Talking Movies

August 15, 2017

100 Best Films of the Century (sic)

Poring over Barry Norman’s ‘100 Best Films of the Century’ list last month set off musings on what a personal version of such a list would be. All such lists are entirely personal, and deeply speculative, but it’s time to be more ambitious/foolhardy than heretofore and nail this blog’s colours to the mast. Norman unapologetically focused on Old Hollywood, but Talking Movies has more regard than he for the 1980s and 1990s. The years to 1939 are allocated 10 films, and each decade thereafter gets 10 films, with an additional 10 films chosen to make up any egregious omissions. What is an egregious omission, or addition for that matter, is naturally a matter of opinion. Like the truest lists this was written quickly with little revision. If you don’t trust your own instincts why would you ever trust anyone else’s?

The first day to 1939

Nosferatu, The Lodger, M, King Kong, It Happened One Night, The 39 Steps, A Night at the Opera, Top Hat, Secret Agent, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Gone with the Wind

1940 to 1969

His Girl Friday, Rebecca, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Shadow of a Doubt, The Big Sleep, The Stranger, Rope, The Third Man

Strangers on a Train, The Lavender Hill Mob, Singin’ in the Rain, Them!, Rear Window, High Society, Moby Dick, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rio Bravo

Last Year in Marienbad, The Manchurian Candidate, The Birds, The Great Escape, Billy Liar, Dr. Strangelove, Goldfinger, Dr. Zhivago, The Sound of Music, The Good The Bad And The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Ma Nuit Chez Maud, The Italian Job

1970 to 1999

Kelly’s Heroes, Aguirre the wrath of God, The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, Star Wars, Superman, Apocalypse Now

The Blues Brothers, Chariots of Fire, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Aliens, Blue Velvet, Wall Street, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Die Hard

JFK, My Own Private Idaho, The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2, The Age of Innocence, Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, Speed, The Usual Suspects, Scream, The Matrix, Fight Club

2000 to the present day

Memento, Almost Famous, Moulin Rouge!, Ocean’s Eleven, Donnie Darko, The Rules of Attraction, The Lord of the Rings, Team America, Brick, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight

Inception, Scott Pilgrims Vs the World, Incendies, Skyfall, Mud, This is the End, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Birdman, High-Rise, 20th Century Women

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September 28, 2016

So long, and unthanks for all the Fish

It’s been a very long wait for RTE 2 to screen season 2 of Gotham, and that might say much about the state of popular opinion towards the misfiring show.

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The first season of Gotham arrived with much more fanfare in January 2015, down to the WB organising a cinema screening of the pilot which I covered for HeadStuff.org. On the big screen Gotham’s cold open was undeniably arresting, tracking a teenage Selina Kyle (Carmen Bicondova) across the rooftops of the absurdly begargoyled city until she happened upon a certain dark alleyway just in time for murder of the Waynes. Catwoman’s presence intriguingly made Batman’s formative trauma a random incident in someone else’s life. But showrunner/writer Bruno Heller and director Danny Cannon also upped the gore, and salvaged the now-pardoic crane swoop by young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) not giving the expected “NOOOOO!!!” but an ear-splitting pre-pubescent shriek.

It would be cruel to say it was all downhill from there, but not entirely untrue. Danny Cannon and director of photography David Stockton had previously brought Nikita to TV on the CW, but Gotham is on Fox, and from the beginning lacked the slick coherence of a CW show. The pilot was all about the young James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), starting work at Gotham PD as the new partner of corrupt Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). They bungled investigating the Waynes’ murder, and got investigated by Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), who already disliked Bullock because of his deal-making friendship with mobster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett-Smith). Gordon felt compelled (perhaps by the dramatic imperative) to promise Bruce and his guardian Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) that he would throw away his badge if he didn’t solve the case. But with the squirrelly behaviour of his fiancé Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), the obvious madness of his CSI Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), and the menacing warnings of his father’s old acquaintance Don Carmine Falcone (John Doman), it was questionable if Gordon would live long enough to throw away his badge a la Dirty Harry…

But that set-up promised a clear path of plot that Heller simply did not possess. Montoya’s presence on the show became increasingly sporadic and tokenistic until eventually she and Allen simply disappeared from the story, while Barbara’s lost little rich girl antics were worthy of Smallville at its very worst, and eventually an extended hiatus produced the desperate gambit of bringing in Milo Ventimiglia as a serial killer for a short and trumpeted mini-arc to give the show some semblance of purpose as it staggered toward the finishing line. Reviewing Gotham‘s pilot I said there was to much to like: specifically the look of Nolan’s Gotham having Gothic elements added to it, Pertwee’s tough Alfred, Logue’s amiably shady Bullock, and Doman’s revelatory avuncular Falcone – the force for order against the chaos enveloping Gotham. There were further praiseworthy elements as the season progressed, the outre villainy of the Balloon Man serial killer felt like it stepped from the pages of early 1990s Batman comics, a flashback heavy episode in which Bullock faced off against the same possibly supernatural murderer at either end of a decade felt like late 1980s Grant Morrison Batman material, and the siege of GCPD in which Gordon was left alone to face off against a team of assassins led by Victor Zsasz was stirring enough to be Nolan-worthy.

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But this is not a show about Gordon and Bullock fighting weird crime, and more’s the loss. It’s a show about…

Well, what is it about?

The adventures of the young Bruce becoming Batman at the unusually young age of say 15 at the end of season 3? No.

Well, maybe, after all don’t forget the cliffhanger finale of Bruce discovering, deep sigh, his father’s Batcave; in a transparent riff on the LOST season 1 finale, despite the fact that finale enraged people.

The adventures of young Bruce meeting literally everyone he will meet again ‘for the first time’ 17 years later when he dons the cape at the age of 29? No.

Well, sort of. I accused Heller of having a veritable ‘Where’s Wally?’ of future super-villains: Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Ivy. He then added in Joker for good measure, and Colm Feore’s Dollmaker, as well as lumbering under the lamentable weight of Fish Mooney, a placeholder original villain, twirling her extravagant nails to hide lack of actual character.

The adventures of all of Batman’s supervillains sans the Bat but with Gordon, in a move worthy of Hamlet without the Dane? No.

Well, yes, that’s sort of where this is all heading. But as ever, only sort of. Gotham’s split focus has been its downfall. Gordon and Bullock are never allowed to do their thing, instead we have to head off and agonise over Barbara’s latest idiocy, or check in on the budding romance of Bruce and Selina; mixing tortured romance with grittier crime procedural as if Heller is confused as to both genre and what network he’s on. But this problem; that Gotham is trying to be about four different shows at once, failing in its whirling dervish act to dance between four stools, and giving everyone a nosebleed into the bargain; is in the ha’penny place to the real flaw bedevilling the show – some of the very worst writing since Smallville‘s lowest points.

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It was hard reviewing Anthropoid a few weeks ago not to make a connection between it, Green Room, and Gotham. The connection to be traced between them goes to the heart of why Gotham rapidly became a chore to watch. Anthropoid saw Nazis take a hammer to a violinist’s hand to break him in interrogation; they’re Nazis, that sort of cruelty is their way. Green Room saw Neo-Nazis take a machete to a guitarist’s hand to break a siege; they’re Neo-Nazis, they want their gun back so they can kill the band. Gotham saw The Penguin take charge of breaking up a romance to curry favour with a possible crime partner. The problem was a musician. As soon as the word ‘musician’ was mentioned you knew what was coming next. A beating doesn’t work on the guy, so Penguin steps in with some handy hedge-clippers, “He’s a musician, lose the fingers.” And the director obliged with a huge close-up of a bejewelled severed finger hitting the ground as the editors debated which to make louder, the scream of agony or the satisfying plop sound. It’s not just that it’s part of a wider problem with the violence on Gotham, which we’ll get to, but as with so much of Penguin’s psychopathy it doesn’t really make any sense. What exactly happened next? Something like this?

INT.ITALIAN PIZZA PLACE-NIGHT.

THE GIRL is looking at her watch, and looking out the window. Where is her boyfriend musician already? Her cellphone rings.

GIRL: Where the hell are you?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) (muffled voices in background) We should break up.

GIRL: What? Why? What’s that sound?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) I’m in the hospital.

GIRL: Oh my God! That’s horrible. Which one? Gotham General? I’ll come now. Why are you in the hospital?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) Someone cut off my fingers.

GIRL: Oh my God! Oh my GOD! Will you still be able to play the guitar?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) Of course I won’t be f****** able to play the f******guitar! THEY CUT OFF MY F****** FINGERS!!

GIRL: (sobbing) Oh God! Who? Why? Baby, why would anyone do such a horrible thing to you?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) I don’t know. I forgot to ask them as they took away my identity and career with a hedge clippers. But in totally unrelated news, babe, totally unrelated, I think we should break up.

This is the kind of nonsense that drove Smallville into inanity; that you could watch Lex bump someone off, and just wonder ‘Why on earth did he do that?!’ Gotham has fallen into the LOST trap of inserting Quentin Tarantino’s ‘really bitching torture scene’ whenever they run out of dramatic oomph and can’t be bothered to let conflict grow organically from characters. A sort of amped-up version of Raymond Chandler’s dictum that you have a guy with a gun walk into the room whenever you get stuck in your writing. It is of course, if done week after week, scene after scene, incredibly lazy writing. It makes things predictable despite the aim being to make things unpredictable: ‘psychopaths be crazy’ and all that. When you just ping pong from hideous double-cross to hideous double-cross, with bodies and eyeballs flying everywhere it actually becomes tiresome, and the cumulative effect is to make the whole show faintly ridiculous. All the maneuvering between Penguin, Fish, and Falcone to be King of Gotham Crime seemed like a pantomime via the Grand Guignol. At times, such as Fish’s imprisonment on Dollmaker’s island laboratory, you could literally fast-forward through the action without missing anything so poor was the dialogue and telegraphed the action. And that is to say nothing of the outrageous gore that Heller seemed in love with; Catwoman gouging out a goon’s eyes in the 2nd episode, Penguin maiming and killing half Gotham and environs, Fish gouging out her own eye to spite Dollmaker, and, in a Smallville moment, Dollmaker responding to that by giving his inept henchman an unwanted sex change and granting Fish a new eye because… Um, because that’s what was written down in the script.

The exhausted retirement of Falcone in the finale almost serves as a metaphor for the audience. We did at least get to see Fish being dropped off a large building to allow Penguin have his “Made it Ma! Top of the World!” moment, but how a show run by experienced people could’ve misjudged everything that led to the point quite so hugely is baffling. I don’t know if a radical shake-up like James Cameron and Charles H Eglee gave Dark Angel season 2 can redeem Gotham, but let’s see if having got rid of its most annoying original character it can start to become a bit more sensible.

Gotham season 2 starts on RTE 2 at the less than desirable time-slot of 10.55pm today.

August 26, 2015

Hitman: Agent 47

The ill-advised Rupert Friend takes up Timothy Olyphant’s cross in a reboot that makes 2007’s Hitman look like John Wick.

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Litvenko (Ciaran Hinds) designed them to be the perfect soldier, a human weapon. But then he escaped… Now, haunted by her past, his daughter Katia Van Dees (Hannah Ware) seeks him in Berlin. But, meeting her father’s creations; the genetically engineered killing machines Agent 47 (Friend) and Syndicate operative John Smith (Zachary Quinto); she realises she cannot run, she must fight, to discover her destiny… For, despite being bred for superior intelligence, Katia had never realised her name sounded uncannily like the French ‘quatre-vingt-dix’ and that her Spidey-sense screamed ‘Agent!’, while all the lethally skilled operatives of the Syndicate and their rival rogue Agents at large were incapable of refining their search parameters based on their intel on Litvenko to locate him in Singapore; Syndicate HQ. Yet Syndicate chairman Le Clerq (Thomas Kretschmann) hunts Litvenko to restart the Agent programme.

Hitman: Agent 47 is beset by three distinct layers of unreality. What the characters do is bafflingly unlike reasonable cinematic behaviour; John Smith and Katia flee from the pursuing 47, and all concerned conduct themselves at a walking pace as if this was an It Follows parody. Action sequences are chopped to bits by Nicolas De Toth’s editing, which you suspect is hiding poorly directed footage, or rendered with so much crummy CGI that you are watching a computer game; a particular offender being the Singapore street assault where 47 guns down zip-cording assassins like the embarrassingly fake Smiths in Matrix Reloaded. The third layer of unreality is the astonishingly derivative script, which makes The Blacklist, a show which recently had James Spader reference a particular Marathon Man scene as they were ripping it off, look as original as Primer.

The basic set-up recalls Dark Angel: Katia is Max, Litvenko is Sandeman, the Agent program is Manticore, there’re even barcodes on people’s necks. Occasional muttering about how emotionless automaton 47 is learning empathy should make Terminator 2 fans mutter ‘If a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, then maybe we can too’. Katia’s DNA was coded for heightened survival skills, indistinguishable from Raimi’s cinematic Spidey-sense. John Smith is unkillable because of his sub-dermal titanium-alloy body-armour, so all he needs are Wolverine’s claws. And then there’s The Matrix… There’s a fight on an underground railway line with trains roaring past, there’s acrobatic use of guns and kung-fu showdowns, there’s even a scene where 47 walks thru a security check packing weapons while his bulky bag is X-rayed. Le Clerq is impossible to kill, 14 Agents have died trying, notes 47, in tones that make you think Friend is repressing lines like ‘Everyone who has stood their ground against an Agent has died’. John Smith injects Litvenko with horrible chemicals to make him spill, then Le Clerq shocks his subordinates by interrogating Litvenko alone, using some of Agent Smith’s body-language and actual lines from the equivalent scene with Morpheus; and then Neo 47 appears outside with a helicopter gunship… Tuned out by such nonsense one scans for absurdities. 47’s inexplicable hacking makes one muse that to a primitive screenwriter any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Smith’s ‘For f***’s sake Doctor, just tell me what I want to know’ sounds so genuinely annoyed, it’s like Quinto just wanted to wrap already. Marco Beltrami’s score ditching his decent 47 theme for random inappropriate surf guitar seems equally fed-up.

If ever wee small hours find drunken friends split between The Matrix, Terminator 2, and Dark Angel, they can compromise by watching all three at once in the shape of this profoundly stupid movie.

0.5/5

February 26, 2015

It Follows

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s acclaimed indie horror finally arrives, and its gut-knotting sense of dread proves well worth the wait.

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Early morning in a normal suburban street, the camera pans around and observes a young woman fleeing her house, it pans as she warily crosses the road and then dashes back into the house for her car keys, before driving away. At the beach she calls her father to apologise, before reacting in despairing horror to something we don’t see. We do see her mangled corpse. As cold opens go it’s very startling, and introduces a sense of unease that never quite leaves us during innocuous scenes of our heroine Jay (Maika Monroe) swimming in her backyard pool, hanging out with sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi). It also underscores the bizarre reaction of boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) to a childish game during a date. And then Hugh passes something on to Jay…

‘It’. ‘It’ follows you. You must never let ‘It’ touch you. And you can only get rid of ‘It’ by passing it on to someone else… David Robert Mitchell’s first movieThe Myth of the American Sleepover was acclaimed for its originality. It Follows displays admirable directorial precision on his part, but influences are everywhere in his script. ‘It’ has a touch of the Terminator, as well as a Romero zombie, and even seems like a nod to Cronenberg’s horror of sexual infection Shivers. Rich Vreeland’s fantastically menacing synth score tips its hat to John Carpenter, as does a key element of ‘It’. But Mitchell isn’t overwhelmed by all these touchstones. He plays around with archetypal nice guy Hugh and bad boy Greg (Daniel Zovatto), as they aid and hinder Maika’s attempts to escape from being relentlessly pursued by ‘It’.

It’s hard to give a flavour of It Follows without ruining part of its appeal, the slow drip-feed of information about ‘It’. The uncertainty over the nature of ‘It’ allows a number of bravura sequences of agonising suspense, the highlight being the camera panning 360 over and over as ‘It’ steadily approaches an oblivious Jay. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis creates such a dreamy atmosphere in early scenes with Jay that Mitchell is able to sustain for a very long time a knife-edge balance between suggesting that Jay is merely hallucinating in response to a trauma, and the white-knuckle ride that this horror is very real. White knuckle are needed to prevent niggling questions like if an implied foursome and threesome don’t pass it on far enough, why not just drive to O’Hare and sleep with someone about to fly to Europe?

It Follows features another strong performance by Maika Monroe, makes great use of decaying Detroit locations, and is powered by spine-tingling dread and terror, but loses its way slightly towards its grand showdown finale.

4/5

November 21, 2013

Catching Fire

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Jennifer Lawrence teams up with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), and the result is a more thoughtful yet more expansive sequel to The Hunger Games.

Catching Fire opens in a bleak Appalachian winter, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and coal-mining boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hunting turkey in the woods of District 12 of the dystopian post-USA nation Panem. But after The Hunger Games you can never really go home… as is insisted upon by various characters. Katniss and her little sister Prim are now living with their mother in The Victors’ Village, a mere 25 yards and a wall of emotional ice away from the boy she pretended to love in order to survive the Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) just down the street. President Snow (Donald Sutherland in a greatly expanded role) threatens Everdeen to convince him, and thereby the outlying Districts, that her ‘suicidal love’ for Peeta was genuine and not an act of defiance against the Capitol; and so remove herself as a symbol of hope for an insurrectionist Mocking Jay movement fomenting rebellion against Snow’s rule…

Lawrence nuances her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of slain District 11 tribute Rue, who she tried to save in the Games, damns her further with Snow; who is advised by caustic veteran Games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to pitch Katniss back into battle in a Quarter Quell to destroy her status as rebel icon before killing her. And so Katniss and Peeta return to the Capitol as tributes, with mentors Haymitch and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, mining a new vein of comedy in her character’s transition from callousness to chumminess). Peeta once again manipulates TV host Caesar (Stanley Tucci) for public sympathy, and manages to parlay Katniss’ lethal practice display of archery into alliances with narcissistic combat expert Finnick (Sam Claflin),  and the tech wizards unkindly dubbed Nuts (Amanda Plummer) & Volts (Jeffrey Wright) by axe-wielding troublemaker Johanna (Jena Malone, channelling The L Word’s Katherine Moennig). Facing off against the Career Victors inside a jungle arena, they need all their collective skills to survive Plutarch’s constant spit-balls.

Simon Beaufoy and a pseudonymous Michael Arndt (both of whom I’ve ripped previously for cliché) provide a screenplay that beautifully kicks its characters into the second act and then has them desperately try to claw their way back to the first act. Catching Fire follows the broad outline of its predecessor – establish the universe, and then let the battle begin – but this is a more fully rounded universe which dexterously details the battle of wills between Katniss and Snow in the world’s deadliest PR campaign. Kudos must be given to director Francis Lawrence who tosses aside originating director Gary Ross’ inexpert shaky-cam and instead deploys his own preference for held shots and action tracks. A CGI heavy sequence with killer baboons genuinely unnerves, while the geography of the action is always legible; even though much of it occurs at night, as Lawrence strays into James Cameron Blue (TM) territory. Lawrence’s villains, as ever, are complex creations, who will repay repeat viewings, and Katniss’ rebellion viscerally threatens them. James Newton Howard admits defeat in creating an iconic theme though, instead utilising Arcade Fire’s chilling Panem Anthem…

Catching Fire unfurls at a measured pace because it is made with unmistakeable confidence, and its abrupt ending whets the appetite for the sequels.

4/5

April 16, 2012

The World Will Be Watching

I feel that I’ve been quite mean to Sam Worthington of late, so I’d like here to put forward a theory of his acting which applies equally to Kristen Stewart.
 
I was watching Conan a few weeks ago and Sam Worthington was on, promoting Man on a Ledge. I was amazed to see a relaxed, funny, and charming Worthington. I scratched my head wondering how such an affable screen presence could fail to carry over into his movie persona. The answer is I think related to what might be dubbed a cinematic version of stage fright. I came across Worthington in a pre-fame Australian crime comedy late one night and he was quite watchable. Yet reviewing Act of Valour I dubbed Worthington the baseline of competency in film acting, and reviewing Man on a Ledge I noted that he was an adequate leading man, and not much more; with his ever wavering American accent a constant distraction. Where did this divide between affable actual Worthington and stiff screen Worthington start? I think it was Avatar, where I noted that he wasn’t a particularly charismatic presence. I think the constant duel to the death he’s engaged in with his American accent is a major factor; he’s concentrating so hard on not slipping into Aussie vocal strains that he has barely any mental capital left to spend on emoting in a given scene; but I think Avatar is also the first time that he had to think seriously about the prospect of far too many people seeing his work – and so arrived the cinematic version of stage fright. Stage fright on an epic scale, though, because rather than freezing at the thought of stepping out in front of 300 people it’s cinematic stage fright at the prospect of being judged by over 100 million punters (a very rough approximation of 1 billion in ticket sales at 10 dollars a ticket) that one could expect a Cameron movie to pull into movie theatres.
 
I think this idea of freezing in front of a camera when fame hits applies equally to Kristen Stewart, and has been commented on far more in her unfortunate case. I don’t think Stewart has relaxed in front of camera in any of the Twilight sequels, simply because she is now painfully aware of how many people will be watching her, and picking hyper-critically over every detail of her performance; down to making sarcastic YouTube videos of how many times she bites her lip. Her original turn as Bella Swann was a sterling performance that masked the flaws in the original writing of Stephenie Meyers’ bafflingly anaemic heroine (the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend) by virtue of pure charisma and charm… Pre-fame Stewart was quite a competent performer, from Panic Room to Into the Wild and on to her superb performance in Adventureland, but now she’s incredibly wooden at her worst moments; sadly frequent these days. I think a performance like Adventureland is now impossible, purely because, like Worthington, she knows that whatever she does will be scrutinised by millions of people. Her performance in The Runaways wrung substantial emotion from the weak material but it’s dispiriting to think that a talented actress is going to be reduced to ferreting out roles in un-commercial movies purely to get away from excessive destructive scrutiny.


Excessive destructive scrutiny naturally leads us to Keira Knightley. I think Knightley suffered this cinematic stage fright at a later stage in her career than Worthington or Stewart, and also is afraid not so much of ordinary cinemagoers as vindictive critics. I’m thinking here in particular of the ridiculously personalised savaging that greeted her West End turn in The Misanthrope. Knightley’s early roles were characterised by a delightfully disdainful cockiness (The Hole, Dr Zhivago, Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates) but by the time she’d renounced blockbusters after Pirates 3 I’d started to look out for what in reviewing The Duchess I dubbed brittle acting. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can now be guaranteed to coax a truly confident performance from Knightley and her performance in The Duchess suffered from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as in some scenes you could almost visibly see a lack of self-belief flutter across her face. Knightley seems to have taken the Stewart escape route of small movies like London Boulevard, and in Never Let Me Go chose the smallest role of the triptych as the villain and excelled as she regained her dash. Hopefully Knightley’s Anna Karenina will also swagger.
 
Which brings us to the great Jennifer Lawrence, who, like Ellen Page, doesn’t freeze in front of a camera when fame hits. Lawrence dominated Winter’s Bone, which she could safely have expected no one to see. She skilfully portrayed an arc from contempt to compassion in The Beaver, which she could safely have expected not that many people to see. She was affecting as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, personalising the clash in philosophy between Xavier and Magneto and evincing real terror, in a film she could safely have expected everyone to see. And now she’s equally assured as she’s been in all those movies in carrying The Hunger Games, a film which she could safely expect at least 80 million people to pay in to. Lawrence has the self-confidence that Worthington, Stewart and Knightley lack. It doesn’t matter to her that the whole world will be watching: Bring it…

April 5, 2012

Titanic 3-D

James Cameron’s watery disaster epic returns to cinemas but it turns out that making it three dimensional was not the secret to making it good…
 
First off let’s be clear that the 3-D doesn’t add anything, in fact it’s very distracting. Not only do out of focus objects continually annoy you in the foreground, where they were clearly never meant to be the centre of attention of the shot, but the 3-D also renders many scenes hilariously fake; people might as well be standing in front of a painted backdrop at the port in France. And that’s before we get to the completely CGI tracking shot swooping over the ‘digitally recreated’ ship, which was so revered at the time. I was unimpressed then; owing to the fact that it was a boat, we’d all seen boats, and this one didn’t look particularly realistic; but now I can only hoot in derision as the 3-D enables you to note that passengers wobbling about look as realistic as if Morph from Take Hart was taking a stroll.
 
Viewing Titanic in retrospect it’s hard not to see a good deal of Revolutionary Road’s Frank and April Wheeler in Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet); from their baffling insistence on inserting each other’s name into every second line of dialogue, to Winslet’s whingeing about the stifling nature of prosperity. ‘Poor little rich girl’ is indeed an apt term as Cameron never rises beyond the social and gender politics of a music video, or indeed the aesthetics; Exhibit A, Rose running thru the engine room’s beautiful steam in her white dress. This is fantasy, not history. It is embarrassing to sit thru a movie from the writer of the quotable Aliens and Terminator 2 that suddenly displays an absolute cloth ear for dialogue The painful Freud and Picasso gags render the already dreadfully hammy Billy Zane and his retinue absolute pantomime villains by making them preening, ignorant, sexist snobs.
 
The best moments are dialogue free; the moving silent montage as the quartet plays ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, Bernard Hill’s captain mutely deciding to go down with the ship, Victor Garber’s devastated shipwright waiting for his flawed design to buckle. It’s nice to see members of the Cameron repertory company Bill Paxton and Janette Goldstein appear in small roles, but they hammer home that while Cameron’s sinking is an impressive technical achievement, it’s too little too late. It’s impressive because the huge set gives it alarming reality, but unlike Avatar there hasn’t been enough action to hide the flaws leading up to it. I’ve always suspected that this movie was Too Big to Fail and that’s why the MPAA, subconsciously mindful of collapsing a studio, rated it PG-13 not R in spite of Winslet’s nude scene being dubbed by her character’s narration “the most erotic experience of my life”. With great budgets come great responsibility, and Cameron seems to have decided that a very stupid across the tracks romance was the only way to get Titanic financed. He might well have been right. Unfortunately, that unbearably idiotic story is what sinks the film.
 
If you want a more satisfying experience of what Cameron might originally have had in mind then watch 1958’s A Night to Remember and the last hour of Terminator 2
 
1.5/5

March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence is on imperious form as survivalist heroine Katniss Everdeen but she outshines everything else in this frustrating adaptation of the hit novel.
 
The Hunger Games opens in a manner uncannily like her breakthrough movie Winter’s Bone with Lawrence again in the American South mothering a younger sibling owing to an absent father and an incapable mother. Katniss lives in District 12 of a futuristic America known as Panem. This is dirt-poor Appalachian coal-mining territory, and she hunts squirrels and game with a home-made bow and arrow to survive. Every year, as a requirement of the Treaty of the Treason which ended the Civil War 74 years before, each of the 12 Districts sends two ‘tributes’, picked at random from their citizens aged between 12 and 18, to the Capitol to take part in a sadistic reality TV show where they fight to the death until only one ‘victor’ remains. Katniss’ 12 year old sister Prim is picked and Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place and pit herself against the Spartans/psychopaths of Districts 1 and 2 who train only for this purpose.
 
Katniss and her neighbour Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked away to the Capitol by Effie (Elizabeth Banks) for a brief communal training period with the other tributes. They also get a makeover from Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and are advised by gloriously irascible mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former victor, to make themselves as likeable as possible to the television audience to attract sponsors; who can drop vital supplies into the ‘wilderness’ where the games are held. Banks is very funny delivering callous lines but I didn’t recognise her for ages because, like everyone else in the Capitol, she resembles a colour-blind New Romantic who sneezed in the make-up box. Well-to-do weasel Peeta takes Haymitch’s advice and declares his hitherto unsuspected love for Katniss on television to compensate for his lack of survival skills by creating a star-cross’d lovers narrative. Katniss’ reaction should get cheers… A crazily bearded Donald Sutherland is the President of Panem, who rebukes Wes Bentley’s conniving game-maker for allowing Katniss to endanger the purpose of the games with her seditious gestures. The tense games themselves are thrillingly realised, replete with shifting strategic alliances and obliquely brutal murders.
 
Lawrence is, predictably, a great action heroine. Intriguingly she is so in the Cameron maternal action heroine mould. Like Ripley in Aliens she combines a will of steel with being a surrogate mother. Katniss cares for the very young District 11 tribute Rue with such obvious love that she incites a riot in District 11. The flaws in The Hunger Games lie elsewhere. Director Gary Ross consistently shoots with an inexpertly adopted shaky-cam that true shaky-maestros Abrams or Greengrass would disavow as amateurish. Presumably he thinks he needs it to connect to a teenage audience, but it’s quite annoying. Amazingly though his recurring showily out of focus backgrounds and persistent close-in focus on the faces of his actors mirror the problems in the script he wrote with Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins. This film is infuriatingly lacking in scope. When action erupts we have no map of the environment it’s erupting within. When rebellion is whispered about we have almost no information about the history of Panem or what this society is actually like now.
 
This is a good film, but given the reputation of the novel any adaptation that’s less than great sends you scurrying to read the book.
 
3/5

November 25, 2011

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part II

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Deja Vu
I’m finding it impossible to work up any enthusiasm either to read Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help or to see its very successful film adaptation. The reason is that The Help is what I like to call a ‘self-evident proposition’ work.

JEFFERSON: Isn’t liberty a great thing?
ADAMS: Um, yes. Were you expecting a different response to that question?
JEFFERSON: No, I just wanted to check that it was indeed a self-evident truth.

Having seen trailers, clips and interviews I feel like I’ve already seen the movie and read the book.

THE HELP: Wasn’t racism in the Deep South in the 1960s awful?
AUDIENCE: Um, yes… obviously – got anything else to add?
THE HELP: Isn’t inter-racial class-divide-crossing female empowerment just swell?
AUDIENCE: Get out…

I praised Emma Stone when I reviewed Superbad for InDublin in 2007 but I’m not about to watch predictable platitudes just to boost her to a well-deserved A-list status. Especially not when the platitudes are wrapped in another faux 1960s package, hot on the heels of Mad Men, Pan Am and X-Men: First Class. I’m a bit of sick of people caricaturing a decade they weren’t around for to make themselves feel enlightened.

The Horns of Desolation
I had the misfortune to stumble across the final scenes of Troy some weeks ago. My Delaney sketches can be traced back to one colour piece in the 2004 Christmas issue of the University Observer where I poured as much scorn as 908 words could hold on Troy. A poorly scripted mess that is stunningly disrespectful of one of the founding texts of Western literature and brought to botched life by a mixture of hammy or simply ill-judged performances Troy is a film that few people will ever watch again willingly. Which leads to the intriguing idea that any work wasted on it could be salvaged for use elsewhere. James Horner scores the fall of Troy with blaring horns and trumpets that bespeak desolation and the fall of an ancient civilisation, and I knew the melody they were playing very well. But I hadn’t seen Troy since 2004 so I couldn’t know the music from Troy itself. I seemed to associate the music with another film entirely but oddly also particularly with just such a scene of a culture being traumatically destroyed. And then it hit me, it’s the music from Avatar! The assault on Hometree and then the final battle – it’s the same horns of desolation. Horner, by association of ideas genuinely composed the same melody and orchestration again, or, (as I hope) directly lifted music he’d composed and foolishly thrown away on a much loathed film and re-used it on a much loved film.

March 16, 2011

Interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg

In a blast from the past here’s the full transcript of an interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg I did for InDublin.ie in November 2007 for the release of Bee Movie.

Jeffrey Katzenberg started his producing career at Paramount in the 1970s before moving to Disney with his mentor Michael Eisner in the 1980s. They oversaw an artistic renaissance at the House of Mouse with Katzenberg overseeing The Lion King among other hits. An acrimonious falling-out saw Katzenberg strike out on his own in the mid 1990s, establishing the Dreamworks film studio with Steven Spielberg and music mogul David Geffen, and heading up the only real rival to Pixar’s dominance of CGI animation. His legendary drive and persistence lured Jerry Seinfeld out of semi-retirement to write and star in Bee Movie, one of the last films released in 2-D by Dreamworks Animation; which from 2009 switched all its output to 3-D with Katzenberg himself acting as one of the principal evangelists for the new format.

Did it take a lot of persuasion to drag Seinfeld out of semi-retirement?
Well, it depends on how you would, what you think a lot is… (laughs) Because the thing that was interesting about it is that it took a very, very long time because I actually started approaching him about doing an animated movie when he was doing his TV show so you know that’s probably a good 15, 16 years ago I first approached him. He was always really incredibly accessible, you know I’d pick up the phone and I’d just call you know, I didn’t really know him: I’d introduce myself and he’d take the call and he’d say ‘Hey, uh, what’re you thinking?’ and I’d sort of pitch him the idea, he was amazingly polite – always said ‘No’. (laughs). And then, uh, I went to see him about 4 years ago, I actually went to see him in his office. I took, I had a story that I pitched to him for an animated movie and I took some drawings and some pictures and stuff that I had the artists put together. And, uh, he actually thought about it for a little bit and then he said ‘No’. Ha! What I could tell is, at least it planted the idea, it was something he really –he thought he understood why he could have done that movie and ultimately decided not to cos –the thing I came to learn about Jerry is he really doesn’t think of himself as an actor, in sort of the traditional sense – obviously he does act but he doesn’t think of himself as an actor. He explained to me that he’s never actually said somebody else’s words. The TV show, he did stand-up comedy. The TV show, he had collaborators that worked with him; you know he was a writer on the show. Then went off to do his stand-up work again, so pretty much his whole life he’s written his own work. And so that was really the breakthrough that I came to understand is he was never going to do someone else’s animated movie, he was never going to act in someone else’s animated movie. What was going to work for him was when and if there was an idea that interested him that he could do. And that’s what happened.

Are Dreamworks still a subversive studio?
Hope so, we’ve sure been trying, and sometimes we get it more right than others. But I think what has become, and hopefully will continue to be, a signature of Dreamworks animated movies is Number One: they’re sophisticated films, that have complex stories and complex characters that are interesting and appealing to an adult audience, they have parody and satire, they are a little irreverent, they are a little subversive and really – There was this wonderful great mission statement that Walt Disney had ‘I make movies for children, and the child that exists in all of us’. And 14 years later at Dreamworks I can say ‘We make movies for adults, and the adult that exists in every child’. And that literally has been our approach. And even for Jerry, coming in to be a part of this, he kept saying to me ‘These are films that, I’ve never done anything for kids – my sense of humour, my sensibility’s not for kids’ and I said ‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of that –  the animation of the movie, the visuals of the movie, you’ll see – they’ll get this movie, you don’t ever have to talk down to them.’ And I think when you talk with him, one of the great surprises for him is, how blown away he is by how much kids like this film and he never once felt like he had to tone something down or dumb something down or make it less complex. People kept saying ‘Are kids going to understand what it means to go to court? To sue, a trial at the centre of all this’. Well they get it, whether they literally understand it or they just in general get it  – ‘Yes, somebody took something away from the bees and now someone decided the bees can have it back’ – yeah, they get it, they get the general aspect of it and that’s enough. {As an example, at the screening children laughed at Chris Rock’s line about just needing a suit to be a lawyer as he was already a bloodsucking parasite}Well, you’ve got bloodsucking parasite, they get it.

Some critics have criticised Dreamworks for casting mega-stars in their films rather than taking Pixar’s approach, do you think Dreamworks may have been too focused on star-power in voice-casting in something like Shark Tale?
No, cos that’s never what we’ve done. I’m hard pressed to understand that. Are you saying that Robert De Niro’s not a great actor? Or Will Smith is not a great actor? Or that Jack Black is not a great actor? Or Renee Zellweger is not – I mean these are the people that were in this. They’re all Academy Award winning, they’re the finest actors in the world. So, it sounds a little bit like sour-grapes to be honest with you. The fact is that I’ve grown up in Hollywood, I’ve spent my whole career there, I’ve worked with these artists and the greatest artists for my entire career and, I’ve been very successful at getting them to work in our movies and the truth is I’d rather have Ben Stiller, who’s a genius and funny and does great improvisational work and Chris Rock than some unknown. So what’re you going to tell me? That there’s a better comedian or a better comic actor in the world today than Ben Stiller? I don’t think so. Who? Who? I think everyone always looks to find some way to be critic of the moment, and I’m okay with that, I’ve lived my whole life with that, it comes with the territory and the fact is I believe that one of the signatures of a Dreamworks animated movie is, for the adult audience, there are going to be among the greatest actors and comedians in the world acting in these films, and they add a level and a dimension to it and Jerry Seinfeld is a perfect example – there’s no 6 year old who knows who Jerry Seinfeld is, or cares, they know he’s funny. They don’t know who he is but they know he’s funny, and whoever he is, and wherever he’s come from – but for those people who watched that TV show for 20 years – to hear him back in a film, to hear his comedy and his sensibility is like this long lost friend coming back into your life, it’s a joyful experience. I love that as an aspect of our films, I think it distinguishes us and makes it different from everybody else’s, and with due respect to whoever those critics are, and you say Pixar except the first Pixar movie which you know was made on my watch while I was at Disney – I actually made that first film and put them into business, and financed them – who was in the first Pixar movie? {Double Oscar-winner Tom Hanks and Tim Allen} Yeah. Uh-huh. So, they’re  – Tim Allen was in the no 1 rated TV show produced by our studio Disney at the time and Tom Hanks was under a long term contract at Disney at the time making multiple movies for us – both of which did this as a favour to me. I didn’t see anyone at Pixar saying ‘No, no – we don’t want them’. (Laughs). {I think the example critics like to give is Craig T Nelson for Mr Incredible, as he wouldn’t be a marquee name} Was he any more of an actor than Robert De Niro? It’s confusing to me. You know what, it’s probably the nature of competition is that the grass is always greener on the other side – someone’s always able to criticise someone on it. You know, I tend not to do that, I don’t like to go there, I’m very happy for our success. You know, our success has never been dependent on somebody else’s failure. So, I don’t have any malice to them. I have 10 years invested in the Disney company and have great, great friends who still work there doing great work there so I look forward to being able to see their movies when they come out so I get inspired by the work in their movies and it pushes me to want to do better work. As opposed to feeling critical about it I’m happy to tell you how much I like Ratatouille, how amazing I thought the animation was, how beautiful I thought the cinematography was, and I could go and on and on telling you how much I admire about the movie. I don’t find in any way, shape or form that that is demeaning to me or to your company, or to the movies that we make or the artists who are at work here. I don’t feel compelled to knock anyone else.

Do you think 3-D will endure this time rather than being a fad like in the 1950s?
I do, because what we’re all doing is not a gimmick and it’s not a trick, cheap exploitative bell and whistle theme park attraction. We’re all engaged in what is a new technology, a new level of tools that exist on the film-making side of the business, a new set of tools on the exhibition side of the business – these two things converging together at this moment in time are going to allow us to make an amazing new cinema experience that when people see this in their local movie theatres they’re never going back again – this is as revolutionary as when movies went from black and white to colour 70 years ago. And not only do I not think that it’s a momentary fad but I actually think we can sit here 10 years from now and you will see that the majority of big films being made, big entertainment films will be made in 3-D and exhibited in 3-D. I think 2-D movies will be around, they’ll still be made, they’ll still be shown but they’ll tend to be smaller films, they’ll tend to be art films, to be more personal movies but the bigger event populist films are all gonna be made in 3-D. {So the likes of Cameron, Jackson, Zemeckis and Spielberg will all shoot 3-D, but there’ll still be 2-D films?}  Yeah, and I think there will be and I think there’s an art to 2-D film-making and that there will be film-makers who will choose that but as I said I think you’ll see that the core centre driving force will be 3-D. And it will actually be the first real innovation in the movie theatre experience in our lifetime. And when you think about what’s happened in your home. Flat screen TV’s, High-Definition and now HD-DVD and HD-TV, stereo sound coming in – the In-Home experience has innovated in the last decade in ways that are so astonishing, meanwhile the movie theatre experience hasn’t at all. And this is now an opportunity for an exceptional innovation in the theatre experience that is going to get people to get up and get out of their house, you won’t be able to sit in your home and watch a film like this. You know, you saw the current generation in Beowulf which is incredibly impressive, putting aside the movie, whatever your feelings are about the film, the 3-D presentation in that film is dazzling. And what we’re doing is yet a whole other generation ahead of what they’ve done, and so when people see it  – you know there’s that wonderful cliché, picture’s worth a thousand words, well I’ve got a new cliché for you, a 3-D picture’s worth three thousand words. It’s pretty indescribable. {And even the appearance of the glasses has greatly improved} I agree. {Spielberg has loudly lamented the move from old-fashioned film to digital, is he won over yet?} I don’t think he would be lamenting so much today and the reason is that I think Steven who obviously is an amazing and probably the most amazing artist, looks at the aesthetic of film itself, and what happens in that chemical process, and the emulsions and how light filters through that, and I think that until recently he felt that there was a real difference in the feel, the textures of what happened with film versus digital. I think today he would say to you ‘I think I’ve seen now the technology of digital has finally innovated to a place where you can actually deliver the same quality experience, the same textures and feelings and sensibility that you could with film’.

Did you achieve your aims at Dreamworks before selling it to Paramount?
The answer’s yes. I did, I think it was an amazing ride that the three of us have been on together, are still on. For the live action movie business it really made sense to be a part of a larger company, and obviously today there’s some issues about how well the chemistry is working between these 2 companies, and they’ll sort that out in the coming year and see what happens with that but ultimately separating the two companies as we have done, the animation from the live-action, was really the right thing to do for investors, the people who gambled on us, who put up well over a billion dollars, nearly almost two billion dollars to start the company, this was an opportunity for them to be rewarded. I couldn’t be prouder of what we have done and are doing and this year’s been one of the most amazing years in the history of Dreamworks – whoever’s paying the bills, whoever owns what in it, the combination of the animation company and the live action company – it’s been a record breaking year, between Transformers and Shrek and Bee Movie and Blades of Glory and the Ben Stiller movie that’s just been out and the Sweeney Todd movie that’s coming at the end of the year; it’s been a spectacular year for the company and I know that David and I couldn’t be prouder –  couldn’t be prouder of the film-makers, team of people who have achieved this success.

Is it a myth that you got down on your hands and knees to beg Leonard Nimoy to reprise his role as Spock in the 1979 film, and will you have any involvement in the franchise reboot now that its makers Paramount own Dreamworks?
No. It is true, 30 years ago I did go to New York and beg Leonard to put on his ears again, which fortunately he said yes to so it was only – it would only have been humiliating if I had done that and he’d said no. (laughs). It was just slightly embarrassing that I did it and he said yes. But JJ Abrams is really spearheading this creatively, he’s written it and is directing it and JJ is one of the true great film-makers working in Hollywood today, he’s just an amazing talent. I actually gave him literally his very first job out of college, 20 years ago – back again in my Disney years and I’ve watched him over the years just turn into an extraordinary film-maker so I think the Star Trek Enterprise both the literal Enterprise and the figurative Enterprise are in great hands. {Have you heard anything about how it’s going?} I’ve heard it’s in good shape, so it’ll be fun.

Finally, is the rhetoric of the WGA in this strike action; that their poor individuals being scammed out of money by giant studios; liable to hinder the fight against piracy?
So I guess I’ll ask you a question, do you know how much the average writer is paid? Screenwriter, take a guess – working, a writer who is working as a screenwriter, as opposed to like a hobby. {I would have no idea, $80,000?} $200,000. I have to say, yes there are issues, there are legitimate issues and everybody will try and work thru them but as someone who has worked in Hollywood for my entire professional career, been a great fan and supporter of the Writers’ Guild, done great work with them over the years, couldn’t have more admiration for writers….these are not people working hard labour for $6 an hour minimum wage. These are among the highest paid people in a union or a guild in the world. So, are there aspects of this where they should be compensated differently or more? Maybe… But please let’s not go to a place where these are downtrodden abused people. Most people in the world would happily take half what they make and consider themselves well compensated, these are not poor downtrodden people who are being ripped off, it’s just not true. Okay? {Yeah, absolutely, thanks for your time} Thank you, sir.

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