Talking Movies

October 25, 2019

From the Archives: Nancy Drew

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Teenage amateur sleuth Nancy Drew (Emma Roberts) moves to California with her lawyer father Carson (Tate Donovan). She tries to fit in at school but quickly becomes entangled in an old mystery surrounding their rented LA house which was owned by a murdered starlet whose manager is Carson’s new boss.

Nancy Drew is a very old character. She was created in 1930 which makes her eight years older than Superman. And just like Superman she’s an impeccably polite do-gooder who’s considered difficult to pull off in a big budget live action movie in the present climate. By present climate we mean that while Superman has been made to appear sort of lame by recent interpretations of Batman, Nancy has to contend with TV’s tough teenage PI Veronica Mars. Batman is dark, brooding, dangerous and prone to violence. Superman never lies and acts like an overgrown boy scout. Nancy Drew also doesn’t lie, is as nice as pie, and has a very curious non-relationship with her absent boyfriend Ned who is introduced by her as “a really good friend from home” when he pops up here. Veronica Mars played her own father to pull off a spectacular con against the FBI, has a tempestuous on/off relationship with a confirmed bad boy, is vindictive as hell to people who cross her and never stops spewing one-liners and sarcastically narrating her life. See the problem here?

How do you depict Nancy after Veronica? IGNORE VERONICA! Director and co-writer Andrew Fleming has chosen to go for something termed ‘retro-modern’. Don’t even try to fathom what that means, I spent half an hour at it during the film and I think I broke something in my mind-box. Nancy and Carson dress and act like they’re in the 1950s while everyone around them is defiantly 00s. At times the school in LA Nancy moves to feels like it’s the one from Bratz. You suspect that Fleming is doing an awful reprise of The Brady Bunch Movie, setting Nancy up for humiliation after humiliation. Thankfully after a while this temporal confusion ceases to matter. The mystery surrounding the previous owner of the house, a tragic starlet, is actually pretty damn involving and Nancy is smart, dogged, and resourceful in solving it. There are also some very good jokes including two cameos when Nancy wanders onto a film set that are too good to ruin here.

It’s always a joy to see Rocky Horror star Barry Bostwick in anything while Tate Donovan is an effective if underused Carson Drew. Emma Roberts carries this film scarily well for a 16 year old but then her aunt is Julia Roberts. The last half-hour is very gripping, with menacing villains and very showy direction from Fleming, which raises the suspense brilliantly. Perfect fare for the Big Big Movie crowd but if you’re a teenager you should probably be watching Veronica Mars and Batman Begins.

3/5

September 27, 2019

From the Archives: A Mighty Heart

Digging in the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-bait in which the show was stolen by the supporting players.

Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is kidnapped by terrorists in Pakistan. Through the eyes of his pregnant wife Marianne we follow the frantic search operation to find him.

A Mighty Heart is based on a true story. Daniel Pearl was captured by Islamist extremists in Pakistan in early 2002 and held as a captive before being beheaded, an act of depravity videoed for posterity by his captors. Michael Winterbottom adapts the style of Paul Greengrass, the shaky hand-held camera and documentary feel, to recreate a sense of urgency given that we all know how the story ends. He is helped by an extremely impressive sound design which lets the chaotic roar of Karachi envelop the audience placing us in the midst of a strange city, with many rules for the safety for Western journalists. The most important rule is to always meet a contact in a public place. We see Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) being told this repeatedly before meeting his contact. When the contact doesn’t appear, Pearl leaves, only to be abducted and used as a bargaining chip to get Guantanamo Bay shut down.

The ensemble of this film is very strong. There are standout performances though from Futterman who convinces us of Pearl’s quiet integrity and courage, Archie Panjabi as the pugnacious Indian Wall Street Journal reporter with whom the Pearls are staying, and Irrfan Khan as the Captain in charge of Counter-terrorism (Pakistan’s Jack Bauer, even down to torturing suspects). In its dogged reconstruction of the intelligence operation tracking down Islamist suspects this film comes close in feel to last year’s acclaimed mini-series The Path to 9/11. While that featured Harvey Keitel’s best performance in years as the doomed FBI agent John O’Neill the responsibility of playing a real person has the opposite effect on the lead of this film.

Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl gives a performance designed to win Oscars but that intention is so obvious it backfires. All you can think about is what a ‘performance’ Angelina is giving: look at her curled hair, her darkened pigmentation, her French accent…if she ‘acts’ any harder she might pull something. She’s at her best here in her quiet moments as shouting scenes play like a reprise of the showiness that won her an Oscar for her sociopath in Girl, Interrupted. John Wayne took a number of years to create the persona of ‘John Wayne’ that he perfected in Stagecoach and lived off for the next three decades. Angelina Jolie though has not created a film persona like Wayne’s, she has created a purely public persona that cannot be captured on celluloid. Her sole smash hit of the last decade was Mr & Mrs Smith. Centred on a tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt this was a heightened expression of the comic book which is her life. The baggage of tabloid headlines she brings to this film fatally undermines it. Marianne Pearl should have been played by a lower profile actress…

2/5

September 6, 2019

From the Archives: Breach

Another trawl thru the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers another puzzler from director Billy Ray, as FBI rookie Eric O’Neal (Ryan Phillipe) is assigned to spy on his new boss, senior analyst Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). O’Neal is shocked to discover, after becoming friends with the older man, that Hanssen is a suspected traitor.

This is not the sort of fare one usually associates with August. The Bourne Identity star Chris Cooper returns to the espionage genre with a far more muted depiction of the world of intelligence than current nerve shredder The Bourne Ultimatum. Melancholy is the key word here. Chris Cooper from the opening credits portrays the real life FBI traitor Robert Hanssen as a man exhausted by his double lives, almost aching to be exposed just so the need for deception will finally end. The tone of the story is reflected in its setting: Washington DC in January and February with snow on the ground, a chill wind in the air, and grey and blue tints in all the Bureau’s offices.

Billy Ray as a director seems to have created his own sub-genre in which he makes intelligent fact-based films drawing out good acting performances from previously disregarded pretty boys. Breach follows his directorial debut Shattered Glass in which he drew an emotionally affecting performance from Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass, a reporter who nearly destroyed the reputation of The New Republic by making up stories. In Breach Ray manages to drag a good performance out of Ryan Phillipe, who convincingly plays that cinematic staple, the undercover agent who starts to sympathise with his prey. As FBI operative Eric O’Neal he spends the opening act of the film being astounded at the ordinariness of a man he has been assigned to spy on for suspected sexual misconduct. Once he penetrates the initial frosty reserve of Hanssen he finds a loyal, highly intelligent and kindly FBI analyst. Hanssen and his wife even invite O’Neal and his East German wife (Caroline Dhavernas) over for Sunday dinner. Following this O’Neal demands to know from his superiors why he is investigating Hanssen and is told by Laura Linney’s senior FBI agent that Hanssen is suspected not of sexual deviancy but of selling secrets. Ray creates scenes of almost unbearable suspense as the FBI try to acquire evidence against an agent who has consistently out-thought all their investigations to find the suspected mole.

Robert Hanssen, like Stephen Glass, remains even now an enigma. The reasons he gives Special Agent Plesac (Dennis Haysbert) for a previous traitor’s actions all seem to apply equally to himself, but while all are semi-plausible none truly convince. Hanssen is brilliantly portrayed by Cooper not just as a double agent but a double personality. He is a strict Catholic who secretly distributes home-made sex tapes, a loyal FBI man who tries to draw attention to implacable threats to American security but is in fact selling secrets to the Russians. The haunting final image powerfully conveys this self-tortured quality in a succinct summary of the subtlety of this film.

3/5

February 14, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXIV

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

The Valley of the Short

National Geographic’s Valley of the Boom has been an odd watch. Coming off the back of 4 seasons of The West Wing re-runs on TG4 it’s been quite nice to see Bradley Whitford in light suits walking around corridors again, but this time affecting a drawl and dispensing gnomic wisdom. Elsewhere it’s been fascinating learning about Facebook before Facebook in the shape of TheGlobe.com, but there’s no compelling reason this couldn’t all have been a documentary; even if that would mean losing Josh Lyman himself. Making it a docudrama is a baffling decision, and one which ‘creator’ Matthew Carnahan seems to have interpreted as license to war on the fourth wall to make sure we understand that what little drama there is is not as factual as the documentary surrounding it. Interestingly enough in light of Vice’s suffering the law of diminishing returns when employing the tricks of The Big Short the deployment of those self-same tricks here actually work reasonably well, and even include a musical number; something filmed for but dropped from Vice.

You Don’t Know Dick

All roads lead back to Vice… The more I’ve thought about Vice the more uneasy I am about it. McKay’s interest in Dick Cheney is that which animates all Presidential biographers – the years in the Oval Office. So why bother making a film about the years leading up to it as well, and not just zero in on those eight years? Those eight years, after all, are what really (and clearly) gets McKay’s goat. And yet Vice gallops thru them, offering Cheney’s infamous (and cheerfully repeated by myself and Emmet Ryan during writing sessions, explicitly mentioning that Vice-Presidential imprimatur) “Go F*** Yourself” to Senator Patrick Leahy, and his accidental shooting someone while hunting, almost totally decontextualised, purely because they had to be included; because they’d been fodder for the SNL writers, as McKay once was. The scene in which Cheney demands to see all intelligence, no matter how flimsy, is presented as his quest for a fictional casus belli to invade Iraq. I’ve been thinking though of how that scene could be written, with the same misgivings by the agency directors, and the same outcome, but an entirely different and equally plausible motivation for Cheney’s actions. The truth is that is possible for many scenes in Vice, because McKay always assumes the absolute worst of Cheney, usually in the absence of any information whatsoever. So try this on for size as reason for trampling the constitution beneath his feet:

CIA: There’s only one source for that, Mister Vice-President, that’s why it’s not included.

CHENEY: I want to see everything.

FBI: But, Mister Vice-President, we have to sift thru the intelligence to determine what’s credible.

CHENEY: Do you? Is that what you did when you dismissed as ‘racial profiling’ a flag on an Arabic man saying he didn’t need to learn how to land the plane, just how to fly it? 3,000 Americans are dead because we dropped the ball. We dropped the ball, and they died. So from now on I see EVERYTHING. I don’t care how ‘credible’ you think it is. I need to see EVERYTHING. We are not going to have another 9/11, not on my watch. Now get out of here, and don’t fumble the f****** ball again…

And now perhaps imagine how McKay would handle a similar scene involving President Obama justifying lethal drone strikes on American citizens without any due process.

 

Our long national nightmare is over

And once again with The West Wing re-runs on TG4, because Declan Rice’s statement last night contained a fatal phrase that immediately had me humming Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore ditty. I have felt, almost from the beginning of this will he/won’t he saga, that it was unseemly. And as it progressed I felt it was increasingly humiliating for us to be so desperately begging someone to play for us. Especially as he is ‘a proud Englishman’. Sing it!

But in spite of all temptation

To belong to other nations

He remains an Englishman!

July 24, 2018

From the Archives: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archive dredges up a sequel that really should have stayed hidden deep down.

There are some spooky things about this film, none of them to do with the plot. It’s been ten years since the first X-Files film Fight the Future, six years since the show ended, and eight years since everyone stopped caring. So why release this film against the all powerful Dark Knight when it’s so obviously a Hallowe’en film? Every scene takes place in a snowy West Virginia winter and the story eschews alien conspiracies for straight horror. Even odder, given that The Dark Knight is a triumphant sequel, original show writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz are pitting against it a sequel that is not faster, harder and better. Where Fight the Future went for big effects (remember the glorious tastelessness of its opening Oklahoma bombing recreation?) this is a sequel that aims to be quieter (!!), and fails…

This film believes itself to be a low-key emotional character study spliced with some deliciously grotesque shlock horror. Fox Mulder is a broken man (we know this because he has a beard) while Dana Scully is working as a doctor in a Catholic hospital. Scully is asked by the FBI to bring Mulder in for a consult on the case of a missing agent, as the only leads come from a psychic paedophile priest Fr Joe, played with surprisingly unshowy aplomb by Billy Connolly as a man tormented by his instincts and desperate for redemption and forgiveness. Mulder is rejuvenated by the case (he shaves off his beard) but Scully remains sceptical, some things never change.

This film never descends to George Lucas dialogue but most scenes between Mulder and Scully take five minutes to run thru three simple ideas; “You need to trust people again, take this job Mulder”, “This job has too much darkness Mulder, you should drop it”, and “This job is all I know how to do Scully”; these longeurs lead to musings –  like the hilarious notion that the militant atheism of Dawkins, so hip since 9/11, will be infuriated by the unashamed leaps of faith taken by Mulder and Scully in believing in the supernatural. Scully may doubt the existence of God as much as ever but she still curses him…

This film is too low-key for its own good. Chris Carter directed episodes of the TV show with more visual flair than he displays here. Amanda Peet and Xzibit do their level best with under-written roles as FBI agents. Callum Keith Rennie, a Canadian character actor best known for his Cylon in Battlestar Galactica and undercover cop in Due South, outshines them in lead support as a sinister Russian serial killer/organ-harvester. A suspenseful chase scene involving him is a highlight but such moments are offset by Scully’s sub-plot which is insultingly emotionally manipulative. It’s nice to see Mulder & Scully together again as older characters, but it would be better if they were in a worthy conspiracy laden sequel and not merely an efficient horror movie.

3/5

April 25, 2016

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that the Feds give you make you Sherlock Holmes for twelve hours

elementary

 

INT.HILL OF BEANS PRODUCTION OFFICE, BROOKLYN-DAY

 

CRAIG SWEENY, writer/producer, clenches and unclenches his fists as he walks along a corridor. He slows as he approaches the office at the end of the corridor from which we hear two loud voices. He gulps. Sweat trickles off his unclenched fist.

 

TITLE: 18 MONTHS AGO.

 

Sweeny slowly pushes open the door, and hovers in the doorway while ROBERT DOHERTY jumps to his feet to bellow at a phone on speaker emitting a dial tone.

 

DOHERTY: AND GOOD DAY TO YOU TOO, ‘SIR’!

 

Doherty picks up the phone and throws it off the desk. The receiver lands on the hard wooden chair on the supplicant side of the desk, while the body dangles in mid-air as the cord is attached on the other side of the desk.

 

DOHERTY: (looks up at Sweeny) Telemarketer.

SWEENY: Oh. Uh, hey, uh, Robert, do, uh, do you have, uh, a minute? Maybe?

DOHERTY: What? A minute? Oh, yes, certainly. Take a seat. In fact, it’s great that you’re here, Craig, I want to explain to someone a fantastic wheeze I just concocted.

SWEENY: Well, actually I-

DOHERTY: I said sit down sir!

 

Sweeny dives into the supplicant chair, and ends up sitting on the receiver. He tries to subtly move it out from under him while Doherty relaxes back into a leather armchair.

 

SWEENY: SO… I got this offer-

DOHERTY: If we get cancelled I have come up with a golden parachute to beat the bank. Have you read any of the Game of Thrones books?

SWEENY: No.

DOHERTY: Ah! Neither have I, and one of us needs to, so that means you. Read them all in the next week and report back to me then. Also make some character notes. And some notes on the house style employed.

SWEENY: I-

DOHERTY: Don’t interrupt! Now, George RR Martin is a decrepit old man. We all know this. What we all know but are too hidebound by bourgeois niceties to say is that, like Robert Jordan, he is going to die before he finishes writing the novels. Indeed he may well die before he even finishes the next book as he clearly has no interest in actually writing it. But, and how many times have I tried to impress this on you Sweeny, never present just a problem, always present the solution too. So! The solution – we pull a Patterson.

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: Would you stop interrupting me?! Now, if James Patterson can come over all medieval craftsman and give anonymous people 50 page treatments which they then flesh out and he later okays before putting it out under his own name, then why can’t we do the same for decrepitly old George RR?

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: He tells us, verbally, so that he doesn’t have to strain himself with the idea of committing something to paper, his ideas on what happens next, be they e’er so vague. We secretly record it, as the whole occasion will happen in front of a roaring fireplace as we get him roaring drunk. You transcribe it, I read it, work up a treatment, give it you, and you write it all up with the help of whoever we can keep on from the writers’ room.

SWEENY: Alright…

DOHERTY: And everyone’s happy. A new novel appears, it seems RRish enough to be going on with, and it’s been done fast, so nobody’s dead, and nobody’s left millions of fans howling at him for wasting a good chunk of their lives.

SWEENY: Right…

DOHERTY: Now we just need to pitch it to his publishers. If only I had the requisite confidence you need in these situations… (gazes abstractedly at the roof)

SWEENY: Um, Robert?

DOHERTY: Oh, I thought you’d gone. Why haven’t you gone?
SWEENY: I’ve been offered another gig.

DOHERTY: What? You traitor! Where??
SWEENY: CBS.

DOHERTY: You double-dealing traitor! I have nursed a viper in my bosom! (He goes to throw the phone at Sweeny, realises he’s already thrown it, makes a few attempts to lean over his desk and grab it, but grabs only air, and slumps back in his chair)

SWEENY: They want me to develop Limitless.

DOHERTY: … The Bradley Cooper film?

SWEENY: Yes.

DOHERTY: I don’t see it as a TV show.

SWEENY: Well. I thought it might make for a good procedural.

DOHERTY: How so?

SWEENY: Well, suppose that we have Cooper appear in the pilot as a Senator. Suppose he wants NZT kept on the down-low, but suppose the Feds know about it, and then suppose that he cultivates a guy inside the Feds to keep them guessing.

DOHERTY: A healthy amount of supposition! So, set-up. What’s the week by week?

SWEENY: Why would the FBI keep a guy around? NZT makes you smarter. So he can see patterns nobody else can, the drug makes him the best analyst they have!

DOHERTY: (lilts) One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that the Feds give you make you Sherlock Holmes for twelve hours. (mutters) Haha, said the title.

SWEENY: What?

DOHERTY: Some day, Sweeny, you may join myself and Deadpool in an elite club. Yes, I think I can see this working qua show.

SWEENY: So, are you okay with me working on it?

DOHERTY: Yes! I see great possibilities. I was talking to a network lawyer and he said that he’s fairly sure that with a bit more screen-time he can get Clyde the turtle a SAG card, and then we can all share the health benefits with a nod and a wink to a tame doctor. Do you think you can give your hero a pet turtle that he uses for expository purposes?

 

Before Sweeny can answer BORIS sticks his head in the door.

 

DOHERTY: NO! THAT LINE REMAINS! DAMN TASTE AND DECENCY! YES! WATSON CAN DIRECT ANOTHER EPISODE IF SHE REALLY MUST! AND IT HAS TO BE PURPLE! PURPLE! PURPLE! PURPLE! IF HE CAN’T DISTINGUISH BETWEEN PURPLE AND MAUVE HE SHOULDN’T BE A PRODUCTION DESIGNER!

 

Boris nods at the answers to the three questions he didn’t get to ask, and sidles away. No matter how many times Sweeny sees Doherty do this, he is always amazed.

 

SWEENY: How did you?

DOHERTY: Do you need to ask? Honestly, Craig, this is the level you need to be at to ascend to show-runner. Incidentally I have an idea for a Ferris Bueller episode.

SWEENY: That sounds more like a season six conceit.

DOHERTY: AHA! I’m so proud, I knew you had it in you. My tutelage is second to none. Well of course it’s a season six conceit, but I have no confidence in getting that far so let’s put it in your show.

SWEENY: WHAT?! I haven’t written a final draft pilot script! I can’t start putting nonsense conceits in the show from the get-go.

DOHERTY: Nobody’s saying make the pilot bonkers, or the first regular episode barmy, wait till about episode 7. Also, I’ll be coming aboard your ship if mine sinks.

SWEENY: (suspiciously) As what?

DOHERTY: It’s nearly Thanksgiving, I might come as a turkey. (beat) (beat) (Doherty waits for raillery from Sweeny) (beat) (realises it’s not coming) Sorry, my mistake I thought we were doing something there that we weren’t actually doing. Creative Consultant.

SWEENY: Will you actually just be a creative consultant? Or will you try and be a backseat show-runner.

DOHERTY: Creative Consultant. Advise and Consent. A hopeless yes-man. I am a shy and retiring individual, as you know.

 

Boris sticks his head in the door again.

 

DOHERTY: F****** LILAC?!!! IS THIS SOME ILL-CONCEIVED APRIL FOOLS’ DAY PRANK?!!

November 25, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg returns with a true Cold War spy story that’s thankfully imbued with far more energy and clarity of purpose than his meandering Lincoln.

ST. JAMES PLACE

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a deep cover Soviet spy apprehended in Brooklyn in 1957, who is assigned as his counsel insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); after some arm-twisting by Donovan’s boss Thomas Watters Jr (Alan Alda). Watters, and Donovan’s wife Mary (Amy Ryan) are soon surprised by the bond that develops between wry Abel and the stolid Donovan, and Donovan’s dogged determination to demand the rights promised by the Constitution be granted to an illegal alien from an enemy power. The Donovan children Peggy (Jillian Lebling), Roger (Noah Schnapp), and Carol (Eve Hewson) are as uncomprehending as Joe Public of their father’s actions. But when U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in May 1960 Company man Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) brings Donovan to Allen Foster Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to be entrusted with a secret mission.

First off, history… English playwright Matt Charman’s screenplay was polished by the Coens, but in a BBC Radio 4 interview Charman didn’t mention Giles Whittell’s 2010 book Bridge of Spies. Perhaps it’d raise uncomfortable questions; like why Hoffman and Dulles tell Donovan their intelligence suggests the GDR is about to wall off East Berlin when the CIA, despite Berlin crawling with so many spies Willy Brandt derided it as grown-ups playing Cowboys and Indians, had no idea till secretly stockpiled barbed wire went up overnight. Also master spy Abel (Willie Fisher during his British adolescence) perfected his Brooklyn cover, as a retiree taking up painting, at the expense of actually spying. Despite prosecutorial fulminations he wasn’t charged with acts of espionage, because there was no evidence of any. And the arrest of Yale doctoral student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is total melodramatic fiction; the Stasi were simultaneously extremely sinister and blackly hilarious. Their ineffectual interrogations of Pryor were True Kafka.

There are three moments in this tale spun from historical elements; a polite mugging, a pompous phone call, and a fake family; that are pure Coens, but this is Spielberg’s show. His visual storytelling is concise and expressive; especially the opening FBI pursuit of Abel, where we recognise Agents by glances, and Powers’ dismayed expression at his Moscow show trial, where a craning pull-out emphasises his isolation. Janusz Kaminski mostly reins in his diffuse supernova lighting to showcase Adam Stockhausen’s decrepit design, while Thomas Newman stands in for John Williams with orchestral flavours akin to Williams’ JFK score. Donovan’s line, “It doesn’t matter what other people think, you know what you did,” is the moral of the film, emphasised visually twice over. And his bloody-minded defence of the 4th amendment seems extremely pertinent when the 1st amendment is equally beleaguered.

Twitter lynch-mobs wouldn’t appreciate the nuance Donovan tries to impart to Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) but Spielberg’s film is a call for decency over outrage that is alarmingly timely.

3.5/5

October 7, 2015

Sicario

Emily Blunt is an FBI agent in over her head in the crusade against cartels in director Denis Villeneuve’s gripping thriller of a dirty war.

sicario_image_2

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a ‘thumper’. She kicks in doors to rescue hostages. Or, as in the startling opening sequence, her armoured car kicks in an entire wall before unleashing her gun-toting squad. But all her rescues don’t really make a dent in the war on drugs, so when prosecutor Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) offers her the chance to join a taskforce led by Graver (Josh Brolin) she volunteers. But the taskforce soon starts to trouble her. It’s bad enough being surrounded by Graver’s crew, trigger-happy jocks like Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), but their stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is troublingly mysterious, and their mission soon creeps over the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) urges her to quit after that mission erupts into quasi-legal slaughter, but Kate needs the truth.

Sicario is a triumph. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson’s extraordinary score makes you anxious even before the first image, with its insistent sinister rhythm. At times he almost mischievously quotes Brad Fiedel’s Terminator 2 T-1000 cue, as if to relieve tension, but his melding of digital beats with brass and strings consistently unnerves. Sicario is always riveting, and even when the script (by Sons of Anarchy actor Taylor Sheridan) appears to be losing its tension it’s merely misdirection to increase paranoia. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is jaw-dropping: aerial photography gives a drone’s eye view of the warzone, while a pan across the border-crossing makes Juarez seem incredibly alien, and a climactic sequence with thermal imaging surpasses Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve equals Michael Mann in his staging of a prisoner transfer in cartel-run Juarez and a gun battle in a stalled motorway jam.

The opening titles tell us originally ‘sicario’ were Jews murdering occupying Romans. Like Villeneuve’s Incendies, this is a contemporary film with mythic echoes of savagery past. Kate in her conflict with Alejandro is Creon to his Antigone: devotion to upholding the law is the right thing for Kate, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing. Meanwhile Graver’s cynical “If you can’t stop 20% of Americans putting stuff up their noses and in their arms, let’s have some order at least” is not only as grimly realistic as the similar dirty war tactics depicted in ’71 but also oddly reminiscent of the simultaneously historically inspiring and dubiously propagandistic message of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. A major achievement for Villeneuve is that, despite Deakins and Brolin’s involvement with No Country for Old Men, Sicario is its own universe.

Sicario, powered by Blunt’s assured lead performance as a heroine too dogged for her own good, grips from its thunderous opening to its soft-spoken and extremely resonant last lines.

5/5

July 31, 2015

Don’t Mess With Veronica Mars

The second novel in the Veronica Mars mystery series has been published, and creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are talking about reviving the TV show for an 8 episode run in the vein of True Detective. What better time to fondly remember one of the last decade’s best shows? Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on Veronica Mars.

Logan: I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me.

Veronica: Epic how?

Logan: Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, blood shed. Epic! But summer’s almost here. And we won’t see each other at all. Then you’ll leave town, and it’s over.

Veronica: Logan…

Logan: I’m sorry. About last summer. If I could do it over…

Veronica: C’mon… Ruined lives? Blood shed? You really think a relationship should be that hard?

Logan: No one writes songs about the ones that come easy.

It may seem odd to talk about Veronica Mars as a romantic show, but there’s a reason the ‘epic love’ scene was reprised in the 2014 movie; the show could be swooningly romantic, as evidenced by the giddy crane-work when Veronica kissed Logan for the first time in season 1. That was also one of the most shocking moments of season 1, not only because it felt like Veronica was betraying her dead best friend Lily by moving in on her boyfriend, but also because the pilot had introduced Logan with Veronica’s caustic voiceover: “Every school needs its psychotic jackass. Logan Echolls is ours”. Veronica’s on-off romance with Logan was not unlike Rory Gilmore’s with the equally charismatic but erratic Jess. There were nicer boys than Jason Dohring’s movie-star scion Logan, like Teddy Dunn’s Duncan Kane and Max Greenfield’s rookie cop Leo, but Leo’s fate was the voiceover gag; “It’s the old story. Girl meets boy. Girl uses boy. Girl likes boy. Boy finds out, girl gets what she deserves”; while Duncan’s entanglement with the ill-fated Meg saw Veronica nobly sacrifice her own relationship with Duncan to help him and his baby daughter evade the FBI and the Manning family, sadly pinning to her mirror a note saying ‘True love stories never end’. Season 3’s ‘nice boyfriend’ Chris Lowell’s Piz was the nicest boyfriend of all, and, in incredibly revealing commentary on the season 3 finale, Thomas noted that when Logan extravagantly apologises to a bruised Piz for beating him up earlier over a leaked sex-tape, Piz looks totally defeated; because he knows that Veronica, well-intentioned but ruthless, is the kind of girl who will only ever end up with the kind of guy who, repeatedly, has beaten people to a bloody pulp with his bare hands for hurting her.

Click here to read the full article on how Veronica Mars handled female friendship, a father-daughter detective agency, and how the sunny setting belied a dark heart of noir cynicism.

February 5, 2015

Selma

Selma brings to vivid life the struggle for civil rights in 1965 Alabama with a fiery performance from David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr.

SELMA

Four schoolgirls are murdered in a church bombing in Selma. Any prospect for justice is defeated by the refusal of Registrar (Clay Chappell) to allow people like Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to register to vote (on ever shifting sands of spurious tests), thereby ensuring all-white juries. And so MLK (Oyelowo) rolls into town to whip up a mass demonstration to pressure LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) to put aside the Great Society and pass a Voting Rights Act instead. Little does he know that as well as facing the obvious threat of Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), his henchman Col. Al Lingo (Stephen Root), and the vicious Selma Sheriff Jim Clark (Stanley Houston), he will face the shadowy threat of J Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) attempting to turn King’s wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) against him. Can MLK stay the course?

Oyelowo oozes charisma as he delivers three set-piece speeches during this film. But he also shows us a vulnerable side to King; riven by guilt over the deaths of protestors drawn by his rhetoric, self-doubt about whether his leadership will achieve civil rights, and shame at his infidelities. The other black leaders Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), James Orange (Omar J Dorsey), James Bevel (Common), Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), James Forman (Trai Byers), Rev. Williams (Wendell Pierce), and Rev. Vivian (Corey Reynolds), are, perhaps inevitably, less particularised; but the ensemble is equal to the challenge laid down by Oyelowo’s lead performance. Selma is especially interesting when it explores conflict between these men; with egoism and principle equally important in arguments over leadership and non-violence; and when Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) arrives in town.

But Selma has heavy baggage. Director Ava DuVernay’s Oscar snub is not that outrageous. Even if she did rewrite Paul Webb’s script as much as claimed she’d deserve a nod only for writing. The ones hard done by are Oyelowo and cinematographer Bradford Young; who once again does extraordinary things with warm shadows in MLK’s intimate moments of doubt. But the depiction of LBJ, as uninterested in civil rights and conniving at J Edgar sending a sex-tape to Coretta, has been hauled over the coals by Maureen Dowd, and her central charge; “Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season”; rings uncomfortably true. Rather David O Russell’s ‘Some of this actually happened’ than claiming your fictions are truer than history.

Selma is an extremely moving, often upsetting, chronicle of an extraordinary event, powered by a magnificent lead performance, but it’s not history and must be taken with much salt.

3.5/5

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