Talking Movies

February 12, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney’s last directorial outing, The Ides of March, was compelling if histrionic, but his return to the director’s chair is a sadly muddled affair.

the-monuments-men-matt-damon-george-clooneyFrank Stokes (George Clooney) approaches President Roosevelt in 1944 to plead with him not to destroy Europe’s priceless heritage in the act of liberating it. Roosevelt agrees, and so Stokes is tasked with finding some other art historians, sculptors and curators to enlist in a highly specialised unit – The Monuments Men. Stokes rounds up Chicago architect Campbell (Bill Murray), Campbell’s friend Preston (Bob Balaban), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), drunken Brit Donald (Hugh Bonneville), and Met curator James Granger (Matt Damon). A French mechanic and curator Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a New Jersey private from Germany, are added to the roster in Europe. But not only must they work with icy Parisian Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to find priceless works of art, they must outwit determined Russian and German counterparts tasked with, respectively, stealing and burning it…

I wrote that last sentence to imply tension, because there ought to be a lot of it, given both Hitler’s Nero decree, ordering the destruction of everything in the event of his death, and the startling opening credits image of Italians desperately shoring up a bomb-damaged wall which is revealed to have Da Vinci’s Last Supper on it. Instead Clooney and his eternal co-writer Grant Heslov only inject urgency for the finale as frantic deductions lead Stokes’ men to a cache of stolen art just as Zahary Baharov’s Russian art-thief Commander Elya is closing in on it. Frankenheimer’s The Train is the touchstone for this movie, but Clooney introduces two successive Nazi villains Stahl (Justus von Dohnanyi) and Col. Wegner (Holger Handtke), neither of whom equal Paul Scofield’s avaricious Von Waldheim; even though Wegner is given a juicily suspenseful sequence.

There were 400 Monuments Men, not 7, so inventing a strong villain wouldn’t be outré. It’s a symptom of a wider lack of purpose. Blanchett and Damon’s characters are largely redundant, and Andre Desplat, in their clumsy seduction scene and his constant insertion of jaunty comic cues, scores an entirely different film. Clooney’s vignettes range from the amusing (Damon’s appalling ‘fluent’ French) to the shocking (a startling sequence in a wood clearing) and the hackneyed (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ being sung over the Battle of the Bulge), but they never cohere into a story, owing to bewildering tonal inconsistency, and he fails to flesh out just 7 characters compared to the Ocean’s characterised ensemble. The importance of saving art is reduced to an argument winnable by a single word from a cameoing Nick Clooney, but there’s no compensatory joyous ‘greatest art heist’ ever…

This approaches The Internship for uncomfortable parallels. Stokes is too old to fight, so he assembles aged men to embark on a loftier mission than the young grunts, just as Clooney retreats from blockbusters to prestige films. Monuments Men is always watchable but falls badly between crowd-pleasing and cerebral-pleasing.

2.75/5

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January 28, 2014

2014: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 3:58 pm
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The Monuments Men

George Clooney stars, co-writes with Grant Heslov again, and directs what seems like a promising mash-up of The Train and Ocean’s 11, arriving sometime in February. Somewhat based on fact, a crack team of art experts and soldiers are assembled in the dying months of WWII to try and rescue priceless works of art from wanton destruction at the hands of nihilistic Nazis. The team includes regular Clooney cohort Matt Damon and the great Cate Blanchett, alongside the undoubtedly scene-stealing comedic duo of Bill Murray and John Goodman, and oddly Jean Dujardin. Can Clooney pull off a more serious art heist from Nazis caper? Fingers crossed he can.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson returns in March, apparently in thrall to Lubitsch and Lang. Edward Norton did so well in Moonrise Kingdom that he’s invited back alongside Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Owen Wilson. Newcomers are Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, and F Murray Abraham. Fiennes is the legendary concierge of the titular hotel in inter-war Europe, where any gathering storms are ignored in favour of absurd murder plots, art thefts and family squabbles gone mad, as Fiennes gives his lobby-boy protégé an education in dealing with the upper classes which he’ll never forget; if they escape a sticky end long enough to remember.

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Veronica Mars

AW YEAH!! It was cancelled in 2007 but Kristen Bell’s iconic teen detective snoops again as creator Rob Thomas sends NYC legal eagle Veronica back to sunny Neptune to attend her high school reunion. Present and correct are friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), nemesis Madison (Amanda Noret), and frenemy Dick (Ryan Hansen). Dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) remains a sage, warning against the obvious peril of insipid boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) being replaced in her affections by roguish ex Logan (Jason Dohring), who is once again accused of murder and asking for V’s help. Please let the sparks of ‘epic love’ spanning ‘decades and continents’ rekindle!

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness have been put to one side for this rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Literally everything I loved most about the original disappeared with the time-jump. So the major attraction of April’s sequel isn’t Robert Redford as a shady new SHIELD director, but Revenge’s icy heroine Emily VanCamp as the mysterious Agent 13. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow regrettably take the place of Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell in support, but Anthony Mackie as sidekick Falcon is a major boon. The real worry is that directors Joe and Anthony Russo (You, Me and Dupree, yes, that’s right, that’s their resume) will be intimidated by their budget into endless CGI action and precious little else.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m excited and nostalgic, because May 23rd sees the arrival of the X-3 we deserved, but never got. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he launched for one of Claremont/Byrne’s most famous storylines. In a dystopian future, where mutantkind has been decimated by the Sentinels of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage),Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman – this is a movie, not a comic, it’s all got to be about Wolverine!) is sent back into the past by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) to alter history by rapprochement of their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence co-stars, with every X-Men actor!

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22 Jump Street
A proper summer blockbuster release date of June 13th for this sequel recognises the hilarious success of the absurd original. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) (or was it the other way round?) go undercover in college to crack another drug ring, and once again their fantastic bromance starts to crack under the strain. The original’s unwieldy team of writers and directors are back, as are Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco. Amber Stevens and Wyatt Russell are the college kids, but sadly Brie Larson is absent. Jonah Hill appears in full goth gear, which seems to suggest that the absurdity levels remain healthy.

The Trip to Italy

It’s not clear yet if we’ll get this as an abridged film or just be treated to the full version as 6 episodes on BBC 2. In either case Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite to play heightened versions of themselves as they bicker their way around restaurants in Italy for the purposes of writing magazine reviews. 2010’s endearing roving sitcom The Trip, with its competitive Michael Caine impersonations was a joy, and director Michael Winterbottom takes the show on tour here. And no better man for the job, as this originated with their duelling Al Pacinos at the end of his A Cock and Bull Story.

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Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen’s latest should hit our screens around September. This time round the cottage industry is giving us a period romantic comedy, set in the south of France, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. The cast is as usual intimidating: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, the imperious Eileen Atkins (one of the few actresses capable of domineering over Judi Dench), and Jacki Weaver. Will F Scott and his ilk make an appearance? Who knows! There are no details, just stills of open-top cars, drop waists, and cloche hats so this could be a close cousin of Sweet & Lowdown or Midnight in Paris.

Gone Girl

The start of October sees the great David Fincher return, with his first film in three years, and it’s another adaptation of a wildly successful crime novel. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are seemingly the perfect couple, but when she disappears suddenly on their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect as he discovers his wife told friends she was scared of him. Could he have killed her? Or is the truth far more twisted? Gillian Flynn has adapted her own work, and, incredibly, penned an entirely new third act to keep everyone guessing. The unusually colourful supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Fugit.

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The Interview
The pitch is that an attractive talk show host and his producer unwittingly get caught up in an international assassination plot. So far so blah, if that was say Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson directed by Shawn Levy, except that the host is actually James Franco, the producer is Seth Rogen, the interview is in North Korea, and the awesome Lizzy Caplan is the rogue femme fatale CIA agent who drags them into all sorts of mischief. And it’s written and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg who distinguished themselves with 2013’s best comedy This is The End. This is very likely to mop up the non-Gone Girl audience.

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan tries to redeem himself after TDKR with a small personal project, taking the same release date as The Prestige did. Well, small, in that the WB needed Paramount to stump up some cash for it, and personal, in that Spielberg spent years developing it; albeit with the assistance of Jonathan Nolan. Scientists attempt to observe a wormhole into another dimension, and that’s about all we know, other than vague speculations about ecological crises. Matthew McConaughey 2.0 stars alongside Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, and, yes, Michael Caine – who is now as essential a part of the signature as Bill Murray for Wes Anderson.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence goes for third biggest hit at the North American box office for the third year in a row with her latest turn as rebel heroine Katniss Everdeen on November 21st. Having survived the Quarter Quell and the destruction of her District, she discovers President Snow has Peeta hostage, and that the rebellion has a leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore), ready to embark on a full-scale bloody war of rebellion against the Capitol. Recount writer (and Buffy shmuck) Danny Strong is the new screenwriter, and Elementary star Natalie Dormer joins the cast, but director Francis Lawrence remains in situ, with his considered visual style.

January 23, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens return with their worst film since their mainstream disasters Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, and this time round they can’t say their vision was distorted by mainstream pressures.

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Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performs a folksong at the Gaslight Cafe in 1961. Walking backstage he’s punched in the face, an unwelcome reminder of the Coens’ Gambit script. The effectively homeless Llewyn wakes up on the Gorfeins’ couch and leaves their flat in accidental possession of their cat. His next planned couch, that of occasional lover Jean (Carey Mulligan), has been promised to earnest GI singer Troy (Stark Sands). Worse still Jean is pregnant and, unsure of the paternity, wants to abort the baby. The needful money comes from Jean’s boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake) inviting Llewyn to join Al Cody (Adam Driver) as a session player on Jim’s novelty song ‘Please Mr Kennedy’. After Llewyn alienates everybody he knows he is reduced to sharing a car to Chicago with rude jazzman Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his valet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), in a quest to impress Chicagoan music impresario (F Murray Abraham). Can Llewyn finally get his voice heard?

You won’t care… Even if you’re still conscious after the tedium of the tedious road-trip, you won’t care because Llewyn is comprehensively as obnoxious a protagonist as you have ever seen. He’s an abrasive, unreasonable, uncaring, and only slightly talented egomaniacal dick. But he’s not compelling as a character, and he’s not even consistent. In a horrific scene he curses the inexplicably hospitable Gorfeins for wanting him to perform after dinner when he’s ‘a professional musician’. A few scenes later he performs to entertain the driving Johnny, even though he’s still ‘a professional musician’. A character this toxic infects everything… The crudity of dialogue is astonishing, and having Llewyn upbraided for his foul mouth doesn’t overcome it. The acting also decays: Mulligan shouts or snaps nearly all of her lines, snapping being one gradation below shouting with her, On the Road’s Hedlund’s appearance seems an unfunny in-joke, because he’s playing a meaner Dean Moriarty, and Goodman is on uncommitted auto-pilot.

I only love two Coen films, the most absurd ones: Raising ArizonaO Brother. I’ve long felt they were over-rated given their taste for crunching violence, blank characters, and a curious air of superiority, but this is a startling nadir. I can’t give you any reason to see Inside Llewyn Davis. Its full performances of minor folksongs can be bettered by throwing on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a truer sense of that scene can be acquired by reading Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, a more insightful study of a failing artist featuring Adam Driver is Frances Ha, and a more compelling abrasive guy getting into shouting matches stars in Curb Your Enthusiasm. But I also can’t explain Inside Llewyn Davis’ existence. Singers need to perform to an audience, and Llewyn can’t properly connect with audiences, so his unrelenting monstrousness isn’t redeemed personally or artistically. If that’s the point, then… we all encounter enough jerks in life without needing films about them…

The Coen Brothers often give the impression they have a smirking contempt for their cipher characters, but this film shades over into contempt for their adoring audience in addition.

0/5

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.

July 2, 2013

The Internship

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are forty-something salesmen made redundant by new technology who join what they can’t beat by becoming unlikely interns at Google.BRAY_20120725_2448.CR2

We meet Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Wilson) as their attempt to sell high-end watches to an old client is scuppered by their boss (cameoing John Goodman) unexpectedly closing their firm because manufacturers now regard salesmen as obsolete middlemen. Redundant Billy is immediately dumped by his girlfriend and soon after convinces Nick to join him in blagging their way into an internship. Arriving at Google Nick is instantly besotted with executive Dana (Rose Byrne), but she’s as unimpressed romantically with him as her boss, Chetty (Aasif Mandvi), is professionally by these two interlopers. Facing cutthroat competition led by the obnoxious cockney Graham (Max Minghella), can Billy and Nick whip their hapless mentor Lyle (Josh Brener), sullen hipster Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), self-loathing genius Tobit (Yo-Yo Santos) and flirty geek Neha (Tiya Sircar) into a team capable of winning the ‘mental Hunger Games’?

What do you think?… Co-writer Vaughn doesn’t spare the clichés, but he does run up hard against the strictures of the PG-13 rating. One of Wilson’s first lines ‘What the shit is this?’ signposts a problem which becomes ridiculous during a lengthy strip-club sequence. Would an R rating improve that sequence though? Probably not, as, regrettably following 21 and Over’s lead, this is another film that ridicules the Confucian privileging of education, instead venerating drunken debauchery, the avoidance of hard work at all costs, and endless unconvincing bluffing to compensate for such avoidance. The Internship is uncomfortably unfunny because so many scenes feature actors desperately mugging to try and wring even a single laugh from set-ups; like Lyle’s hip-hop stylings and the signature ‘on the line/online’ routine; that are just excruciatingly misguided – they’re not funny in conception or in execution.

It’s nice to see Rose Byrne using her own Australian accent for once, and there is an amusing scene where Nick tries to provide Dana with a decade’s worth of bad dating experiences by being comically rude, but The Internship has so few effective gags that the mind wanders. Doesn’t Google HQ resemble something out of Logan’s Run? How weird is it that a movie about forty-something guys made obsolete by twenty-something innovators should get its ass kicked commercially by Seth Rogen’s rival comedy This is The End? Indeed Vaughn’s co-writer Jared Stern and director Shawn Levy both worked on developing The Internship and The Watch, so this is like a fascinating controlled experiment: The Watch was being produced by Shawn Levy in this vein of comediocrity before Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg took that project and made it funny.

And then there’s the corporate angle… Doesn’t the plight of Billy and Nick tie in to Thomas Friedman’s 2007 book The World is Flat? Google is obsequiously portrayed as Friedman at his most enthusiastic would champion it – as a progressive flattening force that allows workers in India to compete against workers in Indiana by giving them the digital tools to do so. For Friedman such horizontal competition between new rivals is an opportunity for developed countries to move up the value chain by their smarts, but he never grapples with the truth that many Pittsburgh steelworkers cannot become coders in Silicon Valley: Nick masters writing HTML, but Billy cannot upskill. Ultimately Vaughn’s upbeat comedic finale is ironically only enabling an attitude Friedman criticises – that ‘imagination’ and ‘optimism’ will compensate for not learning the basics; because they weren’t a fun experience.

The Internship is a comedy badly lacking jokes, which will likely be remembered solely for its set-up’s slight mirroring of its own box-office defeat to This is The End.

1/5

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