Talking Movies

May 31, 2018

Re-appraisers of the Lost Archives

It has been an odd experience this past six weeks trawling through the pre-Talking Movies archives, finding reviews of films I haven’t seen or even thought about in a decade.

It’s startling that of the 17 films I’ve re-posted the now deleted Dublinks.com reviews to Talking Movies, I’ve only watched 2 of them again since the press screening. And one of them was 10,000 BC. Which was kind of research for my 2010 Dramsoc one-act play Roland Emmerich Movie, but mostly just to share its delirious nonsensicality with friends. A DVD extra that nearly killed us all revealed Erich von Daniken as an official consultant. Erich von Daniken, who a court-appointed psychologist decades ago concluded ‘a pathological liar’ whose book Chariots of the Gods was ‘a marvel of nonsense’, was telling Roland Emmerich what was what on science and history. The other film was a recent re-watch – again in the cinema! There Will Be Blood appealed to me more second time round, and on a battered 35mm print it seemed far older than its actual vintage, which perhaps added to its mood. But, while I found more nuance in Day-Lewis’ turn this time round, I still don’t think the film deserves nearly as much adulation it receives. The only thing I would change about my sceptical review is noting how Greenwood’s score echoes the frenzied 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony; which allegedly represents the demonic energy of Stalin – not a bad counterpoint when you realise Plainview is Capitalism made flesh. And 10,000 BC, likewise, I wouldn’t change a thing. I would now claim that, like the first Velvet Underground album, it was seen by few people, but everybody who did see it went on to write a trashy screenplay in Starbucks. Per my own words; “It’s less a film and more of an illustrated guide on how to write a really cheesy, dumb blockbuster. This is a very bad film indeed but it’s gloriously ludicrous. I haven’t enjoyed myself this much watching rubbish in quite some time”; I certainly set to screenwriting after it.

There are several reasons I haven’t re-watched 15 of these films. I saw so very many films for reviewing purposes in 2007 and 2008 that I had little desire to revisit any of them, indeed I had a strong desire to explore older, foreign films as an antidote to the industrial parade of clichés emanating from the Hollywood dream factory. I then took a break from cinema for most of 2009, to the displeasure of one, which left me hungry to discover as many new films as possible rather than obsessively re-watch familiar ones. It was the same spirit that simultaneously motivated me to read The Crack-Up, This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night in quick succession rather than simply continuing to re-read an almost memorised Gatsby. I then moved on to wanting to round out certain directorial oeuvres. This impulse reached its zenith in 2012 when I substantially completed Woody Allen and made decent progress on Welles and Malle. Life then got in the way of such plans. That’s the macro perspective, but on a micro level I would only have wanted to revisit Stop Loss, Street Kings, Son of Rambow, Juno, and maybe Be Kind Rewind. Keanu’s disappearance from multiplexes put Street Kings out of my mind, Stop Loss disappeared from public view after the cinema, Son of Rambow was charming but I remembered the jokes too well, Juno suffered my increasing disenchantment with Jason Reitman, and Be Kind Rewind I remembered as being just about good – and it should never be a priority to knowingly watch bad movies when you could watch good movies. Talking of which… 27 Dresses, The Accidental Husband, and Fool’s Gold are high in the rogue’s gallery of why I hate rom-coms, Meet the Spartans is only of interest (and barely at that) as a time-capsule of internet memes c.2007, Sweeney Todd and The Cottage were unpleasant agonies to watch even once, Shine A Light verily bored me into a condition of coma, and Speed Racer, Jumper, and The Edge of Love were hard slogs by dint of dullness. Who would willingly re-watch any of them?

April 20, 2018

From the Archives: Juno

In the first in a series delving into the days before Talking Movies proper, here’s the first review I sent to Dublinks.com 10 years ago.

Juno, despite the plethora of Oscar nominations, is a good film with a great central performance rather than a truly great film. First-timer writer Diablo Cody’s script is full of sharp one-liners, most of which are delivered by Ellen Page, the eponymous heroine who becomes “a cautionary whale” at her high school after accidentally getting pregnant. Juno decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. The unlikely father is Superbad’s Michael Cera, a diffident member of the school athletics team. (As Juno’s father quips “I didn’t think he had it in him!”) The problem with Juno is that much like director Jason Reitman’s previous film Thank You for Smoking it’s highly enjoyable but quickly fades in the memory as you forget all the barbed lines of dialogue.

20 year old Ellen Page deserves the enormous praise she’s receiving as she mordantly carries the entire film as the prematurely jaded, wisecracking Juno McGuff. This role is a worthy follow up to her incendiary turn in 2006’s Hard Candy. Someone really should remake The Big Sleep with Page as Phillipa Marlowe because on the evidence of this she could Bogart her way through anything… Reitman assembles a great cast around Page but Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner stand out as the highly strung yuppie couple that Juno picks to be the adoptive parents of her child. They might be a bit too desperate for children to actually be good parents while Bateman’s Mark might get on just a bit too well with Juno. ‘Might’ is the operative word though, because it’s refreshingly impossible to tell where everything is going.

The script constantly subverts expectations. Even Spider-Man star JK Simmons is required to actually act for the first time in ages rather than bark insults and chew scenery, his Mr McGuff is quietly depressed by his daughter’s predicament. Juno is not as funny as Superbad but what it lacks in laughs it makes up for in charm, from the indie soundtrack to the quirky animations that indicate the progression of the pregnancy and Reitman’s audacious decision to end the movie with a DIY musical number. This is an indie delight.

4/5

February 17, 2014

Top 5 Ellen Page Films

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(5) Inception

Christopher Nolan’s mind heist thriller builds to a tremendous redemptive emotional kick, when you read the film superficially as too neat structurally for its own good, but … see a loose thread and pull and the garment doesn’t unravel, it changes pattern. ‘Ariadne is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with Cobb is because she’s a therapist surreptitiously hired by Arthur to banish Mal from Cobb’s mind… Page’s performance works equally well as the most grounded member of the team pushing Cobb to exorcise his demons because of her compassion.

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(4) The East

Brit Marling’s script is as building-block developed as most of Johnny Depp’s recent roles (Fight Club + Point Break + Revenge = The East), but Page makes the most of her juicy part as Izzy, the fearsome lieutenant to Alexander Skarsgaard’s ecological Tyler Durden. Her voiceover for the opening montage of The East destroying an oil executive’s home with horror imagery of seeping oil is extremely menacing. Page is so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, and by the end the strength of her convictions and ruthless actions render her almost a Fury of Greek myth.

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(3) Whip It!

Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Page carries the film with ease, handling the demanding physicality of the bone-crunching roller-derby scenes with the same aplomb as the comedy and drama of the off-rink scenes of high-school and family life. Filled with sparkling turns from a female ensemble including Kristen Wiig, the creaking of the plot mechanics becomes a bit audible in the second act, only for Barrymore’s final act to be pleasingly subversive on two counts.

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(2) Juno

Juno is a damn good film with a great central performance rather than a truly great film, even though Diablo Cody’s script is refreshingly unpredictable in its tale of a sarcastic teenager giving her unplanned baby up for adoption to yuppies Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in charm, from the soundtrack to the colourful supporting turns by Olivia Thirlby and Michael Cera. Page, at just 20 years of age, mordantly carried the entire film as the prematurely jaded Juno McGuff, equally adept at biting put-downs and explosive moral outrage.

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(1) Hard Candy

Page was just 17 when she filmed this two-hander with Patrick Wilson and burned a hole in the screen with her white-hot performance. It’s a simple premise. Teenage girl and older man meet on internet, go to a cafe, go back to his place, have some drinks, take some photos … and then he wakes up tied to his kitchen table with her reading a text-book covering castration. David Slade’s directorial debut was gruelling, tense, horrific, and blackly comic, and utterly dependent on the teenage Page’s incendiary performance effortlessly swinging between precocious, mischievous, sadistic, indignant and psychotic.

October 6, 2011

Juno and the Paycock

This Abbey co-production with Southbank’s National Theatre of Sean O’Casey’s 1924 classic is a star-studded flagship show for this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival.

Ciaran Hinds and Risteard Cooper are fantastic as O’Casey’s trademark self-deluding male comedy double-act. Hinds is the self-proclaimed nautical veteran ‘Captain’ Boyle, a work-shy layabout who once crewed a boat to Liverpool and now infuriates his long-suffering wife Juno (Sinead Cusack) by continually carousing with ne’er-do-well neighbour Joxer (Cooper) and pleading mysterious pains in his legs whenever the prospect of a job appears. Tony-winning designer Bob Crowley has created a startlingly realistic decaying tenement set, with its own decrepit roof, and rooms partially glimpsed thru open doors as well as an expansive window-ledge just visible off-stage. Director Howard Davies exploits this grimy set with rain sound effects, and increasingly bleak lighting and sparse furnishing, to heighten O’Casey’s successive disillusioning of the audience as he skewers reverence for institutions including the Church, the IRA, and Trade Unions.

Davies though also handles the slapstick elements of the play better than any previous production I’ve ever seen. A moustachioed Hinds is fantastic in a role that combines a lot of hilariously self-deceiving bombast with scary moments of self-righteous fury. He makes his eyes bulge in terror at the prospect of being trapped in a job, hesitates infinitely over giving Joxer a sausage for breakfast when he realises with horror it’s bigger than the one he’s already put on his own plate, and excels at the physical business of throwing a reluctant Joxer out the window before desperately trying to hide the evidence of their breakfast when he hears Juno’s steps on the stairs. Cooper is every inch his equal in a performance that likewise mixes wonderful comedy with a harder edge. Joxer is the kind of fair-weather friend who will loyally back up all your most nonsensical poses, especially when you start contradicting yourself, but who revels in your misfortunes behind your back and would literally steal your last coin…

Sinead Cusack anchors the play emotionally as the embattled matriarch battling the equivalent fecklessness of her husband’s irresponsibility, daughter’s Trade Union enthusiasms, and son’s IRA principles. Her affecting displays of grief and empathy are O’Casey’s redemptive hope. I’ve long complained the supporting parts in Juno are mere ciphers, with crippled IRA veteran Johnny Boyle being the worst offender. Clare Dunne as Mary Boyle and Nick Lee (a dead ringer for Cripple of Inishmaan‘s Tadhg Murphy) as Theosophist boyfriend Charlie Bentham milk some laughs, as does Janet Moran’s saucy Masie Madigan, but the supporting players could never prevent this play belonging to the central trio. Juno’s famous exit line offers the stoicism of Chekhov’s Three Sisters peroration, but O’Casey purposely ends with low comedy instead as the Captain and Joxer stagger back into a now empty room.

It may be over-reaching to see in O’Casey’s presentation of a family in inescapable poverty who are magically granted wealth only to have it cruelly taken away again not just subversion of 1920s audience expectations but also a type of Ireland’s fate in the last 25 years, but it is not over-reaching to say this production demands attendance.

4/5

Juno and the Paycock continues its run at the Abbey until November 5th.

April 6, 2010

Whip It!

Drew Barrymore assembles a strong ensemble of comedic actresses for her directorial debut led by Juno and Hard Candy star Ellen Page in her first lead role since Juno.

Page stars as Bliss Cavendar, a teenager attending blue bonnet pageants to please her mother while simultaneously plotting her escape from 1950s throwback that is her hometown of Bodeen, Texas. A shopping trip to that liberal enclave Austin sees her encounter the fishnets wearing, eyeliner dripping members of the Texas Roller Derby. So begins a secret life as the new jammer for the perennial losers the Hurl Scouts led by Maggie Mayhem and Smashley Simpson (Barrymore’s ridiculous supporting role). Adopting the name Babe Ruthless, Bliss, as the fastest skater on the team whose job is to pass other players, soon becomes an integral part of the team and propels them to success and a rivalry with the reigning champions. Juliette Lewis takes a break from music to return to acting as Iron Maven, the wild child captain of that team, and is a joy.

Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig is surely only one decent role away from being a film star as, following Adventureland, she is once again wonderful in support as Bliss’s self-proclaimed ‘cool aunt’ figure Maggie Mayhem. Only Maggie and Smashley are depicted as having a life outside the rink but that’s to quibble when life inside the rink receives so much screen-time in a series of games that never become repetitive thanks to Barrymore’s ultra-violent and very exciting choreography of the bone-crunching plays designed to take out rival skaters. It probably helped to have Quentin Tarantino’s favourite stuntwoman Zoe Bell as one of the Hurl Scouts…

The creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, as Bliss falls for a pretty boy rocker, and becomes estranged from best pal Pash (Alia Shawkat) and her mother to the strains of oh-so-hip indie music but this is redeemed by a third act which is pleasingly subversive on two counts. Barrymore, unsurprisingly as an actress turned director, coaxes fine performances from all the cast, especially the two most important males – Andrew Wilson’s exasperated coach and Daniel Stern’s supportive father – and even manages to rein in Marcia Gay Harden’s usual histrionics as Bliss’ mother so that you get a sense of the real love between mother and daughter even as she seeks to push Bliss down the road she herself abandoned.

Amid all the debate about Bigelow’s Oscar for a macho film it’s nice to see Barrymore quietly assemble a talented female cast to take on such a traditionally male genre and to do this a good job of subverting expectations. Whip It! is not a great film but it is an awful lot of fun and signals Barrymore as a director of note as well as actor/producer.

3/5

February 1, 2010

Youth in Revolt

Youth in Revolt stars Michael Cera, who pushes his luck by once again playing his customary role of awkward diffident teenager, this time named Nick Twisp. Cera’s Sinatra loving aspiring novelist is desperate to lose his virginity and sees the chance when he meets Francophile Portia Doubleday during an enforced trip to a trailer-park upstate.

But to win her he has to ensure that his deadbeat dad (Steve Buscemi) moves upstate and that his alimony-dependent mother (Jean Smart) kicks him out for his awful behaviour. This is where Cera escapes criticism that he can only play one role by also playing Twisp’s very own Tyler Durden – a dastardly French alter-ego (complete with villainous moustache) named Francois Dillinger who has no problem being bad…as the poor citizens of Berkeley quickly find out in a wonderfully choreographed sequence of property destruction.

Things are complicated however by Doubleday being sent to French Academy in Santa Cruz with her irritatingly preppy boyfriend to avoid Twisp’s ‘bad influence’. This causes Francois’ attempts to woo her to spiral out of control amidst nice comedic cameos from Fred Willard, Justin Long and Ray Liotta.

Youth in Revolt is always warm, and does have some hilarious moments, but overall it doesn’t add up to much. The main problem is that even though it is based on a epistolary novel the dialogue throughout seems to be aiming for Juno style hip quirkiness but keeps falling short and ends up just sounding faux-literary and stilted. Wait for the DVD.

2.5/5

October 30, 2009

Jennifer’s Body

Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody’s second feature script was expected to be a subversive feminist horror film, but it’s merely standard shlock with good gags.

The opening shot is very Evil Dead but turns out to be the first of many odd structural decisions as it bafflingly leads us into a lengthy spoiler-tastic prologue in a lunatic asylum. The patient is our narrator and heroine Anna ‘Needy’ Lesnicki. Ignore the posters and top billing, this is Amanda Seyfried’s film rather than Megan Fox’s. Seyfried plays a dork (Cody disappointingly conveys this thru her wearing glasses and writing for the school newspaper) who is best friends forever with mean cheerleader Jennifer (Fox). Jennifer bullies Needy into attending a concert by indie band Low Shoulder at the town bar and after an inferno rips thru the venue Needy discovers that her BFF has changed from high school evil to actual evil…

Juno was a good film enlivened by a great lead performance but neither Seyfried nor Fox are in Ellen Page’s league, and the structure of this film is far less logical. There are two incredibly creepy images, of Jennifer smiling at Needy while dripping blood, and crouching spider-like over a dead body in a sequence inter-cut with Needy having sex, but many of the scares are too well signposted. There are some subversive touches – neither lead actually appears naked (despite the marketing of the film around Fox’s hotness) and the link between virginity and survival is reversed – but given the teenage characters’ pop culture reference points surely they’d know that that’s been done before (and better) by Scream. Even the feminist angle is underdeveloped apart from a few good lines. Compared to last year’s Teeth where violently misogynist males got castrated by a rampaging feminist there’s no vicious justice served up here by the choice of male victims.

JK Simmons, almost unrecognisable in a curly wig, is rather good in another subdued outing in a Cody script but supporting honours are stolen by Adam Brody’s cameo. Brody is awesome as the lead singer of indie band Low Shoulder, and this is not just my Seth Cohen obsession speaking. His turn could best be described as a Satanic version of Brandon Flowers. Indeed the bizarre scene where the action stops near the end of the film so that Jennifer can explain to Needy what actually happened near the start of the film between Low Shoulder and Jennifer is the best of the movie as the flashback is pitch-perfect comedy-horror, dripping with blood but eminently quotable. It is baffling why Cody didn’t go with that gory comedy-horror formula for the whole movie rather than just occasionally enliven routine shlock with her flair for bitchy comedic dialogue like this three-way repartee: “She can fly?!” “She’s just hovering, it’s not that impressive” “God, do you have to undercut everything I do?!”

This is fine Hallowe’en fare, with a satisfyingly vindictive super-powered final fight between humans and demons, but Juno fans should lower their expectations.

3/5

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