Talking Movies

May 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

If not Lazenby, then who?

Almost anyone. But seriously, folks. There were any number of actors in England in 1968 who could have done a better job of picking up the keys to Sean Connery’s Aston Martin. A three-cornered discussion with Friedrich Bagel and The Engineer produced this shortlist of contenders:

Rod Taylor, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Terence Stamp, Anthony Hopkins

Patrick McGoohan, Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Lee, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Edward Fox

Now, not all of these people would have been asked, in order to keep the budget down. And some of them would likely have refused (contemptuously in some cases) had they been asked. But Sean Connery was not unknown when he was cast. Far from it, he had already appeared in Darby O’Gill and the Little People and his supporting role in The Longest Day would have been appreciated by British TV audiences who, between 1959 and 1961, had seen him as Count Vronsky, Hotspur, Macbeth and Alexander the Great. He was not an unknown, he was quite well known to British audiences as a leading man playing historic roles. Lazenby by contrast was quite well known to British audiences for advertising Fry’s chocolate bars.

The critical rehabilitation narrative

I’ve been thinking recently about what we might dub the critical rehabilitation narrative. Nothing seems to please some critics more than to discover neglected masterpieces, to rescue from the discard bin gems that were unappreciated at the time. The only problem is sometimes the critics are very pleased with themselves, their wider critical narrative powers along, and it’s only a minor detail that the film in question is still rubbish. That’s not to say that it is wrong to revisit films and see if they were misjudged; after all Fight Club suffered hugely from being released so soon after Columbine. But sometimes there is much to be said for reading the original reviews and getting a bracing perspective, like disinterring The Cabinet of Dr Caligari from the reverence of generations of film students and discovering in Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture that its own writers disowned the finished film for changes made to its finale which they regarded as dangerously reversing its political message, and doing so at a time that imperilled the nascent republic. Or realising that Matthew Modine saying recently that Full Metal Jacket has aged better than other Vietnam films because it’s finale of urban insurgency could be in Iraq only proves the point of the objections made by critics on release. Because of the WB indulging Kubrick’s power-tripping laziness he had departed from the novel’s jungle war conclusion to instead depict the (easily manufactured in England) ruined city of Hue, because he couldn’t be bothered leaving England. And it would be hard to easily manufacture in England a jungle war. Just as well Vietnam wasn’t noted for being a JUNGLE WAR. Revolution was reviled on release and exiled Pacino to Broadway. But Revolution is an unfocused film of baffling decisions, like shooting it entirely in England and not having Annie Lennox sing, rather than an outright atrocity. Watching its depiction of the start of the American Revolution, the mob bullying, the expropriation, the self-interested and abrasive self-righteousness is oddly reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago’s portrayal of the Bolsheviks. It’s hard not to think that this enraged American critics at the time, who sublimated that rage into attacks from other angles. And yet the final minutes of Revolution feature a truly astonishing tracking shot, a technical marvel and a triumph of production design, that I have never ever heard anyone praise or even mention. If you can’t do the hard work of salvaging the good from amidst the bad then what is the point of critical rehabilitation?

November 20, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXII

As the title suggests, so forth.

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“There are now seven different drafts of the speech. The President likes none of them”

With apologies to The West Wing… It’s been pretty entertaining hearing about apparently unbridled panic in private at Disney as they try to fix Star Wars without ever admitting in public that they broke it. Reshoots continuing until within six weeks of release, test screenings of five different cuts of three entirely different endings: these are the rumours, and great fun they are if you checked out of this asinine cash-grab when Han went for coffee; and was never seen again as he got into a lively debate with some patrons of the Westeros Starbucks about whether he or Greedo shot first. A particularly entertaining rumour has people shouting abuse at the screen as they attempted to walk out of a test screening after a bold artistic decision. Said bold artistic decision synching up with everything that has gone wrong so far it seems almost plausible. And yet… I half wonder if Disney faked footage of a finale so mind-blowingly awful that when by contrast a merely bad finale arrives people will be relieved, and forgiving. Call it the old Prince Hal gambit. If this bold artistic decision is actually real, and in the final cut, it constitutes a piece of cultural vandalism that puts one in mind of Thomas Bowdler correcting Shakespeare by giving King Lear the rom-com ending it so clearly always needed.

Very poor choice of words

I was minding my own business in Dundrum Town Centre the other day when suddenly a large screen started cycling thru shots from the new Charlie’s Angels, before ending with the misguided tagline – ‘Unseen. Undivided. Unstoppable.’ As the Joker aptly put it, very poor choice of words, as indeed Americans have left the movie monumentally unseen. There are a lot of reasons you could proffer about why, but let’s start with the poster. Elizabeth Banks’ name appears THREE TIMES. From Director Elizabeth Banks. Screenplay by Elizabeth Banks. Directed by Elizabeth Banks. ‘From Director…’ usually is accompanied by old hits, like Fincher being dogged by Seven until The Social Network, but not in the case of Banks, for obvious reasons. This is her first credit on a screenplay. This is her second feature as a director. The first was Pitch Perfect 2. Perhaps easing back on the Banks angle might have been wise. Maybe it would have been even wiser to have realised the problem isn’t just her name over and over on the poster, it’s the three people pictured on it. Kristen Stewart and… two other actresses. Think of the combined star power of Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu in the year 2000 when their Charlie’s Angels was 12th at the North American Box Office for the year. Now look at this poster again, and think of the combined star power of Kristen Stewart and effectively two British television actresses. Things get even worse when you see the awful trailer and it presents Stewart, the star, as effectively being the quirky comic relief to two nobodies. This film needed a poster with Stewart flanked by Emma Stone and Maggie Q to even get to the same starting gate as the Barrymore-Diaz-Liu effort.

Terminator 6 or 24: Day 5?

Terminator: Dark Fate has bombed at the box office, and hopefully this third failed attempt to launch a new trilogy will be the end of that nonsense for the foreseeable future. By the grace of God I did not have to review it, but I would have had no compunction in mentioning its opening shock while doing so. One of the frustrations of reviewing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was that the ending by dint of being the ending was considered unmentionable by good manners, even though it was an ending which made pigswill of much of the entire movie (and history) and it seemed Tarantino was deliberately taking advantage of such good manners in an act of tremendous bad faith. However, Terminator 6 in the opening minutes made an artistic decision that, once I had heard it as a rumour, struck me as entirely plausible given its similarity to the equally obnoxious opening of 24: Day 5. Denis Haysbert famously refused to return as President Palmer just to be killed off after mere seconds in the opening scene as a shock to launch the season until he was guilt-tripped into it by being told the entire season had been written around it. In retrospect he says he should have held out. That decision, to kill Palmer, was indicative of how Day 5 was going to lose its way to the point that I simply stopped watching; abandoning a show I had loved from its first episode on BBC 2 in 2002. The end of 24: Day 4, with Jack walking away into a hopeful sunrise after a phone call of mutual respect with President Palmer, was the perfect ending, for both those characters and for the show. But then the show had to keep going because money, so those character arcs were ruined, and, indeed, Day 1 of 24 (saving Palmer from assassination) became a complete and utter waste of time, and all emotional investment in his character over subsequent seasons was also a waste of time. Bringing back young Edward Furlong in CGI just to kill him off in the opening minutes of Terminator 6 was equally bone-headed. Suddenly the first two Terminator movies, the classics, were now a complete and utter waste of time. The last minutes of Terminator 2, which must rank among the greatest endings in cinema, were old hat to the eejits behind Terminator 6. If you want to make a mark on something you’re new to, it’s inadvisable to wildly antagonise all the fans who are the reason there is something for you to be a new writer or director to in the first place. If you want to create new and exciting characters, you have to write new and exciting characters, not just kill off important and beloved characters as if that magically and automatically made your new ciphers equally important and beloved. Tim Miller and Manny Coto. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.

Music based on themes originally whistled by… Elizabeth Banks

To return to the catastrophic egomania of Elizabeth Banks you wonder if the situation was always doomed with her as director/producer or if a decent screenplay that she couldn’t have screwed up too badly could have been wrung from her pitch had she not donned that hat too, taking it upon herself to rewrite the shooting screenplay as her first ever screenwriting credit. The upcoming Birds of Prey is a paragon of the in vogue but absurd idea that only women can truly write for women. (As a corollary Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers would no doubt be surprised to find their creations Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey cancelled for the sake of consistency.) But, even if you grant the absurd premise that only women can write for women, it doesn’t follow that only this woman can write Charlie’s Angels. Off the top of my head I can think of seven screenwriters whose work I have enjoyed greatly over the years that might have done a splendid job had actress/writer/director/producer Banks stopped hiring herself for every job: Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Moira Kirland, Melissa Rosenberg, Stephanie Savage, Diane Ruggiero. It might be objected that their collective writing experience is largely for the small screen. Yes, it is. But then Banks had no writing credits on any screen.

April 28, 2019

Keanu Reeves at the Lighthouse

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The Lighthouse cinema is gearing up for something called Keanurama, a whole season of films starring the inimitable Keanu Reeves. Talking Movies‘ reaction to this news could only be captured by one word – whoa.

There is a veritable feast of Keanu Reeves on offer here, from his team-ups with Winona Ryder in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, A Scanner Darkly and Destination Wedding to his 1990s-defining action movies Point Break and Speed, from his indie classics River’s Edge and My Own Private Idaho to his mainstream hits Parenthood and Devil’s Advocate, from his original breakthrough Bill & Ted movies to his recent John Wick comeback trilogy.

John Wick & John Wick: Chapter 2 DOUBLE BILL

May 10th

Keanu had three movies (Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi) that didn’t make Irish cinemas but made one hell of a comeback as the principled hit-man universally beloved in the hit-community, the larger underworld, and the small town he retired to. Keanu’s stunt-work was an endearing mix of fluency and occasional rustiness, and he made us love Wick as he rampaged after the mobsters who killed his puppy. The flabby sequel expanded the Man from UNCLE-like Continental universe too much, but featured some memorable fights; especially the Wellesian throwdown with Ruby Rose.

Destination Wedding

May 10th

Fellows 1990s icon and latterly cinematic exile Winona Ryder made her great comeback in Stranger Things in 2016 so it was only fitting that she would reunite for a third time with Keanu in this 2018 rom-com by Mad About You writer /director Victor Levin about two misanthropes travelling to a hopelessly pretentious destination wedding and being lumbered with each other there. In a curious twist it seems that this film, just like 2017’s similarly themed rom-com Table 19 about the people you invite to weddings and seat far away to avoid them, hides some very formalist experimentation behind innocuous trappings.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

May 10th

Keanu and Winona’s first film together saw them gamely battle with cut-glass English accents as married couple Jonathan and Mina Harker for Francis Ford Coppola’s curate’s egg of a horror movie, that aspires to great fidelity to its source text even as screenwriter James V Hart makes sweeping inventions about reincarnated immortal beloveds so that Gary Oldman’s rejuvenating Count can lust over Winona. Roman Coppola rummages thru the Old Hollywood playbook for practical magic, and Sadie Frost and Monica Bellucci go all out for eroticism, but despite an impressive ensemble (including Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing) this never catches fire.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

May 15th

Legendary hit-man and lover of dogs John Wick is excommunicado, having conducted business on Continental property. Now Ian McShane has given Keanu one hour’s grace in which he must fight his way out of New York with a $14 million contract on his life and every assassin in the Five Boroughs eager to collect. The production photo of a besuited Keanu riding a horse thru NYC has already taken on a life of its own, and we’re promised an equally tantalising samurai sword fight on motorbikes, as well as a detour to Africa with ally Halle Berry.

Speed 35mm

May 25th

Die Hard cinematographer Jan De Bont made an auspicious directorial debut with this high-concept action blockbuster about a mad bomber targeting an LA bus that has to stay above 50mph in a city known for its congestion. The leads Keanu and Sandra Bullock strike sparks, Jeff Daniels and Joe Morton are terrific in support, and Dennis Hopper chews the scenery as the crazed bomber – sorry, he’s not crazy, “poor people are crazy, Jack, I’m eccentric” – delivering witticisms from the pen of Joss Whedon. Mark Mancina’s score is a triumph of urgency and elation as Keanu attempts to save the day.

A Scanner Darkly 35mm

June 1st

Richard Linklater adapted Philip K Dick’s hallucinogenic novel using his favoured animation technique, rotoscoping, to create a uniquely hellish new world in which an undercover cop in a not-too-distant future becomes involved with a dangerous new drug and begins to lose his own identity as a result. Keanu is said cop, and he’s romancing Winona Ryder in their second film together. But she, and indeed everyone else, may not be what they seem as the drugs start to take hold. A pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr is very, very funny in his role as a rambling, voluble, paranoid junkie.

Parenthood

June 5th

Director Ron Howard bade farewell to the 1980s with this ensemble comedy led by Steve Martin dealing with his ever-expanding Midwestern American family. The impressive cast includes Dianne Wiest, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Joaquin Phoenix, and Rick Moranis. Keanu stretches his comedic muscles as Tod, the not too bright but thoroughly amiable boyfriend to Martin’s fiery oldest daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton), a small but memorable turn. It’s tempting to draw a direct line from Keanu’s performance here to that of Reid Ewing as Dylan, the nice but dim boyfriend to the eldest Dunphy daughter in this current decade’s defining sitcom Modern Family.

River’s Edge

June 7th

Keanu and Dennis Hopper co-star again in a far more sombre movie than Speed. A group of high school friends including Keanu, Ione Skye, Crispin Glover, and Roxana Zal must come to terms with the fact that one of their gang, Daniel Roebuck, has unapologetically killed his girlfriend. This look at the private lives of teenagers; their misdemeanours, code of honour, betrayals; consciously courted controversy by basing the grim tale on a real-life occurrence in California. This is one of Keanu’s earliest roles, agonised and soulful, in a haunting and pitch-black 80s teen drama that almost seems to have invited Heathers.

The Devil’s Advocate

June 14th

Keanu’s up and coming Florida lawyer Kevin Lomax accepts a high-powered position at a New York law firm headed by legal shark John Milton (Al Pacino). Meanwhile, Keanu’s wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron in her first Hollywood iteration) begins to have frightening hallucinations warping her sense of reality. Kevin quickly learns that his mentor’s life isn’t about simply winning court cases without scruples. Pacino and Connie Nielsen have something far darker in mind. Pacino literally being the Devil in this gaudy thriller featuring creatures by the legendary Rick Baker; he of the lycanthropic transformations in An American Werewolf in London.

My Own Private Idaho

June 18th

Writer/director Gus Van Sant followed up his hit Drugstore Cowboy with a far looser movie featuring one of Keanu’s most nuanced performances and an affecting turn by River Phoenix. This key work of the New Queer Cinema follows two street hustlers, Phoenix’s Mike and Keanu’s Scott, as they embark on a road-trip from Portland, Oregon to Mike’s hometown in Idaho, and then eventually to Rome in search of Mike’s mother.  All the while Scott Favor has no intention of leading this street life forever. Van Sant incorporates Henry IV better than you’d believe possible with Keanu as bisexual Hal.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

June 21st

Bill S Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu) are in danger of failing their history final most heinously. This will result in Ted’s disciplinarian cop father sending him to military school. And that would be the end of Wyld Stallyns, the band the pair are trying to make into an MTV sensation despite a total lack of musical ability. It turns out, as Rufus (George Carlin), a dude from the future tells them, it would be the end of the world too. And so comedic time-travelling and borrowing historical figures ensues to ace the history final!

 

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

June 22nd

Keanu’s major sequel problem (John Wick: Chapter 2, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and being blacklisted by 20th Century Fox for passing on Speed 2) began with this bogus journey. William Sadler is sublime as the Grim Reaper, straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and crummy at Battleship. There is some wonderful set design, but, despite multiple robot versions of our heroes and more time-travelling and time-travel fuzzy logic than you can shake a stick at, this just isn’t as much goofy good-natured fun as its underdog predecessor. Third time’s the charm next year dude?

So first you watch one film with us, and then you watch another film with us, right after?

Bill & Ted DOUBLE BILL

June 23rd

WHOA! Two heads are better than one dude!

“Will you be at this party?” “Definitely.”

Point Break 4th July Party

July 6th

“Vaya Con Dios…”

Point Break

July 11th

Keanu leads this hybrid undercover cop in too deep/surfing/action heist/bromance Point Break with alternately lyrical and muscular direction from Kathryn Bigelow and a script polish by James Cameron. A string of bank robberies in Southern California where the villains disguise themselves as former US presidents sees hot-shot FBI agent and former college football star Johnny Utah (Keanu) assigned the dead-end case and Gary Busey’s gruff veteran. Keanu and Busey realise their crazy theory is correct – these bank-robbers are surfers! Keanu goes undercover, and romances Lori Petty’s surfer while growing closer to the gang’s leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Will he arrest him?

And coming directly after all that is the 20th anniversary re-release of … The Matrix.

February 18, 2016

Juno and the Paycock

The Gate is first out of the traps in the curious case of the duelling Sean O’Casey productions to mark the 1916 centenary, as his 1924 classic is here directed by Crestfall playwright Mark O’Rowe.

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Declan Conlon and Marty Rea are a formidable pairing as O’Casey’s inimitable self-deluding male comedy double-act. Conlon is the self-proclaimed nautical veteran ‘Captain’ Boyle, a work-shy layabout who once crewed a boat to Liverpool and now infuriates his long-suffering wife Juno (Derbhle Crotty) by continually carousing with ne’er-do-well neighbour Joxer (Rea) and pleading medically mysterious pains in his legs whenever the prospect of a job appears. Juno’s uphill battle to maintain the family’s dignity takes place in a starkly decaying gray tenement room, with a staircase visible whenever the front door is left open. O’Rowe exploits this bleak space with increasingly dim lighting as the Boyle family is torn asunder by its own complexes of self-delusion, social climbing, and self-destructiveness; a matrix which O’Casey uses to skewer middle-class mores, the Catholic Church, Civil War Republicans, and the Trade Union movement.

It’s startling that in just 14 years Conlon has reached the age where people would think of him not for Hotspur but for Henry IV or Falstaff. He provides a Paycock long on voluble self-pity and contempt, but short on self-awareness and compassion. Conlon is terrific at waspish contempt, but his performance suffers by O’Rowe’s directorial choices. O’Rowe, possibly reacting to Howard Davies’ 2011 Abbey production of Juno, reins in the slapstick. Davies conjured business to emphasise O’Casey’s vaudeville clowning, but Ciaran Hinds’ self-deluding bombast made his later self-righteous fury truly scary. O’Rowe’s stricter fidelity to the text narrows Conlon’s range. And so Rea’s performance stays in the memory longer. He plays Joxer with an impish quality (as if he had flitted in from a Shakespearean fantasy to laugh at mortals), shrinking into as little space as possible, legs always coiled around each other, darting in and out of windows and across the stage startlingly quickly, and extending his final refrain of ‘A Daaaarlin book’ into an almost serpentine hiss.

Paul Wills’ austere set design tracks O’Rowe’s approach, a drab room with sparse and meagre furnishings in comparison to Bob Crowley’s sprawling 2011 Abbey set, whose vivid crumbling was akin to Tyler’s brownstone in Fight Club. In this setting Crotty’s turn as Juno is characterised by exhaustion above exasperation, not the Fassbendering turn one might have anticipated; instead Ingrid Craigie’s Maisie Madigan steals scenes. Juno’s valedictory ‘It’ll what have what’s far better, it’ll have two mothers’ is hollowed by Crotty’s hapless resignation towards crippled Republican son Johnny (Fionn Walton) and synchronicity with Union daughter Mary (Caoimhe O’Malley). O’Malley elevates Mary from cipher, layering cruelty towards her ex-boyfriend (Peter Coonan) with an initial startled adherence to and a later dogged rebellion against sexual morality that seems self-destructive compulsion. Given Juno’s self-pitying matrimonial rebukes that are both loudly performed and ineffectual O’Rowe hints at matrilineal failings that bode ill for Mary’s child.

The 2011 Abbey co-production with Southbank’s National Theatre remains the recent gold standard, but O’Rowe’s more subdued take features sufficient fresh unexpected insights to render it an interesting companion piece to Davies’ exuberant interpretation.

3.5/5

Juno and the Paycock continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 16th of April.

 

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