Talking Movies

July 13, 2017

Taking Stock of Keanu

7 years ago to the day I wrote a piece on how Keanu Reeves, then 45, was dealing with mid-life cinematically. I think it’s time to check on Keanu again.

In the distant halcyon past of 2004 I wrote a profile of Keanu Reeves for the University Observer. He had just declined Superman for Warner Bros when I wrote that profile, and in 2010, not having any currently lucrative franchise, I said he’d be now be considered about 20 years too old to even audition, and George Reeves be damned.  In the Observer piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles”, but lacked the space to really flesh that out. Somebody, perhaps Barry Norman, had suggested Hollywood leading men lose their cachet on hitting 50, so their 40s are the years where they have both the maturity and the box-office clout to take on the roles for which they will be best remembered. Think John Wayne (Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers), Gregory Peck (Moby Dick, The Big Country, On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, To Kill a Mockingbird), Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down). It seems a good enough theory.

Between 2004 and 2014 Keanu appeared in Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi, 47 Ronin, and John Wick. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in Mike Mills’ first movie. His turn in Rebecca Miller’s Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem them. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find large audiences. Richard Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if odd film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as leading dramatic roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best characters. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas, while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; making his directorial debut. Utilising what Lawrence has since spoken of as the twilight zone between PG-13 and R it had a fine sense of metaphysical rather than visceral horror, and was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

And then came John Wick

February 12, 2015

Ennio Morricone: My Life in Music

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Film composer Ennio Morricone belied his 86 years for a sprightly concert conducting some of his most beloved scores in a sold-out Point last Saturday.

Morricone was conducting the full Czech National Symphony Orchestra, some 86 musicians, backed by the 76 singers of the Kodaly Choir of Debrecen in Hungary. He began with the piano-led title theme from The Untouchables with its unusual wailing brass, before segueing into a suite of rich string-led themes from his last collaboration with director Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in America, and then his lengthy theme for frequent collaborator Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900, which combined lush orchestration with surprising diversions into cabaret and blues to musically recreate the feel of years going by on a cruise ship. Morricone’s fondness for bundling so many themes into one set caused more than a few disruptive moments where the audience determinedly applauded, drowning out the start of the next tune, leading my sometime co-writer John Healy to suspect rhythmic holding patterns in later segues…

Morricone has scored an unreasonable amount of films and TV miniseries, most of them Italian, so he showcased his less familiar work with a selection from the late 60s and early 70s, including H2S and Metti, una sera a cena. Two themes from Love Circle had an unfortunate tendency to lapse into 70s romance pastiche, but Maddalena and The Sicilian Clan were unfamiliar works which stood out; utilising electric guitar and drums gave a rockier feel akin to Lalo Schifrin’s Dirty Harry score, and Sicilian Clan in particular managed to combine romance and menace simultaneously. Morricone’s final pre-interval set showcased his career-defining work with Leone with the slowly building choral and orchestral splendour and jagged guitars of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dynamite, and ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’.

After the interval Morricone unveiled three more sets of themes. Collaborations with directors Tornatore, Brian De Palma, and Gillo Pontecorvo were highlighted in the choice of themes from Cinema Paradiso, Malena, Casualties of War, The Battle of Algiers, and Burn! all. While those scores for Tornatore and De Palma are all about tugging at the heart-strings thru lush strings, the edgier music for Pontecorvo is all about percussion – indeed the ironically joyous ‘Abolisson’ from Burn! was performed with no fewer than five percussionists. Morricone also conducted more scores from obscure Italian films, with the jokey percussion instrumentation and mock-suspense melody of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and the distorted keyboard and jaunty melody of La classes operaia va in paradise particularly noteworthy. Morricone’s final set was inevitably The Mission: ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, ‘Falls’, ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’.

The maestro spoke only thru his music, but his three encores; ‘Here’s to You’, ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’, ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’; said it all. Morricone is one of that select band of composers whose music has escaped the films they were meant to complement to take on a life of their own. Whether it’s the inimitable whistling of Leone’s Wild West or the quasi-sacramental effect of his famous oboe solo Morricone has transcended the medium.

4/5

October 16, 2013

Castles, Candles and Kubrick

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

All Stanley Kubrick fans should move the dial to Newstalk this weekend for a documentary about the truncated Irish shoot of period epic Barry Lyndon.

As part of the autumn season of documentary radio on Newstalk 106-108 Pavel Barter produces this look at the story behind the making of Stanley Kubrick’s period adaptation Barry Lyndon in Ireland 40 years ago.

In the summer of 1973, director Stanley Kubrick arrived in Ireland to make his latest film Barry Lyndon. Having run massively over-schedule and over-budget with his space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick had followed that sci-fi folly up with a cheap and nasty quickie, A Clockwork Orange, which had proven massively controversial; its ultraviolence and rape coming in the same year as Dirty Harry and Straw Dogs. Now Kubrick was ready to take on Thackeray’s novel with the unlikely personage of Ryan O’Neal as the titular hero. All seemed to be going well as Kubrick shot in the Irish countryside with hundreds of costumed extras. But on an overcast night in January 1974, the director fled Ireland on a ferry from Dun Laoghaire. Within 48 hours the entire production had also abandoned their stations.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick tells, for the first time, the story behind the making of Barry Lyndon in Ireland, featuring interviews with cast and crew from the film. What role did Ireland play in the production of Barry Lyndon? Did Kubrick’s preceding film, Clockwork Orange, affect the production? It was widely rumoured he fled Ireland after a death threat which also caused him to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from circulation in Britain and Ireland until its posthumous re-release in 2000; a move that unjustly fostered its reputation as a great classic lost to censorship. It’s equally rumoured that he misinterpreted the death threat, which was from the IRA; enraged at the sight of hundreds of extras dressed as British soldiers in deepest Tipperary. Hopefully Barter’s documentary will get to the bottom of these urban legends.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick features contributions from Brian W. Cook (The Wicker Man, The Shining), Luke Quigley (Braveheart, In The Name of The Father), Terry Clegg (Gandhi, Out of Africa), Patti Podesta (Memento), and Gay Hamilton (The Duellists). They’ll shed light on working with the notorious perfectionist. Kubrick surpassed Hitchcock in the endless self-promotion stakes because he only directed 13 films, a fraction of Hitchcock’s output. Kubrick did endless takes without explaining what he wanted done differently, and shot every one of his few film with emotionless Ophuls glides, regardless of whether it suited that particular subject matter; yet his very reclusiveness and these eccentricities in shooting made him revered. Why is Barry Lyndon considered the greatest movie ever by fellow directors such as Martin Scorsese and Lars Von Trier? Tune in and find out.

Castles, Candles and Kubrick will air on Newstalk 106-108 on Saturday October 19th at 7:00am, with a repeat airing on Sunday October 20th at 6:00pm.

November 1, 2011

Any Other Business: Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 13, 2010

Keanu Takes Stock

Keanu Reeves will be 46 in a few months, so how is he dealing with mid-life cinematically?

Back in 2004 when I wrote a profile of Keanu for the University Observer he had just refused to play Superman for Warner Bros, and now (not being connected to any lucrative franchise) unlike the era of George Reeves, he’d be considered about 20 years to old to even get an audition.  In that piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles” but didn’t have time to expand on my meaning, which was that Hollywood leading men tend to lose their cachet on hitting 50 so their 40s are the years where they have the maturity and the box-office clout to take on big roles – like John Wayne doing Red River and The Searchers, Gregory Peck doing Moby Dick, Cape Fear and To Kill a Mockingbird and even Michael Douglas doing Romancing the Stone, Wall Street and Basic Instinct.

Since Keanu turned 40 he’s appeared in only seven films Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in the movie. His turn in Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem both their lives. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find sustained audiences. Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if flawed film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as mature roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing and a fine sense of metaphysical horror that was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix. Keanu seems to have moved away from franchise movies but that might just reduce the audience for his upcoming roles. He faces a dilemma it seems – does he take on another box-office behemoth or just cameo in indie movies?

Where he goes from here is a choice we leave up to him…

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