Talking Movies

August 27, 2018

From the Archives: Babylon A.D.

Another trawl thru the depths of the pre-Talking Movies archives recovers what Vin Diesel was reduced to before Justin Lin.

The Dark Knight was so sublime that it caused every other studio to delay their releases, hence the recent avalanche of nonsense which reaches its apotheosis of ridiculousness with Babylon A.D.

Vin Diesel’s gravelly voice and gruff presence are all that keep this inane attempt at a futuristic thriller limping along. He plays Toorop, a hard-bitten American mercenary with a liking for good food, exiled in Russia. He is kidnapped by Gerard Depardieu (wearing outrageous prosthetics) and entrusted with delivering a naïve young girl Aurora (Melanie Thierry) to New York City. The mysterious girl is accompanied from her convent by the enigmatic Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). Other clichés occur as they struggle against harsh landscapes only to find that the truly dark places are within…the human heart…

Matthieu Kassovitz, the maker of La Haine, co-writes and directs this disastrous attempt at a post-apocalyptic action epic with great meaning. The problem is he never bothers explaining how this future came about. It looks like Dark Angel’s Seattle but James Cameron explained that vision of 2019 as a result of a truly global terror attack. Kassovitz, however, seems to think explanations are unworthy of him. Sister Rebeka astounds Toorop by knowing kung fu, but we have been told nothing of her Neolite religious order by that point so the revelation falls flat, and we still don’t know enough about them to make any sense later on of the Machiavellian plotting of their founder, Charlotte Rampling. Kassovitz has flailed around badly since La Haine with The Crimson Rivers, (which explored the fine line between un homage to Se7en and un rip-off) and Halle Berry’s truly awful Gothika, so this mess is really no surprise.

Things start well with RZA sound-tracking realistic action in a grimy Russia but after that fake-looking CGI and plot-destroying bending of the laws of physics start to abound. Staggeringly a French director seems not to know how to showcase the Gallic invention of parkour, with an action sequence fizzling out as it fails to even palely imitate Casino Royale’s thrilling free-running extravaganza. The utter waste of talent in this film is exemplified by noted British character actor Mark Strong who is out-shone by his bad peroxide hair-do as the smuggler Finn. Melanie Thierry sleepwalks her way through proceedings, but perhaps she’s just trying to understand her apparent, and only occasional, Neo powers. Indeed, you will persistently shout ‘What?!’ at the logical lapses, especially the ending.

Vin Diesel can act when forced (Boiler Room) and deliver great big dumb blockbusters (xXx). This falls into some hellish in-between zone and its disaster status can be confirmed by the presence of Wilson Lambert as a mad scientist. Lambert has starred in Catwoman, Sahara, and both Matrix sequels and is the cinematic equivalent of a dead canary in a mining shaft. Avoid.

1/5

June 15, 2018

By the time the screams for help were heard, they were no longer funny

After belatedly catching up with Jurassic World 2, which features the nastiest moment in all 5 movies, I felt compelled to finally flesh out some thoughts I’d been pushing around.

It’s rapidly approaching 15 years since the release of Kill Bill: Volume 1. I’ve been listening to Tomoyasu Hotei’s barnstorming instrumental ‘Battle without Honour or Humanity’, which successfully took on a life of its own unconnected to the movie; soundtracking everything on television sports for a while. I’m happy it did because I felt queasy in the Savoy all those years ago watching the ‘Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves’, and revisiting that sequence hasn’t made me like it any more now. 2003 in retrospect seems to have been huge anticipation repeatedly followed by huge disappointment – The Matrix Reloaded, Kill Bill: Volume 1, The Matrix Revolutions. Reloaded and Volume 1 both had epic fight scenes straining a muscle striving to be iconic. Reloaded’s Neo v Smiths didn’t work because of the overuse of farcically obvious CGI, and Volume 1’s Crazy 88 massacre didn’t work because of its incredibly excessive gore which wasn’t funny because of the screams of agony.

Like Reloaded there is a long build-up to the actual fight, with dialogue that wants to be quoted forevermore. Indeed the showy camerawork when the 88 arrive by motorcycle to surround the Bride is great. Unfortunately, like Reloaded, then the fight ensues. Shifting into black and white to placate the MPAA, and hide an embarrassing shortage of fake blood colouring, the choreography of the actual blade strokes is generally pretty obscured. What Tarantino wants you to focus on is the great fountains of blood every time the Bride lops off a limb. Tarantino clearly thinks these blood sprays are hilarious. Also he clearly thinks that people screaming in agony because they’ve just lost a limb and will be crippled for the rest of their life is hilarious. I don’t. And the moment where Sophie; who, mind, didn’t do anything to the Bride, she’s just friends with someone who did; has her arm cut off repelled me in the cinema and continues to repel me. It’s the sadism. She’s made to stand with her arm out for a long time, just waiting for the Bride to cut it off. And Tarantino lingers for a long time on her agony, because he finds it hilarious. Could it be funny like he thinks?

Edwyn Collins and Tarantino when given stick both brandished the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to justify the intrinsic comedy of amputation. But if you cite that for Kill Bill Volume 1 you are deliberately overlooking the most salient point. The amputation is comic only because of the Black Knight’s complete indifference to it. There is no gushing fountain of blood, there is no rolling around on the ground grimacing and screaming in agony for a long time. The Black Knight barely seems aware he’s lost a limb, or four. It’s the nonchalance, the insouciance that makes it funny. The comedy is the total disjunct between reality and perception. This is not Anakin at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Volume 1 is meant to be funny because of the total disjunct between the reality of how much blood comes out when a limb is amputated and Tarantino’s perception of that. Hence the Studio 60 gag about how a great fountain of blood from the Thanksgiving turkey sells the Tarantino reference and is funny, but a realistic trickle of blood does not make the reference and is instead incredibly disturbing. I hold that the comedy Tarantino thought he was making was lost because of the lack of disjunct between the reality of the characters losing a limb and their perception of that traumatic life-altering reality.

And then you have JJ Abrams, who must have thought this was a good idea until some sensible person talked him out of it before this horrific little scene had made it all the way thru post-production. No doubt Abrams thought it was fan service for Chewbecca to rip Unkar Plutt’s arm out of its socket and throw it across a room because he dissed him. Not realising apparently that there’s a large difference between the comedy value of a scare story used on a droid, “Let the Wookie win!”, and the grisly horror of it being done for real against a not terrifically villainous alien who feels pain, screams in pain, and won’t be able to get that arm put back on like a droid would. Dear God Abrams… But even that qualifier, not terrifically villainous, troubles; and not just because of this sketch

 

Tarantino doubled down on his punishment of Sophie for someone else’s crime. In a horrific addendum to the Japanese version, that mercifully didn’t make it to the Irish version and which I consequently only came across a few weeks ago for the first time, the Bride cuts off Sophie’s other arm.

Jurassic World took a lot of flak, and deservedly so, for Katie McGrath’s horrific death sequence. Prolonged, agonising, and random; because her character hadn’t done anything to deserve this punishment. And yet in Jurassic World 2 we have another prolonged and agonising death, but this time the writers have gone out of their way to justify it by giving the victim Trump sentiments.

August 26, 2015

Hitman: Agent 47

The ill-advised Rupert Friend takes up Timothy Olyphant’s cross in a reboot that makes 2007’s Hitman look like John Wick.

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Litvenko (Ciaran Hinds) designed them to be the perfect soldier, a human weapon. But then he escaped… Now, haunted by her past, his daughter Katia Van Dees (Hannah Ware) seeks him in Berlin. But, meeting her father’s creations; the genetically engineered killing machines Agent 47 (Friend) and Syndicate operative John Smith (Zachary Quinto); she realises she cannot run, she must fight, to discover her destiny… For, despite being bred for superior intelligence, Katia had never realised her name sounded uncannily like the French ‘quatre-vingt-dix’ and that her Spidey-sense screamed ‘Agent!’, while all the lethally skilled operatives of the Syndicate and their rival rogue Agents at large were incapable of refining their search parameters based on their intel on Litvenko to locate him in Singapore; Syndicate HQ. Yet Syndicate chairman Le Clerq (Thomas Kretschmann) hunts Litvenko to restart the Agent programme.

Hitman: Agent 47 is beset by three distinct layers of unreality. What the characters do is bafflingly unlike reasonable cinematic behaviour; John Smith and Katia flee from the pursuing 47, and all concerned conduct themselves at a walking pace as if this was an It Follows parody. Action sequences are chopped to bits by Nicolas De Toth’s editing, which you suspect is hiding poorly directed footage, or rendered with so much crummy CGI that you are watching a computer game; a particular offender being the Singapore street assault where 47 guns down zip-cording assassins like the embarrassingly fake Smiths in Matrix Reloaded. The third layer of unreality is the astonishingly derivative script, which makes The Blacklist, a show which recently had James Spader reference a particular Marathon Man scene as they were ripping it off, look as original as Primer.

The basic set-up recalls Dark Angel: Katia is Max, Litvenko is Sandeman, the Agent program is Manticore, there’re even barcodes on people’s necks. Occasional muttering about how emotionless automaton 47 is learning empathy should make Terminator 2 fans mutter ‘If a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, then maybe we can too’. Katia’s DNA was coded for heightened survival skills, indistinguishable from Raimi’s cinematic Spidey-sense. John Smith is unkillable because of his sub-dermal titanium-alloy body-armour, so all he needs are Wolverine’s claws. And then there’s The Matrix… There’s a fight on an underground railway line with trains roaring past, there’s acrobatic use of guns and kung-fu showdowns, there’s even a scene where 47 walks thru a security check packing weapons while his bulky bag is X-rayed. Le Clerq is impossible to kill, 14 Agents have died trying, notes 47, in tones that make you think Friend is repressing lines like ‘Everyone who has stood their ground against an Agent has died’. John Smith injects Litvenko with horrible chemicals to make him spill, then Le Clerq shocks his subordinates by interrogating Litvenko alone, using some of Agent Smith’s body-language and actual lines from the equivalent scene with Morpheus; and then Neo 47 appears outside with a helicopter gunship… Tuned out by such nonsense one scans for absurdities. 47’s inexplicable hacking makes one muse that to a primitive screenwriter any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Smith’s ‘For f***’s sake Doctor, just tell me what I want to know’ sounds so genuinely annoyed, it’s like Quinto just wanted to wrap already. Marco Beltrami’s score ditching his decent 47 theme for random inappropriate surf guitar seems equally fed-up.

If ever wee small hours find drunken friends split between The Matrix, Terminator 2, and Dark Angel, they can compromise by watching all three at once in the shape of this profoundly stupid movie.

0.5/5

July 19, 2010

Inception

“Have you ever had a dream Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you found yourself unable to awake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the real world and the dream world?” Among the many achievements of Christopher Nolan’s latest film is that it answers Morpheus’ rhetorical question…

I’m not idly linking Inception to The Matrix as Nolan is in dialogue with it as well as his own opus. Following a typically stylish/puzzling opening we follow corporate spies Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they bungle an industrial espionage job in a Japanese mansion highly reminiscent of Ras Al’Ghul’s mountain lair in Batman Begins. They are unexpectedly offered a way out of their predicament from a former mark Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito wants them to reverse their usual modus operandi of ‘extracting’ secrets and instead attempt inception – to plant the seed of a destructive idea in the mind of his business rival (Cillian Murphy) – which Arthur, almost imitating Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects, opines can’t be done. Cobb though takes the job, as Saito offers the bait of freeing himself from outstanding legal troubles which have prevented him returning to his family in America. Nolan’s ‘existential heist movie’ then becomes a joyous globe-trotting exercise in assembling a team for the caper – picking up a forger in Mombasa (Tom Hardy), an architect in Paris (Ellen Page), and a seriously dodgy chemist, before training (in shared dreams) in a warehouse and making contact with the mark, who complicates their plans…

That description should tell you that Nolan has somehow made a ‘realistic’ film about larceny where the scene of the crime is your unconscious mind. This depiction of the unconscious owes nothing to Dali, Freud or Jung. His thieves keep their dreamscapes impeccably realistic to dupe the mark into believing that the dream world is real. Only Ariadne’s initial gleeful construction of architecture free from the laws of physics, and collapsing dreams and malevolent subconscious projections shatter that verisimilitude. Nolan’s interest here is not plot twists or fractured chronology but layering levels of reality. This allows him the blockbuster action tension of the double jeopardy at the end of The Matrix, with Neo fighting Smith while a Squiddie assaults the Nebuchadnezzar, but even more heightened. How exactly these thieves insinuate themselves into their subjects’ dreams and manipulate them though is anything but popcorn as its conceptual simplicity but sheer craziness in execution means you must stay as alert to what is happening at every moment as with Memento. The device which allows the team to synchronise their dreams and instantly fall asleep is similar to its equivalent in The Matrix but (gloriously) its working is never explained scientifically in this ‘sci-fi thriller’, which instead prioritises Edith Piaf and inner ear discomfort in the explanation of the ingenious ‘kicks’ for waking up.

Nolan’s films obsessively follow characters wracked by guilt over the deaths of people close to them who embark on quests for justice or vengeance and Cobb is an interesting variation on this archetype. DiCaprio is strong as a haunted hero running from his guilt, aided by Hans Zimmer’s unsettling reworking of his Two-Face musical theme, and is supported by an impeccable ensemble. Page is terrific as Ariadne. Both the newest member of the team, through whose eyes we come to understand this universe’s rules, and the most grounded, it is she who pushes Cobb towards finally exorcising his demons before they endanger the team. Hardy shows immense range after his bravura turn in Bronson by being wonderfully insouciant as the forger Eames, while Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt is once again effortlessly charismatic as the quick-thinking point-man Arthur. He steals many scenes from DiCaprio and memorably gives an outstandingly delivery of one delightful word.

Inception combines caper movie with sci-fi thriller, underpinned by a meaty character arc about guilt that takes advantage of being able to give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, to dazzle both eyes and mind. Essential viewing.

5/5

June 24, 2010

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: The Matrix Reloaded

The Matrix Reloaded was originally scheduled for release in December 2002 before being pushed back to May 2003. Few people were ever allowed to know why…

EXT.AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK-DAY
The WACHOWSKI BROTHERS are standing around with a copy of the Reloaded script and are arguing over architectural plans with a PRODUCTION DESIGNER and a SPECIAL EFFECTS GURU. KEANU REEVES, dressed in a suit, walks straight up and addresses the two Brothers.

KEANU: ‘There may be a problem’.
LARRY: (beat) Did you just quote our own dialogue at us?
KEANU: Yeah, I’m practising my lines by dropping them into appropriate situations.
LARRY: That’s not your line.
ANDY: Bigger problem, not only is that not your line, that’s not your line – from the first film!
LARRY: Why are you quoting from the first film?!
KEANU: Damn! (to himself) I knew those lines seemed too easy to learn…
ANDY: You’ve re-learnt the lines to the film we’ve already made?!
KEANU: Look, let’s focus on the problem I found.
LARRY: What problem?

Keanu produces his own copy of the Reloaded script, flips thru it and points at a page.

KEANU: See this, um, this (hesitates) …that word, right there.

Larry & Andy squint at the word, then look at each other quizzically.

ANDY: What’s the problem?
KEANU: Well, Carrie has to say that word, and, we’re Canadian, and…um…
LARRY: What?
KEANU: (swivels round in desperation and shouts) Carrie! Get over here

CARRIE-ANNE MOSS, dressed in black leather, strides over and stands beside Keanu and the Brothers. The production designer and special effects guru melt away.

CARRIE: Whatsupski?

Larry & Andy roll their eyes at this familiar greeting.

KEANU: (points at his script) This word.
CARRIE: (peering at the script) ‘Roondaboot’, Roondaboot? What?
ANDY: (to Larry) Did she just speak French to him?
LARRY: (to Andy) No idea.
CARRIE: What about that word?
KEANU: Well, nothing to you and me, but (gestures to the Brothers) to them, um…
CARRIE: What?
KEANU: Look, I’ll read in for Laurence and you do your part.
CARRIE: Okay…

They huddle in to read from Keanu’s copy of the script and stand in poses to indicate that they are now in their characters.

CARRIE: The roondaboot?
KEANU: Yes.
CARRIE: You always told me to stay off the roondaboot.
KEANU: Yes, that’s true.
CARRIE: You said going on the roondaboot was suicide.
KEANU: Then let us hope that I was wrong.

ANDY: Jesus-
LARRY: Christ…

The brothers look stunned, Carrie looks uncomfortable and looks at Keanu.

KEANU: (looking away, mumbles defensively) We’re Canadian…
ANDY: (to Keanu) Why didn’t you tell us about this before now?
KEANU: I hadn’t read this part of the script! It’s 20 pages of hyper-detailed descriptions of wall to wall action…and I’m not in it. You’ve got me jerking around some castle somewhere…
LARRY: (to Carrie) And what about you?
CARRIE: Oh, I haven’t read either of the scripts.

The Brothers try to process this – one actor learning the wrong script, the other not learning any script. Andy is the first to compose himself.

ANDY: Uh, why?
CARRIE: Laurence thought it would be more in the moment for us to just learn the pages each day as we went. He hasn’t read the scripts either…
KEANU: It’s not like it’s that a big deal guys, I mean c’mon, it’s just one word in a few lines – change the dialogue.
LARRY: Oh, it’s just one word in a few lines is it?!
KEANU: (puzzled) Yeah, it’s not like it’s crucial to anything. Right?

The Brothers look at each other then glare at Carrie who looks towards Keanu who looks at the Brothers like they know something he and Carrie don’t…

CLOSE UP:
KEANU: What?

The camera cranes up from his face and pushes over the tops of some trailers behind him, before soaring over a ridge to reveal techs laying camera tracks along the edges of road-network constructed for real in the desert, the centrepiece of which is a roundabout so preposterously enormous that it makes the Arc de Triomphe one look like one of those roundabouts you drive over while looking for the roundabout before realising that that painted bump in the road was the roundabout.

ANDY: (O/S) Larry, do you want to flip a coin to decide who gets to tell the studio?

November 17, 2009

I’d Rather See the Wires

Possibly it was Lou Ferrigno’s cameo in The Incredible Hulk that inspired this piece. Everyone smiles at seeing Lou Ferrigno do his cameo, but he’s only alone in making the obligatory cameo with Stan Lee because Bill Bibxy is dead, otherwise Bixby and Ferrigno would be making their cameos together in the way Lee and Ferrigno shared their cameo in Ang Lee’s Hulk.

Which begs the question why shouldn’t two people play the Hulk and Bruce Banner? Why is it considered absolutely necessary for the Hulk to be a fake CGI creation? What if, to use the suggestion of the characters in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates in casting a film of their own lives, Steve Buscemi was to play Dr Bruce Banner and then transform him into say The Rock who would be painted green and shot with LOTR style tricksy perception filming techniques to tower over everyone else (a bit more than usual). Would it really be any more ridiculous than a plainly CGI creation rampaging around a plainly green-screened location throwing plainly CGI objects about at a plainly CGI villain with a few actual actors and physical props dotted here and there to give some feeling of reality to proceedings, unlike say Attack of the Clones’ over-dependence on pure CGI constructions around actors forlornly stranded in green-screen deserts.

It seems that CGI has become the first option in the blockbuster film-maker’s bag of tricks. I Am Legend’s vampires we were told were CGI creations rather than actors wearing vampire prosthetics and make-up because the producers wanted the vampires to be terrifyingly agile. Well, yes, they were terrifyingly agile, but did it really make up for the silliness that ruined 40 minutes of high tension when we first glimpsed them in all their shockingly obvious CGI glory? If only some technology existed for making actors seem super-humanly agile, some way of making people run up walls, and levitate in air, some way of – oh wait, it does, it’s called wire-work and you may have seen it used extensively in The Matrix where it looked, at least it did the last time I checked, extremely cool rather than silly, and beat the mortal crap out of the use of CGI Keanu v CGI Hugo Weaving in Reloaded’s showpiece fight scene which ended up looking…silly.

Cinema produced marvels for damn near a hundred years before CGI took over. The Thing has no CGI whatsoever, can you imagine anyone having the inventiveness to do that now? CGI has stopped being a technological tool that we marvel at, it’s become meat and potatoes, and the over-reliance on it by lazy film-makers has left special effects somewhat less than special. ‘How did they do that?’ is always now answered by ‘Oh, they just CGI’d it – of course’. That’s why the truck-flip in The Dark Knight drew astonished gasps from audiences. So here’s a plea for the next over-digitised summer blockbuster – I’d rather see the wires.

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