Talking Movies

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

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 thirty-third portmanteau post on matters of course!

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

July 12, 2011

…And Harrison Ford

I’m indecently excited at the notion that Harrison Ford has finally stopped clinging on to his leading man career and belatedly embraced just being ‘…And Harrison Ford’.

Ford was 35 when recurring roles in the Lucas-Coppola-complex finally culminated in his star-making supporting turn as Han Solo in Star Wars. He threw himself into leading man roles with gusto honing that roguish quality for comedy, romance and action in Force 10 from Navarone, Hanover Street, and The Frisco Kid, before The Empire Strikes Back codified his blockbuster persona. Its immediate successors, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blade Runner, showcased both his strengths and his versatility respectively. From that point on Ford balanced his Spielberg and Lucas blockbusters with more intimate films like Witness, Frantic and The Mosquito Coast, and even branched into outright comedy with Working Girl. The 1990s are when everything starts to wobble. He started well with a massive hit despite a terrible haircut in Presumed Innocent but followed it up with Regarding Henry, which, in retrospect, may be the tipping point.

Nobody wanted to see Ford in a quiet drama… He responded by belatedly taking on the role of Jack Ryan in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, but neither of those films is well beloved either. Indeed The Fugitive was his last unqualified mega-hit blockbuster. At 52 in Clear and Present Danger Ford was getting a bit old for the all-action shtick, which he last successfully purveyed without in-camera apology in 1997’s Air Force One. Branching out into comedy with Sabrina and Six Days Seven Nights proved disastrous, the controversial turkey The Devil’s Own didn’t help matters, and by 2000 he was clearly struggling. His terrifically ambiguous turn in Zemeckis’ Hitchcock homage What Lies Beneath was meant to resurrect his leading man cachet after the unseen disaster of Random Hearts. Instead it led only to the unseen K-19: The Widowmaker, and the unwatchable Hollywood Homicide and Firewall. These all got cinema releases, but they weren’t must-sees…

The gambit of a 4th Indiana Jones movie seemed liked desperation, and it was. Ford was still good in the role but its welcome success wasn’t enough to get his leading roles in either immigration drama Crossing Borders or medical drama Extraordinary Measures into Irish cinemas. Nearly three years after Indy 4 he finally made into Irish cinemas again with Morning Glory, a reasonably popular film, but one in which he appears in an ‘…And Harrison Ford’ capacity, in a part that functions as a satirical commentary on his long refusal to acknowledge his star had dimmed. I didn’t know Ford was even in Cowboys and Aliens until I saw the trailer before Transformers 3, but it’s great news. It means he’s accepted that he can’t be the lead in blockbusters anymore, but that instead of sulking about it he’s shrugged his shoulders in the best Indy ‘I’m making this up as I go along’ fashion and realised that he still belongs in blockbusters.

He may have to accept Daniel Craig as the lead, but an awful lot of fun can be had as the wise mentor to the action-hero whippersnapper in blockbusters. Ford has finally relented and become the Henry Jones who sits in the side-car, not the one who rides the motorbike, and that’s something to cheer.

January 28, 2011

2011: Hopes

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In Darkest Night

Ryan Reynolds is Green Lantern, Blake Lively is love interest Carol Ferris, and Mark Strong is renegade alien lantern Sinestro in the biggest gamble of the year. Green Lantern’s ring which allows him to physically project anything he can imagine, but which can’t handle the colour yellow because of the evil Parallax, is the most far-out of the major DC characters; but in the right hands (see the recent resurgence of the comics title by Geoff Johns) he can be majestic. If this movie works it opens up the whole DC Universe for cinematic imaginings. If it fails then Nolan’s Batman swansong and Snyder’s Superman will be the end of DC on film for another decade…

A Knife-Edge

Talking of gambles what about Suckerpunch: can Zack Snyder handle an all-female cast and a PG-13 rating after the flop of his animated movie? The answers provided by his Del Toro like escapade set in a 1950s mental hospital where Vanessa Hudgens and Abbie Cornish escape into a fantasy universe to fight a never-ending war will give hints as to how he’ll handle Lois Lane and the challenge of resurrecting Superman’s cinematic fortunes. Breaking Dawn sees Bill Condon, director of Gods & Monsters, take on the final Twilight book in two movies. Given that the book sounds the epitome of unfilmable on the grounds of utter insanity, it’s a gamble to split it in two when it may make New Moon look competent. On the other hand he may take the Slade/Nelson route of Eclipse and simply play the romance as stark nonsense and be as nasty as he can with what little time for horror is left him after he’s shot Jacob shirtless 20 times. Paul should be a lock: it’s a comedy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. However, they’re not working with Edgar Wright, co-writer and director of their other two movies, but with Greg Mottola, writer/director of Adventureland, and this film was meant to be released last year. Kristen Wiig has a supporting role created for her and Seth Rogen voices the titular slobbish alien with whom Pegg & Frost’s archetypal nerds have daft adventures, but will this be a mish-mash of styles?

A Grand Madness

Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? has had immense success on the festival circuit and seems to confirm that Bad Lieutenant was no one-of, he really has got his feature mojo back.  Michael Shannon stars in a very loose version of a true-life murder case which saw reality and fiction tragically become fatally confused for a young actor appearing in a Greek tragedy. The Tempest sees Julie Taymor takes a break from injuring actors on Broadway to helm another Shakespeare movie. Her last film Across the Universe was misfiring but inspired when it worked, expect something of the same from this. Helen Mirren is Prospera, while Russell Brand’s obvious love of language should see him Fassbender his way through his jester role.

In England’s Green and Pleasant Land

February sees the release of two adaptations of acclaimed English novels. Brighton Rock sees Sam Riley, exceptional as Ian Curtis in 2007’s Control, take on the iconic role of the psychotic gangster Pinkie in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1938 novel. This remake updates the action to the 1960s and mods v rockers, with Helen Mirren as the avenging Fury pursuing Pinkie for murdering an innocent man, and rising star Andrea Riseborough as Pinkie’s naive girlfriend. Greene and Terence Rattigan co-wrote the script for the superb Boulting Brothers’ 1947 film, so this version has to live up to the high-water mark of British film noir. Meanwhile Never Let Me Go sees one of the most acclaimed novels of the Zeros get a film treatment from the director of Johnny Cash’s Hurt video. Can Mark Romanek find a visual way to render Kazuo Ishiguro’s dreamy first-person narration of the slow realisation by a group of elite public-school pupils of the sinister purpose of their isolated education? The cast; Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, and Carey Mulligan; represents the cream of young English talent, but replicating the impact of the novel will be difficult.

Empire of the Spielberg

Super 8. I gather it’s about aliens, and monsters, in fact probably alien monsters. In fact really it’s probably Cloverfield: Part II but with Abrams writing and directing instead of producing. Spielberg is producing so it’s safe to say this will be exciting. Whatever it’s about. It’s out in August. The War Horse sees Spielberg breaks his silence after Indy 4 with an adaptation of West End hit which follows a young boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse from being used to drag provisions to the front. Meanwhile with Tintin we get an answer to the question does Peter Jackson still have his directorial mojo? His version of the beloved famous Belgian comic-book has a lot to live up to, not least the uber-faithful TV cartoon adaptations. And can the problem of dead eyes in photo realistic motion capture CGI finally be solved?

The House of M: Part I

Kenneth Branagh’s directorial resurgence sees him helm Thor, his first comic-book blockbuster. Branagh will no doubt coax great performances from Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, but does Chris Hemsworth have the charisma as well as the physique to pull off a Norse God banished to Earth just as Loki decides to invade it? This is a pivotal gamble by Marvel’s in-house studio. If this flops, it puts The Avengers and Iron Man 3 in major difficulties, and it is a worry. Captain America had fantastic storylines in acclaimed comics by Mark Millar and Jeph Loeb in the last decade, but Thor really has no great canonical tale that cries out to be told. Not that those Loeb/Millar ideas will get in the way of a (How I Became) Insert Hero Name approach to the Cap’n. Chris Evans, fresh from dazzling comedic turns in Scott Pilgrim and The Losers, takes on the title role in Captain America: The First Avenger. He will be a likeable hero but it’s almost certain that Hugo Weaving will steal proceedings as Nazi villain The Red Skull. Joe Johnston’s Indiana Jones background should probably guarantee amusing hi-jinks in this 1940s set blockbuster.

The House of M: Part II

Other studios, content to build one franchise at a time around Marvel characters, will unleash two very different comic-book blockbusters. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, fresh from his brush with Herzog, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writers/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his bike is an awesome one. Matthew Vaughn meanwhile helms X-Men: First Class starring James McAvoy as the young Professor X and Talking Movies’ hero Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto. This prequel charts the early days of their friendship and the establishment of Xavier’s Academy, before (according to Mark Millar) a disagreement led to Magneto putting Xavier in a wheelchair. The prospect of Fassbender doing his best Ian McKellen impersonation gives one pause for joy.

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

May 22, 2008

Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Talk about your lucky timing! Indiana Jones 4 is released during Anti-Ageism week, thereby precluding anyone with a sense of decency from making catty remarks about Harrison Ford being too old at 65 to play the role again. As I’m not burdened with a sense of decency it’s just lucky for him that it’s really not an issue in this film. The other great doubt that plagued this movie was that George Lucas was going to destroy our fond memories of the original trilogy just like he did with Star Wars by producing a totally unnecessary, badly written sequel. Well, Spielberg hasn’t let him, by bringing in his own favoured scribe David Koepp to polish Lucas’ story. The film zips along at a breathless pace for 2 gleeful hours before falling apart in a misconceived and distinctly underwhelming finale which fails to do justice to what has gone before, especially the great new villain Col Spalko.

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The first half-hour is utterly superb, setting up the 1957 setting with wit and imagination while paying its respects to the original trilogy. This heady amalgam of ‘pop’ 1950s history from ‘I Like Ike’ to nuclear tensions, rock and roll, McCarthy witch-hunts, Red scares, Roswell conspiracies and teen gangs is impressive stuff and superbly introduces our replacement for the boo hiss Nazis of the 1980s. Meet some comic-book bad guy Soviets led by Cate Blanchett’s distractingly sexy villain Colonel Dr Irina Spalko, sporting a raven black bob hairdo and wielding a very sharp sword.  While many elements feel comfortably familiar there is an odd lack of the trademark squirm-in-your-seat gory moments, and the use of CGI is just painful in places (CGI gophers?!), especially the finale which it completely destroys as one of the joys of Indy’s derring-do was that it always looked somewhat real.

Indiana is dragged to South America by Mutt Williams to search for the missing Professor Oxley (played by an under-used John Hurt) who has reportedly discovered both the titular crystal skull and a mythical lost city which hides an awesome paranormal power sought by psychic weapons researcher Col Spalko. Shia LaBeouf verily astounds as taciturn tough 1950s ‘greaser’ Mutt, a world removed from his usual neurotic persona, while Karen Allen proves a good foil for Indy as his Raiders of the Lost Ark flame Marion Ravenwood – especially in a hilarious scene that combines slapstick with revelations.

The highlight of the film is a lengthy action sequence in the Amazon which is as well orchestrated as any Spielberg has choreographed and features, among other pleasures, a superb swordfight between duellists in separate cars. Crystal Skull can be very silly indeed (there is an unbelievably ludicrous use of a fridge as well as a cringe-worthy CGI heavy Tarzan homage) but it’s all done with such a wild sense of infectious fun that you forgive it all its flaws, such as the completely inconsistent character Ray Winstone is saddled with, until the last 20 minutes….which reveals Lucas’ beloved Maguffin plot device which is as woeful as was feared. This is fun but it never manages to justify resurrecting the franchise after 19 years. Not the disaster you feared then, but not an Indy story so awesome it just had to be told either…

3/5

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