Talking Movies

December 9, 2018

From the Archives: W

A penultimate dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up Oliver Stone’s forgotten and rather pointless George Bush Jr takedown.

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This George W Bush biopic reunites Oliver Stone with his Wall Street co-writer. It is thus very disappointing that there is no trace of that film’s searing indictment of American greed, but perhaps even more amazingly the man who directed JFK has lost his visual flair.

W is a very odd film, it’s not satire and it’s not a factual drama. It attempts to straddle, and falls short of, both genres. 13 Days made the Cuban Missile Crisis gripping simply by showing how Kennedy dealt with it blow by blow. Channel 4’s The Deal made the trade between Brown and Blair fascinating, even if it was largely speculative. BBC 4’s The Alan Clark Diaries made real politics hilarious. W hopelessly tries to combine all three approaches. We follow the run-up to and fall-out from the Iraq War, while flashing back to the pivotal moments in W’s life that led him to the White House. Stone though has nothing to say about these moments except that Bush has ‘daddy issues’, and that’s why he went to war. This insight isn’t profound or original but could have been heard in bars, on both the sides of the Atlantic, after too many drinks, for the last five years.

James Cromwell alone among the cast does not try to imitate his character and so nicely counterpoints Brolin’s Jr. Cromwell’s George Sr (or Poppy) appears cold and disapproving but we realise that his shepherding of his son Jeb rather than W towards the Presidency is because he wishes to shelter W from the strain of a job that does not suit his temperament. Josh Brolin is extraordinary as W. He perfectly captures the voice and mannerism of Bush Jr but also makes us care deeply for this uncomplicated jock. When W loses a 1980 run for Congress and storms into his backyard exclaiming “I’ll never be out-Texased or out-Christianed again!” we feel his pain more than the obvious satirical anticipation of his 2000 run for Presidency that Stone intends. W’s born-again Christianity is handled with surprising (and welcome) warmth, but while personally Bush saw the light, politically it led him to some dark places. However to expect that sort of complexity is to want a different, less obvious, film.

And Stone does get very obvious… Jeffrey Wright plays Saint Colin Powell while Richard Dreyfuss needs a moustache to twirl villainously as Dick Cheney. Characters say in private their most infamous public gaffes while Condoleeza Rice is written out of history, perhaps because Thandie Newton’s forced attempts to get Rice’s voice right make her screen presence too painful to dwell on. George Bush is not a bad man, he’s just a very bad president, the worst since Herbert Hoover, who also made way for a charismatic Democrat offering change, FDR. But, Oliver, we already knew that…

2/5

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Any Other Business: Part XXI

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-first portmanteau post on matters of course!

Move over Chekhov, here’s Gresham: bad writing drives out good

I was very late in catching up with Westworld given that I loved Jonathan Nolan’s previous TV show Person of Interest. However, if I had watched the pilot of Westworld unaware of who was behind it I would have never have guessed Nolan, J. I was stunned at how humdrum to lousy so much of the dialogue was, and floored by the immediate and lasting awfulness of the British writer character. Indeed to critique Westworld I find myself digging into the Talking Movies archives for my review of Safe Haven, where I complained “one-note characterisation is far too prevalent,” and find myself grimacing that yes, one could level the same charge against the most acclaimed, epochal, cerebral TV show of our age. But then we come to my complaint regarding Cobie Smulders’ character in Safe Haven: “Indeed the shallowness of the writing is such that it allows an infuriatingly connived third-act reveal, infuriating because it relies on one particular shallow characterisation without realising that hiding it behind shallow characterisation all around hurts the film.” Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy clearly thought they were doing an awesome job of hiding two cards up their sleeves, but dropping hints. The problem being that if your hint that Bernard is a host is that he seems to be unconcerned about the whereabouts of his deputy then you as showrunners should probably be more concerned about the whereabouts of your characters. Why on earth should I worry that Bernard doesn’t seem worried that his deputy has gone missing when this show left two technicians at knifepoint by Thandie Newton’s character, and then never came back to them for the bulk of an episode? If forgetting about characters afflicts the writers of the show who’s going to notice it in one of their creations? What’s worse is that jumping a scene almost with Thandie Newton leaves it very unclear why the techs continue to play ball after they’re no longer at knifepoint.  But as that’s vital to the season arc, it’s just glossed over. And so I end up drawing comparisons between the writer of Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Person of Interest, and Nicholas Sparks…

November 5, 2018

From the Archives: Quantum of Solace

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up from the depths Daniel Craig’s pointlessly reviled outing; whose problems derive from the strike everybody knew about but affected not to.

Daniel Craig returns as James Bond in Quantum of Solace, which features a lot more action than Casino Royale. It doesn’t quite measure up to its mighty predecessor, but it does offer an intriguing re-invention of Bond’s 1960s foes.

The opening establishes that this is less the talk-talk-bang-bang formula of Casino Royale and more bang-bang-bang-BANG! The opening sequence is an incredibly frantic car-chase, after which we have to put up with the godawful Jack White song and sleazy silhouettes of naked ladies, but then it’s straight into the interrogation of Mr White, the villain Bond caught in the final scene of the last film. This scene features a shock so good it took me 20 minutes to get over it. 20 minutes of action as Bond travels to the Caribbean for a vicious Bourne style fist fight in a bathroom and a boat-chase. It really is surprising just how much action Marc Forster, the director best known for Stranger than Fiction and Finding Neverland, has crammed in here. He only comes unstuck with an aerial dogfight which comes perilously close to returning the franchise to Roger Moore style campiness but just avoids doing so, and only displays art-house leanings with a silent shootout in Vienna wonderfully sound-tracked only by the opera the characters have been attending.

The sheer preponderance of action over meaty drama though makes this film feel like a victim of the writers’ strike. Paul Haggis’ rewrite of the script was infamously delivered mere minutes before the strike began last year and it could have used more character beats, even though there are great unexpected moments throughout. There is an absolutely priceless gag involving Bond’s distaste for cheap accommodation amid many other quotable lines. The CIA is depicted as morally bankrupt, willing to turn a blind eye to any right-wing dictatorship’s human rights abuses if there’s a plentiful supply of cheap oil to be had, while a high-ranking member of the British Government is revealed as a member of Quantum, Haggis’ reinvention of super-villain organisation Spectre. The rights to Spectre are owned by Irish writer/producer Kevin McClory so Haggis has re-imagined Bond’s 1960s foe as a network of ex-spooks and shady businessmen and politicians. This film pays further homage to the 1960s with the death of a major character, a score which evokes the softer, and more sinister, moments of John Barry’s scores, and a desert lair in Bolivia which is pure Ken Adam in its set design.

Mathieu Amalric, a god of French cinema, is slightly underwritten as Quantum villain Dominic Greene but makes his ‘environmental philanthropist’, who’s secretly plotting to seize control of the natural resources of Bolivia, a worthy foe for Bond. Olga Kurylenko, who graduated from taking her top off in French films (Le Serpent) to taking her top off in Hollywood films (Hitman), miserably fails to escape the shadow of Eva Green’s Vesper. Her character has an intriguing back-story but the parallels between her search for vengeance and Bond’s search for closure evaporate due to her inert screen presence.  The best relationship is between M and Bond who develop almost a fraught mother/son bond by the end. Craig is once again magnificent as Bond; physical, but also offering glimpses of the inconsolable grief behind his driven pursuit of Mr Greene. This is a good film and well worth seeing, and the consistently brutal action combined with some clever conceits left unresolved suggest that Craig’s next Bond film may surpass Casino Royale.

3/5

November 21, 2013

Catching Fire

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.

rs_560x415-131115151540-1024.Donald-Sutherland-Jennifer-Lawrence.jl.111513_copyCatching 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

October 26, 2011

The Ides of March

Director George Clooney returns to the borderlands of American politics and media he mined so well in Good Night and Good Luck but hits an inferior seam.

Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov open up Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North for a taut portrayal of political back-stabbing during the end of campaigning in a crucial Ohio Democratic presidential primary. Ryan Gosling’s hot-shot press secretary is a true believer in his candidate, George Clooney. An attempt by rival campaign manager Paul Giammati to poach Gosling though leads to a clandestine conversation that, parallel to his beginning an affair with Evan Rachel Wood’s intern, may ruin his career as his loyalties are questioned amidst his boss Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tense attempts to get a North Carolina Senator to endorse their candidate. The Ides of March begins in The West Wing mould with Gosling using the LBJ trick of spreading hysterically untrue rumours, “I know he doesn’t own a diamond mine in Liberia, I just want to hear him deny it for the whole day.”

It changes gears quickly, however, as this is an intelligent but very pessimistic film. It plays well as a companion piece to the 1972’s The Candidate, which charted with alarming realism the transformation of Robert Redford’s idealistic rebel into a pragmatic politician indistinguishable from the establishment he loathed. Gosling is disillusioned by the dirty business of how politics operates as he learns just how much integrity his candidate is willing to sacrifice to get the nomination, and how little ‘loyalty’ really means. Clooney’s direction is wonderfully crisp, including a scene where traumatic news is relayed to a character while all we see is a slow push-in on the car where the conversation is taking place. Clooney also excels in his supporting role by investing Governor Morris with infinite shades of grey: articulate, funny, and attempting to be idealistic but perhaps a weasel at heart.

Ryan Gosling is initially charming before switching to distraught and vengeful and, like Drive, walking around menacingly a lot, but thankfully without stomping anyone’s head. Jeffrey Wright is wonderfully oily as the king-making Senator, and Wood’s intern is a nicely played layering of naivety and guile, with her reaction to one shock an amazing piece of acting as her entire seductive facade crumbles. Giamatti’s outburst, “I have seen too many Democrats bite the dust over the last 25 years because they wouldn’t get down in the f****** mud and wrestle the elephants”, bespeaks a frustration that The West Wing chose never to overcome. Clooney disillusions us not just with the process of politics but its possibility to effect any positive change so that, like The Good German, this work oddly contradicts the real Clooney who believes in the efficacy of keeping a satellite over Darfur.

The pure cinema of the closing sequences is emotionally devastating, especially the visual introduction of a new character which implies that the events of this tragedy will repeat themselves again, with the same players in different roles. It is Jan Kott’s Grand Staircase interpretation of Shakespeare’s history plays as a never-ending cycle, the king is killed by an usurping rebel, but that new king is then challenged by an usurping rebel, and so on forever… This, like The Candidate, is an admirable film that’s impossible to truly like.

4/5

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