Talking Movies

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

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

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

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

October 6, 2009

Love Happens

This film is a real oddity. Aaron Eckhart, Martin Sheen and Zodiac’s John Carroll Lynch all seem to think they’re in a serious drama about bereavement and grieving. Everyone else thinks they’re in a sappy rom-com…

The always charismatic Eckhart plays Burke Ryan, a psychologist who has moved from writing practical newspaper columns to an uneasy fame conducting workshops to deal with bereavement on the back of his best-selling book A-Okay (complete with inane hand symbol) about his recovery from the impact of his wife’s violent death at his side in a car-crash. While (against his better judgement) conducting a workshop in Seattle he encounters Manic Pixie Dream Girl,  sorry,  I meant florist, Eloise (Jennifer Aniston), who likes scribbling obscure words like Quidnunc in odd places in hotels. Eloise has a wonderful moment where she pretends to be deaf to avoid Burke’s advances but this film is not a romantic comedy, the only laughs come from Eckhart doing slapstick with a parrot. Instead, though Judy Greer and Dan Fogler give it their all as the archetypal best friends of the leads, this is that rare beast, a romantic drama.

Co-writer/director Brandon Camp started work on this film after his mother’s death, and there is a strong authenticity to much of the material, which he deserves great credit for tackling. Danny Boyle noted in his Sunshine commentary that cinema’s forward momentum makes it nearly impossible to grieve for a character, so this film is one of the very few you will see in mainstream cinema seriously tackling loss. Eckhart has a phenomenal scene when his character is ambushed at the end of one of the first workshop sessions by his father-in-law (Sheen) who lambasts him for exploiting the death of his daughter. Eckhart has no dialogue – we simply watch his completely silent reaction as the façade of confidence crumbles. Following this Burke makes it his mission to save ex-contractor Walter (Lynch) from his cul-de-sac of guilt over his young son’s death on a building site. Some of these scenes are rom-com structural tropes, but filled with such dramatic sizzle that they actually make an impression. But this tension between form and content is never satisfactorily resolved, even a climactic scene between Eckhart and Sheen becomes slightly suspect when obligatory romantic sappiness bleeds into it. There are also cameos by NCIS star Sasha Alexander as a photographer and Joe (charisma to burn) Anderson as Aniston’s unfaithful musician boyfriend that are bizarrely pointless.

This should be the kind of brainless fluff like The Core and No Reservations that Eckhart does to make money (without exercising his brain) to subsidise LaBute plays and films like Thank You For Smoking. Instead it’s a strange beast. Saddled with rom-com clichés and stranded half-way between romantic drama and serious drama it bends its formal structures to breaking point without quite achieving the heights that should come from such a daring imposition of challenging material in a trifling genre. A decent film, just a very confused one.

2.5/5

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