Talking Movies

July 13, 2017

Taking Stock of Keanu

7 years ago to the day I wrote a piece on how Keanu Reeves, then 45, was dealing with mid-life cinematically. I think it’s time to check on Keanu again.

In the distant halcyon past of 2004 I wrote a profile of Keanu Reeves for the University Observer. He had just declined Superman for Warner Bros when I wrote that profile, and in 2010, not having any currently lucrative franchise, I said he’d be now be considered about 20 years too old to even audition, and George Reeves be damned.  In the Observer piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles”, but lacked the space to really flesh that out. Somebody, perhaps Barry Norman, had suggested Hollywood leading men lose their cachet on hitting 50, so their 40s are the years where they have both the maturity and the box-office clout to take on the roles for which they will be best remembered. Think John Wayne (Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers), Gregory Peck (Moby Dick, The Big Country, On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, To Kill a Mockingbird), Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down). It seems a good enough theory.

Between 2004 and 2014 Keanu appeared in Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi, 47 Ronin, and John Wick. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in Mike Mills’ first movie. His turn in Rebecca Miller’s Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem them. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find large audiences. Richard Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if odd film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as leading dramatic roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best characters. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas, while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; making his directorial debut. Utilising what Lawrence has since spoken of as the twilight zone between PG-13 and R it had a fine sense of metaphysical rather than visceral horror, and was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

And then came John Wick

February 3, 2015

2015: Fears

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Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis return, oh joy, in 3-D, more joy, with a tale of a young woman (Mila Kunis) who discovers that she shares the same DNA as the Queen of the Universe, and goes on the run with a genetically engineered former soldier (Channing Tatum), oh, and he’s part wolf… The unloveable Eddie Redmayne is the villain, but the extremely loveable Tuppence Middleton is also in the cast, and, oddly, there’s a cameo from Terry Gilliam, whose work is said to be an influence on the movie. Alongside Star Wars, Greek mythology, and the comic-book Saga it seems…

 

Fifty Shades of Grey

Jamie Dornan is Christian Grey, Dakota Johnson is Bella Swan Anastasia Steele, Universal are terrible gamblers. Take one novel: which is 100pp of hilariously obvious Twilight homage leading to pornography for hundreds more and an unsatisfactory ending; a sensation because of the ability to secretly read it. Now hire art-house director Sam Taylor-Johnson to make an R-rated film focused on the romance, after 5 Twilight movies of said romance shtick; and force people to say out loud what film they’re seeing, or at least be seen going to it. Sit back, and watch this gamble fail.

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Blackhat

Michael Mann returns with his first film since 2009’s uninspired Public Enemies. Chris Hemsworth, now officially a god in Iceland again, plays a hacker who gets a free pass from jail to help Viola Davis’ FBI agent liaise with her Chinese counterpart (pop star Wang Leehom) following a devastating cyber-attack in China which led to a nuclear incident. Hemsworth is distracted in his mission by Lust, Caution’s Chen Lien, and, if you’ve read the vituperative reviews, an appalling script. Mann’s been on a losing streak for a while, and his hi-def video camera infatuation only doubles down on that.

 

In the Heart of the Sea

March sees director Ron Howard take on Moby Dick. Or rather, tell the true story that inspired Moby Dick, rather than try and out-do John Huston. Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson are among the hapless crew of the whaling ship Essex out of New England that runs afoul of a curiously vindictive sperm whale in 1820. Martin Sheen starred in a rather good BBC version of this disaster its grisly aftermath at Christmas 2013. Who knows if Howard will match that, but he’ll definitely throw more CGI at the screen.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

Joss Whedon takes off the Zak Penn training wheels and scripts this sequel to 2012’s hit solo. James Spader voices the titular evil AI, unleashed by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man when fiddling about in Samuel L Jackson’s Pandora’s Box of Shield secrets. The great Elizabeth Olsen is Scarlet Witch, and Aaron Johnson is Quicksilver, but I find it hard to work up any enthusiasm for another ticked box on the Marvel business plan. Why? CGI and Marvel empire-building fatigue, a lack of interest in most of the characters, and great weariness with Whedon’s predictable subversion.

 

Lost River

What is the difference between a homage and le rip-off? The French should know and they loudly booed Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut as little more than Nicolas Winding Refn and David Lynch meeting up for a whimsical night out. Gosling also wrote this tale of a boy who finds a town under the sea down a river, and has to be rescued by his mother. Matt Smith, Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Eva Mendes, and Ben Mendelsohn are the actors roped in by Gosling to flesh out his magical realist vision of a hidden beauty lurking underneath decrepit Detroit.

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Far From the Madding Crowd
Bathsheba (Carey Mulligan), a wilful, flirtatious young woman unexpectedly inherits a large farm and becomes romantically involved with three widely divergent men: rich landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), dashing Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge), and poor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Hardy’s classic novel is a formidable predecessor for this May release. This version from director Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, The Hunt), was co-scripted with David Nicholls of One Day fame; another man whose tendencies are not exactly of a sunny disposition. Can the promising young cast overcome Vinterberg’s most miserabilist tendencies?

 

Tomorrowland

Well this is a curio… Brad Bird directs George Clooney and Secret Circle star Britt Robertson in a script he co-wrote with Damon LOST Lindelof about a genius inventor and a parallel universe, or something. Nobody really seems to know what it’s about. But then given Lindelof’s resume even after we’ve watched it we probably won’t know what it’s about. Bird proved extremely capable with live-action in Mission: Impossible 4, but explicitly viewed the talky scenes as mere connective tissue between well-executed set-pieces; pairing him with ‘all questions, no answers’ man seems like a recipe for more puzzled head-scratching.

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Ant-Man

Ant-Man was in 2015: Hopes until director and co-writer Edgar Wright walked because Marvel shafted him after years of development. I was highly interested in seeing Paul Rudd’s burglar become a miniature super-hero who’s simpatico with ants after encountering mad scientist Michael Douglas and his hot daughter Evangeline Lilly; when it was from the madman who made Scott Pilgrim Vs the World. When this deservedly nonsensical take on a preposterous property is being helmed by Peyton Reed; whose only four features are Bring It On, Down With Love, The Break-Up, and Yes Man; my interest levels drop to zero.

 

Terminator: Genisys

Quietly brushing 2009’s Terminator: Salvation into the dustbin of history in July is this script by Laeta Kalogridis (Pathfinder, Night Watch) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry). Game of Thrones’ Alan Taylor directs, which presumably explains Emilia Clarke’s baffling casting as Jason Clarke’s mother. That’s going to take some quality Sarah Connor/John Connor timeline shuffling. And this is all about timelines. Arnie returns! Byung-Hun Lee is a T-1000! Courtney B Vance is Miles Dyson! YAY!!!!! Jai Courtney is Kyle Reese … BOOOOOO!!!!!!! Did we learn nothing from McG’s fiasco? We do not need another muscle-bound actor with zip charisma.

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Fantastic Four

August sees Josh Trank shoulder the unenviable task of rebooting the Fantastic Four after two amiable but forgettable movies. Trank impressed mightily with the disturbing found-footage super-yarn Chronicle, and scripted this effort with X-scribe Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect). The cast is interesting; Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Kate Mara as Sue Storm, Michael B Jordan as Johnny Storm, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, and Toby Kebbel as Dr Doom; but this has had a troubled production, and carries an albatross around its neck as it must bore us senseless with another bloody origin story.

 

The Man from UNCLE

August sees CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB man Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) on a mission to infiltrate a mysterious criminal organization during the height of the cold war. Steven Soderbergh nearly made this with George Clooney from a Scott Z Burns script. Instead we get Guy Ritchie and Sherlock Holmes scribe Lionel Wigram. Sigh. Hugh Grant plays Waverley, while the very talented female leads Alicia (Omnipresent) Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki will highlight the lack of suavity and comic timing of the male leads; particularly troublesome given the show was dry tongue-in-cheek super-spy nonsense.

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Black Mass

Poor old Johnny Depp is having something of an existential crisis at the moment. People moan and complain when he does his quirky thing (Mortdecai). But when he doesn’t do his quirky thing people moan and complain that he’s dull (Transcendence). September sees him team up with Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton for Scott Cooper’s 1980s period thriller about the FBI’s real-life alliance with Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, exploring how  the bureau’s original good intention of running an informant was derailed by Bulger’s clever connivance, ending up as a sort of state-sanctioned take-over of the criminal underworld.

 

The Martian

Ridley Scott just can’t stop making movies lately, but he’s having a considerably harder time making good movies. November sees the release of The Martian starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars after being presumed dead in a ferocious storm. The supporting cast includes Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Sebastian Shaw, Kate Mara, and the regrettably inevitable Jessica Chastain. Damon must try to send an SOS forcing NASA to figure out how on earth to go back and rescue him. Drew Goddard wrote the script. There’s the reason this might work.

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The Hateful Eight

November sees the return of Quentin Tarantino. The writer/director who never grew up follows his rambling gore-fest Django Unchained with another Western. But this one is shot in Ultra Panavision 70, despite being set indoors, and has more existential aspirations. Yeah… Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, and Zoe Bell return to the fold for this tale of bounty hunters holed up during a blizzard, while newcomers to Quentinland include Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Nobody’s told Tarantino to stop indulging himself in years so expect endless speechifying and outrageous violence.

July 18, 2014

SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

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Mike Myers makes an unexpected directorial debut with an affectionate documentary about the life of Alice Cooper’s manager Shep Gordon.

Shep Gordon moved coasts in the late 1960s to idealistically reform young offenders as a parole officer in California. That didn’t go so well. So instead he became one of them; selling drugs to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and managing Alice Cooper as a front for his sizeable cash-flow. And then he started to care… And, as Michael Douglas would say, he’s never stopped caring since. Gordon cleverly connived Cooper to chart success, did the same for soul singer Teddy Pendergrass, and then as a challenge took on management of wholesome Canadian folk singer Anne Murray to prove he didn’t need sex or violence to make his acts successful. And that’s just the 1970s, in the 1980s and 1990s Gordon branched out in all-new directions; and somehow ended up cooking yak tea for the Dalai Lama in Maui. Yeah!

Myers, as you might expect, intersperses footage of talking heads with dramatic re-enactments played out to maximise the comedy of certain situations. But really when the talking heads include the dry wit of Michael Douglas, the explosive profanity of Tom Arnold, and the riotous anecdotes of Gordon himself, re-enactments are only an icing on the comedic cake. This is a very entertaining documentary because what Gordon got up to is so outrageous, and clever. Cooper’s music wasn’t up to much, but his stage presence was – so Gordon built an audience thru theatre before bothering with trying to make a hit record. And he built the audience thru skilful manipulations of situations (a live chicken, a stalled van, outré LP packaging) to give Cooper a youth audience by making him a bogey of authority figures – even as he exploited those authorities.

What’s most interesting about SuperMensch as a documentary is its unexpected layer of sadness. Sam Waterston’s mensch in Crimes and Misdemeanours is subjected to Job-like misfortune, and Gordon seems to follow that ironic pattern. His black girlfriend of the 1970s leaves him; taking her daughter that he’d treated as his own; and later Gordon looks after the daughter’s children following tragedy as their surrogate Jewish grandfather; while remaining tragically single. He creates the concept of celebrity chef out of friendship with the inventor of nouveau cuisine, because he believes the revered chef is not earning an amount of money commensurate to his talent. He is all things to all clients. But when Gordon has life-threatening surgery with low chances of survival the only person by his bedside when he wakes up is his PA, who is tearful about his isolation.

SuperMensch at times could use a bit more detail on how precisely Gordon moved from field to field within talent management, but overall it’s both an unexpectedly thoughtful and deliriously entertaining debut from Myers.

3.5/5

June 8, 2013

Behind the Candelabra

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Steven Soderbergh’s final ‘final’ film as a movie director is a fitting send-off for one of the most interesting talents of the past quarter century.

Young Hollywood animal-handler Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) picks up Bob Black (Scott Bakula) in a gay bar in 1977 to the strains of Donna Summer, but soon finds himself in another world entirely – a Las Vegas Liberace concert, where he’s invited backstage to meet Bob’s former lover; whose friends call him ‘Lee’ (Michael Douglas). His concern for Liberace’s ailing poodle leads to a job offer, and soon Scott’s dreams of becoming a vet have been replaced by the reality of living privately as Lee’s boyfriend and publicly as his PA. But as power-tripping plastic surgery and mountains of cocaine warp their relationship in the 1980s Scott is in danger of being replaced by a younger model, just as an increasingly libidinous Liberace needs his guidance more than ever if he’s not to commit career suicide falling out of the closet.

Soderbergh combines here the intimacy of his early work, with the tinted stylishness of his middle period, and the long takes of his latter days. This is in service to the best script that Richard LaGravanese has penned in decades, which drips caustic putdowns; including a spectacular phone insult by Liberace’s domineering manager Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd). Michael Douglas had some great scenes in Wall Street 2, but this is best sustained performance he’s given in 13 years. Damon is inescapably too old for the role and so distorts the historical reality of the relationship’s beginning, but he is remarkably without vanity in donning his fake nose from Ocean’s 13 again as Scott is literally moulded by Lee. Damon’s character arc though loses momentum as it descends into cliché and a padded finale that sacrifices momentum to a completist instinct.

Soderbergh is commendably nasty in showing the ‘vanity gone mad to unconvincing effect’ horrors of plastic surgery in practice on both of the lead characters. And that’s before we get to Rob Lowe’s hysterically funny plastic surgeon Dr Starz whose eyes don’t seem to quite fully open anymore after a facelift, and who seems barely conscious at times as he pushes the pills of his ‘California diet’ to his equally blissed-out patients. The make-up effects for Lee, Scott and Starz are jaw-droppingly good, especially a stunning reveal at the close, and complement the dazzling costumes and interior bling of Liberace’s Vegas decadence. But at times Soderbergh’s film resembles such superficial glitter without any explicated substance, especially in Lee’s apparently devoted relationship to his Polish mother Frances (Debbie Reynolds) who passed on her devout Catholicism to him; which he somehow retains.

Did Liberace’s showmanship obscure and eventually destroy his musicianship, like Eugene O’Neill Senior sacrificing his talent for money, so that Soderbergh’s swansong is an allegorical warning for contemporary Hollywood?

4/5

December 3, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part II

If you’ve read the previous piece then you’ll be aware that I was quite often watching the adventures of the young(ish) Clark Kent for laughs.

So, why did I stick with Smallville? Season 1 was fun. It wasn’t a great TV show, but it was consistently entertaining, promised great future developments (not least when Lex’s future was glimpsed and it showed a white-suited black-gloved President causing a nuclear apocalypse), and the central conceit of a good Lex and a young Superman being friends was irresistible. You also had a nice thwarted but plausible relationship with Lana, complemented by Chloe’s loveable cub-reporter in the making digging around for meteor freaks for her Wall of Weird oblivious to the fact that her best friend was the freakiest. Season 2 was where the wheels fell off the wagon. I stopped watching for a while, as the removal of the obstacle didn’t lead to Clark and Lana becoming a couple, but instead to Millar & Gough ratcheting up the badly-written teen angst to unbearable levels. It also began a trend of dotting poorly explained ‘important arc plot points’ randomly at the end of episodes, and then forgetting about them for weeks, something which over the years eventually made the show both incomprehensible and unintentionally hilarious. Still the idea that Lex was prophesied to go bad by Indian Caves intrigued… Season 3 was loudly rumoured to have Ian Somerhalder starring as Batman, and Drew Z Greenberg writing episodes inspired by The Dead Zone. Only one of those happened though. Somerhalder was terrific as a haunted bad boy who disappointingly turned out to be Lionel’s stooge, but there was a nice exit for him in a Frequency inspired episode, and Chloe became more complex as she dallied with Lionel’s patronage. The best moments of this season though couldn’t rescue the overall sense of portentous drift, exemplified by the awful finale which killed off half the cast to the strains of opera.

I dragged myself back for season 4 because Jensen Ackles had joined the cast, and was surprised by a belter of an opener which kick-started an excellent fourth season that I regard as the highpoint of the series. A badly needed sense of fun was restored along with a completely new skill at touching moments. Millar and Gough finally lightened up, letting Clark fly in the season premiere with accompanying dialogue of “What is that? Is that a bird?” “Maybe it’s a plane”, while that episode for the first time in years actually felt like this show was derived from Superman comics, rather than The Flash; which is what the stubbornly non-flying Clark had made it veer towards. Ackles’ villain enlivened an actually well-developed arc chasing crystals that would create the Fortress of Solitude. Erica Durance unexpectedly arrived as Chloe’s cousin Lois Lane (and made Kristin Kreuk’s Lana Lang look wish-washy) and developed a wonderful spiky relationship with Clark. Chloe finally got to know Clark’s secret and, in a beautiful touch, had to teach an amnesiac Clark how to use his powers – in the knowledge that she’d have to go back to pretending she didn’t know about them soon enough.

Season 5 started off with the construction of the Fortress of Solitude and Clark and Chloe becoming a super-team: she detects crime, he fights it. The T-1000 reinterpretation of the Kryptonian artificial intelligence Braniac was rather great, and the Buffy overtones of James Marsters appearing for the writing of his colleague Steven S DeKnight were complemented by the ‘Clark goes to College and has a hard time of it’ feel that echoed season 4 of Buffy. There was a priceless conversation in which Clark and Chloe attempted to discuss the ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue’ problem, but the quickly reversed proposal to Lana which led to Jonathan Kent’s death was a disastrous mis-step for the show that brought proceedings down to the level of season 2’s angst in its insistence on burdening Clark with farcical levels of guilt; because apparently that’s what real drama is all about. The decision to move Lana towards Lex romantically was nicely done, but the feeling that Clark should be further down the road towards being Superman was starting to nag. The finale which saw Lex taken over by Zod’s spirit and Clark trapped in the Phantom Zone burned down the house in style.

Season 6 saw Clark roar back from the Phantom Zone but in doing so unleash a horde of loose phantoms, the rounding up of which became his season arc mission. It was a step down from the previous two arcs but this season was characterised by let-downs as Lex possessed by Zod was dealt with far too easily, Green Arrow’s arrival promised a Batman like level of conflict that never really arrived, and Lana and Lex’s marriage bafflingly retreated from emotionally destroying Clark. However a finale in which Bizarro arrived and all the female leads died was a stunning episode. Season 7 saw the arrival of Supergirl, who was never really given a compelling reason to be on the show, while Bizzarro was dispatched too easily only to gleefully reappear undetected, but still arguably underused. The revelation that Chloe had become a meteor freak thru continued exposure was brilliant, not least her struggle to keep the secret from her boyfriend Jimmy. Lex finally killed Lionel, and also bafflingly his brother the Daily Planet editor, to become a supervillain rather than previous season’s St Lex being lied to by Clark. However Clark still not being Superman rather undermined their apocalyptic clash. Season 8 saw Lex replaced by his ret-conned protégé Tess Mercer while Sam Witwer starred as Clark’s ret-conned Kryptonian stowaway Doomsday. Chloe’s descent into darkness as she was taken over by Braniac was delicious, but her half-romance with Witwer’s heroic EMT was always unintentionally funny as she and Clark defended him against Jimmy’s charge that this man was obviously a serial killer, despite continual evidence supporting Jimmy. This left an extremely bitter aftertaste when Jimmy was unnecessarily killed in the finale to guilt-trip Chloe for trying to separate man and beast to save the man. Oh, then Clark abandoned her.

Season 9 saw General Zod, as a Kandorian clone, pop up in Tess’ mansion (it was never really satisfactorily explained how) thus beginning endless half-written political machinations between Clark and Zod over leadership of the Kandorians. Tess was revealed as a member of the shadowy organisation Checkmate run by Pam Grier, and hilariously Senator Martha Kent reappeared as their nemesis the Red Queen, who’d been acting sinisterly to keep Clark’s secret safe. Brian Austin Green as Metallo was absolutely thrown away, and it became all too noticeable for budget reasons that Metropolis only had one street – shot from different angles. Season 10 introduced Jack Kirby’s villain Darkseid as the final season nemesis but he never really showed up properly, but manipulated his minions in a number of poorly explained sub-plots, while The Suicide Squad were almost entirely squandered. Ultimately not just Lionel but then Lex returned for the finale where Clark finally just became Superman – after previous inane episodes had set a new record for ‘well that was easy’ moments, not least one of the minions of Darkseid destroying the Bow of Orion with contemptuous ease, having proclaimed loudly that it was the only weapon that Darkseid feared. The End…

Smallville ran for 10 seasons. Along the way there were heartbreaking episodes, such as Chloe’s reunion with her stricken mother who for a brief while was lucid again, adorable episodes, such as the first appearance of Krypto the Superdog, and brilliantly fun episodes, like the formation of the Justice League. But all too often episodes were entirely dependent on having a cute high concept or a good writer simply amusing themselves. So we got Steven S DeKnight writing Saw with Lionel Luthor, while someone else Fassbendered in rewriting The Game with Oliver Queen as Michael Douglas and Chloe as Sean Penn. What could be great on a micro level could never really break out of the shackles that kept the show from being great on a macro level. Hence the crippling levels of angst, endless body-swap episodes, Clark affected by shade of Kryptonite episodes, and parallel universe episodes. Watching the finale you realised that Erica Durance and Kristin Kreuk each starred in 7 seasons of Smallville but that Durance made Kreuk’s performance look anaemic from the moment she arrived, and the crushing weight of the mythology made you impatient for Lois and Clark from that point on. The show left Smallville itself in the rear-view mirror in season 5 but persisted in refusing to let Clark fly or don the cape for so long that it became increasingly infuriating/embarrasing. The handling of the major villains always disappointed – a synecdoche for the whole show. The implicit hook of the souring of Clark and Lex’s friendship was never paid off satisfactorily. Lex was in 7 seasons of Smallville, but at no point did you feel there was a clear endpoint planned where he and Clark would rise to their respective destinies. Its own continuously imperilled success condemned Smallville to continually deferred gratification.

Smallville never quite achieved its promise, but it handsomely saw off the challenge of Superman Returns, and kept live-action Superman viable despite all the nay-saying about the redundancy of the character in a Dark Knight world, and that’s not to be sneezed at. I just hope that Allison Mack and Erica Durance manage to walk into better written TV roles.

June 15, 2011

Top 10 Father’s Day Films

Heroes tend to be portrayed as lone wolves, and families rarely interest Hollywood unless they’re psychotic, but here’s a list of men who made the protagonists what they are, and the complicated bonds that gave them the self-confidence to individuate. Joss Whedon defined Mal in Firefly as being a terrific (surrogate) father for Simon and River in contrast to their actual father, because he wasn’t just there and terrific when it was convenient for him, he was sometimes great, sometimes inept, but always there. There’s too much written about surrogate fathers in the movies (read any article on Tarantino’s work) so I thought I’d mark Fathers’ Day with a top 10 list of films featuring great biological dads and great complicated but loving father-son bonds.

Honourable Mentions:
(Inception) The moment when Cillian Murphy opens the safe and tearfully discovers his father held on to Cillian’s childhood kite as his most treasured possession is an enormously powerful emotional sucker-punch of post-mortem father-son reconciliation.
(The Day After Tomorrow) Dennis Quaid excels as a father who was always around but half-distracted by work, who makes good by braving death in a quest to rescue his son from a snowpocalyptic demise.
(Twilight Saga) Bella Swan’s taciturn relationship with her small-town dad, who she only ever holidayed with and who embarrasses her, slowly blossoms as he steps up to the parenting plate with some hilariously comedic unease.

(10) Boyz N the Hood
Before he got trapped in a zero-sum world of directing commercial tosh John Singleton’s coruscating 1991 debut portrayed the chaos of gang-infested ghetto life in a world almost entirely lacking positive male role models. His script privileges the bluntly honest wisdom of Laurence Fishburne to such an extent that he basically becomes the ideal father for a generation of black men that Bill Cosby acidly noted was raised by women, for the exact same reason that Singleton has Fishburne deliver: it’s easy to father a child, it’s harder to be a father to that child.

(9) Kick-Ass
Yes, an odd choice, but filmic father-daughter double-acts of the Veronica & Keith Mars ilk are surprisingly hard to find. Nic Cage does an amazing job of portraying Big Daddy as an extremely loving father who has trained Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl to survive independently in a hostile world and to never need to be afraid. Matthew Vaughn mines an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos from suggesting that such empowering mental training is a legacy that would keep Big Daddy ever-present in his daughter’s life even after his death. It takes Batman to raise a true Amazon…

(8) The Yearling
Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque lawyer Atticus Finch was held up as the perfect father in Vanilla Sky, but I’d strenuously favour his father in this whimsical 1946 movie that at times feels it’s an original screenplay by Mark Twain. Peck plays the type of father who’ll let you run free, and make mistakes so that you can learn from your mistakes, but will always be there to swoop in and save the day when you get in over your head. This may be an idyllic portrait of the rural South but the father’s parenting style is universally recognisable.

(7) The Godfather
Vito grooms Sonny to succeed him and consigns Fredo to Vegas, but he loads all his hopes of respectability onto his favourite son, Michael. Eventually, in a touching scene in the vineyard, he accepts that the one son he tried to steer away from the family business is the only son truly capable of taking it on, and that he has to let Michael live his own life and become Don. The tragedy of Part II is that Michael makes his father’s dreams of assimilation his own, but his attempts to achieve them only destroy his family.

(6) Taken
Liam Neeson has been divorced by the grating and shallow Famke Janssen who has remarried for a privileged lifestyle, which she continually rubs Neeson’s face in. His relationship with his daughter, whose birthday he was always around for even if the CIA disapproved, has suffered from this disparity in wealth. But when she’s kidnapped hell hath no fury like an enraged father rescuing his little girl. Neeson’s absolute single-mindedness in rescuing his only child makes this an awesome action movie that uses extreme violence to prove the superiority of blue-collar values and earnest protective parenting over whimsical indulgence.

(5) Finding Nemo
Marlin, the clownfish who can’t tell a joke, is perhaps the greatest example of the overprotective father who has to recognise that maybe he’s projecting his own weaknesses onto his son; and that he has to let Nemo attempt something that he, Nemo, might fail at, if Nemo’s ever going to succeed at anything. This lesson is of course learned over the length of an extremely hazardous journey as Marlin displays his absolute dedication, to the point of self-sacrifice, to saving his only child. In a weird way this combines elements of both The Godfather and Taken

(4) Wall Street
“Boy, if that’s how you really feel, then I must have done a crappy job as a father.” Martin Sheen’s words to Charlie Sheen show just how far under the spell of Michael Douglas’ daemonic father figure Charlie has fallen at that point in the movie. Oliver Stone followed Platoon’s opposition between two surrogate fathers with a clash between the humble blue-collar integrity of Charlie’s actual father Martin and the unscrupulous white-collar extravagances of his mentor Douglas. In the end Martin manages to make jail-time sound like an exercise in redemption because he will never desert Charlie.

(3) Gone with the Wind
Scarlett O’Hara, the ultimate survivor, is very much her father’s daughter. The post-Famine Irish obsession with the land is transported to America, and with it a desire never to be beholden to other people. Add in her father’s furious and quick temper, which gets him killed, and huge pride, and nearly all the elements that make up Scarlett are complete. She adds a ruthless skill in fascinating malleable men to become the supreme movie heroine. When Rhett leaves her and she’s inconsolable, her father’s words echo thru her mind, and she returns triumphantly to Tara.

(2) Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade
“He’s gone Marcus, and I never told him anything at all”. Spielberg likes to joke that only James Bond could have sired Indiana Jones, and Henry Jones Jr despite his eternally fraught relationship with Senior really is a chip off the old block; hilariously evidenced in their sequential relationship with Allison Doody’s Nazi; and that’s why they don’t get along. In a convincing display of male taciturnity it takes both of them nearly losing the other for them to finally express how much they love the other, well, as much they ever will.

(1) Field of Dreams
“I refused to play catch with him. I told him I could never respect a man whose hero was a cheat”. Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella has to bankrupt himself building a baseball field in his crops and magick the 1919 White Sox back into existence to do it, but he finally manages to atone for his sins and play catch again with his deceased father. There are few better pay-offs to shaggy-dog screenplays than when Ray realises the last player on the field is his father, as he never knew him, a young and hopeful man, before life ground him down. If you aren’t in floods of tears by their lines, ‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, it’s Iowa’, then you’re already dead.

October 6, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

‘Is Greed Good?’ is the new more reflective mantra of Michael Douglas’ corporate monster Gordon Gekko who returns after 23 years for a sequel dissecting the Great Recession.

I’ve previously dubbed Wall Street the film that summed up the 1980s. Its sequel aspires to sum up what the hell just happened to the global economy and largely achieves it. The film opens with an amusing prologue in which Gekko is released from prison in 2001 before fast-forwarding to Wall Street during the early summer of 2008. A flashy dizzying climb up the skyscrapers of NYC after young trader Jacob (Shia LaBeouf) parks his motorbike is reminiscent of David Fincher at his most expansive and signals that Oliver Stone has got his directorial mojo working again. The early scenes of this film, especially a Federal Reserve emergency meeting, are wonderfully crisp and while it doesn’t fulfil that early promise this is undoubtedly Stone’s best film since Nixon. The sense that he’s rejuvenated by revisiting one of his greatest achievements is heightened by his use of David Byrne & Brian Eno, down to reprising at the end Wall Street‘s closing credits song ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’ by Byrne’s band Talking Heads. Nostalgia also delivers an unexpected and great cameo, although on reflection it seems to reverse the message of Wall Street.

Jacob is our new Bud Fox. He receives an unexpected bonus-cheque from his mentor, Frank Langella in a wonderfully desperate performance, but fails to see the writing on the wall – Langella knows that his venerable investment bank is about to go under as a result of exposure to risky financial instruments that he didn’t really understand. This Lehman Brothers style collapse is connived at by his banking nemesis Bretton James, a wonderfully callous Josh Brolin, and leaves Jacob out for revenge. He is aided in his quest to hold Bretton accountable for the damage caused by his financial manoeuvrings by his prospective father-in-law Gekko. Gekko has returned to the limelight with his book ‘Is Greed Good?’ and has a history with Bretton. He would only have got a year for the insider trading Bud Fox implicated him in but Bretton sold him out on securities fraud and so he got sent down for eight years. This strand of the story is the film’s strong point with Gekko as prophet of doom, delivering a barnstorming lecture dissecting the credit crunch before it happens that is a devastating critique of modern high finance.

The emotional arc of Jacob becoming corrupted as he starts to work for Bretton even as he tries to get his fiancé Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan) to reconcile with her father, who she maintains cannot be trusted, is weaker. This is not the fault of Mulligan, who has one crackling scene of recriminations with Douglas over the death of her brother, but the over-extended screenplay. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is far too long and too cluttered compared to the straightforward morality play of the original. Stone maintains the importance of working at a real job producing tangible results, espoused by Martin Sheen in the original and here applied to Susan Sarandon as Jacob’s deluded mother – stung by the implosion of a real-estate bubble in Florida. Things all work out a bit too neatly here, but if a real job is defined by producing tangible results then Stone has produced an interesting companion piece that is well worth seeing.

3/5

July 13, 2010

Keanu Takes Stock

Keanu Reeves will be 46 in a few months, so how is he dealing with mid-life cinematically?

Back in 2004 when I wrote a profile of Keanu for the University Observer he had just refused to play Superman for Warner Bros, and now (not being connected to any lucrative franchise) unlike the era of George Reeves, he’d be considered about 20 years to old to even get an audition.  In that piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles” but didn’t have time to expand on my meaning, which was that Hollywood leading men tend to lose their cachet on hitting 50 so their 40s are the years where they have the maturity and the box-office clout to take on big roles – like John Wayne doing Red River and The Searchers, Gregory Peck doing Moby Dick, Cape Fear and To Kill a Mockingbird and even Michael Douglas doing Romancing the Stone, Wall Street and Basic Instinct.

Since Keanu turned 40 he’s appeared in only seven films Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in the movie. His turn in Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem both their lives. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find sustained audiences. Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if flawed film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as mature roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing and a fine sense of metaphysical horror that was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix. Keanu seems to have moved away from franchise movies but that might just reduce the audience for his upcoming roles. He faces a dilemma it seems – does he take on another box-office behemoth or just cameo in indie movies?

Where he goes from here is a choice we leave up to him…

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