Talking Movies

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 cuts of three entirely different endings. These are the rumours, and great fun they are if you checked out of this cash-grab when Han went for coffee and was never seen again as he got into a lively debate about whether he or Greedo shot first with some patrons of the Westeros Starbucks. 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 are faking footage of a mind-blowingly awful finale so 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 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 the poster, it’s the people 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 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 forseeable 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 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…

To return to the catastrophic egomania of Elizabeth Banks you wonder if the situation was always doomed with her as director/producer of 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 Harley Quinn movie is a paragon of the absurd idea that only women can now 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 that absurd premise it doesn’t follow that this particular woman ought to 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 who might have done a splendid job had 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 experience is largely on the small screen. Yes, it is. But Banks had no writing credits on any screen.

September 27, 2019

From the Archives: A Mighty Heart

Digging in the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-bait in which the show was stolen by the supporting players.

Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl is kidnapped by terrorists in Pakistan. Through the eyes of his pregnant wife Marianne we follow the frantic search operation to find him.

A Mighty Heart is based on a true story. Daniel Pearl was captured by Islamist extremists in Pakistan in early 2002 and held as a captive before being beheaded, an act of depravity videoed for posterity by his captors. Michael Winterbottom adapts the style of Paul Greengrass, the shaky hand-held camera and documentary feel, to recreate a sense of urgency given that we all know how the story ends. He is helped by an extremely impressive sound design which lets the chaotic roar of Karachi envelop the audience placing us in the midst of a strange city, with many rules for the safety for Western journalists. The most important rule is to always meet a contact in a public place. We see Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) being told this repeatedly before meeting his contact. When the contact doesn’t appear, Pearl leaves, only to be abducted and used as a bargaining chip to get Guantanamo Bay shut down.

The ensemble of this film is very strong. There are standout performances though from Futterman who convinces us of Pearl’s quiet integrity and courage, Archie Panjabi as the pugnacious Indian Wall Street Journal reporter with whom the Pearls are staying, and Irrfan Khan as the Captain in charge of Counter-terrorism (Pakistan’s Jack Bauer, even down to torturing suspects). In its dogged reconstruction of the intelligence operation tracking down Islamist suspects this film comes close in feel to last year’s acclaimed mini-series The Path to 9/11. While that featured Harvey Keitel’s best performance in years as the doomed FBI agent John O’Neill the responsibility of playing a real person has the opposite effect on the lead of this film.

Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl gives a performance designed to win Oscars but that intention is so obvious it backfires. All you can think about is what a ‘performance’ Angelina is giving: look at her curled hair, her darkened pigmentation, her French accent…if she ‘acts’ any harder she might pull something. She’s at her best here in her quiet moments as shouting scenes play like a reprise of the showiness that won her an Oscar for her sociopath in Girl, Interrupted. John Wayne took a number of years to create the persona of ‘John Wayne’ that he perfected in Stagecoach and lived off for the next three decades. Angelina Jolie though has not created a film persona like Wayne’s, she has created a purely public persona that cannot be captured on celluloid. Her sole smash hit of the last decade was Mr & Mrs Smith. Centred on a tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt this was a heightened expression of the comic book which is her life. The baggage of tabloid headlines she brings to this film fatally undermines it. Marianne Pearl should have been played by a lower profile actress…

2/5

November 3, 2018

From the Archives: Mirrors

Another dive into the archives, another forgotten movie…

Kiefer Sutherland doesn’t seem to have grasped that the point of making a film between seasons of 24 is to stretch his acting muscles and avoid typecasting, not to bloody keep on playing Jack Bauer…

Kiefer plays disgraced undercover NYPD detective Ben Carson, suspended for shooting a fellow officer, who is battling alcoholism and rage issues (subtly depicted with lots of wall-thumping and shouting) and is thus estranged from his wife (Paula Patton) who keeps him from seeing their two children. Jack, I’m sorry I mean Ben, gets a job as a night-watchman guarding a burned out department store whose redevelopment is being held up by legal wrangling. His younger sister, whose couch he’s crashing on, strongly disapproves of this move as she thinks his ramblings about seeing horrible reflections in the mirrors of the store herald a nervous breakdown. Amy Smart is actually quite sympathetic as Ben’s sister, however her role is a glorified cameo as she’s only in Mirrors for two reasons. To take her clothes off (of course) which she does briefly, and to suffer one of the nastiest screen deaths seen in quite some time.

Her death sparks some farcically Bauer-like rampaging, the comedic highlight of which is Kiefer kidnapping a nun at gunpoint from a monastery (yes, all the characters refer to it being a monastery…). Mirrors is destroyed by being three very different films: a quality shocker where images in any reflective surface can hurt you; a ho-hum ‘the ghosts want you to avenge their murder’ whodunit; and an all-action showdown with a demon which seems oddly uncommitted to actually killing Ben given its preternatural speed and strength, intercut with Ben’s family being seriously menaced in their house by a number of logical inconsistencies in the high concept.

Alexandre Aja is the talented horror director who gave us French chiller Switchblade Romance but he comes badly unstuck with his script for this remake of a Korean film. While Aja will never lose his absolute mastery of using sound to create dread this script crams in so much that it becomes an endurance marathon. You have vague memories, amid the pyrotechnics of Bauer Vs Demon, that 100 minutes ago you were watching a visceral shocker about evil reflections in mirrors, before being hit with Aja’s trademark asinine ‘clever’ finale.

There is nothing in this film which isn’t done better on a weekly basis by TV horror show Supernatural. If you want some enjoyable scares catch that at midnight on Mondays on TV3. If you want the experience of this film watch it – while mentally replacing Jensen Ackles’ Dean Winchester with Jack Bauer, hilarity should ensue. If Mirrors was just a little less efficient at the “HA! Made you jump…” scares then it would be gloriously bad. Regrettably that efficiency means that it’s just rubbish.

1/5

September 26, 2018

From the Archives: Taken

Ten years ago today Taken was released in Ireland.

Liam Neeson admitted that he only took this part because at 56 he didn’t expect to be offered an action role again, from such inauspicious beginnings comes an unexpected joy as Neeson has the time of his life in Taken as effectively he gets to play Jack Bauer at age 56.

His operative secret agent (or “preventer” as he describes himself, think CTU…) has retired to spend more time with his estranged daughter. She is living with her aggravatingly wealthy stepfather Xander Berkeley (yes, that’s right Jack Bauer’s boss George Mason in 24) and Neeson’s bitter ex-wife Famke Janssen, a thankless role which is becoming so prevalent that someone really needs to have a character riposte “Well, if you’re ex is that much of a loser, it doesn’t say much about you that you married them, does it?” to get rid of it. LOST’s Maggie Grace plays Jack’s daughter Kim. Yes that’s right, French writer/producer Luc Besson has brilliantly pre-empted the planned 24 movie to the extent of having a permanently in peril daughter Kim. Kim travels to Paris with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) and, Kims being Kims, they get kidnapped by a gang trafficking in sex slaves. It’s worth sighing at this point that both actresses are far too old for their roles and ‘act young’ by jumping around a lot and screaming, which is not much of a stretch for Grace it must be admitted but is quite disappointing from Cassidy given her very cool role as a taciturn demon on Supernatural.

Neeson, as you might have seen from the absurd trailer, talks Kim through her kidnap and threatens the kidnappers before they hang up on him. He jets over, courtesy of the private plane belonging to Berkeley’s wealthy businessman, and gets medieval on the kidnappers. This isn’t “ooh look at our fancy fight choreography” fighting, this is down and dirty “how many punches, jabs and kicks do I really need to give in order to cripple this person?” fighting and bone-crunchingly realistic it looks too. This is the adrenaline rush that 24 provided before it got ridiculous. Neeson is superbly cast for this, his 6, 4” frame dominating any room he walks into, while his boxing past makes his fight scenes more plausible than is usual in a Besson produced action flick. Neeson finds the gang holding his daughter through a mix of dogged detective work, old contacts (including a mentor who features in a scene outrageously lifted directly by Besson from Day 5 of 24), old fashioned brutality and yes, you guessed it, one very nasty torture scene involving a lecture by Neeson on the joys of a constant supply of electricity when trying to beat confessions out of bad guys. Besson sure knows his 24… By the end of this film you feel sure that Neeson has killed or maimed half the Parisian underworld and, quelle surprise, the big bad turns out to be an evil Arab.

If one wanted to gripe about all this one could say that Pierre Morel’s film endorses the sort of pop-fascism espoused by 24 but analysing the politics of this nonsense would really be pushing it. This is not high art. What it is is gripping, plausible, brutal and ultimately awesome fun. Highly recommended.

4/5

September 4, 2015

The Transporter Refuelled

Luc Besson reboots his Transporter franchise with a younger version of Frank Martin, but without the State in the lead, things just aren’t the same…

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Ed Skrein replaces Jason Statham as Frank Martin, and, in a transparent attempt to give proceedings a Last Crusade vibe, Ray Stevenson is his retired spy father Frank Sr. But the film’s all about Anna (Loan Chabanol), a traumatised hooker on the French Riviera who comes up with an audacious plan for revenge on her pimps, which begins with the dispatching of Bond henchman Anatole Taubman’s Stanislas. She plans to get out from the under the thumb of the Russian mob, and take her sisters in prostitution with her, by turning junior bosses Yuri (Yuri Kolokolnikov) and Leo (Lenn Kudrjawizki) against their more successful colleague Arkady (Radivoje Bukvic). But if Anna and her comrades in arms Gina (Gabriella Wright), Maria (Tatiana Pajkovic) and Qiao (Wenxia Yu) are to pull this off then they will need the help of both Franks.

It seems silly complaining about the 19 year age gap between Stevenson and Skrein given only 12 years separated Connery and Ford, but Stevenson is the same age as Keanu Reeves; it almost feels like he’s there as back-up in case Skrein couldn’t carry the film (and indeed he displays little of his Game of Thrones’ swagger). This is a double redundancy as Anna controls the film, to the point where, following Mad Max: Fury Road, it must be said this peculiar bait-and-switch manoeuvre is as unacceptable as any other. Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers features prominently, copies even being left lying about lairs, but another key 1840s text seems more apposite given that the logline for this movie could be ‘Hookers of all countries unite, you have nothing to lose but your pimps, you have a world to gain’.

There is a nice fight involving some business with filing cabinets, but too often Frank is a supporting player, while Frank Sr gets kidnapped twice to aid plot mechanics; as a spy he’s more Kim Bauer than Jack. And then there’s the action directing of Camille Delamere, who edited Transporter 3 and Taken 2 before helming Brick Mansions. Some of what should be the film’s best moments (car landing in an airplane tunnel, Frank jumping off a jet-ski into a jeep) become conceptual stunts, where there’s a nice physical set-up, only for a digital pay-off to leave you feeling cheated. The under-used Inspector Becatoui (Samir Guesmi) leaves you pining for the absurdist comedy of previous Transporters, and wondering why Besson decided that Bill Collage and Adam Cooper, writers of Tower Heist and Exodus: Gods and Kings, fitted this knowing franchise

The Transporter Refuelled has some fun fights, but if the Transporter becomes a backseat driver in his movie what exactly is the point of rebooting the franchise at all?

2.75/5

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

September 28, 2009

Pandorum

There’s an intelligent sci-fi film in here somewhere but it’s bludgeoned to death by the typical Paul WS Anderson computer game approach.

Ben Foster, Henchman of the Year in my 2007 Film Awards for his psychotic turns in 3:10 to Yuma and 30 Days of Night, graduates to leading man status and acquits himself well. However he does so in a film that lifts large chunks from Joss Whedon’s 2005 film Serenity. Perhaps the passing physical resemblance between Foster and Serenity’s Alan Tudyk saw writer/director Christian Alvart suffer some unconscious free-associating while co-writing the script about psychotic cannibals in outer space.

Foster plays the unintentionally hilariously named Corporal Bower (pronounced Jack Bauer) who awakes from hyper-sleep on the super-space ship Elysium some hundreds of years from now to find something has gone badly wrong with the power, navigation systems and crew… He wakes his commanding officer Lt Payton (Dennis Quaid) and their struggle against amnesia regarding their identities, mission, and the basic functions of the ship’s equipment is all nicely intriguing before Foster sets off on a trek to fix the nuclear reactor. At this point he meets Antje Traue, who plays the obligatory busty scientist with a tight top, greasy hair and kung-fu skills, and Cung Le, the token Asian character, who gardens when not being a ninja. Predictably enough getting to the nuclear reactor involves completing a number of levels first, sorry, navigating a number of layers of the ship.

These levels are populated by the CGI villains, who appear to have strayed in from I Am Legend, but are still terrifying. I hate fast-moving scary monsters, you should see me squirm when demons move in missing frames every week in Supernatural. Meanwhile back on the secondary bridge Dennis Quaid once again proves that he is a remarkably under-appreciated screen presence as he tries to guide Foster thru the ship, before another crew member appears… Twilight villain Cam Gigandet does surprisingly well in what is basically a two-hander against Quaid. Gigandet has a pretty boy physique but his eyes somehow always hint at something deeply sinister, a fabulous asset in a film which plays on the fact that memory-loss is endemic among the crew and no-one knows just what happened to the ship. Gigandet’s scenes with Quaid are more interesting than the running from cannibals action as they both start to get paranoid and accuse the other of suffering from Pandorum, a wonderfully conceived deep-space illness that starts as an uncontrollable twitch of the hand before escalating to a certainty that the ship is cursed leading to a suicidal mass-evacuation of hyper-sleep pods into the empty wastes of space.

Alvart’s film can be very clever, especially in its creation of a very plausible future Earth riven by conflict over food-supplies, or the tiny touch of laser-shaving, but producer Anderson’s trademark drivel sinks it.

2.5/5

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