Talking Movies

March 13, 2020

Any Other Business: Part XLV

As the title suggests, so forth.

If we just hold our position here, fellas, a plot might stumble across us

The Winds of the Pacific War

Having staggered to the end of HBO’s incredibly underwhelming miniseries The Pacific I found myself growing irate at the closing credits which revealed the fates of a number of the characters who were real. The sense of camaraderie and regret among these men over the decades following the war only highlighted the failure of the series to depict any of this camaraderie. This stands in stark contrast to the C Company in-jokes and friendships that made its predecessor Band of Brothers so compelling. Characters the show lost interest in, that I had given up for dead, turned out to have survived and the band of brothers all re-united Stateside after VJ Day. What a colossal waste of resources it was to take these ten scripts and give them the big bow wow HBO treatment. I can’t help but feel that in the golden age of miniseries in the late 1970s and early 1980s if someone had brought these ten scripts to a network executive two things would have happened. First, he would have beaten senseless the writers room who had confused the mores of New Hollywood with network television. Second, he would have patiently explained that the ten episodes proposed lacked any sense of focus or direction or indeed point. Band of Brothers was based on one book about one company on their journey from training to D-Day thru the Battle of the Bulge to Germany. The Pacific by contrast tried to pull together three books about disparate bands of brothers on different missions and failed miserably. Ditching John Basilone entirely to focus on Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie would be the most obvious fix for some of the problems, but even then… Shortly before watching this series I had seen The Pacific War in Colour, which covers the same battles with the same soldier-memoirists using their actual words as voiceover. And maps and diagrams that gave the geography as well as the stakes of the engagements. How is it possible to have got more of a sense of the battles from CGI maps plus vague colour war footage and voiceover than from a big budget show depicting the authors of those voiceovers literally in the trenches fighting? Did The Pacific need to introduce officer characters as an excuse for some big maps on big boards in war rooms, as well as dialogue to explain how the strategy of the theatre informs the tactics that Sledge and Leckie must execute? That sort of clarity, along with putting far more effort into fleshing out the friendships of these men, should surely have been the first order of business in the outlining stage of the writing, and would have made The Pacific feel less disjointed and prone to wandering off on aimless tangents to the point where you perversely doff your cap in astonished disbelief that anybody could take the Greatest Generation’s own accounts of their Hell in the Pacific and make it so goddamn boring.

I know, Holden. Charles Manson… Even thinking about the guy makes me start to yawn.

Where is my Mind(hunter)?

I admit defeat. My temporary Netflix subscription has expired and I still had the final 4 episodes left to watch of Mindhunter season 2. I just couldn’t motivate myself to do it. I stuck in there for as a long as I could. I managed to hold on for longer than my sometime co-writer the Engineer did, making it thru the horrors of Anna Torv’s newly yellow appearance all the way to Justified star Damon Herriman’s fantastic turn as Charles Manson. And yet, for all that Herriman gave that long-anticipated sequence all he could, it was let down by, of all things, a seeming lack of confidence by the writers of Mindhunter that the audience would be interested in Holden Ford and Bill Tench interviewing Charles Freaking Manson without that Tench be given some thoroughly bogus (and oh so very painfully and slowly manufactured) ‘personal’ stake in the Manson case via his son being dragged into a macabre crime by youths. It’s Charles Manson. If you’re watching Mindhunter, you’ll be interested.

One Nation, Indivisible?

There is a keen if not sickening irony in Leo Varadkar calling for national unity at this time of global coronavirus crisis. As a minister and as Taoiseach he has presided directly and indirectly for nearly a decade over a number of campaigns designed specifically to set citizen against citizen. Public money was spent on cinema advertisements to propagandise to students that their teachers were wrong to resist Ruari Quinn’s debasement of the Junior Cert. Varadkar himself beamed broadly shortly before he became Taoiseach as he held a placard to launch his ‘Welfare cheats cheat us all’ campaign – his sole achievement as Minister for Social Protection. He was deeply involved in gay marriage and abortion referendum campaigns that were deliberately run in as bitter a fashion as possible. And his government continues advertisements lecturing us about sexual harassment on television, teaching us to always assume the worst of each other. And now, after Fine Gael losing a second election in a row, but showing even less inclination than last time to leave government, he has the audacity to turn around and lecture us all on the need for national unity – having just rejected the national unity of a national government to deal with this coronavirus crisis; because it seems fully 1/4 of the voters he wants to unify behind his continued unelected (and indeed actually rejected) leadership would fit neatly into his own personal basket of deplorables. To mash together the 1940 sentiments of David Lloyd George and Leo Amery – There is nothing which can contribute more to unity in this time than that he should sacrifice the seals of office. In the name of God, GO!

The Fall of New Seattle

And as I continue catching up iZombie the feeling of disappointment only grows stronger. The idea of making Ravi a part-time zombie for the lolz seems a Scrappy-Doo like innovation to the format, the depiction of the walled city of New Seattle never satisfies in the way that Dark Angel‘s technologically crippled Seattle did, and the season arc of Liv becoming the new Renegade opposed to Chase Graves’ Robespierrean rule rings hollow because it ignores the fact that Chase’s behaviour is motivated not by outright psychopathy but a food supply that cannot support the zombie hordes already in existence. The feelgood riff on Buffy being elected Class Protector at her Prom doesn’t feel remotely earned as a finale, and frankly I am not sure I want to watch another 13 episodes of iZombie if it’s going to keep declining this precipitously.

85,000 dead, Leo?

I’m curious as to the provenance of this figure of coronavirus potentially killing 85,000 people in Ireland. My back of the envelope calculations last week put it at potentially 39,000 dead in the Republic, and that was working from an American estimate that 39% of the population would be infected. Either Leo is assuming that closer to 80% of the population is going to be infected, or he’s assuming the coronavirus is twice as lethal as the given figure. Either of which is a startling change of parameter that I’d like to hear more about. In any case 39,000 dead from the coronavirus here would sit on top of around 30,000 deaths a year in Ireland. Which is equivalent to doubling the amount of funerals you attended last year. A nasty jolt to the national psyche. After all only 20,000 people were reported to have died here from the Spanish Flu in 1918 and 1919.

June 2, 2016

The Nice Guys

Shane Black’s third film as writer/director sees him back in familiar R-rated crime comedy territory after his unexpected Iron Man sojourn in PG-13 comic-book land.

nice-guys-movie-crowe-gosling-angourie-rice

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is the heavy you hire to rough up a creepy pot-dealer, or the PI who’s dogging your footsteps. The PI in question is Holland March (Ryan Gosling), ethically challenged since California introduced no-fault divorce; in that he now searches for missing husbands while their ashes are on display on their widow’s mantelpiece. But probably not ethically challenged enough to deserve what Amelia (Margaret Qualley) hires Healy to do to him. Soon after their set-to Healy is himself roughed up by two heavies (Beau Knapp and Keith David), and finds getting Holland back on Amelia’s trail a matter of some personal urgency. Holland’s 13 year old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) helps the investigation into Amelia’s whereabouts and the related murder of porno performer Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) actually get somewhere, but conspiracy and a Detroit hit-man lurk…

The Nice Guys may be the funniest film of 2016. Black is on top form when it comes to absurdist comic routines, there are a number of set-piece bickering arguments that would not be out of place in a Martin McDonagh script. The physicality of Crowe and Gosling quite obviously recalls Laurel & Hardy, with Gosling’s scream a particular joy, as well as his attempt to maintain his dignity in a piece of business involving awkward manoeuvres with a toilet door and a gun. This mines a similar cinematic seam to 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but replaces that film’s nods to Chandler with a tip of the hat to 1970s conspiracy thrillers; and a more amused in-camera acknowledgement of how things conveniently turn out for the best when everything looks like it’s going to hell thru our heroes’ bungling.

The juxtaposition of extreme violence and comic slapstick served up by Black and his Doc Savage co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi jars initially, but you quickly become comfortable with this imaginary 1970s universe; in which Tim Allen is gigging everywhere and pornos are omnipresent. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography casts a 1970s haze over proceedings, to match the distrust of authority that dogs Holland and Healy as they deal with Justice Department officials Judith (Kim Basinger) and Tally (Yaya DaCosta). An unexpected carry-over from Iron Man 3 is Black’s use of younger characters to upbraid the leads. Rice gives a standout performance as the 1970s Veronica Mars driving her father around and tracking down leads, easily holding her own against Gosling and Crowe’s fine turns. Matt Bomer’s enigmatic character is a visual treat in the finale, but what you’ll remember most is the dialogue.

From a peerless Richard Nixon story, to a validation of profanity, and a refusal to give up on the possibility of romance that bends reality itself, this is delightful.

5/5

June 2, 2011

Conspiracy Cinema at the IFI

The IFI is presenting a season of films this June playfully titled High Anxiety. As ‘filmnoia’ these are meant to encapsulate the post-Vietnam post-Watergate zeitgeist of chastened 1970s America. Invariably there is much idolatry of the faultless New Hollywood that was tragically killed off by Star Wars in this positioning, which regular readers of this blog will know I have little truck with. The truth is there are some great films here, some over-rated but good films, and by far the best film is the most defiantly Old Hollywood: The Manchurian Candidate, which is oblique in its violence, sexually charged without being sexual, and whip-smart and heart-breaking in its scripting; the kind of thing that Hitchcock might have directed on one of his darker days at the office. Let’s briefly trot thru the line-up of films in the season.

The Manchurian Candidate June 1st & 2nd @ 6:25pm

The pick of the bunch is the first out of the blocks. Catch this tonight if you can. A superb Laurence Harvey stars as Raymond Shaw, an unpopular soldier who unexpectedly returns as a war hero from the Korean War to the political machinations of his terrifying mother Angela Lansbury, a witch-hunting Senator’s wife. Frank Sinatra is his old army c/o trying to work out the mystery of just what happened in Korea that fills his men’s nightmares, and director John Frankenheimer ratchets up the tension as George Axelrod’s script satirically skewers McCarthyism while breaking your heart along the way.

Klute June 4th & 5th @ 4.50pm

Sex, lies, and audiotape. Widely regarded as the film that legitimised profanity as a hallmark of serious movies Alan J Pakula’s 1971 exercise in paranoia sees Donald Sutherland’s enigmatic small-town PI John Klute travel to the big city to investigate the possible involvement of his friend with Jane Fonda’s nervous call-girl, and her possible involvement in his mysterious disappearance. The sound design is extraordinary as ambient noise swamps the possibilities of recording the truth, and this arguably established the house-rules for all subsequent 1970s filmnoias. Keep an eye out for Roy Scheider’s ridiculous outfit in his cameo as a pimp.

The Parallax View June 6th @ 3.00pm & 7.05pm

Alan J Pakula again, this time Warren Beatty is the lead in a 1974 thriller about a journalist investigating the possibility that the powerful corporation the Parallax Organisation has been behind not only a political assassination allegedly carried out by a conveniently dead lone gunman, but the clean-up murders of all the witnesses of the assassination. The dazzling and famous highlight comes when Beatty is subjected to a test to see whether he fits the criteria for maladjusted misfit that Parallax likes to use for its lone gunmen. You know, people like say Lee Harvey Oswald, or James Earl Ray…

Chinatown June 8th @ 2.10pm & 6.30pm

If Roman Polanski’s film was just a little less self-regarding it would be a far better film noir. Jack Nicholson gives a terrific performance as the cock-sure PI suddenly out of his depth against Faye Dunaway’s ambiguous femme fatale and John Huston’s monstrous patriarch, and there are wonderful moments and lines throughout. The enormous self-importance of Robert Towne’s screenplay sinks the film from its potential heights but is unsurprising given that he reputedly told anyone who would listen that the success of the 3 hrs plus The Godfather was entirely attributable to his dialogue polish on one 3 minute scene…

The Conversation June 9th @ 6.45pm

Francis Ford Coppola’s small personal movie between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who finds a simple job developing into something much more disturbing, which eventually pushes him to the very limits of his sanity. Walter Murch’s sound design is extraordinary and best appreciated on a big screen, but I’ve never thought that Coppola’s script was good at making us care about the possible murder plot Hackman stumbles upon; the physical distance his camera maintains from the camera being sadly replicated as an emotional distance maintained by the audience from the characters.

Night Moves June 12th @ 5.00pm

A staple of late-night TV schedules (TV programmers can be very easily amused sometimes) this 1975 movie sees Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman reunite for a more subdued outing than their 1967 collaboration Bonnie & Clyde. Hackman is a defeated PI who discovers his wife in adultery, but is unable to satisfactorily resolve that situation or any other case he is working on. Perhaps a lament for the lost idealism of the New Frontier in the age of Watergate, or perhaps just another deconstruction of American myths by Penn that has aged far less well than his Bonnie & Clyde.

Rollover June 18th @ 3.15pm

Yes, Alan J Pakula for a third time. He never stopped making paranoia movies, and this 1981 effort may have had the amazing good fortune to become relevant thirty years after being dismissed as pessimistic and incomprehensible, because of the second defining event of the last decade, the credit crunch. Jane Fonda stars as a company director’s widow who romances Kris Kristofferson’s financial trouble-shooter, brought in to steady the corporation, who ends up involved in an extremely risky deal with Saudi Arabia that goes belly-up in such spectacular fashion that it leads to the meltdown of the entire Western economy.

Winter Kills June 25th & 26th @2.00p

Adapted from another book by Manchurian Candidate novelist Richard Condon, this thriller stars John Huston as Not Joe Kennedy, who after 19 years is told by his son Jeff Bridges that he finally has a good lead on who really assassinated Huston’s other son, the President Not John F Kennedy. Winter Kills had an extremely troubled production, with director William Richert having one of his producers murdered, so this is a welcome chance to belatedly see Huston chewing scenery in such a ripe scenario of what could be classified alongside Inglourious Basterds as the genre of fantasy historical revenge movies.

Missing June 25th & 26th @2.50pm

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek star as the father and wife of an American missing in Chile, in acclaimed Greek director Costa-Gavras’ first American film. An attack on Henry Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik, here masked by hypocritical mutterings about truth, justice, and the American Way, this vividly recreates the feel of Pinochet’s Chile; a regime enabled by CIA connivance in the overthrow of Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. There is a sense of kicking a dead donkey about this as Nixon was already out of power, but Costa-Gavras at least clothes his political points in empathetic flesh and blood characters.

March 11, 2010

Not Adjusted for Avatar

Following on from the last entry on the malign influence of the sensational reporting of box-office returns not adjusted for inflation, we look at Avatar – its slow-burn success, broad brushstrokes approach in the history of cinema, and its possible heralding of the future.

Avatar has done one unquestionably positive thing – it has firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends. It started slow, not breaking any records as is now obligatory, and was about to be dismissed as a failure for that, when its takings didn’t fall off a cliff after the opening weekend but instead remained constant and then kept making money at the same level week after week. It has since made money for longer than nearly any other film in recent memory. However you can rest assured that this will not be enough to change the ways of the media, which have been reporting Shutter Island as the most successful opening weekend of Scorsese’s career, and then also trumpeted Tim Burton’s Alice fiasco as the biggest opening ever for a 3-D film… Deep sigh.

Marketing can generate enough buzz to generate the opening box-office needed for a lazy headline. Conversely Avatar did not make enough money on opening for a lazy headline and so the focus was, pleasingly, thrown on to its craftsmanship – or lack of it. Perhaps because he was painfully aware of how much money he’d been given for his dream project Cameron opted for the broadest brush-strokes possible to generate maximum return, and it worked so he’s a genius to Hollywood, whereas if it hadn’t worked they’d be more exercised about the lazy derivativeness of his story even if his basic skills at manipulating emotions work. But then isn’t emotional manipulation the core of cinema? Graham Greene said that cinema was a series of images arranged in a certain order to generate a particular emotional effect, Stephen King wrote that American cinema was idiotic as far as communicating ideas went but that for sheer emotional impact its use of imagery was masterful, and Hitchcock’s explanation of the power of cross-cutting in ‘pure cinema’ explicitly prioritises using images to manipulate an audience’s response on an emotional level. I think there’s more to be said about Avatar and so, once I finally figure out what my point is, I’ll be returning to it again in coming weeks. But here, let’s note that its broad brushstrokes approach has a precedent in past stellar successes.

Peter Biskind’s grand narrative (mentioned last time) which prioritised the licentious New Hollywood of the 1970s over the Golden Age of Hollywood seems to assume that there is something fundamentally compromising about reaching a large audience. One would think that an artist would want to reach as large an audience as possible but Biskind’s ideology insists that an artist loses their integrity if they make a film suitable for all rather than narrowing the size of their audience, so that, for instance, Christopher Nolan jettisoning sex and language to get a PG-13 for The Dark Knight compared to an R for Insomnia represents self-censorship and a cheapening of his talent. I would argue that helming a blockbuster in such a way as to make it distinctively a Nolan film is more challenging and it is precisely the ingenuity exercised in the over-coming of arbitrarily imposed limitations that makes it a greater artistic success than the rather ordinary thriller for adults with which he paid his studio dues. It could be argued that the same difficulty involved in working with the Hays Code was responsible for the Golden Age, and it ties in with Stravinsky’s dictum that true artistic creativity needs rules and restrictions, which he frequently imposed on himself arbitrarily to replace the lost discipline of classical tonality, not total freedom. There will be another article in the coming weeks about the most successful films of all time (adjusted for inflation) but it is dominated by films everyone could enjoy. It’s easy to make your friends laugh, it’s harder to make strangers laugh, and Biskind’s idols largely fall into the first category of connecting with a small audience – and then sneering at more popular works as being artistically compromised.

Avatar aims at the widest possible audience but its archetypal story-structure is the zenith of a recent trend towards deeply predictable films – even a charmer like Whip It! has audibly whirring plot mechanics in its second act before unexpectedly subverting expectations. That refreshing unpredictability is unnecessary if people can write each scene in a three-act structure with a spark so that you’re too captivated by the content to notice the scaffolding but of late, especially in rom-coms, films seem less to be written than generated by software programs. Arguably cinema attendances are at historic lows because of boredom at this formulaic approach. Hollywood thinks the solution to declining interest in cinema is to trumpet 3-D technology and increase ticket prices but wouldn’t the sensible solution be to make better films? When I saw the trailer for Alice in Wonderland I thought “That looks pretty stupid”, but when I saw the trailer in 3-D I thought “That looks really stupid”. We need to ruthlessly insist that the box-office gross of Avatar be discounted for inflation and its 3-D mark-up because chances are it’s not even dented the All Time Top 10 (adjusted realistically). And if that’s the case then we need to ask hard questions about what Hollywood is doing so wrong at this present moment to have led to such a historic disconnect with audiences, and the answers will not be stories we could write ourselves from seeing the trailers, presented in gimmicky 3-D.

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