Talking Movies

June 20, 2018

From the Archives: The Happening

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals the hesitant summer movie that saw Shymalan made a laughing stock of by American film critics.

Writer/director M Night Shyamalan’s last film Lady in the Water featured a pessimistic film critic as one of its minor characters. He got eaten by a wolf. The atmosphere at press screenings of The Happening could best be described as packs of wolves waiting to eat an optimistic film director…

Mark Wahlberg stars as high-school science teacher Elliot Moore who flees Philadelphia for the safety of the Pennsylvania countryside after New York City is devastated by a suicide epidemic triggered by a chemical attack on Central Park. The horrors that occur once the chemical flicks the self-preservation switch in the brain are the best realised sequences in this film and provide great suspense as the characters try to evade the rapidly spreading air-borne toxin. Running with Elliot are his distant wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), fellow teacher Julian (John Leguiazmo) and Julian’s young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez).

Shyamalan was severely burned by the critical and commercial disaster of Lady in the Water. The criticism, in particular, was far harsher than was deserved but it is obvious that it has rattled his confidence. As a devoted Shyamalan fan it grieves me to say that The Happening is almost a film which needs to be watched on DVD because there are enough bad lines to quickly turn cinema audiences hostile, especially after being primed by some American critics to laugh at the whole endeavour.

Lady in the Water was directed by a supremely confident man, nobody with a fragile ego would have extended such a slight narrative to feature length. The Happening, though, bears the hallmarks of a man who is not confident of his basic material. Shyamalan the visual stylist is still present and correct but Shyamalan the writer is all over the place. Contrast the failing marriages in Unbreakable and The Happening and you will see a level of emotional maturity in the scenes between Bruce Willis and Robin Wright that evaporates when it comes to Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Previously Shymalan’s actors riffed off of little hints in the script but now they look lost, as if they’re not sure the writer himself believes these characters.

There are superb sequences in this film. A long take of a gun being used by person after person to blow their brains out is stylish and horrific. At his best Shyamalan approaches Hitchcock’s The Birds by making us scared of trees and the wind itself as paranoia escalates as to the reason behind the spreading plague. Is it chemical weapons or something simpler yet even more terrifying? At his worst Shyamalan provides wincingly bad dialogue and has no earthly notion how to use cult hero Deschanel. There is no gimmicky twist but the final scene is a nice indictment of complacency towards global problems. Worth seeing, just maybe not in theatres…

3/5

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April 21, 2016

Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle is star, co-writer, and director in this long-gestating passion project, an impressionistic portrait of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

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Miles Davis (Cheadle) at the end of the 1970s is in a funk. And not the good Prince kind, either. Rattling around his chaotic brownstone in an equally self-destructive New York City he just gets high, listens to his old hits on the radio, waits for royalty cheques, and absolutely refuses to even touch the trumpet, much less record any new material. And then Rolling Stone journalist Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) barges in, eager for an interview, a cover feature on Miles’ comeback. Miles’ what?! An angry trip to Columbia HQ sees Miles inadvertently set the stage for a crazy nocturnal chase across NYC alongside Brill on the trail of an upcoming jazzman (Keith Stanfield), his manager Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), his scary bodyguard (Brian Bowman), and the purloined tape of Miles’ secret 1978 session. But addled flashbacks slow his progress…

The flashbacks principally tell the tale of Miles’ romance with dancer Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). As much as Cheadle is really interested in telling a tale, for Miles Ahead is actually at times reminiscent of the impressionistic dreamily floating in and out of scenes through time approach of The Price of Desire. And that biopic of Eileen Gray was so critically savaged at JDIFF 2015 that its British release was pushed back to late May 2016… There is no stricture that a biopic about a musician involving much flashback ought to hew to the template established by James Mangold for Walk the Line. But without such formal rigour there is the danger of not much detail about anything adding up to very little, almost as if Cheadle is presenting two films: a cool jazz romance and a Gonzo blaxploitation flick.

Cheadle (complete with rasping whisper) is an engaging central presence, and under his direction Roberto Schaefer’s cinematography and Hannah Beachler’s production design impressively transform Cincinnati into rundown 1980 NYC. But the WGA credits Cheadle and Steven Baigelman (Get On Up) with the final script, based on a (presumably straighter) story from biopic specialists Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkins (Nixon, Ali, Pawn Sacrifice). So we get a hazy Finding Forrester intercut with fascinating scenes of Miles orchestrating sessions and, in some unusual historical accuracy, Miles’ proclivity for white women in a Jim Crow time landing him in trouble when a beat cop takes violent exception to his hailing a taxi for a white woman. Such gems amidst confusion make you wish Cheadle had hired Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa, who scribed his storming 2007 Petey Green biopic Talk to Me

Miles Ahead is not an entirely satisfying film, especially as you eventually feel Miles was just innovating his way down a cul-de-sac, but there’s enough shambolic charm, good performances, and great jazz to attend.

2.75/5

March 2, 2016

Time Out of Mind

Actor/producer Richard Gere teams up with The Messenger writer/director Oren Moverman for a portrait of homelessness in New York City.

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George (Gere) is rudely awakened from his slumber in a bathtub by Frank (Steve Buscemi) and thrown out of an apartment that his friend Sheila has been evicted from. George is a nuisance in Frank’s eyes, in fact he’s a nuisance to most people. Nurse Maire (Geraldine Hughes) tells him he can sleep in the ER waiting room but an orderly countermands her compassion. Private schoolboys and frat boys mock and prank George when he’s at his most vulnerable. His estranged daughter Maggie (Jena Malone) can’t stand the sight of him. When he falls at his feet at a shelter he’s quickly intimidated by the younger, physically stronger Jack (Jeremy Strong). But there he also makes an unlikely friend, former jazz musician and current garrulous optimist Dixon (Ben Vereen). Can Dixon steer George back on to the straight and narrow?

That description makes Time Out of Mind sound almost plot-driven. It’s not. To a fault. At an ADIFF Q&A last week actor/producer Gere was proud of how he and Moverman had worked hard to strip away almost all elements of plot from the movie. There is no true arc nor backstory. We begin abruptly in media res ,and our feelings of disorientation are heightened by a chaotic sound mix; reflecting the long-lens cinematography of Bobby Bukowski that captures from afar the astonishing verite of real people blanking Richard Gere because of his shabby apparel, as well as emulating 1960s anti-Magnum photography by wrapping images in and thru reflections. But this lack of backstory greatly hurts the father/daughter dynamic. Without context Maggie appears hypocritical and narcissistic, her repeated ‘What else?’ reminiscent of and as irritating as Diane Keaton’s ‘As what?’ refrain in Reds.

Time Out of Mind lacks the bravura camerawork Bukowski and Moverman deployed on 2011’s Rampart, but there are numerous long-takes that are so unobtrusive you start with surprise when you suddenly realise that minutes have passed without a cut. Gere doesn’t match the recent gold standard of his barnstorming turn in Arbitrage, because he’s essentially a passive, if occasionally self-destructive, figure. Instead Vereen remains long in the memory. His Dixon is a comic creation given to lengthy monologues, but also gifted incredibly affecting notes of despair and delusion that come to a head when he hesitates agonisingly over playing an out of tune piano. Moverman’s previous directorial effort Rampart was just as much a character study, but it was driven by a ferociously complex and layered character actively moving through a reasonably fleshed out plot. Moverman’s pared back too much…

Time Out of Mind is that most frustrating of things: an important film. It’s incredibly depressing, paints a not too rose-tinted picture of urban homelessness, and is exceptionally well-intentioned. It’s just not great film-making.

3/5

November 4, 2015

Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan’s shy emigrant makes a new life for herself in 1950s Brooklyn before being tempted by new opportunities suddenly presenting themselves in hometown Enniscorthy.

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Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a part-time shop-girl for snobbish Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan). That’s the only job in town, so she emigrates; leaving behind beloved sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and best friend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins). On the boat to NYC she gets a crash-course in confidence from Americanised Georgina (Eva Birthistle). But her confidence doesn’t stand up to her demanding new boss Miss Fortini (Jessica Pare), homesickness, and the snide lodgers at the boarding-house of Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters) – Patty (Emily Bett Rickards), Diana (Eve Macklin), and Sheila (Nora-Jane Noone). Fr Flood (Jim Broadbent) pays for Eilis to study accountancy at night-school, like Rose did, and soon a rejuvenated Eilis has fallen for Italian-American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen). But a return to Enniscorthy presents her with a new suitor, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), and a plum job opportunity…

Brooklyn looks amazing. Dallas Buyers Club cinematographer Yves Belanger, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, and production designer Francois Seguin combine to startling effect. It doesn’t surprise to see a sun-drenched 1950s Brooklyn, but to see endlessly maligned 1950s Ireland explode with sumptuous clothes in many vivid colours does. John Crowley directs at a measured pace, and Nick Hornby’s screenplay wrings great comedy from the nightly dinner-table feuds at Mrs Kehoe’s, the man-hungry new Cavan lodger Dolores (Jenn Murray), and Tony’s loudmouth younger brother Frankie (James DiGiacomo). But Brooklyn is a fundamentally dishonest film. This is a fantasy of emigration. Emory Cohen’s performance is halfway between young Marlon Brando and young Bruce Willis. Tony’s courtship of Eilis consistently rings psychologically untrue, and her return to Enniscorthy as (secretly) Mrs Fiorello makes her romance with Jim a trite rom-com set up and unbelievable.

A cousin of mine read Colm Toibin’s short novel on publication and dismissed it as only being praised because it was by Toibin. This film is so handsomely mounted it takes a while to realise how shallow and vacuous it is. Jim Farrell broke off an engagement because he thought his fiancé wasn’t serious about him. The subtext she was just serious about his money; Jim being one of the rugby set the poorer Eilis disdains. We are never offered the slightest insight into the moral gymnastics Eilis Fiorello, raised in mid-century Ireland, has in mind to allow her forget her consummated marriage so as to fall into Jim’s arms. And the contrived happy ending leaves one instead wondering about Jim. After being led on so cruelly by Mrs Fiorello what romantic future can he have? A grim, embittered bachelorhood?

We just lost 250,000 people in 4 years during the crash. That’s worse than Brooklyn’s mid-1950s, but it cheerleads emigration as being some sort of demented self-reliant individualist self-actualisation.

2.5/5

January 23, 2015

A Most Violent Year

1981 was the worst year on record for violent crime in New York City, and that threat hangs over director JC Chandor’s absorbing period drama.

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Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a driven entrepreneur in the business of supplying the oil that gets New York thru its winters. He is buying a coveted piece of real estate from a Hasidic dynasty, but needs an awful lot of money to cover the sale or he loses his huge deposit and the tract of land; and with it the chance to trump his rivals. But things are unravelling. The government in the form of Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is ready to indict his business practices, somebody – possibly his rivals Peter Forente (Alessandro Nivola) and Gleen Fleshler (Arnold Klein) – are hijacking his trucks and stealing his oil, his protégé Julian (Elyes Gabel) has been severely injured in one of these jackings, and Teamster Peter Gerety (Bill O’Leary) is threatening a strike if Abel doesn’t arm his vulnerable fleet of drivers.

A Most Violent Year despite the menacing title isn’t a violent film. But from the outset, when you realise that driving a truck thru a toll-booth can lead to getting jumped, it has an unnerving tension. JC Chandor sets his film in 1981 New York, and seemingly sets out to replicate the 1970s New Hollywood in doing so. Frank G DeMarco who shot Chandor’s previous films Margin Call and All is Lost with a crisp clarity is replaced as cinematographer by Bradford Young. I raved about Young’s atmospheric under-lighting of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and here he channels 1970s DP Gordon Willis (aka Prince of Darkness) for rich, underlit interiors of browns and dark gold. And if certain scenes look like The Godfather then Oscar Isaac is on the same wavelength as a certain Pacino quality comes off his performance.

But this is Michael Corleone determined to remain on the straight and narrow. Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain in 1980s mobster moll mode) is the daughter of a connected man, but Abel is adamant that he wants to win by staying clean. Such morality confuses his attorney Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), who foresees disaster if Abel doesn’t learn to play dirty in a bent town. The control on display by writer/director Chandor is intimidating. This is a very precise film. Even action scenes, like a thrilling truck chase in a tunnel, feel exacting; and a foot-chase along a spaghetti junction with a steadicam recalls Marathon Man. But, as with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, there’s a point at which this Biskind-led valorisation of New Hollyood becomes crippling. How can you make it new, as Pound demanded of art, if you’re in thrall to making it like they did in 1975?

Chandor is an intriguing film-maker – he’s made three films, all wildly different, but each time characterised by singular vision.

4/5

August 5, 2014

God’s Pocket

John Slattery, aka Mad Men’s existentialist hero Roger Sterling, makes his directorial debut with an only intermittently successful black comedy.

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God’s Pocket, New York City is a close-knit working-class community where everyone is one step away from a mobster, even the elderly florist. Blow-in Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) helps out fellow butcher Arthur ‘Bird’ Capezio (John Turturro) in stealing some frozen meat to help pay off Bird’s 20k debt to local kingpin Sal Cappi (Domenick Lombardozzi). However, marriage to the lovely Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) comes at the price of Mickey being lumbered with her crazy son Leon (Caleb Landry-Jones). When Leon dies in a ‘workplace accident’, Jeanie insists that Mickey investigate who killed him, undertaker Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan) refuses to bury him unless he gets 5k in cash up-front, and a bad decision on horse-racing with the money from a whip-around puts Mickey on thin ice when celebrated newspaper columnist Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) starts courting Jeanie.

God’s Pocket is a period film that doesn’t bother to tell you that it’s a period film. Apparently it’s set in 1978. The only way you’d know that it’s not set right now is that everyone physically reads and reveres newspaper columnist Shelburn. But even in 1978 it plays as pure fantasy that Sophia Takal’s attractive college journalism major would sleep with Shelburn so that she could watch as he writes his column. Director Slattery co-wrote this adaptation of Pete (The Paperboy) Dexter’s novel, but its tone is deeply uncertain. There is an eye-gouging of Mountain & Viper calibre, and yet it leads directly to a scene of deliriously deadpan black comedy; whose laughs feel gimmicky because this film is not light enough on its feet or dry enough to truly be a black comedy. Instead it’s half a drama.

The best example of how black comedy is deflated by a striving for bogus dramatic weightiness is a scene where Leon’s dead body is accidentally hijacked. Slattery emulates Spielberg’s wildly misguided Munich finale, with a juxtaposition of Mickey being cuckolded and Mickey falling and failing in his attempt to redeem himself. My interest turned to how Slattery had thrown a dragnet over TV bit-players for his casting (the guy who shot Bell in Elementary, the psychiatrist from Bionic Woman, the S&M cop from Bored to Death). And it has to be regretfully noted that Landry-Jones follows his awful, mannered turn in Byzantium with a performance so deranged that you can’t believe Leon would ever be hired anywhere for the simplest job; he is simply the character from an Agatha Christie novel who repulses and alienates everyone before getting bumped off.

God’s Pocket sees Hoffman and Turturro do their best with a confused script, but it’s hard to know what exactly Slattery was trying to do – make a rambunctious black comedy or a gritty drama?

2.5/5

December 4, 2013

Black Nativity

Langston Hughes, the Horace of Harlem, wrote Black Nativity as a play, and it’s turned into a sort of musical here with decidedly odd results.

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Moody Baltimore teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) faces eviction just before Christmas. His single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) in desperation sends him on a bus to New York City to stay with her estranged parents while she tries to raise $5,000 to save their home. Langston, however, no sooner arrives in NYC than he’s jailed for doing a good deed while black. He’s rescued from sparring with fellow prisoner Tyson (Tyrese Gibson) by the arrival of Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), who is more than a bit aggrieved to meet his grandson for the first time when bailing him out of lock-up. Arriving back to their imposing Harlem brownstone grandmother Aretha (Angela Bassett) is overwhelmed with joy by Langston’s arrival, but he is stunned at the wealth on display. Will he be tempted to appropriate some to bail out his mom?

Black Nativity is a sort of musical because, despite writer/director Kasi Lemmons co-writing a number of original songs, it’s as embarrassed at being a musical as 2002’s Chicago. People burst into song, and nobody notices, or (confusingly) some people notice and join them on backing vocals as everyone else continues about their business oblivious, until in the finale everybody notices – and joins in, like a deleted James Brown scene from The Blues Brothers. It’s hard to know what the intention was, initially it seems to be a hip-hop opera, then it reverts to traditional songs, before abandoning music to become a poor man’s riff on Gilmore Girls as Rory Langston gets to know his well-to-do grandparents and understand their estrangement from his single mother. Will he discover the truth about his father? Hard not to, it’s signposted in flashing neon….

There are some things that work amidst the derivativeness, clichés and confusion. Vondie Curtis-Hall is on fine form as a wise pawnbroker, and Romiti has a good scene as compassionate cop McDaniels. A hallucinatory sequence in which the agnostic Langston imagines the pregnant busking couple Jo-Jo (Luke James) and Maria (the distractingly pretty Grace Gibson) transforming into Joseph and Mary, with Mary J Blige becoming an angel and Nas the street prophet Isaiah is interesting. But still it doesn’t come close to the BBC’s barmy but effective ‘Passion to the sounds of Madchester’ from a few years back. Ultimately Rev. Cobbs, at his celebrated Black Nativity, addressing his Christian flock, yet referring to the Nativity story as happening just before the beginning of the ‘Common Era’ by which he means the Birth of Christ, sums up Black Nativity – wilfully perverse.

Despite Kasi Lemmons assembling a veritable A-list of black acting/music talent for her bold Langston Hughes reinvention, this film about a minister’s family must be reckoned a curate’s egg.

2/5

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