Talking Movies

September 10, 2017

Any Other Business: Part XII

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

“I know, it’s not pretty, but that is the next scene in the script and we’ll just all have to grit our teeth and get thru it together.”

American Asinine

The first time I became aware of American Assassin was when the trailer pounced on me in the cinema a few weeks ago. I was incredulous that it had been made, and was being pushed as a big deal movie, let alone that Michael Keaton was in it. Then on a TV spot the other day I saw the words “CBS Films” and suddenly that déjà vu feeling that this concept belonged on TV, maybe in an episode of Blindspot, Person of Interest, et al, suddenly made sense…

EXT.CBS BACK-LOT- DAY.

TITLE: 2016 SUMMER PRODUCTION HIATUS DAY 1

Delaney hurries through the back-lot looking stressed. He is speed-reading the first few pages of various scripts, and tossing them over his shoulder, as he walks. Suddenly he notices a group of men smoking beside beat-up cars and oil drums.

DELANEY: You can’t be smoking here!! Do you know how much f****ing ether we’ve got in this lot?

BORIS: We’re not going to set anything on fire or blow anything up unless we mean to, man, we’re professionals.

DELANEY: Hang on, I know you, you’re that slacker stuntman. What are you bums doing just hanging out here on the lot?

JOHNSON: No need to get hostile, we’re paid to be here.

DELANEY: Wait, what? I’m paying you to sit around smoking?

BORIS: Contract is for 12 months man. Not our fault there’s a production hiatus in the summer.

DELANEY: Now wait a goddamn minute! You mean I pay the actors to do TV, then they bunk off and someone else pays them to do films, but I have to keep paying you to do nothing?

JOHNSON: Hate the contract, not the contractors.

DELANEY: No, no, no. I didn’t get where I am today by not sweating people for the last ounce of blood from their contracts. You’re going to do some work!

BORIS: Hey dude, chill, there’s no TV happening, and CBS is a TV network. There’s nothing you can do.

DELANEY: Oh yeah?!

JOHNSON: Cool it Boris. Look, Boris doesn’t mean any offence. We think CBS is a fine network. We’re happy here. You’re happy with our work. The audience is happy with the procedurals and spy shows. Let’s just all – take a step back.

Delaney walks up to Johnson and pushes one finger into his chest.

DELANEY: You can take one step back, and then keep stepping back, until you reach the production offices. You, buddy boy, are making a movie.

BORIS: WHAAAT?! CBS doesn’t make movies, CBS is a network.

DELANEY: CBS is whatever I need it to be. And right now it’s a film studio. I’ve got scripts coming out the yazoo here. All of them bad. (throws all the scripts in the air) (to Johnson) Pick them up, bring them to the production office, that’s what the staff writers are going to turn into the screenplay you’re filming during this ‘hiatus’.

JOHNSON: (beat) You’ll never get away with this. This is stepping over so many union lines.

DELANEY: When they see I’ve called Hollywood’s bluff and simply stitched together rejected TV scripts and sent out it there as a blockbuster at a fraction of their budgets all your precious unions will beg me for a Blumhouse deal. Go to work…

 

#InPlayWithRay

I’ve been watching the US Open on Eurosport for the last while and laughing myself sick every time Ray Winstone appears to advertise Bet365 because he seems to have mixed up his script with the copy for an NSA recruitment campaign: “You can find us in every corner of the world. Watching. Listening. Analysing. We are … everywhere. And we … see everything. We are members of the world’s most feared spy agency favourite online sports betting company. And we gamble responsibly at Bet365.”

 

“Male player”

It is unfortunate that, in the midst of watching the US Open, and being reminded of Andy Murray’s idiotic “Male player” interjection at his losing Wimbledon press conference, I also saw episode 5 of David Eagleman’s series The Brain, which dealt with empathy. Very simplistically, when you see someone in pain, the pain matrix of your brain lights up as if you were in pain; much as your face unconsciously mirrors expressions to figure out what others are feeling. However, while we care about other people in pain, if in-groups and out-groups are introduced, we care about people in our in-group but shut down empathy for people in our out-groups. Eagleman noted an atheist cares more at seeing a hand stabbed if that hand is identified as atheist than if it is identified as theist. And social rejection hurts our brain in much the same manner as physical pain. Now, what was Murray up to with his bizarre interruption? As Nick Cohen said of Russell T Davies censoring Shakespeare, he was creating an imaginary crime to prove his moral superiority by having noticed the imaginary crime, which you did not. Murray was shaming the journalist for ‘casual sexism’, and google displays journalists fawning over how Murray schooled this male journalist for ‘casual sexism’. But the journalist was not guilty of casual sexism. He was guilty of casual logic: talking to a male player about the male draw, listing the precedents of male players in the male draw. Murray was being as illogical as if he’d attacked someone for not noting a French woman winning Best Supporting Actress when people were discussing French women winning the Best Actress Oscar. But to notice the imaginary nature of a crime is to become guilty. A witch-hunt can’t truly work until people who know there aren’t any witches join the hunt out of fear that if they refuse to hunt they’ll be accused of being a witch too. That fear of swimming against the snowflake tide explains some journalists turning on their colleague. But remember GK Chesterton’s contention that journalists parroted conventional wisdom because it saved time on a deadline; sheer idleness prioritises cheerleading nonsense over critical dissections, plus it gets clicks via headlines that pander to the internet’s emptiest vessels. Murray was being a bully, a boor, and a hypocrite. He was inviting online witch-hunters to burn this journalist, who did not deserve that abuse, and as a happy side-effect downgraded what Sam Querrey had accomplished in beating him. But because the journalist was tagged as out-group setting him on fire online was a virtuous act: who cares about the hurt feelings of bigots? It is good to hurt bigots. Any actions, however ugly, that bring about a bright future are to be applauded. The ends justify the means. (Except in Guantanamo). It was the ungracious act of a sore loser to belittle Querrey’s achievements, but Murray’s shaming action tagged himself in the angelic in-group: if you thought his behaviour bullying and conveniently self-serving you proved yourself a bigot. As for hypocrisy, well, in 2012 Murray became the first Brit to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry. Sorry, male player, male player. He became the first Brit to win Wimbledon since Virginia Wade. But that’s less impressive, isn’t it? Bridging a gap of 35 years rather than 66 years, but such questions of vanity didn’t concern Murray, did they? He naturally corrected anybody who tried to congratulate him based solely on the perspective of the male draw, didn’t he? To paraphrase James Gogarty’s memorable testimony at the Flood Tribunal – did he f***…

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August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

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Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

atheb2

Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

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