Talking Movies

April 3, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXX

Filed under: Talking Books,Talking Movies,Talking Television — Fergal Casey @ 5:59 pm
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As the title suggests, so forth.

This could be how I see Tenet in 70mm later this year, if it or any other blockbuster gets released at all in 2020

The polling suggests cinema may be done

It seems somebody had the good sense last week to poll Americans on whether they would return to cinemas once this coronavirus unpleasantness has blown over. The answer was yes. Certainly. But not right away. Rather like the beach on the 4th of July in Amity Island everybody would stand back and let someone else be the first to paddle out into the water and make sure there were no killer sharks lurking thereabouts. But if people are serious about waiting three weeks or three months before they’d dare venture into a packed cinema again, how can the cinemas survive? How many days can you survive as a going concern when your biggest screens showing the biggest blockbusters at the height of summer garner an attendance more usually seen at an Alex Ross Perry movie in the IFI? Big releases have been pushed into 2021 with abandon: Fast & Furious 9, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Morbius. I’d be surprised if MGM didn’t get nervous and shove No Time to Die from November to next April if they think that by November people will still be readjusting to the idea that going to sit in the dark with 300 sweating sniffling coughing strangers packed like sardines in a crushed tin can isn’t like asking for rat stew during the Black Death. I for one like the idea of taking a coffee into an obscure French film and listening to Jazz24 in screen 3 of the IFI after normal service has been resumed – but the kicker is, that would be a fairly empty screening. And too many years of press screenings, matinees, and unpopular art-house choices have made me unaccustomed to truly packed cinemas. I was already frequently exasperated at bustling audiences before the coronavirus; because of the constant talking, shuffling in and out to the toilets and sweets counter, and, above all, the feeling that I was looking out over a WWII night scene as the light from endless phones strafed the roof of the cinema on the watch for incoming enemy aircraft. To put up with that, and then be paranoid that anybody, not just the people sniffling or coughing, but asymptomatic anybody could have the coronavirus and I could end up with scarred lungs and no sense of smell or taste from watching a film makes me hesitant to go before the second wave.

Further thoughts on the xkcd challenge

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned re-watching Aloha and thinking about the xkcd challenge [https://xkcd.com/2184/]. To wit, it is easy to prove your independent streak by disliking films universally beloved, but less easy to prove your independent streak by liking films universally reviled. Randall Munroe gave a critical score under 50% on Rotten Tomatoes as the target, the other two parts of his trifecta being that the films came out in your adult life post-2000, and are not enjoyed ironically. Well, gosh darn if I didn’t find these ten films rated between 40% and 49% by critics on Rotten Tomatoes. And you know what, their critical pasting is, I would argue, largely undeserved. Some of them are rather good, some of them are not nearly as bad as reputed, and I would happily watch all of them again.

What Lies Beneath

I was astonished to see that Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 Hitchcock pastiche was so critically pasted when it features some sequences; in particular the agony in the bath tub; that rise to the height of genuine Hitchcock level suspense. Zemeckis’ increasing obsession with CGI-enhanced technical wizardry hasn’t yet completely swamped his interest in his characters, as he overtly toys with Rear Window expectations.

Orange County

Colin Hanks and Jack Black are the main players in Mike White’s knockabout comedy about a hopelessly bungled application to Stanford, courtesy of Lily Tomlin’s guidance counsellor, and increasingly ludicrous attempts to get the admissions kerfuffle all sorted out by any means necessary. It may not be as sharp as other White scripts but it’s always amusing for its less than 90 minutes.

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Vin Diesel has valiantly kept the memory of this ludicrous 2002 film alive by somehow making it his only successful non-Fas & Furious franchise. The premise of an extreme sports dude being recruited into being an amateur CIA spook makes no sense what-so-ever, but it had better action, jokes, and humanity than the Bond film of its year by some measure – “Bora Bora!”

The Rules of Attraction

It was a genuine shock to see that this film was so critically reviled when I enthusiastically featured it in my list of best films of the 2000s. It stands beside American Psycho as the best adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, and Roger Avary draws career highlight turns from leads Ian Somerhalder, Shannyn Sossamon, and James Van Der Beek.

Daredevil

One of the last examples of the big blockbuster movie with the big blockbuster song complete with a big blockbuster video; the at the time inescapable Evanescence hit ‘Bring Me To Life’; this is an only semi-successful attempt at knockabout nonsense with the villains all trying to out-ham each other (and Colin Farrell’s Bullseye winning), but Jennifer Garner shines as Daredevil’s love interest Elektra.

Switchblade Romance

I will die on this weird Gallic hill! Alexandre Aja’s utterly blood-soaked shocker starring Cecile de France (and a chainsaw that spooked the next crew to use it) is a goretastic virtuoso thrill-ride, and the final twist, which was presented as it was on the advice of Luc Besson that it would be funnier that way, makes the film even more preposterously entertaining!

The Village

This was the final straw for critics when it came to M Night Shyamalan, but it’s actually a very engaging and deeply creepy film with a star-making lead performance from Bryce Dallas Howard. Sure the final twist is probably over-egging the pudding, and indicated that M Night was now addicted to twists, but it doesn’t undo the effectiveness of all the previous suspense.

Constantine

Keanu Reeves’ chain-smoking street magus powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; here making his directorial debut. It had a fine sense of metaphysical as well as visceral horror, featured outstanding supporting turns from Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare, a memorable magus versus demons action showdown, and was easily Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

Super

I can’t believe that writer/director James Gunn’s delirious deconstruction of the superhero genre could actually have been this lowly esteemed by critics on release in 2010. Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page both give tremendous performances as the delusional heroes who decided to dress in absurd costumes and fight crime; suicidally going up against Kevin Bacon’s gangster, who is very much not a comic-book villain.

The Green Hornet

I will often stop on this if I catch it late at night while channel-hopping. It may not be a very smooth or coherent film, but it has scenes, lines, and ideas that still pop into my mind frequently; “You brought a gas mask?” “Of course I brought a gas mask!” “Just for yourself?”; and Seth Rogen’s DVD commentary is a hoot.

You didn’t build that, Disney

It’s been quite maddening to see bus after bus pass by in the last few weeks with huge ads on their sides for the launch of Disney+ and know that this lockdown is a gift from the universe to a mega corporation by making their new streaming service an obvious choice for harassed parents eager to occupy the time of housebound children with the Disney vault while they try to get some work from home done. Not of course that it’s really Disney’s vault, as is made plain by the attractions listed on the side of the bus. The Simpsons, which is to say 20th Century Fox. Star Wars. Pixar. Marvel. National Geographic. That’s Disney+? These things aren’t Disney. Matt Groening created The Simpsons, and I highly doubt Walt Disney would have approved. George Lucas created Star Wars and changed the cinematic world with ILM, and it was from Lucasfilm that Pixar was spun out, with the help of Steve Jobs. Not anybody at Disney. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are responsible for most of the characters of Marvel, and without James Cameron and Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi there probably wouldn’t have been an MCU for Disney to buy. And Disney sure as hell didn’t found the National Geographic Society in the milieu of Alexander Graham Bell in the 1880s. Disney bought these. They didn’t build them patiently, they didn’t put in hard work, or exercise quality control over decades to build up a trusted reputation, they just waved a cheque book, and somehow regulators looked the other way at the increasing monopoly power being acquired. Disney bought these to accumulate monopolistic power and make mucho money, and in the case of Star Wars when they have attempted to build something themselves they have spectacularly managed to kill the golden goose, as can be seen by looking at the downward trajectory at the box office of the late unlamented Disney trilogy.

July 20, 2018

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part VIII

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.

Did you just ask me who I am?…

Humphrey Who?

Patrick Doyle asked an unnerving question on his Sunday Breakfast show a couple of weeks ago. How many people know who Grace Kelly is anymore? … How could people not know who Grace Kelly is?! Then I started to worry… I am interested in history in general, and this extends into burrowing with curiosity and sympathy into the back catalogue of cinema. But I have to admit that for many people, probably I fear the vast majority, they frankly couldn’t give a damn. (And would only have the faintest idea that that was a reference to the most popular film ever made) A particularly dispiriting display of wilful ignorance of the past came at the Lighthouse Hallowe’en screening of Halloween back in 2016. The very young, very very drunk audience, mostly in party later on fancy dress costume, was hooting in derision from the get-go. At anything and everything, any detail of dialogue or costume or reality (like a 70s car) that revealed the movie as having been made in 1978. I couldn’t understand this attitude of unbridled contempt then, and still struggle with it now. Do they not think people as yet unborn will hoot in self-same derision in 2046 at the films they hold precious now? For heaven’s sake most of these people were sporting the Snowflake hair-do whose sheer omnipresence and ostentation means, as I wrote some months back, that it will be as embarrassing on Jan 1st 2020 as bell-bottomed jeans were on Jan 1st 1980.

Censor and be damned!

Channel 4 has got my goat recently by showing films too early for its own purposes. Dante’s Peak saw a trio of deaths removed, presumably for fear of upsetting younger viewers. But then why show it in early afternoon?! Instead we got the build-up to the trio of grisly deaths, and the emotional fall-outs of the other characters reacting to the grisly deaths, and but no actual deaths so people seemed to be reacting to nothing. It’s all too reminiscent of the time that RTE decided to cut Raiders of the Lost Ark, and left out Indy getting shot, but kept in Indy in great pain attempting to bandage the bloody wound that he’d acquired mysteriously while driving without incident. Channel 4 also decided to censor Romancing the Stone. They snipped the full bloody detail of the animatronic alligator pulling off the villain’s hand, but then kept in his sustained agonised screams and fumbled frantic one-handed bandaging of the bloody stump where his left hand used to be. I don’t know whether it could be said to be more disturbing to show consequences after eliding the actions, but it is frustrating. Channel 4 should take a page from the book of the censor in Malaysia; who banned a film altogether after he’d had to make so many cuts it was left an incoherent mess that did nobody any favours. Show these films later in the day or just don’t show them!

Rub and … Scrub

So Scarlett Johansson, having better things to do than fight Twitter mobs, has pulled out of playing a transsexual in Rub and Tug. Some of the self-same people who mercilessly bullied her online now (incredibly) hope she’ll continue producing the movie. But… clearly she’d been producing, guiding the screenplay, hiring a director she’d worked with before, in order to win an Oscar; following in the footsteps of Jared Leto in 2014, as she noted in her initial response which the usual cyber-bullies dubbed ‘toxic’. Why actively produce this movie now its purpose for her has been gutted? Why would the financing stay in place when an Avenger is to be replaced by a transsexual player like… And there we hit the customary avoidance of specifics in such campaigns. Who? Daniela Vega? Candis Cayne? Films like this don’t make money without star-power and prestige traction. Dallas Buyers Club made 55 million, Moonlight made 65 million, Mysterious Skin made 2 million, Love is Strange made 2 million. Scarlett Johansson starring probably makes it likely you have a just slightly better than 50/50 shot at hitting the Dallas rather than the Skin end of that spectrum. Scarlett Johansson not starring reduces yours odds of hitting pay-dirt so substantially the only reason not to pull financing would be the same masochism expected of her to produce a film to benefit the people who bullied her.

August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

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Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

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Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

August 31, 2013

On Ben Affleck Being the Batman

I’ve been musing with John Fahey about Ben Affleck returning to blockbuster leading man roles by playing Batman, and I feel Affleck’ll probably nail it.

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I was, of course, initially disappointed by the casting announcement. But not for the same reason that most people who vented their spleen early on seemed to be disappointed/outraged. It seems harsh on the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt to have spent an entire bloody film being taught how to be the Batman by Christian Bale only to be shafted immediately by Warner Bros at his first chance to be the Batman. The hysteria surrounding Affleck’s casting struck me as very odd; like many people were still stuck in 2003 and reeling from the awfulness of Gigli and Paycheck. Announcing Affleck as the lead in Batman Begins back then, well, yes – outrage entirely justified. But this is 2013, the second act of Affleck’s cinematic life. Have people forgotten Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo only months after everyone loved him for accepting the Academy’s snub to his directing with dignity?

Ben Affleck has much in common with the equally maligned Mark Wahlberg. They are not the greatest actors in the world, but they’re certainly not bad actors. Yes, they can be acted off-screen by most any actor willing to stop yawning on set and make the effort. But that willingness to be out-acted is important, they provide an invaluable still centre. John C Reilly appeared at Trinity College a few years back and recounted bullying a theatre director into finally giving him the lead in a Restoration comedy, only to be bored silly on realising Congreve gave the best lines to supporting characters. Reilly’s function was to hold the chaos of the comedy together by being the still centre; and he immediately returned to his comfort zone of playing one of the supporting characters upstaging the romantic lead. Wahlberg and Affleck have given memorable supporting turns (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees, Good Will Hunting, Hollywoodland), but as leading men they don’t mesmerise; but that’s not necessarily always bad. Argo couldn’t support Goodman, Arkin & Cranston’s scenery-chewing profane quipping without Affleck quieting it, and The Fighter’s Bale, Adams & Leo OTT-competition would’ve gone into low-earth orbit without Wahlberg’s stoicism grounding it.

And Batman is, to a large degree, cinematically a still centre. The complaint oft made of Bat-movies – that the villains always walk off with the film – is exactly the complaint you’d expect to recur if a character is a still centre enabling craziness around him. (Affleck suddenly sounds like a very good fit…) Batman’s strength derives in part from his silence. Ninjas aren’t chatty. He lurks in shadows, and pounces on people when they least expect it. Batman doesn’t say much; he just appears and beats people up, that’s what makes him intimidating – he’s almost a pure physical presence to criminals, even those who never encounter him but whose imaginations he vividly inhabits. And in the comics even in the privacy of his own thought bubbles he usually thinks like Hemingway clipped some of the floweriness off of Raymond Chandler prose. And if you’ve read Jeph Loeb’s Hush and Superman/Batman you’ll note that a lot of Batman’s dialogue is sarcastic commentary on Superman’s problem-solving abilities. That sounds a lot like Affleck’s main function in Argo.

But whither Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne? He can’t very well play a billionaire playboy as a still centre, can he? Well, Christian Bale has hammered home the difference between private and public Bruce Wayne so this shouldn’t actually be that major a problem. It would, after all, feel like a waste of everyone’s time to have Robert Downey Jr play public Bruce Wayne the way he plays Tony Stark and then morph into terse earnestness for the other two parts of the Bat-persona. Affleck’s performance in The Town is probably a good model for his private Bruce, and if Argo cohort Bryan Cranston really is playing Lex Luthor then life as public Bruce Wayne gets a lot easier for Affleck as he can bounce quips off a fellow billionaire with whom he has existing good comic chemistry. Even if Cranston’s not Lex, Affleck has absurdly essayed an appropriately insouciant charm. Imagine a combination of Affleck’s Click ad for Lynx, his role in Argo, and the end narration of Daredevil and you have his Batman.

And that’s not bad. With the juvenile Zack Snyder directing it’s the Batman we deserve, but not the one we need right now probably the best we could hope for.

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