Talking Movies

April 23, 2012

Damsels in Distress

Writer/director Whit Stillman’s first film since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco is a deliriously enjoyable slice of New England liberal arts college skewering nonsense.

Ingénue Lily (former America’s Next Top Model contestant Analeigh Tipton) transfers into Seven Oaks College which is dominated by the slightly unhinged clique of Greta Gerwig’s Violet. Violet is engaged in a deadly struggle with the editor of the campus newspaper The Daily Complainer over his efforts to shut the Roman Houses as her dim boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) lives at one of these frat houses. Violet is also engaged in trying to raise morale with her Suicide Prevention Centre, which she runs with best friend Rose (CSI: Miami star Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore). Violet thinks that creating an international dance craze with her original creation the Sambola may help change the world for the better. Lily becomes more assertive under Violet’s acerbic tutelage and indeed soon thinks that Violet’s clique may be the worst people imaginable for the job of preventing suicide…

Stillman is one of the most urbane auteurs imaginable and this return from an extended absence occasioned by a film set in Jamaica falling thru is full of delightful gags. An opening argument about whether Xavier is spelt with an X or a Z which instances the lamentable case of a Xorro who signed his name by slashing X with a sword, and was therefore unjustly considered illiterate exemplifies what follows. The ‘plot’ is a ramshackle series of comedic episodes with titles. A highlight being The Roman Holiday at which the frat boys go wild in costume to the strains of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathrustra as the girls sigh that this seems to be the end of western civilisation. But following Lily from ingénue to mean girl while Violet declines is really all the structuring character arc you need when it allows glorious dialogue.

Billy Magnusen’s frat boy Thor who is hitting the books hard to try and fix in his mind what the primary colours are is a triumphant creation, and the transformative power of a bar of soap is an equally absurdist moment. Stillman also indulges in more subtle effects, as when a piece of pop Anti-Catholicism by a character is revealed later to be tragically misjudged. Gerwig is impressive as Violet, Echikunwoke receives an amazing character moment after milking her recurring line about ‘playboy operators’, which she applies to Talking Movies favourite Adam Brody; whose Charlie, alongside Hugo Becker’s exchange student Xavier, comes between Lily and Violet as romantic obstacles. People say horrible things to each other in this film but Stillman never has anything less than love for them.

No one in the world has ever really talked quite like a Whit Stillman character, but you feel sure that F Scott Fitzgerald’s characters would get on well with them.

4/5

December 3, 2011

The Big Year

Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson star in a pleasant tale of competitive bird-watching that just stubbornly refuses to take true comedic flight.

Martin plays the retired CEO of a major company who’s trying to belatedly achieve a ‘big year’, in which he would spot more species of birds in North America in a single calendar year than any other birder. That means spotting more than 700 types of bird. This involves trekking all over the continent on hot tips to spot rare birds like the great snowy owl or the pink-footed goose, travelling to the farthest island tip of Alaska (nearer to Tokyo than Anchorage) for a week to see the Asian wildlife landing there, and chasing major storms that will cause migrating birds to touch down unexpectedly on the Gulf Coast. The lengths to which the birders go results in a number of nicely rendered stampedes and diabolical schemes and tricks as well as a charming travelogue of some of America’s prettiest landscapes.

Martin is supported in his absurd quest by his wife, but perpetually harassed by requests from his former lieutenants to head back to NYC to help them with deals. Wilson, by contrast, plays the world-record holder Bostick who is testing the patience of his wife Rosamund Pike to its breaking point. She’s taking hormones to try and conceive, but he’s never around as he’s trying to better his own record to secure his place in the history books as the undisputed best birder of all time. Black is the singleton of the trio, a divorced loser who wants to achieve something with his life, and is aided by his mother Dianne Wiest arranging his travel schedule even as his father Bryan Dennehy despairs of the stupidity of his son’s choice of goal. The adorable Rashida Jones crosses his path from time to time as a fellow birder who he just can’t summon up the courage to ask out.

It’s a delight to see Anjelica Huston crossing swords with her regular Wes Anderson colleague Wilson, over his mutiny on her birding ship in his previous ‘big year’ quest to see a rare bird rather than the whale she was showcasing to tourists. It’s also amusing to see a veritable pantheon of TV comedy actors including Joel McHale from Community, Kevin Pollak, CSI Miami’s Byron quoting British Person in the lab, Network head Jack and the demented impressionist from Studio 60, as well as Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory as a blogger causing trouble. However, this movie while big hearted, solidly acted, perfectly structured, and nicely subversive of the philosophy of winning at all costs, just doesn’t have enough jokes. There’s one sublime gag but mostly you’ll just chuckle and smile.

The verdict must rest with the good doctor, Samuel Johnson: “Worth seeing? Yes. Worth going to see? No.”

2.5/5

November 1, 2011

Any Other Business: Part II

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a second portmanteau post on television of course!

Burning Down the House
I’m waiting with bated breath for the resumption of Hawaii Five-O after Lenkov’s amazing season one finale. If Moffat seemed to burn the house down with the end of his penultimate episode to season 5 of Doctor Who; which he sardonically described as the Doctor imprisoned in the most secure vault in the universe, Amy dead, Rory made of plastic and all the Whovian villains united – no problem; then Peter M Lenkov took off and nuked his O’ahu abode from orbit. Lenkov in his wisdom killed the Governor who was able to sweep all of the team’s legal transgressions under the pardon rug, framed McGarrett for her murder at the hands of the Yakuza supremo, arrested Kono for stealing millions from lock-up, returned Chin to the police force to work against McGarret, and possibly torpedoed Danny’s resurrected marriage by having him rally round McGarrett. No problem?…

Cockney Voices, Still Dialogue
I was unsurprised to learn that Saffron Burrows had been ditched from Finders after a disastrous try out of its team during a truly terrible Bones episode. To term Finders a Bones spin-off is laughable, it’s merely Hart Hanson using his existing show to try and sell a second show by demonstrating to the network how much people love his all-new adorably quirky characters. And my God were they quirky… Hanson granted each of his trio distinctive modes of speech, Michael Clarke Duncan was Dr Gonzo proffering legal advice, the ‘hero’ was verbose and savanty, and Saffron Burrows was….well, not adorable was the short verdict of the American viewing public and so she had to go. The nature of the problem became clear when shortly afterwards I saw Sienna Guillory appear in a season 11 episode of CSI: LV. Guillory spoke in her normal English accent, and everything was fine, because she was just handed regular CSI: LV dialogue and told to use her natural voice. Hanson wrote dialogue that aimed to be ‘Cockney’ in its Artful Dodger choice of words and rhyming slang, and thus London girl Burrows ended up incredibly unconvincing as a Cockney!

RTE’s feeling for insomniacs
What is wrong with RTE? More specifically what is wrong with their schedulers? Why do they insist on buying major American shows, with big budgets and numerous awards, and then burying them in the graveyard shift? Mad Men barely creeps in before midnight, Hawaii Five-O comes on just before midnight, Castle comes in at around half past midnight, Medium anytime after midnight, Mercy around 1am and No Ordinary Family at 2:20am… TV3 have complained that RTE are being a wealthy dog in the manger and simply preventing other networks having these shows. Assuming that’s not true, there’s still something disgraceful about Castle, one of the very best shows around at the moment for charismatic acting, wonderful gags, and unpredictable mysteries, getting no viewers in this country because no one has the cop-on to shove it on TV at say 10:10pm on Tuesday rather than at 12:35am.

Dirty Horatio
I’ve been watching CSI: Miami and noticing with alarm and bemusement that the writers appear to have mixed up David Caruso’s Horatio Caine character with Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan somewhere between seasons 8 and 9. The first time we ever saw Caine in action, in an episode of CSI: LV, he was going off the beaten track during a search and found and comforted a missing child. That is Horatio Caine: great with children and dogged in his pursuit of justice. He takes his sun-glasses on and off a lot, smiles at villains, and delivers ‘cool’ lines to a screaming ‘YEEAAHHH!!!’ soundtrack by The Who. He doesn’t throw perps thru windows for the craic, and continually threaten criminals at gunpoint while snarling menacing dialogue at them. Perhaps Caruso felt that Horatio was disappearing into the background and wanted to stand out from the ensemble again, or maybe the change-over of writers has left few people with the memory of the original creation of Caine around to guide the character on a consistent arc. Either way I want more of the Horatio who tells an armadillo-hunting suspect that discovers his gun is missing, “Maybe the armadillos took it…”

Grissom’s Theory of Everything
I’ve written at great length twice about the Morpheus Problem faced by CSI: LV in trying to replace William Petersen’s Gil Grissom with Laurence Fishburne’s Ray Langston as the leader of the heroic criminalists of the Vegas crime lab. But with the hoopla surrounding the desperate quest to replace Fishburne, who’s gone back to Hollywood to resume his rightful role as a figure of authority by being Clark Kent’s editor among other gigs, a new thought sprung to mind. Instead of begging John Lithgow to join the show and then settling for Ted Danson, and announcing a comedic direction because of his arrival, why not just not replace Grissom? Grissom is irreplaceable. His cameo in season 11 only reminded us of that. So why not just trust the ensemble to carry on without him? Catherine, Nick, Sara, Greg, Hodges, Henry, Archie, Mandy, Dr Robbins and David can carry an episode just fine by themselves. Grissom was sometimes tangential to episodes and they worked just fine. Can we not trust that if the writers simply stopped trying to replace Grissom, and just enjoyed his team in motion around a now absent star, then the audience would too?

April 5, 2011

Any Other Business

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a portmanteau blog post on television of course!

Johnny Whitworth Abu!
I was delighted to see Johnny Whitworth pop up in a supporting role pushing mind-opening drugs to Bradley Cooper’s protagonist in Limitless. Whitworth had a recurring role a while ago on CSI: Miami as Calleigh’s ex-boyfriend, a roguish narcotics officer deep undercover in a criminal gang, who later got back onto regular duty after more than a few questions about which side of the law his blurred loyalties now belonged to. He was always effortlessly charismatic in this part, aided by an awesome Southern burr which enlivened Brandoesque mumbling, so it’s nice to see his profile rising.

Meta-Textual Moira?
Moira Kirland may have necessitated a new technical term with a deranged reference in Castle season 2 episode ‘Tick, Tick, Tick…’ The brilliant unpredictability of Castle’s mysteries is in no small part down to the presence of Kirland and Rene Echevarria as writer/producers, as both of them were very important presences in the equally twisty Medium. In this particular Castle episode Dana Delaney appears as an FBI agent venerated by Castle. She mentions one of her past cases as being the Recapitator in Phoenix, Arizona. Kirland wrote some of the three-part Medium season 3 finale featuring extremely twisted serial killer the Recapitator, who left his first victim’s head on his second victim’s body, and his second victim’s head on his third victim’s body, and so on… But Medium is a CBS show while Castle is on ABC, and Medium’s supernatural premise inhabits a different type of fictional universe than Castle’s comic verisimilitude. The reference would clue-in Medium fans like me that darkness was imminent and indeed Kirland ended the episode with an almighty shock. But self-referential, inter-textual, non-own network promotional, in-jokey, audience-alerting touches like that surely need to have a term all their own. What’s a good one?

A Lenkov Touch
A post is imminent about his writing for CSI: NY but here let me note that the first pure Lenkov touch has been noticed in Hawaii Five-O. Peter M Lenkov left CSI: NY to run Hawaii Five-O for busy writer/producers JR Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and, with the help of fellow CSI scribe Sarah Goldfinger, he’s exceeded expectations with entertaining high-stakes mysteries. But a prolonged conversation between McGarrett and Dano about the respective tourist attractions of Hawaii and New Jersey was so spectacularly irrelevant to the plot that it could only have come from the absurdist Lenkov.

“I’m never leaving! You hear? Never!”
Talking of Hawaii Five-O let’s all loudly cheer Daniel Dae Kim’s awesomeness. The reboot of Hawaii Five-O has been used as a life-raft by Alex O’Loughlin (Moonlight was prematurely cancelled), Grace Park (BSG finally ran its course), and Scott Caan (Ocean’s 14 is never happening), but Daniel Dae Kim’s snagging of the role of Chin is the most impressive of them all. Not only does Kim get to use his actual accent speaking English, which I haven’t heard since his glory days as Agent Baker in Day 3 of 24, but he has contrived after 6 years on LOST to instantly jump straight into another show being shot on the same Hawaiian island of O’ahu. The chances of being able to make such a jump must be somewhere around the chances of being able to see Halley’s Comet pass earth and yet, and this is where things get delicious, if Hawaii Five-O runs for as long as its original incarnation (and it’s solidly entertaining popcorn TV in a beautiful setting so it has a reasonable chance of doing so) Kim will have managed to contrive no fewer than 18 years of filming in Hawaii…

March 22, 2010

The Morpheus Problem

Laurence Fishburne will shortly return to our television screens to continue causing all manner of structural problems for CSI: LV. The Morpheus Problem has become so obvious and acute that CBS and CSI producers actually conducted research during the summer break to see just what problem audiences had with Fishburne’s starring role in CSI as Dr Ray Langston and, more to the point, what they could do to fix the snag. The fix was simple and damn near unanimous – “We’d like to see Ray in more of a leadership role”. It was nearly unanimous because what they really meant was – “We’d like to see Morpheus in more of a leadership role, cos, like, he’s Morpheus…”

How did we get here? William Petersen after 8 ½ seasons of playing Dr Gil Grissom, supervisor of the Night Shift in the Las Vegas Crime Lab, could no longer resist the urge to get back to treading the boards of Chicago’s illustrious Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Petersen also produces CSI: LV so this meant finding a suitable replacement before leaving the cast of the TV uber-franchise of the decade. Fellow Steppenwolf alumni Gary Sinise had already been tapped to headline CSI:NY and there were no obvious fallen stars like NYPD Blue’s David Caruso, who had been resurrected with the absurd role of Lt. Horatio Caine in CSI: Miami, so they got ambitious and drafted in Laurence Fishburne. A worthy replacement in star-power for Grissom’s role, except that crippling stupidity then struck the writers’ room…

A two-part episode saw Grissom retire from CSI to join lost true love Sara Sidle doing scientific research in the rainforest. He passed the torch to criminology professor Dr Ray Langston, but explicitly invited Ray to apply for the Level 1 CSI vacancy, not to replace him as supervisor. Catherine Willows therefore became the new supervisor of the night shift and Ray joined the team at the bottom of the food chain as the new rookie Level 1 CSI. Fishburne of course waltzed into first billing above Marg Helgenberger who it appears will be eternally second-billed as Catherine Willows. But first billed was then depicted making an ass of himself as Rookie Ray who spent his first crime scene investigation involved in a life and death struggle with his latex gloves that just did not want to be put on… This is not a good move, especially as the writers had already given Ray two careers. He was a medical doctor who failed to notice a serial killer at work in his hospital, and his book about how he had failed to piece together the clues that came across his administrative desk somehow secured him a professorship of criminology at Western Las Vegas University, which he then quit for CSI – after failing to notice a serial killer at work in his class… This back-story couldn’t have been designed to create a bigger Morpheus problem. But the writers did quickly drop the rookie shtick and try to fix their blunder

Ray’s medical background allowed them belatedly have him literally fill Grissom’s shoes by attending autopsies with coroner Dr Robbins, before outrageously jump-starting a Grissom/Robbins dynamic by having Ray and Robbins turn out to both be blues fans, who then go on a road-trip to fight crime – while listening to the blues. So far so Grissom but then some Morpheus was added to the mix as a baffling case was solved by Ray lecturing the other CSIs on ancient Greek history and philosophy and then using his reading of Aeschylus to solve the ‘murder’ of a self-proclaimed monk. But these attempted fixes all miss the real problem.

Fishburne is too big a screen presence to be the lowest ranked person on the team, beneath even Lauren Lee Smith. It’s not that Smith hasn’t redeemed herself for Mutant X with fine turns in The L Word and The Dead Zone it’s just that she can’t dominate a scene with Fishburne, few can. Is the Morpheus problem soluble? Can Ray really take over a leadership role without wreaking chaos on the internal logic of 9 years of CSI, or can the writers belatedly contrive as clever an implausible jumping of the ranks as Commissioner’s Gordon’s ascension in just two Nolan Bat-films? And how did this problem arise in the first place, did the writers not realise that sometimes one role really can haunt an actor? That, despite a long and varied career from a thug in Death Wish 2 and the youngest member of the crew in Apocalypse Now, thru the abusive Ike Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It? and the noble Shakespearean tragic hero in Othello, to the untrustworthy spy-master in M:I-3, Fishburne’s kung-fu knowing mentor in The Matrix has seared itself indelibly into the popular imagination.

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