Talking Movies

April 3, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXX

Filed under: Talking Books,Talking Movies,Talking Television — Fergal Casey @ 5:59 pm
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As the title suggests, so forth.

This could be how I see Tenet in 70mm later this year, if it or any other blockbuster gets released at all in 2020

The polling suggests cinema may be done

It seems somebody had the good sense last week to poll Americans on whether they would return to cinemas once this coronavirus unpleasantness has blown over. The answer was yes. Certainly. But not right away. Rather like the beach on the 4th of July in Amity Island everybody would stand back and let someone else be the first to paddle out into the water and make sure there were no killer sharks lurking thereabouts. But if people are serious about waiting three weeks or three months before they’d dare venture into a packed cinema again, how can the cinemas survive? How many days can you survive as a going concern when your biggest screens showing the biggest blockbusters at the height of summer garner an attendance more usually seen at an Alex Ross Perry movie in the IFI? Big releases have been pushed into 2021 with abandon: Fast & Furious 9, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Morbius. I’d be surprised if MGM didn’t get nervous and shove No Time to Die from November to next April if they think that by November people will still be readjusting to the idea that going to sit in the dark with 300 sweating sniffling coughing strangers packed like sardines in a crushed tin can isn’t like asking for rat stew during the Black Death. I for one like the idea of taking a coffee into an obscure French film and listening to Jazz24 in screen 3 of the IFI after normal service has been resumed – but the kicker is, that would be a fairly empty screening. And too many years of press screenings, matinees, and unpopular art-house choices have made me unaccustomed to truly packed cinemas. I was already frequently exasperated at bustling audiences before the coronavirus; because of the constant talking, shuffling in and out to the toilets and sweets counter, and, above all, the feeling that I was looking out over a WWII night scene as the light from endless phones strafed the roof of the cinema on the watch for incoming enemy aircraft. To put up with that, and then be paranoid that anybody, not just the people sniffling or coughing, but asymptomatic anybody could have the coronavirus and I could end up with scarred lungs and no sense of smell or taste from watching a film makes me hesitant to go before the second wave.

Further thoughts on the xkcd challenge

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned re-watching Aloha and thinking about the xkcd challenge [https://xkcd.com/2184/]. To wit, it is easy to prove your independent streak by disliking films universally beloved, but less easy to prove your independent streak by liking films universally reviled. Randall Munroe gave a critical score under 50% on Rotten Tomatoes as the target, the other two parts of his trifecta being that the films came out in your adult life post-2000, and are not enjoyed ironically. Well, gosh darn if I didn’t find these ten films rated between 40% and 49% by critics on Rotten Tomatoes. And you know what, their critical pasting is, I would argue, largely undeserved. Some of them are rather good, some of them are not nearly as bad as reputed, and I would happily watch all of them again.

What Lies Beneath

I was astonished to see that Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 Hitchcock pastiche was so critically pasted when it features some sequences; in particular the agony in the bath tub; that rise to the height of genuine Hitchcock level suspense. Zemeckis’ increasing obsession with CGI-enhanced technical wizardry hasn’t yet completely swamped his interest in his characters, as he overtly toys with Rear Window expectations.

Orange County

Colin Hanks and Jack Black are the main players in Mike White’s knockabout comedy about a hopelessly bungled application to Stanford, courtesy of Lily Tomlin’s guidance counsellor, and increasingly ludicrous attempts to get the admissions kerfuffle all sorted out by any means necessary. It may not be as sharp as other White scripts but it’s always amusing for its less than 90 minutes.

xXx

Vin Diesel has valiantly kept the memory of this ludicrous 2002 film alive by somehow making it his only successful non-Fas & Furious franchise. The premise of an extreme sports dude being recruited into being an amateur CIA spook makes no sense what-so-ever, but it had better action, jokes, and humanity than the Bond film of its year by some measure – “Bora Bora!”

The Rules of Attraction

It was a genuine shock to see that this film was so critically reviled when I enthusiastically featured it in my list of best films of the 2000s. It stands beside American Psycho as the best adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, and Roger Avary draws career highlight turns from leads Ian Somerhalder, Shannyn Sossamon, and James Van Der Beek.

Daredevil

One of the last examples of the big blockbuster movie with the big blockbuster song complete with a big blockbuster video; the at the time inescapable Evanescence hit ‘Bring Me To Life’; this is an only semi-successful attempt at knockabout nonsense with the villains all trying to out-ham each other (and Colin Farrell’s Bullseye winning), but Jennifer Garner shines as Daredevil’s love interest Elektra.

Switchblade Romance

I will die on this weird Gallic hill! Alexandre Aja’s utterly blood-soaked shocker starring Cecile de France (and a chainsaw that spooked the next crew to use it) is a goretastic virtuoso thrill-ride, and the final twist, which was presented as it was on the advice of Luc Besson that it would be funnier that way, makes the film even more preposterously entertaining!

The Village

This was the final straw for critics when it came to M Night Shyamalan, but it’s actually a very engaging and deeply creepy film with a star-making lead performance from Bryce Dallas Howard. Sure the final twist is probably over-egging the pudding, and indicated that M Night was now addicted to twists, but it doesn’t undo the effectiveness of all the previous suspense.

Constantine

Keanu Reeves’ chain-smoking street magus powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; here making his directorial debut. It had a fine sense of metaphysical as well as visceral horror, featured outstanding supporting turns from Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare, a memorable magus versus demons action showdown, and was easily Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

Super

I can’t believe that writer/director James Gunn’s delirious deconstruction of the superhero genre could actually have been this lowly esteemed by critics on release in 2010. Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page both give tremendous performances as the delusional heroes who decided to dress in absurd costumes and fight crime; suicidally going up against Kevin Bacon’s gangster, who is very much not a comic-book villain.

The Green Hornet

I will often stop on this if I catch it late at night while channel-hopping. It may not be a very smooth or coherent film, but it has scenes, lines, and ideas that still pop into my mind frequently; “You brought a gas mask?” “Of course I brought a gas mask!” “Just for yourself?”; and Seth Rogen’s DVD commentary is a hoot.

You didn’t build that, Disney

It’s been quite maddening to see bus after bus pass by in the last few weeks with huge ads on their sides for the launch of Disney+ and know that this lockdown is a gift from the universe to a mega corporation by making their new streaming service an obvious choice for harassed parents eager to occupy the time of housebound children with the Disney vault while they try to get some work from home done. Not of course that it’s really Disney’s vault, as is made plain by the attractions listed on the side of the bus. The Simpsons, which is to say 20th Century Fox. Star Wars. Pixar. Marvel. National Geographic. That’s Disney+? These things aren’t Disney. Matt Groening created The Simpsons, and I highly doubt Walt Disney would have approved. George Lucas created Star Wars and changed the cinematic world with ILM, and it was from Lucasfilm that Pixar was spun out, with the help of Steve Jobs. Not anybody at Disney. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are responsible for most of the characters of Marvel, and without James Cameron and Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi there probably wouldn’t have been an MCU for Disney to buy. And Disney sure as hell didn’t found the National Geographic Society in the milieu of Alexander Graham Bell in the 1880s. Disney bought these. They didn’t build them patiently, they didn’t put in hard work, or exercise quality control over decades to build up a trusted reputation, they just waved a cheque book, and somehow regulators looked the other way at the increasing monopoly power being acquired. Disney bought these to accumulate monopolistic power and make mucho money, and in the case of Star Wars when they have attempted to build something themselves they have spectacularly managed to kill the golden goose, as can be seen by looking at the downward trajectory at the box office of the late unlamented Disney trilogy.

September 29, 2019

From the Archives: Death Proof

A dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up an exasperated review of a Tarantino film I think of as Riding in Cars with Bores.

Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) uses his death-proofed stunt car to murder a group of women in Texas. When he attacks again though, in Tennessee, he meets his match in the form of two stuntwomen…

I was a Taranteenie. I was 13 when Pulp Fiction came out which put me slap bang in the demographic thus labelled by The Sunday Times. My secondary school life in an all-boys school was filled with people reciting Tarantino dialogue, talking about the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs (which no one had actually seen) and listening to his super-cool soundtrack albums. Thing is Tarantino disappeared after Jackie Brown in 1998 and damn if us Taranteenies didn’t grow up. For fractured non-linear approaches to narrative we turned to Christopher (Memento) Nolan. For self-consciously stylish long takes and fixed camera directing we looked to M Night (Unbreakable) Shyamalan. When Quentin reappeared with Kill Bill we realised that he hadn’t grown up too, he’d regressed. Death Proof has so little emotional maturity it’s scary to think that a 44 year old man thinks it’s worth his while directing something this lightweight.

The first hour of this film is utterly appalling. Imagine being trapped somewhere and having to overhear three girls conduct a preposterously boring conversation about sex while one of them infuriates the others with irritatingly obscure pop culture references. Tarantino’s foot fetish has a justification in the context of this being a parody of exploitation cinema, and it does pay off with a wonderfully gory FX shot, but it’s starting to become just an annoyance, like his other trademarks, and not a little bit creepy. The only good thing about this first story is the slow introduction of Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike as once again Tarantino coaxes a revelatory performance from a faded star. The story of Mike’s second murder spree is much better as Zoe Bell steals the show…as herself (oh the in-jokery). Stuntman Mike is utterly unprepared to have the tables turned on him by two stuntwomen and the car-chases that follow are undeniably thrilling and go some way to redeeming the waste of Tarantino’s talent that we have hitherto endured.

Tarantino’s 2005 CSI special (effectively an 80 minute TV movie) shows he still has talent to burn, but only when he’s challenged. For CSI he had to tell a story in 80 minutes, on a low budget and within censorship restraints, and his response was suspenseful and emotional. Given licence by the Weinsteins to do whatever he wanted he has created here a folly that the term self-indulgent can’t even begin to adequately condemn. If you want to see everything that this film does not feature; female characters who are witty, assertive, sexy, smart as hell and tough as nails and don’t come across as just sad male fantasy; I seriously suggest that instead of going to Death Proof that you just tune into RTE 2 on Thursday nights and watch Veronica Mars.

2/5

January 20, 2019

Notes on Glass

M Night Shyamalan’s unorthodox sequel Glass was the film of the week early this morning on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

And an unorthodox but pithy and accurate review would be that Glass is never boring but is utterly pointless. Shyamalan has, after patient coaching by producer of our times Jason Blum, clearly got his confidence back. But that might not necessarily be a good thing. Lady in the Water after all was clearly the the work of a supremely confident auteur, a man in any way insecure would never stretch 30 minutes of material into a feature movie. The Happening, when the wheels really fell off the wagon, was when Shyamalan was clearly unsure of his material and this infected his actors; as I noted at the time, the difference between the strained marriages in Unbreakable and The Happening is what happens when the actors no longer believe what they’re saying because they sense the director no longer believes. That is not a problem here. The always wonderful Sarah Paulson commits with every ounce of her being to a very silly role in much the same manner that Maggie Gyllenhaal did in White House Down.

Listen here:

January 9, 2019

Hopes: 2019

Glass

They called him Mister…

Glass, an unlikely sequel

to Unbreakable

 

Cold Pursuit

U.S. remake, but…

with same director, Neeson

in for Skarsgard. Hmm.

 

Happy Death Day 2U

Groundhog Day: Part II.

I know what you Screamed before.

Meta-mad sequel.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Cate Blanchett missing,

Daughter on her trail, thru time,

Very Linklater…

Pet Sematary

Stephen King remake.

Yes, sometimes dead is better,

but maybe not here.

 

Shazam!

Chuck: superhero.

Big: but with superpowers.

This could be great fun.

 

Under the Silver Lake

It Follows: P.I.

Sort of, Garfield the P.I.

Riley Keough the femme

 

Pokemon: Detective Pikachu

Ryan Reynolds is voice

Pikachu is the shamus

PG Deadpool fun?

The Turning

of the screw, that is.

Mackenzie Davis the lead,

can the ghosts be real?

 

John Wick: Parabellum

Keanu is back

On a horse while in a suit

Killers in  pursuit

 

Ad Astra

James Gray does sci-fi,

Brad Pitt looks for dad in space,

Gets Conradian.

 

Flarksy

Rogen heart Theron;

High school crush, now head Canuck.

No problem. Wait, what?!

Ford v Ferrari

Mangold for long haul;

Le Mans! Ferrari must lose!

Thus spake Matt Damon

 

Hobbs and Shaw

The Rock and The Stath.

The director of John Wick.

This will be bonkers.

 

The Woman in the Window

Not the Fritz Lang one!

Amy Adams: Rear Window.

Joe Wright the new Hitch.

CR: Chris Large/FX

Gemini Man

Will Smith and Ang Lee,

Clive Owen and the great MEW,

cloned hitman puzzler.

 

Charlie’s Angels

K-Stew’s big comeback

French films have made her, um, hip?

Just don’t bite your lip…

 

The Day Shall Come

Anna Kendrick stars in-

Um, nobody knows a thing

Bar it’s Chris Morris

 

Jojo Rabbit

‘My friend Adolf H.’

is Taika Waititi-

this could get quite strange…

December 9, 2018

From the Archives: The Prestige

Hugh Jackman is in the news this week just as I find in the distant past before even the pre-Talking Movies archives a review of one of his best films.

Every magic trick has three acts, every film has three acts, and Christopher Nolan has wittily combined the two by playing a three-card trick on the audience. Set in 1890s London The Prestige follows the professional rivalry and very personal enmity that develops between magicians Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier (Hugh Jackman) after Borden is responsible for the death of Angier’s wife (a tragically underused Piper Perabo) in a magic trick gone badly wrong.

Christian Bale brings his usual intensity to the role but as always so completely inhabits his character that, despite the presence of fellow Batman Begins alumni Michael Caine and Nolan, you will not think of his Dark Knight once as you watch his poor cockney try to upstage the aristocratic Jackman. Jackman is surprisingly good playing an equally driven and fairly unpleasant character while in support Michael Caine is reliably solid and the tragically overused (by which I mean she appears in the film) Scarlett Johansson is reliably pouty. Caine is pitted against Bale’s character, which for film critics with a chronic inability to focus makes some scenes look amusingly like an act-off over who has the best cockney accent. It has to be said on balance that Bale manages to out-Caine Sir Michael Caine himself. David Bowie could really have stirred things up on this front but he performs his cameo role as Niklos Tesla in a restrained Serbian accent.

The extreme lengths the magicians Borden and Angier are willing to go to in order to sabotage each other will make you wince and are genuinely shocking, one image at least should haunt you for weeks. But, as with all Christopher Nolan films, it is the telling of the tale and not the compelling tale itself that makes the film extraordinary. Narrated by both Borden and Angier the film is a Chinese box of narrative tricks. Christopher Nolan and his brother and screenwriting partner Jonathan Nolan are after all responsible for the intricately structured Memento, one of the defining films of the decade, as well as the frighteningly intelligent blockbuster Batman Begins.

M Night Shyamalan’s biggest success had one twist at the end that took people’s breath away. There are at least four twists scattered throughout The Prestige which will make you feel as if you’ve been punched in the stomach so completely do they reorder your understanding of what you’ve already seen. Which makes it damnably hard to write about without ruining the joy of its structure. When this film ends you will feel cheated. In a way that’s part of the trick. The real fun comes over the next day and a half when you realise ‘oh that’s what that scene meant’ and ‘so that’s why he said that’. While you’re waiting for The Dark Knight go see The Prestige and be the victim of masterful cinematic sleight-of-hand.

4/5

June 20, 2018

From the Archives: The Happening

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals the hesitant summer movie that saw Shymalan made a laughing stock of by American film critics.

Writer/director M Night Shyamalan’s last film Lady in the Water featured a pessimistic film critic as one of its minor characters. He got eaten by a wolf. The atmosphere at press screenings of The Happening could best be described as packs of wolves waiting to eat an optimistic film director…

Mark Wahlberg stars as high-school science teacher Elliot Moore who flees Philadelphia for the safety of the Pennsylvania countryside after New York City is devastated by a suicide epidemic triggered by a chemical attack on Central Park. The horrors that occur once the chemical flicks the self-preservation switch in the brain are the best realised sequences in this film and provide great suspense as the characters try to evade the rapidly spreading air-borne toxin. Running with Elliot are his distant wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), fellow teacher Julian (John Leguiazmo) and Julian’s young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez).

Shyamalan was severely burned by the critical and commercial disaster of Lady in the Water. The criticism, in particular, was far harsher than was deserved but it is obvious that it has rattled his confidence. As a devoted Shyamalan fan it grieves me to say that The Happening is almost a film which needs to be watched on DVD because there are enough bad lines to quickly turn cinema audiences hostile, especially after being primed by some American critics to laugh at the whole endeavour.

Lady in the Water was directed by a supremely confident man, nobody with a fragile ego would have extended such a slight narrative to feature length. The Happening, though, bears the hallmarks of a man who is not confident of his basic material. Shyamalan the visual stylist is still present and correct but Shyamalan the writer is all over the place. Contrast the failing marriages in Unbreakable and The Happening and you will see a level of emotional maturity in the scenes between Bruce Willis and Robin Wright that evaporates when it comes to Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Previously Shymalan’s actors riffed off of little hints in the script but now they look lost, as if they’re not sure the writer himself believes these characters.

There are superb sequences in this film. A long take of a gun being used by person after person to blow their brains out is stylish and horrific. At his best Shyamalan approaches Hitchcock’s The Birds by making us scared of trees and the wind itself as paranoia escalates as to the reason behind the spreading plague. Is it chemical weapons or something simpler yet even more terrifying? At his worst Shyamalan provides wincingly bad dialogue and has no earthly notion how to use cult hero Deschanel. There is no gimmicky twist but the final scene is a nice indictment of complacency towards global problems. Worth seeing, just maybe not in theatres…

3/5

August 19, 2015

M Night Shyamalan, The Visit, and the Lighthouse

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is coming to Dublin on Sunday 30th August for the Irish premiere of his new movie The Visit, followed by a Q&A at the Lighthouse. Tickets for the event are priced at just €12 and are available for purchase here.

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M. Night Shyamalan has not been having a good time of it since his glory days of The Sixth SenseUnbreakable, and Signs. His first feature since Will Smith’s blockbuster fiasco After Earth sees him team with the producer with the Midas touch Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, The Purge, Sinister, The Gift, Insidious) for Universal Pictures’ The Visit. Shyamalan returns to his roots with the terrifying story of a brother and sister who are sent to their grandparents’ remote Pennsylvania farm for a week-long trip. Once the children discover the elderly couple are involved in something deeply disturbing, they see their chances of getting back home growing smaller every day… Shyamalan produces The Visit through Blinding Edge Pictures, Blum through Blumhouse Productions alongside Marc Bienstock (Quarantine 2: Terminal), and their cohorts Steven Schneider (Insidious) and Ashwin Rajan (Devil) executive produce.

In anticipation of the release of The Visit, the Lighthouse presents a weekend of Shyamalan’s celebrated triptych.

The Sixth Sense: 28th August, 8.15pm

Shyamalan’s breakthrough third feature as director was a ghost story with a twist, rather famously, and minted money for all concerned in the dying months of 1999. Bruce Willis is the child psychiatrist trying to help the literally haunted Haley Joel Osment, who sees dead people, while unable to salvage his own failing marriage to Olivia Williams.

Signs: 29th August, 4.00pm

The final appearance of Mel Gibson as major movie star was a low-key tale of alien invasion, with Gibson’s widowed preacher becoming convinced that his family were somehow ordained to fight this cosmic takeover in the oddest way. Indeed the peculiar oddness of their calling was the first sign people were tiring of Shyamalan’s twist tic.

Unbreakable: 29th August, 8.30pm

Bruce Willis re-united with Shyamalan for a comic-book movie with a difference, not least that it wasn’t based on a comics title. Shyamalan’s extremely measured pacing took imbuing seriousness into pulp even more seriously than Bryan Singer’s X-Men, also out in 2000, and the huge twist at the end was a satisfying pay-off.

Charlene Lydon, programmer at the Lighthouse, says “We are delighted to welcome M. Night Shyamalan as our guest here. I think it is an interesting time in his career as he appears to be in a state of transition, having moved from the mainstream to making a secret low-budget found-footage thriller. I very much look forward to hearing him in conversation and also enjoy the opportunity to revisit some of his earlier work on the big screen.”

Wayward Pines, the TV show Shyamalan produced and directed the first episode of, has received extremely wounding criticism. And that’s after the unmerciful beating After Earth took. Things started to go wrong with The Village, in retrospect, as it threw in a frankly unnecessary twist almost because Shyamalan felt he had to insert a twist. (Which made The IT Crowd scene in which Matt Berry throws out every possible twist he can think of while Chris O’Dowd tries to watch a film feel a very pointed jab.) But then came Lady in the Water… When I reviewed The Happening for Dublinks.com I couldn’t escape the feeling that Shyamalan had lost his nerve. Lady in the Water was drunk on confidence, stretching the thinnest of stories into a feature. The Happening, by contrast, made a mess of a proper feature. As visual stylist Shyamalan put together impressive sequences, but as a writer he seemed self-doubting and his actors’ performances suffered accordingly. Perhaps teaming up with Blum is just what Shyamalan needs: a return to pared-down horror, with grounded characterisation, and no grandiosity. We shall see…

Tickets for each screening are now on sale at http://www.lighthousecinema.ie. The Visit is in cinemas on 11th September 2015.

June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

I come not to praise Seth MacFarlane, nor to bury him, but to consider his failure with a comedy-western alongside Damon Lindelof’s Cowboys & Aliens.

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I found A Million Ways to Die in the West to be oddly reminiscent of early Woody Allen films like Bananas; intermittently hilarious, but not really a film. But if Woody pre-Annie Hall was simply stitching together sketches without anything but the most broadly-drawn larger narrative purpose, then it seemed like the reverse was happening to MacFarlane – making ‘a Western, goddamnit!’ sucked the humour out of his comedy-western script. And so to a knotty point – there was a grindingly efficient story structure at work, but the central comic conceit of MacFarlane’s movie was unclear. Critic Joe Griffin pitches the film as – “it’s a normal guy with 21st century sensibilities who lives in the violent frontier of the Old West and is dragged into a typical Western story.” This nails MacFarlane’s interactions with Amanda Seyfried, which come close to replicating the clinical psychoanalysis terms Woody uses with Louise Lasser in Bananas with an almost identical purpose – the comedy of language entirely inappropriate to the situation. But the first genuinely funny moment is MacFarlane’s later riff on the dead mayor, which literally comes out of nowhere. Along with the inevitably blood-soaked county fair, it suggests that the titular conceit of horrible deaths would’ve been a far better source of thematic comedy. Instead MacFarlane decides to mine comedy by working the most exhausted seams of the rom-com with Charlize Theron; even down to the obligatory big lie – she chose not to tell him she’s married to terrifying Liam Neeson. Only very occasionally (to wake the audience) does he sprinkles absurdist comic moments; and meanwhile he’s also trying to touch every Western generic base.

Griffin writes “This, I think, is what happens when someone has had too much control on a project so early in his film career.” MacFarlane is the star, director, co-writer, and producer of A Million Ways; and his co-writers are his Ted and Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. That’s a lot of control. To put it in context, it’s more than M Night Shyamalan ever managed to acquire at the height of his hubris. It’s undeniable that without the success of Ted it’s unthinkable that MacFarlane would have been allowed to cast himself as the physical lead, and it’s probably equally unlikely that Wellesley and Sulkin would alienate their TV day-job boss by proposing a page-one rewrite of his pet film project. I have to agree with Griffin because getting too much control because of success is part and parcel of the disastrous creative bubble I described in 2011 which I predicted would scupper The Dark Knight Rises; Wellesley and Sulkin wouldn’t be silent because they wouldn’t want to rain on MacFarlane’s scripting parade, they’d be silent because they’d be doing the Macarena in the middle of the parade. Because they’d written Ted they’d assume whatever any of them suggested would be equally awesome, and so nobody cries halt until the train has gone far over the horizon. But I want to dissent against myself and speculate that what happened in the Million Ways writers’ room (story structure and Western tropes pushing out badly needed jokes) was the same as the fiasco that occurred not so long ago in another writers’ room not so very far away…

Cowboys and Aliens

Remember 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens? No, well, don’t feel bad. Here’s what its co-writer Damon (LOST) Lindelof had to say about it in an extremely interesting 2013 interview: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.” Cowboys & Aliens was supposedly based on a comic-book by Scott Mitchel Rosenberg, which, from the small sample available on Amazon, appears to proudly wear ‘guilt over the treatment of Native Americans in times gone by’ on its sleeve. That suggests that Ace Ventura creator Steve Oedekerk was right to create a fun screen story distinct from the comic-book. And then rewrites began… Of the credited writers a draft was done by Mark Fergus & Howard Ostby (Iron ManChildren of Men), whose credits suggest that a more serious tone had begun to emerge. Which is presumably why Lindelof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, M:I-3, Star Trek) were brought in to do the final draft of the script. Add some humour? Some nonsense? Yeah, well, obviously that didn’t work. But look at what Lindelof characterised as a genre trapping of the Western: Native American allies. What?! That would certainly be news to the Duke…

In 1991 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr took aim at America’s universities in his polemic The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger was extremely alarmed at the mass of evidence that political correctness had triumphed over sanity: “When a student sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual,’ a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: ‘This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.’” (117) In his 1982 novel Before She Met Me Julian Barnes had a history professor baffled by the genuine horror and anger of a student whenever the wrong side triumphed in any given stand-off. Schlesinger Jr was damning of attacks on ‘Eurocentric’ American history, and it was essentially an appeasement of Barnes’ fictional student; by rewriting history. In one district where Native Americans had political clout it was taught that their tribal politics had influenced Thomas Jefferson every bit as much as European Enlightenment. It had not, as Schlesinger Jr flatly stated. And yet… In Sleepy Hollow, co-created by Cowboys & Aliens scribes Kurtzman and Orci, we find Ichabod Crane noting how in his 1770s existence Native American tribal politics had been a pivotal influence on Thomas Jefferson. A throwaway cute line; to anyone who hasn’t read Schlesinger Jr’s book. If you have, you’re stunned that this is not meant as a joke or provocatively revisionist statement; it is simply stated as true when it is not.

Rio Bravo John Wayne Dean Martin

MacFarlane, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof were all born in 1973. This puts them in college at Brown, Wesleyan, UT Austin, and NYU Film School, respectively, during the height of the ‘Death to DWEMs’ tide that Schlesinger Jr was trying to turn back. I honestly think every time somebody sits down to write anything Western-related in Hollywood these days they get some epic pol.sci/film studies college flashback. As a result, in between apologising to Native Americans, rewriting the role of women in the West, inserting grim truths about the lawlessness and brutality of life then, demythologising Wayne and Ford’s back catalogue, and faithfully inserting and then attempting to subvert in the accepted revisionist mode every Western trope they were ever taught, they lose any sense of fun. Lindelof posited “a Western that had aliens as bad guys” as “the cooler movie”, and yet Cowboys & Aliens is entirely lacking any sense of being a cool adventure. It is, indeed, simply unthinkable that anybody could produce a Western right now that is exuberant fun; nobody would give you the finale of Rio Bravo. I think that may be a combination of film school prioritising, nay, canonising, serious Westerns like The Searchers and Red River over entertainments like El Dorado and Gunfight at the OK CorralRio Bravo isn’t a silly movie, but it is unabashed adventure played with great humour. But Lindelof’s description of embracing “the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies” suggests an inability to take the Western genre as it was, not as it ought to have been…

The complete failure of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t stop the even more epic failure of The Lone Ranger following it down the trail two years later. The savage darkness of The Lone Ranger was completely unsuitable for a Disney blockbuster supposedly aimed at kids, but it fitted perfectly the template of the Western produced by people Schlesinger couldn’t save. It’s admirable to insert a Sergio Leone tone into a Western romp for children, only if you also take that bloody-minded approach to your contemporary blockbusters and give us Transformers directed by Ken Loach as the working poor fighting against transforming robots who’re the highest form of capitalism. Really I think the idea of the Western as conceived by the children of 1973 is fundamentally incompatible with exuberance. In the 1970s radical directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill and Michael Cimino couldn’t wait to make a Western. But the revisionist Western wasn’t what audiences wanted. Nicholas Jarecki on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast recently made some interesting points about ‘genre exhaustion’, when an audience has seen every possible permutation arising out of a generic set-up. I don’t believe that’s what happened to the Western in the 1970s. I follow Stephen King in believing that George Lucas took the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the Western and simply, in a belated emulation of JFK’s call for a New Frontier, relocated it in space. And, as Spielberg’s Western framing at the end of The Last Crusade transparently indicates, crying for the death of the Western is like bemoaning the death of the dinosaurs while looking at flying birds: dinosaurs aren’t dead, they evolved.

Clint_GranTorino

If the blockbuster is the repository of the spirit of exuberant fun that lights up Rio Bravo, what does that make the contemporary Western? Well, it’s tempting to twist Lindelof’s words and say merely the outward trappings of the genre, stripped of its soul. Since Heaven’s Gate we’ve had serious Westerns like Dances with WolvesOpen RangeWyatt EarpUnforgivenTombstoneThe Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford3:10 to Yuma, and Seraphim Falls. We’ve had comedy mash-up disasters like Wild Wild WestCowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. And we’ve had nothing like a Rio Bravo… It’s admirable to try and cinematically reinstate the reality of the shameful treatment of the Native Americans in the Old West. But this admirable endeavour may run up against a problem if it’s part of a wider refusal to accept the Western genre for what it was and to believe that it can simply be rewritten to make it what it ought to have been. Such a massive undertaking may be more than the genre can accommodate, in one important respect – it can make for a good film, a good Western, but not a fun film. A Million Ways is not a fun film, even though it’s meant to be a comedy. And I think it’s because MacFarlane tried to hit every base; Native Americans as allies, the brutality and lawlessness of the West, rewriting the role of women (with particular emphasis on the brothels), the exploitation of Chinese labour; because he is one of that generation that can’t see a Western without giving a lecture on its propagandising.

MacFarlane certainly won’t be getting A Million Ways 2 off the ground, and his fiasco has probably scuppered any competent Destry Rides Again for the 2010s that was out there. But, considering Lindelof’s tropes, surely Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino comes closer to the cool movie that Lindelof wanted than Cowboys & Aliens. It shouldn’t be impossible to combine the 1973 generation’s ideal Western with exuberant fun – maybe it just needs Clint back in the saddle…

June 14, 2012

Red Lights

Buried director Rodrigo Cortes is in more expansive form with this supernatural thriller in which a quest to debunk a fake psychic leads to unnerving discoveries.

Cillian Murphy stars as Tom Buckley, a physicist working as an assistant to Sigourney Weaver’s medium-busting professor Margaret Matheson in Columbus, Ohio. Armed with an array of scientific measuring equipment and a healthy scepticism about the supernatural they expose fake haunting and teach a college course on parapsychology. The loving bond between Buckley and Matheson, which sees him almost standing in for her comatose son, is the best thing about this film and once the film focuses on Buckley ignoring her advice and going out on his own it loses a good deal of its humanity. The object of Buckley’s solo run is the world’s most famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), returning to the fray after 30 years in retirement following the death of his greatest doubter at a performance. Buckley becomes consumed with refuting Silver’s apparently real powers.

Red Lights regrettably takes its place alongside Prometheus in what appears to be a regular parade of films all taking a bite at the poisoned apple of the relationship between faith and science. A poisoned apple because these films bring clichés and handwringing to the party and dump them there undeveloped and then expect a round of applause for tackling the topic. Buckley and Matheson represent empirical logic and cold disbelief, Silver and Matheson’s department rival Dr. Shackleton (Toby Jones) represent the uncanny and the will to believe, while Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen) is the student who, like Fox Mulder, wants to believe but falls in love with Buckley and so becomes his apprentice in the dark arts of detecting the hocus pocus of charlatan psychics. Olsen, so magnificent in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is tragically underused in this cipher role.

Cortes, shooting in Barcelona and Toronto, creates an impressively subdued winter atmosphere. The first confrontation between Buckley and Silver in which Buckley is scared out of his mind by Silver’s apparent telekinesis is very impressively staged, as are a number of very tense sequences of apparent menacing by Silver, while Murphy delivers the line “Ignore that, it’s just a dead bird” with wonderful aplomb as his character acclimatises to the uncanny hindering his debunking of Silver’s acing of Shackleton’s scientific tests of ESP abilities. Red Lights is a film with two intercut endings, one of which is delightful and clever, and one of which is truly terrible and inane. Cortes is a consummate actor’s director, and, unlike the immensely frustrating Buried, he also wrote this script but it fails when it prioritises paranormal pyrotechnics over compelling character development.

Red Lights is engaging for most of its running time, but it disintegrates utterly when it starts teeing up a revelatory conclusion even M Night Shyamalan would disavow.

2/5

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