Talking Movies

December 11, 2014

Electricity

Model turned actress Agyness Deyn is a commanding presence as an epileptic woman searching for her missing brother in an intimidating London.

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Lily O’Connor (Deyn) works in a low-rent arcade in a North of England seaside town. She manages, just about, with the help of her avuncular cowboy-hat-wearing boss Al (Tom Georgeson) to keep her epilepsy under control. However, her frequent fits and need for a strict regimen of pills keep her socially isolated. When her hated mother dies Lily is visited by her poker professional brother Barry (Paul Anderson), eager to sell the family home and divide the proceeds. But Lily insists that they split the money with their missing brother Mikey (Christian Cooke); her protector against bullies until their forced separation by the authorities. Barry reluctantly gives her details about Mikey’s bitter ex Sylvia (Alice Lowe), and Lily sets off on a risky trip to London to find her beloved Mikey. But her escalating epileptic episodes soon scupper her investigation.

Director Bryn Higgins, best known for TV directing gigs including Garrow’s Law and Black Mirror, makes a fine sophomore feature with his hallucinated gumshoe tale. Higgins doesn’t hold back from inflicting scars on Deyn’s model-pretty face; going further than Scorsese the alleged king of grit would push things with DiCaprio in Gangs of New York. The moment when Lily pitches forward face first onto a dancefloor and breaks her nose with a bloody crack is truly horrifying. Deyn grabs with both hands this defiant character, who chooses to wear short dresses and a nigh fluorescent furry jacket, aware that this draws the eye to her body even as it increases the danger of that body being covered in cuts and bruises from falling during her seizures. Si Bell’s cinematography impressively renders the seizures as first-person spatial dislocations bleeding into electricity.

However, the screenplay by Joe Fisher (The Tichborne Claimant), from Ray Robinson’s novel, can’t hide the fact that there’s more than a touch of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time about Electricity. The mystery of Mikey’s disappearance could probably be solved much quicker if the investigator wasn’t afflicted with a condition that we’re plunged vividly into experiencing at first hand. Even the characters that Lily runs into, like good Samaritan Mel (Lenora Crichlow, Fast Girls), opportunistic Dave (Ben Batt), and spiteful Sylvia (Alice Lowe in surprisingly effective nasty form) have the feel of sketches rather than true characters. Indeed Paul Anderson, doing this movie between seasons of Peaky Blinders, seems to be on some mission to corner the market in one-note dodgy older brothers with thick regional accents. But for a’that these actors pull it off.

Electricity is a good film, and an always interesting one, powered by a strong lead performance; but you root for it to achieve heights greater than what it is capable of reaching.

3/5

April 5, 2012

Titanic 3-D

James Cameron’s watery disaster epic returns to cinemas but it turns out that making it three dimensional was not the secret to making it good…

First off let’s be clear that the 3-D doesn’t add anything, in fact it’s very distracting. Not only do out of focus objects continually annoy you in the foreground, where they were clearly never meant to be the centre of attention of the shot, but the 3-D also renders many scenes hilariously fake; people might as well be standing in front of a painted backdrop at the port in France. And that’s before we get to the completely CGI tracking shot swooping over the ‘digitally recreated’ ship, which was so revered at the time. I was unimpressed then; owing to the fact that it was a boat, we’d all seen boats, and this one didn’t look particularly realistic; but now I can only hoot in derision as the 3-D enables you to note that passengers wobbling about look as realistic as if Morph from Take Hart was taking a stroll.

Viewing Titanic in retrospect it’s hard not to see a good deal of Revolutionary Road’s Frank and April Wheeler in Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet); from their baffling insistence on inserting each other’s name into every second line of dialogue, to Winslet’s whingeing about the stifling nature of prosperity. ‘Poor little rich girl’ is indeed an apt term as Cameron never rises beyond the social and gender politics of a music video, or indeed the aesthetics; Exhibit A, Rose running thru the engine room’s beautiful steam in her white dress. This is fantasy, not history. It is embarrassing to sit thru a movie from the writer of the quotable Aliens and Terminator 2 that suddenly displays an absolute cloth ear for dialogue. The painful Freud and Picasso gags render the already dreadfully hammy Billy Zane and his retinue absolute pantomime villains by making them preening, ignorant, sexist snobs.

The best moments are dialogue free; the moving silent montage as the quartet plays ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, Bernard Hill’s captain mutely deciding to go down with the ship, Victor Garber’s devastated shipwright waiting for his flawed design to buckle. It’s nice to see members of the Cameron repertory company Bill Paxton and Janette Goldstein appear in small roles, but they hammer home that while Cameron’s sinking is an impressive technical achievement, it’s too little too late. It’s impressive because the huge set gives it alarming reality, but unlike Avatar there hasn’t been enough action to hide the flaws leading up to it. I’ve always suspected that this movie was Too Big to Fail and that’s why the MPAA, subconsciously mindful of collapsing a studio, rated it PG-13 not R in spite of Winslet’s nude scene being dubbed by her character’s narration “the most erotic experience of my life”. With great budgets come great responsibility, and Cameron seems to have decided that a very stupid across the tracks romance was the only way to get Titanic financed. He might well have been right. Unfortunately, that unbearably idiotic story is what sinks the film.

If you want a more satisfying experience of what Cameron might originally have had in mind then watch 1958’s A Night to Remember and the last hour of Terminator 2

1.5/5

January 9, 2012

2012: Fears

W.E.
Madonna (!!!) directs Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson in a farcically sympathetic portrayal of the American who eventually became King Edward VIII’s wife. Edward is Master & Commander star James D’Arcy, who’s probably immensely relieved to have escaped from the ghetto of movies like Rise: Blood Hunter, but for us another trot around the bloody Abdication Crisis is a truly appalling vista. Edward VIII wanted all the wealth and privilege of being a King without the responsibility, and failed to challenge the absurdity of being forbidden to marry a divorced woman when the Church of England only existed because Henry VIII wanted to divorce a woman and remarry. Screw him…

Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close
Stephen Daldry tries to win yet more bloody Oscar nominations with an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a boy searching for the secrets left behind by the father he lost on 9/11. Daldry directs, Tom Hanks plays the father and Sandra Bullock the mother, the screenplay is by Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button scribe Eric Roth, it’s about a weighty subject, and is released within the three month attention span the Academy’s members have long since proven they possess – what’s not to hate about such a naked attempt not to make a good film but to make the sort of film that wins Oscars?

Battleship
Somewhere in Hollywood a studio executive called Delaney is about to crash his sports-car as he drives past a huge billboard poster for this movie. Delaney will stagger out of the wreckage, lurch into the traffic to stare at the promise of an incredibly fake-looking CGI alien invasion limited to the radius of an inexplicable force-field in the ocean being foiled by US Navy ships led by an equally inexplicable Liam Neeson, slumming it alongside Rihanna and shouting orders to Too Tall Skarsgaard while rattling thru an inane arc about responsibility with Taylor Kitsch, and Delaney will incoherently rave “Holy God Jesus! I thought I’d killed this movie in development!!”

Total Recall
Director Len Wiseman proved with Die Hard 4.0 that he has talent, but that does not mean remaking Total Recall is a good idea. 22 years after Arnie’s original our hero is now Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale (of course) is the dame, and there will be no mucking about on Mars because that’s not in the original story. But justifying your over-hasty remake by your fidelity to the source text is deeply suspect. Philip K Dick’s short story is clever, hilarious, and wonderful, but it’s a short story. It would barely sustain an episode of The Outer Limits. Wiseman’s foray may actually justify itself by being less ludicrously violent…

The Avengers
Joss Whedon co-writes and directs Marvel’s huge gamble to tie together the fate of all their various franchise characters in one huge blockbuster. I’ve voiced my doubts about this enterprise repeatedly and at some length. Whedon has experience writing the X-Men characters to superb effect, and he will draw great performances from his cast, probably insert a large number of good lines and hilarious moments, and may even pull off the truly great action sequence that has thus far eluded nearly all the in-house Marvel movies, but, this appears in Fears because of its lack of commercial and interior logic, and the artistic pitfalls of its choice of villains.

Snow White and the Huntsman
Kristen Stewart was once a very capable young actress. Then she became a global star almost overnight, and a horrible stiltedness overtook her. The question is now that the end of Twilight is nigh, can she manage to overcome the brittleness it inspired? Well, if she can she probably won’t start the acting comeback with this overblown nonsensical ‘version’ which sees Snow White as Warrior Princess teaming up with Thor Chris Hemsworth to take down Charlize Theron’s evil Queen with the help of a coterie of British actors of a certain age as the dwarves. Warwick Davis won’t be happy about that because Ricky Gervais will.

Men in Black 3
Will Smith seems to make a Men in Black film whenever he’s panicked about his career. I didn’t think Hancock and Seven Pounds not being well received constituted that big a crisis but apparently he did, and so here we are – once again with Smith travelling thru time in 3-D to fight aliens who are pursuing Josh Brolin aka Tommy Lee Jones in the 1960s. Four capable writers have fiddled with this script, and Barry Sonenfeld hasn’t directed a hit in a long time, so this one comes with ‘Approach with Caution’ stickers plastered all over it despite Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader’s presence in the cast.

The Dark Knight Rises
If this film isn’t a disaster I’ll be very pleasantly surprised. Anne Hathaway as Catwoman seems vindicated as a casting choice from the trailer, and there are pleasing hints from the chants being translated for Bruce Wayne as ‘Rise’ that perhaps Ras Al’Ghul’s methods really are supernatural, but, the Bat-wing seen hovering above the Bat-mobile at the end of the trailer looks like something out of Rocobop (by which I mean 1987 special effects in a 2012 movie), and the destruction of the football pitch by Bane is embarrassingly fake-looking. Perhaps Nolan has crammed in so damn much to this final instalment that he couldn’t find time to pull it off more practically, but such obnoxiously obvious CGI is the polar opposite of the legion of compositing shots he used in The Dark Knight. Would it really have been so hard to film the football player running in the stadium in Pittsburgh, then build a replica grass pitch set and blow it up in Hollywood, and composite the two together so that it looked real because what you were seeing was real – just from two different places at two different times cunningly yoked together by digital trickery. I think this is a film that no one will like, but that some people might admire; because Batman dies at the end. Bane can’t kill Batman and get away with it, audiences would rebel. But, I’m convinced that Nolan’s watched Sherlock and the end of the movie will see Batman sacrifice himself in order to rid Gotham of the intolerable evil of Bane. Batman and Bane will topple off Gotham’s Reichenbach Falls locked in eternal combat. But I think along the way to this unforgettable and traumatic finale the sense of fun that must be part of what keeps Bruce Wayne being Batman will be entirely absent, the level of grotesquery from the brutal villain will be unbearable, and everyone will start muttering about how it ruins the first two movies.

The Bourne Legacy
The Bourne franchise is really starting to really resemble the world of Robert Ludlum now, in the sense that the great man has passed on and yet still work emerges bearing his name. Jeremy Renner plays an agent who is not Jason Bourne, but has a tenuous enough link to Bourne’s world to justify the attention grabbing title. Renner is a fine actor, and it’s nice to see him headline a big summer blockbuster, but this has pointless cash-in written all over it. Tony Gilroy, writer on all previous three films, now directs this one as well in the knowledge that Damon will only return for Greengrass directing…

Django Unchained
Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz star in Quentin Tarantino’s movie about escaped slaves, underground railroaders, and bounty-hunters battling for freedom and money. Sounds good! So why is a Leonesque adventure in a nonsensical 19th Century in the Fears side of the ledger rather than the Hopes? Because just once I’d like Tarantino to make a film where you didn’t have to wince at the prospect of the unspeakable violence that was undoubtedly about to come your way along with the great dialogue, cut-up structure, and bravura directing. Is it too much to ask that he rein in his sadism for a PG-13 story one of these days?

Lincoln
Spielberg had been making this movie for a decade with Liam Neeson before he finally actually started making it and abruptly went with Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th POTUS. No longer based on 2008’s immensely long book of the moment Team of Rivals, this is now a details biopic of a working President, as Lincoln in his final months tries to legislatively copper-fasten the victory against slavery. Day-Lewis will powerhouse his way thru proceedings, leading a strong cast including the peerless Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but what worries is Tony Kushner’s script. Munich obsessively shied away from discussion of the causes and conduct of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Can Kushner really do ‘details’?

300: The Battle of Artemisia
Zack Snyder has co-written with his original 300 compadres this sequel for another director to helm while he’s busy trying to make Superman soar again at the box-office. The fact that all of the 300 Spartan warriors died in the first movie bar the narrator, who went on to lead the hilarious charge in the next battle that closed the original film, doesn’t stop Snyder & Co making a sequel – about different characters, at a different battle, before Thermopylae. Apparently sequel has some new and strange meaning that Snyder will instruct us in thru an epic, unintentionally hilarious, battle between freedom-loving Americans Athenians and tyrannical Persians.

The Great Gatsby
I venerate F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, but that is why I can’t think Baz Lurhmann’s film of it can be anything but a disaster. Leonardo DiCaprio is a good choice to play the enigmatic titular old sport, as is Joel Edgerton as his nemesis, but the blanker-than-thou Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway may narrate us all into a coma, and Carey Mulligan for all her strengths will struggle with the eternally thankless role of Daisy. My great fear is Lurhmann’s inability to handle subtlety. Gatsby is all about Fitzgerald’s prose, which flows like sparkling champagne, not swooping thru raucous parties and zeroing in on high camp comedy scenes…

Breaking Dawn: Part II
The decision to split Breaking Dawn into two films would hopefully be unwise after the awfulness of the padded Part I, but the need to see how things end will defeat any desire to punish such commercial crassness. What now for the rapidly ageing Renesme and her creepily smitten werewolf protector Jacob? How will Bella adjust to being a very, very thirsty newborn vampire? Can Michael Sheen Fassbender this film to campy heights as the Volturi travel en masse to Forks to abduct her? Or will director Bill Condon’s bizarrely perfunctory approach produce another bloated, inert, embarrassing disaster and end the series on a very low note?

2012: Hopes

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Shame
Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s second film as director sees him again collaborating with his Hunger leading man Michael Fassbender. If Hunger was an installation about bodies in decay this is a study of bodies in motion, as this stark drama sees Fassbender play a successful businessman in NYC who has carefully constructed his life around his secret sex addiction. His routine falls apart and his life disintegrates under the pressure of his compulsions when his wayward sister (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives to stay in his apartment. It may just be that one of the first releases of 2012 sets a high-water mark for excellence that no other will reach.

 

The War Horse
JG Ballard dubbed Steven Spielberg’s works ‘Cathedrals of Emotion’ and even the trailer for this is upsetting, so God knows how tear-jerking the whole movie will be. Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s beloved children’s book, which is currently wowing the West End in a puppet-heavy interpretation, follows a teenage boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are the upper-class officers while Jeremy Irvine plays the young farmer who swaps rural England for the hell of a traumatically recreated Battle of the Somme after his prized horse is summarily requisitioned for the front.

 

J. Edgar
Clint Eastwood, who by virtue of his physical and artistic longevity is old enough to both actually remember Hoover in his prime and to still creatively interpret it, directs Leonardo DiCaprio in a biopic of the once feared and now derided founder of the FBI. Ordinarily this is the kind of Oscar-bait that I despise more than anything else, however, all evidence is that this is not the usual inane drama with a platitudinous message and showy Act-ing. Instead Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black employs constant flashbacks, with undercutting switches of perspective between DiCaprio and Armie Hammer as Hoover’s FBI Agent lover, to explain the neuroses that drove Hoover.

 

A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg directs Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of his own play about a pivotal 20th century clash. Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the conflict between two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. The S&M is what will get talked about most, as the obvious starting point for locating this in the Cronenberg canon, but attention should focus on Fassbender’s assured turn as Jung and Knightley’s startlingly alien performance as the hysterical Russian who slowly transforms herself into an equal to Jung.

 

 

The Hunger Games
Jennifer Lawrence headlines as heroine Katniss Everdeen in what’s being touted as the new Twilight, and is, according to Google, the most anticipated movie of 2012. Adapted from the wildly popular trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, an apocalypse has left a new country called Panem ruling North America, and every year as punishment for a quelled rebellion against its authority the new government in the Capitol chooses one teenage boy or girl from each of its 12 districts to fight to the death against each other in the televised Hunger Games – in the end only one survives. As an unusually vicious YA media satire this sounds promising.

 

Anna Karenina
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Joe Wright and Keira Knightley reunite for an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic 1870s tale of infidelity in snowiest Russia which William Faulkner once described as the perfect novel. Knightley is never better as an actress than when under Wright’s confident direction, and this is a welcome return to his period-setting comfort zone after the misfiring disaster that was his existential action movie Hanna. Other returning Wright regulars Saoirse Ronan and Matthew Macfadyen form part of a strong ensemble led by Aaron Johnson as Anna’s lover Count Vronsky and Jude Law as her cuckolded husband.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man
I mocked this last year, but once I saw the trailer in a cinema I started to reconsider my stance. The colour-scheme alone indicates a move away from the day-glo japery of Raimi to the moodiness of Nolan. Prince of Hurt Andrew Garfield is an emotionally raw Peter Parker opposite Martin Sheen’s ill-fated Uncle Ben and Emma Stone’s scientist Gwen Stacey. Raimi’s gleefulness was increasingly sabotaged by his crippling affinity for angst. Director Marc Webb, who helmed the glorious (500) Days of Summer, can hopefully replace pre-packaged moping with genuine vulnerability, while stunt guru Vic Armstrong’s practical magic makes this Spidey’s heroics viscerally real rather than wall-to-wall CGI.

 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
HAHA! Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally properly get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The plot is, well, immaterial really when it comes to these guys. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, whose brush with Werner Herzog proved he’s still got some game, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writer/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his flaming bike is indeed an awesome one. We must all pray that some stuffed-shirt empty-suit in the studio doesn’t freak out and bowdlerise this insanity.

 

 

Dr Seuss’ The Lorax
The impossibility of making a decent live-action Dr Seuss adaptation finally hit Hollywood on the head with an anvil after The Cat in the Hat and so we got former live-action Grinch Jim Carrey lending his voice to the sublime Horton Hears a Who. Its screenwriters have now tackled The Lorax and, it appears from the trailer, again succeeded in taking the canny route of expanding Seuss’ slight tales to feature length with delightful visual comedy while retaining the hilarious rhyming dialogue and narration that make Seuss’ work so unique and loveable. Danny DeVito is the voice of the slightly irritating guardian of the woods the Lorax.

 

Prometheus
Ridley Scott’s long-awaited Alien prequel has finally been written by LOST show-runner Damon Lindelof, and original Xenomorph conceptual artist HR Giger has even returned to the fold to whip up some creepy designs. It seems safe to say this will therefore probably be very entertaining, genuinely scary, and then completely disintegrate in the third act when the audience realises that Lindelof really has no idea where he’s going with this. Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace star, which is itself a promising start for a blockbuster that Scott could badly do with being a hit; just to remind him what it feels like after his unwisely extended co-dependency with Russell Crowe.

 

Seven Psychopaths
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Martin McDonagh, the celebrated playwright and writer/director of In Bruges, returns to cinema screens with another unpredictable dark comedy starring Colin Farrell. Farrell this time is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter bedevilled by writer’s block who has the misfortune to fall in with the real devils of the titular seven hoodlums in the course of some ill-advised research for his gangster script. Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, who starred in McDonagh’s between-film-projects play A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway, are also in the cast; something which speaks volumes about how much actors relish the chance to deliver McDonagh’s caustic, profane and theatrical dialogue.

 

 

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
I have high hopes for this absurdist comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, not least because Blunt is always a superb comedienne and McGregor did a very good baffled straight man in similar territory with The Men Who Stare at Goats. This is of course an adaptation of Paul Torday’s acclaimed (indeed Wodehouse Prize-winning) 2007 comic novel about a Sheikh’s improbable dream of introducing salmon fishing to, well, the Yemen, and the poor sap of a British expert hired to pull off this ludicrous proposition. The only problem is that the reliably dreadful Lasse Hallstrom is directing it; can script and actors overcome his dullness?

 

Skyfall
The studio has finally sorted out nightmarish legalistic-financial difficulties and so the awesome Daniel Craig returns for his third mission as 007. But Paul Haggis’ delightful rewrites are no more! Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan now has the job of making Purvis & Wade’s gibberish action script legible to thinking humans before Sam Mendes directs it. Mendes has a flair for comedy, oft forgotten because his films have been so consistently and inexplicably miserabilist in subject matter, and he’ll draw top-notch performances from his stellar cast which includes Javier Bardem as the villain, Ben Whishaw as Q, Judi Dench as M, and Naoime Harris as Moneypenny. This might just be wonderful…

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson, having been kicked like a dog with mange for The Lovely Bones, returns to Tolkien. Martin Freeman brings his trademark assets of comic timing and understated decency to the titular role of Bilbo Baggins. Returning from LOTR are Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, and a presumably very grateful Orlando Bloom; he didn’t make any blockbusters between Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and The Three Musketeers. You should worry about Del Toro’s nonsense infecting the screenplay, and the opportunistic decision to make two films, but then hope that returning to his meisterwerk will rekindle the combination of flair and heart that Jackson’s lacked since.

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part II

Drive has inspired this provisional attempt at asking what different types of movie violence exist, how they can be categorised, and what meanings each might have.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” – Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s defence of the Aesthetes is never far behind any justification of excessive violence in cinema. As a defence it has only one drawback, it’s not remotely true. Art can be deeply immoral. I direct you to Triumph of the Will. Quite often film historians will rave about the innovation or dazzling techniques employed by its director Leni Riefenstahl, and then snap back into their conscious minds, realise just how far down a  particularly crooked garden path they’ve gone, and hastily backtrack with a “BUT of course it’s a terribly evil film….” Films do not exist in a vacuum. They’re part of our lived experience, and if we have any sense of right and wrong surely films are implicated in it in more than a three-act Hollywood good defeats evil structural sense.

I reviewed Paranoid Park for InDublin and was appalled at the bisection of an innocent security guard by its unlikeable hero that was the pivot of the film. But I was stunned to see one American critic summon the courage to dub that moment deeply immoral. We’ve been inured to think about screen violence only in terms of effect, technique, structure, but there are different types of violence and morality cannot always be parked at the door as Wilde would wish. A man getting his head stomped on by Ryan Gosling till bone-dust floats in front of the lens inhabits a different universe than a lengthy sword-fight between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn ending with Rathbone’s death. Cinematic violence can be divided into a number of types, and the most obvious type is spectacle. A swordfight is violent, a cowboy duel is violent, a shoot-out is violent, a suspenseful Spielberg action sequence is violent, the lobby scene in The Matrix is violent – but it is the violence of spectacle. Hugh Jackman said that his musical theatre training was helpful in preparing for boxing in Real Steel because fight choreography is just choreography. When action is spectacle, what you’re really watching and enjoying is the choreography.

“Art is art because it is not nature” – Oscar Wilde

Can violence that is not seeking to appeal to the audience’s admiration for good choreography ever truly be aesthetic? Drive depicts a woman’s head exploding from a shotgun blast in anatomically accurate detail. Scorsese realistically depicts the explosion of a body dropped from a roof when it hits the ground, spraying Leonardo DiCaprio with blood, in The Departed. Why do film-makers engaged in depicting violence which is not spectacle usually go for such extreme verisimilitude? For every Kill Bill touch of blood spurting 30 feet there’s multiple instances of something like a gangster being bashed in the head by a shovel in Miller’s Crossing or a gangster being bashed in the head by a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Wilde’s dictum, if taken seriously, implies that 1950s cowboys keeling over dead without any blood being spilled after being shot is more artistic than R rated violence, because it is so obviously not nature but rather an artistic convention. Spielberg at least acknowledged that he was going for extreme authenticity in Saving Private Ryan to traumatise the audience rather than for his usual purpose of using violence – scaring/entertaining them, we’ll label all such uses of violence as catharsis to make life easier. Violent film-makers though seem to enjoy rendering violence in extreme detail not for reasons of catharsis but because they just like depicting bloody violence.

Can violence detached from the spectacle of choreography ever be aesthetic and nothing else? I doubt it, given that we seemed to have reached a point in cinema history where violence must be very realistic (whether fully depicted or screened from view) or it defeats the verisimilitude of its context. A more important question is just why is violence so important to cinema? Raymond Chandler quipped that whenever he got stuck he simply wrote a guy with a gun walking into the room. I’ve hammered LOST before for exactly this sort of laziness in which violence is used as a cheat, a jump-leads to make a scene tense and raise the dramatic stakes without bothering to write escalating conflict, character based tension, or biting dialogue. But this idea allows us to provisionally divide violence into four categories: spectacle, catharsis, function, sadism – suffering is the key to noting the last as well as a certain monolithic quality of the film as violent film and nothing else. It is also the only one that raises moral qualms, as opposed to seething dissatisfaction at lazy writing and distaste at a high water-mark of violence becoming the norm for ignoble reasons of sheer functionality. The fight in the subway at the end of The Matrix is all about the spectacle of dazzling wire-assisted choreography. By contrast the fights in Batman Begins are a total blur in which Batman wins, because Nolan very deliberately shoots too close to the action so as to shift the focus away from the spectacle; it doesn’t matter how Batman beats people up, what matters is that he can beat people up – it’s a question of function and character, not of aesthetics and spectacle. Functional violence is now the grease on the wheels of the three-act structure in many instances. At the climaxes of films, as villains get their desserts, it often overlaps with catharsis.

Catharsis is obviously an ancient legitimisation for extreme violence, and indeed Incendies will probably be my film of the year because it used shocking violence to purge the emotions of its audience with pity and fear to such powerful effect that the entire cinema sat in a stunned Aristotelian silence for some minutes at the end of my screening before shuffling out feeling somewhat mind-blown. But there is a fine line between catharsis and sadism, even in the greatest works. Oedipus gouging out his own eyes when he discovers the truth of his actions is not the same as Titus Andronicus informing his enemy exactly what was in the pie she just ate. ‘Shakespeare was really violent too’ is therefore not a carte blanche excuse for grotesque violence, though it’s often used in defence of extreme screen violence. Yes, Shakespeare was a bloody nihilist in King Lear and Titus Andronicus; in performance everything in Lear can seem mere build up to Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, while Titus is simply a catalogue of grand guignol horror from start to finish. But Shakespeare also wrote the frothy feather-light follies Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing where you’ll look in vain for any eye-gouging or cannibalism. Shakespeare had range with a capital R. The problem with Tarantino’s spawn is that they specialise in violence to a worryingly monolithic extent, and their violence often veers towards the Titus approach rather than Lear – audiences do not cry with pity and fear for what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally purged, they moan in revulsion and disgust at what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally contaminated.

“Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie” – Last House on the Left tagline

Sadism – the true differentiator. Violence as spectacle, function or catharsis doesn’t provoke the same shudder. Incendies was deeply shocking in its depiction of violence, but, crucially, it wasn’t shocking because of graphic depictions of that violence, but because of the connections between who was committing the acts and who they were victimising, on both an individual and societal basis. Sadism does not have that concern which elevates catharsis. It is concerned with depicting suffering for its own sake. Hostel auteur Eli Roth wants you to see a man lose two fingers on both hands as he breaks his bonds and then keep going in his quest to escape the deadly hostel, leaving his fingers behind him. I’ve written about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, noting that the theatrical cut showcased all the most obnoxious moments of his director’s cut: Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer. Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off – ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him to die in agony when Alan Moore’s script slashes his throat for an instant death? I said previously that Snyder was adding sadism to an already nasty story, but now I note he’s changing the category of violence – from function to sadism. He wants you to see people suffering, and that is a sensibility I find deeply troubling, not least because it seems to be shared at certain times by celebrated directors like Refn, the Coens, Tarantino, Scorsese, Burton, Haneke and Miike. I won’t say that what these film-makers do with violence at their worst moments is immoral, but it is deeply troubling, and it’s time to stop meekly accepting their cod-Wildean ersatz-Shakesperean defences and ask just why it is that they apparently get off so much on depicting violence in gory detail with an emphasis on suffering.

Drive didn’t perturb me because it was a film purely of sadistic violence; the first outbreaks of bloodletting are all about function and catharsis, while the ominous killing on the beach is violence as both spectacle and catharsis. No, it’s taken me a long time to fathom what lies behind my feeling that Drive really was a film of two parts; the first of which I loved, the second of which I despised. And this is it. A film makes a contract with the audience, and for me Drive broke that contract – I didn’t expect that sort of violence to develop from the first part of the movie, and I don’t appreciate being told I’ve seen equally graphic violence in films that signed a different contract and delivered the goods as agreed. Spielberg and Hitchcock are pranksters, asking you where the line is repeatedly, to establish it in their minds, and then crossing that line for fun. Robert Rodriguez, in Machete or Planet Terror, establishes his ground rules for schlocky violence in the opening minutes. Saying I shouldn’t attack Drive because I enjoyed Wanted ignores the different contracts that they proffered regarding the nature of the screen violence to expect, and is akin to this:

BORIS: A 0-0 draw. Great. What a riveting football match…
JOHNSON: What are you complaining about? Have you forgotten that 0-0 draw last week that had you enthralled?
BORIS: What, the one with the 2 disallowed goals, 3 sendings off, 4 shots off the crossbar, 5 off the post and 60 shots saved?
GODUNOV: The very one.
BORIS: (beat) I think that was a bit different. How many shots were there tonight?
JOHNSON: What, on target?
BORIS: No, at all.
GODUNOV: Um… None. It was 90 minutes of 22 men on their own goal-lines.
BORIS: Yeah, it was 0-0 and so was last week’s match, but this one was excruciating.

As Enda Kenny used to bellow (but not at Nicolas Winding Refn, though he’d stand hearing it) “Sign the Contract!”

July 12, 2011

Richard Yates Studies and Hollywood’s Gravity

It seems absurd to quibble about Richard Yates Studies when it’s such a triumph that there finally is such a field as Richard Yates studies, but I fear Hollywood’s gravity…

I fear it for this reason:

ACADEMIC 1: I’m speaking tomorrow on the comparative panel.
ACADEMIC 2: Who are you talking about alongside John McGahern?
ACADEMIC 1: Richard Yates, American writer, roughly contemporary.
ACADEMIC 2: Ah, yes, yes. (beat) What did he write?
ACADEMIC 1: (strained pause) Revolutionary Road.
ACADEMIC 2: Oh yes, the one with-
ACADEMIC1: Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, yes…

It’s a simple truth that, despite the glorious Vintage reprints of the past few years, the long critical neglect of Richard Yates has left its mark. And it’s all too easy for the fact that the first (incredibly belated) film adaptation of his work was of his debut novel, about the 1950s, to perpetuate the unfair perception that Yates wrote one great novel in 1961 and then deservedly disappeared. This ignores his bibliography. His stunning trio of novels Disturbing the PeaceThe Easter Parade  and A Good School, which between them incisively dissect American life from the 1930s to the 1970s, all appeared within three years of each other in the second half of the 1970s.

It’s also a danger that Sam Mendes’ film will type Yates as a gloom-merchant of unrelieved tragedy. Yates is the poet laureate of failed dreams, but, as I’ve noted elsewhere in relation to the film, there is terrific comedy on the path from hope to disappointment that his writings customarily traverse. I saw the 1972 film adaptation of Peter Barnes’ demented play The Ruling Class just before the New Approaches to Richard Yates conference last year. I thus suggested to David Fernley that a way to correct any Mendes-inspired popular perception of Yates as miserabilist would be to quickly film Disturbing the Peace with non-naturalist sequences drawing out Yates’ dark humour. After all Peter O’Toole’s description of The Ruling Class as black comedy with tragic relief fairly characterises some of Yates’ work.

Finally I fear Hollywood’s gravity could unbalance Richard Yates Studies on two fronts. It’s easier to write on an obscure text by a well-known author, because there are less existing critical readings defeating your attempts to say something original, but it’s also easier to write on a well-known text by an obscure author than it is to write on an obscure text by an obscure author. Name-recognition does count at some level, even if it’s in the subconscious of an academic planning an article for a refereed journal and worrying that an examination of two short stories by Yates might prove just too niche for a non-Yates journal. I plan to yoke together Revolutionary Road and A Special Providence because they nicely link for an unusual argument, but I’m convinced I thought of that argument because I subconsciously also felt that Revolutionary Road would add weight to A Special Providence in the same way that John McGahern said short stories in a collection can lean on each other for support.

The second front is a more consciously considered problem than the prospect of everyone writing about Revolutionary Road to improve their chances of publication. It is the problem of getting Yates onto curriculums. Getting a non-canonical writer onto an American Literature course wins plaudits but in a world of modularisation it’s not as simple a task as it might once have been when core courses covered a canon and selected alternatives to that canon at the whim of the lecturer(s). If students have a choice of competing modules common sense and basic economics says modules will start to bend towards attracting students by including books, canonical and alt-canonical, they’ll want to read. Revolutionary Road rather than The Easter Parade will always appear then because, thanks to the Hollywood hype machine, students will recognise one title and not the other.

Those are my fears about how Hollywood may skew Richard Yates Studies, but the wider idea of cinema bending literary studies will be returned to…

May 18, 2011

Scream on the Rocks

I was listening to ‘Pure Shores’ while unsuccessfully trying to find someone else excited about seeing Scream 4 a few weeks ago, and it led to these musings on how something can be all-conquering, then just disappear…

I was surprised that no one I knew was excited about a new Scream film, given that Kevin Williamson had returned to writing duties, and has lately been writing wonderful (cliff-hanger a minute, major twist every episode) dark popcorn for The Vampire Diaries. 11 years though is a long time… The Beach was released in February 2000 and, this being in prehistory when MTV not only played music but played certain videos on constant rotation, its imagery penetrated deep into people who never saw the film courtesy of All Saints’ video for the sublime ‘Pure Shores’ incorporating an awful lot of clips from Danny Boyle’s film. 11 years ago I finally saw Scream on TV and then Scream 3 in the cinema in quick succession and never got round to watching The Beach till 2003. It’s odd to think that these films, which were all pervasive at the time, seem to have been more or less forgotten. In the case of Danny Boyle his belated and ill-advised entrance to major Hollywood movies has been completely forgotten because of a couple of belting truly Alex Garland scripted movies since, and an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. The Beach also represented after the American Psycho debacle DiCaprio’s attempt to make a post-Titanic film that proved he could act. He’s long since been able to point to his Scorsese collection, and latterly Revolutionary Road and Inception, so The Beach is also a footnote for him.

But why has Scream fallen so low in popular esteem that its belated sequel could so utterly flop? Perhaps Scream has been a victim of its own success. It brought forth a wave of self-conscious horror films like Final Destination where good jokes were as important as scary shocks, and the audience and film-makers continually winked at each other regarding clichéd conventions of horror cinema that could still be exploited to make you jump in your seat, but only if that was followed by a good pay-off line. That arguably brought forth a counter-wave, the infamous torture porn of Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek, where the film-makers grabbed the audience by the throat, demanded they stop winking, stop turning away, look at this horror, be horrified, and start screaming now… Now it seems to safe to declare torture porn more or less dead, we seem to be stuck in a field of shlock, Piranha 3-D, the everpresent efficient teen horror, My Bloody Valentine, and nouvea 70s viciousness in the form of remakes, Last House on the Left, and nasty originals, Eden Lake. In that landscape where torture porn seems to have permanently upped the acceptable ante for both gore and viciousness the very concept of a Scream 4 is an anomaly if not an embarrassment.

I only hoped that Scream 4 might be as good as Scream 2, but truthfully it’s more like Scream 3, the one Williamson didn’t write – an efficient film with flashes of inspiration. There are wonderful moments throughout, not least Courteney Cox muttering that a massacre must take place at a Stab marathon, “what could be more meta?”; a confused David Arquette asks what that means, to which she replies “I don’t know, it’s just some word I heard the kids using.” Scream was a great film because it was original, the cold open of Scream 4 with its nods to how Scream 2 introduced Stab, a film of the events of Scream, goes far too far in alienating the audience with postmodern meta-nonsense at the expense of emotional engagement. When you have not one, not two, but three different sets of TV stars (from, deep breath, 90210, Privileged, Veronica Mars, True Blood, oh forget it) all enacting the same basic scenario with commentary on the predictability of said scenario, mixed with snipes at torture porn, it’s time to return to basics. But the basics aren’t easy. The motive of the Ghostface Killer is a huge problem. Each sequel has tied itself in ever more preposterous knots regarding motivation, and Scream 4 obeys that rule of sequels. An even greater problem is the split focus caused by the bizarre notion the film persistently voices about itself being a remake rather than a sequel. The ‘new’ versions of original characters Billy Loomis, Randy and Stu don’t work at all because they are severely underwritten, while the beloved original characters aren’t given enough screen-time either. Hayden Panetierre and Emma Roberts are the only actors of the new young cast given enough material to really make an impression, and a good deal of this is purely due to their skills rather than the script. Roberts in particular is not afraid to be shown in a far colder light emotionally than you can imagine her aunt ever being willing to play, and her relationship with screen cousin Neve Campbell powers the film.

And then, if you’re me, you realise something with a shock while watching – Adam Brody isn’t going to step up to the plate in the third act and do something, his minor supporting role is just that; he has been totally forgotten. How terrifyingly forgotten The OC has become. Only 4 years after it finished its 4 season run which was captivating and hilarious and spawned a whole set of music, books, comics, styles and clichés, Seth Cohen himself, Adam Brody, can’t seem to get good parts anymore outside of Jason Reitman enabled cameos. Josh Schwartz is now the guy who co-created Gossip Girl or Chuck. He’s never thought of as the youngest creator of a primetime network show which was what The OC made him. And so it is that Kevin Williamson is now the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries not the wunderkind behind Scream or even Dawson’s Creek. Glory is fleeting…

January 28, 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

(10) Whip It!
Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Ellen Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother’s ideal of beauty pageants by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Filled with sparkling turns from a female comedic ensemble, and some well-choreographed and bone-crunching stunts, the creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, but the third act is pleasingly subversive on two counts.
(9) Avatar
This is closer to the Cameron of Aliens than we could have hoped for. The script appears to have been generated by the same computers as the impressive bespoke special effects but, Worthington aside, the actors sell it well, aided by the fact that Cameron remains a master of emotionally manipulative action sequences; with the 9/11 style destruction of Hometree genuinely upsetting while the final half-hour is pulse-poundingly emotive and well orchestrated.
(8) Kick-Ass
A little gem of ultraviolent comic-book capers from the imagination of Mark Millar this faithfully follows the origin myth template but without PG-13 imposed morality; Batman would be feared by criminals because he acted like Big Daddy, gangsters would react like Mark Strong’s exasperated Don. Matthew Vaughn’s script improves on its source material in mining an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos in the Big Daddy /Hit-Girl relationship.
(7) Let Me In
Matt Reeves follows Cloverfield with an incredible stylistic switch but retains his stark vision. This intimate horror features a number of nail-biting suspense sequences and improves on the Swedish version by making Abby scarier and more manipulative, with Owen more complicit, and by re-instating moral horror into this coming-of-age story. Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more affecting.
(6) Iron Man 2
A fine and very fun film with excellent cleverly counterpointed performances from Downey, Cheadle, Rourke and Rockwell as a consulting villain and a real villain, and a responsible hero and a drunken hero. The first act moves at an insane pace verbally and is full of wonderful comedic touches. So what if Nick Fury solves the plot for Tony Stark, my gripe is with the inconsistent relationship between Pepper and the poorly used Black Widow and the déjà-vu action finale.


(5) Scott Pilgrim Vs the World
The comedy of the year is deliriously nonsensical, filled with joyous touches, played perfectly by the youthful ensemble (aided by insane cameos), and is chockfull of superb visual gags. It is, like Wright’s Hot Fuzz, a bit too long but this is as crazy and original as big studio films get and, like (500) Days of Summer , characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re as fickle as Ramona with men or as shallow/cruel as Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her.
(3) The Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog’s ecstatic madness finally returns to his dramatic features in an examination of the bliss of evil. He drags a barnstorming performance worthy of Klaus Kinksi out of Nicolas Cage and plasters the insanity of his recent documentaries onto what is structurally a solid police procedural, before you add iguanas and drugs, and nonsense, lots of nonsense. This black comedy towers above Ferrara’s portentous original aided by a surprisingly reflective ending.
(3) A Single Man
Colin Firth’s stunning performance is only one of many dazzling elements in a heart-breaking film punctuated by outstanding moments of black comedy and shot with an amazing eye for style, sartorial and visual. Director and co-writer Ford has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships and the crushing nature of bereavement and grief which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines.
(2) The Social Network
The founding of Facebook was played out with amazing scenes, lines, and ideas and gripped like a vice with a constant unnerving tension surrounding the actions of central villain Mark. There were echoes of Fincher past in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rumbling beats, especially underneath Sean’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo, and Sean was in a way the Tyler of this tale, whose rejection leaves no happy ending. Sorkin’s script has witty repartee but its emotionally raw opening scene sets the movie’s tone. Favouring Fincher’s pessimism over Sorkin’s optimism makes this an uneasy masterpiece.


(1) Inception
Nolan wins not just for the tremendous redemptive emotional kick the whole movie builds to, when you read the film on its most superficial level where it’s too neat structurally for its own good, but because once you look deeper you realise that this is a puzzle piece worthy of a UCL English graduate; it supports many contradictory readings, none of them definitive. See a loose thread and pull and the garment does not unravel, it changes pattern and remains coherent. ‘Ellen Page’s character is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with DiCaprio’s character is because she’s a therapist hired by the rest of the team to exorcise Mal from his memory… This is a blockbuster rubik’s cube of a caper movie combined with sci-fi thriller, which exploits the ability give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, in order to dazzle both eyes and mind with spectacle, ideas, and meaty drama.

July 19, 2010

Inception

“Have you ever had a dream Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you found yourself unable to awake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the real world and the dream world?” Among the many achievements of Christopher Nolan’s latest film is that it answers Morpheus’ rhetorical question…

I’m not idly linking Inception to The Matrix as Nolan is in dialogue with it as well as his own opus. Following a typically stylish/puzzling opening we follow corporate spies Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they bungle an industrial espionage job in a Japanese mansion highly reminiscent of Ras Al’Ghul’s mountain lair in Batman Begins. They are unexpectedly offered a way out of their predicament from a former mark Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito wants them to reverse their usual modus operandi of ‘extracting’ secrets and instead attempt inception – to plant the seed of a destructive idea in the mind of his business rival (Cillian Murphy) – which Arthur, almost imitating Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects, opines can’t be done. Cobb though takes the job, as Saito offers the bait of freeing himself from outstanding legal troubles which have prevented him returning to his family in America. Nolan’s ‘existential heist movie’ then becomes a joyous globe-trotting exercise in assembling a team for the caper – picking up a forger in Mombasa (Tom Hardy), an architect in Paris (Ellen Page), and a seriously dodgy chemist, before training (in shared dreams) in a warehouse and making contact with the mark, who complicates their plans…

That description should tell you that Nolan has somehow made a ‘realistic’ film about larceny where the scene of the crime is your unconscious mind. This depiction of the unconscious owes nothing to Dali, Freud or Jung. His thieves keep their dreamscapes impeccably realistic to dupe the mark into believing that the dream world is real. Only Ariadne’s initial gleeful construction of architecture free from the laws of physics, and collapsing dreams and malevolent subconscious projections shatter that verisimilitude. Nolan’s interest here is not plot twists or fractured chronology but layering levels of reality. This allows him the blockbuster action tension of the double jeopardy at the end of The Matrix, with Neo fighting Smith while a Squiddie assaults the Nebuchadnezzar, but even more heightened. How exactly these thieves insinuate themselves into their subjects’ dreams and manipulate them though is anything but popcorn as its conceptual simplicity but sheer craziness in execution means you must stay as alert to what is happening at every moment as with Memento. The device which allows the team to synchronise their dreams and instantly fall asleep is similar to its equivalent in The Matrix but (gloriously) its working is never explained scientifically in this ‘sci-fi thriller’, which instead prioritises Edith Piaf and inner ear discomfort in the explanation of the ingenious ‘kicks’ for waking up.

Nolan’s films obsessively follow characters wracked by guilt over the deaths of people close to them who embark on quests for justice or vengeance and Cobb is an interesting variation on this archetype. DiCaprio is strong as a haunted hero running from his guilt, aided by Hans Zimmer’s unsettling reworking of his Two-Face musical theme, and is supported by an impeccable ensemble. Page is terrific as Ariadne. Both the newest member of the team, through whose eyes we come to understand this universe’s rules, and the most grounded, it is she who pushes Cobb towards finally exorcising his demons before they endanger the team. Hardy shows immense range after his bravura turn in Bronson by being wonderfully insouciant as the forger Eames, while Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt is once again effortlessly charismatic as the quick-thinking point-man Arthur. He steals many scenes from DiCaprio and memorably gives an outstandingly delivery of one delightful word.

Inception combines caper movie with sci-fi thriller, underpinned by a meaty character arc about guilt that takes advantage of being able to give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, to dazzle both eyes and mind. Essential viewing.

5/5

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