Talking Movies

April 28, 2019

Keanu Reeves at the Lighthouse

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 1:44 pm
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The Lighthouse cinema is gearing up for something called Keanurama, a whole season of films starring the inimitable Keanu Reeves. Talking Movies‘ reaction to this news could only be captured by one word – whoa.

There is a veritable feast of Keanu Reeves on offer here, from his team-ups with Winona Ryder in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, A Scanner Darkly and Destination Wedding to his 1990s-defining action movies Point Break and Speed, from his indie classics River’s Edge and My Own Private Idaho to his mainstream hits Parenthood and Devil’s Advocate, from his original breakthrough Bill & Ted movies to his recent John Wick comeback trilogy.

John Wick & John Wick: Chapter 2 DOUBLE BILL

May 10th

Keanu had three movies (Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi) that didn’t make Irish cinemas but made one hell of a comeback as the principled hit-man universally beloved in the hit-community, the larger underworld, and the small town he retired to. Keanu’s stunt-work was an endearing mix of fluency and occasional rustiness, and he made us love Wick as he rampaged after the mobsters who killed his puppy. The flabby sequel expanded the Man from UNCLE-like Continental universe too much, but featured some memorable fights; especially the Wellesian throwdown with Ruby Rose.

Destination Wedding

May 10th

Fellows 1990s icon and latterly cinematic exile Winona Ryder made her great comeback in Stranger Things in 2016 so it was only fitting that she would reunite for a third time with Keanu in this 2018 rom-com by Mad About You writer /director Victor Levin about two misanthropes travelling to a hopelessly pretentious destination wedding and being lumbered with each other there. In a curious twist it seems that this film, just like 2017’s similarly themed rom-com Table 19 about the people you invite to weddings and seat far away to avoid them, hides some very formalist experimentation behind innocuous trappings.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

May 10th

Keanu and Winona’s first film together saw them gamely battle with cut-glass English accents as married couple Jonathan and Mina Harker for Francis Ford Coppola’s curate’s egg of a horror movie, that aspires to great fidelity to its source text even as screenwriter James V Hart makes sweeping inventions about reincarnated immortal beloveds so that Gary Oldman’s rejuvenating Count can lust over Winona. Roman Coppola rummages thru the Old Hollywood playbook for practical magic, and Sadie Frost and Monica Bellucci go all out for eroticism, but despite an impressive ensemble (including Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing) this never catches fire.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

May 15th

Legendary hit-man and lover of dogs John Wick is excommunicado, having conducted business on Continental property. Now Ian McShane has given Keanu one hour’s grace in which he must fight his way out of New York with a $14 million contract on his life and every assassin in the Five Boroughs eager to collect. The production photo of a besuited Keanu riding a horse thru NYC has already taken on a life of its own, and we’re promised an equally tantalising samurai sword fight on motorbikes, as well as a detour to Africa with ally Halle Berry.

Speed 35mm

May 25th

Die Hard cinematographer Jan De Bont made an auspicious directorial debut with this high-concept action blockbuster about a mad bomber targeting an LA bus that has to stay above 50mph in a city known for its congestion. The leads Keanu and Sandra Bullock strike sparks, Jeff Daniels and Joe Morton are terrific in support, and Dennis Hopper chews the scenery as the crazed bomber – sorry, he’s not crazy, “poor people are crazy, Jack, I’m eccentric” – delivering witticisms from the pen of Joss Whedon. Mark Mancina’s score is a triumph of urgency and elation as Keanu attempts to save the day.

A Scanner Darkly 35mm

June 1st

Richard Linklater adapted Philip K Dick’s hallucinogenic novel using his favoured animation technique, rotoscoping, to create a uniquely hellish new world in which an undercover cop in a not-too-distant future becomes involved with a dangerous new drug and begins to lose his own identity as a result. Keanu is said cop, and he’s romancing Winona Ryder in their second film together. But she, and indeed everyone else, may not be what they seem as the drugs start to take hold. A pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr is very, very funny in his role as a rambling, voluble, paranoid junkie.

Parenthood

June 5th

Director Ron Howard bade farewell to the 1980s with this ensemble comedy led by Steve Martin dealing with his ever-expanding Midwestern American family. The impressive cast includes Dianne Wiest, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Joaquin Phoenix, and Rick Moranis. Keanu stretches his comedic muscles as Tod, the not too bright but thoroughly amiable boyfriend to Martin’s fiery oldest daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton), a small but memorable turn. It’s tempting to draw a direct line from Keanu’s performance here to that of Reid Ewing as Dylan, the nice but dim boyfriend to the eldest Dunphy daughter in this current decade’s defining sitcom Modern Family.

River’s Edge

June 7th

Keanu and Dennis Hopper co-star again in a far more sombre movie than Speed. A group of high school friends including Keanu, Ione Skye, Crispin Glover, and Roxana Zal must come to terms with the fact that one of their gang, Daniel Roebuck, has unapologetically killed his girlfriend. This look at the private lives of teenagers; their misdemeanours, code of honour, betrayals; consciously courted controversy by basing the grim tale on a real-life occurrence in California. This is one of Keanu’s earliest roles, agonised and soulful, in a haunting and pitch-black 80s teen drama that almost seems to have invited Heathers.

The Devil’s Advocate

June 14th

Keanu’s up and coming Florida lawyer Kevin Lomax accepts a high-powered position at a New York law firm headed by legal shark John Milton (Al Pacino). Meanwhile, Keanu’s wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron in her first Hollywood iteration) begins to have frightening hallucinations warping her sense of reality. Kevin quickly learns that his mentor’s life isn’t about simply winning court cases without scruples. Pacino and Connie Nielsen have something far darker in mind. Pacino literally being the Devil in this gaudy thriller featuring creatures by the legendary Rick Baker; he of the lycanthropic transformations in An American Werewolf in London.

My Own Private Idaho

June 18th

Writer/director Gus Van Sant followed up his hit Drugstore Cowboy with a far looser movie featuring one of Keanu’s most nuanced performances and an affecting turn by River Phoenix. This key work of the New Queer Cinema follows two street hustlers, Phoenix’s Mike and Keanu’s Scott, as they embark on a road-trip from Portland, Oregon to Mike’s hometown in Idaho, and then eventually to Rome in search of Mike’s mother.  All the while Scott Favor has no intention of leading this street life forever. Van Sant incorporates Henry IV better than you’d believe possible with Keanu as bisexual Hal.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

June 21st

Bill S Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu) are in danger of failing their history final most heinously. This will result in Ted’s disciplinarian cop father sending him to military school. And that would be the end of Wyld Stallyns, the band the pair are trying to make into an MTV sensation despite a total lack of musical ability. It turns out, as Rufus (George Carlin), a dude from the future tells them, it would be the end of the world too. And so comedic time-travelling and borrowing historical figures ensues to ace the history final!

 

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

June 22nd

Keanu’s major sequel problem (John Wick: Chapter 2, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and being blacklisted by 20th Century Fox for passing on Speed 2) began with this bogus journey. William Sadler is sublime as the Grim Reaper, straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and crummy at Battleship. There is some wonderful set design, but, despite multiple robot versions of our heroes and more time-travelling and time-travel fuzzy logic than you can shake a stick at, this just isn’t as much goofy good-natured fun as its underdog predecessor. Third time’s the charm next year dude?

So first you watch one film with us, and then you watch another film with us, right after?

Bill & Ted DOUBLE BILL

June 23rd

WHOA! Two heads are better than one dude!

“Will you be at this party?” “Definitely.”

Point Break 4th July Party

July 6th

“Vaya Con Dios…”

Point Break

July 11th

Keanu leads this hybrid undercover cop in too deep/surfing/action heist/bromance Point Break with alternately lyrical and muscular direction from Kathryn Bigelow and a script polish by James Cameron. A string of bank robberies in Southern California where the villains disguise themselves as former US presidents sees hot-shot FBI agent and former college football star Johnny Utah (Keanu) assigned the dead-end case and Gary Busey’s gruff veteran. Keanu and Busey realise their crazy theory is correct – these bank-robbers are surfers! Keanu goes undercover, and romances Lori Petty’s surfer while growing closer to the gang’s leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Will he arrest him?

And coming directly after all that is the 20th anniversary re-release of … The Matrix.

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January 9, 2019

Hopes: 2019

Glass

They called him Mister…

Glass, an unlikely sequel

to Unbreakable

 

Cold Pursuit

U.S. remake, but…

with same director, Neeson

in for Skarsgard. Hmm.

 

Happy Death Day 2U

Groundhog Day: Part II.

I know what you Screamed before.

Meta-mad sequel.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Cate Blanchett missing,

Daughter on her trail, thru time,

Very Linklater…

Pet Sematary

Stephen King remake.

Yes, sometimes dead is better,

but maybe not here.

 

Shazam!

Chuck: superhero.

Big: but with superpowers.

This could be great fun.

 

Under the Silver Lake

It Follows: P.I.

Sort of, Garfield the P.I.

Riley Keough the femme

 

Pokemon: Detective Pikachu

Ryan Reynolds is voice

Pikachu is the shamus

PG Deadpool fun?

The Turning

of the screw, that is.

Mackenzie Davis the lead,

can the ghosts be real?

 

John Wick: Parabellum

Keanu is back

On a horse while in a suit

Killers in  pursuit

 

Ad Astra

James Gray does sci-fi,

Brad Pitt looks for dad in space,

Gets Conradian.

 

Flarksy

Rogen heart Theron;

High school crush, now head Canuck.

No problem. Wait, what?!

Ford v Ferrari

Mangold for long haul;

Le Mans! Ferrari must lose!

Thus spake Matt Damon

 

Hobbs and Shaw

The Rock and The Stath.

The director of John Wick.

This will be bonkers.

 

The Woman in the Window

Not the Fritz Lang one!

Amy Adams: Rear Window.

Joe Wright the new Hitch.

CR: Chris Large/FX

Gemini Man

Will Smith and Ang Lee,

Clive Owen and the great MEW,

cloned hitman puzzler.

 

Charlie’s Angels

K-Stew’s big comeback

French films have made her, um, hip?

Just don’t bite your lip…

 

The Day Shall Come

Anna Kendrick stars in-

Um, nobody knows a thing

Bar it’s Chris Morris

 

Jojo Rabbit

‘My friend Adolf H.’

is Taika Waititi-

this could get quite strange…

February 4, 2015

2015: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 7:22 pm
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Chappie

The Water Diviner

Russell Crowe makes his directorial debut with a timely WWI tale about the formative trauma for the Antipodes of the slaughter of the ANZAC in Turkey. TV writer/producers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios provide the screenplay, which is a step away from their usual crime caper comfort zones, in which Crowe travels to Gallipoli in search of his three missing sons in 1919. He is aided in this likely fool’s errand by Istanbul hotel manager Olga Kurylenko and official Yilmaz Erdogan, while familiar Australian faces like Damon Herriman, Isabel Lucas and Jai Courtney round out the cast.

 

Chappie

Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver are career criminals who kidnap the titular character and raise him as their own adopted son – but he’s a robot! Yeah… This peculiar feature is definitely a change of pace for writer/director Neill Blomkamp but it’s not clear from his first two features District 9 and Elysium whether he has the chops for a smart sci-fi crime comedy mash-up. District 9 was a gore-fest with a hysterically muddled message about apartheid, while Elysium was an embarrassing, illogical call to arms for Obamacare. Jackman’s been on a bit of a roll though so fingers crossed.

 Furious 7 Movie Poster

The Gunman

March 20th sees Sean Penn attempts a Liam Neeson do-over by teaming up with Taken director Pierre Morel for a tale of a former special forces operative who wants to retire with his lover, only for his military contractor bosses to stomp on his plan; forcing him to go on the run. The lover in question is Italian actress Jasmin Trinca, while the organisation and its enemies have an unusually classy cast: Idris Elba, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, and Ray Winstone. Morel will undoubtedly joyously orchestrate mayhem in London and Barcelona, but can he make Penn lighten up?

 

Furious 7

The death of Paul Walker delayed his final film. Following the death of Han, Dom Torreto (Vin Diesel) and his gang (Walker, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Dwayne Johnson) seek revenge against Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham as the brother of Fast 6’s villain). Chris Morgan pens his third successive Furious screenplay but, apart from dubious additions like Ronda Rousey and Iggy Azalea to the cast, the main concern is how director James Wan (The Conjuring) will rise to the challenge of replacing Justin Lin. Wan can direct horror but how will he handle Tony Jaa’s chaos?

john-wick-keanu

John Wick

April 10th sees the belated release of Keanu Reeves’ acclaimed low-fi action movie in which his sweater-loving retired hit-man wreaks havoc after his dog is killed; it being his last link to his dead wife for whom he’d quit the underworld. M:I-4 villain Michael Nyqvist is the head of the Russian mob who soon discovers his son Alfie Allen has accidentally unleashed a rampage and a half. Chad Stahelski, Reeves’ stunt double on The Matrix, directs with a welcome emphasis on fight choreography and takes long enough to make the action between Reeves and Adrianne Palicki’s assassin comprehensible.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

Well here’s an odd one and no mistake. Original director George Miller returns to the franchise after thirty years, co-writing with comics artist Brendan McCarthy and Mad Max actor Nick Lathouris. Max Rockatansky is now played by Tom Hardy channelling his inner Mel Gibson, roaring around the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback with Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult. This does look like Mad Max 2, but it’s not a remake; merely an excuse to do Mad Max 2 like sequences of vehicular mayhem but with a huge budget for the mostly practical effects, and some CGI sandstorm silliness.

Jurassic World

Jurassic World

Jurassic World opens its gates in June, boasting an all-new attraction: super-dinosaur Indominus Rex, designed to revive flagging interest in the franchise park. From the trailer it appears that in reviving this franchise new hero Chris Pratt has combined the personae of past stars Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill. Bryce Dallas Howard meanwhile takes over Richard Attenborough’s presiding over disaster with the best of intentions gig. Apparently there will be some animatronic dinosaurs, but the swooping CGI shots of the functioning park emphasise how far blockbuster visuals have come since Spielberg grounded his digital VFX with full-scale models.

 

Mission: Impossible 5

July sees Tom Cruise return as Ethan Hunt for more quality popcorn as Christopher McQuarrie makes a quantum directorial leap from Jack Reacher. Paula Patton is replaced by Rebecca Ferguson, but Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Ving Rhames all return, as do Robert Elswit as cinematographer and JJ Abrams as producer. The trademark stunt this time appears to be Tom Cruise hanging onto the side of a flying cargo plane, the villain is possibly Alec Baldwin’s character, and the screenplay is by a curious combo of Iron Man 3’s Drew Pearce and video game writer Will Staples.

ST. JAMES PLACE

St James Place

October 9th sees the release of something of an unusual dream team: Steven Spielberg directs a Coen Brother script with Tom Hanks in the lead. Hanks plays James Donovan, a lawyer recruited by the CIA to work with the Russian and American embassies in London in 1961 after Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane is shot down. The Company hope to secretly negotiate a release for the pilot, and keep all operations at arms’ length from DC to maintain plausible deniability. Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, and Eve Hewson round out the impressive cast of this drama.

 

Crimson Peak

October 16th sees Guillermo del Toro reunite with Mimic scribe Matthew Robbins. Their screenplay with Lucinda Coxon (Wild Target) sees young author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) travel to the titular mansion of a mysterious man, who lives in seclusion in the mountains. Apparently del Toro has outdone himself with the production design of the mansion’s interior. The cast includes Supernatural’s Jim Beaver as Wasikowska’s father (!!!), Tom Hiddleston, Doug Jones, Charlie Hunnam, and the inevitable Jessica Chastain. But can del Toro, who’s not had it easy lately (The Strain), deliver a romantic ghost story mixed with Gothic horror?

 007-bond-movie-announcement-new-title-spectre

Spectre

The latest Bond film will be released on November 6th. In a hilarious reversal of prestige John Logan’s screenplay was overhauled by perennial rewrite victims and action purveyors Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Sam Mendes returns to direct as Daniel Craig’s 007 investigates the titular shadowy organisation, which makes a most welcome return after decades of lawsuits. Christoph Waltz may be Blofeld, Daniel Bautista is definitely his henchmen, Lea Seydoux and Monica Belluci are Bond girls, and charmingly Jesper Christensen’s Mr White links Paul Haggis’ Solace and Spectre. And Andrew Scott joins the cast! Perhaps Moriarty’s a Spectre operative.

 

Mr Holmes

Writer/director Bill Condon has been on quite a losing streak (Breaking Dawn: I & II, The Fifth Estate). So he’s reteamed with his Gods & Monsters star Ian McKellen for another period piece. Adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty) from Tideland novelist Mitch Cullin’s work, this finds a 93 year old Holmes living in retirement in Sussex in the 1940s troubled by a failing memory and an unsolved case. Condon reunites with Kinsey’s Laura Linney, and intriguingly has cast Sunshine’s Hiroyuki Sanada, but this will be closer to ‘His Last Bow’ or Michael Chabon’s retired Holmes pastiche?

empire-cover-jennifer-lawrence-katniss-everdeen-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-one

Mockingjay: Part II

All good things come to an end, and Jennifer Lawrence’s duel with Donald Sutherland’s President Snow reaches its climax in November with what director Francis Lawrence considers the most violent movie of the quadrilogy. Familiar TV faces join the cast, with Game of Thrones’ Gwendolen Christie as Commander Lyme and Prison Break’s Robert Knepper as Antonius, and Philip Seymour Hoffman takes his posthumous bow as Plutarch Heavensbee. The last movie shook up the dynamic of these movies with a propaganda war, so it will be interesting to see how Lawrence stages an all-out rebellion against the Capitol.

 

Macbeth

Arriving sometime towards the end of year is Australian director Justin Kurzel’s version of the Scottish play starring Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. That pairing enough is reason to be excited, but we’ll also get Paddy Considine as Banquo, Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff, David Thewlis as Duncan, and Jack Reynor as Malcolm. Not to mention that Kurzel directed The Snowtown Murders and his DP Adam Arkapaw shot True Detective. Hopes must be high therefore that this will be both visually striking and emotionally chilling in its depiction of Macbeth’s descent into bloody madness.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The movie event of 2015 arrives on December 18th. The original heroes (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford) and their sidekicks (Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels) will all be making a welcome return after the passionless prequel protagonists. Director JJ Abrams has also cast a number of rising stars (Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Gwendolen Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar Isaac) and a total unknown (Daisy Ridley – allegedly the protagonist!) The trailer seemed to indicate that this trilogy might actually be some fun, but Super 8 showed that fan-boys sometimes forget to bring originality.

June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

I come not to praise Seth MacFarlane, nor to bury him, but to consider his failure with a comedy-western alongside Damon Lindelof’s Cowboys & Aliens.

o-A-MILLION-WAYS-TO-DIE-IN-THE-WEST-TRAILER-facebook

I found A Million Ways to Die in the West to be oddly reminiscent of early Woody Allen films like Bananas; intermittently hilarious, but not really a film. But if Woody pre-Annie Hall was simply stitching together sketches without anything but the most broadly-drawn larger narrative purpose, then it seemed like the reverse was happening to MacFarlane – making ‘a Western, goddamnit!’ sucked the humour out of his comedy-western script. And so to a knotty point – there was a grindingly efficient story structure at work, but the central comic conceit of MacFarlane’s movie was unclear. Critic Joe Griffin pitches the film as – “it’s a normal guy with 21st century sensibilities who lives in the violent frontier of the Old West and is dragged into a typical Western story.” This nails MacFarlane’s interactions with Amanda Seyfried, which come close to replicating the clinical psychoanalysis terms Woody uses with Louise Lasser in Bananas with an almost identical purpose – the comedy of language entirely inappropriate to the situation. But the first genuinely funny moment is MacFarlane’s later riff on the dead mayor, which literally comes out of nowhere. Along with the inevitably blood-soaked county fair, it suggests that the titular conceit of horrible deaths would’ve been a far better source of thematic comedy. Instead MacFarlane decides to mine comedy by working the most exhausted seams of the rom-com with Charlize Theron; even down to the obligatory big lie – she chose not to tell him she’s married to terrifying Liam Neeson. Only very occasionally (to wake the audience) does he sprinkles absurdist comic moments; and meanwhile he’s also trying to touch every Western generic base.

Griffin writes “This, I think, is what happens when someone has had too much control on a project so early in his film career.” MacFarlane is the star, director, co-writer, and producer of A Million Ways; and his co-writers are his Ted and Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. That’s a lot of control. To put it in context, it’s more than M Night Shyamalan ever managed to acquire at the height of his hubris. It’s undeniable that without the success of Ted it’s unthinkable that MacFarlane would have been allowed to cast himself as the physical lead, and it’s probably equally unlikely that Wellesley and Sulkin would alienate their TV day-job boss by proposing a page-one rewrite of his pet film project. I have to agree with Griffin because getting too much control because of success is part and parcel of the disastrous creative bubble I described in 2011 which I predicted would scupper The Dark Knight Rises; Wellesley and Sulkin wouldn’t be silent because they wouldn’t want to rain on MacFarlane’s scripting parade, they’d be silent because they’d be doing the Macarena in the middle of the parade. Because they’d written Ted they’d assume whatever any of them suggested would be equally awesome, and so nobody cries halt until the train has gone far over the horizon. But I want to dissent against myself and speculate that what happened in the Million Ways writers’ room (story structure and Western tropes pushing out badly needed jokes) was the same as the fiasco that occurred not so long ago in another writers’ room not so very far away…

Cowboys and Aliens

Remember 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens? No, well, don’t feel bad. Here’s what its co-writer Damon (LOST) Lindelof had to say about it in an extremely interesting 2013 interview: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.” Cowboys & Aliens was supposedly based on a comic-book by Scott Mitchel Rosenberg, which, from the small sample available on Amazon, appears to proudly wear ‘guilt over the treatment of Native Americans in times gone by’ on its sleeve. That suggests that Ace Ventura creator Steve Oedekerk was right to create a fun screen story distinct from the comic-book. And then rewrites began… Of the credited writers a draft was done by Mark Fergus & Howard Ostby (Iron ManChildren of Men), whose credits suggest that a more serious tone had begun to emerge. Which is presumably why Lindelof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, M:I-3, Star Trek) were brought in to do the final draft of the script. Add some humour? Some nonsense? Yeah, well, obviously that didn’t work. But look at what Lindelof characterised as a genre trapping of the Western: Native American allies. What?! That would certainly be news to the Duke…

In 1991 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr took aim at America’s universities in his polemic The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger was extremely alarmed at the mass of evidence that political correctness had triumphed over sanity: “When a student sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual,’ a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: ‘This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.’” (117) In his 1982 novel Before She Met Me Julian Barnes had a history professor baffled by the genuine horror and anger of a student whenever the wrong side triumphed in any given stand-off. Schlesinger Jr was damning of attacks on ‘Eurocentric’ American history, and it was essentially an appeasement of Barnes’ fictional student; by rewriting history. In one district where Native Americans had political clout it was taught that their tribal politics had influenced Thomas Jefferson every bit as much as European Enlightenment. It had not, as Schlesinger Jr flatly stated. And yet… In Sleepy Hollow, co-created by Cowboys & Aliens scribes Kurtzman and Orci, we find Ichabod Crane noting how in his 1770s existence Native American tribal politics had been a pivotal influence on Thomas Jefferson. A throwaway cute line; to anyone who hasn’t read Schlesinger Jr’s book. If you have, you’re stunned that this is not meant as a joke or provocatively revisionist statement; it is simply stated as true when it is not.

Rio Bravo John Wayne Dean Martin

MacFarlane, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof were all born in 1973. This puts them in college at Brown, Wesleyan, UT Austin, and NYU Film School, respectively, during the height of the ‘Death to DWEMs’ tide that Schlesinger Jr was trying to turn back. I honestly think every time somebody sits down to write anything Western-related in Hollywood these days they get some epic pol.sci/film studies college flashback. As a result, in between apologising to Native Americans, rewriting the role of women in the West, inserting grim truths about the lawlessness and brutality of life then, demythologising Wayne and Ford’s back catalogue, and faithfully inserting and then attempting to subvert in the accepted revisionist mode every Western trope they were ever taught, they lose any sense of fun. Lindelof posited “a Western that had aliens as bad guys” as “the cooler movie”, and yet Cowboys & Aliens is entirely lacking any sense of being a cool adventure. It is, indeed, simply unthinkable that anybody could produce a Western right now that is exuberant fun; nobody would give you the finale of Rio Bravo. I think that may be a combination of film school prioritising, nay, canonising, serious Westerns like The Searchers and Red River over entertainments like El Dorado and Gunfight at the OK CorralRio Bravo isn’t a silly movie, but it is unabashed adventure played with great humour. But Lindelof’s description of embracing “the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies” suggests an inability to take the Western genre as it was, not as it ought to have been…

The complete failure of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t stop the even more epic failure of The Lone Ranger following it down the trail two years later. The savage darkness of The Lone Ranger was completely unsuitable for a Disney blockbuster supposedly aimed at kids, but it fitted perfectly the template of the Western produced by people Schlesinger couldn’t save. It’s admirable to insert a Sergio Leone tone into a Western romp for children, only if you also take that bloody-minded approach to your contemporary blockbusters and give us Transformers directed by Ken Loach as the working poor fighting against transforming robots who’re the highest form of capitalism. Really I think the idea of the Western as conceived by the children of 1973 is fundamentally incompatible with exuberance. In the 1970s radical directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill and Michael Cimino couldn’t wait to make a Western. But the revisionist Western wasn’t what audiences wanted. Nicholas Jarecki on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast recently made some interesting points about ‘genre exhaustion’, when an audience has seen every possible permutation arising out of a generic set-up. I don’t believe that’s what happened to the Western in the 1970s. I follow Stephen King in believing that George Lucas took the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the Western and simply, in a belated emulation of JFK’s call for a New Frontier, relocated it in space. And, as Spielberg’s Western framing at the end of The Last Crusade transparently indicates, crying for the death of the Western is like bemoaning the death of the dinosaurs while looking at flying birds: dinosaurs aren’t dead, they evolved.

Clint_GranTorino

If the blockbuster is the repository of the spirit of exuberant fun that lights up Rio Bravo, what does that make the contemporary Western? Well, it’s tempting to twist Lindelof’s words and say merely the outward trappings of the genre, stripped of its soul. Since Heaven’s Gate we’ve had serious Westerns like Dances with WolvesOpen RangeWyatt EarpUnforgivenTombstoneThe Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford3:10 to Yuma, and Seraphim Falls. We’ve had comedy mash-up disasters like Wild Wild WestCowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. And we’ve had nothing like a Rio Bravo… It’s admirable to try and cinematically reinstate the reality of the shameful treatment of the Native Americans in the Old West. But this admirable endeavour may run up against a problem if it’s part of a wider refusal to accept the Western genre for what it was and to believe that it can simply be rewritten to make it what it ought to have been. Such a massive undertaking may be more than the genre can accommodate, in one important respect – it can make for a good film, a good Western, but not a fun film. A Million Ways is not a fun film, even though it’s meant to be a comedy. And I think it’s because MacFarlane tried to hit every base; Native Americans as allies, the brutality and lawlessness of the West, rewriting the role of women (with particular emphasis on the brothels), the exploitation of Chinese labour; because he is one of that generation that can’t see a Western without giving a lecture on its propagandising.

MacFarlane certainly won’t be getting A Million Ways 2 off the ground, and his fiasco has probably scuppered any competent Destry Rides Again for the 2010s that was out there. But, considering Lindelof’s tropes, surely Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino comes closer to the cool movie that Lindelof wanted than Cowboys & Aliens. It shouldn’t be impossible to combine the 1973 generation’s ideal Western with exuberant fun – maybe it just needs Clint back in the saddle…

June 1, 2012

Prometheus

Director Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise that made his name back in 1979, but sadly this semi-prequel fails to match his own classic…

Archaeologists Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green discover cave-paintings in Scotland in 2089 that appear to clinch their theory that a race of intelligent aliens that they’ve dubbed The Engineers appeared to humanity thousands of years earlier and initiated civilisations from Hawaii to Babylonia. Four years later they awake from cryo-sleep on the good ship Prometheus of the sinister Weyland Corporation to explore the distant planet that could possibly be the home of the Engineers, according to the star map they left behind. Aloof mission commander Vickers (Charlize Theron) is bitingly sceptical of the value of their quest for humanity’s origin while hard-bitten captain Vanek (Idris Elba) is happy to let the scientists poke around futilely so long as he gets to drink and play Stephen Stills’ accordion. Things of course go horribly wrong, as they always do in Alien movies…

It’s notable that Scott was praised in 1979 for dirtying up sci-fi by presenting a vision of the future which was already old yet Michael Fassbender’s android picks up a speck of grit off the gleaming floor of Prometheus as if it was an aberration. Scott’s vision of the future this time round is positively gleaming, and rather too full of CGI hologram technology. One suspects Fassbender’s android would have malfunctioned at the first sight of the Nostromo, a spaceship held together by duct tape if there ever was one. A very measured and precise Fassbender has some fun as the android styling his hair in imitation of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and not being entirely honest with the crew, but while this film shares the slow first hour of Alien, it never really finds a higher gear.

The crew of underdeveloped characters played by colourful British actors like Benedict Wong, Rafe Spall and Emun Elliott are picked off by creatures that are more chimera than xenomorph; and perhaps there’s a nod to the scientific principle that you can never observe a phenomenon without changing its nature, but what of it? There’s no real gear-shift into suspense horror or even action. Noomi Rapace is, with apologies to Stieg Larsson and Patricia Highsmith, The Girl Who Followed Ripley, yet her role is, bar one outstandingly nasty suspense sequence, largely a cipher for ‘Faith’ and her wobbly English accent constantly distracts. The Darkest Hour scribe Jon Spaihts and LOST main-man Damon Lindelof provide the screenplay which feels all too often like a bad mythology episode of LOST. There’s a plot revelation towards the end that should surprise absolutely no one who read the credits at the start, the ‘big idea’ of the movie feels derivative, and the questions of faith and ultimate purpose and meaning that are raised are dealt with facilely. And that’s to say nothing of the conclusion, twenty minutes in which the search for an end leads to the beginning of the sequel.

Prometheus is always watchable, largely due to the stellar cast, but doesn’t even equal Benedict Wong’s other faith in space movie Sunshine. A missed opportunity…

2.5/5

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