Talking Movies

July 24, 2019

From the Archives: Hairspray

The first deep dive into the last remaining cache of pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up one of James Marsden’s two quite mad 2007 feel-good musicals.

Baltimore, 1962: a young girl dreams of being picked as a dancer on a local TV show. She may be overweight but she can dance and her friendship with a black dancer may just be the beginning of the end for the racist policies of the network…

If you’ve watched Ugly Betty you’ll remember the joyous scene where Betty’s nephew Justin, stranded on the Subway while trying to get to Broadway, entertains the other passengers with a spirited rendition of Hairspray’s opening number ‘Good Morning, Baltimore!’. As show-openers go it’s quite a tune and it sets the tone for the rest of this film, joyously upbeat with a healthy serving of camp outrageousness, as can be seen in John Waters’ cameo during the song, which is far too good a comic moment to ruin here. Like Ugly Betty, Hairspray’s campness gives it a licence to make all manner of outrageous gags. Consider Corny Collins’ (James Marsden) lyrics introducing his show: “Where nice white kids lead the way/And once a month we have Negro day”. The music is at all times bouncy, apart from one suitably sombre ballad sung by Queen Latifah during a civil rights march, but it’s the lyrics that take your breath away over and over again with their barbed wit.

Tracy Turnblad is handpicked for the Corny Collins’ show after he sees her new moves, learnt from a black dancer (Elijah Kelley) in detention (in a typical gag only black kids and fat white kids seem to get detention in this school). Amber, the lead dancer, is fiercely resentful of this and her mother, the network director, goes all out to get Tracy off the show and get rid of her corrupting influence; she thinks TV should “push kids in the white direction”. Michelle Pfeiffer’s first song, done in the style of Marlene Dietrich, is a delicious introduction to her Aryan villain Velma Von Tussell. The large ensemble does justice to this camp material with a serious subtext. Zac Efron channels his inner James Dean as moody hunk Link (with whom Tracy falls head over heels in love) while Amanda Bynes is a revelation as Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton, gone are the irritating tics displayed in She’s the Man and in their place genuine comic timing. John Travolta is hilarious in drag as Tracy’s mother, who hasn’t left her house since 1951 because of anxiety over her weight. His song and dance duet with Christopher Walken is a highlight.

The film does sag a bit towards the end and you fear it’s running out of steam as the savage reality of racism deflates the camp exuberance but then the mad logic of musicals (think Singin’ in the Rain) comes into operation and the finale comes up trumps. It’s always sunny in Baltimore.

4/5

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August 5, 2018

Notes on Ant-Man and the Wasp

Ant-Man and the Wasp is the big movie this week. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle early this morning.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is not as funny as it needs to be. Edgar Wright was booted off the original, but some of his script and sensibility survived. Not so here. Peyton Reed is no visual stylist, and the funniest moments tend to be centred around Michael Pena and the comedy of getting derailed by tangents; as John Cleese once described Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ typical approach to scripting. Pena and his co-workers get derailed by Danishes for breakfast, the truthiness of truth serum, the existence of the Baba Yaga, and the Moz nature of his grandmother’s jukebox. All of which is a merciful relief from a film with three villains, two of whom aren’t really villains, and none of whom make much impact. Five writers are credited with this work and one imagines pages flying around at random, some with jokes, others with blank pages and INSERT SCENE: SOMETHING SOMETHING QUANTUM written on them. It remains baffling to the end how Paul Rudd was able to enter the quantum realm and leave again not a bother on him while Michelle Pfeiffer got stuck there for thirty years.

November 3, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

The great Kenneth Branagh double-jobs again as director and star for a new adaptation of the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie’s most famous murder mystery.

Hercule Poirot (Branagh) needs a holiday. But a new case always beckons, and so his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) insinuates him onto the fully booked Orient Express travelling from Istanbul to Dover. Among his travelling companions are his previous shipmates to Istanbul Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr). There’s also a missionary (Penelope Cruz), a car-dealer tycoon (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a man-eating widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), some highly strung and strung out (respectively) aristocrats (Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton), a Nazi professor (Willem Dafoe), a Russian princess and servant (Judi Dench, Olivia Colman), and the thoroughly obnoxious Ratchett party – shady oligarch (Johnny Depp), his butler (Derek Jacobi), and secretary (Josh Gad). As they run into a snowdrift a murder is discovered, and, before the police arrive, the world’s greatest detective must solve a baffling mystery replete with red herrings.

Branagh as director doesn’t allow himself many stylistic flourishes apart from a sustained track through the dining carriage as Poirot announces that he will be investigating the murder, and a startling use of a rigid overhead viewpoint for Poirot’s discovery and examination of the body. As actor he allows himself to sport a truly outrageous moustache, for an energetic interpretation of Poirot purposefully far away from David Suchet’s sustained and definitive ITV performance. This story previously made it to the big screen in 1974 with an all-star cast under the direction of Sidney Lumet. Branagh makes a better Poirot than Albert Finney’s splenetic turn there, and this screenplay is far less faithful to Christie’s source material than that adaptation. This is a Poirot investigation unconcerned with checking alibis against each other, and making lists of timelines, clues, and sleeping arrangements.

Instead Michael Green’s screenplay is more concerned with the mounting moral turmoil within Poirot as he finds more and more coincidences leading back to a horrific child murder case. If there is a word to sum up this film it would be a surprising one – melancholic. Regular Branagh composer Patrick Doyle’s piano theme for black and white footage of the titular crime lends the gory act an air of ritual rather than revenge. Poirot himself articulates the cost of the child murder not just in the innocent life ended, but in the lives destroyed of all those affected by the kidnapping and murder. And so, predictably, the detective who announced in the opening scene that there was right and wrong and nothing in between finds himself rattling his own sense of self by admitting shades of grey into his worldview.

Green redeems himself from the double whammy disasters of Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 with an adaptation that whets the appetite for Branagh in Death on the Nile.

3.5/5

January 23, 2015

A Most Violent Year

1981 was the worst year on record for violent crime in New York City, and that threat hangs over director JC Chandor’s absorbing period drama.

A-Most-Violent-Year-5

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a driven entrepreneur in the business of supplying the oil that gets New York thru its winters. He is buying a coveted piece of real estate from a Hasidic dynasty, but needs an awful lot of money to cover the sale or he loses his huge deposit and the tract of land; and with it the chance to trump his rivals. But things are unravelling. The government in the form of Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is ready to indict his business practices, somebody – possibly his rivals Peter Forente (Alessandro Nivola) and Gleen Fleshler (Arnold Klein) – are hijacking his trucks and stealing his oil, his protégé Julian (Elyes Gabel) has been severely injured in one of these jackings, and Teamster Peter Gerety (Bill O’Leary) is threatening a strike if Abel doesn’t arm his vulnerable fleet of drivers.

A Most Violent Year despite the menacing title isn’t a violent film. But from the outset, when you realise that driving a truck thru a toll-booth can lead to getting jumped, it has an unnerving tension. JC Chandor sets his film in 1981 New York, and seemingly sets out to replicate the 1970s New Hollywood in doing so. Frank G DeMarco who shot Chandor’s previous films Margin Call and All is Lost with a crisp clarity is replaced as cinematographer by Bradford Young. I raved about Young’s atmospheric under-lighting of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and here he channels 1970s DP Gordon Willis (aka Prince of Darkness) for rich, underlit interiors of browns and dark gold. And if certain scenes look like The Godfather then Oscar Isaac is on the same wavelength as a certain Pacino quality comes off his performance.

But this is Michael Corleone determined to remain on the straight and narrow. Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain in 1980s mobster moll mode) is the daughter of a connected man, but Abel is adamant that he wants to win by staying clean. Such morality confuses his attorney Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), who foresees disaster if Abel doesn’t learn to play dirty in a bent town. The control on display by writer/director Chandor is intimidating. This is a very precise film. Even action scenes, like a thrilling truck chase in a tunnel, feel exacting; and a foot-chase along a spaghetti junction with a steadicam recalls Marathon Man. But, as with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, there’s a point at which this Biskind-led valorisation of New Hollyood becomes crippling. How can you make it new, as Pound demanded of art, if you’re in thrall to making it like they did in 1975?

Chandor is an intriguing film-maker – he’s made three films, all wildly different, but each time characterised by singular vision.

4/5

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