Talking Movies

June 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIV

As the title suggests, so forth.

2001: A very bad year

Well, I finally saw Evolution last weekend. Just because it was on. And because I was eating dinner. It was a sorta ambient film-watching experience. Watch 45 minutes. Tape the rest. Watch that during lunch the next day. Wonder then why I bothered watching any of it. Muse on not knowing about Head & Shoulders’ efficacy against aliens. Cheer on some truly minor TV actors in small roles. Wonder why on earth David Duchovny took the lead. Muse on whether its failure stopped him from parlaying his X-Files fame into a leading man career on the big screen. And then remember that, even though it was from the director of Ghostbusters, I’d skipped the film on purpose in 2001 from a complete lack of interest. A lack of interest not limited to Evolution. There were multiple reasons why I saw only eleven films in the cinema in 2001, an alarming number of them rep showings. But one of them is that the year 2001 was not a very good year for cinema. In fact it was by way of being a very bad year. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tigerland, which were 2001 highlights for me arrived here then but were actually 2000 films. And the hangover went the other way with Ocean’s 11 and Monsters Inc being 2002 experiences here. Shrek, Planet of the Apes, AI, Moulin Rouge!, The Others, The Fellowship of the Ring. These were the films of 2001 I saw on the biggest screens in the Savoy and Ormonde during 2001, and if not for the Antipodeans Luhrmann and Jackson unleashing immortal classics in the final four months of the year what a washout it would have been. I don’t know if anything can really be said to cause a slump the likes of which Hollywood experienced in 2001 but it was a slump for sure.

John Cusack: Former Film Star

John Cusack turned 54 yesterday which led me to the question: What in the hell happened to John Cusack? In what should have been the decade of his career in which he played a defining role, like Kirk Douglas in Spartacus or John Wayne in The Searchers, or Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko or Keanu Reeves as John Wick, the best that Cusack rose to as a fortysomething was his lead role in the minor Stephen King horror story 1408 and his hero repeatedly escaping just ahead of the shockwave(s) in Roland Emmerich’s over-egged disaster pudding 2012. What went wrong? How did he end up making so many films that were not released, barely released, or sunk without trace here? 1408 and Cell, his two Stephen King horrors with Samuel L Jackson, got cinema releases in late summer 2007 and 2016 – they almost neatly cordon off the decade of disaster under scrutiny, and the decline in Cusack’s celebrity, as the latter went to VoD before a very limited cinema release. Before 1408 came Grace is Gone and The Contract. Ring a bell? Nope… 2012 and Hot Tub Time Machine while not great films got wide releases and made money. The Raven and The Frozen Ground are better films but got less wide releases and made considerably less money. They also flag a recurring problem – there are way too many films here that merge together when you read the loglines; impressive casts assembled for some glossy crime thriller, involving a serial killer or assassination or heist: The Factory, The Numbers Station, The Bag Man, Drive Hard, The Prince, Reclaim. There’s even a Phone Booth–like appearance in Grand Piano. And what’s stranger is that in the midst of these formulaic films Cusack made We Are Not Animals in Argentina, about a Hollywood star fleeing formulaic films, and then went back to Hollywood to make more formulaic films. There have not been enough meaty roles like his older Brian Wilson in the split-focus biopic Love & Mercy. Instead he’s made cameos in The Paperboy, The Butler, Adult World, taken more substantial roles in glossy films that sank without trace (Dragon Blade, Shanghai), indie films that failed to connect (Maps to the Stars, Chi-Raq), and somehow bungled a spiritual sequel to his towering 90s achievement Grosse Pointe Blank in the shape of War, Inc. Cusack has not stopped working, and perhaps that’s the problem. Like Matthew McConaughey, he needs to say no to a looooot of scripts for a while if he wants to get back on track. Otherwise Cusack will continue to work steadily, but solely on trashy nonsense (constantly declining in quality), that is made for midnight drunken Netflix buffoonery, and clicked on increasingly only by people who remember that his was once a face that appeared on posters inside cinemas.

March 13, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXVIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Alas, Max Von Sydow

Another great has left the stage. 13 years younger than Kirk Douglas, Von Sydow was still working in high-profile productions. Indeed he worked for so many decades that one could say there are multiple Von Sydow personae. There is the Bergman art-house God that my mother remembered from The Virgin Spring, beating himself with sticks to build himself up for his vengeful rampage. There is the priest from The Exorcist and assassin from Three Days of the Condor which properly established him with American audiences after his underwhelming Hollywood debut The Greatest Story Ever Told. Then there was the first von Sydow I encountered, unrecognisable as Ming the Merciless in the gloriously silly Flash Gordon. He was already very old when I came across him as another villain, this time in Minority Report. And then I started coming across him in the art house as a tremendous supporting player in Intacto and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is astonishing to think that while Kirk Douglas thru ill health and bad luck had his last important roles in the early 1980s Von Sydow was still working in his 90s and goes out with cameos in The Force Awakens and his role as the Three-Eyed Raven in Game of Thrones as recent reminders of his potency.

The Desplat Factor

I have, of late, been trying to distil down the elements needed to reproduce the essential Wes-ness of a Wes Anderson film. Some are practical for guerrilla film-makers, others less so. Colour coded costumes, hand-crafted sets of increasingly outrageous artificiality, whip-pans, tracking shots, overhead shots, especially of handwritten notes, and the laying out inventories, droll narration … Bill Murray. And, one might add, a score by Alexandre Desplat. Which itself may or may not be connected to the increasingly outrageous artificiality of Wes Anderson’s cinemascapes. Certainly I still regard The Darjeeling Limited as the highpoint of his work, and it was after that film, which used pre-existing music, that he replaced Mark Mothersbaugh, the composer for his first four films, with Desplat for his next four films. I rather liked Desplat’s largely percussive score for Isle of Dogs, but was not particularly taken at the time by either his Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel work. Although the latter is growing on me as I soak it in. I think my objections circle a certain childishness at the core of the Desplat/Anderson enterprise. The score for Fantastic Mr Fox had a childlike quality, which was entirely appropriate to the material. But The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film I thought soured in dialogue and action by an unexpectedly mean spirit, seemed to be given the same treatment. And in both cases they shared their approach with Moonrise Kingdom where, in thrall to the featured music of Benjamin Britten (especially his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) Mr Desplat’s orchestration was explained in ‘The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe Part 7’. Ralph Vaughan Williams held that a composer lacking confidence in their themes could be depended upon to orchestrate all hell out of them. Desplat’s work for Anderson though is a horse of a different colour. The orchestration is sparse but determinedly eccentric, with featured unusual instrument after featured unusual instrument [“Not to speak of the glockenspiel” “The glockenspiel?” “I asked you not to speak of it”]. And this complicated curating of harps, flutes, piccolos, pizzicato strings, electric guitars, ukuleles, classical guitars, dangling blocks, sixteen bass baritone singers, balalaikas, celestes, banjos, tubular bells, cymbals, timpani, vibraphones, xylophones, triangles, clarinets, French horns, tenor saxophones, trombones, tubas, trumpets, organs, snare drums, bassoons, pianos, and, yes, glockenspiels, is far more important than his simple melodies: timbres are more important than themes. In a sense that’s a musical reflection by Desplat of style being more important to Anderson than substance. Has Anderson fallen into the same trap of Tarantino, of losing touch with basic reality and human emotions in favour of constructing his own Neverland ranch? We shall see later this year…

No Time to Die Edit

Now that the release of No Time to Die has been pushed to November it might be an idea for Cary Fukunaga to go back into the editing suite and make some cuts. The already ramping up publicity push had unwisely seen Lashana Lynch brag about how 007 got put in his place for sexual harassment in this movie. Coming just weeks after Birds of Prey bombed after a publicity campaign that couldn’t stop talking about everyday sexism, male gaze, and misogyny, you have to ask the question staff most feared hearing from President Obama – ‘Who thought this was a good idea?’ The trailer had already seen my tepid interest evaporate. Craig looks as past it physically as Roger Moore in A View to a Kill, but without even the lingering interest in the role. The moment where the security guard has no idea who Bond is clearly is meant to be hilarious and subversive, and yet it makes no sense; MI6 would remember. Think of the scene at the start of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation where a similar character realises who Ethan Hunt is, “I’ve heard the stories. They can’t all be true…” Lashana Lynch’s dialogue and smirks in the trailer quickly pegged her character as insufferable and, once again, made you yearn for any Craig-era Bond girl to measure up to Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. But the idea that No Time to Die will see Bond, and by implication the audience, receiving an endless series of lectures makes one think again on the reasons for delaying it. Quite simply, this film cannot fail or it sinks MGM. But… even if everyone is primed to go back into packed cinemas in November, will anybody bother if the cast and crew of the film keep telling them it’s not a rollicking adventure but a vitally necessary lecture on their implicit biases? The evidence of Birds of Prey, Charlie’s AngelsTerminator: Dark Fate, and Ghostbusters (2016) suggests not. Films that wish to lecture a pre-existing audience must reckon with that audience not showing up, and the supposedly untapped new audience of people on Twitter that like and retweet that pre-existing audience getting owned will also not show up, they never do. Which means of course that no one shows up. And then goodbye MGM. Time to edit?

February 7, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXV

As the title suggests, so forth.

The Golden Age has passed

Alas, Kirk Douglas is dead. As plans for this week’s Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle quickly change to pay tribute to the last great of Hollywood’s Golden Age something that’s occurred to me is just how vivid and indelible Kirk Douglas’ performances were. When I caught up with At Eternity’s Gate recently I kept faulting Willem Dafoe for not capturing Vincent Van Gogh in the way that Kirk Douglas did, though it had been over 20 years since I’d seen Lust for Life. When I finally saw My Darling Clementine a couple of years ago I kept inwardly (and occasionally outwardly, to the exasperation of the Engineer) sighing that Victor Mature was not measuring up to the Platonic Ideal of the nervy, doomed live-wire Doc Holliday, which was of course Kirk Douglas in Gunfight at the OK Corral which I hadn’t seen for a decade. Here are ten Kirk Douglas films I’m thinking about:

Build My Gallows High (1947)

Young Man with a Horn (1950)

Ace in the Hole (1951)

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Lust for Life (1956)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)

The Vikings (1958)

Spartacus (1960)

Seven Days in May (1964)

The means defeat the ends: Part IV

As rumours continue to swirl that JJ Abrams originally delivered an entirely different lousy Star Wars movie to Disney than the lousy Star Wars movie they released in cinemas one strand of speculation stands out. To wit, that the grand finale was severely reworked in deference to the sensibilities of the Chinese Communist Party. I knew when watching Taiwanese movie The Assassin a few years ago that the appearance of a ghost was a provocative move, but I didn’t really understand why the mainland was so firmly opposed to ghosts. I only recently read that the appearance of ghosts was associated with disorder and the loss of the mandate of heaven, and so the Party is eager for those associations of ideas not to start associating in the minds of the people. And of course Force Ghosts would start such associations, were they to physically appear as ghosts. But why else would Hayden Christensen have been on-set if not to physically reprise his role of Anakin Skywalker as a Force Ghost? It seems likely that he and others were originally physically present in the showdown between Super-Rey and the inexplicable zombie Emperor, but that the scene was reworked to make the Force Ghosts a mere vocal montage of pep talks. That is to say Disney completely reworked the scene in an attempt to make mucho money in China. But… Chinese audiences really couldn’t have made it any plainer that they could give a damn about Star Wars in toto. The idea that a finale which would have added some pizzazz belatedly to this asinine cash grab trilogy was scrapped for the sake of making mucho money in a territory where it was never going to make mucho money, at the cost of luring back disenchanted actual Star Wars fans in the rest of the world, blows the mind.

August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

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Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

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Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

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