Talking Movies

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…

October 13, 2009

Films of the Decade?

Lists are generally easy when you don’t think about them too much. Easter 1998, lying in the grass on a sunny Kingston Hill, I and my friend John Fahey paused from football and in about 5 minutes picked out the one film that defined its decade, right back to the 1930s.

1990s – Pulp Fiction
1980s –Wall Street
1970s – All the President’s Men
1960s – Goldfinger
1950s – Ben-Hur
1940s – Casablanca
1930s – Gone with the Wind

Looking back at that list over 11 years later it holds up pretty well for what was a pretty facile exercise in that each film can arguably be held to represent a particular cultural zeitgeist in each decade (even if one has to reach to shoe-horn in Ben-Hur) with the arrival of Gone with the Wind just before the world plunges into World War II seeming particularly apt, indeed its still unbeatable box-office success may be because people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling thru it all. Now trying to do an equivalent list of the top 10 films of just this decade seems well nigh impossible… How do you make a list of the best films of the 2000s hereinafter known as the Zeros? I have no idea, well, that’s not true, I have too many ideas, hence the utter agony of trying to construct the list…

Should you simply pick the 10 films that you liked best? (The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings) Or should it be 10 films that in some (in)tangible way seemed to sum up the decade? (Fahrenheit 9/11) If you choose the latter route do you pick films that were influential over films that came later that were better but needed the initial film’s breakthrough? (Brokeback Mountain, Milk) Even more importantly do you pick films that you didn’t like or didn’t see just because you know they’re ‘important’? (Crash, Babel) Do you act like a pretentious film critic and load the list with foreign films that only 45 people in the country ever saw because they were at the press screenings too? (Waltz with Bashir) Or is allocating a set number of places for foreign films an unforgivably tokenistic way to get round the problem of popular imagination being largely defined by American releases? (Mesrine: 1& 2)

Does a film need to be set in its own decade to actually define that decade or can it do so by allegory? (Good Night and Good Luck) Do films reflecting the awesome impact of 9/11 and Iraq inherently capture the decade in a way films that blithely ignore those events simply cannot? (War of the Worlds, Land of the Dead) Does torture porn reflect/critique the Abu Ghraib mindset and therefore demand a place on any serious list even if you despised it? (Hostel) Do you just try to be comprehensive by shoe-horning in as many genres as possible into your top 10? (Superbad, The Fog of War) If a genre dominates a decade does it deserve disproportionate weighting, like Spider-Man and The Dark Knight both getting into the Top 10 as opposite ends of the comic-book spectrum?

At the moment I’m thinking that films which have stood the test of time and have matured deserve places most. So, here’s the top 20 films of the decade:

2000-2002

Memento    Almost Famous    Moulin Rouge!    Donnie Darko    The Lord of the Rings    Ocean’s Eleven                                                          

2003-2006

The Rules of Attraction    Master & Commander    Mean Girls    Good Night and Good Luck    Brick    Casino Royale    Stranger than Fiction

2007-2009

Zodiac    Atonement    I’m Not There    Wanted    Caramel    The Dark Knight    Milk                           

 

As of right now…

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