Talking Movies

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: There Will Be Blood

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds my sceptical review of the greatest film performance of all time in a work of staggering genius.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar winning saga of oilmen in early 20th Century America opens with a dialogue free 15 minutes. In them, Daniel Day-Lewis’ monstrous capitalist Daniel Plainview scratches in the ground for gold before striking oil for the first time. Every critic worth their salt has jumped on board the ‘Hey let’s compare 2001 and There Will Be Blood’ bandwagon and so will I. Comparisons to the opening sequence of 2001 are, indeed, apt. Both sequences showcase a director more intent on confirming their auteur status by showing off their long tracking shots than on actually telling a story or giving a proper introduction to the characters. It is not coincidence that the scores of both films are given such praise, oftentimes nothing else of value is happening.

Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s score is tremendous. He early on uses a very 19th Century style of lush Romanticism that stretches harmony to breaking point before settling into a more modern dissonant and percussive mode that conveys the energy and darkness of Plainview. There are sequences when Greenwood’s use of pure percussion with gradually added staccato strings overshadows the boring visuals it scores. The problem is that screenwriter/director Anderson is so deeply in love with his pointless tracking shots (see Magnolia…) that it works against his storytelling. Major themes are flagged and then never engaged with. You keep waiting for the film to kick up a gear, then realise it’s never going to interrogate God versus Mammon, or do more with charismatic charlatan preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The final half-hour is terrific but it sees the film veers towards deranged comedy including Day-Lewis’ infamous delivery of the line “I drink your milkshake!”, which is, by itself, worth sitting through 157 minutes for.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance could never justify its hype as one of the finest in the history of cinema. The surprise is that it’s not even the finest of his career. His Oscar seems to be an apology by the Academy for not recognising his terrifying turn as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. The first sign that something is rotten in the state of Daniel comes with his first speech, delivered in an accent suspiciously like his 1870s fop Newland Archer, from The Age of Innocence. Later he starts phrasing like Anthony Hopkins before finally edging towards Sean Connery’s accent.

This film is a classic example of the dangers of hype. Seen blind Day-Lewis gives an accomplished performance in an overlong film that meanders badly but has some wonderful set-pieces of oil accidents, deranged greed and religious mania, with a number of truly memorable exchanges between Plainview and Sunday. Seen after all the Oscar hoopla you downgrade a respectable 3 star film to 2 stars. This is worth seeing, just disregard the hype.

3/5

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September 27, 2015

Saving Spectre with a Sam Smith Switcheroo

It’s not too late! Yes, it turns out Sam Smith rather than Radiohead or Ellie Goulding was the artist chosen to record the new Bond song. And yes, we’ve all heard the song and it’s … not good. But there’s still a month to go. Spectre’s score can still be saved. And there are precedents.

Actors Daniel Craig jokingly gestures to photographers as he films a scene for the new James Bond film, Spectre, in London, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Actor Daniel Craig jokingly gestures to photographers as he films a scene for the new James Bond film, Spectre, in London, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Okay, I lied. A precedent. Tomorrow Never Dies. Remember the theme song from Tomorrow Never Dies? No? Of course you don’t. Sheryl Crow probably doesn’t remember it, and she wrote and performed it. It was called ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’. Still doesn’t ring a bell? Well get this, in addition to that k.d. lang sang ‘Surrender’ over the closing credits. But the real thunder was stolen by a different duel. Moby remixed the James Bond theme and got a lot of attention. Not that David Arnold, the composer of the film’s score, let that get in the way of promoting his own remix (with the Propellerheads) of the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service theme, which also got a lot of attention. And the next time round Garbage wrote a song with David Arnold and everyone calmed down on the music front.

It would be unorthodox, unusual, and, yes, slightly cruel, but, having paid him, there’s no reason not to thank Sam Smith for his sterling work, and then just use his song over the closing credits a la k.d. lang on Tomorrow Never Dies. But what to use instead for the title sequence? Well, Mendes and Craig practically admitted that Skyfall saw them thinking a lot about classic Bond elements they wanted to reinterpret for the 50th cinematic anniversary, and Spectre sees them reviving the series’ classic villains after a long legally-enforced absence. So, why not go for a reinterpretation of an existing theme tune? It’s probably not too late to write a new song from a scratch, but there’s an obvious and existing candidate to be press-ganged into action: Radiohead’s celebrated cover of ‘Nobody Does It Better’ from the mid-90s.

Just don’t put me in a cinema, listening to ‘Writing’s on the Wall’, thinking about Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’ and Tiny Tim’s ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’, and being in a bad mood for the whole first act of the movie.

August 1, 2012

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part V

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

 

billy-ray-wga

The Enigma of Billy Ray

Some weeks back I made a cryptic reference to the enigma of Billy Ray. Who the hell is Billy Ray you might ask? Well, that’s kind of a hard question to answer actually, as he appears to be two entirely different people; hence the enigma. On the one hand you have the writer/director Billy Ray, and on the other you have the screenwriter for hire Billy Ray. Billy Ray as a screenwriter is someone who writes reasonably big movies, like The Hunger Games or State of Play. This is his stock in trade, films with big names attached or big expectations, but not necessarily huge blockbuster budgets. And quite often they’re riddled with problems, not least with multiple writers getting in each other’s way as in the case of Hart’s War or Suspect Zero. But even when left on his own in the writing room to grind out a screenplay, for something like say Flightplan, Ray is always competent, but rarely inspiring. But as writer/director Billy Ray has made two auteurishly distinctive films, Shattered Glass and Breach. Both films are based on real life events, the former his own original screenplay, and the latter a severe rewrite by him of an existing script which made it feel like his previous directorial outing. Both films are low key dramas that become quite devastating, both feature excellent performances from an impressive ensemble of actors, and both, somehow, feature wonderful lead performances from pretty boy actors that few other directors seem able to coax such subtle turns from, Hayden Christensen and Ryan Phillipe. I once suggested that Robert Rodriguez had a bubbly twin he kept locked in the basement who wrote the Spy Kids movies for him, but with Billy Ray I’m boggled. He is, simply, an enigma.

Sounds like Metric

Two years ago I was blown away by Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and wrote a blog offering 7 reasons to love Edgar Wright’s comic extravaganza. One of those reasons concerned the distinctive sound of The Clash at Demonhead, the band fronted by Scott’s ex-girlfriend Envy Adams, who so blew away all the other bands showcased that Scott’s band-mate was left muttering “That was devastating” after the gig. “I’m not suggesting it’s actually Metric but it’s pleasing that Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich in composing the music for the film gave some variety to the styles of the different bands we hear and noticeably varied their quality even down to having the only song played by Scott’s ex-girlfriend and her successful band be actually kind of awesome…” That was what I wrote then. I recently re-watched Scott Pilgrim for the first time and was overjoyed to find that it stands up as an inventive and hilarious comedy, and slightly embarrassed to find that the reason it sounded like Metric was because it is Metric! Metric with Emily Haines’ vocals replaced by Brie Larson’s to be sure but Metric performing their song ‘Black Sheep’ nonetheless. And they rock, devastatingly…

July 25, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Franchise

Shia LaBeouf is done. Michael Bay is done. Transformers as a franchise is not done. But maybe it ought to be…

Whispers (by which I mean the usual incessant briefings by publicists) abound that Jason Statham is about to assume the lead role in the Transformers franchise and take it in ‘a darker direction’. While it’s always nice to see ‘The State’ in action movies, the last thing this franchise needs is to go any darker. It’s positively screaming out for a reboot to the sunnier climes of its original vision. And yes, I am aware that talking of something needing a reboot to capture the halcyon era of four years ago is a new level of preposterousness, but it’s justified. The third act of Transformers 3 is so dark as to resemble Independence Day by way of the back-stabbing betrayals by humans collaborating with exploiting aliens of Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD rather than the fun of 2007’s Transformers. This is amplified by very questionable touch of District 9 in the Deception guns that vaporise flesh so that piles of bones fall to the ground after they shoot people.

Ehren Kruger has written a script that, like his Scream 3 which also featured Patrick Dempsey, is structurally very sound and has any number of nice touches, but which fundamentally strays from the existing tone of the franchise.  Kruger’s rewriting of the space race as a cover story for a covert mission to retrieve an alien artefact, and the meltdown at Chernobyl being a disastrous attempt to utilise that alien technology, works as well as X-Men: First Class’ similar slyness. Patrick Dempsey impresses as two kinds of villain, the romantic rival who has more money and power to impress the girl, and the Quisling of smooth collaboration and self-justificatory villainy. The comedy with Ken Jeong maniacally harassing Sam, John Malkovich chewing scenery as Sam’s eccentric colour-coded boss, and Alan Tudyk freaking out as John Turturro’s unhinged PA is all very funny….but it’s insane; you’re laughing nervously because this doesn’t fit in with the rest of film almost as much as you’re laughing because it’s funny.

Kruger’s comedy is a style of humour which is entirely different from the comedy of the first film which organically grew from the characters around who an action story suddenly took place. This lack of organicism is a problem unwisely highlighted in-camera when Frances McDormand’s spook tells Sam he really has no function in this story, and sure enough Sam later inserts himself into the storyline by sheer perseverance rather than any interior logic. A greater problem is the discordant note struck by Kruger’s approach against Kurtzman and Orci’s template. It’s always embarrassing to remember just how juvenile a director the middle-aged Michael Bay is, but the ogling of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (all low-angle shots and short skirts) is different than that of Megan Fox, because it lacks the nod and wink self-awareness of Kurtzman and Orci’s script. It’s as if Kruger has no interest in semi-apologising for this nonsense. Bay’s lingering introductory shot of Huntington-Whiteley is, fittingly, of her arse, which is what her performance is a load of, to paraphrase Shirley Manson. But this can be forgiven as just Bay being Bay…

What is unforgivable, after the disastrous introduction of so many non-characterised or racially caricatured robots in the last film, is that Kruger doesn’t retrench and try to fully utilise the original Transformers, but instead retains racially caricatured characters and then (like a LOST scripwriter) continues to hoover up yet more new characters. I’ve complained about this before but Kruger here reaches the apotheosis of this franchise’s incomprehension of the riches available in the Transformers comics. Sentinel Prime may be from the comics but so is Shockwave, and he’s outrageously wasted in the film when in the comics he has the most distinctive style of delivery of any Transformer bar Grimlock and is a wonderfully nuanced villain. Kruger’s shocks are effective but the killing of Ironhide is incredibly gimmicky and the weak exits of Starscream and Megatron from the franchise are disgracefully disrespectful to their characters’ status in both the comics and the previous films, and, in Megatron’s case, as tonally wrong as Burton’s Batman dispatching the Joker. But then how Optimus finally deals with Sentinel plainly belongs in a macho action movie for adults, not a sunny blockbuster for children. Characters gushing blood oil, having limbs parts torn off, and their spines CPUs torn out is too much. The darkness makes this film feel loooong…

Transformers was a cartoon series designed to sell toys by creating archetypal characters who had entertaining adventures. The comics injected cod-Shakespearean parallels and ended in traumatic apocalypse but they were also great fun. Surely the film-makers could remember their true target audience and lighten up a bit…

May 10, 2011

Scary Covers and Super Creeps

The time has come for this blog’s first foray into music criticism, to bitch about a bad cover version of ‘Creep’…

I never saw the trailer for The Social Network that was sound-tracked by Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ being performed by an angelic sounding choir, but I’ve heard it raved over ever since. However I’ve just seen an all-female choir, led by a male conductor and accompanied by a male pianist, perform what appears to be that self-same version on Conan and I disliked it enough to really think hard about just why I didn’t love it as I apparently ought to… I mean, I’m a fan of Tori Amos, I like Radiohead, and I loved The Social Network; so when all these elements combine in this cover version it should be the perfect storm of stuff I really dig, no? No, as it turns out.

This version no doubt works brilliantly in the truncated setting of a trailer as background music to a montage of Sorkin’s most biting dialogue and Fincher’s coolest shots, but, stripped of such distraction and heard at full length, it’s a disaster. ‘Creep’ is an anthem of self-loathing, and I can’t help but feel it loses something when your visual frame is seeing it being performed by a choir of pretty women rather than underscoring the wincing misadventures of a jerk. Moreover ‘Creep’ is a grunge anthem. Listen to how it works; soft verse, loud chorus, soft verse, loud chorus, very loud (where the guitars get ever more frenzied as Yorke’s vocals soar), very soft verse and chorus (for the collapse into utter self-loathing); it’s an incredibly dramatic dynamic that is a major part of what makes the song so exhilarating, yet it is completely obliterated by the choir’s version, which, apart from a sotto voce whispered delivery during the final chorus, renders all the verses and choruses with the exact same level of intensity. Equally lacking is the contrast between Yorke’s verses and his sky-scraping ‘She is running out the door’ break; there is nothing remarkable about a female choir hitting those high notes which he invests with such tortured grace. But such monotony of volume and range destroys the song.

It’s as if the people behind this cover saw a chance to ‘do a Tori Amos’; which in their understanding simply meant take a grunge song, mute it, put it on piano with female vocals and wow everyone. But it doesn’t work, because that’s not what Tori Amos does. Amos is too innately theatrical to ever consider performing a song in such a monotonous fashion as this ‘Creep’. Her version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is an emotional threnody, while her rendition of ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ buckles with restrained emotion threatening to burst through. Put simply Amos is incapable of singing without feeling, whereas the choral version of ‘Creep’, while being technically flawless, is almost entirely lacking in feeling.

Oddly enough there’s a phrase for just this sort of thing. Once more, with feeling…

September 3, 2010

7 Reasons to love Scott Pilgrim

1. Whip-pan
Director Edgar Wright has progressed from a channel 4 sitcom to a low-budget British film, then a big-budget British film, and finally a big-budget American film without ever changing his style. All those delirious whip-pans between various locations for the sake of a character delivering one line in a continuing conversation are present and correct in Scott Pilgrim.

2. Bizarro
Brandon Routh dyes his hair blond and stomps all over his heroic Superman image (“I’m not afraid to punch a girl, I’m a rock-star!”) by hovering through the air with glowing laser-white eyes and psychic powers gained from his vegan diet. His incredibly dumb bassist is a nicely revelatory and oddly Bizarro turn by Routh as nonsensical comedian.

3. Metric
I’m not suggesting it’s actually Metric but it’s pleasing that Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich in composing the music for the film gave some variety to the styles of the different bands we hear and noticeably varied their quality even down to having the only song played by Scott’s ex-girlfriend and her successful band be actually kind of awesome…

4. Igby Goes Forth
Kieran Culkin must get work, and an awful lot of it, after his turn as Scott’s room-mate Wallace which is a joy from start to finish; whether it’s him texting Scott’s sister while he’s asleep, stealing her boyfriends when he’s awake, or helpfully, drunkenly, informing Scott after he’s already been ambushed what’s happening: “Scott! Ex! Fight!”

5. Chris Evans
Chris Evans, who actually did a better Face in The Losers than Bradley Cooper in The A-Team, drops his voice to a farcical rumbling growl to deliver nonsensically macho action-film one-liners, enters a scene by walking from his trailer in time to the Universal Fanfare, and generally Fassbenders his way through his supporting role as an A-lister.

6. No Sugar
This reprises one of my favourite elements of (500) Days of Summer. Characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re bored, shallow or unfaithful. There is no sugar-coating of the cruelty and selfishness of the leads when it comes to their relationships, from Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her to Ramona’s endless fickleness with men.

7. It’s C.R.A.Z.Y.
Major studios don’t like risk, they like sure things, films that will make a healthy profit, hence re-makes, sequels, franchise re-boots, and adaptations of beloved TV shows. This is as crazy and original a big studio film as you’re likely to see this year, and unless you go see it Universal won’t be so daftly risk-taking again…

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