Talking Movies

May 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

If not Lazenby, then who?

Almost anyone. But seriously, folks. There were any number of actors in England in 1968 who could have done a better job of picking up the keys to Sean Connery’s Aston Martin. A typically three-cornered hat discussion with Friedrich Bagel and The Engineer to the music of de Falla produced this shortlist of contenders:

Rod Taylor, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Terence Stamp, Anthony Hopkins

Patrick McGoohan, Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Lee, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Edward Fox

Now, not all of these people would have been asked, and some of them would likely have refused had they been asked, (Alan Bates and Nicol Williamson spring to mind), and some of them would likely have refused contemptuously (*Dear EON, Patrick McGoohan has had quite enough of playing spies at this point, thank you very much). The EON producers would never have seriously asked a bona fide film leading man like Caine, in order to keep the budget down. They would have asked a TV star like Roger Moore, sadly tied up with The Saint, or Timothy Dalton, a supporting player in a major film. As indeed they did. But the actual shortlist of undistinguished Bond contenders from whom Lazenby won based on a screen test is the stuff of madness when you consider that all these alternatives were available. The roguishness of Oliver Reed’s 007, the undercurrent of menace of Malcolm McDowell’s Bond, the unpredictability of David Warner’s agent: these are the roads not taken. There seems to be some sort of retrospective attempt to insist they needed to cast an unknown actor, like they had with Sean Connery. But Sean Connery was not unknown when he was cast. Far from it, he had already appeared in Darby O’Gill and the Little People and his supporting role in The Longest Day would have been appreciated by British TV audiences who, between 1959 and 1961, had seen him as Count Vronsky, Hotspur, Macbeth and Alexander the Great. He was not an unknown, he was quite well known to British audiences as a leading man playing historic roles. Lazenby by contrast was quite well known to British audiences for advertising Fry’s chocolate bars.

The critical rehabilitation narrative

I’ve been thinking recently about what we might dub the critical rehabilitation narrative. Nothing seems to please some critics more than to discover neglected masterpieces, to rescue from the discard bin gems that were unappreciated at the time. The only problem is sometimes the critics are very pleased with themselves, their wider critical narrative powers along, and it’s only a minor detail that the film in question is still rubbish. That’s not to say that it is wrong to revisit films and see if they were misjudged; after all Fight Club suffered hugely from being released so soon after Columbine. But sometimes there is much to be said for reading the original reviews and getting a bracing perspective, like disinterring The Cabinet of Dr Caligari from the reverence of generations of film students and discovering in Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture that its own writers disowned the finished film for changes made to its finale which they regarded as dangerously reversing its political message, and doing so at a time that imperilled the nascent republic. Or realising that Matthew Modine saying recently that Full Metal Jacket has aged better than other Vietnam films because it’s finale of urban insurgency could be in Iraq only proves the point of the objections made by critics on release. Because of the WB indulging Kubrick’s power-tripping laziness he had departed from the novel’s jungle war conclusion to instead depict the (easily manufactured in England) ruined city of Hue, because he couldn’t be bothered leaving England. And it would be hard to easily manufacture in England a jungle war. Just as well Vietnam wasn’t noted for being a JUNGLE WAR. Revolution was reviled on release and exiled Pacino to Broadway. But Revolution is an unfocused film of baffling decisions, like shooting it entirely in England and not having Annie Lennox sing, rather than an outright atrocity. Watching its depiction of the start of the American Revolution, the mob bullying, the expropriation, the self-interested and abrasive self-righteousness is oddly reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago’s portrayal of the Bolsheviks. It’s hard not to think that this enraged American critics at the time, who sublimated that rage into attacks from other angles. And yet the final minutes of Revolution feature a truly astonishing tracking shot, a technical marvel and a triumph of production design, that I have never ever heard anyone praise or even mention. If you can’t do the hard work of salvaging the good from amidst the bad then what is the point of critical rehabilitation?

April 20, 2018

From the Archives: Juno

In the first in a series delving into the days before Talking Movies proper, here’s the first review I sent to Dublinks.com 10 years ago.

Juno, despite the plethora of Oscar nominations, is a good film with a great central performance rather than a truly great film. First-timer writer Diablo Cody’s script is full of sharp one-liners, most of which are delivered by Ellen Page, the eponymous heroine who becomes “a cautionary whale” at her high school after accidentally getting pregnant. Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. The unlikely father is Superbad’s Michael Cera, a diffident member of the school athletics team. (As Juno’s father quips “I didn’t think he had it in him!”) The problem with Juno is that much like director Jason Reitman’s previous film Thank You for Smoking it’s highly enjoyable but quickly fades in the memory as you forget all the barbed lines of dialogue.

20 year old Ellen Page deserves the enormous praise she’s receiving as she mordantly carries the entire film as the prematurely jaded, wisecracking Juno McGuff. This role is a worthy follow up to her incendiary turn in 2006’s Hard Candy. Someone really should remake The Big Sleep with Page as Phillipa Marlowe because on the evidence of this she could Bogart her way through anything… Reitman assembles a great cast around Page but Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner stand out as the highly strung yuppie couple that Juno picks to be the adoptive parents of her child. They might be a bit too desperate for children to actually be good parents while Bateman’s Mark might get on just a bit too well with Juno. ‘Might’ is the operative word though, because it’s refreshingly impossible to tell where everything is going.

The script constantly subverts expectations. Even Spider-Man star JK Simmons is required to actually act for the first time in ages rather than bark insults and chew scenery, his Mr McGuff is quietly depressed by his daughter’s predicament. Juno is not as funny as Superbad but what it lacks in laughs it makes up for in charm, from the indie soundtrack to the quirky animations that indicate the progression of the pregnancy and Reitman’s audacious decision to end the movie with a DIY musical number. This is an indie delight.

4/5

February 17, 2014

Top 5 Ellen Page Films

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(5) Inception

Christopher Nolan’s mind heist thriller builds to a tremendous redemptive emotional kick, when you read the film superficially as too neat structurally for its own good, but … see a loose thread and pull and the garment doesn’t unravel, it changes pattern. ‘Ariadne is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with Cobb is because she’s a therapist surreptitiously hired by Arthur to banish Mal from Cobb’s mind… Page’s performance works equally well as the most grounded member of the team pushing Cobb to exorcise his demons because of her compassion.

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(4) The East

Brit Marling’s script is as building-block developed as most of Johnny Depp’s recent roles (Fight Club + Point Break + Revenge = The East), but Page makes the most of her juicy part as Izzy, the fearsome lieutenant to Alexander Skarsgaard’s ecological Tyler Durden. Her voiceover for the opening montage of The East destroying an oil executive’s home with horror imagery of seeping oil is extremely menacing. Page is so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, and by the end the strength of her convictions and ruthless actions render her almost a Fury of Greek myth.

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(3) Whip It!

Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Page carries the film with ease, handling the demanding physicality of the bone-crunching roller-derby scenes with the same aplomb as the comedy and drama of the off-rink scenes of high-school and family life. Filled with sparkling turns from a female ensemble including Kristen Wiig, the creaking of the plot mechanics becomes a bit audible in the second act, only for Barrymore’s final act to be pleasingly subversive on two counts.

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(2) Juno

Juno is a damn good film with a great central performance rather than a truly great film, even though Diablo Cody’s script is refreshingly unpredictable in its tale of a sarcastic teenager giving her unplanned baby up for adoption to yuppies Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in charm, from the soundtrack to the colourful supporting turns by Olivia Thirlby and Michael Cera. Page, at just 20 years of age, mordantly carried the entire film as the prematurely jaded Juno McGuff, equally adept at biting put-downs and explosive moral outrage.

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(1) Hard Candy

Page was just 17 when she filmed this two-hander with Patrick Wilson and burned a hole in the screen with her white-hot performance. It’s a simple premise. Teenage girl and older man meet on internet, go to a cafe, go back to his place, have some drinks, take some photos … and then he wakes up tied to his kitchen table with her reading a text-book covering castration. David Slade’s directorial debut was gruelling, tense, horrific, and blackly comic, and utterly dependent on the teenage Page’s incendiary performance effortlessly swinging between precocious, mischievous, sadistic, indignant and psychotic.

October 30, 2009

Jennifer’s Body

Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody’s second feature script was expected to be a subversive feminist horror film, but it’s merely standard shlock with good gags.

The opening shot is very Evil Dead but turns out to be the first of many odd structural decisions as it bafflingly leads us into a lengthy spoiler-tastic prologue in a lunatic asylum. The patient is our narrator and heroine Anna ‘Needy’ Lesnicki. Ignore the posters and top billing, this is Amanda Seyfried’s film rather than Megan Fox’s. Seyfried plays a dork (Cody disappointingly conveys this thru her wearing glasses and writing for the school newspaper) who is best friends forever with mean cheerleader Jennifer (Fox). Jennifer bullies Needy into attending a concert by indie band Low Shoulder at the town bar and after an inferno rips thru the venue Needy discovers that her BFF has changed from high school evil to actual evil…

Juno was a good film enlivened by a great lead performance but neither Seyfried nor Fox are in Ellen Page’s league, and the structure of this film is far less logical. There are two incredibly creepy images, of Jennifer smiling at Needy while dripping blood, and crouching spider-like over a dead body in a sequence inter-cut with Needy having sex, but many of the scares are too well signposted. There are some subversive touches – neither lead actually appears naked (despite the marketing of the film around Fox’s hotness) and the link between virginity and survival is reversed – but given the teenage characters’ pop culture reference points surely they’d know that that’s been done before (and better) by Scream. Even the feminist angle is underdeveloped apart from a few good lines. Compared to last year’s Teeth where violently misogynist males got castrated by a rampaging feminist there’s no vicious justice served up here by the choice of male victims.

JK Simmons, almost unrecognisable in a curly wig, is rather good in another subdued outing in a Cody script but supporting honours are stolen by Adam Brody’s cameo. Brody is awesome as the lead singer of indie band Low Shoulder, and this is not just my Seth Cohen obsession speaking. His turn could best be described as a Satanic version of Brandon Flowers. Indeed the bizarre scene where the action stops near the end of the film so that Jennifer can explain to Needy what actually happened near the start of the film between Low Shoulder and Jennifer is the best of the movie as the flashback is pitch-perfect comedy-horror, dripping with blood but eminently quotable. It is baffling why Cody didn’t go with that gory comedy-horror formula for the whole movie rather than just occasionally enliven routine shlock with her flair for bitchy comedic dialogue like this three-way repartee: “She can fly?!” “She’s just hovering, it’s not that impressive” “God, do you have to undercut everything I do?!”

This is fine Hallowe’en fare, with a satisfyingly vindictive super-powered final fight between humans and demons, but Juno fans should lower their expectations.

3/5

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