Talking Movies

March 7, 2013

Parker

Jason Statham stretches his acting muscles again, but unlike last year’s  underwhelming Safe, Parker comes with a writer and director of  pretty high calibre attached.

Parker

Statham is (you’ve guessed it) Parker, who we first meet disguised as a  priest to execute a heist at the Ohio State Fair. The disguise, amusingly  enough, isn’t entirely outrageous – as Parker reveals his inviolable ethical  code: “I only steal from those who can afford it, and I only hurt people who  deserve it.” Unfortunately his father-in-law Hurley (Nick Nolte) has lumbered  him with some unethical thieves (Michael Chiklis, Clifford Collins Jr, Wendell  Pierce) who leave Parker for dead on a roadside. Parker survives and tracks them  to Florida, where he uses struggling realtor Leslie (Jennifer Lopez) to pinpoint  their location, and, in an unlikely alliance, identify their next heist. But can  Parker focus on stealing the haul and killing his betrayers when Chicago mob  boss Danziger has unleashed an assassin to eliminate both Parker and his wife  (Emma Booth)?

This is based on the Parker novel Flash Fire by Richard Stark aka Donald  Westlake, which makes you wonder (given Point  Blank) if he only had one plot:  Parker, left for dead, survives, seeks revenge. It’s a good plot, and Black Swan and Carnivale scribe John McLaughlin renders it  the kind of entertaining crime popcorn Hollywood’s fallen out of doing. Unlike  the last Stark flick Payback the  plentiful violence here isn’t sadistic; indeed the scene you’ll wincingly  remember is stunningly masochistic. The State is notably endearing as he beats  people up, is nice to dogs, and delivers the immortal threat of an agonising  death by crushing a man’s trachea with a chair with the kicker – “Plus there’s  the posthumous humiliation of having been killed by a chair.” Indeed, like Ocean’s 11, when J-Lo makes her belated  entrance it’s slightly unnecessary.

Not to imply that J-Lo’s role,  comic relief with realistic tragic undertones, is redundant; but by that point  it is extra icing on the cake director Taylor Hackford has made. Hackford uses  Palm Beach locations wonderfully as Parker realises crime cannot flourish on an  island with drawbridges, and he stages a recriminating conversation between  Parker and Hurley as dramatically as the beach argument in Rampart. The many fights are brutal enough to  keep State fans happy, and the increasing paranoia of Chiklis’ gang-leader  Melander is well justified as Parker infiltrates his preparations for a massive  diamond heist. The ice is to be fenced by Danziger’s moronic nephew Hardwicke  (Micah Hauptman, who memorably cameoed as ‘Kripke’ in Ben Edlund’s meta-madness Supernatural episode), which is why a  terrifying assassin (Matrix Reloaded  Agent Daniel Bernhardt) is hunting Parker with brutally violent grim  efficiency.

Is Parker an avenging Angel of the Lord as suggested? He certainly seems  indestructible, albeit far from invulnerable, and Parker is another fun Statham franchise that  deserves further outings.

3/5

August 15, 2012

The Expendables 2

66 year-old Sylvester Stallone regrettably returns for the second outing in this postmodern tongue-in-cheek action franchise made by people who don’t know what postmodernism means and don’t have their tongues-in-cheeks.

The Expendables 2 begins with Stallone’s soldiers of fortune rampaging around Nepal, saving a hostage or two, before making their covert getaway in the world’s most conspicuous plane. The film continues in this vein; thunderously loud, with much posturing like 1980s action heroes by the aged cast of 1980s action heroes. Groanworthy references are made from time to time as hundreds of enemies on various continents are dispatched with explosions of CGI blood so ridiculous that they resemble the zombies/water balloons of Planet Terror. But, when Bruce Willis sends Stallone and Jason Statham to Albania to retrieve a Maguffin with the help of Jet Li’s replacement Nan Yu, they (and their loyal crew of Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, and Liam Hemsworth) meet their match in the villainous Jean-Claude Van Damme… But some familiar faces might balance the odds.

It’s hard not to wish that Robert Rodriguez at the top of his game was in charge of this franchise. You might think that losing Stallone as a director might improve this franchise but, aside from the script, the real shock of this movie is that Simon Con Air West doesn’t bring much visual panache to this nonsense. Instead it’s only slightly better directed than the lensing of Dolph Lundgren’s inert 2004 directorial debut The Defender, and the opening sequence in particular bafflingly shares Lundgren’s utter inability to convey basic action geography. The unrelenting autumnal colour palette employed by West quickly becomes quite dreary. The best moments are Jet Li fighting with pots and pans, the State using a censer as a mace, and Nan Yu letting rip on some goons; to wit the actors young enough for action movies.

Van Damme proved in JCVD that he’s still in shape and can actually act when pushed, but JCVD had a level of playfulness in its writing that is simply beyond The Expendables. Arnold Schwarzenegger saying “I’m back” before a couple of notes of his Terminator motif play isn’t that funny a touch. Chuck Norris delivering the punch-line of a Chuck Norris joke after Stallone feeds him the set-up might be hilarious, if he hadn’t delivered about 5 of them in a row on Jay Leno’s show a few years ago. These touches, which are few and far between, are meant to disguise the fact that this is a veritable computer-generated basic cable action script, worked on by many different writers, that could just as easily have been directed by Dolph Lundgren on a miniscule budget and gone straight to DVD.

For a genuine tongue-in-cheek see Robert Rodriguez or Alexandre Aja because this is just a bad movie shamelessly masquerading as a gleefully bad movie.

1/5

May 24, 2012

Better Safe than Statham

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:22 pm
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Does Safe represent the start of a push by Jason Statham to broaden his acting range by appearing in a film that’s decidedly more thriller than it is an action?

Writer and director Boaz Yakin, who also scripted and lensed Remember the Titans, certainly seems to have ambitions that don’t fit with the State’s usual mindless fun. The opening of Safe deploys a structure I can’t recall encountering anywhere else other than Tom Stoppard’s radio-play Artist Descending a Staircase – a boomeranging back in time and then returning to the present, albeit done with a good deal less intelligence and rigour than Stoppard displayed. If Statham is quite deliberately playing a character who is more emotional and vulnerable than his usual persona, then these opening flashbacks are a good deal more complicated than the usual ‘2 days previously’ that might be used as a noirish hook to an overly dramatic high-stakes start. Yakin though ends up with less of a noir feel than sheer confusion as he tries to blast through two backstories in flashback before linking them up ‘where we came in’.

Statham plays Luke Wright, a cage fighter in Jersey who accidentally pulverises an opponent in a fight he was supposed to throw, and is punished by the Russian mob; who execute his pregnant wife and hope to drive him to suicide by promising to kill anyone he establishes any sort of friendship with in the future. A year later Luke is about to jump in front of a subway train after the Russians have ruthlessly made good on their word when he spots Mei (Catherine Chan) being chased by the same gangsters. Mei who we have met first being terrorised by the Russians, was originally abducted by the Triads in Nanjing, and sent to America by Han Jiao (James Hong) to do the book-keeping for him mentally using her prodigious math abilities. In the present she has been entrusted with a new number by Jiao but has been abducted from her adoptive father Chang (Reggie Lee) by the Russians, who want that number. When she escapes, courtesy of some unintentional help by the corrupt NYC captain in charge of SWAT (John Lee Burke), she runs straight into Luke’s path…

Safe isn’t nearly absurd enough for the usual Statham thrills. It has a very complicated plot, which is only disclosed at a late stage; and really does try to emulate NYC crime thrillers of the 1970s rather than Luc Besson’s 2000s nonsense actions. This tension is never quite resolved. There is a nicely staged subway attack during which Statham delivers one of his greatest ever action one-liners in killing off a Russian mobster who’s aghast that a garbage-man should have such skills: “You had bad information; I never collected garbage, I disposed of it.” Similarly when Chris Sarandon mutters at Statham “You’ve got some balls” only to be met with “Yeah, I’m amazed I can walk,” we’re defiantly in Besson-land. Yet at the same time we have Hal Hartley regular John Lee Burke as the corrupt NYPD captain and some noticeably arty action sequences. There is an assault on a car composed as a long-take reminiscent of Cuaron’s Children of Men, and another subsequent attack involving great tricks with wing mirrors and rear view mirrors as the camera plays around with locating and hiding characters in the mayhem, as well as a showy long-take where Statham arrives.

Can Jason Statham break out of the action ghetto? Perhaps, but I think he’s more likely to do so by appearing in a film which is entirely devoid of chop-socky fights and devoted to showcasing his acting chops than by doing compromise pieces like Safe.

April 23, 2012

NetFlix Killed the Video Store

In this blog’s first cross-over episode Think About IT’s Gerard Healy joins Talking Movies‘ Fergal Casey to discuss the arrival of NetFlix in Ireland.

1. What is NetFlix?


GH: So, NetFlix is here. What aspect of it should we discuss first?
FC: How about, “What is NetFlix?”
GH: “No one can be told what NetFlix is, you have to see it for yourself,” you mean?
FC: No, genuinely, what is NetFlix? I don’t understand this streaming business.
GH: (sighs) Fine… NetFlix allows you to stream movies and TV on your laptop, tablet or games console. Basically, it’s on-demand TV and films to a computer of your choice.
FC: How?
GH: It’s very much like YouTube. It’s essentially a website (or App in the case of Xboxes, iPads, other non-PC/laptop devices) that streams to your computer, except that it’s a paid service.
FC: So, they don’t post you DVDs in cute red envelopes?
GH: Initially NetFlix offered a “direct to your door” style service when it launched in the US, and it even extended into Canada, but NetFlix are yet to offer anything like this in Europe, and it seems unlikely we’ll ever see it as they’ve been trying to pull the service.
FC: Aw, but if they don’t do that then Netflix guilt is a thing of the past!
GH: I’m not familiar with this concept, but I gather you’re once again lamenting advances in technology, like when you moaned about the death of the cassette tape. It raises an interesting question about the future of physical media, which I’d like to discuss later.
FC: And we will, but damn it all I must lament this advance in technology! I’d rather looked forward to people I know having super-pretentious movies sitting around on top of a red envelope on their television for months on end. The same way people have Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on their shelves, but really they’re reading the latest Dan Brown…
GH: What’s wrong with Dan Brown?! His books are being made into well-paced, action-packed cinematic adventures. Speaking of which, what do you think of it from a cinematic perspective?
FC: I think Dan Brown movies are definitely not well-paced. Oh, you meant NetFlix! Hmm, well I think perhaps, perhaps, it increases the likelihood of people seeking out offbeat movies simply because it will be so much easier. I think it’s also likely to lead to an increase in dual cinema and online releases as has happened with Werner Herzog’s latest documentary Into the Abyss. But… as much as I’d like to think that people will hunt about in the scrub for interesting stuff now that it’s easier to do so on Netflix, really, to continue shamelessly plagiarising a quote from Brian Eno, I think most people will remain content to stay on the train-tracks of the mainstream. When it comes to physical distribution I think it might well prove to be the death knell for cinema releases for a certain class of films. Into the Abyss for instance doesn’t seem to have as many showings as I’d expect at the IFI, and that could well be because it’s available simultaneously on Volta. It might also act as the final nail in the coffin of film over digital, Christopher Nolan’s IMAX rampaging notwithstanding.

2. What impact is it likely to have on the home film market?

FC: I’d say minimal to be honest for the immediate future. The catalogue just isn’t strong enough. The problem is that the new films aren’t new enough, the old films aren’t good enough, and there aren’t enough films to hide this problem. If you were to join this you’d probably get less choice and quality than browsing the catalogue and then reserving titles from your local council library. And that’s before we mention the fact that if you’re on an Eircom broadband package or using 3G mobile broadband you’ll get about three movies watched before you hit your monthly limit for usage of the internet in its totality, and then pay thru the nose to watch additional movies to the tune of maybe your entire monthly NetFlix fee for accessing just one of their films.
GH: Is that scarifying factoid courtesy of The Weckler in The Sunday Business Post?
FC: What do you think?
GH: (sighs) Sometimes I wonder if he said The Matrix was now operational would you just believe him without thinking twice… We’ve already seen the death of Zavvi and Blockbusters on their knees, not to mention Game’s recent demise. I can only see this trend continuing. HMV need to be worried and Amazon might need to be as well. While they’ve innovated with their cloud computing platform (EC2), they are still dependent on their on-line retail, of which DVDs and Blu-Rays form a cornerstone.
FC: I remember when HMV was all music, then downloading destroyed that, then it became all movies, and now that’s changing too… This will hammer HMV when NetFlix get their act together.
GH: I think we should revisit this at the end.
FC: Agreed.

3. Why is its catalogue so poor compared to the US equivalent?

FC: So, before we address the threadbare quality of NetFlix’s catalogue I think we should first applaud their political integrity.
GH: Because they help stop piracy without needing a SOPA law?
FC: No, because they are, uniquely in the Irish political spectrum, beholden to no special interest group.
GH: What are you on about, Fergal?
FC: Click ‘Special Interest’ on the catalogue.
GH: Okay. (beat) Ah! I see what you mean. They have nothing in this category.
FC: A less charitable person might say this was ineptitude that summed up the whole catalogue, but I see what it really is – a proud statement of their political ethics.
GH: So, the catalogue is different from America because of tedious legal reasons involving individual contracts with studios, distributors, and copyright laws and clearances?
FC: Basically I think it’s the hold-up in getting Spaced released in America writ large.
GH: You actually don’t know do you?
FC: No, I thought you were researching this.
GH: Lucky for you, I did. Looking at it from the outside, NetFlix appears to be struggling to get all the necessary studies and TV networks to sign-up and publish their content. The likes of Sky and Apple have stolen a march on NetFlix, seemingly signing exclusive deals for the territory. Add to that the unclear and generally untested nature of internet copyright law in the UK and Ireland; it can only make the studios more hesitant. The NetFlix catalogue is clearly suffering badly as a result.
FC: Can I step in?
GH: To slate the catalogue?
FC: Yeah.
GH: Fire away.
FC:  The best thing about the catalogue is the action genre. It’s just fun, and heavy on the Statham which I approve. Recently added films, which pretty much sink the whole enterprise for many people, are running about a year behind the cinema with Blitz, The Mechanic and Drive Angry heading the films. The front page promises material that doesn’t show up when you browse the selection: Nurse Jackie, Torchwood, 24, Dr Who, Dirty Sexy Money. When you browse you merely find good stuff like two seasons of Dexter, a whole collection of South Park, and cancelled shows like Heroes, The InBetweeners, Prison Break, and The 4400. There’s no sign of recent essential shows like True Blood, Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire.
GH: Well, we were warned not to expect ‘recent’ recent stuff.
FC: Ah, yes, but it gets worse. Horror is a mixed bag of cult classics, awful shlock, the Saw movies…and the Scary Movie movies. Scary Movie is a horror of a film but it’s not a horror film…
GH: You mean that it’s a car crash, right?
FC: Not quite. I can definitely look away. Sci-fi has some decent films and again a huge amount of genre confusion. Ditto Romance, Bitter Moon and Tokyo Decadence square off with rom-coms. Documentaries can’t tell the difference between genuinely good work and the tendentious conspiracy stuff David Aaronovitch mocks in Voodoo Histories. And then there’s the simply bizarre. Gay cinema hilariously omits Milk and Brokeback Mountain, and Indie consists of unsuccessful British films and good American indie films. The thriller section features Hard Candy (yay!) but it’s sadly sub-par as a section, saving old classics like Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, while British films was so empty after tossing all the UK tripe into Indie they had to resort to dragging in TV like BBC miniseries The Day of the Triffids.
GH: My God, are you finished carping?
FC: Yes.
GH: Moving on!

4. Has Hollywood universally accepted NetFlix?

FC: Well, kicking and screaming is usually the way big businesses adapt to change. Not for nothing does Forbes advocate Blowing up the Enterprise as a leadership lesson to learn from Kirk. Nokia finally did it, and maybe Hollywood will too.
GH: What do you mean blow up the Enterprise?
FC: Get rid of something you love in order to compete with something new.
GH: What on earth has that got to do with David Lynch?
FC: Lynch said “Now if you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think that you’ve seen a film on your f****** telephone. Get real.”
GH: That’s an interesting point.

FC: President Bartlett said “Decisions are made by those who show up”. Films are for people who go out, and NetFlix is for people who stay in. Lynch should be a bit less precious about new forms of viewing movies because I think generally his audience would be the type that stays in. Who knows, eventually NetFlix might start to fund auteur film-makers to produce his kind of content for them.
GH: But will people really look for films on NetFlix if they haven’t heard of them from the marketing push of a cinema release first?
FC: Let’s not over-state the power of a marketing push, apparently a 100 million dollar marketing budget for Marvel Avengers Assemble isn’t enough to avoid confusion with a TV show that started in 1961 and ended in 1970…

5. Will NetFlix see an end to piracy?


FC: If you believe The Weckler in the SBP placing a legal option next to an illegal option always withers the illegal option. I think the internet has kind of tutored people to expect content for free, like it’s a divine right. Indeed I read a very interesting piece on that last year. I’m sceptical that Irish people will download legally rather than illegally just because they now easily can. I think there’s a certain ingrained lawlessness in the Irish psyche that regards the law as an unjust imposition, and that any way to get around it is always worth exploring; I could at this point instance the entire nation apparently waiting to see how many people might not pay Phil Hogan’s household tax before deciding whether to pay it themselves. Having said which Moonshiners would seem to indicate the same mindset in America too so who the hell knows? Unless we get silly and suggest that Appalachian dwellers are suffering from a post-colonial hangover too.
GH: Sometimes I think you watch too much Discovery Channel.
FC: Wait till you see the series of Bear Grylls blogs I have lined up…
GH: I agree there will always be a hard core that will always pirate but I don’t think it’s as big as you give it credit for. You really have to start by looking at Google, Apple and Amazon. Once they properly enter the legal streaming sphere, things might really get interesting. That said, faster broadband is key to services like this surviving.

6. What parallels can be drawn between the challenges that NetFlix presents to cinema and previous challengers TV and VHS?

FC: I don’t think it’s quite the same as those two challenges, especially not TV.
GH: Do you not think there’ll be a flood of epics or innovations?
FC: No, because I think the rise of CGI devalues the production values that were behind the 1950s epics. A cast of thousands back then was a big deal, now it’s just blah because people presume they’re all CGI. That’s why flipping a truck in The Dark Knight had an impact, because it’s become so rare to bother doing something physically rather than digitally. Also I don’t think that HD and 3-D are the magic bullets dragging people into multiplexes they were initially thought to be. 3-D has proved to be a chore as far as most people are concerned, just look at how easy it is to see films in 2-D versions; and in many cases cinemas continue to run those versions after dispensing with the headache-inducing 3-D version. I’m still to be convinced that HD is actually a good idea because it tends to take the filmic sheen off of films. If you can see the make-up on the faces of the actors you’ve actually innovated to the point where the technology has become self-defeating.
GH: True, but one has to wonder what value the average consumer actually places on filmic sheen. The largest draws always tend to be the blockbuster and the best example of that in recent time has to be Avatar, which is an epic and an innovation.
FC: I think NetFlix actually poses a more essential challenge in that it might interrogate the medium itself. Is cinema something that’s visually driven story-telling, shown on a big screen, and viewed en masse? That’s a definition Hitchcock or Spielberg would recognise. NetFlix if it becomes too dominant might make it hard to tell the difference between cinema and television. If you’re watching NetFlix rather than cinema-going, and you’re watching what we’ve talked about earlier, the more personal movies, then at what point does a one-off story of a certain length, with a visual kick to dialogue scenes with high production values, that’s shown on a small screen, become indistinguishable from HBO? What would distinguish two episodes of Whitechapel back to back from a really good British crime movie?

7. NetFlix: the future/passing phase?

GH: So, is NetFlix the future or a passing phase?
FC: The revolution will not be televised, it will be streamed.
GH: Are you actually going to be serious now?
FC: Yes, I don’t think it’s going to affect things in Ireland until the catalogue ramps up – which apparently could take as much as a year or two. Right now NetFlix resembles a bookstore that’s opened with half-empty shelves. Yes, it will get better, but why open if it’s not ready yet? But I gather you think different about its potential effect.
GH: I think it’s the start of a revolution. I think it’s going to kill DVD and Blu-Ray stone dead. People will either go to the cinema, or stream films, and–
FC: Can I just cut in here and sort of agree with you in a tangential manner?
GH: Yeah…
FC: Jeffrey Katzenberg said a few years ago that in the future all tent-pole movies would be 3-D, and there would still be 2-D films, but that they’d be small personal projects. I think I’d agree with you that people will either go to the cinema or stream films, and I think they’ll go to the cinema for blockbusters where the mass manipulation of the emotions of the audience and the big screen wow factor is crucial, and they’ll stream smaller films which are more cerebral and demand close attention.
GH: And I think that DVD collections will become a thing of the past, something that’s solely for true enthusiasts like vinyl obsessives building a collection. Novelty box-sets will likely last for a short time before the DVD/ Blu-Ray itself eventually becomes the novelty. This could spawn a generation of DVD/ Blu-Ray enthusiasts like John Cusack in High Fidelity. Even now, I can imagine Nick Hornby drafting notes on High Definition.
FC: I stopped collecting DVDs when Blu-Ray appeared. I just thought “I will never watch most of these movies enough to justify the expense, and when I’ve got my collection to a nice point some new technology will just make it obsolete”. But the whole concept of a DVD collection left me cold. The idea of a bad film being worth buying purely for the extras, or the existential crises over differences in boxes between regions, or special editions with different cuts; it all made about as much sense to me as buying a rubbish book for the sake of a nifty introduction and a cool cover.
GH: Didn’t you read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk?
FC: Yes. But I think the true equivalent would be a Dan Brown with a foreword by Paul Bettany explaining how he used the role of Silas to make a feature audition tape for the role of the Joker…
GH: I think NetFlix is the vanguard of Google, Apple (and possibly even Amazon) domination of the streamed media sphere. Google TV and Apple TV seem to only be a few months away, maybe a year.
FC: The idea of Apple TV terrifies me, Google TV a little less so, but Apple TV… (whistles) It just seems like something out of a dystopian novel the idea that Apple control so much of your life, how you listen, how you read, how you communicate, what you watch, on and on and on.
GH: I think I’m not well known for my love of Apple fanboys so let’s not get into a nodding contest here about how scared we are by Apple TV. Do you think the concept will take off?
FC: Yes, purely because those companies have so much power that if they want to synchronise things I think they can synchronise things.
GH: I think that you’d really have to see what they can come up with. Certainly anything that Google and Apple touch at the moment seems to be turning into gold. However, both Google and Amazon are yet to enter the market, and Apple is barely dipping its toes. True, Google owns YouTube, but it’s simply not positioning it in the same market as NetFlix.
FC: So it’s safe to say that this is the beginning of a revolution?
GH: Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of industry weight behind it and user interest seems genuinely strong, and besides, these things only getter better with time. The real measurement of success is how many studios and TV network sign up.
FC: Can I ask you a strategic question about all of this? Do you see a connection on the macro scale between cloud computing and NetFlix – the idea that we’re moving from the need for constant and often unutilised physical possession to just paying for something in the ether when we need to actually use the service?
GH: Cloud computing is a hefty enough topic, and I’ve covered it at some length. It’s mainly a concept aimed at the smaller business, a way of offering high-end solutions (servers with high up time or premium applications) on a much lower cost basis. Rather than paying for server hardware, data centre storage, server engineers, server licensing, clustering, etc, users simply pay a per-usage rate. Like for hosted email, you might pay for each mailbox for each month of use. So in that sense, pay as you go usage, they are some similarities.
FC: Huh, perhaps Tyler Durden got his wish after all. We’ve rejected the basic principles of western civilisation, especially the importance of material possessions.
GH: I don’t think Fight Club is on NetFlix…
FC: (groans) The revolution will begin once NetFlix have got their bloody catalogue together.

July 25, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Franchise

Shia LaBeouf is done. Michael Bay is done. Transformers as a franchise is not done. But maybe it ought to be…

Whispers (by which I mean the usual incessant briefings by publicists) abound that Jason Statham is about to assume the lead role in the Transformers franchise and take it in ‘a darker direction’. While it’s always nice to see ‘The State’ in action movies, the last thing this franchise needs is to go any darker. It’s positively screaming out for a reboot to the sunnier climes of its original vision. And yes, I am aware that talking of something needing a reboot to capture the halcyon era of four years ago is a new level of preposterousness, but it’s justified. The third act of Transformers 3 is so dark as to resemble Independence Day by way of the back-stabbing betrayals by humans collaborating with exploiting aliens of Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD rather than the fun of 2007’s Transformers. This is amplified by very questionable touch of District 9 in the Deception guns that vaporise flesh so that piles of bones fall to the ground after they shoot people.

Ehren Kruger has written a script that, like his Scream 3 which also featured Patrick Dempsey, is structurally very sound and has any number of nice touches, but which fundamentally strays from the existing tone of the franchise.  Kruger’s rewriting of the space race as a cover story for a covert mission to retrieve an alien artefact, and the meltdown at Chernobyl being a disastrous attempt to utilise that alien technology, works as well as X-Men: First Class’ similar slyness. Patrick Dempsey impresses as two kinds of villain, the romantic rival who has more money and power to impress the girl, and the Quisling of smooth collaboration and self-justificatory villainy. The comedy with Ken Jeong maniacally harassing Sam, John Malkovich chewing scenery as Sam’s eccentric colour-coded boss, and Alan Tudyk freaking out as John Turturro’s unhinged PA is all very funny….but it’s insane; you’re laughing nervously because this doesn’t fit in with the rest of film almost as much as you’re laughing because it’s funny.

Kruger’s comedy is a style of humour which is entirely different from the comedy of the first film which organically grew from the characters around who an action story suddenly took place. This lack of organicism is a problem unwisely highlighted in-camera when Frances McDormand’s spook tells Sam he really has no function in this story, and sure enough Sam later inserts himself into the storyline by sheer perseverance rather than any interior logic. A greater problem is the discordant note struck by Kruger’s approach against Kurtzman and Orci’s template. It’s always embarrassing to remember just how juvenile a director the middle-aged Michael Bay is, but the ogling of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (all low-angle shots and short skirts) is different than that of Megan Fox, because it lacks the nod and wink self-awareness of Kurtzman and Orci’s script. It’s as if Kruger has no interest in semi-apologising for this nonsense. Bay’s lingering introductory shot of Huntington-Whiteley is, fittingly, of her arse, which is what her performance is a load of, to paraphrase Shirley Manson. But this can be forgiven as just Bay being Bay…

What is unforgivable, after the disastrous introduction of so many non-characterised or racially caricatured robots in the last film, is that Kruger doesn’t retrench and try to fully utilise the original Transformers, but instead retains racially caricatured characters and then (like a LOST scripwriter) continues to hoover up yet more new characters. I’ve complained about this before but Kruger here reaches the apotheosis of this franchise’s incomprehension of the riches available in the Transformers comics. Sentinel Prime may be from the comics but so is Shockwave, and he’s outrageously wasted in the film when in the comics he has the most distinctive style of delivery of any Transformer bar Grimlock and is a wonderfully nuanced villain. Kruger’s shocks are effective but the killing of Ironhide is incredibly gimmicky and the weak exits of Starscream and Megatron from the franchise are disgracefully disrespectful to their characters’ status in both the comics and the previous films, and, in Megatron’s case, as tonally wrong as Burton’s Batman dispatching the Joker. But then how Optimus finally deals with Sentinel plainly belongs in a macho action movie for adults, not a sunny blockbuster for children. Characters gushing blood oil, having limbs parts torn off, and their spines CPUs torn out is too much. The darkness makes this film feel loooong…

Transformers was a cartoon series designed to sell toys by creating archetypal characters who had entertaining adventures. The comics injected cod-Shakespearean parallels and ended in traumatic apocalypse but they were also great fun. Surely the film-makers could remember their true target audience and lighten up a bit…

August 9, 2010

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: The Avengers

Edward Norton was undiplomatically relieved of his role as Bruce Banner/Hulk in Whedon’s forthcoming The Avengers after one disastrous production meeting…

INT.LOS ANGELES, MARVEL CONFERENCE ROOM-DAY
DELANEY, not Mark Pellegrino’s celebrated agent but a Marvel Studios producer who by an amazing coincidence has the same surname, is seated beside JOSS WHEDON at the head of a long conference table. EDWARD NORTON sits at the opposite end with a stack of comics and books, while SCARLETT JOHANSSON and SAMUEL L JACKSON sit beside two empty chairs on one side, with CHRIS EVANS and CHRIS HEMSWORTH opposite them, beside another two empty chairs.

DELANEY: First off I’d like to thank all of you who showed up today, for taking the time to come here to meet your new writer/director for The Avengers, Joss Whedon.
WHEDON: Hi everyone. This is just a sort of informal meet and greet to talk you through some of the broad ideas that I have for the direction I’m going to take the film in and-
NORTON: Well I’m glad that I’ve caught you in time then because I have some creative ideas I’d like to talk about regarding Hulk’s centrality in-

He is interrupted by ROBERT DOWNEY JR exploding into the room with a cup of coffee in each hand and a cell phone nestled under his chin against his shoulder. He precariously keeps everything from spilling or dropping while dancing over to sit next to Scarlett Johansson who he purrs at before facing the others.

DOWNEY: Hello, hello, hello – sorry I’m late, I’m trying to find a Moriarty. (nods) Sam the man. Scarlett witch. Buffy-man. Delaney. (beat) And, two new guys.
EVANS: Chris Evans – Captain America.
HEMSWORTH: Chris Hemsworth – The Mighty Thor.
DOWNEY: You’re both Chris? Oh man that’s too much for me to deal with this early in the morning.
JACKSON: Robert, it’s 2pm.
DOWNEY: Is it? Am I that confused with the time? What time is it London then? I’ve been annoying Ritchie all morning/day/night. I’m just gonna call you Cap’n.
EVANS: Fine with me.
DOWNEY: And I’ll call you Chris.
HEMSWORTH: Okay. Aren’t we short some actresses?
DOWNEY: Oh, Gwyneth’s in London. She said she wanted to spend more time with – iPhone, iPod?
JOHANSSON: Apple!
DOWNEY: Yeah, that’s what I meant.
NORTON: Where’s Jennifer Connelly?
DELANEY: We’re not sure if we’re using her yet.
NORTON: Well now hang on a minute!
DOWNEY: Oh, we should totally use her, and I mean that in as sexual a manner as the rating will allow. We should have like three different love triangles in the movie – one for each act. In the first act it can be all crazy Scarlett vs Gwyneth action for me, and in the second act it can be all me vs Ed for Jennifer-
NORTON: It’s Edward actually.
DOWNEY: -and the third act should be totally homoerotic, so that it looks like it’s me vs Cap’n for Gwyneth but actually we really totally want each other and the girl is just a medium for our inexpressible homosocial desires.
DELANEY: Whedon, don’t even think about taking him up on any of those ideas, especially the last. This film has been enough trouble for me already…
DOWNEY: (phone rings) Ooh, Ritchie.

Downey bounds to his feet and dashes out of the room with a cup of coffee.

WHEDON: (to Delaney) Are you sure he’s not on drugs?
EVANS: (to Johansson) Scarlett, did he just come onto me?
JOHANSSON: (to Evans) No Chris, he’s just still in Sherlock Holmes mode.
DELANEY: (to Whedon) Downey’s on fire right now commercially, this is one time where he can legitimately be high on life.
NORTON: (perturbed by the skittish nature of this meeting) Right…like I said I had some creative ideas regarding Hulk’s centrality in the film’s mythos. Now, I brought along a copy of Sophocles’ Antigone as well as a Hulk graphic novel by Jeph Loeb and some trade paperbacks of the late 1970s comics and I think that-

Downey re-enters the room talking, tosses his empty coffee cup and picks up his other cup of coffee, starts to leave the room again but his call ends just as he opens the door.

DOWNEY: Couldn’t you get Ian McKellen then? (beat) What do you mean too old? (beat) Well couldn’t we rewrite the part to make it less physical? (beat) Well get back to me with this mystery option of yours as soon as you can.

He turns around and walks back to his seat.

DOWNEY: Right, sorry about that. Where were we?
WHEDON: I was about to say that the broad theme I have for the movie is-
JOHANSSON: Can I just ask if my character will have some purpose other than titillation in a backseat in this movie?
HEMSWORTH: Can I take Jon Favreau’s part in that scene if we’re doing one?

Whedon starts to crawl up into a foetal position in his chair.

JOHANSSON: It’s just a bit insulting that Jennifer might not even be in the film because Gwyneth and I are already there to be eye-candy but not play a pivotal ro-
DELANEY: Jesus, Johansson! Do you have push the feminist line so hard at this point?

He starts to stroke Whedon’s head soothingly while cooing to him.

DELANEY: (Accusingly to Johansson) Doesn’t he have enough to do without making every female character he ever writes Buffy as well? He’s got to somehow combine four different franchises into one coherent film and also-
JACKSON:  Possibly save the Thor franchise, no offense, Chris.
HEMSWORTH: Hell, none taken, I haven’t even seen a rough cut of it yet.
DOWNEY: I think they should have just released the table read where Branagh did all the parts for the production heads, no offense.
HEMSWORTH: Starting to take offense, but broadly I agree that was fairly awesome.
JACKSON: How’s your film looking Cap’n?
EVANS: Okay, not great, but Hugo Weaving’s going to steal it, the Aussie bastard.
JOHANSSON: Where are we with villains for The Avengers?

Whedon suddenly comes alive again and crawls back into an upright position.

WHEDON: Villains? Villains! Villains, villains are important. Villains should have some depth and-
NORTON: Exactly, (takes a deep breath) now I figured that a conflict between legal duty and human feeling like Creon suffers would be perfect for giving a villain some depth and sympathy and that if Hulk were to be the Antigone to Fury’s Creon then-
DOWNEY: (phone rings) YEAH! (beat) WHAT?! (beat) Let me call you back. (hangs up) He wants to cast Jason Statham as Professor Moriarty for the next movie now. Thoughts, people?
WHEDON: (to Delaney) How come Ritchie gets to cast his regulars and I don’t?
DELANEY: (to Whedon) When you make a film that makes as much money as Sherlock Holmes I’ll let you use motion-capture to cast Nathan Fillion in every part, but until that day…
JOHANSSON: I like the idea of Statham, sounds like it could be a lot of fun.
DOWNEY: But I don’t want a Moriarty who spends his time telling his minions they’re ‘bang aht of order’.
WHEDON: You realise that in England if you met a guy on the street and he got in your face you’d be terrified if he sounded like Statham and just amused if he sounded like McKellen.
DOWNEY: I want someone who sounds proper British! Not Dick Van Dyke British!
NORTON: (lunges into a micro-second of silence) So, my concept would not only give a villain depth and problematise notions of heroism it would also give Jennifer a pivotal role. It raises interesting ethical questions and subverts expectations! (beams)
JACKSON: Whedon, man, could you move this along? I’ve got three other meetings to fit in this afternoon.
DOWNEY: Do you have to constantly make films now that you’re off drugs because you have an addictive personality?
JACKSON: How many cups of coffee have you had in the last hour? How many topics have you talked about since you came in here and how fast have you talked? Hm? Now talk to me about addictive personalities…
DOWNEY: Touche. I can see why your character is the boss of my character.
NORTON: And I think that basing the film around Hulk’s ethical dilemmas and introducing Iron Man as a Deus Ex Machina in the third act when all seems lost would utterly confound audience expectations and wow the critics globally.

There is dead silence around the room instantly, as jaws drop down and hang there

WHEDON: Edward, three things. (1) I’m directing this film, not you. (2) I can’t base a franchise cross-over around the weaker performer of the two franchises to date. (3) The story-lining stage is kinda over. We’re already thinking sets and costumes.
NORTON: You mean you won’t even consider playing this as a Greek tragedy?
DELANEY: NO! NO!! Look that where sort of craziness got Ang Lee’s Hulk!!
NORTON: Do I at least get some input into the editing process then?

Samuel L Jackson falls off his chair, he then drags himself up to table height.

JACKSON: Good God Man! We’re just actors!! Actors!!! (he falls to the ground)
EVANS: What he said.
NORTON: Wait, you have no interest at all in any creative input by me into this?
WHEDON: Interest in your acting ability, everything else creative I can handle…
NORTON: FINE! FINE! Well I can see I’ve been wasting my time taking this seriously when apparently all the rest of you want to do is make phone calls, drink coffee and bitch about casting choices. Well I am not just an actor but also a writer/director and an editor, and I had a vision that would have wowed millions around the globe and tapped into Jungian undercurrents but FINE! I’m not upset!!
HEMSWORTH: (giggles) ‘Don’t make him angry, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry’.

Norton sits quietly fuming, fighting it, but then, he turns pale green and swells in size, but manages to restrain himself so that only his shirt bursts open, and then storms over and lifts Hemsworth in his chair and throws him thru the office window.

NORTON: HULK SMASH! HULK UNAPPRECIATED! HULK EXPOSE HIMSELF TO GAMMA RAYS FOR RESEARCH AND GET NO THANKS! HULK COMBINE COMIC-BOOKS WITH GREEK TRAGEDY FOR SUPER-STORYLINE AND GETS ACTORS PASSING OUT IN RESPONSE! GARH!!

Norton/Hulk storms out of the room, yanking the door off its hinges as he goes.

DOWNEY: Hulk/Edward doesn’t play well with other children.
DELANEY: Shut up.
EVANS: Looks like we’re going to need a new Hulk.
WHEDON: If you write something that means ‘Edward doesn’t play well with other children’ in the press release then I won’t push Nathan Fillion to replace him as Hulk.
DELANEY: Okay, I’ll write something like “We need an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our talented cast”. Deal?
WHEDON: Deal.
DOWNEY: Ooh! I think I know someone who’d be good for Hulk. I’ve been hearing a lot about him – some wiry guy with real intensity, name’s James Marsters I think…
DELANEY: Frak My Life.
EVANS: (beat) Should we tell people that Edward Norton actually is the Hulk now?
JACKSON: (to himself) I had no idea his method went so deep! I’ve gotta apologise to the man, that’s a level of commitment all actors should aspire to.
JOHANSSON: (looking out the window) I’m just glad we’re on the ground floor…

January 22, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

(10) Crank 2 Jason Statham rampages thru the streets fighting mobsters, electrocuting himself, humiliating Amy Smart and generally incarnating lunacy in celluloid form. I saw it in a ‘private screening’ in Tallaght UCI and my brain is still slowly recovering.

(9) Star Trek I still have issues with the intellectual con-job involved in its in-camera ret-conning plot, and its poor villain, but this was a truly exuberant romp that rejuvenated the Trek franchise with great joy and reverence, down to the old familiar alarm siren, even if Spock (both versions) did act new Kirk off the screen. Here’s to the sequels.

(8) Mesrine 1 & 2 A brassy, bold piece of film-making, this French two-parter about the life of infamous bank-robber Jacques Mesrine saw Vincent Cassell in sensational form aided by a supporting cast of current Gallic cinematic royalty. Sure, this was too long and had flaws, but it had twice the spark of its efficient but autopiloted cousin Public Enemies.

(7) Moon Playing like a faithful adaptation of an Isaac Asimov tale this low-budget sci-fi proved that a clever concept and good execution will always win out over empty special effects and bombast as this tale of a badly injured worker having an identity crisis in a deserted moon-base was both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

(5) (500) Days of Summer It’s not a riotous comedy, but it is always charming, it is tough emotionally when it needs to be and its systematic deconstruction of the rom-com is of great importance, as, bar The Devil Wears Prada, Definitely Maybe and The Jane Austen Book Club, that genre produces only bad films and is moribund, hypocritical and, yes, damaging.

(5) Frost/Nixon It was hard to shake the wish that you had seen the crackling tension of the stage production but this is still wonderfully satisfying drama. Sheen and Langella are both on top form in their real-life roles, backed by a solid supporting cast, and the probing of the psyches of both men, especially their midnight phone call, was impeccable.

(3) Inglourious Basterds Tarantino roars back with his best script since 1994. Historical inaccuracy has never been so joyfully euphoric in granting Jewish revenge on the Nazis, QT’s theatrical propensities have never been better than the first extended scene with the Jew-hunter and the French farmer, the flair for language is once again devoted to uproarious comedy, and the ability to create minor characters of great brilliance has returned.

(3) The Private Lives of Pippa Lee An intimate female-centred film this was a refreshing joy to stumble on during the summer and, powered by great turns from Robin Wright and Blake Lively, this was an always absorbing tale of a woman looking back at a life lived in an extremely bizarre fashion. Rebecca Miller inserted a great message of hope for the possibility of renewing yourself if you could only endure in an ending that averted sentimentality.

(2) Milk For my money a far more important landmark than Brokeback Mountain as Gus Van Sant, directing with more focus and great verve than he has shown for years, melded a convincing portrait of gay relationships with an enthralling and inspirational account of the politics of equal rights advocator and ‘Mayor of Castro’, the slain Harvey Milk.

(1) Encounters at the End of the World After a slow start Werner Herzog’s stunning documentary melds breathtaking landscape and underwater photography and a warning on the dangers of global warming with a typically Herzogian journey into madness whether it be an insane penguin or the eccentric oddballs and scientists who live in Antarctica’s bases.

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