Talking Movies

October 31, 2019

Notes on Countdown

Countdown was the film of the week for a special PG-13 horror Hallowe’en edition of Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

It’s almost hard to believe that Countdown wasn’t produced by Jason Blum. There is a certain Happy Death Day quality to proceedings, although this is far darker in tone; pushing the PG-13 rating to the limit with its demon CGI FX. The cold open certainly puts one in mind of Scream, sketching in the plot and tone of the film with great economy. The dread it generates is replicated numerous times before it starts to lose its effectiveness. Meanwhile Elizabeth Lail continues the odd flashback vibe as she seems to be channelling Kellie Martin’s ER role.

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October 29, 2019

From the Archives: Starman – Interview with Matthew Vaughn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

InDublin talked to Stardust director Matthew Vaughn about casting and CGI, Sienna Miller and celebrity culture, and a comic book he’d never heard of….

Matthew Vaughn is just dripping with enthusiasm for Stardust. He’s been trying to get the film made since the start of the decade, and asked what drove him to adapt Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed novella simply replies, “I loved the story”. Vaughn sees Stardust as closer to The Princess Bride than The Lord of the Rings. “The main theme for me – it’s a movie about a boy becoming a man, and he becomes a man by falling in love with the right woman. But it’s done in a way which is fun, not taking itself seriously at all, a feel good adventure romp. So it’s a movie for everyone: when you come out of the cinema I dare you not to feel good”. Gaiman, as producer, was happy to give Vaughn free rein. “He trusted me. Because every time I wanted to do a big change I always rang him up and said ‘Look, I’m thinking of changing this – what do you think?’ because I valued his opinion….If you’ve got someone who’s created the idea and it’s their baby. For me they’re the best person to ring up to discuss if you’re thinking of changing a scene”.

Vaughn was painstaking with his casting. Once he’d settled on Charlie Cox as Tristan “the poor guy had to do three months of auditioning for me to find Yvaine….it’s about the chemistry between the two. And I didn’t want to end up with Tango & Cash, you know, I wanted it to be the right chemistry”. Vaughn cast his Layer Cake star Sienna Miller as Victoria despite the potential for distraction given her tabloid fodder status: “She [Victoria] is the It Girl of the village so I think it worked for the character and that’s one of the reasons I cast her”. Vaughn laments Miller’s tabloid troubles. “I just feel it’s a shame her acting is getting eclipsed. Cos she does some good work, but – she doesn’t get known for it. But I say to her ‘Just keep persevering’ and eventually someone will say ‘Oh you’re a good actress as well!’” He also blasts the whole celebrity culture as being unhealthy for everyone. “The whole Jade Goody phenomenon I just scratch my head going, ‘WHAT does this tell you about England?’ I’m a big believer that fame should be a by-product of talent and success and I’m a big believer that years ago, and maybe its naïve of me, but great politicians or actors or poets or writers or comedians they weren’t trying to be famous, they were just trying to be the best at what they do, and then they became famous because of it”.

Directing Layer Cake after producing Guy Ritchie’s films reinforced the perception that Vaughn preferred small projects but he claims “I’ve always wanted to do big cinema”. But working on smaller projects made him determined not to have the CGI swamp the characters in his blockbusters. “A movie’s about having an emotional connection and telling a story and if you have that the special effects for me are an enhancement”. Stardust’s use of wirework for a dead sword-fighter is an example. “We had a big puppet sort of control thing to make him…we literally just said go limp and let us control him, in a way he was a puppet with the voodoo doll”. InDublin’s geekery finally erupted and we asked if he had any plans to film Neil Gaiman’s awesome graphic novel 1602. Only to end up explaining what 1602 is: superheroes of the Marvel Universe appear in 1602 at the Court of Elizabeth I…and Magneto is the head of the Spanish Inqusition. “Neil’s never told me about that!…that sounds cool – that sounds right up my street! I’m going to ask Marvel about that tonight! 1602?” After musing over the tangled film rights of the various Marvel characters Vaughn simplified the plot based on his friendship with Ian McKellen aka Magneto, “Make it at Fox. Have Fantastic Four and Magneto together…Spanish Inquisition. He’d get a lot of confessions…” Watch this space.

From the Archives: Stardust

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) promises to bring back a fallen star from the magical kingdom of Sturmhold to impress spoilt rich girl Victoria (Sienna Miller). However the star turns out to be a young woman Yvaine (Claire Danes) who is also wanted by a murderous prince (Mark Strong) and a wicked witch (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Matthew Vaughn follows up his gritty British gangster thriller Layer Cake with a complete change of pace. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novella this is a fairytale that subverts audience expectations right from the off. Ian McKellen, like Morgan Freeman, has ascended from an actual physical presence to being the Voice of God. He narrates the beginning of the fairytale…but then disappears until the end. Rupert Everett also has a wonderful moment guaranteed to surprise the audience which I will not ruin here. The best subversive visual gag though comes when our own David Kelly, as the decrepit guard of The Hole in the Wall between England and Sturmhold, prevents the naïve Tristan (Charlie Cox) from crossing through the portal with some nifty kung-fu moves.

Stardust is a picaresque romp following the adventures of Tristan and Yvaine (Claire Danes) so it’s no surprise that the film’s quality should vary greatly depending on who they’ve fallen in with. What is surprising is that while Michelle Pfeiffer’s wicked witch Lamia is pursuing them the film is dull but when Robert De Niro pops up things take off. De Niro plays the ‘ruthless’ Captain Shakespeare, whose flying pirates capture lightning and sell it by the bottle to their fence Ricky Gervais. Gervais is a hoot in his cameo but De Niro is even better as the camp captain made miserable by having to keep up his reputation even though he likes music, fashion and art much more. The film becomes more fun at this point because it trades violence for romance. Gaiman’s original fairytale was for adults and, while the ghostly Greek chorus of murdered princes of Sturmhold is a sporadically funny motif, the fratricidal rampage of Mark Strong’s Prince Septimus is far too violent for children.

The heart of the film is the growing relationship between Tristan and Yvaine. Stars shine but they can’t do it with a broken heart and as Yvaine’s sadness melts away in her growing love for Tristan she starts to glow again, in a particularly sweet CGI effect. A CGI effect of delicious nastiness is the way that each spell Pfeiffer casts ages her. Vaughn treats us to the diverting spectacle of a dead body sword-fighting against Tristan courtesy of some voodoo doll magic and the implacable logic of a fairytale comes into force with a vengeance at the end. Stardust though is far too long at over two hours, and while the finale is swooningly romantic and packs a feel good oomph, the film itself hasn’t been magical enough to earn the plaudits its denouement cries out for.

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

October 14, 2019

Notes on Gemini Man

Will Smith’s Gemini Man was the underwhelming film of the week early yesterday morning on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Watching Gemini Man is a disconcerting experience, and not just because of the uncanny valley effect that (and this is very baffling) intermittently afflicts scenes with the CGI’d 1990s Will Smith. No, what truly disorients is that Ang Lee, director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sense & Sensibility, has made a film of very occasional muddled and dull action surrounded by a cast of fine actors (Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Benedict Wong, Clive Owen) mumbling their way blankly thru endless tedious exposition in an idiotic script that waits for about 55 minutes to reveal what we know from the poster in the cinema lobby – that Will Smith is being hunted by his younger clone. David Benioff and Billy Ray are given the lion’s share of the credit for this mess after 20 odd years of development hell and one can only dream of what Andrew Niccol’s draft of this material might have done with the philosophical implications of cloning because this movie has zip interest except as a stepping stone to a shootout.

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September 8, 2019

Notes on IT: Chapter Two

The epic horror adaptation IT: Chapter Two was the film of the week earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

IT: Chapter Two is looooong. 2 hours 49 minutes long. It takes damn near as long to tell half the Stephen King story as the 1990 mini-series did to tell the whole story. And while there are undeniably good scares and some sequences of genuine dread, I came away with a feeling of dis-satisfaction; feeling that somehow the 1990 mini-series had done more in less time than this bloated shocker. Honest Trailers mocked the TV network censorship of the mini-series, and yet the almost parodic plethora of F-bombs masquerading as considered dialogue in this movie make you yearn for Taste & Decency. The practical effects of the Chinese restaurant scene are predictably swapped out for CGI, which of course isn’t nearly as effective a gross-out; and indeed the CGI gets so out of control that by the end we are confronted with the great cliche of our times – the giant swirling trashcan in the sky. I was always dubious about abandoning King’s structure to have a Losers Club as kids movie, and then a sequel if it went well, rather than the two-parter Cary Fukunaga intended which would flesh out King’s story with more detail and more gore.

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August 14, 2019

From the Archives: Surf’s Up

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings up a rather forgotten CGI animation starring the voice of Shia LaBeouf.

Teenage penguin Cody Maverick leaves home for the Big Z Memorial Surf Off in sunny Pen Gu Island where he falls for a pretty lifeguard and meets a mysterious hermit. Will Cody emulate his hero Big Z or will he learn there’s more to life than winning?

Yes, we’re back with bloody anthropomorphic animals again, although mercifully an early gag establishes that these particular penguins neither sing nor tap-dance… Young Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) is eager to escape his preposterously boring life of fish-sorting (hilariously depicted) in Shiverpool, Antarctica. A childhood memory of legendary surfer Big Z sustains his dream of using his surfing prowess to escape to sunnier climes. Documentary film-makers follow his progress as a talent scout for slimy promoter Reggie Belafonte (James Woods) plucks Cody from obscurity to take place in the Surf-off that provides the film’s action climax. The documentary film-makers are of course voiced by directors Brannon and Buck (it’s so post-modern it gives me nosebleeds). Cody is voiced by LaBeouf as a variant of his Transformers persona, but that splendidly awkward turn loses a lot of its humour here as Cody seethes with resentment of his bullying older brother.

The presentation of the film as a rough-cut of an MTV style documentary is quite brilliant. There are many of those trademark editing flourishes and a number of great visual gags like SPEN (Sport Penguin Entertainment Network). This all underscores that there’s a genuine intelligence and wit behind this film that just didn’t quite translate into a great script. The CGI is startlingly good during many of the surfing sequences, helped by the hand-held look (so painstakingly rendered) which makes the peril of a wipe-out painfully suspenseful. But such style cannot disguise the short-comings of the writing. Jeff Bridges, as the reclusive surfing guru Geek who mentors Cody, could have done a hilarious reprise of his role as The Dude from The Big Lebowski, if someone had bothered to write the references. Jon Heder as Chicken Joe, a surfer dude chicken, is likewise saddled with a promising role featuring too few gags. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy star Zooey Deschanel is sadly underused as the love interest, quirky lifeguard Lani, which is an especial pity as she’s one of the very few actresses around with a distinctive enough voice for animated roles.

Ultimately you want to like this film a lot more than it actually deserves. Sure it meanders badly as Cody and Geek do their Luke/Yoda thing while building surfboards and there’s far too little development of the Cody/Lani romance. But it doesn’t have the smugness of the insultingly mediocre Simpsons Movie,and its moral that enjoying yourself is better than winning at all costs (like anti-social jock villain Tank Evans) is quite brilliant; especially given that most CGI animations with A-list voices endlessly promote the message that the most important thing in life is to just be yourself … if you’re pretty.

2/5

July 31, 2019

From the Archives: Transformers

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings us to where it all began with Sam Witwicky trying to impress his hot classmate by buying his first car, and not bargaining on that car being an alien robot or his grandfather’s glasses being key to ending an alien civil war.

Two warring factions of a race of sentient robots invade Earth searching for the powerful Allspark which alone can end their battle. A geeky teenager who holds the key to its location will be protected by one of the most iconic characters of the 1980s.

If that last sentence sounds a bit like a description of Die Hard 4.0 that’s because Transformers, like Die Hard, is a blockbuster that just scraped the American PG-13 rating but is really not aimed at kids so much as kidults. Transformers is the blockbuster that saves this underperforming summer of wet weather and wetter sequels. Which is quite something given that it’s directed by Michael Bay, the man who gave us Pearl Harbour, a cinematic atrocity that will live in infamy. But Bay, suitably chastened by the failure of The Island, has finally grown up. The fingerprints of his producer Steven Spielberg are all over this film. He has managed to make Bay stop editing his films like a 5 year old on a sugar rush and adopt a sceptical attitude to the godlike status of the American military. He has also, in a nod to another film he executive produced, turned the Decepticon Frenzy (the sneaky one who spied on people, here a small ghetto-blaster) into a robotic Gremlin who is mischievous as hell and even chuckles maliciously like the Gremlins.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is our typically nerdy Spielbergian hero, desperately trying to impress classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox) with his first car. The car though is the Autobot BumbleBee, sent to protect Sam, who can only communicate thru the car radio (frequently hilariously). Transformers is surprisingly funny. Between LaBeouf and John Turturro as a secretive government agent there are scenes in this film with so much neurotic bumbling going on that you half expect Woody Allen to show up demanding royalties. There’s a full very entertaining hour of Sam trying to impress Mikaela and failing miserably, and Bumblebee trying to keep Sam safe from Frenzy, Blackout and Scorponok (the Decepticons hunting him and hacking American military computers for the whereabouts of their leader Megatron) before the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, arrives on earth.

Prime, still voiced by Peter Cullen, is exactly as you remember him. Rendered in the colours of Superman, willing to sacrifice his own life to save others, he remains one of the pre-eminent Jesus figures of pop culture. When that truck-rig emerges from a mythical mist you know he will still have never-ending reserves of compassion. Sadly his nemesis Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) is given too little time to make the menacing impression he really should. The last 40 minutes are an utter orgy of destruction on freeways and city streets but as Bay has made us care deeply about all these characters, human and robot, this is the most gripping pyrotechnics he’s ever delivered.

4/5

July 27, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XVIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Phase IV

FilmFour are showing Phase IV, Saul Bass’ singular movie as director, very late next Friday night. So late it’s technically Saturday morning at 2:20am. But it’s well worth watching. Mayo Simon, who also scripted the sequel to Westworld and The Man from Atlantis in the 1970s, provides the screenplay very reflective of its time. 20 years after classic creature feature Them! where the ants were scary for their size these ants are scary for their smarts, and the product not of atomic anxiety but burgeoning green consciousness. Them!’s practical monsters are replaced by wildlife photographer’s Ken Middleham’s stellar close-up photography of real ants. Who knows whether FilmFour are showing the version which restores Saul Bass’ original trippy finale, but the journey to it is wonderful as scientists under siege in their laboratory start to suffer paranoia and panic as ants seemingly become intelligent and aggressive. Michael Murphy as the naive idealistic scientist is unrecognisable from his Manhattan jaded sophisticate, while Avengers stalwart Nigel Davenport is customarily redoubtable as the cynical older scientist; whose determination to overcome his arm swelling to giant and useless size from an ant bite earned a special mention from Stephen King in Danse Macabre.

Oh, you thought I meant Phase 4!

No. No, I generally don’t have that much interest in business plans or announcements of new product lines. There is as much excitement to be gathered from Disney’s blustering about their plans to bother cinemas with a conveyor belt of green-screened grey-tinted generic CGI ‘spectacle’ as there is in learning about a new line of just super-duper hoovers from Mr Dyson. There are 5 TV shows that will no doubt be inexplicable without watching the films, so you have to shell out for your streaming subscription and head to the multiplex which might well be showing only Disney films because Disney might well have that much power soon. And in the multiplexes we will see Black Widow, surrounded by an air of pointlessness Natasha R having been killed off by the time Kevin Feige deigned to let her fly solo, Doctor Strange 2, bearing a notably silly title, and Thor 4, which seems suspiciously focused on Natalie Portman deigning to return to the MCU as female Thor and (insufferable since Veronica Mars) Tessa Thompson outing Valkyrie rather than on Taika Waititi’s winning comedy. Blade and Fantastic Four have no directors attached, but it doesn’t matter. Directors don’t matter. Edgar Wright was kicked off Ant-Man for having a directorial vision. Disney is wasting the time of directors like Scott Derrickson and Destin Daniel Cretton who will be remembered for their horrors and dramas, not their CGI assemblages. Shang-Chi and The Eternals will likely not be given the latitude that James Gunn was given to bring obscurities to success with Guardians of the Galaxy but instead rely on the Too Big to Fail ethos that now pervades the production and reception of the MCU. I see a lot of business here, but not much show.

June 9, 2019

Notes on X-Men: Dark Phoenix

The last chapter in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men saga was the film of the week today in a return to Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

This is the way the X-world ends, not with a bang but a whimper. Simon Kinberg first arrived as X-screenwriter with the awful X-3, and now he rehashes X-3 as X-writer/director and makes it even worse, which is perversely impressive. X-3 has some rather nice music from John Powell, strong acting even in minor roles, and a number of upsetting moments (that were doubly upsetting for how badly Brett Ratner handled them) that leaned on the good work of the first two movies. This movie has A-list composer Hans Zimmer only occasionally elevating the material with emotive minimalism, some of the worst acting outside of X-Men: Origins – Wolverine, and absolutely no memorable moments whatsoever in part because there has been no good work done in previous movies to establish anything. Cyclops was killed off 20 minutes into X-3 by Jean Grey to establish she was out of control, and here Mystique is killed off 40 minutes in by Jean Grey to establish she is out of control. Kinberg shamelessly reuses dialogue and the ideas of X-3, but doubles down on them to make what was once annoying now insufferable.

Prior to her merciful death Mystique spends her screentime whingeing about Professor X, after she dies Beast takes up the whingeing baton to the point where you just want to shout at the screen “Why don’t you just move out of the mansion you’ve been living in rent-free for 30 years if you feel that strongly about him being a bad man?” Professor X is the villain of this piece. Somehow. I’m not nearly as sure as Kinberg is that hiding from a girl, who just murdered her mother because she wouldn’t stop listening to Glen Campbell, that her father regards her as a monster and wants nothing to do with her is a morally evil act. How does he think Jean would react to hearing that? Badly? Would she kill many people in her rage? Oh, the rage. In a scene where Jean is moody at a bar one longs for Sarah Snook in this role as Sophie Turner renders Jean Grey’s transformation into Dark Phoenix the temper tantrums of a petulant teenager. Jessica Chastain barely acts as the emotionless alien Vuk, and Jennifer Lawrence projects only deep boredom.

J-Law may be the audience avatar in that respect, fed up so much talent could be squandered on a twice-told tale. Kinberg has Christopher Nolan’s regular editor and composer, and yet there is a cut with the X-jet arriving and the team appearing as jarring as the scene John Ottman apologised for in Bohemian Rhapsody. The cinematographer of Avatar is on hand to, well, hide the action under cover of darkness and big swirly CGI. Watching X-Men and X-2 in recent days they really are films of the 1990s rather than the 2000s with their emphasis on practical effects to which CGI is added; a quaint notion long abandoned by Marvel and DC films that superpowers are more impressive interacting with tangible physical reality rather than being a welter of CGI battling a big swirly thing of CGI in a CGI landscape populated by CGI extras. There is some pleasing practicality here, but this is not a movie to stand beside Guy Hendrix Dyas’ amazing sets for X-2. And let’s remember the big swirly thing CGI that reached its nadir in X-Men: Apocalypse began in X-3 for Dark Phoenix’s powers.

Kinberg reprises it here in another display of creative bankruptcy. What exactly is the point of filming the Phoenix storyline? To plonk an actress down in mauve garb to stare moodily/blankly at everything for two hours while everyone stands around agonising over killing her while repeating that she’s unstoppably powerful and therefore can’t be killed unless she wishes it? Does that sound at all interesting? At this point it seems safe to say that the writing credits strongly suggest that the only X-screenwriters worth a damn were David Hayter, Zak Penn, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman, and everyone else was just coasting off their story ideas. It seems perilously close to the truth to say that, as set up by Bryan Singer’s original decisions, these films rarely worked without Hugh Jackman as Wolverine – the best of the bunch were X-Men, X-2, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past. Maybe the reason for X-Men: First Class succeeding was that the charismatic turn by Michael Fassbender as vengeful hot-headed Magneto stood in for Wolverine. This is a terrible way for the X-Men to end given that they started the Marvel era.

It’s especially bad given that Disney will fold them into the MCU and a Marvel executive seems to think the signal problem with the X-Men was not their farrago of continuity, their revolving door of writers and directors, their recycling of the same stories, their failure to properly establish characters, their over-reliance on one actor, their ever-escalating budgets, their out of control CGI, their limited palette of character motivations and plots, but the fact that they were called the X-Men.

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