter student. In a scene sound-tracked by Aimee Mann’s terrific ‘Save Me’, a traffic-light starts to flash ‘What Would Jane Do?’ at her. Silly but sweet, and the happy endings that occur are all the sweeter for being somewhat unexpected. No higher compliment can I pay this film than to say its depiction of the power and emotional insight of Austen’s Persuasion has made me eager to go out and get an Austen book I never read.

3/5

October 15, 2019

From the Archives: Resident Evil: Extinction

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

The T-Virus has populated the world with zombies. A convoy of survivors led by Claire (Larter) encounters Alice (Jovovich) in the Nevada desert and gets drawn into her fight against the evil Umbrella Corp who created the virus.

When the hell did Resident Evil become a franchise? How is it even possible that Paul WS Anderson is still given big budgets for this dreck? Who out there keeps going to these damn films? Paul WS Anderson after showing some initial promise as a writer/director has become the Ed Wood of our times, only with a budget – which he is given repeatedly in his baffling capacity as Hollywood’s go-to-guy for bad horror adaptations of computer games. He has written, directed and produced everything from Mortal Kombat to Alien Vs Predator and has scripted all three Resident Evil films. Anderson, whether out of guilt that he got the job of writer/director on Resident Evil after horror legend George Romero was unceremoniously fired, or because he’s sick of the critical pastings he always receives, has lifted large chunks of George Romero’s Day of the Dead for his screenplay here. From the tension between military and scientists trapped underground, to the skeletal makeup effects for the long time undead, to the infected heroes who won’t admit that they’re now a threat to the notion that the real evil is inside the souls of humans, this film revisits themes and even scenes from that bleak 1985 film.

Sadly none of this gives any depth to Resident Evil: Extinction. What it does do is waste time that could be better used for zombie ass-kicking. Milla Jovovich now has super-strength and can use The Force (no, I’m not making this up). This means that watching Alice fight hordes of zombies you feel she’s in about as much peril as Buffy facing one vampire in a cemetery. The fight choreography should make this a lot of fun but here director Russell Mulcahy fails badly. There are sequences in this film like an attack by a flock of infected crows and an assault by mutated zombies that could have been bravura set-pieces under the direction of Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) but are just insipid as orchestrated by Mulcahy.

Oded Fehr as Alice’s old comrade Carlos, Heroes star Ali Larter as Claire, Spencer Locke as convoy mascot K-Mart and Jason O’Mara as the Chairman of Umbrella Corp all give committed performances, but they’re working with thinly written characters. I’m happy to say Iain Glen enjoys himself far too much as Dr Isaacs, head scientist for the evil Umbrella Corp. Newcomers to this franchise would know they’re evil because they’re introduced to us by Dr Isaacs who, using the cinematic shorthand for villainy, is a ‘Sneering British Person’ who stops just short of ending his first appearance with a “MRHAHAHAHA!!!”. The film ends with this franchise’s irritating trademark: a CGI enhanced ‘shock’ pull-out shot and wait… What!! Another sequel?!

2/5

September 27, 2019

From the Archives: Sparkle

Scraping the Mariana Trench of the pre-Talking Movies archives finds a English movie so completely forgotten it’s very title has been obliterated by Whitney Houston.

Sam Sparkes gets his start in PR by sleeping with his demanding boss Sheila. Little does he know he’s also sleeping with her daughter Kate. Hilarity ensues.

Insipid. That’s the best word to use when discussing Sparkle. It’s not enough to decry the film as a romantic comedy with no romance and fewer jokes. There’s many another film with those twin afflictions which has just about managed to scrape by on the enthusiastic playing and natural charisma of the leads. But here the lead actors don’t even seem to show any interest in trying to salvage something from the wretched material by sheer exuberance on their part. Stockard Channing wears the baffled appearance of someone wondering why The West Wing isn’t on TV anymore rather than expressing the diva quality attributed to her character Sheila. Meanwhile Amanda Ryan as her daughter Kate seems to have wandered in from auditions for Steven Poliakoff’s thoughtful drama Gideon’s Daughter. The real blame though must be placed on Shaun Evans as our hero Sam Sparkes. He’s not to blame for the diabolical script, however, he is to blame for not being able to carry a film. The sad truth is that Evans has no charm. Not only is this a basic requirement for a leading man in a romantic comedy but it’s even more vital when the plot is posited on this Liverpudlian likely lad scaling the London career ladder from wine waiter to PR PA by charm alone.

The triangle of Sam, Kate and Sheila is only one part of this film. Sam’s mother Jill Sparkes (Lesley Manville), her landlord Vince (Bob Hoskins) and his brother Bernie intertwine with the main story throughout the film before both strands resolve into an inter-connected finale but it has all the emotional punch of watching someone solve a Rubik’s cube. The entire film plays as merely an intellectual exercise in connecting plot strands for the sake of it as there is no real warmth for the characters detectable behind it. Bob Hoskins though seems to be enjoying himself as a shy quiet man and such casting against type, see his latest snarly menacing bald bloke turn in Hollywoodland by way of illustration, is quite refreshing for the audience too.

Buffy fans (meaning yes, me, I did this) will greet the appearance of Tony Head with a cheer and justifiably too as he is one of the few things in this film worth cheering. As Kate’s louche uncle (also named Tony), Head is a hoot. His priceless reaction to finding a cuddly blue dolphin toy delivered with his milk in the morning is one of the few, few reasons to smile during the last 40 minutes. This is one comedy that fails to shine. Somewhere in England there’s a community hall that still has a leaky roof because a grant was given towards this film’s budget by the National Lottery. Register your civic disapproval…

1/5

August 7, 2019

From the Archives: Waitress

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers a sleeper hit indie film about a pregnant waitress having an affair that was a very odd mix of comedy and drama, definitely more sour than sweet…

Waitress is a low budget indie film that was an audience favourite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has since been a sizeable sleeper hit at the US Box Office. Tis a comic tale of a pregnant unhappily married waitress who begins an affair with her charming gynaecologist while dreaming of winning a pie-baking contest…  It’s important to know these facts so that you can disregard them because Waitress is actually a distinctly unsettling clash of comedy and drama. Adrienne Shelley assembled a terrific cast of cult TV stars for her debut film as a writer/director. Keri Russell (Felicity and Mission: Impossible 3), Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Shelley herself play the three waitresses at Joe’s Diner where most of the action takes place. Nathan Fillion (Buffy and Firefly) and Andy Griffith (Matlock) round out the cast of familiar faces from the small screen.

Jenna (Keri Russell) is a waitress who idealises, no make that, romanticises, food out of all proportion. She was taught how to cook by her mother and so each crisis in her life she deals with by her closing her eyes and imaging a new pie she’s going to bake. Much of the film’s comedy comes from these speeded up sequences of her hands piling ingredients into pies with titles like ‘Earl murders me cos I’m having an affair Pie’.  Jenna’s brutish husband Earl is a misogynistic monster whose attitudes aren’t so much 1950s as 1850s, the sneering villain of Victorian melodrama (remember that genre because we’ll come back to it). There are three moments of physical abuse by him in this film that are among the most upsetting things you will see at the cinema this year, all the more so because we have already learned to dread his appearances because of his previous emotional abuse and economic subjugation of his downtrodden wife.

The problem with Waitress is that its enthusiastic reception Stateside has been largely down to the comic side of the film which admittedly features many hilarious turns. Eddie Jemison woos Shelley’s waitress with hilariously bad ‘spontaneous poetry’, Nathan Fillion brings his celebrated comedic deadpan to the role of the nervous gynaecologist Dr Pomatter (who would ordinarily twitch like Woody Allen in the hands of lesser actors) and Andy Griffith joyously resurrects his Matlock persona as Joe, the owner of the diner and an irascible old grouch with a heart of gold. This comedy element sits most awkwardly against the predicament of Jenna’s deeply unhappy marriage and the poverty trap she appears to be stuck in without any hope of escape. The ending then unbelievably resorts to one of the most tired stock cliches of Victorian melodrama in order to solve this script conundrum.

Waitress therefore is hard to recommend enthusiastically, as it is a comedy with many hysterical moments which also features, in Jeremy Sisto’s Earl, one of the most repulsive, because realistic, villains of recent years.

3/5

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

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 thirty-third portmanteau post on matters of course!

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

June 8, 2018

Trailer Talk: Part IV

In an entry in this sporadic series I round up the trailers for some of this autumn’s most anticipated films.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Buffy the Vampire Slayer great Drew Goddard returns to the director’s chair, and he brings his Cabin in the Woods star Chris Hemsworth with him for what looks a lot like a glorious cameo as the villain. I fear the trailer may give away a bit too much regarding the nefarious folk that hang out at the El Royale and the bad times that go down there, but Goddard has an undeniable flair for comedy and has assembled a terrific cast of newcomers and established stars. There are echoes of The Cabin in the Woods in the notion that characters who think they’re doing their own thing are being watched and manipulated by a mysterious management. It’s also hard not to wonder if Hemsworth might be playing a Charles Manson type, given the setting, and that Manson seems to be in the air in Hollywood as the 50th anniversary of the Helter Skelter massacre approaches. Let us see what mixture of comedy and gory bombastic deeds Goddard has produced.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Rooney Mara does not return. Claire Foy is now Lisbeth Salander. David Fincher also does not return. Fede Alvarez is now David Fincher (sic). And, stunningly, Stieg Larsson does not return. Fede Alvarez and others are now writing for him. So, 2 films in and this has turned into the James Bond juggernaut; where the creatives are easily replaceable and only the original author’s title or some riff on it survives the adaptation process. I had always wondered how they would solve the problem of the supervillain Niedermann that Larsson unwisely introduced into his later novels; a man part Hulk and part Wolverine inserted in a previously grimly realistic universe. Little did I suspect the solution would be throwing away those two novels… Alvarez and Foy are both great, but the firing of Mara and Fincher to make way for them leaves a sour taste that may be impossible to overcome; especially as the Salander as avenging angel motif is clumsily played up so astonishingly literally in this trailer.

Under the Silver Lake

And David Robert Mitchell is cutting his film, after a brutal reaction at Cannes. Nobody should ever do anything based on brutal reaction at Cannes. Nobody should do anything based on reaction at Cannes. The worst films get lauded and the best films get crucified in that unnatural atmosphere, and the world is the poorer for it when this forces changes. Let’s not forget people at Cannes booed The Neon Demon.

October 2, 2015

9 Days of 90s Horror

Hallowe’en comes to the Lighthouse with 9 days of 90s horror films from 23rd to 31st October culminating in a Scream-themed party before a screening of the late Wes Craven’s third reinvention of horror cinema.

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While the IFI’s Horrorthon unleashes a slew of new genre entries, the Lighthouse will hark back to the 1990s; the origin of the ‘ironic slasher’ sub-genre which was murdered by torture porn, and found-footage, which, like many a horror bogeyman, just won’t die. In association with the Bram Stoker Festival the 90s Vampire strand brings Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Stoker’s text back to the big screen, placing it beside other 90s vampire movies Blade, From Dusk Till Dawn, and the original iteration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The most important film being screened, however, is Scream. Wes Craven redirected the current of horror cinema three times: Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. Teamed with razor-sharp screenwriter Kevin Williamson he delivered a totemic movie well worthy of a Scream-themed Hallowe’en night costume party.

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FROM DUSK ‘TILL DAWN

Friday 23rd October 10:30pm

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s first blood-soaked collaboration is presented in a digital restoration; that won’t make QT happy… A grimy, violent B-movie about a seedy Mexican bar that happens to be crawling with vampires this had its origins in VFX guys wanting a showcase script for their handiwork. So, after some quintessentially Tarantinoesque build-up, with fugitives George Clooney and Tarantino trading taunts and riffs with their hostages Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis, Rodriguez’s aesthetic takes over: Salma Hayek and energetic mayhem.

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BLADE I & II – (Double Bill)

Saturday 24th October 9:00pm

Never let a high concept get in the way of a good double bill! Guillermo Del Toro’s 2002 sequel sees humans and vampires form an uneasy alliance to defeat the mutated vampires known as ‘Reapers’, who threaten to infect and/or eat everyone. But first we have to see Wesley Snipes’ vampire superhero take down Stephen Dorff, with some help from Kris Kristofferson, in the 1998 debut of the ‘Daywalker’. All together now: “Some motherf****** are always trying to ice-skate uphill.”

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BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

Sunday 25th October 10:30pm

Nothing bad is ever Joss Whedon’s fault. That trope began here. His script for this 1992 teen comedy was apparently neutered in production, leading Whedon to dream it all up again for TV; where, even as show-runner, season 4 was also somehow not his fault. Buffy’s cinematic origin story isn’t a patch on the TV development, and, while Donald Sutherland’s Watcher and Rutger Hauer’s Master Vampire add class to proceedings, this is more interesting as a time capsule (Look! It’s Luke Perry!).

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BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

Monday 26th October 3:30pm

Director Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay differs wildly from Stoker’s book. Coppola fixated on a ‘true love never dies’ doppelganger love story between Gary Oldman’s Count and Winona Ryder’s Mina Murray, that shaped Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ recent steam-punk TV adaptation. Cast adrift amidst outré sets that bellow their obvious artifice, Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing and Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker try to ground things, but the best verdict remains Winona Ryder’s acidic “I deserved an Oscar for the job I did promoting that movie…”

Silence

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – (Cinema Book Club)

Tuesday 27th October 8.00pm

The Halloween edition of the Lighthouse’s Cinema Book Club is Jonathan Demme’s film of Thomas Harris’ best-selling chiller. Harris’ universe has been thoroughly mined, most recently in Bryan Fuller’s hallucinatory series Hannibal, but this 1991 Oscar-winner was the breakthrough adaptation. Jodie Foster’s FBI rookie Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins’ imprisoned cannibal Hannibal Lecter are indelible performances. It’s become fashionable to disparage this in favour of Manhunter, but there’s a reason few people ever saw Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter…

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THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

Wednesday 28th October 8.30pm

The greatest horror producer of the 21st century Jason Blum passed on this at Sundance, and has been kicking himself ever since. Some people at early screenings in 1999 thought that this was real; giving its unnerving ending enough power to create a buzz that made it a sensation. It wasn’t real. It was, however, the moment where found-footage horror stomped into the multiplex and declared it would never leave, all because of an unsettling walk in the woods in Burkettsville, Maryland.

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WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE

Thursday 29th October 8.30pm

Wes Craven wrote and directed this late meta-instalment in the franchise he had kicked off with his original vision of Freddy Kreuger. Heather Langenkamp, Nancy in 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street, plays herself; plagued by dreams of a Freddy Kreuger far darker than the one portrayed by her good friend Robert Englund. Featuring cameos from several of the original cast and crew Craven produces a postmodern musing on what happens when artists create fictions that take on a life of their own.

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CANDYMAN

Friday 30th October 8.30pm

Bernard Rose’s cult classic, an adaptation of genre legend Clive Barker’s The Forbidden, follows a thesis student who is researching urban legends. Unfortunately for him he discovers the terrifying world of ‘Candyman’, the ghost of a murdered artist who is summoned by anyone foolish to say his name out loud into a mirror five times. Masterfully made, still absolutely terrifying, and the reason we all cheer whenever Tony Todd makes a cameo ever since, this also features the unlikely bonus of a Philip Glass score.

HOCUS POCUS, Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, 1993

HOCUS POCUS, Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, 1993

HOCUS POCUS

Saturday 31st October 3.00pm

A token film for the kids is 1992’s Hocus Pocus. Why the misfiring hi-jinks of Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy’s trio of Salem witches is perennially on TV is a mystery, but to present it as the essential kids’ Hallowe’en film is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. Especially when Nicolas Roeg’s film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, starring a scary Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, dates from 1990…

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SCREAM I & II – (Double Bill & Party)

Saturday 31st October 9.30pm.

Neve Campbell confidently carries this 1996 classic, a blackly hilarious self-aware dissection of slasher clichés which is also a brilliant slasher filled with tense sequences. Williamson’s delicious dialogue (“Movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative…”) is brought to memorable life by an ensemble on truly top form, with star-making turns from Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Rose McGowan, and Skeet Ulrich. 1997’s sequel isn’t quite as good, but Kevin Williamson’s dialogue remains a joy, there are some nail-biting moments, it’s as subversively self-aware as 22 Jump Street of its sequel status, and uses Timothy Olyphant, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jerry O’Connell, and David Warner to great effect.

‘9 Days of 90s horror’ ends with a Scream-themed Hallowe’en party preceding the Scream double bill, beginning at 8pm. Dress as your favourite 90s horror icon and enjoy the ironically-named cocktails, soundtrack of 90s hits, and general japery all related to Wes Craven’s classic slasher.

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TICKETS FOR 90S VAMPIRE FILMS:

http://www.lighthousecinema.ie/newsarticle.php?sec=NEWS&_aid=8323

 

TICKETS FOR 90S HORROR FILMS:

http://www.lighthousecinema.ie/newsarticle.php?sec=NEWS&_aid=8455

November 25, 2014

Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence assumes her role as symbol of the revolution in the third instalment of The Hunger Games; which might be the best one yet.

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Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is suffering from the experience of the Quarter Quell even more than the trauma of the original Hunger Games; hiding in tunnels, having panic attacks, and in total denial that her home, District 12, has been destroyed. Her rescuer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has taken her to the underground bunker that houses the survivors of District 13’s destruction by the forces of the Capitol. He introduces her to President Coin (Julianne Moore), and, after, Katniss is allowed to see District 12 for herself, takes charge of turning Katniss into the Mockingjay – symbol of the Revolution. But it’s only after shooting a hysterically inept propaganda video that Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) makes a ‘Let Bartlett be Bartlett’ speech, and Katniss is allowed into combat; trailed by Plutarch’s recruit, film director Cressida (Natalie Dormer). Katniss’ raw reactions make her a weapon in a propaganda war, with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) taunting her with his own weapon – Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

“Moves and countermoves,” as Donald Sutherland whispers, are the substance of this film; and it makes for an unusual and shadowy blockbuster. The characters in the Capitol are distanced from us: President Snow only appears 5 times, Peeta and Caesar (Stanley Tucci) are merely faces on giant television screens, other kidnapped victors are mentioned but not seen. The relationship of the air war of propaganda videos to the ground war of rebel action is shown by director Francis Lawrence utilising the ever-increasing budget to flesh out more and more of the geographical variety of the world of Panem. Loggers in District 7 rebelling against Snow’s increased quotas take up Katniss’ spontaneous rallying cry “If we burn, you burn with us” after her traumatic baptism of fire into the war in District 8. Rebels in District 5 turn Katniss’ folk-song, creatively edited by Plutarch, into a revolutionary marching song; like ‘John Brown’s Body’ morphing into the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’.

A long-take where Katniss walks down the ramp of a hovercraft which takes off to reveal the ruins behind her before we follow her as she walks into rubble exemplifies both Francis Lawrence’s masterful use of CGI and the exceptional sets. District 12 resembles Terminator 2’s skull-strewn future, a wave of humanity descending a spiral staircase in District 13 is rendered hypnotic, and Coin’s addresses to the populace in that bunker make you appreciate how poorly realised Zion was in the Matrix sequels. The decision to split Suzanne Collins’ novel in two is fully justified as Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong (Recount, and also Jonathan from Buffy!) provide a screenplay that makes us fear anyone; including the ever stoic Gale (Liam Hemsworth); could die, ratchets up tensions for its suspenseful finale, and drops a truly creepy character detail during it to boot. Francis Lawrence rises to the challenge of creating a different type of Hunger Games movie, while Jennifer Lawrence retains Katniss’ fire while layering her with uncertainty.

Interstellar is the most intelligent blockbuster of 2014, but Mockingjay’s tactical battle might be the most interesting popcorn movie.

4/5

January 28, 2014

2014: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 3:58 pm
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The Monuments Men

George Clooney stars, co-writes with Grant Heslov again, and directs what seems like a promising mash-up of The Train and Ocean’s 11, arriving sometime in February. Somewhat based on fact, a crack team of art experts and soldiers are assembled in the dying months of WWII to try and rescue priceless works of art from wanton destruction at the hands of nihilistic Nazis. The team includes regular Clooney cohort Matt Damon and the great Cate Blanchett, alongside the undoubtedly scene-stealing comedic duo of Bill Murray and John Goodman, and oddly Jean Dujardin. Can Clooney pull off a more serious art heist from Nazis caper? Fingers crossed he can.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson returns in March, apparently in thrall to Lubitsch and Lang. Edward Norton did so well in Moonrise Kingdom that he’s invited back alongside Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Owen Wilson. Newcomers are Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, and F Murray Abraham. Fiennes is the legendary concierge of the titular hotel in inter-war Europe, where any gathering storms are ignored in favour of absurd murder plots, art thefts and family squabbles gone mad, as Fiennes gives his lobby-boy protégé an education in dealing with the upper classes which he’ll never forget; if they escape a sticky end long enough to remember.

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Veronica Mars

AW YEAH!! It was cancelled in 2007 but Kristen Bell’s iconic teen detective snoops again as creator Rob Thomas sends NYC legal eagle Veronica back to sunny Neptune to attend her high school reunion. Present and correct are friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), nemesis Madison (Amanda Noret), and frenemy Dick (Ryan Hansen). Dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) remains a sage, warning against the obvious peril of insipid boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) being replaced in her affections by roguish ex Logan (Jason Dohring), who is once again accused of murder and asking for V’s help. Please let the sparks of ‘epic love’ spanning ‘decades and continents’ rekindle!

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness have been put to one side for this rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Literally everything I loved most about the original disappeared with the time-jump. So the major attraction of April’s sequel isn’t Robert Redford as a shady new SHIELD director, but Revenge’s icy heroine Emily VanCamp as the mysterious Agent 13. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow regrettably take the place of Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell in support, but Anthony Mackie as sidekick Falcon is a major boon. The real worry is that directors Joe and Anthony Russo (You, Me and Dupree, yes, that’s right, that’s their resume) will be intimidated by their budget into endless CGI action and precious little else.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m excited and nostalgic, because May 23rd sees the arrival of the X-3 we deserved, but never got. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he launched for one of Claremont/Byrne’s most famous storylines. In a dystopian future, where mutantkind has been decimated by the Sentinels of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage),Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman – this is a movie, not a comic, it’s all got to be about Wolverine!) is sent back into the past by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) to alter history by rapprochement of their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence co-stars, with every X-Men actor!

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22 Jump Street
A proper summer blockbuster release date of June 13th for this sequel recognises the hilarious success of the absurd original. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) (or was it the other way round?) go undercover in college to crack another drug ring, and once again their fantastic bromance starts to crack under the strain. The original’s unwieldy team of writers and directors are back, as are Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco. Amber Stevens and Wyatt Russell are the college kids, but sadly Brie Larson is absent. Jonah Hill appears in full goth gear, which seems to suggest that the absurdity levels remain healthy.

The Trip to Italy

It’s not clear yet if we’ll get this as an abridged film or just be treated to the full version as 6 episodes on BBC 2. In either case Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite to play heightened versions of themselves as they bicker their way around restaurants in Italy for the purposes of writing magazine reviews. 2010’s endearing roving sitcom The Trip, with its competitive Michael Caine impersonations was a joy, and director Michael Winterbottom takes the show on tour here. And no better man for the job, as this originated with their duelling Al Pacinos at the end of his A Cock and Bull Story.

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Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen’s latest should hit our screens around September. This time round the cottage industry is giving us a period romantic comedy, set in the south of France, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. The cast is as usual intimidating: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, the imperious Eileen Atkins (one of the few actresses capable of domineering over Judi Dench), and Jacki Weaver. Will F Scott and his ilk make an appearance? Who knows! There are no details, just stills of open-top cars, drop waists, and cloche hats so this could be a close cousin of Sweet & Lowdown or Midnight in Paris.

Gone Girl

The start of October sees the great David Fincher return, with his first film in three years, and it’s another adaptation of a wildly successful crime novel. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are seemingly the perfect couple, but when she disappears suddenly on their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect as he discovers his wife told friends she was scared of him. Could he have killed her? Or is the truth far more twisted? Gillian Flynn has adapted her own work, and, incredibly, penned an entirely new third act to keep everyone guessing. The unusually colourful supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Fugit.

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The Interview
The pitch is that an attractive talk show host and his producer unwittingly get caught up in an international assassination plot. So far so blah, if that was say Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson directed by Shawn Levy, except that the host is actually James Franco, the producer is Seth Rogen, the interview is in North Korea, and the awesome Lizzy Caplan is the rogue femme fatale CIA agent who drags them into all sorts of mischief. And it’s written and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg who distinguished themselves with 2013’s best comedy This is The End. This is very likely to mop up the non-Gone Girl audience.

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan tries to redeem himself after TDKR with a small personal project, taking the same release date as The Prestige did. Well, small, in that the WB needed Paramount to stump up some cash for it, and personal, in that Spielberg spent years developing it; albeit with the assistance of Jonathan Nolan. Scientists attempt to observe a wormhole into another dimension, and that’s about all we know, other than vague speculations about ecological crises. Matthew McConaughey 2.0 stars alongside Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, and, yes, Michael Caine – who is now as essential a part of the signature as Bill Murray for Wes Anderson.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence goes for third biggest hit at the North American box office for the third year in a row with her latest turn as rebel heroine Katniss Everdeen on November 21st. Having survived the Quarter Quell and the destruction of her District, she discovers President Snow has Peeta hostage, and that the rebellion has a leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore), ready to embark on a full-scale bloody war of rebellion against the Capitol. Recount writer (and Buffy shmuck) Danny Strong is the new screenwriter, and Elementary star Natalie Dormer joins the cast, but director Francis Lawrence remains in situ, with his considered visual style.

November 25, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part I

“And that was the day the boy from Smallville became Superman…” 10 years is a long time for any TV show to run. When that show is the eternally misfiring Smallville, it’s an even longer time for a show to be part of your life…

Put it this way. Smallville has been running for so long that not only have season 1 meteor freaks like Adam Brody and Lizzy Caplan gone on to be the leads in their own TV shows, but Amy Adams has made the spectacular leap from meteor freak of the week to Lois Lane in Zack Synder’s forthcoming Superman: The Man of Steel. By the bitter end the only actor who’d stayed the course of the regulars was Tom Welling as Clark Kent, presumably the cursed role was only finally pried away from his cold dead hands, as even Allison Mack decided to eschew most of the final season and only belatedly arrived as a Chloe Ex Machina, just when John Glover showed up as Lionel Luthor to give some sense of an ending that synched with the 2001 pilot. The parallel careers of the runners-up for the role of Clark demonstrate exactly what Welling gave up by remaining always faithful.

Jensen Ackles didn’t get the role, and instead jumped straight back into Dark Angel, as his previous one-shot appearance became a regular role. When that ended he hopped onboard the final season of Dawson’s Creek. He was later terrific as the season 4 villain in Smallville, initially Lana’s charming boyfriend before his sinister machinations were unmasked, and then nabbed his signature role as Dean Winchester in Supernatural where his bad boy swagger was complemented by gory horror and sly humour. Ian Somerhalder didn’t get the role, and instead instantly shot a leading role in Roger Avary’s sublime The Rules of Attraction. He was terrific in Smallville season 3 as Adam Knight, loudly rumoured to be Batman. He wasn’t, of course, Smallville never delivered on awesomeness, and limped off to lick his wounds in O’ahu for the first season of LOST. Thankfully Somerhalder’s dark charisma finally found a role to popularly showcase it – the sociopathic vampire Damon in The Vampire Diaries.

Good actors weren’t the only people on the Smallville merry-go-round. Skilled writers came, tried to inject awesomeness, mostly failed, and quickly moved on. Jeph Loeb wrote for Smallville before moving on to LOST and then Heroes, but his contributions were rarely as distinctive as on those later shows. Drew Z Greenberg jumped from Buffy to Smallville where he penned some of season 3’s best episodes (the psychic who sees people’s deaths) before leaving. Steven S DeKnight jumped from Angel and made a pivotal contribution, forming the Justice League and penning damn near ¼ of season 5 to entice his associate James Marsters to star as season villain Braniac. The departure of creators Millar & Gough saw their lieutenants embark on an unintentionally funny Doomsday arc, before using a Kandorian clone of General Zod then a half-baked Darkseid as season villains, even as Geoff Johns simultaneously contributed a stunning two-part Watchmen homage and some terrific comics-based episodes of wit and depth.

The problem was that great writers were always struggling against a mediocre format. Miles Millar and Alfred Gough set up Smallville in such a way as to promote endless angst, and heavy handed hints of Superman adventures to come, while occasionally promising awesome adventures around the next arc, except those adventures never came – for 10 years. Season 2 of Smallville was a prime example. Indeed, it was almost unbearable in its angst quotient, which it mistook for deep drama. Spider-Man 2, which Millar & Gough co-wrote demonstrates to perfection their Smallville agenda for achieving emotional weight. Simply replace characters with their equivalents; Norman Osborn is Lionel Luthor, Harry Osborn is Lex Luthor, MJ Watson is Lana Lang, Aunt May is Martha Kent, Ben Parker is Jonathan Kent, Peter Parker is Clark Kent; and transfer their reluctance to give Superman a cape with Spider-Man’s baffling refusal to wear his mask, and you can see their one-size fits-all approach to writing superheroes.

It became clear as time went on that Millar & Gough didn’t really have a plan for resolving the central dilemma of their own concept – if Lex gradually became a supervillain wouldn’t he then, having earlier befriended Clark, know exactly who Superman was? The decision to kill Lex seemed to resolve that, while also making stark nonsense of the show’s own continuity as Lex’s dark future had been glimpsed by psychics, and foretold by prophecy. But then a cloned/resurrected Lex, possessing all his memories, triumphantly returned for the final ever episode. Only for Tess Mercer aka Luthessa Luthor to mind-wipe Lex, with a super-chemical compound, as her dying act. Lex remembered nothing of his friendship with Clark. And it turned out that all Clark needed to fly was an inexplicable voiceover appearance by Jor-El, after Darkseid had just socked Clark, introducing a montage of 10 seasons of Smallville as being the trials that he needed to embrace his Kryptonian heritage.

Clark just flying like it was second nature immediately after that was far too reminiscent of the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz – he had the power all along, he just had to believe it. The fact that he flew in season 4 also made it seem especially ridiculous. As for Lex’s mind-wiping, it was an ingenious save – and, like the equally neat LOST finale twist, entirely unrelated to everything that went before. It may well have been an ‘emergency finale device’ that’s been lying around for years in case the show got abruptly cancelled. But I won’t deny that Lex’s return was a joy. His first lines with Clark were the best written dialogue in Smallville for seasons: “Lex….” “You still say it the same way. Astonishment, with a hint of dread, but a hopeful finish.” The two montages that accompanied these turning points for Clark and Lex demonstrated something that I’ve always argued is TV’s greatest strength.

Its ability to develop character and accumulate experiences over a sustained period of time is unique. I stuck with Smallville despite its shortcomings because it wormed its way into my memories, and not just because for a while episodes were sound-tracked by chart-topping singles. I have vivid memories of discussing different seasons of the show with different people, as few people but me stuck with it for the whole run, and even our viewing motives changed. By season 8 I was chuckling at the stupidity of the show’s writing almost more than I was watching it for comic-book fun, and discussing it with others in that vein. But the montages reminded me why I’d loved the show in the first place – the heartbreak of the young Lex crying at the birthday party no one attended, the thrill of seeing Clark discover various powers for the first time. Smallville ran far too long but its Top 20 episodes would be superb.

It was great being reminded of the sublime moments the show had produced, many from a dynamic almost forgotten because those characters had long since left, but it was even better being told we had at long last reached the destination. In the closing minutes of the show we finally got to see Clark stop whining to Jor-El, put on the damn cape and fly, and rescue Lois by saving Air Force One. We heard Perry White as editor of the Daily Planet bark at Lois while she hassled an Olsen photographer (a dubious touch), as a white-suited (but with one hand black-gloved) Lex become President in 2018, before Clark ran out of the Daily Planet revealing the S under his shirt to the strains of John William’s score as the credits appeared in the 1978 font. Chloe’s statement to her son, “There’ll always be more adventures for another day”, summed up the enduring appeal of this iconic stable of characters.

So Smallville ended its decade long run as the longest running Superman TV series ever. It wasn’t always the best Superman TV series, but that’s something for Part II…

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