Talking Movies

September 27, 2019

From the Archives: Sparkle

Scraping the Mariana Trench of the pre-Talking Movies archives finds a English movie so completely forgotten it’s very title has been obliterated by Whitney Houston.

Sam Sparkes gets his start in PR by sleeping with his demanding boss Sheila. Little does he know he’s also sleeping with her daughter Kate. Hilarity ensues.

Insipid. That’s the best word to use when discussing Sparkle. It’s not enough to decry the film as a romantic comedy with no romance and fewer jokes. There’s many another film with those twin afflictions which has just about managed to scrape by on the enthusiastic playing and natural charisma of the leads. But here the lead actors don’t even seem to show any interest in trying to salvage something from the wretched material by sheer exuberance on their part. Stockard Channing wears the baffled appearance of someone wondering why The West Wing isn’t on TV anymore rather than expressing the diva quality attributed to her character Sheila. Meanwhile Amanda Ryan as her daughter Kate seems to have wandered in from auditions for Steven Poliakoff’s thoughtful drama Gideon’s Daughter. The real blame though must be placed on Shaun Evans as our hero Sam Sparkes. He’s not to blame for the diabolical script, however, he is to blame for not being able to carry a film. The sad truth is that Evans has no charm. Not only is this a basic requirement for a leading man in a romantic comedy but it’s even more vital when the plot is posited on this Liverpudlian likely lad scaling the London career ladder from wine waiter to PR PA by charm alone.

The triangle of Sam, Kate and Sheila is only one part of this film. Sam’s mother Jill Sparkes (Lesley Manville), her landlord Vince (Bob Hoskins) and his brother Bernie intertwine with the main story throughout the film before both strands resolve into an inter-connected finale but it has all the emotional punch of watching someone solve a Rubik’s cube. The entire film plays as merely an intellectual exercise in connecting plot strands for the sake of it as there is no real warmth for the characters detectable behind it. Bob Hoskins though seems to be enjoying himself as a shy quiet man and such casting against type, see his latest snarly menacing bald bloke turn in Hollywoodland by way of illustration, is quite refreshing for the audience too.

Buffy fans (meaning yes, me, I did this) will greet the appearance of Tony Head with a cheer and justifiably too as he is one of the few things in this film worth cheering. As Kate’s louche uncle (also named Tony), Head is a hoot. His priceless reaction to finding a cuddly blue dolphin toy delivered with his milk in the morning is one of the few, few reasons to smile during the last 40 minutes. This is one comedy that fails to shine. Somewhere in England there’s a community hall that still has a leaky roof because a grant was given towards this film’s budget by the National Lottery. Register your civic disapproval…

1/5

August 31, 2013

On Ben Affleck Being the Batman

I’ve been musing with John Fahey about Ben Affleck returning to blockbuster leading man roles by playing Batman, and I feel Affleck’ll probably nail it.

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I was, of course, initially disappointed by the casting announcement. But not for the same reason that most people who vented their spleen early on seemed to be disappointed/outraged. It seems harsh on the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt to have spent an entire bloody film being taught how to be the Batman by Christian Bale only to be shafted immediately by Warner Bros at his first chance to be the Batman. The hysteria surrounding Affleck’s casting struck me as very odd; like many people were still stuck in 2003 and reeling from the awfulness of Gigli and Paycheck. Announcing Affleck as the lead in Batman Begins back then, well, yes – outrage entirely justified. But this is 2013, the second act of Affleck’s cinematic life. Have people forgotten Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo only months after everyone loved him for accepting the Academy’s snub to his directing with dignity?

Ben Affleck has much in common with the equally maligned Mark Wahlberg. They are not the greatest actors in the world, but they’re certainly not bad actors. Yes, they can be acted off-screen by most any actor willing to stop yawning on set and make the effort. But that willingness to be out-acted is important, they provide an invaluable still centre. John C Reilly appeared at Trinity College a few years back and recounted bullying a theatre director into finally giving him the lead in a Restoration comedy, only to be bored silly on realising Congreve gave the best lines to supporting characters. Reilly’s function was to hold the chaos of the comedy together by being the still centre; and he immediately returned to his comfort zone of playing one of the supporting characters upstaging the romantic lead. Wahlberg and Affleck have given memorable supporting turns (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees, Good Will Hunting, Hollywoodland), but as leading men they don’t mesmerise; but that’s not necessarily always bad. Argo couldn’t support Goodman, Arkin & Cranston’s scenery-chewing profane quipping without Affleck quieting it, and The Fighter’s Bale, Adams & Leo OTT-competition would’ve gone into low-earth orbit without Wahlberg’s stoicism grounding it.

And Batman is, to a large degree, cinematically a still centre. The complaint oft made of Bat-movies – that the villains always walk off with the film – is exactly the complaint you’d expect to recur if a character is a still centre enabling craziness around him. (Affleck suddenly sounds like a very good fit…) Batman’s strength derives in part from his silence. Ninjas aren’t chatty. He lurks in shadows, and pounces on people when they least expect it. Batman doesn’t say much; he just appears and beats people up, that’s what makes him intimidating – he’s almost a pure physical presence to criminals, even those who never encounter him but whose imaginations he vividly inhabits. And in the comics even in the privacy of his own thought bubbles he usually thinks like Hemingway clipped some of the floweriness off of Raymond Chandler prose. And if you’ve read Jeph Loeb’s Hush and Superman/Batman you’ll note that a lot of Batman’s dialogue is sarcastic commentary on Superman’s problem-solving abilities. That sounds a lot like Affleck’s main function in Argo.

But whither Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne? He can’t very well play a billionaire playboy as a still centre, can he? Well, Christian Bale has hammered home the difference between private and public Bruce Wayne so this shouldn’t actually be that major a problem. It would, after all, feel like a waste of everyone’s time to have Robert Downey Jr play public Bruce Wayne the way he plays Tony Stark and then morph into terse earnestness for the other two parts of the Bat-persona. Affleck’s performance in The Town is probably a good model for his private Bruce, and if Argo cohort Bryan Cranston really is playing Lex Luthor then life as public Bruce Wayne gets a lot easier for Affleck as he can bounce quips off a fellow billionaire with whom he has existing good comic chemistry. Even if Cranston’s not Lex, Affleck has absurdly essayed an appropriately insouciant charm. Imagine a combination of Affleck’s Click ad for Lynx, his role in Argo, and the end narration of Daredevil and you have his Batman.

And that’s not bad. With the juvenile Zack Snyder directing it’s the Batman we deserve, but not the one we need right now probably the best we could hope for.

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