Talking Movies

December 16, 2018

From the Archives: Australia

Baz Luhrmann’s genre-wrecking epic was a late in the day blockbuster of 2008 as I discover diving thru the pre-Talking Movies archives.

“A Life lived in fear is a life half lived” is the motto that appears at the start of Baz Lurhmann’s chaotic epic and he is indeed fearless/foolhardy in attempting to smash together a number of different genres.

The film begins with Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) flying to Australia to sell the farm belonging to her ne’er-do-well husband and drag him back to dear old Blighty. This should be an obvious homage to films like Giant where the heroine marries into an exotic lifestyle in sweeping landscapes except that Lurhman has written the first 30 minutes in the high camp style that worked so well for Moulin Rouge! It’s so out of place here though that you fear for your sanity if a 2 hour 45 minute western epic is to continue like this…

Thankfully the film settles down after a confrontation with Neil Fletcher (David Wenham), the racist villain running the farm, and becomes an archetypal western in the mould of Red River as Sarah joins force with the rough-hewn Drover (Hugh Jackman) to save Faraway Downs by driving the cattle herd to Darwin to sell them to the army for supplies. The action here is superbly choreographed and the diabolical plotting of Fletcher to protect his boss King Carney’s  beef monopoly is thrilling, but the mix of obvious CGI shots with beautiful landscape vistas undercuts the effect of the location shooting. At this point magical realism rears its head as Lurhmann endows the aboriginal characters with magical powers over animals and their native outback.

This is well intentioned as a riposte to the racist disregard for native culture that was the official Australian policy of the 1930s but the mashing up of genres makes it very problematic. Sarah attends a society ball which doubles as a homage to Titanic, when a clean-shaven Drover crashes it to the horror of the upper crust and the swooning of the female audience, and a Rabbit-Proof Fence style debate on the rights and wrongs of the forced assimilation of the stolen generation of Aboriginal children into white society. You will wince every time a character uses the word “creamy” to describe half-Aboriginal half-Caucasian children in this film but such incisive politics sit uneasily in a supposed romantic adventure movie.

The film finally ends as a collision of Pearl Harbour and Empire of the Sun as the surrogate family of Sarah, Drover and the Aboriginal orphan Nulla (Brandon Walters) is torn apart while Japanese forces destroy Darwin. Historical fact is outrageously altered here and Lurhmann veers uneasily between cliché and heartfelt moments before a very fitting ending of national reconciliation. This film is an over-reaching mess but it has very good sequences and its intentions are very honourable, if perhaps just expressed in the wrong genre, and it is well worth seeing.

3/5

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May 31, 2018

From the Archives: Speed Racer

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings up a justly forgotten disaster from the Brothers Wachowski, hammering home the lightning in a bottle good fortune of The Matrix.

Speed Racer is meant to be a family friendly CGI heavy summer blockbuster. It is however incredibly bizarre, and also camp, if we use feminist critic Susan Sontag’s definition that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”. There are scenes in Speed Racer that will make you want to bound out of the cinema as characters dressed in day-glo colours stand around beside hideously fake CGI backgrounds before getting into garish CGI cars. Kym Barrett, costume designer for Baz Luhrmann’s camp classics, designed the clothes but the Wachowskis don’t seem to have realised that they’ve ordered up the décor for a different film than the one they think they’re making.

The young (and implausibly named) Speed Racer idolises his dead racing driver brother Rex and grows up to emulate him as the flashback heavy opening action sequence pithily explains. Into the Wild star Emile Hirsch plays the adult Speed, who must be one of the blandest heroes to grace the screen this decade. Indie queen Christina Ricci’s presence in the film as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie is equally baffling. Sure she eventually gets to drive, pilot a helicopter and do kung-fu but it’s not like this script could have been confused with Bound when it arrived in her post-box. The Wachowskis are trying so hard here to make a kid’s film (Look at the monkey! Look at the silly little monkey!) that they seem to forget where their own strengths actually lie, while one must question the grotesque scene involving fingers being eaten by piranhas as being radically unacceptable for a kid’s film.

The film comes alive only in a very silly Matrix parody kung-fu fight. It is a merciful respite from the choppily edited incoherent CGI action which quickly becomes quite gruelling, you realise with horror halfway through the endless desert rally that this is only the second act and that there’s still a third act epic Grand Prix to go. Surprisingly (I say this as someone who always rooted for Locke against Jack) LOST star Matthew Fox is the best thing about Speed Racer. Fox is really enjoying playing the menacing, mysterious and masked Racer X. He is operating at a very high level of fun indeed for it to be obvious in such a taciturn role that he is Fassbendering his way through the movie. Yes, that’s a word, now. To Fassbender: to very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work. See Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who spends the entirety of 300 grinning like an idiot.

Why the Wachowskis chose to bother with live action rather than a purely animated adaptation of the 1960s Japanese TV cartoon will forever puzzle. They will never lose one element of their craft though as Speed Racer has 2008’s most insanely euphoric finale.

2/5

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: Sweeney Todd

A deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives dredges up an unpleasant encounter with my cinematic bête noire, Tim Burton.

Sweeney Todd showcases a match truly made in hell. No, I’m not referring to the serial killer combo of demon barber Todd and cannibal baker Mrs Lovett, but to the pairing of composer Stephen Sondheim and director Tim Burton.

Stephen Sondheim cannot write music, he is a lyricist. Tim Burton cannot direct films, he is a production designer. Both men have deluded themselves into thinking they can do something they really can’t. Burton can make a film look great but he can’t tell a story or make it look real to save his life while West Side Story lyricist Sondheim won’t admit that his work is better when paired with a melodic composer like Leonard Bernstein. Vaughan Williams said the sure sign that a composer had no confidence in their basic material was that it would be over-orchestrated. The deafening organ chords that play over the truly disgusting opening titles betray that very insecurity as well as establishing the queasy universe of gore that Burton wishes us to live in for the next 2 hours.

The real shock is that what follows these credits is a CGI London created with special effects infinitely worse than 2001’s Moulin Rouge! How’s that for progress. The acting is uniformly awful, Alan Rickman deserves special mention as he is practically enacting his Dead Ringers parody. Johnny Depp, needless to say, cannot sing. But then of course Sondheim is the one musicals composer for whom that really doesn’t matter that much. Even his best song ‘Send in the Clowns’ can be croaked by anyone with a feel for phrasing as Judi Dench wonderfully proved on the West End.

Tim Burton has long confused darkness both visual and thematic with quality. Here there is a startling moment, as Burton and Bonham Carter turn a corner into a particularly sepulchral open street, when you realise that this film might as well be in black and white. Tim Burton has, and always had had, a positive fascination with evil. He delights in a story that pits villain against villain and the few heroic characters in this film (Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener) are shoved off the stage quickly whenever they appear and, characteristically, the finale leaves their storyline hanging as Burton quite simply does not care.

1/5

August 21, 2017

The Great Gatsby

When I came back from the Gate I wanted the whole theatrical world at a sort of attention to, providing seats. I wanted no more riotous excursions into costume parties.

Nick Carraway (Marty Rea) has just arrived in West Egg, and is invited by Jay Gatsby (Paul Mescal) to attend one of his Prohibition-be-damned ragers. There he meets his cousin Daisy (Charlene McKenna), her husband Tom Buchanan (Mark Huberman); an old Yale classmate; and their golfer friend Jordan (Rachel O’Byrne). Also floating around the Charleston’d chaos is the shady Meyer Wolfsheim (Owen Roe), Tom’s mistress Myrtle (Aoibheann McCann), her sister Kitty (Kate Gilmore),  Myrtle’s defeated husband George (Ger Kelly), and the protean one-man Repertory (Raymond Scannell). Over the course of an extremely long night (which makes pigswill of the chronology, content, and nuance of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel) Jay meets Daisy, Jay re-woos Daisy, but his insistence on breaking Tom’s romantic hold on her backfires completely, and Jay loses Daisy all over again. And then his business and life too.

Designer Ciaran Bagnall has raised the floor, brought forward the Gate stage; creating a double staircase and a dummy roof; and floored over the back area to create two lobbies; one for piano, one for a bar. Into this space fit maybe 170 people, instead of the usual 371, but that’s probably recouped by selling themed cocktails to the audience; roughly 70% women, who were nearly 100% decked out in full flapper garb. And therein is one problem with this production – as my regular theatre cohort Stephen Errity put it: trying to make a fun night out from one of art’s great downers. Another is the ‘choose your own adventure’ book come to life aspect: we were led into Tom’s NYC apartment, Gatsby’s bedroom, and, after the interval, Wolfsheim’s gambling den. Only the first, mostly using Fitzgerald’s actual words, worked…

Fitzgerald…  If you think his point was decadent parties then you probably didn’t finish the novel, and should be at Film Fatale’s annual Gatsby party at IMMA. Rea and O’Byrne excel at athletically dancing the Charleston, but does it gain enough from the audience playing dress-up next to it to justify staging it this way and not on the stage as Elevator Repair Service did for their choreographed bacchanalia in The Select: The Sun Also Rises? Does it make sense to segue from Carraway’s opening speech to the closing peroration, and repeatedly mash together lines from anywhere, an egregious offender being George’s decontextualised references to God seeing everything? Does it make sense to have George Wilson be a barman, yet still have Tom’s yellow Rolls-Royce that he knows as a mechanic kill Myrtle? Does it make sense to pretend this is one night when Tom, Nick, and Daisy are observed (by some people) travelling to NYC, and Jay and Daisy’s agonised tea thus apparently happens in the wee small hours? We’re into Baz Luhrmann flashy incoherence here before we reach the musical numbers that pad the 2nd act as if a half-abandoned Moulin Rouge! musical of Gatsby is poking through.

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The interval, 80 minutes in, found me sick of standing. 70 minutes later I was aghast that the handful of remaining scenes had been fleshed out by unnecessary musical numbers, the party had definitively gone on too long. Audience interaction had started highly amusingly when actors had to go with Nick being rumoured out of the Midwest by ‘a whole 4 people’, gone downhill with the utterly pointless preparation of the tea service, and degenerated to literal pantomime boos for Tom’s denunciation of the audience as uninvited and uninteresting. Actors bellowing at each other across a milling audience doesn’t synch with large parties being intimate nor make sense for Wolfsheim offering Gatsby a gonnegtion; indeed poor Roe’s main function appeared to be glad-handing groups of theatregoers. Scannell excelled at the piano providing mood music for Daisy and Jay’s fretful tea.

The costumes, designed by Peter O’Brien, are terrific; especially Gatsby’s spiffy pink suit. Yet the point of this show, imported from the Guild of Misrule’s original production with Alexander Wright still directing, seems to be that you, the audience member, dressed in your best flapper gear, are the show as much as the actors. Which rather deflates the great performances: Rea finds all new notes of nervousness as Carraway, who’s not as sardonic as he presents himself in narration, while O’Byrne is incredibly effective as Jordan, registering a disdain for the world which shines through her musical performances, and a fearless McCann renders her sultry Myrtle as the physical embodiment of Nelly Furtado’s ‘Maneater’. Huberman doesn’t have the hulking physique but is a startlingly good Tom replete with habitual dominance (and his moustache and projection reminded me of Keith Thompson!).

Nobody amidst the rave reviews for this bold and brave use of the Gate space seems willing to acknowledge the atavistic cruelty at work. The Gate audience, as has been widely remarked, is older, there are usually a notable number of walking sticks; and the new regime welcomes them by shouting – there are no seats, dance! What exactly did they do to deserve this opprobrium? They didn’t like Crestfall, which the Irish Times just savaged for depravity. They did like Ralph Fiennes in Faith Healer and Michael Gambon in No Man’s Land. They appreciate opulent costumes, clever set design, and, recently, acclaimed productions of titanic Albee and Murphy classics. Yet for these hanging offences they must be run off the premises, the Gate is trying to run a the-a-tre here! It is strange to burn your audience while feigning bonhomie…

Rea, O’Byrne, McCann, and Huberman were all splendidly cast, but I’d liked to have seen them in a coherent adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

3/5

 

The Great Gatsby continues its run at the Gate until the 16th of September.

January 20, 2016

2016: Hopes

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Midnight Special

Mud writer/director Jeff Nichols makes his studio debut on April 15th with this tale he places roughly in the territory of John Carpenter’s Starman and De Palma’s The Fury. Nichols regular Michael Shannon plays a father forced to go on the run with his son after discovering the kid has special powers, and the FBI is interested in them… Sam Shepard also recurs, as does cinematographer Adam Stone, while Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, and Joel Edgerton join the Nichols stable. It’s hard to imagine a genre tale from Nichols, but perhaps an unusually heart-felt Stephen King captures it.

Everybody Wants Some

April 15th sees Richard Linklater release a ‘spiritual sequel’ to both Dazed and Confused and Boyhood. Little is known for sure about Everybody Wants Some, other than it’s a comedy-drama about college baseball players during the 1980s, that follows a boy entering college, meeting a girl, and a new band of male friends. The cast features Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, and Zoey Deutch, so in retrospect may be as star-studded as his 1993 exploration of the end of high school. Hopefully it’s as archetypal and poignant as that as regards the college experience.

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Love & Friendship

On April 27th almost exactly four years since Damsels in Distress the urbane Whit Stillman returns with another tale of female friendship, with a little help in the scripting department from Jane Austen. His Last Days of Disco stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny reunite for this adaptation of Austen’s ‘Lady Susan’ novella shot in Ireland. Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, and Xavier Samuel are the supporting players as Beckinsale tries to marry off her daughter (Morfydd Clark) but the real attraction is Stillman, poet of dry wit and elite social rituals, adapting an author with similar preoccupations.

The Nice Guys

Shane Black’s third directorial effort, out on May 20th, sees him back on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang territory. Get ready for Ryan Gosling to Bogart his way thru the seedy side of the City of Angels as Holland March, PI. March partners up with a rookie cop (Matt Bomer) to investigate the apparent suicide of a porn star. But standing in his way is an LA Confidential reunion: Kim Basinger as femme fatale, Russell Crowe as Det. Jackson Healy. It’s hard not to be excited at the prospect of terrific dialogue carrying some hysterically self-aware genre deconstruction.

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Queen of Earth

We can expect writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s latest movie to hit Irish cinemas sometime in June. Listen Up Philip star Elisabeth Moss takes centre-stage here alongside Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston as two old friends who retreat to a lake house only to discover that they have grown very far apart with the passage of time. Keegan DeWitt scores his second movie for ARP not with jazz but a dissonance appropriate to the unusual close-ups, that have invited comparison with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, as a spiky Waterston hurts an emotionally wounded Moss in all the old familiar places.

Independence Day: Resurgence

Roland Emmerich, the maestro of bombastic action that is actually mocking its audience, returns on June 24th (for some reason) with a belated sequel in which the aliens come back. Jeff Goldblum has led a 20 year scramble to harness alien tech to strengthen earth’s defences but will those efforts (and Liam Hemsworth’s mad piloting skills) be enough against an even more imposing armada? Sela Ward is the POTUS, Bill Pullman’s POTUS has grown a beard, his daughter has morphed from Mae Whitman into Maika Monroe, and the indefatigable Judd Hirsch returns to snark about these changes.

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La La Land

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling team up again on July 15th for an original musical from Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle. Gosling is a jazz musician in LA who falls in love with Stone’s aspiring actress, and that’s all you need for plot. Stone did an acclaimed turn as Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway, but whether Gosling or JK Simmons (!!) can hold a tune is unknown. The real question is will it be half-embarrassed to be a musical (Chicago), attempt unwise grittiness (New York, New York), or be as mental as aMoulin Rouge! with original songs?

Suicide Squad

And on August 5th we finally get to see what Fury auteur David Ayer has done with Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery. The latest trailer has amped up the nonsense quotient considerably, and this now looks like The Dirty Dozen scripted by Grant Morrison. Joel Kinnaman’s long-suffering Rick Flagg has to lead into combat the assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), angry mercenary Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), half-man half-crocodile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the psycho in psychotherapy, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). All eyes are on Robbie’s take on Harley, well until Jared Leto’s Mistah J turns up…

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Sausage Party

August 12th sees the release of probably the most ridiculous film you will see all year, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have scripted an adult animation about a sausage in a grocery store on a quest to discover the truth of his existence. Apart from Jay Baruchel, all the voices you’d expect are present and correct: James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, David Krumholtz, as well as Kristen Wiig, Edward Norton, and Salma Hayek. But given how Green Hornet failed can R-rated semi-improvised comedy and animation go hand in hand?

War on Everyone

The Guard in New Mexico! Okay, maybe not quite, but in that wheelhouse. In late August John Michael McDonagh makes his American bow with a blackly comic thriller about two renegade cops (Alexander Skarsgaard and Michael Pena) who have devoted themselves to blackmailing and framing every criminal who crosses their path. And then they come across that somebody they shouldn’t have messed with… McDonagh’s two previous outings as writer/director have been very distinctive, visually, philosophically, and verbally, but you wonder if he’ll have to endlessly self-censor his take no prisoners comedy for ‘liberal’ American sensibilities. Hopefully not.

American actor Matt Damon attends a press conference for his new movie "The Great Wall" in Beijing, China on July 2, 2015. Pictured: Matt Damon Ref: SPL1069228 020715 Picture by: Imaginechina / Splash News Splash News and Pictures Los Angeles:310-821-2666 New York:212-619-2666 London:870-934-2666 photodesk@splashnews.com

The Girl on the Train

Following Gone Girl another book of the moment thriller gets rapidly filmed on October 7th when Emily Blunt becomes the titular voyeur. From her commuter train seat she witnesses the interactions of perfect couple Haley Bennett and Luke Evans as she slows down at a station on the way to London. Then one day she sees something she shouldn’t have, and decides to investigate… The impressive supporting cast includes Rebecca Ferguson, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, and Justin Theroux, but it’s not clear if Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson has relocated the action to New York.

The Great Wall

November 23rd sees Chinese director Zhang Yimou embrace Hollywood, with an English-language story about the construction of the Great Wall of China scripted by Max Brooks and Tony Gilroy. Zhang has assembled an impressive international cast including Matt Damon, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe, Jing Tian, Zhang Hanyu, and Mackenzie Foy for this sci-fi fantasy of the Wall’s completion. Little is known about the actual plot, but Zhang’s recent movies about the Cultural Revolution have been a drastic change of pace from the highly stylised colourful martial arts epics of Imperial China he’s known for in the West.

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The Founder

Michael Keaton cements his leading man comeback on November 25th with a blackly comic biopic of Ray Kroc. Who is Ray Kroc you ask? The Founder of … McDonald’s. Yes the McDonald brothers did own a hamburger store, but it wasn’t them that expanded into a national and then global, brand. That was all Kroc, who bought them out, and then forgot to pay them royalties; one of several incidents of what people might call either unethical behaviour or recurrent amnesia. Supporting players include Nick Offerman, Laura Dern, and Patrick Wilson, so this tale might be quite tasty.

Story of Your Life

Denis Villeneuve gears up for directing Blade Runner 2 with an original sci-fi movie that should arrive late in 2016. A first contact story, adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story, it follows Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics expert recruited by the U.S. military. Her job is to decipher an alien race’s communications, but her close encounter with ET causes vivid flashbacks to events from her life. Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg are physicists and spooks trying to figure out what her unnerving experiences mean for rest of the humanity.

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Passengers

Stomping on Rogue One with a December 21st release date is the dream team of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Poor Keanu Reeves spent years trying to make this sci-fi rom-com happen but as soon as these two expressed interest Jon Spaihts’ long-circling script got permission to land. Pratt wakes from cryo-sleep 90 years too early, so wakes up another passenger to relieve his loneliness on the somnambulant spaceship. Michael Sheen is a robot, but the potential for delight is offset by worthy director Morten Tyldum and the high probability of the contrivance of every other rom-com being used.

Assassin’s Creed

‘One for the studio, One for ourselves’. As it were. December 21st sees the acclaimed Macbeth trio of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and director Justin Kurzel reunite for a blockbuster based on the all-conquering game. Ubisoft Motion Pictures (yes, that’s really a thing now) and New Regency have opted not to adapt the story of Desmond Miles, or Ezio Auditore; perhaps in case this bombs. Fassbender plays original character Callum Lynch who can commune with his ancestor Aguilar, also played by Fassbender; presumably with a devilish grin as he battles the Spanish Inquisition. Fingers crossed that this works.

January 30, 2015

Son of a Gun

Ewan McGregor rediscovers his charisma as Australia’s most notorious armed robber in what’s probably his best movie since Moulin Rouge!

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Innocuous surfer dude JR (Brenton Thwaites) arrives in jail, where his flowing locks are transformed into a buzz-cut. A pretty boy like him has much to fear on the inside. His cellmate is raped every day by hard-man Dave (Sam Hutchin), and JR’s interest in famous prisoner Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor) is frowned upon by Brendan’s protection detail Sterlo (Matt Nable) and Merv (Eddie Baroo). However, after JR reveals a flair for chess Brendan decides to take him under his wing. All he needs is a small favour once JR gets released in a few months… And so begins JR’s initiation into the dangerous world of the Russian mob led by Sam (Jacek Koman). A trip to arms dealer Wilson (Damon Herriman) and a visit from Sam’s much younger girlfriend Tasha (Alicia Vikander) later and JR’s part of a heist…

Son of a Gun is a hard-edged caper movie with a strong romantic undercurrent. Director Julius Avery makes his feature debut working from his own script, with a polish from Master & Commander scribe John Collee, and it’s bursting with confidence. The chemistry between Thwaites and Vikander is palpable from their first meeting and Nigel Bluck’s cinematography of their night-time drive in a fast car is positively swoon-worthy. McGregor’s movie career has never lived up to the promise of his first few features, but this is the first film he’s made in quite some time where he’s giving a damn fine performance in a damn fine movie. His Lynch is charming, but also ruthless at the flick of a switch; combining both in a deliriously jump-started interrogation scene where he doesn’t have the patience to properly torture someone for information.

In a strong ensemble Koman, Moulin Rouge!’s resident narcoleptic, also switches between businessman and thug, while Vikander’s moll is a no-nonsense creation, and Herriman’s arms dealer is as eccentric as you’d expect from Justified’s Dewey Crowe. The only wrong note is Tom Budge as Sam’s nephew Josh – a character scripted purely for structural reasons. When Sam insists that entitled brat Josh be part of the intricate gold heist you set your stop-watch to see how long till he screws it all up. That quibble, and a slightly over-extended finale, aside Avery’s movie rattles along with confidence. There are a number of excellently choreographed set-pieces; a prison break worthy of Mesrine: Killer Instinct, a gloriously worked-out heist of a gold-mine, a terrific car-chase; while the romance between JR and Tasha and a number of double-crosses keep you engaged and second-guessing yourself.

Parker is the most recent Hollywood reference point for this popcorn mix of violence and romance, and McGregor’s sparkling turn outdoes fellow Brit The State’s criminal mastermind, while the romance is far better developed.

3.5/5

March 28, 2014

The Baz Aesthetic

I’ve considered myself a fan of Baz Luhrmann for a long time, but after Australia and The Great Gatsby, I’ve become sceptical that the ‘Red Curtain’ trilogy was really a deliberate trilogy – I think all of his films reveal the Baz Aesthetic; and it’s being imposed on increasingly unsuitable material.

THE GREAT GATSBY

Deleted scenes are often the most revealing features on DVDs. Baz Luhrmann deleted the scene in The Great Gatsby in which Jordan and Nick’s romance ends. He shot it as Nick taking the phone away from his ear, and hanging up on Jordan. Because in the book it says Jordan’s voice faded away and then they weren’t talking anymore. I always thought that Nick spaced out thinking about Gatsby’s fate and Jordan hung up on him, because that seems far more in character – but Baz went with what is a very literal interpretation. It transpires Luhrmann also cut Gatsby’s famous line “Her voice is full of money”, because it complicated a scene – but only because Luhrmann had put the line in a different scene to begin with… So this is an adaptation in which the text is taken literally, but all the meaning and nuance lost – not unlike Zack Synder’s worst missteps with his Watchmen.

But it is also an adaptation in which Luhrmann’s particular aesthetic is mercilessly imposed upon a text for which it is radically unsuitable. Why does Nick Carraway suddenly want to be a writer? Duh, so that the film can be framed, like Moulin Rouge!, with him depressed, and then, by writing his story, redeemed by art at the end with his completed manuscript representing his salvaged personality. But … what was wrong with F Scott’s original novel that it needed to be Moulin Rouge!’d? Nothing, that’s just the Baz Aesthetic… How else could one justify transforming the small smoke-filled restaurant that Gatsby and Nick dine with Wolfsheim in into a raucous Jay-Z booming speakeasy with black strippers twerking onstage? How else could one explain turning the grand piano in Gatsby’s mansion into an organ that would look outsize in the Albert Hall? How else could one excuse ditching the actual glorious popular music of the 1920s for terrible anachronistic Jay-Z drivel, and replacing the fiendishly complicated dance moves of the Charleston (which are quite the spectacle when choreographed en masse) with pathetic ‘raise your hands in the air’ hip-hop stylings? How else could one make sense of using so much unnecessary CGI that you feel like Avatar had more of a sense of physical reality, and of deliberately ditching the iconic flapper look of the 1920s for more cleavage because ‘sexiness’ is all that matters?

The Baz Aesthetic is excess – everything has to be excess. And that’s fine as an aesthetic; when it synchs with the material, but here it doesn’t. Gatsby gleefully tosses his shirts down a floor to Daisy leading to her tears over the shirts, and Nick adds a helpful line to tell the audience her line about the shirts is stupid – but in the novel Gatsby is distractedly tossing shirts about because he’s in a trance, and Daisy cries because she can’t articulate what she feels and she says a stupid line knowing it’s a stupid line. Baz Luhrmann doesn’t do subtlety or nuance, and that’s not a problem for Moulin Rouge! But if you’re going to shoehorn every property into the template of Moulin Rouge! then that is a problem.

December 5, 2011

Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree

Gladstone in the Disestablishment debates of 1869 was fond of referring to the Irish Church as the Upas Tree, a popular contemporary botanical metaphor based on an Indonesian plant that poisoned everything else that tried to grow in soil around it even as it thrived…

I’m tempted to rename The Tree of Life to Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree because I’ve been complaining for a while that a too rigid adherence to an eminently predictable three-act structure is a major source of Hollywood’s current woes, and that loosening up the structure of mainstream cinema would be an exciting development, only for Malick to drive audiences demented with his unstructured rambling magnum opus. During the summer reports of walk-outs, sarcastic laughter, ironic applause, and worse floated in from all quarters as responses to Malick’s film. I heard of three men getting as far as the appearance of the dinosaurs before one went, “Ah, here. Scoops?”, and they just got up and left. I was at one of the last screenings in the IFI in its tiny second screen in the afternoon with an audience of Malick devotees. I’d been trying to concentrate on just luxuriating in the visuals of the creation of the universe montage and trying not to think too critically about it. The choral soundtrack got louder and louder and I was thinking about how on earth Malick was achieving this, was he adding in extra singers for each verse, when a man a few seats down from me turned to say to the woman next to him, “Oh, this is just pretentious f****** nonsense! It really is…” Unfortunately, in a hilarious occurrence straight out of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy film, at that precise moment the soundtrack went mute and his shouted whisper bounded around the entire room and was heard by everyone. You could feel the audience stiffen in their seats, some offended by this philistinism, but many more I think suddenly roused, out of somnolent acceptance of Malick’s montage as Art, back into consciousness and a critical evaluation of what the man had just said – and do you know what, I swear that I felt most of the audience suddenly silently agree and think, “It is pretentious f****** nonsense, isn’t it?!”

The first 30 minutes of the film are largely dispensable, as are the last 20 minutes. The creation of the universe montage is not art but empty bombast masquerading as profundity, while the end of the movie hilariously resembles an advertisement for life insurance as white-suited people walk around a beach smiling beatifically at each other. There is a decent movie buried in between these two extremes about a 1950s Texan adolescence, but it’s not a great movie. It wouldn’t be great, even if you could unearth it, because the central child becomes a deeply unpleasant protagonist who, in shooting his guitar-playing brother in the finger out of jealousy and spite that this bonds the younger brother to their music-loving father, approaches borderline psychosis. The most egregious failures in The Tree of Life are the least mainstream elements, while what little that works does so because it’s mainstream. Just like Let the Right One In critics have been praising as creative ambiguity what is in fact terrifying vagueness. I was stunned to discover in the credits that Fiona Shaw was the children’s grandmother, from the movie that’s not at all obvious, she appears to deliver a horrendous line to Jessica Chastain merely as an awful neighbour who is quite rightly never seen again by the family. As for what happened to the brother…as with people reading meanings into 2001 that they got from Arthur C Clarke’s novel, people saying the brother obviously committed suicide only think that from knowledge of Malick’s own life. It is not in the movie. Sean Penn is absolutely right in saying he doesn’t even know why he’s in the movie, but his comments about a dense and beautiful script which does not appear on screen are infuriating because they suggest that Malick once again signed people up for one film and then shot too much unscripted, irrelevant, but pretty material and edited together from endless incoherent footage an entirely different, philosophically slight, and inferior work.

Malick’s ideal viewer would appear to be an agoraphobic shut-in, with no access to the many nature or physics documentaries on TV. Be brutally honest and you will admit that the creation of the universe montage is so deliberately vague in its focus on the micro rather than the macro that if you didn’t know what it was beforehand you’d be unlikely to find out from watching it. The mind boggles that Doug Trumbull was involved in making that sequence as it’s inferior to depictions of the self-same cosmic events on most television documentaries. The dinosaurs are more convincing than Terra Nova’s creatures but they’re curiously inert so let’s not kid ourselves that the CGI is that much better than the Discovery Channel benchmark. An even greater problem is Malick’s apparent belief that pointing the camera upwards at the slightest provocation plus blasting majestic John Tavener choral works at ear-splitting volume equals Transcendence. Do you ever look up at a tall building, feel dwarfed by it, and go ‘whoa’? Do you sometimes walk around after heavy rain to appreciate how all the foliage looks somehow greener? Do you occasionally look up at the sunlight coming thru the leaves of trees in dappled patterns? Do you always slow down when walking so as not to scare a wild animal in order to fully appreciate stumbling across it by observing it? Congratulations, you have reached a state of deep commune with nature that Malick thinks few people ever have. Worse still, the great philosopher-poet of cinema, as the adulatory reviews would crown him, spends two and a half hours in tangentially making the point that Moulin Rouge! only needed a rhyming couplet to deliver – ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.’ The conflict between Nature and Grace outlined in voiceover by Jessica Chastain at the beginning needs dialogue to be developed. Instead Malick thinks he can explore it with clichéd and irrelevant nature imagery.

My objections to the idea that complex ideas can be communicated visually rather than verbally are old, but watching this movie I also discovered something new. I am so decadent as to require a smidgen of narrative amidst visual paeans to the beauty of nature. This is why I dub what Malick has produced an Upas Tree. He may bask in the glory of his film being a philosophical masterpiece saturated with, and directing people’s attention to, the beauty of nature, but anyone else attempting to throw away the three-act structure will now be instantly reminded that The Tree of Life proves that you can’t abandon it and be stopped dead in their tracks. Hunger may have rewritten the possibilities of cinema, but it retained the bare bones of a three-act structure to supply narrative momentum, and realised that one extended dialogue scene discussing ideas could support far more screen-time devoted to art installation style visual explorations. The Tree of Life though eschews either that sense of narrative drive or that necessity for dialogue in the exploration of ideas, and by its failure seems to proclaim that abandoning the three-act structure is not the way to go, and, at a time when its detailed proscriptions badly need re-inventing, that makes me mad. Steve McQueen’s work seems to demonstrate that the classic three-act structure is not always necessary, but some semblance of artistic purpose is indispensible. Graham Greene’s definition of a film as a series of particular images assembled in a particular way to achieve a particular effect still holds true. One could contrast McQueen’s tightly controlled visions with Malick’s free-for-all ‘shoot everything and find the movie in the editing room’ approach. The true contrast between them though is that McQueen finds beauty in the mundane and ugly, so that you go ‘whoa’ watching a floor being disinfected, while Malick finds beauty in the beautiful – which recalls Joyce’s dismissal of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as propaganda for that which needs no propaganda…

Terrence Malick is now making two more films rather quickly. He may have deeper philosophical messages to impart from his life experience, I certainly hope he does, but I think he would be well advised to re-watch his debut Badlands and remind himself that having a sense of narrative drive, be it e’er so dreamy is not a bad thing.

February 25, 2011

Oscar Schmoscar: Part II

The annual parade of pomposity and razzmatazz known as the Academy Awards lurches around again this Sunday, so here’s a deflating reminder of its awful track record.

The Academy has long shown a baffling inability to tell the difference between a good movie and a hole in the ground, and an artist and a hack. The Academy did not nominate David Fincher for Best Director for Seven, Fight Club, or Zodiac. The Academy did nominate him for Best Director for The Curious Case of Benjamin Boring Button. It has now nominated him again for The Social Network. There are two interpretations. The uncharitable one is that the Academy cannot tell the difference between an inane ‘drama’ and a crackling drama. The other is that they only noticed that Fincher could direct at all when he paid his dues with Benjamin Button by making a movie that ticked all the boxes for the Academy’s consideration, which resulted, by an odd coincidence, in a dire movie…

The Academy Awards have been skewed for seventy years because of their habit of giving the right people the wrong awards. The Academy gave Jimmy Stewart the Best Actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story. Jimmy Stewart didn’t even give the best male acting performance in The Philadelphia Story never mind in all the films made in 1940. They were giving him the award because they felt guilty about not awarding it to him the previous year for Mr Smith goes to Washington. The Oscars have been chasing their tails ever since, just look at Nicole Kidman who really won for her performance in Moulin Rouge! but was given the award for her far less impressive turn in The Hours. Al Pacino, in the most famous of the Academy’s belated accolades, was finally given his Best Actor Oscar for the now forgotten display of scenery chewing that was Scent of a Woman. He was not given the Oscar for his roles in The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, Sea of Love, or Glengarry Glen Ross, all of which would have been more worthy of such recognition.

The Academy has a terrible habit of getting stuck in default-setting for automatic nominations. In the mid-1990s it seemed that every attempt to compile a shortlist of original scripts ended in despairing wails that there were no original ideas in Hollywood anymore, until someone asked if Woody Allen had made a film this year. Another nomination to Woody, and then they only had 4 more scripts to find… Meryl Streep’s ridiculous run of nominations is further proof of this approach. The Academy may like to delude itself that all these nominations prove she’s a throwback to the Golden Age, however, Streep’s painfully mannered accents and overwrought performances made Katherine Hepburn feel impelled to let it be known that Streep was her least favourite modern actress; “Click, click, click” she said, referring to the wheels turning inside Streep’s head.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that The Social Network was a riveting film. We don’t need them patronising Inception by giving it a Best Picture nomination because it was a box-office smash, but not nominating Nolan for Director thereby signalling they’re not taking it seriously because it’s mere entertainment.

In fact, we don’t need them, period.

March 15, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

There’s been an odd prevalence of live blogs surrounding this year’s “goddamn meat-parade” – as George C Scott so memorably described the Oscars. This blog did not do a live commentary on the Oscars for three reasons. Firstly, I rather like sleeping at night and think that many other people share this strange attitude. Secondly, I don’t believe that even Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie writing together could possibly write anything funny or insightful enough LIVE! to justify a live blog. Thirdly, the Oscars are (whisper it) (no in fact bellow it!) POINTLESS!

There are 5,777 voting members of the Academy. These individuals do not have a better idea of what makes a great film than any other 5,777 random individuals around the world. There was a reason that JFK told Ben Bradlee what he’d learned from the Bay of Pigs was this – “Don’t assume that because a man is in the army that he necessarily knows best about military strategy”. If you doubt that consider these three facts.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Alfred Hitchcock, director of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, was not truly exceptional enough in his field to win a Best Director Oscar.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, was.

The Academy nominated both Apocalypse Now and Kramer Vs Kramer for Best Picture of 1979 and thought that the film which would have most impact on popular culture, which pushed the boundaries of film-making, and which would endure and be fondly remembered was…Kramer Vs Kramer. I love the smell of dumbness in the Kodak.

According to the Academy the best 10 films of the Zeros were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker.

Not Memento, Moulin Rouge!, The Two Towers, Master & Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Good Night and Good Luck, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

Or Amores Perros, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rules of Attraction, X-2, Mean Girls, Brick, The Prestige, Zodiac, Hunger and Up in the Air.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that Christoph Waltz gave a great performance in Inglourious Basterds. We don’t need the Academy’s nominations to help us tell the difference between a good blockbuster with commercial clichés and a bad Oscar-baiter with its own set of equally rigid (but more idiotic because they’re ‘edgy’) clichés (Little Miss Sunshine, I’m looking at you). Maggie Mayhem tells Bliss in Whip It “Be your own hero”. Follow her advice, trust your own instincts…

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