Talking Movies

July 28, 2019

Notes on The Current War

The late 19th Century duelling engineers drama The Current War was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Benedict Cumberbatch adds another name to his roll call of Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turing, and Dominic Cummings, playing another character with poor social graces and a conceited regard for their own high ability. Except that in this instance of course Thomas Edison is wrong. Simply wrong. As Michael Shannon’s George Westinghouse puts it if Edison gets his way and insists on direct current being the standard used then America will become a checkerboard of power plants as Edison constructs one every square mile because he refuses to use the superior system of alternating current. The film doesn’t hold back from how unpleasant Edison was in blackguarding Westinghouse’s AC because he lacked the mind necessary to solve the problem of its high voltage. The man, who once worked for him, possessed of that mind was Nikola Tesla; played here by Nicholas Hoult, and used sparingly, almost as if, like the Nolans with The Prestige, Tesla can only be a minor character in a film because there really is simply too much of the wizard about him.

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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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April 14, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XI

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

The means defeat the ends: Part III

Bob Iger has declared a hiatus because of Star Wars fatigue. People he thinks can have too much of a good thing. Well, certainly people have can too much of a good thing. But that is not the problem with Star Wars. People are clamouring for more Fast & Furious movies and Mission: Impossible at a faster rate until Tom Cruise’s body gives out. But Disney has managed the incredible feat of draining the Star Wars cash cow dry in just 4 movies. The decision to make three Star Wars movies between 2015 and 2019 was always rather suspect, because it would inevitably lead to what indeed happened – not a singular creative force like George Lucas or Christopher Nolan or Christopher McQuarrie driving decisions, but instead development and execution by committee. And it is not for nothing that they say a camel is a horse designed by a committee. I bought some Star Wars socks just before Christmas in Marks & Spencer and they amusingly summed up what went so catastrophically wrong for Disney. The packaging was festooned with images of Rey, Finn, and Poe, who we are all meant to find enthralling beyond belief. And yet the socks themselves featured stitched in renditions of R2-D2, Darth Vader, Boba Fett, a stormtrooper, and the Star Wars logo. Because they knew that nobody would buy the socks if they featured Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo, and Rose. And so the socks themselves were entirely OT, and you could throw the packaging away with a maniacal laugh. Much like the end of the new Star Wars trailer.

Seraphim Falls Revisited

I recently watched Seraphim Falls for the first time since I saw it in the cinema in 2007 as it popped up on TV in an eerie coincidence. From a distance of twelve years I was surprised by how much I remembered of the physical details of the chase, even as I’d forgotten the particulars of the revenge, how the trippy ending took up less screentime than it did in my remembering, and also how it seems to inhabit a grittier version of the same fantasy Old West populated by Irishmen as Michael Fassbender’s Slow West. This is the film in which John Healy first pointed out to me what I later referred to in my review of The Revenant as “Pierce Brosnan’s grunting and moaning in pain school of physical acting”. It’s especially interesting watching Liam Neeson play a man out for revenge the year before Taken, when he was still riding high off playing two bearded mentors in 2005’s Batman Begins and Kingdom of Heaven.

December 9, 2018

From the Archives: The Prestige

Hugh Jackman is in the news this week just as I find in the distant past before even the pre-Talking Movies archives a review of one of his best films.

Every magic trick has three acts, every film has three acts, and Christopher Nolan has wittily combined the two by playing a three-card trick on the audience. Set in 1890s London The Prestige follows the professional rivalry and very personal enmity that develops between magicians Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier (Hugh Jackman) after Borden is responsible for the death of Angier’s wife (a tragically underused Piper Perabo) in a magic trick gone badly wrong.

Christian Bale brings his usual intensity to the role but as always so completely inhabits his character that, despite the presence of fellow Batman Begins alumni Michael Caine and Nolan, you will not think of his Dark Knight once as you watch his poor cockney try to upstage the aristocratic Jackman. Jackman is surprisingly good playing an equally driven and fairly unpleasant character while in support Michael Caine is reliably solid and the tragically overused (by which I mean she appears in the film) Scarlett Johansson is reliably pouty. Caine is pitted against Bale’s character, which for film critics with a chronic inability to focus makes some scenes look amusingly like an act-off over who has the best cockney accent. It has to be said on balance that Bale manages to out-Caine Sir Michael Caine himself. David Bowie could really have stirred things up on this front but he performs his cameo role as Niklos Tesla in a restrained Serbian accent.

The extreme lengths the magicians Borden and Angier are willing to go to in order to sabotage each other will make you wince and are genuinely shocking, one image at least should haunt you for weeks. But, as with all Christopher Nolan films, it is the telling of the tale and not the compelling tale itself that makes the film extraordinary. Narrated by both Borden and Angier the film is a Chinese box of narrative tricks. Christopher Nolan and his brother and screenwriting partner Jonathan Nolan are after all responsible for the intricately structured Memento, one of the defining films of the decade, as well as the frighteningly intelligent blockbuster Batman Begins.

M Night Shyamalan’s biggest success had one twist at the end that took people’s breath away. There are at least four twists scattered throughout The Prestige which will make you feel as if you’ve been punched in the stomach so completely do they reorder your understanding of what you’ve already seen. Which makes it damnably hard to write about without ruining the joy of its structure. When this film ends you will feel cheated. In a way that’s part of the trick. The real fun comes over the next day and a half when you realise ‘oh that’s what that scene meant’ and ‘so that’s why he said that’. While you’re waiting for The Dark Knight go see The Prestige and be the victim of masterful cinematic sleight-of-hand.

4/5

August 8, 2018

The Oscars are beyond saving and must be allowed to die

That is a quote most members of the Academy would not recognise, because it was from a popular comic-book blockbuster movie. Batman Begins.

giphy

I wrote a piece a few months back that suggested the Oscars needed to change and not in the way they think. Instead today we have the jaw-dropping plan to give a most popular film award at the Oscars, you know to keep the philistines happy.

Here is a modest suggestion. To emphasise how this is not a proper artistic award, but a sop to the rabble, it should not take the shape of a golden Oscar, instead they should literally break the mould and sculpt the statuette in the shape of a black panther; because that is what is going to win it. Black Panther must be acknowledged in some way, or social media, actual media, and Spike Lee will catch fire and we will all burn to death. But the Oscars would literally rather create a new nonsense award than give the damn Best Picture Oscar to a film that just passed 700 million dollars at the North American Box Office a mere 5 years after Ryan Coogler and Michael B Jordan made Fruitvale Station for .9 million dollars. Coming in 123rd at the North American Box Office with 16 million dollars the tragicomic truth is that Coogler and Jordan would have more chance winning Oscars with that movie than with Black Panther.

The Oscars have nothing but contempt for the people who literally pay their wages, so do what I have been doing for years: don’t care and don’t watch these clowns flatter each other for indie cliches, pious tripe, and bad art that says the right things.

July 20, 2018

From the Archives: The Dark Knight

On this day ten years ago I saw The Dark Knight on the biggest IMAX screen in the world. Yeah…

“Where do we begin?” The Dark Knight is a sequel that expands upon and darkens an existing cinematic universe so successfully and unsettlingly that it ranks far above what one would think of as the obvious reference point The Empire Strikes Back and instead starts advancing menacingly towards The Godfather: Part II…

Director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan are very clever, as evidenced by their last collaboration The Prestige, and see greatness where others do not, as evidenced by reading the original novel of The Prestige. In The Dark Knight they have constructed a story that takes the mythology of the DC comic books and turns it into both high tragedy and violent mayhem.

Christian Bale is superb as Bruce Wayne who is quickly becoming a physical and emotional wreck after one year of being the Batman. What was intended as a short-term project to clean up corruption looks to be nearing its end with a final audacious swoop on the mob’s money-men. Bruce’s only chance of a normal life is slipping away though as his sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal at her most winning), tired of waiting for Bruce, is dating the idealistic new District Attorney Harvey Dent (a wonderfully charismatic Aaron Eckhart who also communicates an underlying instability that could lead Harvey to places of great moral darkness). Bruce can only compete against Dent for Rachel if he can trust Dent enough to retire Batman and leave the crime-fighting to the legitimate forces of Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his Major Crimes Unit. However such plans are wrecked when the mob in their desperation at Batman’s success decide to fight back by hiring, in the Don Sal Maroni’s own words, “a two bit whack-job in a cheap purple suit and make up”…The Joker.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, physical and unhinged – licking his lips like a snake sensing its prey, blows away the inert Jack Nicholson performance and retires the role for a generation if not all time. Oscars don’t go to films like this but Ledger’s performance here is worthy of consideration. His Joker is blackly hilarious and utterly terrifying, usually at the same time, and even his musical theme is chilling. The Nolan brothers cross many lines in depicting his psychopathic unpredictability. One of the taglines for this film was “Welcome to a world without rules”. Batman cannot understand Joker.  Carmine Falcone wanted power, Scarecrow wanted money, Ras Al’Ghul wanted order, The Joker? –  “I’m an agent of chaos”… His escalating mind games in the film move from straight crime with a superbly staged opening heist against a Mob bank, to terrorist attacks, to sick mass murder and beyond…

The Dark Knight is fiercely intelligent, ingeniously structured (to reveal plot details would be a sin) and gives memorable lines and moments to each member of a large ensemble, while the twisted bond between Batman and Joker that exists in the comics finally receives a cinematic depiction. This is all incredibly realistic looking with 60% of the film shot on location and if seen on an Imax screen, as Christopher Nolan indeed shot it especially for, Gotham becomes a character in its own right with its cityscape lovingly captured in vertiginous shots. Written, played and directed with supreme assuredness this is one of the most gut-wrenchingly suspenseful films of the year that looks to 1970s crime thrillers like Serpico rather than superhero films for its modus operandi with its theme of police corruption. Indeed this is unlike any previous Bat-sequel, as can be seen by the difference between the grisly Two-Face in this film compared to previous camp interpretations, and is even tonally different in many ways to Batman Begins. Wanted may be the most fun blockbuster this summer but the Bat has captured the classy end of the spectrum with a film that combines meaty drama with explosive action.

You need to see The Dark Knight. Repeatedly…

5/5

April 22, 2018

And he built a crooked house

Stephen Errity, who has occasioned a few pieces like this, prodded me to mark 10 years since the first spark of this blog in 2008.

Talking Movies proper began on Sep 1st 2009, but April 22nd 2008 saw the staking of this claim in the digital terrain; and there is an obvious topic to hang an anniversary post on. Just over a week later the first review went up – Iron Man… 10 years later, that bloated business plan known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to finally pay-off (HA!! Yeah, right…) in the shape of (The) Avengers (3): Infinity of Characters War. I will not be going to it. It’s not just that I don’t care about Thanos, of many of the other characters, or the Infinity Stones that have become a deadly serious ‘Fetch’. Marvel Studios’ omnipresence have made the last 10 years seem very long indeed, and have successfully killed off my interest in their characters, comic-book movies, and comic-books themselves. “Oopsies!”

I’ve charted my obvious decline of interest in the Marvel movies below. I saw the bold in the cinema, the italics on DVD, and the others remain unwatched.

Iron Man

The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man 2

Thor

Captain America

The Avengers

 

Iron Man 3

Thor 2

Captain America 2

Guardians of the Galaxy

The Avengers 2

Ant-Man

 

Captain America 3

Doctor Strange

Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Spider-Man

Thor 3

Black Panther

The Avengers 3

Working my way through the archives in the last week I find myself complaining over time that the Marvel movies lack the outrageous fun of Mark Millar’s comic extravaganza of these same characters, The Ultimates. I vividly remember being pedantically lectured by a bore on how audiences wouldn’t accept a scene as outré as the ultimate Millar action movie fantasy beat where Black Widow jumps from building to building and calls for a gun to be dropped from a chopper above her so she can grab it in mid-air and crash into the next building spraying bullets to save Hawkeye. Clearly, audiences wouldn’t accept this. I mean 3 movies into the MCU audiences had already accepted a bank vault being towed and used as a prehensile wrecking ball in Fast & Furious 5, and would later accept an endless runway in Fast 6, a man running up a falling truck at the same speed and so remaining in situ in Fast 7, and, oh yeah, cars driving out of one skyscraper, into another skyscraper, out of that skyscraper, and into another one. But yeah, Marvel actually adapting a panel from one of their own comics, clearly, audiences would rebel. Just as they howled in outrage and ripped up the seats when X-Men: First Class put the characters in their original yellow and blue outfits rather than the fetish leather that we were told was the only choice in 2000 because audiences wouldn’t accept those silly costumes. Oh wait, they didn’t.

January 8, 2018

Top 10 Films of 2017

10) The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Old Dustin Hoffman

Grumbles so loquaciously

His kids just despair

 

9) Thor: Ragnarok

Marvel does funny!

Or Taika Waititi

does Marvel, more like

 

8) Ingrid Goes West

Aubrey Plaza mad

Aubrey Plaza not bad though

Instagram’s to blame

 

7) La La Land

They sing and they dance

Might they fall in love perchance?

Well yes, all that jazz

 

6) Wind River

Two cold Avengers

Can’t believe it’s not Longmire

Till the hymn to wolves

 

5) Logan Lucky

Soderbergh returns

‘Ocean’s 7-11’

Hoot and a holler

 

3) Personal Shopper

Hip Kristen Stewart

Sees ghosts, shops for clothes, and waits

but who’s haunting her?

3) Dunkirk

Nolan does Dunkirk

Ticking clock horror movie

Don’t need words, just feel

2) Fast & Furious 8

Fire will not burn Vin

Bullets will not pierce The Rock

They forgive The State

1) 20th Century Women

Ode to older mums

The past lived as the present

True ’79

August 15, 2017

100 Best Films of the Century (sic)

Poring over Barry Norman’s ‘100 Best Films of the Century’ list last month set off musings on what a personal version of such a list would be. All such lists are entirely personal, and deeply speculative, but it’s time to be more ambitious/foolhardy than heretofore and nail this blog’s colours to the mast. Norman unapologetically focused on Old Hollywood, but Talking Movies has more regard than he for the 1980s and 1990s. The years to 1939 are allocated 10 films, and each decade thereafter gets 10 films, with an additional 10 films chosen to make up any egregious omissions. What is an egregious omission, or addition for that matter, is naturally a matter of opinion. Like the truest lists this was written quickly with little revision. If you don’t trust your own instincts why would you ever trust anyone else’s?

Gone with the wind

The first day to 1939

Nosferatu

The Lodger

M

King Kong

It Happened One Night

The 39 Steps

A Night at the Opera

Top Hat

Secret Agent

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Gone with the Wind

TheBigSleep-011

1940 to 1949

His Girl Friday

Rebecca

Citizen Kane

The Maltese Falcon

Casablanca

Shadow of a Doubt

The Big Sleep

The Stranger

Rope

The Third Man

1950 to 1959

Strangers on a Train

The Lavender Hill Mob

Singin’ in the Rain

Them!

Rear Window

High Society

Moby Dick

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Rio Bravo

1960 to 1969

Last Year in Marienbad

The Manchurian Candidate

The Birds

The Great Escape

Billy Liar

Dr. Strangelove

Goldfinger

Dr. Zhivago

The Sound of Music

The Good The Bad And The Ugly

Once Upon a Time in the West

Ma Nuit Chez Maud

The Italian Job

1970 to 1979

Kelly’s Heroes

Aguirre the wrath of God

The Godfather

Dog Day Afternoon

Jaws

All the President’s Men

Annie Hall

Star Wars

Superman

Apocalypse Now

1980 to 1989

The Blues Brothers

Chariots of Fire

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Blade Runner

Ghostbusters

Back to the Future

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Aliens

Blue Velvet

Wall Street

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Die Hard

1990 to 1999

JFK

My Own Private Idaho

The Silence of the Lambs

Terminator 2

The Age of Innocence

Jurassic Park

Pulp Fiction

Speed

The Usual Suspects

Scream

The Matrix

Fight Club

2000 to 2009

Memento

Almost Famous

Moulin Rouge!

Ocean’s Eleven

Donnie Darko

The Rules of Attraction

The Lord of the Rings

Team America

Brick

Casino Royale

Atonement

The Dark Knight

2010 to the present day

Inception

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World

Incendies

Skyfall

Mud

This is the End

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Birdman

High-Rise

20th Century Women

July 28, 2017

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan follows his longest film with his shortest since his 1998 debut Following, with which it shares a tricky approach to time and story.

France is sucker-punched and on its way to falling. The British Expeditionary Force is leaving it to its fate and retreating through the only open port, Dunkirk, that England might still have an army with which to fight on. On the Mole Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) spend a week organising the evacuation of soldiers, with the difficulty of a shallow beach and one quay making a perfect target for Stuka dive-bombers. On a Little Ship Dawson (Mark Rylance) pilots his way across the Channel over a long day, with son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and stowaway George (Barry Keoghan). On a ticking clock of one hour’s fuel RAF aces Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) attempt to fend off some of the Lutwaffe’s endless attacks on the beach and convoys. Their stories intersect tensely, complexly.

Nolan hasn’t made as abstract a film as this since Following. To a large degree the presence of some Nolan repertory and a host of familiar faces lends a degree of depth to the characterisation not perhaps there simply in the spare scripting. And it is spare. The majority of screen time belongs to Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who meet on the desolate beach, and try to stay alive thru repeated attacks, and the dubious comradeship of Alex (Harry Styles). And for the majority of their screen time, they are silent. But the film is not. Viewed in IMAX this is absolutely deafening, with Hans Zimmer’s score interrogating the line with sound design as it throws anachronistic synth blasts amidst the ticking pocket-watch effect, and, startlingly, quotes Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ Variation at high points of tension and release.

On his second collaboration with Hoyte Van Hoytema it’s still unclear whether he and Nolan are less interested in the shadows and earth tones of Wally Pfister’s palate or simply have lucked into two stories that required large swathes of white and blue. One thing that looks unique is the aerial dogfights, IMAX cameras attached to Spitfires these have a dizzying sense of reality: this is a pilot’s eye-view of combat and it’s madly disorienting. And, as the inevitability of Hardy’s choice to not return from France approaches, symptomatic of this film’s remarkable sense of dread. You can no more criticise Nolan for not following the Blake Snyder beats than you could attack Jackson Pollock for failing at figurative art. He can do that supremely well, he’s choosing not to. And making you look, follow, and feel without using words.

And, without using any words, Nolan plays a game with time that makes Dunkirk a film that will amply repay repeat viewings. As the timelines intersect you realise that events that looked simple are a lot more complicated, sometimes even the reverse of what you thought you’d understood. And the same is true for characterisation. At times it feels like Nolan is answering the tiresome critics who attacked Inception and Interstellar for having too much exposition, even as they complained they couldn’t understand them – for all the explanations. And, if those critics insist on taking the ridiculous Billington on Stoppard line of Nolan being all head and no heart, he has the ultimate conjuring trick; Nolan makes us care, with our guts in knots, for people whose names we’re not even sure about, let alone their back-story and motivations.

Nolan has taken a touchstone of British culture and produced a film with a lean running time but a Lean epic quality by viewing the world-changing through the personal.

5/5

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