Talking Movies

December 9, 2018

From the Archives: W

A penultimate dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up Oliver Stone’s forgotten and rather pointless George Bush Jr takedown.

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This George W Bush biopic reunites Oliver Stone with his Wall Street co-writer. It is thus very disappointing that there is no trace of that film’s searing indictment of American greed, but perhaps even more amazingly the man who directed JFK has lost his visual flair.

W is a very odd film, it’s not satire and it’s not a factual drama. It attempts to straddle, and falls short of, both genres. 13 Days made the Cuban Missile Crisis gripping simply by showing how Kennedy dealt with it blow by blow. Channel 4’s The Deal made the trade between Brown and Blair fascinating, even if it was largely speculative. BBC 4’s The Alan Clark Diaries made real politics hilarious. W hopelessly tries to combine all three approaches. We follow the run-up to and fall-out from the Iraq War, while flashing back to the pivotal moments in W’s life that led him to the White House. Stone though has nothing to say about these moments except that Bush has ‘daddy issues’, and that’s why he went to war. This insight isn’t profound or original but could have been heard in bars, on both the sides of the Atlantic, after too many drinks, for the last five years.

James Cromwell alone among the cast does not try to imitate his character and so nicely counterpoints Brolin’s Jr. Cromwell’s George Sr (or Poppy) appears cold and disapproving but we realise that his shepherding of his son Jeb rather than W towards the Presidency is because he wishes to shelter W from the strain of a job that does not suit his temperament. Josh Brolin is extraordinary as W. He perfectly captures the voice and mannerism of Bush Jr but also makes us care deeply for this uncomplicated jock. When W loses a 1980 run for Congress and storms into his backyard exclaiming “I’ll never be out-Texased or out-Christianed again!” we feel his pain more than the obvious satirical anticipation of his 2000 run for Presidency that Stone intends. W’s born-again Christianity is handled with surprising (and welcome) warmth, but while personally Bush saw the light, politically it led him to some dark places. However to expect that sort of complexity is to want a different, less obvious, film.

And Stone does get very obvious… Jeffrey Wright plays Saint Colin Powell while Richard Dreyfuss needs a moustache to twirl villainously as Dick Cheney. Characters say in private their most infamous public gaffes while Condoleeza Rice is written out of history, perhaps because Thandie Newton’s forced attempts to get Rice’s voice right make her screen presence too painful to dwell on. George Bush is not a bad man, he’s just a very bad president, the worst since Herbert Hoover, who also made way for a charismatic Democrat offering change, FDR. But, Oliver, we already knew that…

2/5

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February 23, 2018

Lady Bird

On an avalanche of hype Greta Gerwig’s second film as director finally arrives here, depicting the senior high school year of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson.

Sacramento native Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who insists on referring to herself by her new self-given given name of Lady Bird, is returning from scouting California colleges with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) when she breaks her arm being melodramatic. Further misadventures involve falling out with her fat best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and falling in with the rich, pretty, vacuous Jenna (Odeya Rush) while she goes from romancing charming co-star Danny (Lucas Hedges) to moody musician Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). She is determined to go to college on the East Coast despite money worries caused by her father Larry (Tracy Letts) being let go, and further family tension owing to her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) working checkouts despite having Berkeley degrees because of the ‘jobless recovery’. This is 2002/3, you see. 

Among the baneful distortions of reality the Oscars cause is the unrealistic hype that can destroy some films, which can never live up to expectations like ‘the greatest screen performance of all time’ Daniel Day-Lewis supposedly gave in There Will Be Blood. Lady Bird is at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes among critics, it’s meant to be the feminist film of our times, the antidote to Trump’s America, take your pick of whatever hyperbole attaches to it online. But after Frances Ha and Mistress America this film is a disappointment. Sam Levy, who shot those two as well as Maggie’s Plan, casts a hazier light over proceedings here which matches Gerwig’s impressionistic portrait of a year with vignettes and montages. But too much of Lady Bird is populated by stock characters, a vague backdrop outside the only carefully etched relationship: mother-daughter.

It’s odd that, after Twilight (!), Gerwig sees fit to also rehash Gilmore Girls’ exemplar: the dull dependable boyfriend versus the edgy erratic boyfriend. More predictable is that, like Wish I Was Here or Middlesex, Lady Bird presents an artist’s abandoned religion as ancient nonsense/psychotic cult. In this case juvenile anti-Catholicism leads directly to a terrible misstep. Lady Bird is horrible to her best friend when she’s chorus and Julie lead in their school musical, she’s horrible to her brother when failing at college admission, and, in one of the most repellent scenes I’ve ever seen, especially for a ‘charming indie’, she’s horrible to anti-abortion speaker Casey (Bayne Gibby) whose very existence she dismisses as a joke. Lady Bird isn’t very funny, talented, smart, or nice. And as this film is steadfastly uninterested in developing anyone else that’s a problem…

‘Important’ films are rarely good, and sadly it seems Gerwig is being feted for making an important film, because this falls short of what she’s done in the past.

3/5

January 25, 2017

That’s “Mr. President The Donald” to you…

Yes, it’s time for one of the regrettable lapses into politics on this blog; occasioned by the vitriol thrown at Donald Trump’s Presidency, which is of dubious historical merit when considered under the headings of mandate, legitimacy, and suitability.

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MANDATE

Donald Trump got 46% of the popular vote.

Bill Clinton got 43.01% of the popular vote in 1992.

Woodrow Wilson got 41.8% of the popular vote in 1912.

Armando Iannucci is one of many people to claim that Trump has no mandate, because more people voted for someone else.

Well, the only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to win over 50% of the popular vote, isn’t it?

If a candidate must receive more than 50% of the popular vote to have a mandate, then no Democrat President in the 20th and 21st centuries has ever had a mandate except Franklin D Roosevelt, Lyndon B Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

By contrast every Republican President from William McKinley’s 51% in 1896 onward has had a mandate, except Richard Nixon, George W Bush, and Donald Trump; and Nixon and Bush both achieved over 50% of the vote on re-election.

 

LEGITIMACY

The electoral college system is silly, but it’s been silly for a long time now.

Andrew Jackson blew a gasket in 1824 when he was denied the Presidency.

But it wasn’t fixed then.

Rutherford B Hayes ended Reconstruction in 1876 to be let be President.

But it wasn’t fixed then.

Nor in 1888, nor in 2000, because, like AV in England, it is politically insoluble.

If you weep for Hilary Clinton’s near 3 million votes and no Presidency, did you also weep for Nigel Farage’s 5 million votes and only 1 (previously filched Tory) seat in 2015?

Hilary Clinton effectively built up massive and useless majorities in safe seats, while Donald Trump eked out tiny majorities in seats that could be flipped, and so won with equal legitimacy as David Cameron did in 2015.

 

SUITABILITY

Trump as an unsuitable character to be President…

More unsuitable than Johnson, who boasted that he’d had more women by accident than JFK had on purpose?

More unsuitable than JFK, who was so out of control new Secret Service agents were aghast at being assigned hooker detail?

More unsuitable than Nixon and Reagan, who both committed treason to win the Presidency?

Should the Republicans only be allowed to nominate candidates approved by the Democrats?

Would the Democrats then be happy to only nominate candidates approved by the Republicans?

Wasn’t that instinct what led to Watergate – Nixon trying to swing the nomination towards McGovern because he felt, and rightly so, that he could easily destroy him in the campaign proper?

 

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

Donald Trump is the President.

He has more of a mandate than Bill Clinton  in 1992, Richard Nixon in 1968, and Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

He has the same legitimacy as John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W Bush.

And he has fought fewer duels than fellow populist and all round short-fuse exponent Andrew Jackson.

 

All three strands are ahistoric rationalisations obscuring the raw howl  ‘I voted for the other candidate!’.

Well, in a two-party system, there is a 50/50 chance that the other candidate wins every 4 years.

And then you wait for the next roll of the dice in 4 years and place your money on your candidate again.

January 28, 2014

2014: Fears

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300: BATTLE OF ARTEMESIUM

Noah
Arriving in March is Darren Aronofsky’s soggy biblical epic starring Russell Crowe as Noah, and Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s dad, the oldest man imaginable Methuselah. Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Logan Lerman round out the family, and Ray Winstone is the beastly villain of the piece. Aronofsky doesn’t lack chutzpah, he passed off horror flick Black Swan as a psychological drama in which Natalie Portman did all her own dancing after all, but this will undoubtedly sink without trace in its own CGI flood because it apparently tackles head-on the troublesome references to the Sons of God while somehow making Noah an ecological warrior – which neatly alienates its target audience.

300: Rise of an Empire

The ‘sequel’ to 300 finally trundles into cinemas 7 years and about three name changes later. Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) urges the Greeks to unite in action against the invading army of Persian ruler Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), while Athenian Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads the Hellenic fleet against the Persian fleet (which we’re supposed to accept is) led by the Greek Artemisia (Eva Green). 300 is a fine film, if you regard it, following PG Wodehouse’s dictum, as a sort of musical comedy without the music. Zack Snyder took it deadly seriously… and has co-written this farrago of CGI, macho nonsense, Bush-era patriotic bombast, and deplorable history.

TRANSCENDENCE

The Raid 2: Berandal
March sees the return of super-cop Rama (Iko Uwais), as, picking up immediately after the events of the first film, he goes undercover in prison to befriend the convict son of a fearsome mob boss, in the hope of uncovering corruption in Jakarta’s police force. 2012’s The Raid was bafflingly over-praised (Gareth Evans’ script could’ve been for a film set in Detroit, and in the machete scene a villain clearly pulled a stroke to avoid disarming Rama), so this bloated sequel, running at nearly an hour longer than its predecessor, is a considerable worry. At least there’ll be some variety with subway fights, and car chases promised.

Transcendence
Nolan’s abrasive DP Wally Pfister makes the leap to the big chair in April with this sci-fi suspense thriller. Dr. Caster (Johnny Depp), a leading pioneer in the field of A.I., uploads himself into a computer upon an assassination attempt, soon gaining a thirst for omnipotence. Pfister has enlisted Nolan regulars Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, as well as Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, and the inimitable Clifton Collins Jr, and Jack Paglen’s script was on the Black List; so why is this a fear? Well, remember when Spielberg’s DP tried to be a director? And when was the last time Depp’s acting was bearable and not a quirkfest?

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

May 2nd sees the return of the franchise we didn’t need rebooted… Aggravatingly Andrew Garfield as Spidey and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey are far better actors than Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, but the material they were given felt inevitably over-familiar. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci wrote the sequel, and, after Star Trek ‘2’, their Sleepy Hollow riffs so much on Supernatural it casts doubt on their confidence in their own original ideas, which is a double whammy as far as over-familiarity goes. And there’s too many villains… Electro (Jamie Foxx), Rhino (Paul Giamatti), Harry Osborn/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), and Norman Osborn(/Green Goblin too?) (Chris Cooper).

Boyhood
Richard Linklater and Michael Winterbottom as transatlantic parallels gains ground as it transpires they’ve both been pulling the same trick over the last decade. Linklater in Boyhood tells the life of a child (Ellar Salmon) from age six to age 18, following his relationship with his parents (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette) before and after they divorce. Linklater has spent a few weeks every year since 2002 shooting portions of this film, so Salmon grows up and his parents lose their looks. Hawke has described it as “time-lapse photography of a human being”, but is it as good as Michael Chabon’s similar set of New Yorker stories following a boy’s adolescence?

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Edge of Tomorrow

Tastefully released on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Tom Cruise plays a soldier, fighting in a world war against invading aliens, who finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, though he becomes better skilled along the way. So far, so Groundhog Day meets Source Code. On the plus side it’s directed by Doug Liman (SwingersMr & Mrs Smith), who needs to redeem himself for 2008’s Jumper, and it co-stars Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton. On the minus side three different screenwriters are credited (including Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth), and, given how ‘development’ works, there’s probably as many more uncredited.

Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis return in July, oh joy, in 3-D, more joy, with a tale of a young woman (Mila Kunis) who discovers that she shares the same DNA as the Queen of the Universe, and goes on the run with a genetically engineered former soldier (Channing Tatum), oh, and he’s part wolf… The cast includes the unloveable Eddie Redmayne, but also the extremely loveable Tuppence Middleton and the always watchable Sean Bean, and, oddly, a cameo from Terry Gilliam, whose work is said to be an influence on the movie. Although with bits of Star Wars, Greek mythology, and apparently the comic-book Saga floating about, what isn’t an influence?

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

An unnecessary prequel to 2005’s horrid Sin City follows the story of Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) and his dangerous relationship with the seductive Ava Lord (Eva Green). Shot in 2012 but trapped in post-production hell the CGI-fest will finally be ready for August, we’re promised. Apparently this Frank Miller comic is bloodier than those utilised in the original, which seems barely possible, and original cast Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis and Jaime King return alongside newcomers Juno Temple and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But who cares? The original’s awesome trailer promised cartoon Chandler fun, and delivered gruesome, witless, sadistic, and misogynistic attempts at noir from Miller’s pen.

Guardians Of The Galaxy
Also in August, Marvel aim to prove that slapping their logo on anything really will sell tickets as many galaxies away Chris Pratt’s cocky pilot (in no way modelled on Han Solo) falls in with alien assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), warrior Drax The Destroyer (wrestler Dave Bautista), tree-creature Groot (Vin Diesel’s voice uttering one line), and badass rodent Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper’s voice), going on the run with a powerful object with half the universe on their tail. Writer/director James Gunn (SlitherSuper) has form, and reunites with Michael Rooker as well casting Karen Gillan as a villain, but this silly CGI madness sounds beyond even him.

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Far From the Madding Crowd
Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a wilful, flirtatious young woman unexpectedly inherits a large farm and becomes romantically involved with three widely divergent men: the rich landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the exciting Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge), and the poor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel is a formidable predecessor. This version is from slightly morbid director Thomas Vinterberg (FestenThe Hunt), in his first period outing, and, worryingly, he co-scripted this with David Nicholls of One Day fame; whose own tendencies are not exactly of a sunny disposition. Can the promising young cast overcome Vinterberg’s most miserabilist tendencies?

The Man from UNCLE

Probably a Christmas blockbuster this reboot of the 1960s show teams CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB man Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) on a mission to infiltrate a mysterious criminal organization during the height of the cold war. Steven Soderbergh nearly made this with George Clooney from a Scott Z Burns script. Instead we get Guy Ritchie and his Sherlock Holmes scribe Lionel Wigram. Sigh. Hugh Grant plays Waverley, while the very talented female leads Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki will highlight the lack of suavity and comic timing of the male leads; particularly troublesome given the show was very dryly done tongue-in-cheek super-spy nonsense.

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Exodus

Another year, another Ridley Scott flick among my greatest cinematic fears… Thankfully Fassbender is not implicated in this disaster in waiting. Instead it is Christian Bale who steps into Charlton Heston’s sandals as the leader of the Israelites Moses in this Christmas blockbuster – don’t ask… Joel Edgerton is the Pharoah Rameses who will not let Moses’ people go, Aaron Paul is Joshua, and the ensemble includes Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Emun Elliott and John Turturro. But Tower Heist scribes Adam Cooper & Bill Collage are the chief writers, with Steve Zaillian rewriting for awards prestige, and Scott’s on an epic losing streak, so this looks well primed for CGI catastrophe…

October 31, 2013

Philomena

Steve Coogan co-writes, produces and stars opposite Judi Dench in a tale of investigative journalism based on a true story.

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Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is a Labour spin-doctor shafted when his well intentioned but unfortunately phrased email becomes the object of media hysteria. Moping around, pitching a book on Russian history, the former journalist is approached at a party by waitress Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin). Jane’s Irish mother Philomena (Judi Dench) has just disclosed she had another child, a son; who was forcibly given up for adoption decades before while in a Magdalene laundry. Initially disinterested, Sixsmith pitches the story to hard-bitten magazine editor Sally (Michelle Fairley), and, commissioned, meets with Philomena. The unlikely duo set off on a road trip, first to the convent in Roscrea where Cathy Belton’s nun informs them all paperwork was lost in a fire, and that Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is too ill to help them, and eventually to America to find lost child Anthony.

Coogan’s script has been acclaimed, but the Oxbridge educated Sixsmith’s consistent patronising of the ‘Daily Mail and romance novel reading’ retired nurse Philomena is actually rather uncomfortable viewing. His opening quip on leaving a carol service early, “I don’t believe in God, and I think He can tell”, recalls Woody Allen’s “To you I’m an atheist, to God I’m the loyal opposition”, but this script lacks the philosophical engagement of Allen’s most thoughtful works. It is instead largely devoted to bashing the Catholic Church without much reflection. Stephen Frears’ anonymous direction seems to display the effect of four centuries of Anti-Catholic propaganda in England as the camera almost regards pre-Vatican II clerical garb as a cinematic shorthand for evil akin to SS uniforms when depicting the laundry; which the girls could leave at any time if their families wished it.

Hillsborough shows that cover-ups are endemic to institutions, secular as much as religious, which protect their prestige at the expense of innocent victims. Mitt Romney, in his capacity as a LDS Church Bishop, was trying to persuade single mothers to give up their children for adoption well into the 1980s. But acknowledging those truths make Catholicism less exceptional… The American sequence is startling for the dramatic nuances forsaken. Philomena’s son did have a better life there than she could have given him, but he was made to feel shame for his ‘sin’ in America as much as his mother was for hers in Ireland, because of the Evangelical Protestantism that swept Reagan and the Bushes to political power. When the film returns to Roscrea, it seems relieved such knotty ambiguities can be replaced by Catholic-bashing.

Philomena excoriates people for applying their shibboleths without empathy, yet, by condemning people for not applying current shibboleths in the past, itself disdains attempting to understand why those people acted as they did – comprehension is not forgiveness, but empathy.

2/5

November 2, 2010

Enron

Velociraptors in the basement, sex in the boardroom, trading shares to techno music, and wielding light-sabres in the dark; just another day at the office in Lucy Prebble’s demented satire Enron.

Director Rupert Goold picked up his second Olivier award this year for his energetic interpretation of her script which rambunctiously charts the rise and fall of Enron under the stewardship of CEO Jeffrey Skilling. An impressive trading exchange dominates the stage, which runs Enron’s share price across its screen, and onto which TV footage from the era, including Alan Greenspan’s ‘irrational exuberance’ speech, is projected. Much like The Silver Tassie, which it succeeded in the Gaiety, Enron is a play with music rather than a musical. Composer/lyricist Adam Cork only writes three genuine musical numbers, including a jaunty 1920s style routine complete with cane-twirling by cheerleading financial analysts (“He’s our man/If Jeff can’t do it, no one can!”), and a show-stopping hymn to the market when Skilling’s dream of an in-house trading floor becomes a reality with chanted verses of price movements to juddering techno yielding to ambient backed choruses of reverence by the traders for Gold or Aluminium or whatever commodity is going up. Elsewhere Cork’s sound design is high-octane dance music and Guns’n’Roses’ ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ for a slow-motion physical theatre depiction of Skilling’s lethal team-building automotive weekends.

Prebble’s script develops four characters in detail and surrounds them with a circus of caricatures, the most amusing of which include the easily persuaded conjoined twins the Lehman Brothers and the equivocating auditors Arthur Andersen, one man and his truth-telling puppet. Sara Stewart (Batman Begins’ Martha Wayne) is Claudia Roe, the only executive who questions Skilling’s wisdom. Her insistence on building a power plant in India is continuously derided as passé, physically making electricity instead of just trading it, but in the end the plant is the only tangible asset remaining. Clive Francis is wonderfully despicable as Ken Lay, whose avuncular folksiness is only maintained by not asking questions he knows have uncomfortable answers. Paul Chahidi is magnificent as financial wunderkind Andy Fastow whose hero-worship of Skilling extends as far as naming his son Jeffrey. Fastow sees the smartest guy in the room succeeding and to hell with the social niceties he can’t master, but Skilling turns out not to be that clever as (to the bitter end) he cannot see that other people can’t and won’t ‘catch-up’ to his schemes. Corey Johnson (Hellboy’s retiring partner) deserves high praise for making his arrogant protagonist charismatic enough to be sympathetic.

Skilling’s new accounting system logs future revenue as present revenue, but present expenses are actually present, which quickly leaves him in debt. Fastow explains to Skilling with the help of a laser-pen that if his cavernous basement office is the debt that needs to be hidden, selling it to ‘independent’ entities which only need 3% of non-Enron stock to be independent, Fastow can use a tiny amount of Enron stock to create almost infinite layers of shadow entities he calls ‘raptors’ so that “this red dot fills the whole room”. Fastow later finds two hatched eggs, nervously asking “Is there anyone down here?” a velociraptor appears, “Clever girls”, and a blackout leaves only the raptor’s red eye visible – a precursor of the madness of the second act. Lay’s politicking with Dubya destroys energy regulation and a cash-strapped Skilling sends in his traders to profiteer from creating rolling blackouts in California. A darkened stage is lit up by choreographed traders wielding light-sabres as Skilling barks orders before the light-sabres power-off on Skilling’s jibe: “You want to know the difference between California and the Titanic? When the Titanic went down it still had lights on”. But this tactic destroys Enron’s reputation and share-price precipitating the catastrophic end.

An incarcerated Skilling defiantly addresses the audience, his peroration is disturbingly thought-provoking; not just progress but also love and parenting depend on irrational exuberance -“The best things I did in my life I did in a bubble. When there was that atmosphere of total hope, and trust…and stupidity”.

4.5/5

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