Talking Movies

July 9, 2018

From the Archives: Wanted

Another excursion to the pre-Talking Movies archives returns with the most outre blockbuster of summer 2008.

Just when it looked like the summer blockbusters had settled for polite dullness along comes Wanted, which in its finest moments resembles nothing so much as In Bruges on speed. Not having read the graphic novels I can’t speak as to how faithful an adaptation this is, but having read other comics by Scottish writer Mark Millar (who co-produced this film) I can say that it displays an appropriate love of  outrageously cool violence and profane dark humour. Timur Bekmambetov is a name we should all learn to remember because, following up the promise of his Russian films Night Watch and Day Watch, this film is shot with more flair and a deeper sense of fun than most of 2008’s other popcorn blockbusters combined.

Atonement star James McAvoy is a humdrum accounts manager, put upon by his boss, cheated on by his girlfriend (with his best friend for added insult) and reduced to popping pills to combat his superbly staged anxiety attacks. Until a woman shows up, who explains the heightened senses he experiences when stressed are really the 400 beat a minute heart rate that marks him as one of The Fraternity, a 1,000 year old organisation of elite assassins who read codes in the weaves of a loom for the names of mass murderers that fate decrees must die before they start their murderous ways. The first hour of Wanted is ridiculously exhilarating as the obligatory training at the hands of the mentors become funnier and more unexpected than ever before.

Things inevitably run out of steam in the middle but thankfully the film ends with a truly deranged action finale dripping with priceless moments. Treasure the sound effect of the year as a rat, about to explode, utters a squeak which betrays a note of some concern. Wince as a man is shot thru the eye and then shot thru it again and again as his corpse is used as a human shield. Savour the wise old man Morgan Freeman delivering an expletive better than Samuel L Jackson…

Finally rejoice in the awesomeness of Angelina Jolie. I was unmercifully hostile to A Mighty Heart which I said failed because her public persona swamped her acting. Personas are odd things. John Wayne took a number of years to create the persona of ‘John Wayne’, perfected in Stagecoach and re-hashed for the next 37 years. Angelina Jolie’s persona is more a purely public creation that cannot be captured on celluloid. Her smash hit Mr & Mrs Smith centred on a tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt, and so was a heightened expression of the comic book which is her life. Well… her preposterous sexuality, sly humour and dark allure are it turns out perfect casting for an assassin of few words called Fox. Her performance alone makes Wanted a must-see.

4/5

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April 25, 2018

From the Archives: Jumper

A dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds the last wide-release Hayden Christensen movie just days after the now neglected actor celebrated his 37th birthday.

Doug Liman, the director of The Bourne Identity, tries to reinvigorate the fantasy genre by bringing his trademark edgy handheld camera style to bear on new blockbuster Jumper but fails miserably. Jumper’s main problem is a wretched script that is the work of three screenwriters as well as the original novelist Stephen Gould. This film is transparently meant to establish an Origin Myth for an action franchise but it rushes through its set-up with unseemly haste. You will long for more detail on the mythic past of the teleporting Jumpers and their mortal enemies the Paladins but you will neither get that nor a good reason to care about any of these characters. This is all the odder given that the screenwriters boast Fight Club, Batman Begins and Mr & Mrs Smith on their collective resumes. Jumper thus bears the dreaded hallmarks of extensive studio meddling during its protracted post-production.

A brief prologue shows our hero David Rice discovering his power to teleport after a school bully’s prank leaves him fatally trapped under the ice in a fast flowing river. He then uses this new found ability to escape his abusive father and relocate to NYC where he robs a bank and lives off the proceeds for the next 8 years. In Hayden Christensen’s first scene as the grown up David he walks past a TV news report about people stuck on rooftops in a flood which asks how can these people be saved when no one can reach them? ‘Well, a Jumper could reach them…’ you mutter…but David just heads to the fridge for a beer before flitting off for a night on the town in London. David is selfish to a fault and Christensen’s utterly flat performance doesn’t make him any more sympathetic. Jumper slows to a crawl when he revisits Ann Arbor to whisk off his high-school sweetheart Millie (The OC’s Rachel Bilson) for a Roman holiday. Exactly why she agrees to go should become one of cinema’s most enduring mysteries. In Rome David meets Jamie Bell’s Griffin, a Jumper dedicated to killing the Paladins who have hunted the super-powered mutant Jumpers for centuries, and reluctantly teams up with him to defeat Roland, leader of the quasi-religious Paladins.

Jumper’s teleportation heavy action sequences involving ‘blink and you miss it’ globe-trotting underwhelm for the most part, with the exception of some extremely dangerous teleportation enhanced fast driving, and Jamie Bell’s line “God, I hate Chechnya” when the Jumpers unexpectedly land in a warzone. Samuel L Jackson as Roland, the vicious Jumper-hunter, has some fun sporting a fetching white hair-do but his role, rather like the film, is too underwritten for him to really make an impact. Ultimately (and ironically) for a film about people who never walk when they can teleport Jumper ends up a sadly pedestrian affair.

2/5

October 21, 2016

Keeping up with the Joneses

Director Greg Mottola returns to cinemas for the first time since Paul, but working with inferior material to his recent Rogen, Pegg, and Sorkin scripts.

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Jeff Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis) is an ineffectual HR drone who is genially disregarded by all the people with security clearance at major weapons manufacturer McDowell-Burton International. His wife Karen (Isla Fisher) is dissatisfied designing an absurd bathroom for obnoxious neighbours the Craverstons (being a largely wasted VEEP star Matt Walsh as Dan and Maribeth Monroe as Meg). As the Gaffneys agonise over how to utilise their sons’ time at summer camp to revitalise their marriage new neighbours arrive; the uber-stylish uber-sophisticated Joneses, Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie (Gal Gadot). Jeff is surprised at Tim, the travel writer who blows glass sculptures as a hobby, befriending him. But Karen grows suspicious that Tim and Natalie are actually spies, and when Jeff takes his concerns to MBI security officer Carl Pronger (Kevin Dunn), the Gaffneys enter the sinister world of ‘The Scorpion’.

What exactly is Greg Mottola, director of Arrested Development, The Newsroom, Superbad, Paul and Adventureland, doing helming this action-comedy? This is the comediocre terrain of hack auteurs like Shawn Levy or (shudder) Paul Feig. Mottola has some fun playing on the remarkable coincidence that Gadot & Hamm are both 7 inches taller than their counterparts Fisher & Galifianakis. There’s a lot of looming… It’s a treat to hear Gadot berating Hamm in rapid-fire Hebrew insults, but there’s not a whole lot else going on. Mottola shoots action with pleasing commitment to practical stunt-work, and throws in gleefully parodic action-hero slo-mo and hero shots of Gadot and Hamm, but the lack of any real driving comedic intent is almost metatextually reflected in Andrew Dunn’s cinematography being remarkably soft-focus; as if he was massaging out the cast’s wrinkles in Murder, She Wrote.

Michael LeSieur’s screenplay is a strange beast, and it’s hard to see what in it attracted Mottola. This film is obviously in debt to Mr & Mrs Smith, and even that had longueurs, but Keeping up with the Joneses lacks that movie’s over-arching sense of fun; which kept the wheels spinning when there were no actual jokes. Here LeSieur has very few actual jokes at all, and, in sending Jeff on trips to exotic snake restaurants with Tim, slips into what feels like a tip of the hat to David Duchovny’s intermittently interesting satire The Joneses; where perfect new neighbours are actually a guerrilla sales team. Depressingly early on you realise this is another major studio comedy that has tidy plotting and neat character arcs, and basically no jokes. When exactly did that approach to writing ‘comedy’ become conventional wisdom?

Keeping up with the Joneses just about holds the attention, but given the calibre of talent involved you just wonder how nobody noticed that it wasn’t actually … funny.

1.5/5

January 28, 2014

2014: Fears

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300: BATTLE OF ARTEMESIUM

Noah
Arriving in March is Darren Aronofsky’s soggy biblical epic starring Russell Crowe as Noah, and Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s dad, the oldest man imaginable Methuselah. Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Logan Lerman round out the family, and Ray Winstone is the beastly villain of the piece. Aronofsky doesn’t lack chutzpah, he passed off horror flick Black Swan as a psychological drama in which Natalie Portman did all her own dancing after all, but this will undoubtedly sink without trace in its own CGI flood because it apparently tackles head-on the troublesome references to the Sons of God while somehow making Noah an ecological warrior – which neatly alienates its target audience.

300: Rise of an Empire

The ‘sequel’ to 300 finally trundles into cinemas 7 years and about three name changes later. Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) urges the Greeks to unite in action against the invading army of Persian ruler Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), while Athenian Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads the Hellenic fleet against the Persian fleet (which we’re supposed to accept is) led by the Greek Artemisia (Eva Green). 300 is a fine film, if you regard it, following PG Wodehouse’s dictum, as a sort of musical comedy without the music. Zack Snyder took it deadly seriously… and has co-written this farrago of CGI, macho nonsense, Bush-era patriotic bombast, and deplorable history.

TRANSCENDENCE

The Raid 2: Berandal
March sees the return of super-cop Rama (Iko Uwais), as, picking up immediately after the events of the first film, he goes undercover in prison to befriend the convict son of a fearsome mob boss, in the hope of uncovering corruption in Jakarta’s police force. 2012’s The Raid was bafflingly over-praised (Gareth Evans’ script could’ve been for a film set in Detroit, and in the machete scene a villain clearly pulled a stroke to avoid disarming Rama), so this bloated sequel, running at nearly an hour longer than its predecessor, is a considerable worry. At least there’ll be some variety with subway fights, and car chases promised.

Transcendence
Nolan’s abrasive DP Wally Pfister makes the leap to the big chair in April with this sci-fi suspense thriller. Dr. Caster (Johnny Depp), a leading pioneer in the field of A.I., uploads himself into a computer upon an assassination attempt, soon gaining a thirst for omnipotence. Pfister has enlisted Nolan regulars Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, as well as Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, and the inimitable Clifton Collins Jr, and Jack Paglen’s script was on the Black List; so why is this a fear? Well, remember when Spielberg’s DP tried to be a director? And when was the last time Depp’s acting was bearable and not a quirkfest?

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

May 2nd sees the return of the franchise we didn’t need rebooted… Aggravatingly Andrew Garfield as Spidey and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey are far better actors than Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, but the material they were given felt inevitably over-familiar. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci wrote the sequel, and, after Star Trek ‘2’, their Sleepy Hollow riffs so much on Supernatural it casts doubt on their confidence in their own original ideas, which is a double whammy as far as over-familiarity goes. And there’s too many villains… Electro (Jamie Foxx), Rhino (Paul Giamatti), Harry Osborn/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), and Norman Osborn(/Green Goblin too?) (Chris Cooper).

Boyhood
Richard Linklater and Michael Winterbottom as transatlantic parallels gains ground as it transpires they’ve both been pulling the same trick over the last decade. Linklater in Boyhood tells the life of a child (Ellar Salmon) from age six to age 18, following his relationship with his parents (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette) before and after they divorce. Linklater has spent a few weeks every year since 2002 shooting portions of this film, so Salmon grows up and his parents lose their looks. Hawke has described it as “time-lapse photography of a human being”, but is it as good as Michael Chabon’s similar set of New Yorker stories following a boy’s adolescence?

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Edge of Tomorrow

Tastefully released on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Tom Cruise plays a soldier, fighting in a world war against invading aliens, who finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, though he becomes better skilled along the way. So far, so Groundhog Day meets Source Code. On the plus side it’s directed by Doug Liman (SwingersMr & Mrs Smith), who needs to redeem himself for 2008’s Jumper, and it co-stars Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton. On the minus side three different screenwriters are credited (including Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth), and, given how ‘development’ works, there’s probably as many more uncredited.

Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis return in July, 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 cast includes the unloveable Eddie Redmayne, but also the extremely loveable Tuppence Middleton and the always watchable Sean Bean, and, oddly, a cameo from Terry Gilliam, whose work is said to be an influence on the movie. Although with bits of Star Wars, Greek mythology, and apparently the comic-book Saga floating about, what isn’t an influence?

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

An unnecessary prequel to 2005’s horrid Sin City follows the story of Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) and his dangerous relationship with the seductive Ava Lord (Eva Green). Shot in 2012 but trapped in post-production hell the CGI-fest will finally be ready for August, we’re promised. Apparently this Frank Miller comic is bloodier than those utilised in the original, which seems barely possible, and original cast Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis and Jaime King return alongside newcomers Juno Temple and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But who cares? The original’s awesome trailer promised cartoon Chandler fun, and delivered gruesome, witless, sadistic, and misogynistic attempts at noir from Miller’s pen.

Guardians Of The Galaxy
Also in August, Marvel aim to prove that slapping their logo on anything really will sell tickets as many galaxies away Chris Pratt’s cocky pilot (in no way modelled on Han Solo) falls in with alien assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), warrior Drax The Destroyer (wrestler Dave Bautista), tree-creature Groot (Vin Diesel’s voice uttering one line), and badass rodent Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper’s voice), going on the run with a powerful object with half the universe on their tail. Writer/director James Gunn (SlitherSuper) has form, and reunites with Michael Rooker as well casting Karen Gillan as a villain, but this silly CGI madness sounds beyond even him.

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

The Man from UNCLE

Probably a Christmas blockbuster this reboot of the 1960s show teams 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 his Sherlock Holmes scribe Lionel Wigram. Sigh. Hugh Grant plays Waverley, while the very talented female leads Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki will highlight the lack of suavity and comic timing of the male leads; particularly troublesome given the show was very dryly done tongue-in-cheek super-spy nonsense.

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Exodus

Another year, another Ridley Scott flick among my greatest cinematic fears… Thankfully Fassbender is not implicated in this disaster in waiting. Instead it is Christian Bale who steps into Charlton Heston’s sandals as the leader of the Israelites Moses in this Christmas blockbuster – don’t ask… Joel Edgerton is the Pharoah Rameses who will not let Moses’ people go, Aaron Paul is Joshua, and the ensemble includes Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Emun Elliott and John Turturro. But Tower Heist scribes Adam Cooper & Bill Collage are the chief writers, with Steve Zaillian rewriting for awards prestige, and Scott’s on an epic losing streak, so this looks well primed for CGI catastrophe…

December 6, 2010

Dramatis Personae: Annie & Zooey

This meditation on personae and typecasting began as a proposed comment on Paul Fennessy’s piece on She & Him’s Volume II, but soon developed a life of its own…

While reading his blog I thought of the episode of Elvis Costello’s music show in which both She & Him and Jenny Lewis performed new material. She & Him’s music seemed inconsequential beside Jenny Lewis, perhaps because she had the achievements of Rilo Kiley behind her, but perhaps also because Zooey’s presence visually indicated this was merely quirky fluff and not to be taken seriously. But listen to it on the radio without any visuals and it stands up beside Jenny Lewis’ solo output. Which begs the question has Zooey become almost as much a victim of her screen persona as the Annie of my title, Angelina Jolie?

When I first sat thru the trailer for Salt and saw a blonde Jolie wearing smart work-clothes, who goes on the run by dyeing her hair black and dressing in leather, I asked out loud in disbelief – “Wait, so her disguise is to turn into Angelina Jolie?!” The persona that Jolie has created is something I’ve discussed in reviews of A Mighty Heart and Wanted which remains fascinating. Many stars have eschewed acting in favour of creating a persona which they impose on every role. The Duke took years to create the persona that he was able to live off for four decades. He was able to play against it in The Searchers, and toy with its comedic potential in The Quiet Man, but mostly he just imposed it on every script. Hence John Ford’s apocryphal outburst on seeing Red River, “I never knew the son of a bitch could act!” Jolie though is burdened not with a cinematic persona created thru a decade of hard-graft in B-movies, but with a purely public persona created thru a decade of tabloid headlines. This cannot be captured on celluloid, except parodically. Her sole smash hits in the last decade were Mr & Mrs Smith and Wanted. Mr & Mrs Smith centred on her tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt’s character, and at times it played merely as a cinematic objective-correlative of the preposterous comic-book which is her life, as depicted by the tabloids. Wanted seemed to say that her persona of voluptuous sexuality, sly humour and dark allure couldn’t be taken seriously, but could be perfect casting for an assassin of few words called…Fox.

This glorious playing up to her ridiculous persona followed her failure to win an Oscar for A Mighty Heart. It certainly wasn’t for want of trying. The curled hair, darkened pigmentation, French accent, and despairing shouting did everything short of run ‘For Your Consideration’ subtitles across the bottom of cinema screens. Yet the baggage of her all too public life sank what would have been a great role for a lower profile actress. All her best moments were in quiet unshowy scenes when she stopped giving ‘a performance’, but that’s increasingly hard to do, as Changeling also saw her fail to convincingly morph into an everywoman character. Jolie seems painfully aware that this outlandish persona is destroying her, hence her uber-grim directorial debut and those attempts with A Mighty Heart and Changeling to return to serious drama. Salt’s more serious return to Mr & Mrs Smith action-land seems to reflect distinct unease with comedically approaching the persona and perpetuating it as Membektov did with such visual panache in Wanted. Salt suggests a plan to alternate money-making dutiful nods to her persona (The Tourist) with focused attempts to overcome it.

Deschanel’s persona is a horse of a different colour. The apocryphal anecdote of Emily returning from auditioning to fume to her kid sister that they were looking for ‘a Zooey Deschanel type’ emphasises how quickly her deadpan quirkiness, showcased to perfection as the cool older sister in Almost Famous, became a persona. The point of a persona of course is that it’s a heightened construct. Jolie has trouble finding a cinematic home for her tabloid-created persona whereas Zooey’s persona, being in the classic Wayne mould, is infinitely more useful. She’s been able to use it both in supporting roles as the idiosyncratic best friend in Failure to Launch, The Good Girl, and Showtime’s Weeds, and as the dead-pan romantic heroine in Elf, Yes Man and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hitchhiker’s in particular saw her breathe some badly needed life and depth into the character of Trillian. The adorable Zooey from Almost Famous and Elf was reinforced with some emotional weight to become the definitive Trillian. In doing so much with a historically underwritten role she proved that she had considerable dramatic ability behind the persona. Indeed the delightful absurdist black comedy Eulogy boasts an enviable ensemble but it’s hard to think that its whimsical madness could be held together by anyone else but her.

Conversely with The Happening it is hard not to think any other actress would have been better, as M Night Shymalan in his current state of disrepair obviously had no earthly notion how to use either her persona or her deeper skills. That is obviously the low-light of her career but by simultaneously branching into a music career, retiring her old L.A. based cabaret duo in order to form the far higher-profile country-pop duo She & Him, the perception that she had become trapped by her persona was bound to gain currency. Perhaps this was the motive behind her turn in (500) Days of Summer. This was extremely courageous as a career move because it deconstructed her persona as the uncommunicative but adorably quirky girl by showing just how capricious and cruel that free-spirit shtick could become in real life. She was luminous when she needed to be but Deschanel also didn’t hold back on cruelty, and, while the combination of charm and emotional realism divided people hilariously when it came to judging Summer, this made her performance a career highlight. Sadly Gigantic and her guest appearance in Bones seem to indicate she’s being offered, indeed being custom-written, only roles that require her to dial in her persona. She & Him seem to be slowly gaining some level of popularity, but whether their particular brand of pop reinforces her quirky persona is debatable. In any case her ‘escape’ from her persona handsomely beats Jolie’s.

Personae can be problematic because of the fine line between typecasting and playing to your strengths. Being offered similar roles is a vote of confidence that you will do a good job with this material, but after a while it also trades on the perception audiences will have of you from previous performances, the persona you may have created. Type-casting has its own reward, being able to play against type; Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, Robin Williams in Insomnia. But its danger is that, like Eugene O’Neill Senior as The Count of Monte Cristo, not only can audiences only accept you in one type of role, but your range contracts so that you can only actually play one role. Zooey Deschanel’s persona is her own creation, not that of the tabloids. Her quirky persona may cause difficulties of reception on live music shows, but it is her screen profile and not their meagre sales that gets She & Him onto those shows in the first place. Indeed, as their elegant summery pop reflects in her song-writing the creative energies that created her persona originally, in a way, the persona will remain an ever-present even if She & Him get the popular success they deserve to the extent that Deschanel gives up acting.

Paul recommends She & Him. Seconded.

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