Talking Movies

June 29, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XV

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

There’s, uh, just not enough Goldblum available to meet the existing demand

That at least is what I’ve taken from the Lighthouse’s third Jeff GoldBLUMSDAY two weeks ago. The internet of the 2010s really has made Goldblum latterly a much bigger deal than he actually was in his pomp. This year the Lighthouse’s three films were Thor: Ragnarok, Jurassic Park, and Jurassic Park: The Lost World; that is to say one leading role, one major supporting role, and one highly amusing but basically glorified cameo – as a spin on his own web-enhanced persona. Last year was The Big Chill, Independence Day, Thor: Ragnarok (again), The Fly, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension; that is to say (arguably) two lead roles, two major supporting roles, and the same glorified cameo. But what else can you screen? You have to commit to showing the likes of The Tall Guy, Deep Cover, and Into the Night if you want more lead roles, or for major support Silverado, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Nine Months, or for memorable small turns The Right Stuff, Igby Goes Down, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Otherwise you will find yourself recycling the same handful of 1980s cult films, 1990s blockbusters, and 2010s ironic nods every year.

Alas, poor Robert Downey Jr, a man of infinite jest

Writing an Icon piece for the University Observer about Keanu Reeves 15 years ago I noted that their 40s was the decade when a star had both the clout and the maturity to make the films they would be remembered for. Robert Downey Jr had an infinitely more financially successful 40s than Keanu Reeves; just compare Iron Man 1-3, The Avengers, Sherlock Holmes 1&2, Due Date, and Tropic Thunder, to The Day The Earth Stood Still, Constantine, The Lake House, 47 Ronin, and John Wick; but artistically speaking I fear he has wasted his peak years. Whereas Keanu was clearly on a downward slope at the box office after The Matrix Reloaded, which compromised his ability to make big projects, RDJ hit the big time with Iron Man, giving him clout when he was at the peak of his powers.  Having got clean and sober RDJ was making really interesting stuff: Good Night, and Good Luck, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac, Charlie Bartlett, and Tropic Thunder. And then after the success of Iron Man he used his muscle to make … Sherlock Holmes and The Soloist. Then there was Due Date, Sherlock Holmes 2, and, following in the footsteps of The Soloist, another painfully belaboured and failed attempt to win an Oscar with The Judge. He remembered who he used to be for Chef, but 2014 was the last time he played any part but Tony Stark. What really galls is that Downey Jr was not allowed any more Iron Man movies because it would have been too lucrative for him rather than Disney, so instead he was inserted into Spider-Man and Captain America movies, and more Avengers sequels. There is only so many times any actor can go to the well before they (a) find nothing there (b) discover that like Eugene O’Neill Senior they have ruined their range and can now only play one part. Robert Downey Jr is now 54 years old, and, finally free of Marvel, he’s, unbelievably, making Sherlock Holmes 3, but first another remake of Doctor Dolittle. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard: What happened to you, man? You used to be beautiful…

Mean Girls – 22nd August Lighthouse cinema

The Lighthouse remembers the Wonder Years

The Lighthouse is following up Keanurama with a rambling two month season entitled Wonder Years – Films to grow up with. The entire 8 movie Harry Potter series is the cornerstone of the films screening from 6th July to 13th September.  I’ve never really understood the critical love affair with coming-of-age narratives. It was entirely predictable that Mark Kermode in his semi-disastrous Secrets of Cinema series chose coming-of-age as one of the four cardinal genres. If you would ask me what Almost Famous is about I’d say music, journalism, first love, family, and disillusionment, but I’d never say ‘coming of age’. Wordsworth declared that poetry took its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity. One might say that coming of age films are the nostalgic or acerbic recollections of thirtysomethings about their early teenage years. An even greater distancing than that between twentysomething musicians making music for fans a decade younger. The great paradox of coming of age films is that they cannot be watched by the people they are about. Even when they could, half the time they wouldn’t; my class at national school would have committed hara-kiri rather than watch My Girl. The audience is adults, and immediately there is a sort of instant nostalgia, even if none is intended, simply by locating the story in a past recognisable by cultural totems. Christopher Nolan rightly said people discover films thru Spielberg not Godard. I think lived reality is the putting away of childish things and the struggle to embrace adult things that are beyond you; moving straight from comic-books to PG Wodehouse; not wallowing for seven years in a cocoon of teenage material produced for teenagers by thirtysomethings – that which in secondary school my class rebelled against reading because we didn’t want to be patronised, we chose Nineteen Eighty-Four and rejected Buddy. And none of us grew up watching supernatural Japanese anime, just as outside the bubble of film criticism/film studies/film-making I have never heard anyone even mention the endlessly valorised Cinema Paradiso. But then as Charles noted in Brideshead Revisited everyone tinkers with the markers on their youth to give them the sophistication they wished they’d had.

MY GIRL

(From 6th July 2019)

HARRY POTTER 1

(From 7th July 2019)

CINEMA PARADISO

(From 10th July 2019)

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO [DUBBED]

(From 13th July 2019)

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO (SUBTITLED)

(From 13th July 2019)

 

HARRY POTTER 2

(From 14th July 2019)

REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

(From 17th July 2019)

SPIRITED AWAY (DUBBED)

(From 20th July 2019)

SPIRITED AWAY (SUBTITLED)

(From 20th July 2019)

BOYZ N THE HOOD

(From 20th July 2019)

 

HARRY POTTER 3

(From 21st July 2019)

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

(From 24th July 2019)

HARRY POTTER 4

(From 28th July 2019)

STAND BY ME

(From 1st August 2019)

KES

(From 8th August 2019)

 

MOONLIGHT

(From 10th August 2019)

Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN

(From 10th August 2019)

DEAD POETS SOCIETY

(From 11th August 2019)

HARRY POTTER 5

(From 11th August 2019)

MARIE ANTOINETTE

(From 14th August 2019)

 

RAW

(From 17th August 2019)

MOONRISE KINGDOM

(From 17th August 2019)

HARRY POTTER 6

(From 18th August 2019)

MEAN GIRLS

(From 22nd August 2019)

INSIDE OUT

(From 24th August 2019)

 

HARRY POTTER 7

(From 25th August 2019)

HARRY POTTER 8

(From 27th August 2019)

SING STREET

(From 28th August 2019)

LADY BIRD

(From 29th August 2019)

BOYHOOD

(From 31st August 2019)

 

IT

(From 5th September 2019)

It: Chapter Two arrives in cinemas on September 6th.

December 3, 2011

The Movies Aren’t Dead, they just smell funny: Part II

Several months ago I criticised the opening of Mark Harris’ GQ article ‘The Day the Movies Died’. In this piece I praise his argument regarding branding, but contradict his valorisation of female cinema-goers by reference to his own telling conclusion.


Harris is brilliant in his analysis of how marketers have steered film-making away from the perils of originality. There never was any point in making a good film that no one would want to go see (Rabbit Hole) but the marketers we have today do seem to be exceptionally lazy in being unwilling to sell a good film unless it’s a brand i.e. someone else has already done all the hard work of creating and marketing something. Harris says no one would green-light an Inception but everyone would green-light an Inception 2, because that would be a brand. Intriguingly Mark Kermode has raised the idea that every blockbuster will eventually make a profit these days, no matter how catastrophic the reception of the film at the box-office, via DVD, games, merchandise and TV rights. Marketers can’t secure a film favourable reviews, but they can turn up the white noise to such an unbearable extent that you see the film just to get the unpleasant task over with it, and, more than likely, so that you can join ‘The Conversation’ criticising it. Mission Accomplished: you’ve just green-lit a sequel to a film you didn’t like, which you knew you wouldn’t like it, but paid into anyway.

I’m sick and tired of the condemnation teenage males receive for ‘destroying cinema’. Apparently they lack “taste and discernment”, which all women possess; which is what makes women such an exhausting proposition to sell to, although Harris puts his case in more grossly anatomical terms. A good exercise with statements like this is to reverse the gender and see if it then strikes you as sexist. It does. The assumption is not that a female audience offers a complementary or an equivalent but neglected taste, but a superior taste. (This also applies to every article claiming that women bankers would have avoided the credit crunch) This reverse sexism is absurd, because of Harris’ own telling conclusion – audiences get what they deserve. Female audiences are not composed entirely of Chekhovians interested only in human stories told well. Men don’t willingly shell out cash to see every bloody Jennifer Aniston or Sarah Jessica Parker atrocity film; they’re dragged to them by their girlfriends… Writing a screenplay, no matter how formulaic takes time and isn’t easy; it’s bloody hard work, even if like John Sayles you’ve got it down to relentlessly cranking out 10 pages a day of a pass when you’re working on formulaic mainstream rubbish for gas money. I think that an awful lot of what comes out in Hollywood these days in particular genres, especially romantic comedy, really is first draft material. Not the real first draft obviously, but the first draft you let people see, where the structure is sound as a bell but it’s lacking a bit of polish in the dialogue, a bit of pizzazz in the action. It’s solid, but you wouldn’t want to start shooting it. But here’s the thing, adding polish and pizzazz will take even more time and effort, and if it’s not necessary why bother? If the audience can’t tell the difference between His Girl Friday and The Bounty Hunter, then there’s no reason to go to the extra effort of writing His Girl Friday for them. Harris dismisses young men as, in studio thinking, idiots, who’ll watch “anything that’s put in front of them as long as it’s spiked with the proper set of stimulants.” Well that statement is equally devastating when applied to a female audience willing to watch romantic comedies that are neither romantic nor comedic nor original. Female audiences get the films they deserve – badly written formulaic crap.

Chick-flicks don’t have to be bad. Romantic comedy as a genre can boast some of the all-time classics, including a large chunk of Frank Capra’s back catalogue, as well as laugh-fests by Howard Hawks, and Woody Allen and Rob Reiner at their very best. But the logic of Harris’ conclusion is impeccable. As President Bartlett put it, “Decisions are made by those who show up”, and if you are happy to see The Accidental Husband or PS I Love You then there’s no point in going to the extra effort of writing Definitely Maybe or The Jane Austen Book Club for you. The problem here is one of writing-by-numbers. If the marketers see all the ingredients attached to a movie then they can sell it in their accustomed manner. It really doesn’t matter to them whether the combination of ingredients is producing on this occasion a cordon bleu or a takeaway meal. In this light the increasingly formulaic nature of Hollywood is easily explained but it’s becoming a terrible burden on audiences. At the moment we’re all like jaded restaurant critics reviewing the same bloody dish over and over again; the only things that spark our interest are new ingredients (wonderful supporting performances in a rom-com, two original touches in a comic-book movie), or a perfect rendition of the dish (so that you forget The Dark Knight has a solid three-act structure). Steve McQueen showed with Hunger that a loose sense of beginning, middle and end is really all you need to inject dramatic momentum into incredibly oblique material. Tarantino has repeatedly shown that ‘a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order’, works fine with mainstream audiences. So why does every Hollywood film lately feel like it’s been written by a super-computer programmed with the Three-Act structure and every cliché in the book for bringing it to life, and with a default setting of regarding all cinemagoers as dribbling troglodytes? Every super-hero movie is an origin story. Did Philip Marlowe need an origin story for Bogie to play him in The Big Sleep? Harris asks what we can do about this when we’re to blame by watching films on DVDs rather than putting up with anti-social jerks by watching them in cinemas? Well, the answer is go see the movies that you actually want to see – a new movie by a writer or director whose work you like, a concept that sounds clever, a performance that looks good. Avoid everything that looks like reheated boil in the bag clichés, and never accept that you have to pay into an obnoxious film to somehow ‘earn’ the right to dismiss it. The dream factory can only make the product you want if you tell it exactly what you want…

Every time the lights go down in Savoy screen 1 and the curtains part, I think ‘Entertain me’. My fervent wish of late is that Hollywood would live up to my new request, ‘Surprise me’…

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

June 2, 2010

Icon: Werner Herzog

Herzog’s dementedly brilliant The Bad Lieutenant is currently in cinemas and another feature My Son What Have Ye Done? is winning acclaim at film festivals, so it’s time for a brief spot of hero-worship of the insane German auteur.

Werner Herzog was born in 1942 and worked in a steel factory to fund his film education. When he was thirteen his family had shared an apartment in Munich with an eccentric actor called Klaus Kinski. Kinski had a small role in For a Few Dollars More but was widely considered impossible to work with. Herzog (who said of Kinski, “I had to domesticate the wild beast”) was thus uniquely positioned to extract performances of grandeur from the actor in the five films they made together. Herzog spent the mid-60s trying to get his award winning feature script Signs of Life off the ground. He had written it in 1964 and in 1967 finally managed to make it with only $20,000 and a stolen 35 mm movie camera. It was released to acclaim in 1968 and his debut established his directorial style. Languidly paced with long takes and dreamy landscape shots it followed the descent into madness of an injured soldier while working as caretaker of a military fortress with his wife on a Greek island. Herzog followed it up with a National Geographic documentary The Flying Doctors of East Africa establishing a pattern of alternating features with documentaries that persists to this day.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) established Herzog as a truly visionary director with an extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography and a talent for exploring states of deep psychological madness in its epic narrative of a Conquistador’s search for El Dorado. Herzog revisited this theme with Fitzcarraldo (1982) which was another story of insanity in the South American rainforests and during which he remarked, “I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum”. Both films benefited from extraordinary performances by Klaus Kinski of whom he said:  “People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder”. It is alleged that Herzog threatened Kinski with a gun during takes on Fitzcarraldo

Documentaries became Herzog’s mainstay following Kinski’s death in 1990. Herzog’s reputation in that field is immense. He was responsible for forcing Errol Morris, director of 2004’s The Fog of War, to stop talking about it and finally make his documentary debut, the off-beat 1978 pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, with a challenge that Herzog made good on in the 1979 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe… Herzog’s most notable documentaries include 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly and 2005’s Grizzly Man. He also starred in 2004’s Incident at Loch Ness, an uproariously funny mockumentary about Herzog making a film about the phenomenon of Nessie, co-written and directed with X-2 scribe Zak Penn.

While being interviewed about Grizzly Man by Mark Kermode for BBC 2’s Culture Show Herzog was shot live on camera by an air-rifle. Herzog, Kermode and the crew dived for cover and scurried from the Beverly Hills to Herzog’s house to finish the interview. Herzog was remarkably unperturbed, merely muttering “I have been shot at before, but this is the first time I have been shot at in those hills”. Kermode was aghast to discover that Herzog was bleeding having been shot in the stomach by the sniper. Herzog steadfastly refused to go to hospital maintaining, “It is an insignificant wound”, and finished the interview. The morning after the interview was broadcast Joaquin Phoneix revealed Herzog had rescued him from a car wreck. Phoenix overturned his car on a canyon road above Sunset Boulevard after his brakes failed. Phoenix said “I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, ‘Just relax’…I’m saying, ‘I’m fine. I am relaxed’…this head pops inside. And he said, ‘No, you’re not’. And suddenly I said to myself, ‘That’s Werner Herzog’ There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out. I got out of the car and I said, ‘Thank you’, and he was gone”. After such a truly Batman like escapade it was only suitable that Herzog’s next film was with Christian Bale. Rescue Dawn dramatised the true story of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, an account of USAF pilot Dieter Dengler’s attempts to escape from a Vietcong POW camp.

Herzog followed up his highest-profile feature in many years with Encounters at the End of the World, an inspired portrayal of Antarctica’s wildlife and landscape and the oddballs who live there, which was Talking Movies’ pick of 2009. Herzog may well win it and place this year…

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.