Talking Movies

December 22, 2019

From the Archives: Bee Movie

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

This is a bit of a conundrum to review. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good movie that features some hilarious gags. It is certainly several leagues above Dreamworks’ previous animated feature this year, the dire Shrek the Third. Jerry Seinfeld, who finally stopped doing stand-up to make this film, has really thought out the internal logic for his epic about bee society. The depiction of the worker bees that leave the hive to collect pollen is hilarious as they’re all jocks in a Top Gun style fighter squadron valorised by the rest of the hive. The sequence where Barry B Benson (voiced by Seinfeld) finally achieves his dream and flies with them on a sortie through the city is genuinely exciting. The problem is that while there are a number of great gags which are truly of the calibre you expect from a Seinfeld script the movie overall feels somewhat flat. This oddly deflating vibe is exemplified by the use of Chris Rock, who is hilarious but appears in just three scenes as the voice of a mosquito.

Despite the spirited protestations of Dreamworks Animation supremo Jeffrey Katzenberg there is no doubt that this film is less in thrall to celebrities than previous Dreamworks fiascos like Shark Tale. The presence of Patrick Warburton, who voices ultraviolent bodyguard Brock Samson in cult animated show The Venture Brothers, is testament to that. I have no idea what Warburton looks like, he’s a voice actor, and he’s hilarious as Ken, Vanessa’s jock boyfriend who has absurd self-confidence. In Shark Tale celebrities whose voices aren’t particularly memorable were made obvious by making all the anthropomorphic fish look exactly like the person voicing them. The characters were then made exactly like the screen persona of these stars. Which it must be admitted is about as far removed from the idea of an actor bending themselves into a role as is possible to imagine. Here Seinfeld is recognisable as a bee but no one else really is bar real human characters like Ray Liotta and Sting (both mocking themselves with gusto) and a gag about B Larry King.

The plot is very similar to Antz with an extremely neurotic Jewish insect (seriously, the amount of Jewish references here would appear excessive in a Woody Allen film) agonising over his life and his attempts to become an individualist in a conformist society. This is done in typically melodramatic Hollywood fashion by suing humans for stealing honey. The bees are helped by Renee Zellweger’s kind-hearted florist Vanessa for this showdown which should theoretically enable Barry’s hive to have more time for leisure and a life outside of work. But that’s not the end of the story. Seinfeld cleverly subverts the clichés established by Dreamworks’ ‘subversive’ films but it still doesn’t make this essential viewing.

3/5

Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium rounds up so much A-list Jewish talent for a festive kid’s flick that it is the unofficial Hannukah film for 2007. And all the better for it, there is more generosity of spirit on display here than in all this year’s ‘Christmas’ films combined. I mean, Fred Claus? Please… If you want mean-spirited trash check that out, if you want very sweet fun turn to Mr Magorium where Dustin Hoffman adds another loveable eccentric to his recent turns in Meet the Fockers and Stranger than Fiction as Magorium, a toy store owner who gave Thomas Edison the idea for the light-bulb. Natalie Portman’s struggling composer Molly Mahoney has a hit a creative dead end in writing her piano concerto while she works as an assistant, helping the 243 year old Mr Magorium run his magical toy store. Her life is about to be turned upside down along with that of lonely child (and avid hat collector) Eric.

Mr Magorium hires an accountant Henry Weston to sort out the store’s tangled tax status so that he can bequeath it to his protégé Molly. Magorium considers that the word accountant must be a cross between a counter and mutant so amusingly all concerned refer to Henry to his face as ‘Mutant’. Jason Bateman as Henry reacts to this with his trademark comedic dead-pan but without the sharp one-liners of Arrested Development he’s somewhat wasted here.  He does have some wonderful moments though. A scene where Molly tries to convince an uncomprehending Henry that the store is magical while he keeps just missing a wooden dinosaur behind (that is playing with a ball in the most endearingly dopey fashion) is painfully funny.

Quirks abound from Eric’s capital collection of hats to Molly’s habit of always moving one hand about trying to find the right notes to finish her stalled piano concerto which we hear tinkling on the soundtrack as she twiddles her fingers. These all proclaim that this is a film from the off-kilter imagination of Stranger than Fiction writer Zach Helm. As a debutante director he’s drawn good performances from his cast but this film is just a bit too insubstantial to truly satisfy. Natalie Portman as Molly Mahoney exemplifies this odd feeling of unfulfilled promise as she is good but not outstanding. It’s also hard not to feel that Portman should have moved on to the great roles by now, especially when 20 year old Ellen Page is earning rave reviews of the sort that Portman used to get for her turn in Juno, rather than appearing in kid’s films even if it is alongside Dustin Hoffman. Helm wrote one of the best and most startlingly original films of 2006, but this is merely good fun.

3/5

December 15, 2019

From the Archives: You Kill Me

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Ben Kingsley does a better Robert De Niro than Robert De Niro does these days, and, mirabile dictu, it’s enough here to power this film to great heights. I’ve mocked Ben Kingsley as much as anyone, especially the explosion of pomposity since he got his Knighthood and allegedly starting telling production runners foolish enough to call him Ben, ‘That’s Sir Ben to you!’, as well as inserting his title into the credits on Lucky Number Slevin. But his role as shambolic alcoholic hitman Frank Falenczyk must rank beside his terrifying turn as an unhinged gangster in Sexy Beast as his best performance since his seminal roles in Gandhi and Schindler’s List. The film begins with his alcoholic Frank demonstrating the best way to incentivise yourself to clear the snow off your porch; dropping a bottle of vodka a few feet ahead of you and having to dig your way towards it to get another swig.

Frank passes out drunk while waiting to take out grasping Irish mobster Edward O’Leary and is sent to San Francisco to dry out while his Polish crime family led by Philip Baker Hall’s patriarch seek to prevent a Sino-Irish takeover of their turf in Buffalo, upstate New York. Frank is forced by his Frisco contact, bent lawyer Bill Pullman (in an odd, odd cameo), to attend AA meetings. At first resistant, as he settles into a life working at a mortuary and attending meetings he begins to seek to make amends; not for the murders, he’s not sorry about them, he is sorry about murdering them badly because he was drunk. In a priceless scene he sends a $50 voucher for the Sony Centre to the family of a woman whose throat he was meant to slit, but she moved, so she got a knife in the eye first before being dispatched.

Tea Leoni, as his love interest Laurel (who he meets at a funeral), is more relaxed and thus a better actress now that she’s 41 than she ever was when she was a ‘hot young star’ and it is her hilariously deadpan acceptance of Frank’s past that makes the film work. John Dahl, the director of The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, uses a demented tango soundtrack that underlines the playful absurdity of all of this, and if you didn’t get it already Dahl inserts an insanely happy song to score a montage of Frank using melons to show Laurel how to slice up human beings efficiently. Luke Wilson as his AA mentor also delivers an unusually subtle and effective performance as Dahl draws out a mordant approach to the material from all concerned, while also injecting an undercurrent of deep humanity into the decline and fall of the Polish mob in Buffalo. This is a black comedy to savour.

4/5

From the Archives: The Killing of John Lennon

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

This film should not have been made as, apart from the dubious taste involved, it is deeply uncinematic. You could have someone read The Catcher in the Rye for two hours over an art installation style collage of alternating images of cornfields and New York City and it would be just as cinematic as The Killing of John Lennon. It would be a sight more interesting and would provide just as much genuine insight into the psyche of Lennon’s assassin Mark Chapman. Jonas Ball, who bears a startling resemblance to Rules of Attraction star Kip Pardue, is extremely mannered as Chapman. He confuses wild-eyed stares into the camera with insight into an extremely troubled mind, while director Andrew Piddington confuses exhaustive amounts of voiceover and detailed reconstructions of crime scenes with dramatic interest and momentum.

The problem with this film is its lack of context. We do not get an insight from the point of view of any other characters into the gradual decline of Chapman’s mental health, if that is indeed what happened. Instead all we get is a solipsistic voiceover by Chapman ‘justifying’ his actions by endless references to the hidden messages he finds in JD Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher in the Rye and his repeated self-pitying mantra that in finding his purpose in life, he lost himself. If Mark Chapman was a deeply troubled individual with a psychiatric condition he deserves sympathy but not freedom as he would still be dangerous. However the disturbing thought that can’t be shaken when watching this film and listening to the endless ramblings drawn from Chapman’s own diary entries and criminal testimonies is that there’s nothing wrong with him at all.

Was he merely a loser who at the age of 25 realised how to get out of taking any responsibility for the rest of his life by achieving a life of incarceration, and fame at the same time, by attaching himself to an icon? Just as John Wilkes Booth will always be remembered for assassinating Abraham Lincoln in a theatre, and JFK’s memory will always have the dark shadow of Lee Harvey Oswald hanging over it, so the John Lennon story ends with Mark Chapman…indeed the police chief who protects Chapman from lynching by an angry mob in the film explicitly references Lee Harvey Oswald. Chapman’s first journey from Honolulu to NYC to kill Lennon ends when he has an emotional epiphany while watching Ordinary People. This is a perfect point to walk out of the cinema as things only become more aggravating afterwards. Ultimately this film is so boring that when the timeline ‘12 hours 49 minutes left’ arrives you will wish Chapman would just shoot Lennon already and get it over with. No more savage indictment of this dubious undertaking could be made.

1/5

December 4, 2019

From the Archives: Hitman

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Hitman does not achieve the sublime nonsensicality of its trailer. A pity, I hadn’t laughed as hard for quite some time as I did when the ‘Ave Maria’ played over sub-Matrix slow motion carnage, or as much as you can hint at in a 12’s rated trailer. Timothy Olyphant is 47, the titular assassin, who has precious little dialogue and is there purely to look cool with his shaved head. Which he succeeds in doing, obviously he took lessons from Bruce Willis during Die Hard 4. The sheer simple joy this film takes in firing off bullets in slow motion hasn’t been seen since The Matrix, which is explicitly referenced in a scene where 47 shoots up a room full of coked out, sub-machine gun wielding drug lords, and waits behind pillars that are blown to pieces to reload before emerging to splatter more drug-lord blood. Do we see anything new? Not in the slightest. This does not have the ambitions of The Matrix. It is merely a cheap, stylish computer game adaptation with a surprisingly logical plot.

French director Xavier Gens is channelling the spirit of his countryman Luc Besson, director of Leon and subsequently one-man studio for absurdist action fare. There’s an awful lot of tracking shots following armed characters down hallways, and Gens makes his film look Eastern European with lingering shots of un-American interiors. The obligatory eye candy, frequently topless Olga Kurylenko, has a thankless task as Nika. 47 is assigned to kill her but decides not to and instead asexually protects her while he hunts down the client who betrayed him and then put out a contract on his life. Wearing the same eyeliner and outfits as Asia Argento in xXx, Kurylenko confirms to that ridiculous Hollywood stereotype for Eastern European femmes fatale. This woman needs to get a new agent after also appearing mostly topless in a similar role in The Serpent before being quickly killed off.

Robert Knepper, best known as T-Bag on Prison Break and best loved as the opportunistic radio reporter in Carnivale, is wonderfully slimy as Yuri, the crooked FSB (new KGB) chief agent covering up the truth about the ‘fake’ assassination of a Russian premier and trying to hunt down 47 before he can expose the deception. LOST star Henry Ian Cusick (psychic Scot Desmond) has a tiny cameo but obviously enjoys himself while his countryman Dougray Scott is on fine form as the Interpol agent doggedly pursuing his ‘ghost’ despite official resistance and a brutal warning from 47 himself to let the case drop. There are scenes in this film which no one will be able to resist loving, such as a Mexican stand-off that turns into a Mexican sword-off to allow for some dignity in dying… Hitman succeeds admirably on its own preposterous terms. Huzzah for that.

3/5

From the Archives: Fred Claus

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Vince Vaughn’s getting no presents this Christmas. Despite being Santa Claus’ older brother Fred Claus is a self-centred jerk who spends the film being hostile to people and ruins Christmas for everyone by making the elves shirk their toy-making work so they can join him partying. Obviously this naughty boy needs to be taught that it’s bad to be so selfish, and about the true meaning of Christmas, and – wait…does the world really need another Santa film? Children just about recovering from the trauma inflicted by the dead eyes of the soulless characters in The Polar Express must be kept away from Fred Claus for the love of God. There is a problem with the elves… John Michael Higgins as Willie and Ludacris as DJ Donnie for some reason aren’t subjected to the clever tricks of set design and camera positions used on the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. Oh no, someone thought it would be simpler to CGI their faces on to the bodies of smaller actors. The result is quite disturbing, as their faces don’t quite synch up with the rest of their heads.

Elizabeth Banks is gorgeous as Santa’s Little Helper and is given no character. Paul Giamatti is oddly anaemic as Santa Claus, as if he’s not entirely sure how he got roped into this movie, while Vince Vaughn is just not funny as Fred Claus. Reuniting with his Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin they fail to strike comedic sparks and he’s too abrasive for a kid’s film. There is an agreeably chaotic delivery of presents by Fred standing in for Santa but really it’s the Superman absurdities which keep you interested up to that point.

Superman action figures modelled on Brandon Routh are prominently displayed in the early scene where Vince Vaughn gets arrested, prompting his trip to the North Pole. He is picked up by Willie, who achieves amazing speed in his sleigh by the use of a team of what must be Krypto the Super-reindeer. Kevin Spacey aka Lex Luthor then arrives in a chopper to music very similar to his theme tune in Superman Returns. Why is his efficiency expert Clyde so evil? Because he topped the naughty list in 1968 and so didn’t get his Christmas wish for a Superman cape. His subsequent refusal to stop wearing glasses because Clark Kent wore glasses only prolonged his bullying and he became bitter and twisted, bent on punishing Santa someday. But damn it all if Clyde doesn’t have a Christmas miracle too and, finally donning the Superman cape, repents. All this and Roger Clinton, Frank Stallone and Stephen Balwdin alongside Fred at Siblings Anonymous too! It’s a pity that Vince Vaughan is so charmless that even his obligatory moral transformation is not enough to inject some real Christmas spirit.

2/5

December 3, 2019

From the Archives: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

The Western Revival may well be killed off by Brad Pitt’s boring art-house epic. Seriously, after Seraphim Falls and 3:10 to Yuma things were looking good for the genre but as Alexander was to sword and sandals flicks so is The Assassination to Westerns. Andrew Dominik’s second film (following acclaimed Australian crime biopic Chopper) was flagged as a Terrence Malick style western. We were cautioned not to expect shoot ’em up action but instead lovingly photographed landscape and dreamlike narrative, characters musing philosophically with copious voiceover. All of which we get. There are some wonderful Malickesque moments, such as a dreamily off-centre train robbery which is all reflected lights through trees and fog, the problem is there’s no substance behind them.

Towards the end of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 Hunter S Thompson described the phenomenon of ‘Campaign Bloat’, when the press corps suddenly realised that the American Presidential Campaign had changed the minds of a negligible number of voters, therefore the last of year of their lives had been pointless. After 158 minutes audiences will feel the same about Jesse James. It trashes the film in retrospect to realise that, having followed the Ford brothers and the rest of the James gang through a long, bloody winter as Jesse becomes increasingly paranoid that one of them is going to betray him, Dominik had absolutely no point to make. This sense of drift afflicts Brad Pitt’s performance as the depressed, lonely and physically ailing Jesse James. He repeats two exact mannerisms which he did as Tyler Durden in Fight Club which emphasise the hollowness of his performance, which doesn’t come close to Chris Cooper’s turn in Breach as a man doing wrong who just wants someone to stop him, as it’s hinted is James’ motivation for conniving at his own killing.

Casey Affleck, so good in The Last Kiss, does a fine job of portraying the turn from naïve hero-worship to resentful hero-killing of Robert Ford but his role is badly underwritten despite his epic amount of screen time. That’s saying something given that the film could justifiably be re-titled The Adventures of the Ford Brothers and their Killing of Jesse James. Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel, as the other halves of Jesse and Robert respectively, hardly appear and serve no purpose when they are onscreen. Sam Rockwell and Jeremy Renner are good in support as Ford’s brother and James’ cousin but the demythologising presentation of them as country rubes and inglorious violent criminals is defeated by the film’s attempts, after the ‘assassination’ finally takes place, to remythologise Jesse James as a noble outlaw. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s atmospheric soundtrack carries the film for a long time but in the end even they can’t save the meandering emptiness.

2/5

From the Archives: Strength and Honour

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

People with gravelly voices shouldn’t try to do Cork accents, or Welsh accents, or any accents requiring a lilt. Michael Madsen’s speaking voice resembles a cement mixer. Suffice it to say that his mercifully sporadic attempts at a Cork accent don’t work. Madsen certainly has the physique to impress as a retired fighter who killed his brother-in-law in a sparring session. Likewise Vinnie Jones as Smasher O’Driscoll, psychotic Puck of the Travellers at bare-knuckle boxing. But can actors rescue a script which is a riff off the back-story of The Quiet Man? Michael Madsen’s Sean Kelleher promised his wife never to fight again but after she dies and his son is diagnosed with the same fatal heart condition he must return to the ring. So far so corny, but this film never becomes so bad it’s good. The problem is Mark Mahon’s George Lucas-like credit as writer/director/producer. Even directors as great as Spielberg and Lean need that oppositional voice on set that says “Yeah, we thought about it and then…NO”.

There are far too many ‘very handy indeed’ coincidences floating about this film. The operation for Kelleher’s son Michael will cost $300,000. “Where am I going to get that kind of money?” rumbles Madsen, briefly attempting a Cork accent. Well, if he can raise $250,000, the government will provide $50,000 under the radar. Entering the Puck contest could win him $250,000…Billy Wilder said plot points were more effective the better you hid them. These ones are lit with flashing neon. This is the sort of obvious writing that Rodriguez had such fun with in Planet Terror. Strength & Honour though somehow never becomes enjoyably silly, even when the Champions League theme music is used for the build up to the climactic bout it never becomes absurdist, thanks to the committed playing of the cast especially Madsen and Patrick Bergin. The emotional impact of the relationship between Kelleher and fellow boxer Chaser McGrath (Michael Rawley) exemplifies how hard work by the actors can overcome the ham-fistedness of the script.

The visual flair shown by an in-jokey use of Ocean Colour Scene’s ‘100 Mile High City’ for a tracking shot across a number of bare knuckle boxing bouts in a Fight Club style grimy locale is quite startling, and suggests a level of inventiveness that Mahon also displays in his theatrical opening with a boxing ring of white light in pitch darkness. The fight scenes are well choreographed, especially the final showdown between Kelleher and O’Driscoll, and Richard Chamberlin has great fun as the hard-bitten boxing coach urging our hero through the pain barrier. Mahon proposes to direct an Irish Braveheart about Brian Boru. There is enough promise in this predictable outing to suggest that with a talented writer and a strict producer that might not be an embarrassment.

2/5

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Rescue Dawn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down on his first mission over Vietnam. Captured by the Vietcong he plots to escape and find his way home.

Christian Bale adds another impressive characterisation to his resume playing real life Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler. Rescue Dawn is inspired by events in Dengler’s life previously documented by the legendary (by which I mean famously bat-crazy) German director Werner Herzog in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Bale expertly plays a German who has become an American citizen and whose accent is American, but not quite genuine, and whose mental state could best be described as…peculiar. Herzog, the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo is quite at home in this cinematic territory of insane heroes in the jungle and produces his best fictional feature in years. Werner Herzog is after all the man who dragged a boat over a mountain for the making of Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century rubber baron in Brazil who wanted to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon.

Herzog brilliantly uses minimal dialogue for the first half hour to tell the story of Dengler’s capture and torture at the hands of the Vietcong thru the medium of pure cinema. He wordlessly conveys the utter terror of the Vietcong whenever an American airplane screams overhead. Herzog achieves a sense of location few Vietnam films have, even Apocalypse Now’s intense feeling for its locale is eclipsed by his extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography which makes the lush jungle almost another character. Bale’s time in the POW camp moves out of this art-house territory towards more mainstream fare, and the film slows down and becomes less distinctive. The men sit and bitch about being prisoners of war, plot escape plans (as all prisoners of war seem to spend most of their time doing, to the detriment of their guards’ nerves) and try to raise morale by fantasising over their favourite meals. Herzog inserts some excellent gags here but never lets you forget that Dengler is a very odd hero figure for these men to rally round.

The relationship between Bale and Steve Zahn as a fellow American prisoner in the small Vietcong camp is highly convincing but Jeremy Davies is endlessly irritating as the only other American POW. Davies has been using the same mannered tics since 1994 and has blighted films from The Million Dollar Hotel to Solaris. His popularity with casting directors continues to mystify. Steve Zahn, by contrast, grasps with both hands the chance to do something more substantial than his usual comedic sidekick roles and delivers a touching portrayal of man worn down by despair and malnutrition. Herzog’s languid pacing in this film, particularly in the second act, may irritate people raised on MTV editing but the majesty of the landscape and the emotional depth he achieves is more than adequate recompense, Rescue Dawn is an offbeat take on a familiar genre, welcome to the extreme as a matter of course.

3/5

From the Archives: Sleuth

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

On his sprawling country estate, an aging writer (Caine) matches wits with the struggling actor (Law) who has stolen his wife’s heart.

If you don’t know who Harold Pinter is then avoid this film like the plague. If you do know who Harold Pinter is, Nobel Laureate and Attendant Lord of British Theatre from the 1950s onwards, then you will find this film quite rewarding but not entirely dramatically satisfying. There’s a Pinter pause in the very first piece of dialogue that will unnerve the hell out of cinemagoers that have just wandered in by chance to a Jude Law film and will alert theatregoers to the fact that this is really Harold Pinter’s latest play. This is the real deal; a comedy of menace as two men fight each other with veiled verbal threats in a confined space, trying to assert control over each other, and over the woman they both want to possess, who is absent for most of the film. Sleuth features one of the most riveting opening sequences of the year as Branagh ditches his customary extremely mobile camera for fixed set-ups and long-shots, it is a full 12 minutes before the first close-up, on Michael Caine for “I understand you’re f***ing my wife”.

Law is there to discuss a divorce for Caine’s wife but Caine has a different sort of proposition for Law and the mind-games between the two escalate quickly. The original Anthony Shaffer play was filmed by legendary All About Eve director Joseph L Mankiewiecz in 1972 as his swansong. One of the best films of the 1970s it was twisted, funny and Laurence Olivier and Caine faced off against each other in a clash of RADA and cockney accents that mirrored the class divide between their characters. That tension has been replaced by a homoerotic undertone highly reminiscent of Pinter’s play No Man’s Land that doesn’t really work. Olivier’s dangerous eccentric lived in a house cluttered with useless bric-a-brac, Michael Caine’s modernist open-plan house is made to appear equally sinister thru Branagh’s clever use of lighting.

Sleuth is so strongly dependent on its plot-twists that it’s almost impossible to write about it without ruining it. Instead let us mock Jude Law. One of the twists in Sleuth depends entirely on acting ability. That twist is of regretful necessity thrown away here because while Law may be under the impression that he can do more than stand in front of the lights and look pretty, Pinter is not. His version from that point onwards departs radically from the original’s plot points becoming a depiction of malevolent psychological cruelty rather than a joyously frantic game of cat and also-cat, but Law’s acting cannot sustain such intensity, so after 86 minutes we simply end with a whimper. Sleuth must therefore be ranked as one of the most interesting failures of 2007. But I’d rather have this intelligent attempt, even with Jude Law, than the polished mediocrities that clog up the multiplexes, any day.

2/5

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