Talking Movies

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: American Gangster

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

In 1970s America, narcotics agent Richie Roberts works to bring down the drug empire of Frank Lucas, who is smuggling pure heroin into the country in military coffins returning from the Vietnam.

The black Goodfellas this is not. Ridley Scott is hailed on this film’s posters as the director of Gladiator. He’s also the director of GI Jane, Kingdom of Heaven and A Good Year to name just three of his super-turkeys from the last decade. This film has his usual striking visual quality, it’s very murkily lit and NYC looks very grimy and cold indeed. But American Gangster lacks energy, the analogy with Goodfellas practically screamed at us by the end sequence only reminds us just how dazzling Scorsese’s frenetic direction of that film really was. Such lethargy renders this film grotesquely long, the sort of running time that makes you keenly aware of absurdities, like why are all the hookers cutting Frank’s drugs topless or naked? It’s eventually lamely explained but it seems part of a drive by Scott to get as much gratuitous female nudity in to the film as he can manage. Is this Good Luck Chuck?!

Denzel Washington is as bad as he’s been in Inside Man, Out of Time, and all the other dreck he churns out while retaining a baffling reputation as a great actor. Russell Crowe, in a role with surprisingly little screen time, fares slightly better but despite playing a character of great professional integrity and personal dishevelment he looks like an actor going through the motions rather than exploring the possibilities of the part.  Josh Brolin, so good as the crazed Dr Block in last week’s Planet Terror, is much more committed as repellent bent cop Detective Trupo. The amount of police corruption portrayed in this film is really quite depressing. Scott uses it, in an effort as misguided as John Boorman’s attempts with Martin Cahill in The General, to valorise Frank Lucas. A psychopathic killer who pays lip service to taking care of Harlem while getting the whole borough hooked on cheap, potent heroin? Either pick someone else to mythologise or get a better scriptwriter.

Oscar-winning writer Steven Zaillian (an award the trailer boasts about far too much) won for a film Aaron Sorkin did an uncredited dialogue polish on while his previous film for Scott was co-written with legendary playwright David Mamet. His directorial debut, last year’s All the King’s Men which he also wrote, abundantly proved that, along with his problems with writing memorable dialogue, Zaillian has no idea of pacing. This story is just not interesting enough to sustain its bloated length while characters/plot devices like Carla Gugino’s shrill wife (divorcing Crowe’s emotionally distant cop) never convince as real people. The trailer for Charlie Wilson’s War, written by Aaron Sorkin precedes American Gangster and painfully highlights the utter vacuity of Zaillian’s dialogue in a film which all concerned obviously believe to be epic and meaningful but which is nothing of the sort.

1/5

From the Archives: The Jane Austen Book Club

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Following her husband’s decision to end their marriage Sylvia’s friends console her by starting a Jane Austen book club and trying to set her up with its sole male. Romance at the club though takes a familiarly Austen twist.

Sometimes bad books are the best ones to adapt. I remember this book getting slated on its release for having the temerity to include Jane Austen in the title when it was mere frothy chick-lit. Well guess what? In the hands of Little Women screenwriter Robin Swicord, who also directed, it becomes as refreshing as a cappuccino. This film is not going to win much critical acclaim for startling insight but its darned enjoyable and that’s a high achievement. Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is distraught at her philandering husband ditching her after a speech in which he seems to imply he deserves a medal for staying married for 20 years. Her single friend Jocelyn (Bello) sets up a Jane Austen book club, which will read one Austen novel each month, and invites a younger man she meets a dog breeder’s conference to join. Her plan is to set him up with Sylvia. In a riff on the plot of Emma Jocelyn is blind to her own feelings and when, after Grigg has done everything in his power to woo her, he starts to show interest in Sylvia she gets jealous.

Mario Bello and Hugh Dancy are the heart of the film and both give winning turns. Emily Blunt though steals the show. She gives a tremendous performance as Prudie, the buttoned down daughter of a hippie, who is fatally attracted to a flirtatious student as she falls out of love with her good ole boy husband. This is a world away from her hilarious scene stealing in The Devil Wears Prada. Her performance here is very controlled as she brilliantly conveys that Prudie is battening down a lot of passion in a desperate effort not to become her mother, who briefly appears in an over the top cameo by Lynn Redgrave. Prudie has fallen out of love with her husband Dean (Marc Blucas: Buffy fans still hate him for a short-lived role) who places his career before their marriage. She thus picks Persuasion, Austen’s novel about giving love a second chance, for her turn in hosting the book club.

The highlight of the film comes as Blunt has a very LA Story moment when about to make a calamitous decision with Kevin Zegers’ tempter student. In a scene sound-tracked by Aimee Mann’s terrific ‘Save Me’, a traffic-light starts to flash ‘What Would Jane Do?’ at her. Silly but sweet, and the happy endings that occur are all the sweeter for being somewhat unexpected. No higher compliment can I pay this film than to say its depiction of the power and emotional insight of Austen’s Persuasion has made me eager to go out and get an Austen book I never read.

3/5

From the Archives: Beowulf 3-D

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

The warrior Beowulf arrives to kill the monster Grendel, who is terrorizing King Hrothgar’s court. Killing Grendel enrages his demon mother, who made a deal with the treacherous Hrothgar, and Beowulf’s actions unleash a dragon.

Robert Zemeckis’ film of the Old English epic poem is a visually amazing triumph, which you should see in 3-D for full impact. There is a tracking shot which turns into an outrageous pull-out from Hrothgar’s hall, across the landscape, to Grendel’s cave. Hilariously this is more or less a tale of violence caused by noisy neighbours, as Grendel’s super-hearing is driven wild by the raucous celebrations at Hrothgar’s feasting hall. This film provides a deep down and dirty portrayal of Dark Ages bawdiness, especially in the salacious songs of the warriors and Anthony Hopkins’s startling performance as the lecherous drunken King Hrothgar. All of which makes Beowulf radically unsuitable for children. Zemeckis is after all Spielberg’s protégé and takes equal delight in seeing just what he can and cannot get in to a 12A film. The motion capture technology Zemeckis used in The Polar Express has been vastly improved (characters’ eyes are no longer soulless) and Zemeckis, who was always visually inventive, wows with the physically impossible shots it allows him achieve.

Hrothgar’s call for a hero to kill Grendel is answered by the warrior Beowulf. Killing Grendel is the easy part though as Beowulf discovers that Hrothgar was Grendel’s father. He had been seduced by a temptress demon who now wants her way with Beowulf. That popping sound you hear is the noise made by the imploding heads of Professors of Old English the world over. Screenwriters Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction), who worked on the screenplay for nearly a decade, have based their script on the idea that Beowulf is an unreliable narrator. Which it must be admitted is a compelling justification for re-telling a tale that dates from around the 8th century. Their version is filled, in the spirit of the original campfire telling, with over the top butch moments of heroism. Beowulf’s battles with sea-monsters and the climactic showdown with the dragon have moments which rival 300 for ridiculous machismo. The changes also tie together the three disconnected battles of the original in a more satisfying fashion while academics will be mollified by all Grendel’s dialogue being in Old English.

Crispin Glover’s portrayal of Grendel as a tortured half-demon, half-human outcast is quite touching and nicely counterpoints Ray Winstone’s cockney bellowing as Beowulf. Angelina Jolie appears, startlingly, full frontally nude but she’s a water demon and has some archly minimalist scales on her breasts so that’s okay. Hmmm, all I’ll say is that she’s suspiciously more photo-realistic than some other characters. This version of Beowulf was dogged by suspicions of style beating substance but Zemeckis justifies this approach by combining budget blowing spectacle (such as the dragon fight) with quiet moments between characters, and adhering to the poem’s spirit.

4/5

November 17, 2019

From the Archives: Lions for Lambs

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

A Republican Senator unveils a new strategy for the War in Afghanistan to a liberal journalist. Simultaneously we follow two of the soldiers involved, while their politics professor explains their lives to a disillusioned student.

Wow, Tom Cruise has gotten old. This will be the first thing that strikes you when you watch Lions for Lambs. Gone are the cheekbones of Top Gun behind some newly flabby jowls as the Cruiser heads inexorably towards 50, at which point his career as a heroic leading man will abruptly end. It’s like a rule, ask Michael Douglas about it. The second thing that will strike you is that this film is a disguised play. There are three fixed locations, each of which features two characters talking for an hour, and we cut between these with some flashbacks. Michael Pena needs to get a new agent or just move to Broadway because following on from his World Trade Centre two-hander with Nicholas Cage he’s once again immobilised in a god-forsaken locale heroically musing on patriotism and other issues with a colleague. Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan has defended this staginess. He claims a lot of dialogue is needed to engage with the War on Terror on any meaningful ideological level.

Tom Cruise as the ambitious Republican Senator Jasper Irving and Meryl Streep as the cynical liberal journalist Janine Roth clash to good dramatic effect but you can’t help feel that while Cruise is given some good arguments he’s never going to be allowed to win. Robert Redford’s arguments as the Berkeley professor Dr Malley are hampered by his own screen image, particularly 1972’s The Candidate which opined that getting elected was possible only by abandoning all your convictions. Warren Beatty campaigned for George McGovern in 1972 while Redford justified apathy. Nixon won that election by a whopping 23% so it’s a bit rich that Redford now hectors young student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield) about political engagement. The most involving segment of the film involves Lt Col Falco’s (Berg) desperate search for his two missing soldiers and his anger at bad political leadership.

Carnahan also scripted last month’s war on terror thriller The Kingdom which was very emotionally involving but couldn’t maintain the intelligence of its opening. This film seeks to be that edgily intelligent all the way through but Carnahan’s level of political insight is only that of Michael Moore’s at the end of Fahrenheit 9/11. The worst victims of American capitalism are first to volunteer to defend that very system against foreign attacks. This film never adequately explains the logic of that choice. Pena and Derek Luke’s highly intelligent students abandon college to fight in a hopeless war. Redford deserves praise for his emotionally engaging depiction of military camaraderie but Carnahan’s script, while interesting, does not persuade us that the choice of these young men was anything but suicidal at worst or deeply misguided at best.

3/5

From the Archives: Into the Wild

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) drops out of Harvard Law School, without telling his family, to tramp the highways of America as an itinerant labourer before travelling to Alaska to live off the land.

Sean Penn’s fourth feature as director is as po-faced a bore as he is. Penn has absolutely no sense of humour, as his reaction to his caricaturing in Team America proved. He has stated that this film is “A call to the youth of America to explore their country and really live”. Into the Wild exhibits a deluded belief in the ‘rugged individualism’ preached by Theodore Roosevelt in the 1890s. Men with no ties, living off the land, fiercely independent, surviving alone in the rugged West, real men…with beards. It was fairly mythical then, and in the 1960s Hunter S Thompson sought out these deluded Henry Thoreau wannabes who wanted to commune with nature. He found only broken old men and naïve youngsters from the East Coast, with no skills. Penn in 2007 is hilariously presenting this as a positive option. Christopher McCandless’s real-life odyssey was insane in 1990 and it’s only gotten more ridiculous since as all jobs for the unskilled have dried up.

Vince Vaughn, who is surprisingly good in his cameo, is the voice of sanity in this piece! He contradicts the dribbling condemnation of American society offered by Emile Hirsch as his reason for leaving his identity of Christopher McCandless behind and becoming ‘Alexander Supertramp’. ‘Alex’ sounds like a stoned hippie whenever he tries to explain why he’s choosing a life of homelessness. It is that ridiculous. Penn depicts Bush Sr on TV justifying the Gulf War, in a soundbite carefully chosen for its eerie resemblance to Bush Jr’s justifications of the current Iraq mess. But Penn uses it to justify Alex’s illegal border-hopping to continue his tramping. For such a political activist to suggest dropping out of engagement with society and retreating to nature as the paradigm for America’s youth is baffling.

This film is pretentiously divided into chapters, while Alex quotes 19th century books endlessly rather than think for himself. For those who like clichés Alex kayaks down the Rio Grande and meets a Danish girl who instantly takes her top off. Ah, those wacky Europeans. In a later chapter he teams up with Kristen Stewart for a Bob Dylan/Joan Baez style musical relationship. Hal Holbrook is on fine form as the wise old man in the final ‘chapter’ titled ‘The Getting of Wisdom’, but it is screamingly obvious that Alex never even develops common sense. Vegetarians will not be the only ones traumatised by a graphic scene in which he kills and guts a moose. A magnificent animal is being sacrificed to sustain a pretentious, incredibly narcissistic twit who deserves his inevitable death which comes about as a result of his own idiocy. The one star is for a few good supporting turns and the undeniably gorgeous scenery.

1/5

From the Archives: Planet Terror

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

A bio-weapon is released over a small town causing its inhabitants to mutate into grotesque zombies. Go-Go dancer Cherry (McGowan) and her mysterious old flame El Wray (Rodriguez) must help the Sheriff (Biehn) kill the zombies while the scientist (Andrews) who created the virus finds an antidote.

When the first thing you see is the fake trailer for Machete you know that this is the real Grindhouse experience. Unlike Tarantino’s boring Death Proof released some weeks ago Robert Rodriguez actually made an intentionally ridiculous and highly entertaining exploitation B-movie. There is an infectious sense of fun in Planet Terror which is the polar opposite of his previous movie, the grotesque, witless garbage known as Sin City. It’s exemplified by his great score as Rodriguez keeps recycling one great riff in hilarious variations. Tarantino wimped out on the idea of using a Missing Reel but Rodriguez uses it sublimely. The image starts to degrade during a sex scene and freezes on a naked Rose McGowan. The nude image is pulled, an apology for the missing reel is displayed and BOOM, we’re back at our heroes’ base which is now inexplicably on fire, a key character has been shot, and some crucial back-story has been revealed. We know it’s crucial because the characters keep commenting on just how crucial it is, but they never tell us what it is!!

Yes, there is an insane amount of gore and any number of gross out moments which will have the audience moaning in revulsion at the telegraphed shlock effect. Naveen Andrews’ scientist likes to ‘cut the balls off people who betray’ him. If you don’t like the castration in the opening scene you should probably leave as you’re really not going to be able to handle what happens to Quentin Tarantino towards the end. But for the most part it’s all so over the top that unlike Kill Bill it does actually become funny. The zombies begin to resemble water-bombs so easily do they explode in a spray of blood if hit by a single bullet. Bruce Willis, following his turn in Nancy Drew, once again has a ball moonlighting in an uncredited cameo.

Planet Terror lets all its characters say or do something memorable. The sub-plots are all cheerfully small-fry compared to the zombie apocalypse engulfing the town. Dr Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) is cheating on her sinister husband Dr William Block (Josh Brolin) with Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas, while Sheriff Hague is rack-renting his chef brother JT (Jeff Fahey in fine form) who refuses to divulge to him his secret recipe for the best barbeque in Texas. It’s all nonsense but Rodriguez delivers the clichés and heroic posturing of bad 1970s horror films so joyfully that you have to salute his faithfulness to his cheesy forebears and can’t but enjoy yourself. As for Rose McGowan’s rifle leg. Well, that’s just the cherry on the cake…

3/5

From the Archives: Good Luck Chuck

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Charlie (Dane Cook) has been hexed since adolescence, if he sleeps with a girl the next guy she sleeps with will be her true love. When he meets the girl of his dreams Cam (Jessica Alba) he must find a way to break the curse.

Jessica Alba, STARK NAKED!! Is not something that you will see in this film. Oh, I’m sorry. Did I just take away your only reason for going to see it?? Please grow up. This is the directorial debut of the man who edited Showgirls! Us adults need the multiplexes to watch films involving characters and emotions so can’t you just go to the embarrassing corner of the DVD store to satisfy your needs? The opening of Good Luck Chuck just screams Superbad as a fat kid obsessed with sex and a skinny kid nervous about it try to impress girls during a game of spin the bottle. The skinny kid is of course our ‘hero’ Charlie who gets hexed by a goth girl he sexually disappoints and so we jump to the present. Charlie is now a playboy while Stu is still fat, single and still obsessed with sex. He discovers that Charlie is famous on perfectmatch.com for being a good luck charm for single women who want to meet Mr Right. He convinces Charlie that he should sleep with all these eager women.

There follows a sex scene montage which plays like it was the ultimate fantasy of 13 year old male scriptwriters but here’s the thing, Superbad was written, at least in its first draft, by 13 year old male scriptwriters, the difference is you just know that Seth Rogen was FUNNY when he was 13 years old. Slapstick accidents that occur to Jessica Alba’s clumsy Cam are as sophisticated as the humour gets here. And there’s precious little humour which leads to the next problem…Who the hell is Dane Cook? He has no charisma and so can’t carry the film on charm alone. I have a memory for actor’s faces that can remember people from supporting turns in CSI and I recognise no-one among the undistinguished supporting players. I shouldn’t be surprised. Casting was probably done on the willingness of actresses to take their tops off.

Let’s be honest. This film is only getting a cinema release because of Jessica Alba or more accurately because of the slavering hordes of teenage boys obsessed with seeing Jessica Alba naked. Thus far thankfully she’s disappointed them but now that Natalie Portman has appeared nude it’s a safe bet that Alba will follow. I’m not sure exactly how it’s meant to be empowering for independent 21st Century women to meekly obey the cry of ‘Get ’em out for the lads!’, but it’s a given in Hollywood that if you want to be taken seriously (i.e. win an Oscar) you need to take your clothes off. Let’s see how that works out for the actresses exploited in this wretched trash…

1/5

November 7, 2019

From the Archives: The Brothers Solomon

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

When their beloved father goes into a coma socially inept brothers John (Will Arnett) and Dean Solomon (Will Forte) try to give him something to live for by providing a grandchild. However when their dating skills prove non-existent they turn to a surrogate mother Janine (Kristen Wiig) with a jealous ex (Chi McBride)

Will Forte is not Will Ferrell, but he probably thinks he is, they both worked on Saturday Night Live after all. Like the painfully unfunny film appearances of SNL star Molly Shannon (Year of the Dog anyone?) Will Forte proves that not everyone on SNL should be encouraged to traipse over to Hollywood. He wrote this film as well as co-starring in it so the blame for the deplorable lack of comedy can be placed firmly on his shoulders. The idea that being able to make sketch comedy, which relies on beating a joke around for 3 minutes till you’ve exhausted it, qualifies you to make films where you have to construct a 90 minute story with organically occurring jokes is a puzzling one. If you can hop up the stairs a couple of steps at a time it doesn’t mean you should suddenly run out and take up pole-vaulting.

The idea of making fun of two social misfits instantly recalls Dumb and Dumber but this is even more suspect and mean-spirited and at least that had some hilarious gags, before the Farrelly Brothers lost their funny bones. There are some funny moments. Chi McBride’s first appearance is comic and menacing at the same time as he takes umbrage wherever he can find it, accusing the whole world of being racist when it’s not. Could this have gone somewhere? Yeah, but a sketch show writer…oh forget it. There’s an incredibly uncomfortable sequence which features the brothers trying to prepare for parenthood by observing children at the playground and offering them ice-cream. Hmmm. There’s also an outrageous gag at an adoption agency involving a misunderstanding about a photo which provides Will Arnett with the best line of the whole movie.

Will Arnett (beloved as Gob on Arrested Development) can work wonders with weak material, as Blades of Glory showed, but this script defeats even him. Things get so tedious after a while that you start playing spot the TV actor. Oh look, there’s Jenna Fischer from the American Office in a cameo, hey, that’s depressed old Ted from Scrubs, and who’s the surrogate mother, why it’s a look-alike of Sarah Paulson from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The face that should occasion panic is Heartbreak Kid and The Invasion star Malin Akerman, a cinematic hoodoo this year. The sky banner that goes on forever and has the entire cast of supporting characters reading it is the highlight of the whole film. It is actually hilarious and worth seeing but as Dr Johnson once said: worth seeing, yes, but it’s not worth going to see.

1/5

October 31, 2019

From the Archives: Halloween Horror Bites

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

halloween-pumpkin-jack-o-lantern-3d-model-obj-fbx-blend-dae-mtl-abc

Most Gruesome Shock

The moment in John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing when a doctor doing an autopsy has his arms bitten off by a man’s chest that becomes a snapping mouth is guaranteed to make you somewhat queasy.

 

Best Music

Jerry Goldsmith’s preposterously ominous score for The Omen makes a rather ponderous film quite spine-tingling, and can probably still be heard even if you turn the sound off.

 

Best Shock Ending

Not a great film but the shock ending of Friday the 13th in which our heroine in a boat is suddenly attacked by a corpse erupting out of the placid waters is pretty memorable.

 

Best Death

The decapitation of David Warner’s photographer in The Omen has been prophesied so early on that the whole film can feel like a wait for it to happen, and when it finally arrives it’s a superbly staged gory death by window pane.

From the Archives: Eastern Promises

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) tries to uncover the mystery surrounding a Russian teenager who died in childbirth. Her quest to translate the girl’s diary leads her into conflict with restaurant owner and crime-lord Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his menacing foot-soldier Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).

Viggo Mortenson and director David Cronenberg follow their collaboration on A History of Violence with another film about a mysterious man connected to vicious criminals. Viggo Mortensen gives a tremendously committed lead performance. Most of his dialogue is in Russian and with his dark glasses, erect bearing, measured walk and slicked back hair he remains an enigmatic presence throughout. Cronenberg is very smart in avoiding the usual clichés about hitmen having a crisis of conscience. It’s impossible to guess the motivations of Viggo’s Nikolai and the film is all the more intriguing for it. It is also graphically violent, Cronenberg did after all give us the infamous exploding head scene in 1981’s Scanners. It’s hard not to think of Stephen King’s analysis of Psycho. Hitchcock, he claimed, served up such a big steak of violence early on with the shower scene that he was able to terrify the audience with just sizzle for the rest of the film because they feared another rare slice of gore. Cronenberg opens his film with a repulsively gruesome throat-slitting. This lends an air of tension to every scene with Mafioso that follows.

But Cronenberg doesn’t just use sizzle in Eastern Promises, we get a steak too, in what will become an infamous scene. A very naked Viggo has to defend himself at the Finsbury Public Baths against two men armed with linoleum knives in a fight twice as gruelling as that of The Bourne Ultimatum. Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain with its notoriously lengthy murder scene springs to mind here as there is a tour de force tracking shot by Cronenberg that ends in a violent act guaranteed to have audiences moaning. It’s worth noting here that the film is also surprisingly funny. Steven Knight, co-creator of Who Wants to be a Millionaire (seriously!), also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, another acclaimed picture of immigrants being exploited in London, but before that he was a comedy writer. The humour here is all the more potent for being so incongruous in the milieu of the Vory V Zakone criminal fraternity.

The acting is uniformly superb except for Vincent Cassell’s one note psychopath, the heir apparent Kirill. Naomi Watts excels opposite Viggo as the depressed midwife Anna driven to seek justice for the dead 14 year old victim of sex trafficking. She and her ordinary English mother (Sinead Cusack) and grouchy Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) are painfully powerless against the dangerous people she drags them into contact with in this dangerous quest, and we fear for them, especially against Armin Mueller-Stahl’s deceptively avuncular crime lord Semyon. This is an important film of great humanity but its graphic violence makes it hard to recommend wholeheartedly.

4/5

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