Talking Movies

February 14, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXIV

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a blog post proper? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-fourth pormanteau post on matters of course!

The Valley of the Short

National Geographic’s Valley of the Boom has been an odd watch. Coming off the back of 4 seasons of The West Wing re-runs on TG4 it’s been quite nice to see Bradley Whitford in light suits walking around corridors again, but this time affecting a drawl and dispensing gnomic wisdom. Elsewhere it’s been fascinating learning about Facebook before Facebook in the shape of TheGlobe.com, but there’s no compelling reason this couldn’t all have been a documentary; even if that would mean losing Josh Lyman himself. Making it a docudrama is a baffling decision, and one which ‘creator’ Matthew Carnahan seems to have interpreted as license to war on the fourth wall to make sure we understand that what little drama there is is not as factual as the documentary surrounding it. Interestingly enough in light of Vice’s suffering the law of diminishing returns when employing the tricks of The Big Short the deployment of those self-same tricks here actually work reasonably well, and even include a musical number; something filmed for but dropped from Vice.

You Don’t Know Dick

All roads lead back to Vice… The more I’ve thought about Vice the more uneasy I am about it. McKay’s interest in Dick Cheney is that which animates all Presidential biographers – the years in the Oval Office. So why bother making a film about the years leading up to it as well, and not just zero in on those eight years? Those eight years, after all, are what really (and clearly) gets McKay’s goat. And yet Vice gallops thru them, offering Cheney’s infamous (and cheerfully repeated by myself and Emmet Ryan during writing sessions, explicitly mentioning that Vice-Presidential imprimatur) “Go F*** Yourself” to Senator Patrick Leahy, and his accidental shooting someone while hunting, almost totally decontextualised, purely because they had to be included; because they’d been fodder for the SNL writers, as McKay once was. The scene in which Cheney demands to see all intelligence, no matter how flimsy, is presented as his quest for a fictional casus belli to invade Iraq. I’ve been thinking though of how that scene could be written, with the same misgivings by the agency directors, and the same outcome, but an entirely different and equally plausible motivation for Cheney’s actions. The truth is that is possible for many scenes in Vice, because McKay always assumes the absolute worst of Cheney, usually in the absence of any information whatsoever. So try this on for size as reason for trampling the constitution beneath his feet:

CIA: There’s only one source for that, Mister Vice-President, that’s why it’s not included.

CHENEY: I want to see everything.

FBI: But, Mister Vice-President, we have to sift thru the intelligence to determine what’s credible.

CHENEY: Do you? Is that what you did when you dismissed as ‘racial profiling’ a flag on an Arabic man saying he didn’t need to learn how to land the plane, just how to fly it? 3,000 Americans are dead because we dropped the ball. We dropped the ball, and they died. So from now on I see EVERYTHING. I don’t care how ‘credible’ you think it is. I need to see EVERYTHING. We are not going to have another 9/11, not on my watch. Now get out of here, and don’t fumble the f****** ball again…

And now perhaps imagine how McKay would handle a similar scene involving President Obama justifying lethal drone strikes on American citizens without any due process.

 

Our long national nightmare is over

And once again with The West Wing re-runs on TG4, because Declan Rice’s statement last night contained a fatal phrase that immediately had me humming Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore ditty. I have felt, almost from the beginning of this will he/won’t he saga, that it was unseemly. And as it progressed I felt it was increasingly humiliating for us to be so desperately begging someone to play for us. Especially as he is ‘a proud Englishman’. Sing it!

But in spite of all temptation

To belong to other nations

He remains an Englishman!

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April 24, 2014

Tracks

The omnipresent Mia Wasikowska gets to use her own accent for a change as a real-life explorer in 1970s Australia.

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Robyn Davidson (Wasikowska) wants to be alone. And not in the ‘get out of my room/house’ Greta Garbo sense, more in the Calvin & Hobbes ‘I want to live a million miles from anyone’ way. Arriving in Alice Springs, she circles her dream of escaping into the Outback with some camels and crossing the Australian desert to reach the Indian Ocean. She slaves for German camel-trainer Kurt Posel (Rainer Bock) learning the craft, but Afghan rival Sally (John Flaus) becomes her true mentor. She says goodbye to her Pop (Robert Coleby) and sister Marg (Emma Booth), who don’t understand her motivation. Her best friend Jenny (Jessica Tovey) does, but scuppers Robyn’s desire to be alone by introducing her to National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver). Along with Aboriginal elder Mr Eddy (Rolley Mintuma) Rick helps her survive the desert.

Tracks is a very well made film. Mandy Walker’s photography of the striking scenery impresses as much as her work in Australia (when Baz Luhrmann let her actually film Australia), John Curran’s direction is as measured as ever, and the use of actual grouchy camels rather than the CGI creations you’d have half-expected/feared is very refreshing. Marion Nelson’s adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s memoir, however, disappoints.  We’re teased with elliptical reveals of the reason Robyn wants solitude; but it’s a substitution of cinematic convention for true psychological probing. Jenny seems to introduce Rick to stymie what she never articulates – Robyn’s death-wish; a fear verbalised by sister Marg, who the script mocks for suburban conformity. And, as much as I Am Legend, without a faithful dog (Diggity, NCIS fans will rejoice is actually named Special Agent Gibbs), the protagonist would be toast.

Tracks could use a lot more detail on the actual practicalities of arranging the supplies for a 2,000 mile trek across a desert, and the mechanics of how navigation, establishing camp, feeding camels et al actually happens. But at the same time towards the end you get the distinct impression that Curran actually wants to make a film trippier than a PG-13 rating allows for. There’s a lot of weird nudity with Wasikowska skinny-dipping and trekking naked, shot from behind or far away, which is oddly prurient; and seems a belated attempt to depict the madness that inspired the trek as well as that inflicted by the trek. So, oddly, by charting a middle course between those two extremes of narrative technique Tracks has something to annoy everyone who wants to quibble. But there can be no quibbling about the acting. Driver is quite funny as the awkward Yank, and Flaus’ mentor is very empathetic.

Tracks is a solid, enjoyable film, but despite Mia Wasikowska’s commitment in the lead it never really catches fire.

3/5

December 22, 2010

The Way Back

Australian auteur Peter Weir lethargically releases his first film in seven years. Sadly, it’s not worth rising from your post-Christmas stupor to see…

Weir’s laziness is usually matched by the quality of the movies emanating from his sabbaticals (The Truman Show, Master & Commander). But, like a pianist going without practice for too long, Weir’s directing skills have become rusty, and he hits wrong notes everywhere. Across the Universe star Jim Sturgess is our bland Polish hero Janusz, sent to a Siberian gulag in 1939 after the Russians defeat his army. Here he meets imprisoned actor Mark Strong, American immigrant Ed Harris, and Colin Farrell as the hardest of hard chaws, Valka. Farrell steals the film from the anaemic leading man on the showy side, while Ed Harris steals it on the Bogart side, but this miscasting is not the worst of Weir’s blunders.

By the end of this ‘inspiring’ true story it’ll feel as if you have trekked from Siberia to India so colossal is the accumulating boredom. Sam Mendes recreated tedium in trying to depict the effect of tedium on soldiers in Jarhead; Weir makes a film that is endless and gruelling in depicting men on an endless and gruelling trek. The trouble is that it’s hard to care about their hardships as Weir introduces these men so cavalierly. A reprise of Master & Commander’s subtle depiction of an all-male closed-society is abandoned almost instantly as the 7 trekkers escape to freedom in a terrifyingly vague fashion. If you later know for sure the name of the first of the trekkers to ‘poignantly’ die then I take my furry Russian hat off to you. Weir puts his characters in peril, and only then remembers that he was supposed to make us care about them first.

His attempts to retrospectively make us care by fleshing out minor characters are sunk by the tragicomic desertion of a star, which leads to the horrifying realisation (much like Speed Racer’s telegraphed story-structure) that we’re only half-way thru the trek, and we still have the guts of a continent to go… Saoirse Ronan tries to keep this section afloat by wringing as much pathos as she can from the weak material but all too often everyone is on auto-cue delivering platitudes. As for pay-off, The Way Back features the dumbest ending imaginable; its level of insight into character psychology heralded by Janus’ Forrest Gump like explanation of how he escaped a Siberian gulag, “I just kept walking”. And keep walking he does, by God, with his ever-ambling shoes super-imposed on a newsreel montage of the Cold War’s flash-points before 2010’s most inane finale.

It may seem harsh as a judgement but only co-producers National Geographic get their money’s worth on this picture. It educationally displays the varied climates and fauna of Asia. Meanwhile you, the paying audience, get less for your money in terms of suspense, action, and emotional involvement than 3 episodes of Bear Grylls’ ever-preposterous adventures back to back provides.

2/5

June 2, 2010

Icon: Werner Herzog

Herzog’s dementedly brilliant The Bad Lieutenant is currently in cinemas and another feature My Son What Have Ye Done? is winning acclaim at film festivals, so it’s time for a brief spot of hero-worship of the insane German auteur.

Werner Herzog was born in 1942 and worked in a steel factory to fund his film education. When he was thirteen his family had shared an apartment in Munich with an eccentric actor called Klaus Kinski. Kinski had a small role in For a Few Dollars More but was widely considered impossible to work with. Herzog (who said of Kinski, “I had to domesticate the wild beast”) was thus uniquely positioned to extract performances of grandeur from the actor in the five films they made together. Herzog spent the mid-60s trying to get his award winning feature script Signs of Life off the ground. He had written it in 1964 and in 1967 finally managed to make it with only $20,000 and a stolen 35 mm movie camera. It was released to acclaim in 1968 and his debut established his directorial style. Languidly paced with long takes and dreamy landscape shots it followed the descent into madness of an injured soldier while working as caretaker of a military fortress with his wife on a Greek island. Herzog followed it up with a National Geographic documentary The Flying Doctors of East Africa establishing a pattern of alternating features with documentaries that persists to this day.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) established Herzog as a truly visionary director with an extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography and a talent for exploring states of deep psychological madness in its epic narrative of a Conquistador’s search for El Dorado. Herzog revisited this theme with Fitzcarraldo (1982) which was another story of insanity in the South American rainforests and during which he remarked, “I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum”. Both films benefited from extraordinary performances by Klaus Kinski of whom he said:  “People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder”. It is alleged that Herzog threatened Kinski with a gun during takes on Fitzcarraldo

Documentaries became Herzog’s mainstay following Kinski’s death in 1990. Herzog’s reputation in that field is immense. He was responsible for forcing Errol Morris, director of 2004’s The Fog of War, to stop talking about it and finally make his documentary debut, the off-beat 1978 pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, with a challenge that Herzog made good on in the 1979 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe… Herzog’s most notable documentaries include 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly and 2005’s Grizzly Man. He also starred in 2004’s Incident at Loch Ness, an uproariously funny mockumentary about Herzog making a film about the phenomenon of Nessie, co-written and directed with X-2 scribe Zak Penn.

While being interviewed about Grizzly Man by Mark Kermode for BBC 2’s Culture Show Herzog was shot live on camera by an air-rifle. Herzog, Kermode and the crew dived for cover and scurried from the Beverly Hills to Herzog’s house to finish the interview. Herzog was remarkably unperturbed, merely muttering “I have been shot at before, but this is the first time I have been shot at in those hills”. Kermode was aghast to discover that Herzog was bleeding having been shot in the stomach by the sniper. Herzog steadfastly refused to go to hospital maintaining, “It is an insignificant wound”, and finished the interview. The morning after the interview was broadcast Joaquin Phoneix revealed Herzog had rescued him from a car wreck. Phoenix overturned his car on a canyon road above Sunset Boulevard after his brakes failed. Phoenix said “I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, ‘Just relax’…I’m saying, ‘I’m fine. I am relaxed’…this head pops inside. And he said, ‘No, you’re not’. And suddenly I said to myself, ‘That’s Werner Herzog’ There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out. I got out of the car and I said, ‘Thank you’, and he was gone”. After such a truly Batman like escapade it was only suitable that Herzog’s next film was with Christian Bale. Rescue Dawn dramatised the true story of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, an account of USAF pilot Dieter Dengler’s attempts to escape from a Vietcong POW camp.

Herzog followed up his highest-profile feature in many years with Encounters at the End of the World, an inspired portrayal of Antarctica’s wildlife and landscape and the oddballs who live there, which was Talking Movies’ pick of 2009. Herzog may well win it and place this year…

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