Talking Movies

December 5, 2011

Green Lantern: In Overcast Evening

I’ve just read Green Lantern: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns, so it’s an opportune time to weigh in with some thoughts on how Martin Campbell handled the same story cinematically.

Back in January I dubbed Green Lantern the biggest gamble of the year because the power ring which allows him to physically project anything he can imagine, but can’t handle the colour yellow because of the evil Parallax, makes him the most far-out of the major DC Comics characters. I predicted that if the movie worked it would open up the whole DC Universe for cinematic imaginings. If it failed then I foretold that Nolan’s Batman swansong and Snyder’s Superman: The Man of Steel would be the end of DC on film for another decade. Sadly the popular and critical reception appears to have consigned Green Lantern to the dustbin of abject failure, and Wonder Woman and The Flash ride with it to development hell. For my money it’s not a disaster and it’s not a triumph, it’s merely perfectly acceptable with some nice touches.

But therein lies the problem, being perfectly acceptable is not acceptable for the summer blockbuster market, and only having some nice touches doesn’t cut it in the writing stakes even though it’s a logical consequence of the straitjacket of the origin myth within which all new superhero franchises are constrained. I tweeted the other week that I couldn’t actually remember what the summer blockbusters had been, perhaps because of the ubiquity of origin myths – which are all effectively the same damn story with a different coloured cape in the lead role. I’ve never heard anyone complain that The Maltese Falcon wasn’t Sam Spade’s first case and we were never told how he became a PI, but superhero movies appear to bear out Jacob Lambert’s contention that the legacy of Lucas’ convincing special effects was to destroy the audience’s ability to suspend its disbelief without tutorials.

Green Lantern dutifully trots thru the obligatory origin myth that almost all of us could write from memory at this point in a breezily efficient manner, without ever being particularly brilliant on the large scale. What I liked were the little touches from the writers kicking against this enforced rail. I adored the fact that Hal Jordan simply said “Hey Hector” as he walked past the villain at a party, thus saving us about 20 minutes of narrative hide and seek, as they’ve known each other for years. In a similar vein the writers cheekily revealed that Hector Hammond’s overbearing father is the Senator referenced by other characters, and that’s the reason Hector was given the job of examining Abin Sur’s crashed ship – a plum assignment that ironically backfires against the father trying to do something nice for once for his disappointment of a son.

The endless angst produced in films by the strain of maintaining secret identities, as well as the stark nonsense of doing so thru the use of terrible disguises, was almost immediately dispensed with by Carol Ferris recognising Hal, despite his protestations, and loudly proclaiming, “Hal! I’ve known you all my life. I’ve seen you naked. You think I’m not going to recognise you because I can’t see your cheekbones?” Hal also got wonderfully upbraided for his carelessness in charging his power ring, “You broke it already?!” Nicest of all was that he gleefully showed off the instantaneous costume-change to that same friend, “Cool, right?”, and in a wonderful move was depicted cheating at the start of the movie as a fighter pilot in a combat simulation, and cheating again at the end of the movie as a Green Lantern in the climactic fight against Parallax.

Parallax is used well as a villain who becomes stronger the more afraid you are of him, and the revelation of his origin is a nice stroke after the discussions of the power of will versus that of fear. Not to push things too far but there’s some mileage to be had in the idea that according to this movie the native hue of resolution is green, and it’s sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought which is yellow. In slightly less strained interpretations there is some very Nietzschean undertones to the discussions about Will and Fear surrounding the use of the power rings but sadly they’re never fully developed. The really cinematic joy of Green Lantern should be that with a power based on imagination, it’s fun to see what Hal thinks of to save the day, but there’s not enough of that.

There’s a certain amount of similarity between the movie and Johns’ origins comic, but the differences are vast. Hammond is a confident sleazy scientist in the comic, Carol Ferris and Hal Jordan have never been an item, Parallax is not involved at all, though there are hints of a renegade Guardian, and Sinestro plays a much more important part and is more supportive of Hal after initial misgivings. Johns hides within the origin myth a set-up for a future storyline in his saga, a touch that refreshes a familiar tale that the movie cannot adopt. The choices of Hammond as weakling controlled by villain Parallax, Hal and Carol as re-united lovers, and Sinestro as minor figure are all interesting and valid, but the film never achieves the feeling of fun of the comic which comes from believing you’re confidently re-telling a classic tale with purpose.

The post-credits scene seemed to imply that we could expect the sequel to be a spin on Johns’ Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corp Wars storyline. Sadly, that’s now unlikely to happen, so perhaps we should stop being slightly ridiculous about all this and just read the great, varied and unpredictable comics to experience the DC universe rather than watching decent, identikit predictable films apparently aimed at people who have no ability to suspend their disbelief and just go with it.

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July 6, 2011

Top 5 Michael Caine Movies

I wouldn’t like to give the impression that I was mean-spiritedly making fun either of Michael Caine or of cockney accents in last week’s sketch, so as a gesture of atonement here’s a Top 5 of my favourite Michael Caine movies. I’ve picked only ones in which he’s the lead.

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(5) Get Carter
“You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape”, “She was only thirteen”… A movie plundered both by Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan to sharpen their Caine impressions in The Trip, and arguably by Martin Campbell and Daniel Craig to make the last image of Casino Royale iconic. This gritty thriller, which is still director Mike Hodges’ calling card, sees Caine’s implacable London hard-man Jack Carter head north to avenge his brother’s death with a shotgun. Shot in stylish long-takes with a distancing aesthetic this is an imposing British crime movie that loomed over all that followed.

(4) Educating Rita
“There is more insight in the telephone directory…and probably more wit”. Caine’s jaded English professor helps Julie Walter’s discontented housewife better herself thru an adult education course in a sparkling adaptation of Willy Russell’s play, itself almost a spin on Pygmalion. But this Henry Higgins is on a serious downward spiral; drowning in drink and self-pity in equal measures, cheated on by his wife and despising his own volumes of poetry. Caine’s showy role encompasses glorious high verbal comedy and drunken slapstick, as well as the quiet drama of alcoholic misery. This finally won him a BAFTA.

(3) The Quiet American
“Oh, shit” .Caine’s dead-pan delivery of that line is emblematic of his quiet, measured and ultimately devastating performance in Philip Noyce’s 2002 film. This subtle work is arguably the finest adaptation of Graham Greene’s work since the 1940s. Caine plays the archetypal Greene character. His foreign correspondent boasts of simply observing the chaos of 1950s Vietnam and offering no point of view, no political allegiance. An unwelcome romantic rival (Brendan Fraser’s titular do-gooder) and pressure from London to break a story sparks a belated moral engagement with the ethics of American interference, and opposition to it…

(2) Sleuth
“Be sure and tell them it was all just a bloody game!” Joseph L Mankiewicz’s riveting adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s play sees a rich aged writer invite his young wife’s lover, a cockney hairdresser, to his rural mansion for some vindictive head-games. Caine’s regional accent and film acting technique go head to head with Olivier’s RADA accent and stage acting style in a contest Caine was easily winning till a desperate Olivier produced a moustache… If you want to empirically measure Caine’s acting ability note how Sleuth’s entire structure disintegrates in the remake because Jude Law can’t act.

(1) The Italian Job
“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” A truly flawless film; from Quincy Jones’ impossibly catchy original soundtrack and the glorious turn by Noel Coward as the imprisoned crime-lord masterminding proceedings, to the implausible gang apparently composed solely of gay aristocrats and cockney wide-boys and the deranged Carry On antics of Benny Hill, and on to the wonderfully staged Austin Mini car-chase and the definitive cinematic cliff-hanger, it’s impossible not to sit back with a smile pasted on your face throughout as Caine motors the whole film along with a performance of winning charm.

June 15, 2011

Micawber-Mycroft explains nervous action directing

INT.HOLLYWOOD DIOGENES CLUB-DAY

DELANEY, an agent to the stars, uneasily walks into the library of the well-appointed Diogenes Club. Yes, this may be a haven of civility in an oftentimes torrid city, but it is also entirely lacking in potted plants; which he likes to water to put his mind at ease. Thankfully he spots his friend and fellow agent MONTGOMERY MONCRIEFF MICAWBER-MYCROFT across the room and wanders over to where he is seated, only to be shushed into silence as he sits down.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Look at that agent over there! It’s hysterical. He’s been reading the Inception screenplay just like that for the past week and he still hasn’t grasped what it’s all about.

DELANEY: (hurt) Mycroft! You know that I don’t understand what it’s all about either!

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Pshaw my good man! Pshaw! You don’t understand the philosophical ramifications and the apparent inner inconsistencies. He doesn’t understand how two levels of reality being depicted simultaneously can work on film. Someone tried to explain The Matrix to him yesterday and he had to lie down for the entire afternoon to recover…

DELANEY: Oh, wow.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Quite. (beat) Why are you here anyway?

DELANEY: You asked me to meet you here.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Well of course I did dear boy. I couldn’t possibly come to meet you in your office, my only vice is indolence and I’m loathe to move from my regular armchair here. Let me to try to remember which among the many brightly-coloured balls that I must keep juggling in the air in my capacity as an over-worked agent I wanted to warn you about. Ah yes! Bond.

DELANEY: James Bond?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes. The studio has sorted out nightmarish licensing and financial difficulties, the understanding of which defeated even my vast legal expertise, and so is ready to make another Bond movie with Peter Morgan making the gibberish action script legible to thinking humans and Sam Mendes at the helm.

DELANEY: At the helm?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Lensing it, as they say.

DELANEY: As who says? What’s he doing?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: He’s directing it you twit! Really, you must try and keep up with the synonyms this business throws out, no wonder McAvoy and Pellegrino keep moaning…

DELANEY: How did you know about that?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I quite often breach the fourth wall not once but twice before breakfast. Anyway, that’s not important. What matters is that you must at all costs prevent all your stable of actors from taking over-prominent parts in this production.

DELANEY: What?! Why?? Mendes is a good director isn’t he? I thought that people won awards, or at least got nominated for awards when they appeared in his stuff.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes, that’s true.

DELANEY: So wouldn’t my guys win awards or get nominated if they did his new movie?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Not a chance, Bond movies don’t get awards no matter how Casino Royale they are.

DELANEY: Oh, but still, wouldn’t it be a good career move? Mendes directing Bond? He’s a name director after all.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes, but, is he an action director? No sir, he is not, he is an actors’ director, and whenever an actors’ director gets thrown onto an action movie their soul frets in the shadow of spectacle.

DELANEY: You mean they don’t know what to do with the CGI?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Pshaw sir! CGI is the least of their worries. Let me conjure up a scene for you…

INT.HOLLYWOOD BACKLOT-DAY

RODRIGO DELL’ARTE, an imaginary art-house director, arrives in thru the studio gate and is immediately pounced on by A GAGGLE of production heads bellowing questions and demands.

BORIS: Where are we going to shoot the car-chase?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT (O/S): Car-what? The man’s barely aware of what a car is, he gets public transport everywhere as a matter of principle. As for car-chases they hold no interest for him whatsoever, what can a car-chase say about the human condition?

(Dell’Arte shrugs his shoulders expressively to Boris)

JOHNSON: Are we going to do all the explosions for real or will we try and skimp by with CGI for some of them to free up their budget for the wire-work in the night-time museum sequence?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT (O/S): He’s heard the letters CGI, but has never had to have an actual conversation about them before. As for wire-work, that sounds more practical but still it scares the life out of him.

(Dell’Arte nods approvingly to Johnson)

GODUNOV: Have you made a final decision on which location you want to film the base-jumping sequence from, Hong Kong or Dubai?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT (O/S): What is this? A movie or a round the world cruise? Previously he’s only ever been offered choices between tiny sound-stages and cramped apartments…

(Dell’Arte throws his hands up in despair, and defers to his SECOND UNIT DIRECTOR)

INT.HOLLYWOOD DIOGENES CLUB-DAY

Micawber-Mycroft leans back in his chair.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: In summary, this is a world they’ll never understand, and you’ll always fear what you don’t understand.

DELANEY: That sounds oddly familiar.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I may have said it rather loudly when a struggling director was dining here some years back.

DELANEY: So an art-house director on an action movie simply defers to the second unit?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Indeed he does! They have the experience and expertise he does not, he is simply terrorised by their smooth efficiency. He’s made to feel an interloper on his own production. He leaves so much to the blasted second unit that the first time he sees the cast is two months into a six month shoot and they don’t know who he is. This does not gel an ensemble…

DELANEY: So, well then at least the action is perfect, even if he stood back from it?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: No, the action is perfectly fine because it’s being done by professionals without someone standing over them whipping them onwards. Martin Campbell gets all the action in Casino Royale perfectly perfect because he’s an action director merrily urging his second unit on to great heights, but then he also manages to get the actors to reach the same heights in the first unit stuff. Which may have been sheer luck, the great script, or, as I suspect, the ease they felt in knowing that this man was indeed on top of everything in the film.

DELANEY: And you think that a less commercial director will just get into a blind panic over the action, and sit back from it, thinking he can focus on getting the acting scenes top notch, but then the acting doesn’t compensate?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Of course the acting doesn’t compensate! No one goes to an action film to see people acting! Acting is merely what they do in between explosions, fights, and car-chases to keep the action from getting monotonous.

DELANEY: So you think the next Bond film will be a bit of a mess?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I don’t know what to expect. Mendes has a flair for comedy which is oft forgotten because he makes such downbeat films, so you can expect the next Bond film to be quite funny. And you can guarantee he’ll draw out top-notch performances. But, you cannot put money down on it being a great film without reservations…

DELANEY: How are you such an expert on this?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I’m British.

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