Talking Movies

August 27, 2018

From the Archives: Babylon A.D.

Another trawl thru the depths of the pre-Talking Movies archives recovers what Vin Diesel was reduced to before Justin Lin.

The Dark Knight was so sublime that it caused every other studio to delay their releases, hence the recent avalanche of nonsense which reaches its apotheosis of ridiculousness with Babylon A.D.

Vin Diesel’s gravelly voice and gruff presence are all that keep this inane attempt at a futuristic thriller limping along. He plays Toorop, a hard-bitten American mercenary with a liking for good food, exiled in Russia. He is kidnapped by Gerard Depardieu (wearing outrageous prosthetics) and entrusted with delivering a naïve young girl Aurora (Melanie Thierry) to New York City. The mysterious girl is accompanied from her convent by the enigmatic Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). Other clichés occur as they struggle against harsh landscapes only to find that the truly dark places are within…the human heart…

Matthieu Kassovitz, the maker of La Haine, co-writes and directs this disastrous attempt at a post-apocalyptic action epic with great meaning. The problem is he never bothers explaining how this future came about. It looks like Dark Angel’s Seattle but James Cameron explained that vision of 2019 as a result of a truly global terror attack. Kassovitz, however, seems to think explanations are unworthy of him. Sister Rebeka astounds Toorop by knowing kung fu, but we have been told nothing of her Neolite religious order by that point so the revelation falls flat, and we still don’t know enough about them to make any sense later on of the Machiavellian plotting of their founder, Charlotte Rampling. Kassovitz has flailed around badly since La Haine with The Crimson Rivers, (which explored the fine line between un homage to Se7en and un rip-off) and Halle Berry’s truly awful Gothika, so this mess is really no surprise.

Things start well with RZA sound-tracking realistic action in a grimy Russia but after that fake-looking CGI and plot-destroying bending of the laws of physics start to abound. Staggeringly a French director seems not to know how to showcase the Gallic invention of parkour, with an action sequence fizzling out as it fails to even palely imitate Casino Royale’s thrilling free-running extravaganza. The utter waste of talent in this film is exemplified by noted British character actor Mark Strong who is out-shone by his bad peroxide hair-do as the smuggler Finn. Melanie Thierry sleepwalks her way through proceedings, but perhaps she’s just trying to understand her apparent, and only occasional, Neo powers. Indeed, you will persistently shout ‘What?!’ at the logical lapses, especially the ending.

Vin Diesel can act when forced (Boiler Room) and deliver great big dumb blockbusters (xXx). This falls into some hellish in-between zone and its disaster status can be confirmed by the presence of Wilson Lambert as a mad scientist. Lambert has starred in Catwoman, Sahara, and both Matrix sequels and is the cinematic equivalent of a dead canary in a mining shaft. Avoid.

1/5

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April 30, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XVI

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 sixteenth portmanteau post on television of course!

To Be Young, Gifted and Bad

FX’s Legion came in for some harsh criticism here recently so here’s some cheerleading of a show that is actually telling a story with minor characters in the X-Men universe, Fox’s The Gifted. The Gifted reminds me both of Heroes (the powerless but still commanding father of teenage mutant girl) and Dark Angel (relentless pursuit by shady government agency, a decrepit building that looks like the Pulse hit it), so even while it was still in its first season it felt like the return of a long lost friend. The most interesting element of the show has probably been Polaris being tempted by the dark side, as it were. The stunning finale in which she gave vent to her fury was a masterstroke in developing a villain from hugely misguided good intentions. But there were plenty of other interesting elements in the show, a highlight being 3 x 1: the cloned daughters of Emma Frost, who entice mutants to join the Hellfire Club. The perfectly synchronised movements, the identical dresses, the sharing of sentences between all three sisters, the telepathic mind-games – all were touches both chilling and exciting.

Stop. Sip. Sleep. Wait, what?

Another Any Other Business, another gripe at government-funded nonsense… From the very first time I saw this short advertisement by the Road Safety Authority it has bothered me, because it offended my sense of logic. Why would you drink the coffee and then attempt to get a 15 minute nap?! If you were fatigued, wouldn’t you have the nap first, then drink the coffee to energise yourself anew? I mean, don’t many people stop drinking coffee a certain amount of time before they go to bed because otherwise they won’t be able to sleep? Who approved this?

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Uneasy lies the studio head that pays The Crown

Claire Foy says she feels naive she didn’t ask for the same pay as Matt Smith for The Crown. Except, as the producers initially made plain, and which was the truth, she didn’t get paid less because she was a woman and he was a man, she got paid less because she was Little Dorritt and he was Doctor Who. I thought Foy was great in Little Dorritt and followed her career with interest, but I suggest most people would have recognised Matt Smith when they saw trailers for The Crown, and not known who she was. The bigger star gets paid more, just as the bigger star gets billed first; unless they get billed last – witness bizarre fights like Dunkirk’s scramble to be the last ‘And…’. Jennifer Lawrence got paid more for Passengers than Chris Pratt. She also got first billing, despite the fact that structurally his character was the lead, and as a result he had more screen-time. Pratt got paid 8 million dollars less for doing more work than Lawrence, but nobody cried foul. Why weren’t they paid the same? If your answer is the truth; J-Law is a bigger deal than CP; why doesn’t that apply to The Crown too? Foy is as big a deal as Smith now, probably bigger – look at the forthcoming Lisbeth Salander reboot sequel. But she wasn’t then, so giving her ‘back pay’ seems very odd, and merely, par Bret Easton Ellis, a corporate gesture to just make the internet noise stop.

September 28, 2016

So long, and unthanks for all the Fish

It’s been a very long wait for RTE 2 to screen season 2 of Gotham, and that might say much about the state of popular opinion towards the misfiring show.

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The first season of Gotham arrived with much more fanfare in January 2015, down to the WB organising a cinema screening of the pilot which I covered for HeadStuff.org. On the big screen Gotham’s cold open was undeniably arresting, tracking a teenage Selina Kyle (Carmen Bicondova) across the rooftops of the absurdly begargoyled city until she happened upon a certain dark alleyway just in time for murder of the Waynes. Catwoman’s presence intriguingly made Batman’s formative trauma a random incident in someone else’s life. But showrunner/writer Bruno Heller and director Danny Cannon also upped the gore, and salvaged the now-pardoic crane swoop by young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) not giving the expected “NOOOOO!!!” but an ear-splitting pre-pubescent shriek.

It would be cruel to say it was all downhill from there, but not entirely untrue. Danny Cannon and director of photography David Stockton had previously brought Nikita to TV on the CW, but Gotham is on Fox, and from the beginning lacked the slick coherence of a CW show. The pilot was all about the young James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), starting work at Gotham PD as the new partner of corrupt Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). They bungled investigating the Waynes’ murder, and got investigated by Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), who already disliked Bullock because of his deal-making friendship with mobster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett-Smith). Gordon felt compelled (perhaps by the dramatic imperative) to promise Bruce and his guardian Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) that he would throw away his badge if he didn’t solve the case. But with the squirrelly behaviour of his fiancé Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), the obvious madness of his CSI Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), and the menacing warnings of his father’s old acquaintance Don Carmine Falcone (John Doman), it was questionable if Gordon would live long enough to throw away his badge a la Dirty Harry…

But that set-up promised a clear path of plot that Heller simply did not possess. Montoya’s presence on the show became increasingly sporadic and tokenistic until eventually she and Allen simply disappeared from the story, while Barbara’s lost little rich girl antics were worthy of Smallville at its very worst, and eventually an extended hiatus produced the desperate gambit of bringing in Milo Ventimiglia as a serial killer for a short and trumpeted mini-arc to give the show some semblance of purpose as it staggered toward the finishing line. Reviewing Gotham‘s pilot I said there was to much to like: specifically the look of Nolan’s Gotham having Gothic elements added to it, Pertwee’s tough Alfred, Logue’s amiably shady Bullock, and Doman’s revelatory avuncular Falcone – the force for order against the chaos enveloping Gotham. There were further praiseworthy elements as the season progressed, the outre villainy of the Balloon Man serial killer felt like it stepped from the pages of early 1990s Batman comics, a flashback heavy episode in which Bullock faced off against the same possibly supernatural murderer at either end of a decade felt like late 1980s Grant Morrison Batman material, and the siege of GCPD in which Gordon was left alone to face off against a team of assassins led by Victor Zsasz was stirring enough to be Nolan-worthy.

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But this is not a show about Gordon and Bullock fighting weird crime, and more’s the loss. It’s a show about…

Well, what is it about?

The adventures of the young Bruce becoming Batman at the unusually young age of say 15 at the end of season 3? No.

Well, maybe, after all don’t forget the cliffhanger finale of Bruce discovering, deep sigh, his father’s Batcave; in a transparent riff on the LOST season 1 finale, despite the fact that finale enraged people.

The adventures of young Bruce meeting literally everyone he will meet again ‘for the first time’ 17 years later when he dons the cape at the age of 29? No.

Well, sort of. I accused Heller of having a veritable ‘Where’s Wally?’ of future super-villains: Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Ivy. He then added in Joker for good measure, and Colm Feore’s Dollmaker, as well as lumbering under the lamentable weight of Fish Mooney, a placeholder original villain, twirling her extravagant nails to hide lack of actual character.

The adventures of all of Batman’s supervillains sans the Bat but with Gordon, in a move worthy of Hamlet without the Dane? No.

Well, yes, that’s sort of where this is all heading. But as ever, only sort of. Gotham’s split focus has been its downfall. Gordon and Bullock are never allowed to do their thing, instead we have to head off and agonise over Barbara’s latest idiocy, or check in on the budding romance of Bruce and Selina; mixing tortured romance with grittier crime procedural as if Heller is confused as to both genre and what network he’s on. But this problem; that Gotham is trying to be about four different shows at once, failing in its whirling dervish act to dance between four stools, and giving everyone a nosebleed into the bargain; is in the ha’penny place to the real flaw bedevilling the show – some of the very worst writing since Smallville‘s lowest points.

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It was hard reviewing Anthropoid a few weeks ago not to make a connection between it, Green Room, and Gotham. The connection to be traced between them goes to the heart of why Gotham rapidly became a chore to watch. Anthropoid saw Nazis take a hammer to a violinist’s hand to break him in interrogation; they’re Nazis, that sort of cruelty is their way. Green Room saw Neo-Nazis take a machete to a guitarist’s hand to break a siege; they’re Neo-Nazis, they want their gun back so they can kill the band. Gotham saw The Penguin take charge of breaking up a romance to curry favour with a possible crime partner. The problem was a musician. As soon as the word ‘musician’ was mentioned you knew what was coming next. A beating doesn’t work on the guy, so Penguin steps in with some handy hedge-clippers, “He’s a musician, lose the fingers.” And the director obliged with a huge close-up of a bejewelled severed finger hitting the ground as the editors debated which to make louder, the scream of agony or the satisfying plop sound. It’s not just that it’s part of a wider problem with the violence on Gotham, which we’ll get to, but as with so much of Penguin’s psychopathy it doesn’t really make any sense. What exactly happened next? Something like this?

INT.ITALIAN PIZZA PLACE-NIGHT.

THE GIRL is looking at her watch, and looking out the window. Where is her boyfriend musician already? Her cellphone rings.

GIRL: Where the hell are you?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) (muffled voices in background) We should break up.

GIRL: What? Why? What’s that sound?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) I’m in the hospital.

GIRL: Oh my God! That’s horrible. Which one? Gotham General? I’ll come now. Why are you in the hospital?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) Someone cut off my fingers.

GIRL: Oh my God! Oh my GOD! Will you still be able to play the guitar?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) Of course I won’t be f****** able to play the f******guitar! THEY CUT OFF MY F****** FINGERS!!

GIRL: (sobbing) Oh God! Who? Why? Baby, why would anyone do such a horrible thing to you?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) I don’t know. I forgot to ask them as they took away my identity and career with a hedge clippers. But in totally unrelated news, babe, totally unrelated, I think we should break up.

This is the kind of nonsense that drove Smallville into inanity; that you could watch Lex bump someone off, and just wonder ‘Why on earth did he do that?!’ Gotham has fallen into the LOST trap of inserting Quentin Tarantino’s ‘really bitching torture scene’ whenever they run out of dramatic oomph and can’t be bothered to let conflict grow organically from characters. A sort of amped-up version of Raymond Chandler’s dictum that you have a guy with a gun walk into the room whenever you get stuck in your writing. It is of course, if done week after week, scene after scene, incredibly lazy writing. It makes things predictable despite the aim being to make things unpredictable: ‘psychopaths be crazy’ and all that. When you just ping pong from hideous double-cross to hideous double-cross, with bodies and eyeballs flying everywhere it actually becomes tiresome, and the cumulative effect is to make the whole show faintly ridiculous. All the maneuvering between Penguin, Fish, and Falcone to be King of Gotham Crime seemed like a pantomime via the Grand Guignol. At times, such as Fish’s imprisonment on Dollmaker’s island laboratory, you could literally fast-forward through the action without missing anything so poor was the dialogue and telegraphed the action. And that is to say nothing of the outrageous gore that Heller seemed in love with; Catwoman gouging out a goon’s eyes in the 2nd episode, Penguin maiming and killing half Gotham and environs, Fish gouging out her own eye to spite Dollmaker, and, in a Smallville moment, Dollmaker responding to that by giving his inept henchman an unwanted sex change and granting Fish a new eye because… Um, because that’s what was written down in the script.

The exhausted retirement of Falcone in the finale almost serves as a metaphor for the audience. We did at least get to see Fish being dropped off a large building to allow Penguin have his “Made it Ma! Top of the World!” moment, but how a show run by experienced people could’ve misjudged everything that led to the point quite so hugely is baffling. I don’t know if a radical shake-up like James Cameron and Charles H Eglee gave Dark Angel season 2 can redeem Gotham, but let’s see if having got rid of its most annoying original character it can start to become a bit more sensible.

Gotham season 2 starts on RTE 2 at the less than desirable time-slot of 10.55pm today.

August 26, 2015

Hitman: Agent 47

The ill-advised Rupert Friend takes up Timothy Olyphant’s cross in a reboot that makes 2007’s Hitman look like John Wick.

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Litvenko (Ciaran Hinds) designed them to be the perfect soldier, a human weapon. But then he escaped… Now, haunted by her past, his daughter Katia Van Dees (Hannah Ware) seeks him in Berlin. But, meeting her father’s creations; the genetically engineered killing machines Agent 47 (Friend) and Syndicate operative John Smith (Zachary Quinto); she realises she cannot run, she must fight, to discover her destiny… For, despite being bred for superior intelligence, Katia had never realised her name sounded uncannily like the French ‘quatre-vingt-dix’ and that her Spidey-sense screamed ‘Agent!’, while all the lethally skilled operatives of the Syndicate and their rival rogue Agents at large were incapable of refining their search parameters based on their intel on Litvenko to locate him in Singapore; Syndicate HQ. Yet Syndicate chairman Le Clerq (Thomas Kretschmann) hunts Litvenko to restart the Agent programme.

Hitman: Agent 47 is beset by three distinct layers of unreality. What the characters do is bafflingly unlike reasonable cinematic behaviour; John Smith and Katia flee from the pursuing 47, and all concerned conduct themselves at a walking pace as if this was an It Follows parody. Action sequences are chopped to bits by Nicolas De Toth’s editing, which you suspect is hiding poorly directed footage, or rendered with so much crummy CGI that you are watching a computer game; a particular offender being the Singapore street assault where 47 guns down zip-cording assassins like the embarrassingly fake Smiths in Matrix Reloaded. The third layer of unreality is the astonishingly derivative script, which makes The Blacklist, a show which recently had James Spader reference a particular Marathon Man scene as they were ripping it off, look as original as Primer.

The basic set-up recalls Dark Angel: Katia is Max, Litvenko is Sandeman, the Agent program is Manticore, there’re even barcodes on people’s necks. Occasional muttering about how emotionless automaton 47 is learning empathy should make Terminator 2 fans mutter ‘If a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, then maybe we can too’. Katia’s DNA was coded for heightened survival skills, indistinguishable from Raimi’s cinematic Spidey-sense. John Smith is unkillable because of his sub-dermal titanium-alloy body-armour, so all he needs are Wolverine’s claws. And then there’s The Matrix… There’s a fight on an underground railway line with trains roaring past, there’s acrobatic use of guns and kung-fu showdowns, there’s even a scene where 47 walks thru a security check packing weapons while his bulky bag is X-rayed. Le Clerq is impossible to kill, 14 Agents have died trying, notes 47, in tones that make you think Friend is repressing lines like ‘Everyone who has stood their ground against an Agent has died’. John Smith injects Litvenko with horrible chemicals to make him spill, then Le Clerq shocks his subordinates by interrogating Litvenko alone, using some of Agent Smith’s body-language and actual lines from the equivalent scene with Morpheus; and then Neo 47 appears outside with a helicopter gunship… Tuned out by such nonsense one scans for absurdities. 47’s inexplicable hacking makes one muse that to a primitive screenwriter any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Smith’s ‘For f***’s sake Doctor, just tell me what I want to know’ sounds so genuinely annoyed, it’s like Quinto just wanted to wrap already. Marco Beltrami’s score ditching his decent 47 theme for random inappropriate surf guitar seems equally fed-up.

If ever wee small hours find drunken friends split between The Matrix, Terminator 2, and Dark Angel, they can compromise by watching all three at once in the shape of this profoundly stupid movie.

0.5/5

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.

November 25, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part I

“And that was the day the boy from Smallville became Superman…” 10 years is a long time for any TV show to run. When that show is the eternally misfiring Smallville, it’s an even longer time for a show to be part of your life…

Put it this way. Smallville has been running for so long that not only have season 1 meteor freaks like Adam Brody and Lizzy Caplan gone on to be the leads in their own TV shows, but Amy Adams has made the spectacular leap from meteor freak of the week to Lois Lane in Zack Synder’s forthcoming Superman: The Man of Steel. By the bitter end the only actor who’d stayed the course of the regulars was Tom Welling as Clark Kent, presumably the cursed role was only finally pried away from his cold dead hands, as even Allison Mack decided to eschew most of the final season and only belatedly arrived as a Chloe Ex Machina, just when John Glover showed up as Lionel Luthor to give some sense of an ending that synched with the 2001 pilot. The parallel careers of the runners-up for the role of Clark demonstrate exactly what Welling gave up by remaining always faithful.

Jensen Ackles didn’t get the role, and instead jumped straight back into Dark Angel, as his previous one-shot appearance became a regular role. When that ended he hopped onboard the final season of Dawson’s Creek. He was later terrific as the season 4 villain in Smallville, initially Lana’s charming boyfriend before his sinister machinations were unmasked, and then nabbed his signature role as Dean Winchester in Supernatural where his bad boy swagger was complemented by gory horror and sly humour. Ian Somerhalder didn’t get the role, and instead instantly shot a leading role in Roger Avary’s sublime The Rules of Attraction. He was terrific in Smallville season 3 as Adam Knight, loudly rumoured to be Batman. He wasn’t, of course, Smallville never delivered on awesomeness, and limped off to lick his wounds in O’ahu for the first season of LOST. Thankfully Somerhalder’s dark charisma finally found a role to popularly showcase it – the sociopathic vampire Damon in The Vampire Diaries.

Good actors weren’t the only people on the Smallville merry-go-round. Skilled writers came, tried to inject awesomeness, mostly failed, and quickly moved on. Jeph Loeb wrote for Smallville before moving on to LOST and then Heroes, but his contributions were rarely as distinctive as on those later shows. Drew Z Greenberg jumped from Buffy to Smallville where he penned some of season 3’s best episodes (the psychic who sees people’s deaths) before leaving. Steven S DeKnight jumped from Angel and made a pivotal contribution, forming the Justice League and penning damn near ¼ of season 5 to entice his associate James Marsters to star as season villain Braniac. The departure of creators Millar & Gough saw their lieutenants embark on an unintentionally funny Doomsday arc, before using a Kandorian clone of General Zod then a half-baked Darkseid as season villains, even as Geoff Johns simultaneously contributed a stunning two-part Watchmen homage and some terrific comics-based episodes of wit and depth.

The problem was that great writers were always struggling against a mediocre format. Miles Millar and Alfred Gough set up Smallville in such a way as to promote endless angst, and heavy handed hints of Superman adventures to come, while occasionally promising awesome adventures around the next arc, except those adventures never came – for 10 years. Season 2 of Smallville was a prime example. Indeed, it was almost unbearable in its angst quotient, which it mistook for deep drama. Spider-Man 2, which Millar & Gough co-wrote demonstrates to perfection their Smallville agenda for achieving emotional weight. Simply replace characters with their equivalents; Norman Osborn is Lionel Luthor, Harry Osborn is Lex Luthor, MJ Watson is Lana Lang, Aunt May is Martha Kent, Ben Parker is Jonathan Kent, Peter Parker is Clark Kent; and transfer their reluctance to give Superman a cape with Spider-Man’s baffling refusal to wear his mask, and you can see their one-size fits-all approach to writing superheroes.

It became clear as time went on that Millar & Gough didn’t really have a plan for resolving the central dilemma of their own concept – if Lex gradually became a supervillain wouldn’t he then, having earlier befriended Clark, know exactly who Superman was? The decision to kill Lex seemed to resolve that, while also making stark nonsense of the show’s own continuity as Lex’s dark future had been glimpsed by psychics, and foretold by prophecy. But then a cloned/resurrected Lex, possessing all his memories, triumphantly returned for the final ever episode. Only for Tess Mercer aka Luthessa Luthor to mind-wipe Lex, with a super-chemical compound, as her dying act. Lex remembered nothing of his friendship with Clark. And it turned out that all Clark needed to fly was an inexplicable voiceover appearance by Jor-El, after Darkseid had just socked Clark, introducing a montage of 10 seasons of Smallville as being the trials that he needed to embrace his Kryptonian heritage.

Clark just flying like it was second nature immediately after that was far too reminiscent of the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz – he had the power all along, he just had to believe it. The fact that he flew in season 4 also made it seem especially ridiculous. As for Lex’s mind-wiping, it was an ingenious save – and, like the equally neat LOST finale twist, entirely unrelated to everything that went before. It may well have been an ‘emergency finale device’ that’s been lying around for years in case the show got abruptly cancelled. But I won’t deny that Lex’s return was a joy. His first lines with Clark were the best written dialogue in Smallville for seasons: “Lex….” “You still say it the same way. Astonishment, with a hint of dread, but a hopeful finish.” The two montages that accompanied these turning points for Clark and Lex demonstrated something that I’ve always argued is TV’s greatest strength.

Its ability to develop character and accumulate experiences over a sustained period of time is unique. I stuck with Smallville despite its shortcomings because it wormed its way into my memories, and not just because for a while episodes were sound-tracked by chart-topping singles. I have vivid memories of discussing different seasons of the show with different people, as few people but me stuck with it for the whole run, and even our viewing motives changed. By season 8 I was chuckling at the stupidity of the show’s writing almost more than I was watching it for comic-book fun, and discussing it with others in that vein. But the montages reminded me why I’d loved the show in the first place – the heartbreak of the young Lex crying at the birthday party no one attended, the thrill of seeing Clark discover various powers for the first time. Smallville ran far too long but its Top 20 episodes would be superb.

It was great being reminded of the sublime moments the show had produced, many from a dynamic almost forgotten because those characters had long since left, but it was even better being told we had at long last reached the destination. In the closing minutes of the show we finally got to see Clark stop whining to Jor-El, put on the damn cape and fly, and rescue Lois by saving Air Force One. We heard Perry White as editor of the Daily Planet bark at Lois while she hassled an Olsen photographer (a dubious touch), as a white-suited (but with one hand black-gloved) Lex become President in 2018, before Clark ran out of the Daily Planet revealing the S under his shirt to the strains of John William’s score as the credits appeared in the 1978 font. Chloe’s statement to her son, “There’ll always be more adventures for another day”, summed up the enduring appeal of this iconic stable of characters.

So Smallville ended its decade long run as the longest running Superman TV series ever. It wasn’t always the best Superman TV series, but that’s something for Part II…

August 18, 2011

Medium’s Realism

Allison DuBois sees dead people. And yet despite the show’s high concept being supernatural in the extreme Medium has been one of the most realistic shows on TV…

When I trumpeted Medium in the University Observer in 2005 I noted that it derived its emotional impact from the way creator Glenn Gordon Caron and ace Dark Angel writer/producers Moira Kirland, Rene Echevarria, and later Robert Doherty, were able to weave together domestic dramas and bizarre visions in an utterly plausible fashion. The initial hook of the show was second-guessing how Patricia Arquette’s cryptic visions would help the police solve baffling crimes. But the real hook for long-term viewing was the emotional meat of the show. I dubbed it, despite my love of the Cohens in The OC, the only portrayal worth a damn on US TV of a normal married couple raising children, with the little triumphs and little pitfalls that go with the territory. When the two strands combined, as in the episode where the ghost of a serial killer from the 1880s stalked eldest daughter Ariel, the results were truly heart-stopping, not least because that episode played out in flashbacks that implied Allison had failed to prevent her murder – a point to be returned to later. Medium’s realistic family dynamic only became more impressive an achievement over time as the strain on Joe of handling his wife and daughter’s abilities began to show, and the daughters not only became more rebellious as they aged but also more susceptible to the Roland family gift/curse for picking up psychic flashes.

It may seem odd to characterise long-takes, a favourite trick of showy directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Alfonso Cuaron, as being realistic, but Medium has always used handheld cameras that, without descending into the shaky-cam madness of JJ Abrams or Paul Greengrass, add an air of rough immediacy to proceedings, and when these cameras, so often deployed by the last-named auteurs for rapidly edited shots, suddenly do long-takes it affords an almost theatrical intimacy; especially as these long-takes are quite often gruesome confessions by killers, plot revelations achieved by a simple shift of the frame to one side to reveal an obscured detail, or horrendous crimes being unnervingly observed with an unblinking eye.

Medium was also depicting money worries in a middle-class family in the American Southwest years before the acclaimed Breaking Bad ‘broke new ground’ by doing so. The 7 seasons of Medium can almost be characterised by Joe’s fluctuating fortunes in the job market as much as by Allison’s murder cases. From happily employed to then working under stress at large corporation Aerodytech, to helplessly unemployed, to starting his own company, to working on his own invention for another corporation, to working again as a drone for yet another corporation under an inspired maniac, to replacing said maniac, Joe’s career has been a rollercoaster reflecting the sheer uncertainty of the modern economy which valorises flexibility while ignoring what that actually means. The sheer terror of being bankrupted by frivolous or half-plausible but unjust lawsuits, because you have very little savings left after the business of living has attacked your paycheque, has been dramatised repeatedly in Medium. It’s never been a given that Joe and Allison will escape financial armageddon because, unlike Breaking Bad’s excessively all-pervasive bleakness, there’s always been an unnerving lack of guaranteed happy endings in Medium. It has repeatedly demonstrated that for all her paranormal powers Allison can’t always get her man. In some cases she has egregiously failed to catch the killer and never got a second bite at the cherry. Against the backdrop that things don’t always end well, Medium has created a good deal of dread from bad familial and financial situations.

Finally there’s the realism factor engendered by the remarkable fact that they don’t do supernatural crimes on Medium, despite the occult premise of the show. Indeed one scene, during an investigation of a priest’s death, which suggested that a demon had actually possessed a possessed girl was absolutely terrifying because it broke with two seasons’ worth of assurances that the supernatural solved crimes but had no part in committing them. Sure there have been moments that get close to supernatural crimes, such as David Arquette as Allison’s ne’er-do-well brother letting John Glover take control of his body, but what Glover does then isn’t particularly supernatural as a crime; he merely uses his charisma as a motivational speaker to tempt people to succumb to an addiction they’ve been fighting, such as cigarettes or alcohol. Similarly while Allison has variously gone deaf, lost control of her hand, or lost her ability to recognise English, none of these conditions has been anything but ‘hysterical blindness’ writ large; as Rena Sofer’s doctor dubbed it in the final season: a psychological reaction to an emotional trauma. Medium as a show has dealt in realistic crimes, but these have been frequently been at the extremely chilling end of the spectrum of psychosis, as it’s been very concerned with violence against women and children. Despite being driven by a strong female lead character it’s never shrunk from depicting women as extremely vulnerable physically to the predations of disturbed men. Serial killers aplenty have committed crimes against women in Allison’s Phoenix stronghold, Eric Stoltz’s killer a terrifying example, and there’s been incredibly disturbing attacks on children too, including a horrendous crime that Det. Lee Scanlon unwittingly failed to prevent when he was a beat cop.

Medium lost some great writers along the way but it kept its standard high to the very end, and its controversial finale proved it was never afraid to be realistic to a fault.

Medium continues its swansong seventh season on Living, Fridays at 9pm.

April 16, 2010

Who the Hell is … Kevin Durand?

In this, the first of a series of occasional features, I’m going to celebrate a character actor who I always cheer when I see hove into view.

Kevin Durand is a Canadian stand-up comedian turned actor who has been consistently thwarted by his own physique. Durand first came to my attention as Joshua in season 2 of James Cameron’s Dark Angel. Joshua was the original genetic experiment by the shadowy genetic scientist Sandeman who founded military program Manticore to create super-soldiers after putting a bit too much canine DNA in the mix for Joshua. Buried under layers of prosthetics and make-up Durand gave a fine performance as the hulking dog-faced man, mixing humour with tragic nobility, that helped raised the show’s game considerably after its misfiring first run. After this turn though Durand’s great height, 6’6″, started to get in the way of his natural comedic talents. In a world of leading ladies like Kristen Bell (5’1″), Hayden Panettiere (5’1″), and Ellen Page (5’1″), you can see how it might be just a bit of a problem in getting leading man roles in romantic comedies…

He floated through half of America’s TV shows in one-shot guest roles, notably as a terrifying psychopath in a very chilling episode of The Dead Zone, before a far bigger role in season 4 of LOST as the psychopathic leader of the mercenaries dispatched to the island to kidnap Ben, and then returned as a slightly more rounded version of the same villain in the frankly ridiculous parallel universe used as filler for season 6 of LOST. This of course led to a higher profile and an appearance in Wolverine followed, as the Blob. Sadly no one either noticed or could win the argument over relative star billings that Durand rather than the miscast Liev Schreiber was the natural choice to play Wolverine’s half-brother Sabretooth. His role as the Blob though was perhaps the best use anyone had made of his uniquely endearing mix of comedic timing and imposing physique since Dark Angel. It was certainly more rounded than his thugs in 3:10 to Yuma, Smokin’ Aces, The Butterfly Effect, or his vengeful archangel in Supernatural knock-off Legion. Thankfully, and probably courtesy of his Yuma gang-leader Russell Crowe, he’s essaying a rare good guy role in Robin Hood next month, he is of course playing Little John…

Can Durand overcome his own physique and escape from the pigeonhole of one-note psychos or insanely script-specific good guy parts? Here’s hoping that Robin Hood marks the beginning of more varied and high-profile roles for the man who should be the next Donald Sutherland, sharing as they do an ungainly height, a goofy grin, and a flair for playing villainy, comedy and pathos equally well. Oh, and did I mention he’s Canadian too?

September 9, 2009

15 Minutes of Avatar

If Sigourney Weaver wasn’t in the cast you’d have the horrible suspicion that the writer/director behind this film was not James Cameron but George Lucas…

Cameron’s return came with not just a trailer but world-wide screenings of 15 minutes of scenes from the first and second acts of Avatar, chosen to give a taste of the film without revealing spoilers, as he explained in his introduction. They should then give a good flavour of what to expect from the 3-D CGI animation/live-action mash-up extravaganza that is Cameron’s first film since Titanic, but the taste is sweet and sour.

The first scene showcased was a briefing about the extremely hostile inhabitants of a planet the military was trying to colonise (how very Aliens) but as you paid more attention you realised with a shock that this wasn’t bad motion-capture CGI but actual actors, 3-D had somehow made flesh and blood look oddly unconvincing compared to the CGI animation that followed. The next scene where Sigourney Weaver explains the preposterous plot to Sam Worthington improves on that unsettling experience dramatically but most of the film will obviously be the CGI animation adventures of Sam Worthington in his alien avatar body goofing around on the planet. And the plot is preposterous. Worthington, a crippled military hard-man, has his mind inserted into the big blue body of a humanoid alien inhabitant of the planet, and ends up closely resembling Joshua the dog-man from Cameron’s TV show Dark Angel.

Is Terminator: Salvation’s star really the right choice to carry such a huge film? For a long time I thought it was Sam Huntington (sublime as Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns) who had got this part, which would have made for a funnier contrast between avatar and human rather than the pathos Cameron is aiming for, but arguably also made us root for the hero more. Worthington’s not that charismatic a presence in the footage screened and he’s not helped, as he blunders about shooting at various ill-tempered beasties, by a script packed with very obvious punning which recalls The Phantom Menace painfully at times. Zoe Saldana’s sexy tough as nails native alien love interest comes right out of the Ripley/Sarah Connor stable of Cameron heroines but her accent is right from the Jar Jar Binks School of Racial Stereotyping.

As for the 3-D, if you like seeing shell-casings fly towards you or fronds sweep around as the camera tracks then the 3-D is great, and scenes of night-time phosphoresce are stunningly beautiful. However the action depicted feels very, very familiar – in one scene Worthington has to tame what is basically a pterodactyl and then fly off on it to, oh who cares? And ow! why do my eyes hurt? Avatar has all new glasses for the latest refinement of the technology but (leaving aside the fact that since 3-D’s first appearance in the 1950s an ever-increasing percentage of the population has to put 3-D glasses over glasses) 3-D is still at best a draining experience, and at worst a painful one, which is why most 3-D films in this latest wave have been around 80 minutes long. Avatar will probably march towards the 150 minute mark, and, combined with action that’s distinctly déjà-vu of Jurassic Park, Star Wars, et al, that’s a hard sell…

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