Talking Movies

September 8, 2019

From the Archives: Year of the Dog

Digging in the pre-Talking Movies archives throws up this forgotten tale of lonely office worker Peggy (Shannon); devastated when her dog dies, but her life changes when a vet (Sarsgaard) offers her a dog to adopt.

Mike White is a gifted comedy writer. He has penned School of Rock, Orange County and Nacho Libre as well as the more serious dramedies The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck. So when you hear that he’s assembled an interesting cast for his directorial debut your expectations get raised ever so slightly. Which is what makes Year of the Dog such a terrible let down. Things start off promisingly enough as we’re shown the empty life of office worker Peggy (Molly Shannon) whose best friend is really her dog Pencil, who promptly dies of toxic poisoning leaving Peggy distraught. But that unexpected emotional punch makes it obvious that we have been sold a pup by the misleading trailer. Peter Sarsgaard arrives as the big romantic lead…and announces he’s celibate owing to the trauma of childhood abuse. That’s a good summary for how far this film is from the advertised sweet romantic triangle between Peggy (Shannon), Al (John C Reilly) and Newt (Sarsgaard); dog lovers all.

White’s script infuriatingly introduces a host of horrible people who could be the stuff of comedy and then refuses to do anything funny with any of them. John C Reilly dunders around as the loutish next door neighbour but then disappears. Laura Dern makes your skin crawl as Peggy’s sister-in-law who treats her children as if she’d read Howard Hughes’ guide to parenting but is given little screen-time. Regina King (Layla) is given the joyfully offensive line; “I believe there is someone in this world for everyone, even retarded cripple people get married”; but precious little else to flesh out Peggy’s best friend. All of these characters are thrown away in favour of focusing on Peggy’s journey towards becoming a vegan, or a nutjob which is how she turns out, which is ironic given that writer/director White is a vegan.

It’s hard to watch someone betray their family and friends, commit cheque fraud, lose their job as a result and adopt 15 dogs from the city pound and accept it as a spiritual epiphany. White lamentably falls into the Hollywood cliché where the mechanics of what happens next is conveniently never explained. If she’s unemployed, and for a reason that makes her unemployable, where does Peggy get the money to pay her rent let alone her dog food bills? It’s hard not to think these are really the first steps to homelessness, which is a disquieting thought when you’re meant to be cheering along Peggy the newly minted animal rights activist. Year of the Dog ends up in the nightmare pitfall of dramedy where there’s enough sweetness to keep you watching in the hope of a joke popping up again fairly soon (which it probably won’t) but not enough dramatic meat to make you believe in these characters as real people. A dog of a debut…

1/5

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January 13, 2019

Notes on Stan & Ollie

Oscar-bait biopic Stan & Ollie was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

This drama follows a faded Laurel & Hardy’s farewell tour of theatres in Britain and Ireland in the early 1950s. Steve Coogan nails the voice but not the look of Laurel, while John C Reilly simply vanishes as Oliver Hardy rides again in look and sound. And yet for a film about two comedians it isn’t really that funny… Perhaps it is the photocopy effect, that which stripped all emotion from the end of Star Trek: Into Darkness. Watching Reilly and Coogan pretend to be Laurel and Hardy doing their slapstick routines on stage that the audience knows from their films puts so many removes between the routine and its reception that it ceases to be funny. As a result the limelight is stolen by their promoter in England (Rufus Jones) who shamelessly makes them do publicity stunts for free without ever actually asking them, and Stan’s wife Ida (Nina Arianda) who blows thru the film like a force of nature spewing insults and repeatedly, pointedly refusing to sit beside said promoter in any venue.

Listen here:

January 11, 2018

Fears: 2018

The Post

Hanks fights Nixon – yay!

But at wrong newspaper – boo!

Spielberg, what the hell?

 

Phantom Thread

Day-Lewis swansong

There Will Be Bodices (sic)

Somewhat overwrought?

 

The Shape of Water

Del Toro is back

Less Gothic, more Creature-y

and boo hiss Shannon

 

Red Sparrow

J-Law needs a hit

This will not be it. Too bad.

Ersatz Nikita.

Annihilation

Portman and a man

Odd that, but Garland ‘writes well’

And directs again

 

New Mutants

Fox does X-horror

X-Men that is, obscure ones

They’re affordable

 

The God Particle

Cloverfield in space

Elizabeth Debicki

Looks on earth aghast

 

Pacific Rim

Exit Del Toro,

Enter Steven S DeKnight,

Thanks a bunch, China

Solo

Disney paid a lot

You must help them make it back

Han: the Wall St. Years

 

Avengers: Infinity War

The infinity

is really the damn cast list

Makes LOST seem restrained

 

Sicario 2

Blunt has not come back

Instead the wolf is let loose

Del Toro, that is

 

Ocean’s 8

Cinema’s great hug

Retconned as male privilege;

All girl cast fixes that

 

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Critics applaud, not

because the thing is done well

but because it’s done

 

A Wrinkle in Time

‘Oprah for ’20!’

It starts here! Diverse sci-fi.

Love this or get coat

 

Mute

Duncan Jones does ‘Hush’

Berlin barman tracks girlfriend

His fists speak for him

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

It’s X-3 remade,

with little context for Jean,

who cares? C.G.I!

 

John F Donovan

We have waited long,

Too long for Dolan anglais,

Now we fear for Snow

 

Holmes and Watson

Will Ferrell bromance

Can’t be worse than Downey/Law

A dumb comedy

 

October 1, 2014

Life After Beth

Dane DeHaan had never made a comedy before this film. I’m not sure he still hasn’t made a comedy after starring in Life After Beth.

life-after-beth-beth-and-zach

Zach Orfman (DeHaan) is inconsolable with grief after his girlfriend Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) dies from a snakebite while on a solo hike in the hills. Despite the best efforts of his abrasive security guard brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), and his helicopter parents Judy (Cheryl Hines) and Noah (Paul Reiser), nothing can shake him out of his gloom. Instead he spends his time with Beth’s parents, playing chess and smoking weed with Maury (John C Reilly), and going thru Beth’s clothes with Geenie (Molly Shannon). So far so Moonlight Mile. But when the Slocums’ Haitian maid Pearline (Eva La Dare) flees town, it’s not long before a horde of zombies appears, heralded by a returned Beth – who has no memory of dying, and is now super-strong, insanely jealous of Zach’s reappeared childhood friend Erica (Anna Kendrick), and increasingly hungry…

Warm Bodies approached the conundrum of how you make a romantic comedy with zombies by making the zombies not zombies. Life After Beth keeps the zombies as zombies and instead ditches the romantic comedy aspect. Which can’t be intentional, can it? There are so many good actors onboard that you feel something has gone disastrously wrong. Reiser is more likeable than I’ve ever seen him, and Gubler is fantastically obnoxious. But the lead performances don’t match them. Plaza presumably signed on for eating people and blowing up a lifeguard post, but, while she has fun with the physical shtick, the role mutes her comedic grouchiness. DeHaan’s everyman is ill-served by the puzzling script. What should be deadpan just turns out blank. Reacting blankly to absurd situations does not by itself provide comedy, there does need to be jokes in addition.

Writer/director Jeff Baena co-wrote I Heart Huckabees which makes it all the more baffling what the hell went wrong because he’s not a man short of comedic invention. Technically everyone is at the top of their game. Jay Hunter, who was the DP for Joss Whedon’s crisply monochrome Much Ado About Nothing, bathes this gated community in a sunlight wonderfully inapt for a zombie horror; again displaying flair on a shoestring. Kudos must also go to the casting directors (Nicole Daniels and Courtney Sheinin) who realised that with the right haircut DeHaan and Gubler are perfect as brothers. But technical competence and solid acting can only get you so far. By the end when a gratuitously naked female zombie appears you’re not sure if it’s a ham-fisted nod to Re-Animator, or a stunt to arouse the audience from its slumber.

Life After Beth is a zom-rom-com that’s played so straight that it ends up a romantic drama about a bad break-up and an unstable ex-girlfriend; now with added zombies.

1/5

August 31, 2013

On Ben Affleck Being the Batman

I’ve been musing with John Fahey about Ben Affleck returning to blockbuster leading man roles by playing Batman, and I feel Affleck’ll probably nail it.

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I was, of course, initially disappointed by the casting announcement. But not for the same reason that most people who vented their spleen early on seemed to be disappointed/outraged. It seems harsh on the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt to have spent an entire bloody film being taught how to be the Batman by Christian Bale only to be shafted immediately by Warner Bros at his first chance to be the Batman. The hysteria surrounding Affleck’s casting struck me as very odd; like many people were still stuck in 2003 and reeling from the awfulness of Gigli and Paycheck. Announcing Affleck as the lead in Batman Begins back then, well, yes – outrage entirely justified. But this is 2013, the second act of Affleck’s cinematic life. Have people forgotten Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo only months after everyone loved him for accepting the Academy’s snub to his directing with dignity?

Ben Affleck has much in common with the equally maligned Mark Wahlberg. They are not the greatest actors in the world, but they’re certainly not bad actors. Yes, they can be acted off-screen by most any actor willing to stop yawning on set and make the effort. But that willingness to be out-acted is important, they provide an invaluable still centre. John C Reilly appeared at Trinity College a few years back and recounted bullying a theatre director into finally giving him the lead in a Restoration comedy, only to be bored silly on realising Congreve gave the best lines to supporting characters. Reilly’s function was to hold the chaos of the comedy together by being the still centre; and he immediately returned to his comfort zone of playing one of the supporting characters upstaging the romantic lead. Wahlberg and Affleck have given memorable supporting turns (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees, Good Will Hunting, Hollywoodland), but as leading men they don’t mesmerise; but that’s not necessarily always bad. Argo couldn’t support Goodman, Arkin & Cranston’s scenery-chewing profane quipping without Affleck quieting it, and The Fighter’s Bale, Adams & Leo OTT-competition would’ve gone into low-earth orbit without Wahlberg’s stoicism grounding it.

And Batman is, to a large degree, cinematically a still centre. The complaint oft made of Bat-movies – that the villains always walk off with the film – is exactly the complaint you’d expect to recur if a character is a still centre enabling craziness around him. (Affleck suddenly sounds like a very good fit…) Batman’s strength derives in part from his silence. Ninjas aren’t chatty. He lurks in shadows, and pounces on people when they least expect it. Batman doesn’t say much; he just appears and beats people up, that’s what makes him intimidating – he’s almost a pure physical presence to criminals, even those who never encounter him but whose imaginations he vividly inhabits. And in the comics even in the privacy of his own thought bubbles he usually thinks like Hemingway clipped some of the floweriness off of Raymond Chandler prose. And if you’ve read Jeph Loeb’s Hush and Superman/Batman you’ll note that a lot of Batman’s dialogue is sarcastic commentary on Superman’s problem-solving abilities. That sounds a lot like Affleck’s main function in Argo.

But whither Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne? He can’t very well play a billionaire playboy as a still centre, can he? Well, Christian Bale has hammered home the difference between private and public Bruce Wayne so this shouldn’t actually be that major a problem. It would, after all, feel like a waste of everyone’s time to have Robert Downey Jr play public Bruce Wayne the way he plays Tony Stark and then morph into terse earnestness for the other two parts of the Bat-persona. Affleck’s performance in The Town is probably a good model for his private Bruce, and if Argo cohort Bryan Cranston really is playing Lex Luthor then life as public Bruce Wayne gets a lot easier for Affleck as he can bounce quips off a fellow billionaire with whom he has existing good comic chemistry. Even if Cranston’s not Lex, Affleck has absurdly essayed an appropriately insouciant charm. Imagine a combination of Affleck’s Click ad for Lynx, his role in Argo, and the end narration of Daredevil and you have his Batman.

And that’s not bad. With the juvenile Zack Snyder directing it’s the Batman we deserve, but not the one we need right now probably the best we could hope for.

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