Talking Movies

September 24, 2018

From the Archives: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Another expedition into the pre-Talking Movies archives returns carrying an unloved comedy.

Simon Pegg attempts to break America by air-brushing everything that made him loveable in the first place and headlining an unfunny, utterly bland rom-com. Wait, did I type that or just think that?

Ah, meta-textual humour. Such honesty is after all the main reason for the social and professional failures of Pegg’s character Sidney Young. This is based on the book by one time Vanity Fair writer Toby Young who made a spectacular ass of himself during a brief sojourn with that esteemed publication. His screen equivalent writes snippy pieces about celebrities for his own magazine The Postmodern Review before getting the call to head to NYC. These opening 10 minutes set in Britain are the most charming of the film and they’re not even especially funny. It is merely comforting to see Pegg among familiar faces like The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd and Katherine Perkins before he jets off to NYC to work for Jeff Bridge’s monstrous editor Clayton Harding. It oddly parallels Pegg’s own journey from Channel 4’s sublime sitcom Spaced to this anaemic Hollywood film.

Pegg writes comedy for a living. He must know this film doesn’t work because it simply isn’t funny. This film feels like it was hit by the writers’ strike and they had to begin production with the version of the script that the script doctor hadn’t added the jokes to yet… Even worse it’s not even his type of humour, the pop reference laden whimsical absurdity of Spaced and Hot Fuzz is replaced with a string of embarrassing encounters that one would think more obviously suited to Ricky Gervais’s style. Pegg does his best with the material he’s given but far too many scenes fall flat.

The supporting cast assembled is mightily impressive except that they have nothing to work with. Scene-stealer extraordinaire Danny Huston does his best as Sidney’s overbearing section editor and Gillian Anderson is nicely glacial as a publicist but Bridges looks all at sea as the one time rebel now conformist editor. Megan Fox does her best breathy Marilyn Monroe take off but no comedic gold is mined, a la Tropic Thunder’s fake trailers, from the truly preposterous romantic flick involving a young Mother Theresa that is generating Oscar buzz for her character. Fox is only there to be, well…a fox, so it’s amazing that it is Kirsten Dunst’s long-suffering writer who steals both the audience’s hearts and the film, and I say this as someone who took most of 2007 to get over Sam Raimi re-shooting the end of Spider-Man 3 to leave Dunst’s infuriating MJ alive.

There is only one reason to see this film – watched after a double bill of Ugly Betty and Dirty Sexy Money it will convince you that 1/4 of NYC’s hottest ladies used to be guys. Think on that in the two hours of your life I’ve stopped you squandering.

1/5

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July 25, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Franchise

Shia LaBeouf is done. Michael Bay is done. Transformers as a franchise is not done. But maybe it ought to be…

Whispers (by which I mean the usual incessant briefings by publicists) abound that Jason Statham is about to assume the lead role in the Transformers franchise and take it in ‘a darker direction’. While it’s always nice to see ‘The State’ in action movies, the last thing this franchise needs is to go any darker. It’s positively screaming out for a reboot to the sunnier climes of its original vision. And yes, I am aware that talking of something needing a reboot to capture the halcyon era of four years ago is a new level of preposterousness, but it’s justified. The third act of Transformers 3 is so dark as to resemble Independence Day by way of the back-stabbing betrayals by humans collaborating with exploiting aliens of Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD rather than the fun of 2007’s Transformers. This is amplified by very questionable touch of District 9 in the Deception guns that vaporise flesh so that piles of bones fall to the ground after they shoot people.

Ehren Kruger has written a script that, like his Scream 3 which also featured Patrick Dempsey, is structurally very sound and has any number of nice touches, but which fundamentally strays from the existing tone of the franchise.  Kruger’s rewriting of the space race as a cover story for a covert mission to retrieve an alien artefact, and the meltdown at Chernobyl being a disastrous attempt to utilise that alien technology, works as well as X-Men: First Class’ similar slyness. Patrick Dempsey impresses as two kinds of villain, the romantic rival who has more money and power to impress the girl, and the Quisling of smooth collaboration and self-justificatory villainy. The comedy with Ken Jeong maniacally harassing Sam, John Malkovich chewing scenery as Sam’s eccentric colour-coded boss, and Alan Tudyk freaking out as John Turturro’s unhinged PA is all very funny….but it’s insane; you’re laughing nervously because this doesn’t fit in with the rest of film almost as much as you’re laughing because it’s funny.

Kruger’s comedy is a style of humour which is entirely different from the comedy of the first film which organically grew from the characters around who an action story suddenly took place. This lack of organicism is a problem unwisely highlighted in-camera when Frances McDormand’s spook tells Sam he really has no function in this story, and sure enough Sam later inserts himself into the storyline by sheer perseverance rather than any interior logic. A greater problem is the discordant note struck by Kruger’s approach against Kurtzman and Orci’s template. It’s always embarrassing to remember just how juvenile a director the middle-aged Michael Bay is, but the ogling of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (all low-angle shots and short skirts) is different than that of Megan Fox, because it lacks the nod and wink self-awareness of Kurtzman and Orci’s script. It’s as if Kruger has no interest in semi-apologising for this nonsense. Bay’s lingering introductory shot of Huntington-Whiteley is, fittingly, of her arse, which is what her performance is a load of, to paraphrase Shirley Manson. But this can be forgiven as just Bay being Bay…

What is unforgivable, after the disastrous introduction of so many non-characterised or racially caricatured robots in the last film, is that Kruger doesn’t retrench and try to fully utilise the original Transformers, but instead retains racially caricatured characters and then (like a LOST scripwriter) continues to hoover up yet more new characters. I’ve complained about this before but Kruger here reaches the apotheosis of this franchise’s incomprehension of the riches available in the Transformers comics. Sentinel Prime may be from the comics but so is Shockwave, and he’s outrageously wasted in the film when in the comics he has the most distinctive style of delivery of any Transformer bar Grimlock and is a wonderfully nuanced villain. Kruger’s shocks are effective but the killing of Ironhide is incredibly gimmicky and the weak exits of Starscream and Megatron from the franchise are disgracefully disrespectful to their characters’ status in both the comics and the previous films, and, in Megatron’s case, as tonally wrong as Burton’s Batman dispatching the Joker. But then how Optimus finally deals with Sentinel plainly belongs in a macho action movie for adults, not a sunny blockbuster for children. Characters gushing blood oil, having limbs parts torn off, and their spines CPUs torn out is too much. The darkness makes this film feel loooong…

Transformers was a cartoon series designed to sell toys by creating archetypal characters who had entertaining adventures. The comics injected cod-Shakespearean parallels and ended in traumatic apocalypse but they were also great fun. Surely the film-makers could remember their true target audience and lighten up a bit…

February 2, 2011

2011: Fears

The franchise is over, please go home
Man of the hour Andrew Garfield is your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man in Spider-Man 4. If ever a franchise needed a reboot less it was Spider-Man. Inexplicably back in high school Spidey will again bond with Martin Sheen’s ill-fated Uncle Ben, perhaps actually have a relationship with Gwen Stacey at the second cinematic attempt, and once again become a masked crime-fighter. Just like he already did in 2002. Are we operating on dog-years now or something that we’re remaking films we’ve just seen? What’s next, a remake of Sin City using new computer technology to make it good? Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides sees Johnny Depp spend the last remnants of his credibility on another instalment in a now thoroughly despised franchise. Pirates 3: At World’s End was a nigh endless joyless bore that sucked all the comedic energy out of the franchise in favour of convoluted plotting and purely green-screen action to the point of insanity. No one liked it. It’s even embarrassed away nearly its whole cast, and Russell Brand passed on appearing, so why make another one? Mission: Impossible 4 meanwhile sees over-rated Ratatouille director Brad Bird attempt to make Tom Cruise a viable star again despite the obvious fact that no one wants to see him top-lining blockbusters anymore. Mission: Impossible 3 was a damn good blockbuster whereas Mission: Impossible 2 was a bloated disaster, yet, despite the effect of 6 years worth of inflation on the box-office figures, M:I-3 made less money than M:I-2. Cruise’s star has dimmed, he just hasn’t accepted it yet.

A sequel? There wasn’t enough to make one good film
Cars 2 – coming soon. Yes, the very worst film Pixar have ever made gets a sequel. Cars followed the underwhelming The Incredibles and enabled a streak of 4 ho-hum films, with the unbearable Ratatouille and the hit-and-miss Wall-E confirming that not only can Pixar do wrong, but they can do wrong spectacularly. Fear this film. The Hangover 2 meanwhile sees Bill Clinton make an acting cameo beside the re-united original cast. The Hangover wasn’t a very good film, for all its baffling success here. It had some very funny moments but overall it was the same crudely moronic shtick we expect from writer/director Todd Philips, the maker of Starsky & Hutch, one of the very worst films of the last or any other decade. Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes a whopping 10 years after Tim Burton’s lamentable re-make of the Charlton Heston classic. We’re promised genetic engineering by James Franco with Tom Felton, intelligent apes, and apocalyptic war to boot, and who cares?? The endless sequels in the 1970s were riffing off a great film. This is a prequel to one of the very worst films of the 2000s.

You screwed up last time
Michael Bay has actually apologised for the unholy mess that was Transformers 2, and that’s quite something given how ludicrously profitable a movie that was. Transformers 3: The Dark of the Moon sees Megan Fox leaving the franchise, but from the trailer it looks like it still has enough racial profiling in its approach to characterisation to keep the California branch of the ACLU tied up for years. Can it really only be 4 years since the original movie was a surprisingly fun blast? The writers’ strike is largely responsible for the disastrous outing last time but can the properly working writers save things now, and perhaps not introduce about 40 new robots this time round? Scream 4 comes out 11 years after the last movie in the series which suffered greatly from creator Kevin Williamson’s abandonment of his franchise to script his TV show Dawson’s Creek. Williamson has been producing supreme dark popcorn of late in the shape of TV series The Vampire Diaries so fingers crossed that his script for this new combination of the original cast with youngsters including Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere lives up to the high standards of its mighty predecessors.

8 Miles High Concept
Cowboys & Aliens may in future years come to be regarded as the moment where the masses totally abandoned cinema in favour of forms of entertainment that were slightly more philosophically challenging, like tiddlywinks. It could be a good film, after all the redoubtable Daniel Craig is starring and Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau is directing, but from just seeing the title and then reading the pitch it seems almost like some drunken executives made a bet as to what the most ludicrous high-concept they could possibly get green-lighted was, and this narrowly beat out Flying Monkeys Vs Crab People in 3-D.

October 30, 2009

Jennifer’s Body

Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody’s second feature script was expected to be a subversive feminist horror film, but it’s merely standard shlock with good gags.

The opening shot is very Evil Dead but turns out to be the first of many odd structural decisions as it bafflingly leads us into a lengthy spoiler-tastic prologue in a lunatic asylum. The patient is our narrator and heroine Anna ‘Needy’ Lesnicki. Ignore the posters and top billing, this is Amanda Seyfried’s film rather than Megan Fox’s. Seyfried plays a dork (Cody disappointingly conveys this thru her wearing glasses and writing for the school newspaper) who is best friends forever with mean cheerleader Jennifer (Fox). Jennifer bullies Needy into attending a concert by indie band Low Shoulder at the town bar and after an inferno rips thru the venue Needy discovers that her BFF has changed from high school evil to actual evil…

Juno was a good film enlivened by a great lead performance but neither Seyfried nor Fox are in Ellen Page’s league, and the structure of this film is far less logical. There are two incredibly creepy images, of Jennifer smiling at Needy while dripping blood, and crouching spider-like over a dead body in a sequence inter-cut with Needy having sex, but many of the scares are too well signposted. There are some subversive touches – neither lead actually appears naked (despite the marketing of the film around Fox’s hotness) and the link between virginity and survival is reversed – but given the teenage characters’ pop culture reference points surely they’d know that that’s been done before (and better) by Scream. Even the feminist angle is underdeveloped apart from a few good lines. Compared to last year’s Teeth where violently misogynist males got castrated by a rampaging feminist there’s no vicious justice served up here by the choice of male victims.

JK Simmons, almost unrecognisable in a curly wig, is rather good in another subdued outing in a Cody script but supporting honours are stolen by Adam Brody’s cameo. Brody is awesome as the lead singer of indie band Low Shoulder, and this is not just my Seth Cohen obsession speaking. His turn could best be described as a Satanic version of Brandon Flowers. Indeed the bizarre scene where the action stops near the end of the film so that Jennifer can explain to Needy what actually happened near the start of the film between Low Shoulder and Jennifer is the best of the movie as the flashback is pitch-perfect comedy-horror, dripping with blood but eminently quotable. It is baffling why Cody didn’t go with that gory comedy-horror formula for the whole movie rather than just occasionally enliven routine shlock with her flair for bitchy comedic dialogue like this three-way repartee: “She can fly?!” “She’s just hovering, it’s not that impressive” “God, do you have to undercut everything I do?!”

This is fine Hallowe’en fare, with a satisfyingly vindictive super-powered final fight between humans and demons, but Juno fans should lower their expectations.

3/5

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