Talking Movies

July 3, 2014

Trailer Talk: Part II

In another entry in this occasional series I round up some trailers for films opening in the next few months.

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was extremely successful commercially, but was a curiously mixed bag artistically. Rupert Wyatt’s direction was quite brilliant in some Hitchcockian flourishes and well-staged action sequences. But the script seemed barely written; with James Franco and Frieda Pinto playing ciphers. Andy Serkis (in motion-capture) returns as talking evolved ape leader Caesar. The world’s population having been devastated by the simian flu Caesar faces great hostility from belligerent human leader Gary Oldman, but an ally in Jason Clarke’s family man willing to talk peaceful co-existence. But peaceful co-existence don’t make for a high-stakes apocalyptic blockbuster! The focus of interest must be director Matt Reeves. Cloverfield combined spectacle with devastating emotional impact and his vampire remake Let Me In improved on the Scandinavian original. What will he fashion?

Dutch rock photographer Anton Corbijn’s third film as director seems closer in tone and look to his sophomore effort The American than stark debut Control, as he directs a John Le Carre spy thriller set in Germany. The adaptation of Le Carre’s novel comes from Lantana playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell which is almost as much an enticement as the stellar cast: Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead performance. The second coming of Robin Wright really is a phenomenon as worthy of attention as the McConnaissance, and this looks like another compelling performance. The late Hoffman meanwhile seems on fine form as the German spook harassing McAdams’ attorney: “I’m a lawyer” “You’re a social worker for terrorists”. Hopefully this will be better structured than the cavalier Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Yep, the teaser trailer for what will probably be one of the three biggest films of 2014 manages to not mention Katniss Everdeen, show Jennifer Lawrence’s face, or even acknowledge the existence of the previous two films. Intentionally, of course, as it’s a Capitol propaganda film with Donald Sutherland’s kindly old white-bearded President Snow sitting in a white room, flanked by Josh Hutcherson’s kidnapped Peeta, telling the people of Panem how good the Capitol is to them, and expressing bemusement as to why they would ever rebel against him. Arcade Fire’s chilling Soviet style Panem anthem has more or less for me become Donald Sutherland’s personal theme tune at this point, and it suits these words: “But if you resist the system, you starve yourself. If you fight against it, it is you who will bleed…” #OnePanem

December 5, 2011

Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree

Gladstone in the Disestablishment debates of 1869 was fond of referring to the Irish Church as the Upas Tree, a popular contemporary botanical metaphor based on an Indonesian plant that poisoned everything else that tried to grow in soil around it even as it thrived…

I’m tempted to rename The Tree of Life to Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree because I’ve been complaining for a while that a too rigid adherence to an eminently predictable three-act structure is a major source of Hollywood’s current woes, and that loosening up the structure of mainstream cinema would be an exciting development, only for Malick to drive audiences demented with his unstructured rambling magnum opus. During the summer reports of walk-outs, sarcastic laughter, ironic applause, and worse floated in from all quarters as responses to Malick’s film. I heard of three men getting as far as the appearance of the dinosaurs before one went, “Ah, here. Scoops?”, and they just got up and left. I was at one of the last screenings in the IFI in its tiny second screen in the afternoon with an audience of Malick devotees. I’d been trying to concentrate on just luxuriating in the visuals of the creation of the universe montage and trying not to think too critically about it. The choral soundtrack got louder and louder and I was thinking about how on earth Malick was achieving this, was he adding in extra singers for each verse, when a man a few seats down from me turned to say to the woman next to him, “Oh, this is just pretentious f****** nonsense! It really is…” Unfortunately, in a hilarious occurrence straight out of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, at that precise moment the soundtrack went mute and his shouted whisper bounded around the entire room and was heard by everyone. You could feel the audience stiffen in their seats, some offended by this philistinism, but many more I think suddenly roused, out of somnolent acceptance of Malick’s montage as Art, back into consciousness and a critical evaluation of what the man had just said – and do you know what, I swear that I felt most of the audience suddenly silently agree and think, “It is pretentious f****** nonsense, isn’t it?!”

The first 30 minutes of the film are largely dispensable, as are the last 20 minutes. The creation of the universe montage is not art but empty bombast masquerading as profundity, while the end of the movie hilariously resembles an advertisement for life insurance as white-suited people walk around a beach smiling beatifically at each other. There is a decent movie buried in between these two extremes about a 1950s Texan adolescence, but it’s not a great movie. It wouldn’t be great, even if you could unearth it, because the central child becomes a deeply unpleasant protagonist who, in shooting his guitar-playing brother in the finger out of jealousy and spite that this bonds the younger brother to their music-loving father, approaches borderline psychosis. The most egregious failures in The Tree of Life are the least mainstream elements, while what little that works does so because it’s mainstream. Just like Let the Right One In critics have been praising as creative ambiguity what is in fact terrifying vagueness. I was stunned to discover in the credits that Fiona Shaw was the children’s grandmother, from the movie that’s not at all obvious, she appears to deliver a horrendous line to Jessica Chastain merely as an awful neighbour who is quite rightly never seen again by the family. As for what happened to the brother…as with people reading meanings into 2001 that they got from Arthur C Clarke’s novel, people saying the brother obviously committed suicide only think that from knowledge of Malick’s own life. It is not in the movie. Sean Penn is absolutely right in saying he doesn’t even know why he’s in the movie, but his comments about a dense and beautiful script which does not appear on screen are infuriating because they suggest that Malick once again signed people up for one film and then shot too much unscripted, irrelevant, but pretty material and edited together from endless incoherent footage an entirely different, philosophically slight, and inferior work.

Malick’s ideal viewer would appear to be an agoraphobic shut-in, with no access to the many nature or physics documentaries on TV. Be brutally honest and you will admit that the creation of the universe montage is so deliberately vague in its focus on the micro rather than the macro that if you didn’t know what it was beforehand you’d be unlikely to find out from watching it. The mind boggles that Doug Trumbull was involved in making that sequence as it’s inferior to depictions of the self-same cosmic events on most television documentaries. The dinosaurs are more convincing than Terra Nova’s creatures but they’re curiously inert so let’s not kid ourselves that the CGI is that much better than the Discovery Channel benchmark. An even greater problem is Malick’s apparent belief that pointing the camera upwards at the slightest provocation plus blasting majestic John Tavener choral works at ear-splitting volume equals Transcendence. Do you ever look up at a tall building, feel dwarfed by it, and go ‘whoa’? Do you sometimes walk around after heavy rain to appreciate how all the foliage looks somehow greener? Do you occasionally look up at the sunlight coming thru the leaves of trees in dappled patterns? Do you always slow down when walking so as not to scare a wild animal in order to fully appreciate stumbling across it by observing it? Congratulations, you have reached a state of deep commune with nature that Malick thinks few people ever have. Worse still, the great philosopher-poet of cinema, as the adulatory reviews would crown him, spends two and a half hours in tangentially making the point that Moulin Rouge! only needed a rhyming couplet to deliver – ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.’ The conflict between Nature and Grace outlined in voiceover by Jessica Chastain at the beginning needs dialogue to be developed. Instead Malick thinks he can explore it with clichéd and irrelevant nature imagery.

My objections to the idea that complex ideas can be communicated visually rather than verbally are old, but watching this movie I also discovered something new. I am so decadent as to require a smidgen of narrative amidst visual paeans to the beauty of nature. This is why I dub what Malick has produced an Upas Tree. He may bask in the glory of his film being a philosophical masterpiece saturated with, and directing people’s attention to, the beauty of nature, but anyone else attempting to throw away the three-act structure will now be instantly reminded that The Tree of Life proves that you can’t abandon it and be stopped dead in their tracks. Hunger may have rewritten the possibilities of cinema, but it retained the bare bones of a three-act structure to supply narrative momentum, and realised that one extended dialogue scene discussing ideas could support far more screen-time devoted to art installation style visual explorations. The Tree of Life though eschews either that sense of narrative drive or that necessity for dialogue in the exploration of ideas, and by its failure seems to proclaim that abandoning the three-act structure is not the way to go, and, at a time when its detailed proscriptions badly need re-inventing, that makes me mad. Steve McQueen’s work seems to demonstrate that the classic three-act structure is not always necessary, but some semblance of artistic purpose is indispensible. Graham Greene’s definition of a film as a series of particular images assembled in a particular way to achieve a particular effect still holds true. One could contrast McQueen’s tightly controlled visions with Malick’s free-for-all ‘shoot everything and find the movie in the editing room’ approach. The true contrast between them though is that McQueen finds beauty in the mundane and ugly, so that you go ‘whoa’ watching a floor being disinfected, while Malick finds beauty in the beautiful – which recalls Joyce’s dismissal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as propaganda for that which needs no propaganda…

Terrence Malick is now making two more films rather quickly. He may have deeper philosophical messages to impart from his life experience, I certainly hope he does, but I think he would be well advised to re-watch his debut Badlands and remind himself that having a sense of narrative drive, be it e’er so dreamy is not a bad thing.

March 31, 2011

To the Lighthouse?

The court-case winding up the Lighthouse cinema has been adjourned until April 15th; but will it be mere stay of execution, as in the case of the Sunday Tribune, or a commutation of the sentence?

Last autumn I complained about Cineworld busting thru the psychological 10 euro mark for ticket prices. The Lighthouse was one of the cheapest cinemas that I listed in a price comparison of my regular haunts, but it was never a particularly frequent haunt of mine. Sure, I enjoyed seeing Let the Right One In, Moon, and Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 there, but most of my trips to Smithfield were for press screenings. That’s because of the cinemas I frequent (Savoy, Screen, IFI, Cineworld, Dundrum, Ormonde) the Lighthouse is the furthest away from my suburban southside lair, and the hardest to get to as well: no direct bus link and a 20 minute walk between Luas lines. It was an impractical cinema to get to for a lot of Southsiders who weren’t near the Red line, and no doubt, like me, they were happy to stick with the IFI. Which is a pity as the Lighthouse is a gorgeous cinema aesthetically; even features that shouldn’t work, such as the quirky multi-coloured seats in one screen, do work, making it a notably comfortable cinema experience with a great atmosphere because it has its own distinct and loveably eccentric personality.

But its physical personality rather dwarfs its cinematic personality. It’s great at screening films long after their IFI run has ceased, witness Of Gods and Men running there since Christmas and Animal Kingdom still playing, and their regular re-releases such as The Godfather and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes have been excellent. But the Lighthouse didn’t really stand out as much as it would’ve if it had opened in 2002. The question which the existence of the Lighthouse always begged must now be asked – are there too many art-house cinemas in Dublin? To appropriate the language of politics, where Battle: Los Angeles is Sarah Palin and Submarine is Ralph Nader, just how big is the left-leaning vote? Since the explosion in the number of its screens in 2003, when it took over the adjoining IMAX, Cineworld has screened a huge amount of foreign films and American indie productions that would previously have only played at the IFI. This has pushed the IFI to the left of centre, witness Inception last year playing at the Savoy, Cineworld, and the IFI simultaneously. All too often the Lighthouse, Cineworld, Screen and IFI are redoubtably running the same films at the same times. Given that art-house cinema is a niche to start, can it really be fragmented across four city-centre cinemas and remain a profitable niche?

The dimming of the Lighthouse’s beacon of intelligent cinema would be lamentable, but if the economic logic is against it, it’s inevitable.

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.

November 4, 2010

Let the Right Script In

If you haven’t seen Let the Right One In now would be a good time to stop reading as I’m about to do a spoiler-tastic comparison between it and the American version Let Me In.

I was whelmed last year by Let the Right One In, not least because I went to it many weeks after its release having read nothing but ridiculous praise for it. Most of those reviews were littered with condemnations of Twilight mixed in with praises of how this movie was Art, unlike, say, Twilight. The trouble was that many of these hyperbolic notices had confused glacial pacing with artistic substance, and vacuous ambiguity with intellectual integrity. I was thus intrigued when I heard Cloverfield director Matt Reeves was to write/direct an American version. Could he fix the problems? The answer is yes, apart from the pacing. It turns out that glacial pacing is structurally embedded because of the way Lindqvist unfurls his story. It’s at this point I should state that I still haven’t read the book so I’m basing my assumption that this is Lindqvist’s modus operandi on his screenplay adaptation for the Swedish version. Reeves’ version is thus slow-paced but considerably better at generating suspense, with one scene where the detective hunts Abby becoming unbearably tense, courtesy of a violin crescendo by LOST composer Michael Giacchino.

Reeves’ opening disrupts clichés about Hollywood simplification by upending the straightforward chronology of the Swedish version in favour of a film-noir style opening which renders the first half of the film an extended flashback. His sustained long-shot of an ambulance and cop-cars roaring down a snowy road in New Mexico leads to interior shots of an unseen criminal with acid burns being taken to hospital where Elias Koteas’ detective tries to interrogate him. The manhunt by this cop is one of the huge changes of this version and it injects considerable momentum. Also interesting is how the Familiar’s melted face is never seen during this lengthy pre-credits opening sequence. Reeves replaces utter ambiguity with clarity for his own purposes, but substitutes an off-focus camera style when it’s needed; for instance Owen’s isolation is rendered by having his mother’s face never being glimpsed while his father is a mere voice on the phone. I criticised the Swedish film for having utterly pointless scenes. One of the most epically purposeless was the scene where the boy visits his father and his father’s friend/boyfriend, here replaced by a short to the point phone-call. Reeves also dispatches with an entire sub-plot with the female neighbour who accidentally gets turned by Abby. That awful padding led to unintentionally hilarious scenes as she burst into flames in the hospital when a nurse opened the curtain, after being attacked by preposterously bad CGI cats. Reeves simply has her attacked by Abby and then kills her in the hospital scene after a gory moment that stifles any laughter at her subsequent conflagration.

Reeves instead uses CGI in long-shots to make Abby super-agile in her vampiric attacks, which, alongside close-ups of her demonic veined face, renders her far scarier in this version. He also inserts a new highly realistic scene where Owen takes Abby out to play Pac-Man at the local arcade and Abby takes some of his favourite sweets, which she knows will make her sick, rather than hurt his feelings. This appears cute on the surface but because Reeves has made Abby more sinister we’re suspicious and so pick up on the ambiguity of her actions, which is hammered home in the scene where she starts bleeding after Owen forces her to enter his flat uninvited. In the Swedish version it seems like this is a surprise to her but here Abby states that she knew it would happen, but also knew that Owen would belatedly invite her in. Once again Abby is being sweet but there’s a certain level of a vampire manipulating a potential Familiar underneath the surface interpretation.

Reeves has Abby’s Familiar kill by breaking into cars and hiding in the back-seat before garrotting the driver and harvesting his blood. This is a more realistic and sustainable m.o. than the varied methods employed in the Swedish version and leads to the Familiar bungling a harvest, not because of random passers-by intruding on an absurd crime scene, but because he’s getting sloppy. He muses to Abby, as only the inimitably subdued Richard Jenkins can do to such involving effect, that he’s tired of this life so maybe subconsciously he wants to get caught. This realism extends to his self-inflicted injuries. The Swedish version presented a prosthetics Two-Face where Reeves opts for a simple melted off nose, lips and tongue, so that “I’m sorry Abby” are his last scrawled words. This is less of a horror moment, but it’s far sadder. It also of course means Abby has known she might need a new Familiar…

Abby explicitly tells Owen that the Familiar was not her father, removing the ambiguity of the Swedish version which traded on the fake pathos of a father killing for his cursed daughter. Reeves then places Owen in Abby’s room when the detective bursts into it, and has Owen save Abby from the cop, before closing the door as she feeds on him. The iconic image of the original was the splash of blood on that white door, but here the huge splash of blood on the door isn’t just Hollywood excess it’s a signal that the iconic image of this version is about to come; the blood-soaked Abby emerging from the room to hug Owen from behind for saving her; and in its own way it’s an even more stark image. Koteas’ detective is almost a variant on Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff in No Country for Old Men, emotionally troubled by vicious murders, and, here, ultimately fatally betrayed by a new amorality. The fact that an early nod to Rear Window makes all Abby’s victims known to Owen personally only increases his complicity. He embraces the role of the Familiar, even after seeing a photograph which confirms that Richard Jenkins’ character has wasted 50 years of his life on Abby after meeting her at the same age as Owen. The Swedish version achieved a ridiculously happy ending by glossing over the doomed fate he embraces in becoming her Familiar. Reeves by contrast makes that same ending bleaker by having emphasised throughout that Owen is in effect selling his soul. Re-instating moral horror into this sinister coming-of-age story reverses the clichés of Hollywood’s addiction to upbeat conclusions.

Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more emotionally affecting. A true re-imagining.

November 3, 2010

Let Me In

Hammer has risen from the grave! Let Me In, a decidedly classy affair, is somehow produced by the revenant English studio once responsible for launching Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee before trading in drenching quality thespians in scarlet blood for just depicting topless, lesbian, and sometimes topless lesbian vampires.

Cloverfield director Matt Reeves follows his bleak monster-movie with an intimate horror that eschews shaky-cam. Indeed Reeves inserts a number of fixed-position shots from the back of a car, a technique notably used in 1949’s Gun Crazy to achieve high style on low budget, culminating in a superb show-off sequence as he disconcertingly depicts a car-crash with an unmoving eye from the back-seat. Reeves also adapts John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Swedish novel about a 12-year old vampire Abby, here played by Chloe Grace Moretz, relocating the action to a snowy New Mexico in 1983. Abby and her familiar (Richard Jenkins) move in next door to lonely 12-year old Owen (The Road’s Kodi Smith-McPhee). Despite Abby’s initial aloofness a bond quickly develops with Owen.

Reeves structures his story like a film-noir; opening with an ambulance complete with police escort bringing an unseen criminal to a hospital for emergency treatment before rewinding three weeks to the beginning of a killing spree being investigated by Elias Koteas’ horrified detective. Smith-McPhee’s blank Owen is traumatised from persecution by the scariest school-bully since Donnie Darko who hates to see Owen being happy. Such maliciousness for its own sake makes you want to see him suffer, an emotional response Reeves plays with repeatedly as Abby encourages Owen to fight back with results so disproportionate that, after a violent incident, all concerned remain silent for a stunned moment. Chloe Grace Moretz is superb as Abby, especially in scenes where her vampiric nature is overcome by her growing friendship with Owen, but she is surely settling into some weird type-casting as she follows up being Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass with another role showcasing age-inappropriate ultra-violence.

Such violence is unnervingly shot from a distance with CGI giving Abby super-agility. This distancing is typical of a subdued film where two tired characters carry much of the story’s emotional weight as Koteas’ detective pursues a suspected Satanist, who is really Jenkins’ familiar – a man starting to get sloppy as he wearies of cleaning up Abby’s unending trail of destruction. Reeves uses this measured pace to wring wonderful suspense out of a number of sequences involving Koteas’s manhunt and Jenkins’ cleaning and killing, including one where the crescendo of composer Michael Giacchino’s violins makes the tension almost unbearable. Ultimately Reeves improves on the Swedish original by making a bleaker film that emphasises the moral horror in coming-of-age with the help of a growling demonic-faced vampire.

Reeves proves Cloverfield was no fluke with a classy deliberately paced horror film that trashes human-vampire romance by making vampires bloodthirsty killers again.

3/5

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