Talking Movies

March 6, 2014

The Stag

Sherlock star Andrew Scott returns home to play the hapless best man forced to organise a last-minute stag party which quickly descends into embarrassing chaos.

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Trinity lecturer and enthusiastic hill-walker Davin (Scott) is best man for dweebish stage-designer Fionan (Hugh O’Conor), who is marrying Davin’s ex-girlfriend Ruth (Amy Huberman). Fionan doesn’t particularly want to have a stag party, but Ruth instructs Davin that he must organise one, after Fionan unnervingly expresses interest in attending her hen party. And so Davin rounds up depressed businessman Simon (Brian Gleeson), Fionan’s gay younger brother Kevin (Michael Legge), and Kevin’s drug-addled boyfriend Kevin (Andrew Bennett), for an arduous mountaineering weekend – the one thing, alongside carefully screened phone calls, guaranteed to ensure the absence of Ruth’s deranged brother The Machine (Peter McDonald). Or so they think… The Machine arrives and instantly sets about destroying any veneer of respectability with crude and cruel nicknames and putdowns, wanton property destruction, vandalism of heritage sites, involuntary electrocution, and simply endless drug-fuelled public nudity.

I loathed Scott’s Moriarty in Sherlock, so when I say the stars this film receives are purely for his performance, that’s something. Davin was fatally wounded by Ruth’s rejection, and having to smile thru her wedding is a cruel twist of the knife. Arguing with Fionan (purportedly about The Sopranos) on how Fionan always takes ownership of things Davin liked first has a subtext obvious to anyone but the characters, and Scott’s later rendition of ‘Raglan Road’ has a stunning emotional charge. But I’m praising a serious arc in an intended raucous comedy because The Stag is both juvenile and unfunny. McDonald co-wrote his ‘hilarious’ role, which the brothers McDonagh might have rendered funny, but which here flails about desperately as McDonald’s accent hits Ireland, England, America and New Zealand – questing for the most bombastically macho line-reading of every line.

Co-writer and director John Butler has a resume of sketch comedy and short films. His feature debut ticks all the clichés of predictable pay-offs and tidy arcs, even appropriating Little Miss Sunshine’s feel-good subversive ending to allow The Machine ‘solve’ the recession. There are no genuinely funny sequences, but many painfully extended ones – to wit, the nudity. The Stag is littered with snide gay jokes, but because Fionan’s father (John Kavanagh) is surprisingly condemned by The Machine for homophobia, that’s okay, right? Well, no, because Kavanagh would also be unlikely to approve if his son brought home a drug-using woman twice his age… Such inconsistencies make you wonder: can one write an asinine script, then inject structural trickery to achieve a closing group rainbow hug, and so, implausibly, secure Film Board funding by dint of one’s impeccable political zeitgeist surfing?

The Stag tragically wastes a cadre of talented Irish actors who are left mugging like Amy Huberman while the audience remembers having been on funnier stags than this one.

1.5/5

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July 31, 2013

The Heat

Director Paul Feig reunites with his Bridesmaids star Melissa McCarthy for a female buddy-cop movie that’s short on laughs but still better than The Internship.

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Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is a prim and proper FBI Agent who specialises in humiliating her co-workers with displays of her deductive genius. Her despairing boss Hale (Demian Bichir) sends her to a knotty case in Boston as a test. If she can manage to not alienate her co-workers while cracking the case he’ll consider her for a plum promotion, otherwise… Unfortunately for Ashburn the first Boston suspect she wants to interrogate, drug-lord Julian (Michael McDonald), brings with him an obnoxious arresting officer Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). The foul-mouthed Mullins volubly prefers brute force and ignorance to Ashburn’s Quantico-honed subtlety and reconnaissance. She also brings to the case a possible inside man, her deadbeat brother Jason (Michael Rapaport), recently released from prison and being recruited by Julian’s associate Adam (Taran Killam). Can Ashburn and Mullins work together and overcome their personal issues?

Bridesmaids was a curiously depressing film that relentlessly showed Kristen Wiig’s character defeated by life and yet expected audience cheers for the Little Miss Sunshine-aping end which solved only one of her many problems. Thankfully The Heat isn’t that infuriating, as, despite being written by Parks & Rec’s Katie Dippold, it feels like a thriller retouched as a comedy. Tony Hale and Kaitlin Olson pop up for lengthy and meandering scenes that completely waste their comedic talents. It’s hard not to notice that the comedy steps up a notch when Bill Burr and Nate Corddry appear as yet more Mullins siblings; and you suspect they improvised some of their cross-talking madness. Indeed the very deliberate delivery of the initially incomprehensible line “Ah you or ah you not a nahc?” to Ashburn is hands-down the funniest moment in the entire film.

Marlon Wayans is decent as Ashburn’s subordinate Levy, but the great Bichir is shockingly underused. Dan Bakkedahl’s albino DEA Agent Craig is the butt of an uncomfortable vein of crude humour, and that’s before the finale employs the wrong note of 21 Jump Street’s finale without its saving absurdity. Russell T Davies gave Billie Piper the line ‘Ooh, can you smell the testosterone in here?’ in Doctor Who, and that sexism has popped up endlessly and tiresomely in discussions of banking culture. I’ve longed for a character to rant about oestrogen in the same manner to expose the sexism of the trope, so it’s infuriating that Dippold has Agent Craig do just that; but by making him a deeply unsympathetic character subtly justify the corresponding sexist trope. It’s hard to know what to say about a central pairing whose bond is based on Ashburn learning to curse. I watched McCarthy play Sookie for 7 seasons of Gilmore Girls; she’s better than this, but this apparently is where the career is.

The Heat suggests that there’s a true gulf opening up in American comedy between the school of Rogen & Hill and unfunny people.

October 12, 2012

Ruby Sparks

The directors of Little Miss Sunshine return with a comedy-drama cross between Pygmalion and Stranger than Fiction that fails both as comedy and as drama.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a former literary wunderkind who set the book world alight with an epic novel when he was 19, but has since produced only short stories and is in analysis trying to crack his writer’s block. Dr Rosenthal (Elliott Gould) forces him to write about a woman who likes Calvin’s dog Scottie, as an exercise. Calvin starts to write about Ruby (Zoe Kazan), a girl in a dream who likes Scottie but is also very combative verbally. Soon he has written half a novel about her, and then she physically appears in his house as the perfect girlfriend conjured up by his imagination… Calvin think he is losing is mind, a conclusion heartily endorsed by his obnoxious sports agent brother Harry (Chris Messina). But a startling encounter with a literary groupie (Alia Shawkat) proves Ruby’s real…

Ruby Sparks is terribly unfunny, especially when set beside 2006’s Stranger than Fiction. There are good lines at long intervals, but only an amusing sequence where Ruby becomes insanely clingy actually lingers in the memory. Despite the fantastical set-up this is a game played with the oldest deck of rom-com cards. The man knows something the woman doesn’t, he wrote her, he doesn’t tell her, they fall in love, she finds out, they break up; can he make a grand gesture to win her back? Who cares? Ruby never sparkles enough to convince as the ideal woman, and Calvin isn’t remotely a loveable everyman. Chris Messina’s role is an empty cipher and he can’t showboat as all the script gives him are tiresomely predictable crude sexual remarks. Gould is tragically underused while Steve Coogan barely registers as Calvin’s pompous rival.

Instead of gags we’re given endless psychobabble masquerading as insightful drama. An awkward visit to Calvin’s mother (Annette Benning) and step-father (Antonio Banderas) is excruciating, especially as its sole (contradictory) purpose is to allow Ruby shrink her creator as ‘controlling’. Unfortunately Ruby hasn’t noticed that Calvin’s mother has been completely reshaped by her new husband, while the analysis buzzwords spouted by Ruby are almost identical to the self-justifying nonsense proffered by Lila (Deborah Ann Woll), who callously left Calvin weeks after his father’s death. Ruby Sparks is this week’s second release starring a couple, one of whom wrote the script, but this lacks even Hit and Run’s good heart. This is a quite insulting attempt to examine the male psyche by a female screenwriter who thinks such scrutiny means accusing men of not appreciating women.

By the end you’ll wish Calvin would just type ‘A grand piano falls on Ruby, the rope attached to it leads to an anvil that falls on Calvin, Road Runner appears and goes meep-meep’.

1/5

June 14, 2012

Stay Hungry

I’ll be writing more in the near future about director Francis Lawrence in his own right, but for now let me emit a whoop of delight and a howl of despair regarding the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire.

I have a very high regard for Lawrence and am delighted that he’s been given the chance to direct the sequel as I think his flair for suspenseful action directing and deliberately measured pacing, and his aversion to pointless shaky-cam, are precisely what Gary Ross failed to bring to the table. Regrettably along with the announcement that Lawrence was taking the directing helm came the unwelcome rider that two of my least favourite screenwriters are charged with crash-writing an adaptation of the novel for him to start shooting in August. Ross’ screenplay with novelist Suzanne Collins and (the enigma that is) Billy Ray mirrored his shooting style of showily out of focus backgrounds and close-in focus on the faces of his actors. His film was infuriatingly lacking in scope. Some of this was inexperience in action directing, leading to an inability to locate action within a coherent geography, but some was due to frankly bizarre decisions to leave things unsaid which should have been bellowed. When rebellion was whispered about we had almost no knowledge of the history of the rebellion or the current state of Panem and the districts it domineers. And these aren’t additions that necessitated reshoots, they could have been added in ADR; just take Katniss’ send-off of Rue which incites a riot in District 11. If you haven’t read the book you can only guess at what actual meaning this obviously meaningful symbol has (ditto Katniss’ wearing of a Mockingjay); would it have killed Ross to have Wes Bentley ADR over a shot of his back in the control room a horrified “My God! She’s making the salute of the Rebellion!”?

All these problems could be fixed quickly in the opening of the second film, but that Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt are entrusted with the job. I’ve previously berated Beaufoy over his adaptation of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen which sent me scurrying to read the book, which he infuriatingly reversed in multiple respects. Novelist Paul Torday’s dry comedy and political satire was sacrificed at the altar of Beaufoy’s insistence on characters not getting what they want, but instead getting what (they didn’t know) they need; which delivered only clichéd rom-com relationship drama. Fred’s wife was hilariously self-involved in the novel, but largely absent in the film; a synecdoche of how the realism of the novel and its blackly comic conclusion were all completely reversed. Beaufoy’s reversals culminated in the introduction of a romantic obstacle in the third act which made me groan, and later enraged me when I realised that everything I hated most in the film as cliché was delightfully subverted in the novel. Beaufoy also ‘adapted’ Vikas Swarup’s brutal novel Q & A into the disingenuously feel-good Slumdog Millionaire so I despair at what he’ll do to Catching Fire to make it a ‘well-made-screenplay’. And then Michael Arndt will polish the adaptation… Little Miss Sunshine may have won a screenplay for Best Oscar but I passionately hate it as perhaps the supreme example of the maddeningly cutesy indie clichés that win Oscar nominations needed for marketing purposes; from the quirk by numbers characters, to the complete lack of anything approaching emotionally authentic personal relationships, and the ending that solves absolutely none of the characters’ problems but provides a three-card-trick ‘subversive’ feel-good ending.

Jennifer Lawrence will be fantastic again as Katniss Everdeen, but Francis Lawrence can’t fix a screenplay and direct at the same time.

March 15, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

There’s been an odd prevalence of live blogs surrounding this year’s “goddamn meat-parade” – as George C Scott so memorably described the Oscars. This blog did not do a live commentary on the Oscars for three reasons. Firstly, I rather like sleeping at night and think that many other people share this strange attitude. Secondly, I don’t believe that even Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie writing together could possibly write anything funny or insightful enough LIVE! to justify a live blog. Thirdly, the Oscars are (whisper it) (no in fact bellow it!) POINTLESS!

There are 5,777 voting members of the Academy. These individuals do not have a better idea of what makes a great film than any other 5,777 random individuals around the world. There was a reason that JFK told Ben Bradlee what he’d learned from the Bay of Pigs was this – “Don’t assume that because a man is in the army that he necessarily knows best about military strategy”. If you doubt that consider these three facts.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Alfred Hitchcock, director of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, was not truly exceptional enough in his field to win a Best Director Oscar.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, was.

The Academy nominated both Apocalypse Now and Kramer Vs Kramer for Best Picture of 1979 and thought that the film which would have most impact on popular culture, which pushed the boundaries of film-making, and which would endure and be fondly remembered was…Kramer Vs Kramer. I love the smell of dumbness in the Kodak.

According to the Academy the best 10 films of the Zeros were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker.

Not Memento, Moulin Rouge!, The Two Towers, Master & Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Good Night and Good Luck, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

Or Amores Perros, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rules of Attraction, X-2, Mean Girls, Brick, The Prestige, Zodiac, Hunger and Up in the Air.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that Christoph Waltz gave a great performance in Inglourious Basterds. We don’t need the Academy’s nominations to help us tell the difference between a good blockbuster with commercial clichés and a bad Oscar-baiter with its own set of equally rigid (but more idiotic because they’re ‘edgy’) clichés (Little Miss Sunshine, I’m looking at you). Maggie Mayhem tells Bliss in Whip It “Be your own hero”. Follow her advice, trust your own instincts…

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