Talking Movies

January 14, 2016

The Revenant

Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu goes into the wild with Leonardo DiCaprio for a survival story in the Old West.

dicaprio-xlarge

DiCaprio is Glass, a scout for an expedition led by Domhnall Gleeson’s Captain Henry, hunting for animal pelts along the Missouri River. But this puts them into dangerous proximity to ‘the Ree’ aka the Iroquois Nation. After a surprise attack by the Iroquois, who transpire to be on a Searchers mission for their chief’s kidnapped daughter, the pelt party has to literally abandon ship and head into the snowy mountains. Unfortunately that’s when Glass has an intimate encounter with an irate bear. And when the antagonistic Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is left in charge of his care, while the rest of the party trek on, you get the feeling this won’t end well. Sure enough Fitzgerald ditches a not quite dead Glass in a shallow grave. Glass though claws his way out, and clings to life for the sake of revenge…

Not that this is a revenge movie. There’s about 20 minutes of revenge at the end. Prior to that you are watching a survival movie which quite often feels like a feature ‘Old West’ special of Bear Grylls: Born Survivor aka Man Vs Wild. Glass utilises a number of Bear’s tricks: he rearranges stones in a river to catch fish, scoops the guts out of a horse to hide inside its carcass to avoid a storm, uses a flint to light a fire, and even manages to break his fall off a cliff by using a tree. The one unconscionable thing he does is eat snow, which Bear has repeatedly warned against; but as Glass had lost his canteen at that point he probably gets a Mulligan. DiCaprio gives a committed performance, proudly displaying a kinship with Pierce Brosnan when it comes to the grunting and moaning in pain school of physical acting, while Hardy is a good antagonist; his naked self-interest quite probably as correct as Peter Weller’s misgivings in Star Trek Into Darkness.

Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski shot only in natural light in what seems little more than creating unnecessary difficulties in order to prove their worth as artistes. It doesn’t add much to the cinematic experience, these landscapes speak for themselves; indeed it grates when you’re asked to marvel at CGI animals when you’ve seen the real bison and wolves in The Hunt on the BBC. The Iroquois attack is spectacular because of the shooting style, but thereafter the in-DiCapario’s-face affectation becomes annoying. You wish the camera would back up about four feet and jack up another five so you could have some sense of location and action. There is a scene where gravely injured Glass gets down from a cliff in one startling jump-cut, the total lack of establishing shots makes you wonder if he just rolled over the edge…

The Revenant is 2 hours 36 minutes but it flies by. An engaging how-to manual for surviving the Old West ought not be confused with high cinematic art though just because its makers made its shoot a living hell.

3/5

September 30, 2015

The Martian 3-D

Director Ridley Scott tacks away from the Erich von Daniken-inspired marvel of nonsense that is the Prometheusverse for a cracking foray into hard science sci-fi.

Untitled-9.0

Ares III astronauts carry out their varied tasks on the surface of Mars, until a storm unexpectedly lethally strengthens. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leads her crew; Martinez (Michael Pena), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), Vogel (Aksel Hennie); from their quarters, the Hab, through the blinding sandstorm to their ship, which blasts off just before it would’ve tipped fatally off-balance. But Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind, killed by flying debris. NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) leads mourning for Watney, but when Mars maven Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) convinces him to pinpoint Watney’s corpse via satellite, Sat Operator Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers Watney’s still alive. Teddy, Vincent, PR director Montrose (Kristen Wiig), and Ares director Mitch (Sean Bean), agonise over the ethical and logistical quandaries of a rescue mission, while Mark uses his wits to colonise Mars.

It’s a bold move to start with the evacuation: imagine Zemeckis cutting the lead-in to the plane crash in Cast Away. But it works because it so quickly funnels us to NASA, and the personalities who will decide Mark’s long-term future as he ensures his short-term survival. This is probably the most consistently funny film Scott’s ever directed, courtesy of Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. Goddard knowingly pushes ratings boundaries with Mark’s cursing, and renders Mark’s never-ending vlog a series of riffs and one-liners. But it’s not a one-man show. Prometheus’ Benedict Wong is wonderful as Bruce, the Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks, Davis breaks out from indies (What If, Bad Turn Worse) to share archly comic moments with Ejiofor, Pena delivers another assured turn, while Daniels and Bean duel with gravitas and humour.

Sunshine showed one mistake creating dilemma after dilemma. The Martian shows a series of problems to be solved with a can-do spirit, and it’s nice to see characters mentally calculating trajectories, accelerations, and chemistry problems. Arguably this actually realises Tomorrowland’s stated intention to restore technological optimism to the popular imagination. Although the valorisation of science is complicated when you realise Mark only survives because his potatoes were not genetically modified to be barren… The sacrifice on the altar of Blake Snyder’s beats annoys, but Mark’s slight hubris and its inexplicable random flashing ‘Malfunction’ sign mitigate. It also makes the finale very tense because statistically something ought to go badly wrong after that long in space. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, a regular Scott collaborator, renders Earth in blue tones, Mars in red, and the Ares III in white; emphasising the different environments.

Ridley Scott has become a seriously prolific director this century, and on the evidence of this triumph he ought to sign Drew Goddard to write all his future films.

5/5

February 3, 2015

2015: Fears

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 11:20 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

jupiter-ascending-channing-tatum-mila-kunis-636-380

Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis return, oh joy, in 3-D, more joy, with a tale of a young woman (Mila Kunis) who discovers that she shares the same DNA as the Queen of the Universe, and goes on the run with a genetically engineered former soldier (Channing Tatum), oh, and he’s part wolf… The unloveable Eddie Redmayne is the villain, but the extremely loveable Tuppence Middleton is also in the cast, and, oddly, there’s a cameo from Terry Gilliam, whose work is said to be an influence on the movie. Alongside Star Wars, Greek mythology, and the comic-book Saga it seems…

 

Fifty Shades of Grey

Jamie Dornan is Christian Grey, Dakota Johnson is Bella Swan Anastasia Steele, Universal are terrible gamblers. Take one novel: which is 100pp of hilariously obvious Twilight homage leading to pornography for hundreds more and an unsatisfactory ending; a sensation because of the ability to secretly read it. Now hire art-house director Sam Taylor-Johnson to make an R-rated film focused on the romance, after 5 Twilight movies of said romance shtick; and force people to say out loud what film they’re seeing, or at least be seen going to it. Sit back, and watch this gamble fail.

o-BLACKHAT-facebook

Blackhat

Michael Mann returns with his first film since 2009’s uninspired Public Enemies. Chris Hemsworth, now officially a god in Iceland again, plays a hacker who gets a free pass from jail to help Viola Davis’ FBI agent liaise with her Chinese counterpart (pop star Wang Leehom) following a devastating cyber-attack in China which led to a nuclear incident. Hemsworth is distracted in his mission by Lust, Caution’s Chen Lien, and, if you’ve read the vituperative reviews, an appalling script. Mann’s been on a losing streak for a while, and his hi-def video camera infatuation only doubles down on that.

 

In the Heart of the Sea

March sees director Ron Howard take on Moby Dick. Or rather, tell the true story that inspired Moby Dick, rather than try and out-do John Huston. Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson are among the hapless crew of the whaling ship Essex out of New England that runs afoul of a curiously vindictive sperm whale in 1820. Martin Sheen starred in a rather good BBC version of this disaster its grisly aftermath at Christmas 2013. Who knows if Howard will match that, but he’ll definitely throw more CGI at the screen.

aou4

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Joss Whedon takes off the Zak Penn training wheels and scripts this sequel to 2012’s hit solo. James Spader voices the titular evil AI, unleashed by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man when fiddling about in Samuel L Jackson’s Pandora’s Box of Shield secrets. The great Elizabeth Olsen is Scarlet Witch, and Aaron Johnson is Quicksilver, but I find it hard to work up any enthusiasm for another ticked box on the Marvel business plan. Why? CGI and Marvel empire-building fatigue, a lack of interest in most of the characters, and great weariness with Whedon’s predictable subversion.

 

Lost River

What is the difference between a homage and le rip-off? The French should know and they loudly booed Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut as little more than Nicolas Winding Refn and David Lynch meeting up for a whimsical night out. Gosling also wrote this tale of a boy who finds a town under the sea down a river, and has to be rescued by his mother. Matt Smith, Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Eva Mendes, and Ben Mendelsohn are the actors roped in by Gosling to flesh out his magical realist vision of a hidden beauty lurking underneath decrepit Detroit.

carey-mulligan-matt-far-from-the-madding-crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd
Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan), a wilful, flirtatious young woman unexpectedly inherits a large farm and becomes romantically involved with three widely divergent men: rich landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), dashing Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge), and poor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Hardy’s classic novel is a formidable predecessor for this May release. This version from director Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, The Hunt), was co-scripted with David Nicholls of One Day fame; another man whose tendencies are not exactly of a sunny disposition. Can the promising young cast overcome Vinterberg’s most miserabilist tendencies?

 

Tomorrowland

Well this is a curio… Brad Bird directs George Clooney and Secret Circle star Britt Robertson in a script he co-wrote with Damon LOST Lindelof about a genius inventor and a parallel universe, or something. Nobody really seems to know what it’s about. But then given Lindelof’s resume even after we’ve watched it we probably won’t know what it’s about. Bird proved extremely capable with live-action in Mission: Impossible 4, but explicitly viewed the talky scenes as mere connective tissue between well-executed set-pieces; pairing him with ‘all questions, no answers’ man seems like a recipe for more puzzled head-scratching.

_1415200490

Ant-Man

Ant-Man was in 2015: Hopes until director and co-writer Edgar Wright walked because Marvel shafted him after years of development. I was highly interested in seeing Paul Rudd’s burglar become a miniature super-hero who’s simpatico with ants after encountering mad scientist Michael Douglas and his hot daughter Evangeline Lilly; when it was from the madman who made Scott Pilgrim Vs the World. When this deservedly nonsensical take on a preposterous property is being helmed by Peyton Reed; whose only four features are Bring It On, Down With Love, The Break-Up, and Yes Man; my interest levels drop to zero.

 

Terminator: Genisys

Quietly brushing 2009’s Terminator: Salvation into the dustbin of history in July is this script by Laeta Kalogridis (Pathfinder, Night Watch) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry). Game of Thrones’ Alan Taylor directs, which presumably explains Emilia Clarke’s baffling casting as Jason Clarke’s mother. That’s going to take some quality Sarah Connor/John Connor timeline shuffling. And this is all about timelines. Arnie returns! Byung-Hun Lee is a T-1000! Courtney B Vance is Miles Dyson! YAY!!!!! Jai Courtney is Kyle Reese … BOOOOOO!!!!!!! Did we learn nothing from McG’s fiasco? We do not need another muscle-bound actor with zip charisma.

char5

Fantastic Four

August sees Josh Trank shoulder the unenviable task of rebooting the Fantastic Four after two amiable but forgettable movies. Trank impressed mightily with the disturbing found-footage super-yarn Chronicle, and scripted this effort with X-scribe Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect). The cast is interesting; Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Kate Mara as Sue Storm, Michael B Jordan as Johnny Storm, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, and Toby Kebbel as Dr Doom; but this has had a troubled production, and carries an albatross around its neck as it must bore us senseless with another bloody origin story.

 

The Man from UNCLE

August sees CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB man Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) on a mission to infiltrate a mysterious criminal organization during the height of the cold war. Steven Soderbergh nearly made this with George Clooney from a Scott Z Burns script. Instead we get Guy Ritchie and Sherlock Holmes scribe Lionel Wigram. Sigh. Hugh Grant plays Waverley, while the very talented female leads Alicia (Omnipresent) Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki will highlight the lack of suavity and comic timing of the male leads; particularly troublesome given the show was dry tongue-in-cheek super-spy nonsense.

johnny-depp-black-mass-05272014-lead01-600x450

Black Mass

Poor old Johnny Depp is having something of an existential crisis at the moment. People moan and complain when he does his quirky thing (Mortdecai). But when he doesn’t do his quirky thing people moan and complain that he’s dull (Transcendence). September sees him team up with Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton for Scott Cooper’s 1980s period thriller about the FBI’s real-life alliance with Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, exploring how  the bureau’s original good intention of running an informant was derailed by Bulger’s clever connivance, ending up as a sort of state-sanctioned take-over of the criminal underworld.

 

The Martian

Ridley Scott just can’t stop making movies lately, but he’s having a considerably harder time making good movies. November sees the release of The Martian starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars after being presumed dead in a ferocious storm. The supporting cast includes Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Sebastian Shaw, Kate Mara, and the regrettably inevitable Jessica Chastain. Damon must try to send an SOS forcing NASA to figure out how on earth to go back and rescue him. Drew Goddard wrote the script. There’s the reason this might work.

640_hateful_eight_poster

The Hateful Eight

November sees the return of Quentin Tarantino. The writer/director who never grew up follows his rambling gore-fest Django Unchained with another Western. But this one is shot in Ultra Panavision 70, despite being set indoors, and has more existential aspirations. Yeah… Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, and Zoe Bell return to the fold for this tale of bounty hunters holed up during a blizzard, while newcomers to Quentinland include Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Nobody’s told Tarantino to stop indulging himself in years so expect endless speechifying and outrageous violence.

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…

August 21, 2013

The Mortal Instruments

Love/Hate star Robert Sheehan gets his chance to shine in the new Twilight, which wastes no time in skipping to that franchise’s most farcical elements.

jemima-west-the-mortal-instruments-city-of-bones-600x400

Absurdly named heroine Clary Fray (Lily Collins) turns 18 in a Brooklyn apparently inhabited entirely by British and Irish immigrants. Trading an awful poetry reading for a nightclub jaunt with best friend (who wishes he was more) Simon (Robert Sheehan), Clary finds herself the witness to a seemingly mystical murder by Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Isabelle (Jemima West). The next day her mother Jocelyn (Lena Headey) is kidnapped by Pangborn (Kevin Durand), who then tortures Clary’s father figure Luke (Aidan Turner) for Jocelyn’s secret; exposing Luke as a werewolf. Jace saves Clary’s life, initiating her into the Shadowhunters – an ancient society of warriors against demons led in Brooklyn by recluse Hodge (Jared Harris). The society is fading away because renegade member Valentine (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) stole their creation matrix, before Jocelyn stole it from him; only Clary knows how but her memories are magically blocked…

The Mortal Instruments is great fun for its first act. It almost feels like Kaboom director Gregg Araki at his most playful let loose on a Stephenie Meyer story treatment adding very tart jokes and acidic gay characters like Shadowhunter Alec (Kevin Zegers) and warlock Magnus Bane (Godfrey Gao) to shake up the Mormon moralising. And then suddenly the movie loses its knowing outrageousness and becomes instead a case study of Damon Lindelof’s concept of ‘story gravity’. The stakes have to be raised so high that the film burns thru plot points in an hour that took it the original Star Wars three movies to deliver, and even has characters chiding each other for not recognising that story gravity requires a terrible ‘secret’ to be revealed. This film doesn’t earn Star Wars’ surprises, or an outrageous appropriation of The Matrix.

After rendering JS Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier a demon-hunting weapon everything descends into a ludicrousness that left the target audience of teenage girls in fits of hysterics during ‘emotional’ scenes, groaning at a ‘revelation’ involving a family insignia, and cringing at a closing insistence on criminally unsuitable romantic tropes. This is not the fault of the actors mind. Collins is an adequate sub-Nina Dobrev, and Jamie Campbell Bower delivers his zingers without distracting us from how really really good-looking he is. The great Durand is underused, but, despite a cockney accent, smuggles in some Donald Sutherland touches, and acts opposite Robert Maillet; who’s even taller! Headey meanwhile shows Rhys-Meyers how to have the presence to appear for just 10 minutes but make an impact. Director Harald Zwart includes pleasingly visceral horror, but he’s ultimately defeated by the wildly uneven screenplay.

I don’t really want to see more instalments of The Mortal Instruments but it’s frankly impossible to guess what Cassandra Clare fans will forgive.

2.5/5

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

January 9, 2012

2012: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:03 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

 

Shame
Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s second film as director sees him again collaborating with his Hunger leading man Michael Fassbender. If Hunger was an installation about bodies in decay this is a study of bodies in motion, as this stark drama sees Fassbender play a successful businessman in NYC who has carefully constructed his life around his secret sex addiction. His routine falls apart and his life disintegrates under the pressure of his compulsions when his wayward sister (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives to stay in his apartment. It may just be that one of the first releases of 2012 sets a high-water mark for excellence that no other will reach.

 

The War Horse
JG Ballard dubbed Steven Spielberg’s works ‘Cathedrals of Emotion’ and even the trailer for this is upsetting, so God knows how tear-jerking the whole movie will be. Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s beloved children’s book, which is currently wowing the West End in a puppet-heavy interpretation, follows a teenage boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are the upper-class officers while Jeremy Irvine plays the young farmer who swaps rural England for the hell of a traumatically recreated Battle of the Somme after his prized horse is summarily requisitioned for the front.

 

J. Edgar
Clint Eastwood, who by virtue of his physical and artistic longevity is old enough to both actually remember Hoover in his prime and to still creatively interpret it, directs Leonardo DiCaprio in a biopic of the once feared and now derided founder of the FBI. Ordinarily this is the kind of Oscar-bait that I despise more than anything else, however, all evidence is that this is not the usual inane drama with a platitudinous message and showy Act-ing. Instead Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black employs constant flashbacks, with undercutting switches of perspective between DiCaprio and Armie Hammer as Hoover’s FBI Agent lover, to explain the neuroses that drove Hoover.

 

A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg directs Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of his own play about a pivotal 20th century clash. Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the conflict between two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. The S&M is what will get talked about most, as the obvious starting point for locating this in the Cronenberg canon, but attention should focus on Fassbender’s assured turn as Jung and Knightley’s startlingly alien performance as the hysterical Russian who slowly transforms herself into an equal to Jung.

 

 

The Hunger Games
Jennifer Lawrence headlines as heroine Katniss Everdeen in what’s being touted as the new Twilight, and is, according to Google, the most anticipated movie of 2012. Adapted from the wildly popular trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, an apocalypse has left a new country called Panem ruling North America, and every year as punishment for a quelled rebellion against its authority the new government in the Capitol chooses one teenage boy or girl from each of its 12 districts to fight to the death against each other in the televised Hunger Games – in the end only one survives. As an unusually vicious YA media satire this sounds promising.

 

Anna Karenina
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Joe Wright and Keira Knightley reunite for an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic 1870s tale of infidelity in snowiest Russia which William Faulkner once described as the perfect novel. Knightley is never better as an actress than when under Wright’s confident direction, and this is a welcome return to his period-setting comfort zone after the misfiring disaster that was his existential action movie Hanna. Other returning Wright regulars Saoirse Ronan and Matthew Macfadyen form part of a strong ensemble led by Aaron Johnson as Anna’s lover Count Vronsky and Jude Law as her cuckolded husband.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man
I mocked this last year, but once I saw the trailer in a cinema I started to reconsider my stance. The colour-scheme alone indicates a move away from the day-glo japery of Raimi to the moodiness of Nolan. Prince of Hurt Andrew Garfield is an emotionally raw Peter Parker opposite Martin Sheen’s ill-fated Uncle Ben and Emma Stone’s scientist Gwen Stacey. Raimi’s gleefulness was increasingly sabotaged by his crippling affinity for angst. Director Marc Webb, who helmed the glorious (500) Days of Summer, can hopefully replace pre-packaged moping with genuine vulnerability, while stunt guru Vic Armstrong’s practical magic makes this Spidey’s heroics viscerally real rather than wall-to-wall CGI.

 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
HAHA! Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally properly get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The plot is, well, immaterial really when it comes to these guys. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, whose brush with Werner Herzog proved he’s still got some game, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writer/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his flaming bike is indeed an awesome one. We must all pray that some stuffed-shirt empty-suit in the studio doesn’t freak out and bowdlerise this insanity.

 

 

Dr Seuss’ The Lorax
The impossibility of making a decent live-action Dr Seuss adaptation finally hit Hollywood on the head with an anvil after The Cat in the Hat and so we got former live-action Grinch Jim Carrey lending his voice to the sublime Horton Hears a Who. Its screenwriters have now tackled The Lorax and, it appears from the trailer, again succeeded in taking the canny route of expanding Seuss’ slight tales to feature length with delightful visual comedy while retaining the hilarious rhyming dialogue and narration that make Seuss’ work so unique and loveable. Danny DeVito is the voice of the slightly irritating guardian of the woods the Lorax.

 

Prometheus
Ridley Scott’s long-awaited Alien prequel has finally been written by LOST show-runner Damon Lindelof, and original Xenomorph conceptual artist HR Giger has even returned to the fold to whip up some creepy designs. It seems safe to say this will therefore probably be very entertaining, genuinely scary, and then completely disintegrate in the third act when the audience realises that Lindelof really has no idea where he’s going with this. Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace star, which is itself a promising start for a blockbuster that Scott could badly do with being a hit; just to remind him what it feels like after his unwisely extended co-dependency with Russell Crowe.

 

Seven Psychopaths
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Martin McDonagh, the celebrated playwright and writer/director of In Bruges, returns to cinema screens with another unpredictable dark comedy starring Colin Farrell. Farrell this time is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter bedevilled by writer’s block who has the misfortune to fall in with the real devils of the titular seven hoodlums in the course of some ill-advised research for his gangster script. Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, who starred in McDonagh’s between-film-projects play A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway, are also in the cast; something which speaks volumes about how much actors relish the chance to deliver McDonagh’s caustic, profane and theatrical dialogue.

 

 

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
I have high hopes for this absurdist comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, not least because Blunt is always a superb comedienne and McGregor did a very good baffled straight man in similar territory with The Men Who Stare at Goats. This is of course an adaptation of Paul Torday’s acclaimed (indeed Wodehouse Prize-winning) 2007 comic novel about a Sheikh’s improbable dream of introducing salmon fishing to, well, the Yemen, and the poor sap of a British expert hired to pull off this ludicrous proposition. The only problem is that the reliably dreadful Lasse Hallstrom is directing it; can script and actors overcome his dullness?

 

Skyfall
The studio has finally sorted out nightmarish legalistic-financial difficulties and so the awesome Daniel Craig returns for his third mission as 007. But Paul Haggis’ delightful rewrites are no more! Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan now has the job of making Purvis & Wade’s gibberish action script legible to thinking humans before Sam Mendes directs it. Mendes has a flair for comedy, oft forgotten because his films have been so consistently and inexplicably miserabilist in subject matter, and he’ll draw top-notch performances from his stellar cast which includes Javier Bardem as the villain, Ben Whishaw as Q, Judi Dench as M, and Naoime Harris as Moneypenny. This might just be wonderful…

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson, having been kicked like a dog with mange for The Lovely Bones, returns to Tolkien. Martin Freeman brings his trademark assets of comic timing and understated decency to the titular role of Bilbo Baggins. Returning from LOTR are Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, and a presumably very grateful Orlando Bloom; he didn’t make any blockbusters between Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and The Three Musketeers. You should worry about Del Toro’s nonsense infecting the screenplay, and the opportunistic decision to make two films, but then hope that returning to his meisterwerk will rekindle the combination of flair and heart that Jackson’s lacked since.

May 27, 2010

I once was LOST, but now am found

So, predictably enough, ‘The End’ of LOST didn’t answer any questions (it probably raised more) and wasn’t really interested in providing any sort of actual coherent conclusion to the rambling nonsense that had preceded it.

Interestingly it seemed a mea culpa by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse as the reunion of all the most beloved cast members in Ultimate Los Angeles (which it was really – like Marvel’s Ultimate universe all the same characters appeared, slightly different, but still connected) was dependent for its emotional impact on flashbacks from the days when LOST was concerned with characters not plot mechanics and quantum mechanics. The moment when Ultimate Juliet and Sawyer remembered their life together and its horrific end had me in tears, but this season of LOST had little of that character development. The death of my favourite character Juliet was almost a summary of everything that went wrong. Characters were sacrificed to a material, (time-travel, Jakob, Desmond) that was never as interesting as Lindelof & Cuse found it, and evermore characters were introduced and killed rather than grappling with the show’s enduring and original problem of having too many characters.

When we talk abstractedly of ‘the writers’ it’s worth noting that no show could have sustained continuity over 6 seasons given the shocking revolving door of writers that the escalating absurdity of the show’s mythology just seemed to burn through – and this is a brain-drain of very talented writers like Jeph Loeb, Paul Dini, David Fury, Drew Goddard and Brian K Vaughan. The last season of LOST introduced new and uninteresting characters and then killed them off within weeks and got lost in creating at the last minute a ‘mythology’ that was meant to have been central to the show… The sure sign that a show is losing its way (24) is when the writing room starts to resemble this:

DIGGORY: I’m not sure this episode is working, it seems a bit boring.

LINDELOF: How many characters have you killed off?

DIGGORY: Just the one.

LINDELOF: Well no wonder it’s boring! Kill off at least three people! It’s not like we’re short of characters, and we can always bring the actors back in flashback, or in parallel universes, or as ghosts.

CUSE: Or as ghosts in flashback within a parallel universe.

LINDELOF: Would you stop being silly?

CUSE: Sorry. I, uh, noticed that your script is a bit short on dramatic conflict too.

DIGGORY: Yeah, sorry. No conflict seemed to grow organically from the characters-

LINDELOF: Grow organically?! What are we? A communist eco-friendly farming co-op? Just get Sayid to torture someone for God’s sake! Instant dramatic conflict!

DIGGORY: We don’t have Naveen around for this episode, he’s shooting a film in-

LINDELOF: Then just get someone else to torture someone for some reason! Sheesh, do I have to write every little thing around here?!

The ‘resolution’ of the mythology on the island was merely a means to an end – the fearful symmetry of a dying Jack lying down in the exact place where he first woke up, so that the show’s first image, Jack’s eye opening, was mirrored in its final image, Jack’s eye closing. It was a clever-clever ending but what preceded it on the island answered few questions. As for the Ultimate ending… I wrote in a 2005 piece on the first season that one of the most popular theories was “All the survivors are dead and The Island is Purgatory”, which was strenuously denied by Lindelof & Cuse, and rightly so. The Island it turns out was a complete irrelevance, which led the characters to Ultimate LA, which was Purgatory… Before the finale aired I listened to Coldplay’s Parachutes, especially ‘Everything’s Not Lost’, which I bought around the time LOST premiered in 2005. Thinking back I realised how I experienced LOST was by increasingly making fun of various absurdities as the show progressed and discussing the season finales, especially the third season’s which seemed to dominate conversation at a friend’s 21st. All those conversations were pointless it now transpires as apparently the point of the show was the moment when Christian Shepherd revealed to Jack that all the Ultimate characters were dead. This reunion of beloved characters was the spur for them to move on to heaven as he opened the church doors to an enveloping white light. As moments go it was quite beautiful, if not as powerful as Charlie blessing himself before dying peacefully, and the situating of this event in a Unitarian church with a stained-glass window depicting symbols from all the major world religions showed Lindelof & Cuse trying to make this a warm group-hug.

As a philosophical thought it was a nice interpretation of Purgatory – learning to take all that was best from your life and leaving behind all that was worst – but it had nothing to do with the violent mayhem it ‘resolved’. In the final analysis LOST occasionally hit sustained patches of greatness in spite of the mythology rather than because of it, and the mythology will sink its long-term reputation.

Blog at WordPress.com.