Talking Movies

June 10, 2018

They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people

The IFI presents a Killer Couples season for the month of June. Extremely notable by its absence is Bonnie & Clyde, which one would have thought essential. In its place there is a grab-bag of noirs, B-movies, black comedies, latter-day B-movies, and art-house drama, ranging from the 1940s to the 1990s, and Hollywood to New Zealand via the Nouvelle Vague.

Double Indemnity

Wednesday 6th June 18:20

Neil Brand claims for Miklos Rozsa’s opening chords the origin of the classic uneasy dissonance of high film noir music. One might note that the writing credits are equally seminal: the knowing dialogue of Raymond Chandler, the cynical plotting of James M Cain, and the chilly irony of director Billy Wilder. Nice guy Fred MacMurray is cast wonderfully against type as an insurance salesman who begins an affair with the wife of a client, Barbara Stanwyck’s definitive femme fatale.

Compulsion

Sunday 10th June 15:45

Orson Welles cameos as a thinly disguised Clarence Darrow pleading, at some length, for mercy for the upstanding rich young psychopaths he’s defending (Braford Dillman and Dean Stockwell). Based on the same infamous Leopold & Loeb murder case of 1924 that inspired Hitchcock’s Rope, director Richard Fleischer, in less fantastical territory than usual for him, chillingly depicts the students outwitting their elders with Nietzschean aphorisms before their abrogation of morality comes a cropper over a (providentially?) misplaced pair of glasses.

The Getaway

Wednesday 13th June 18:20

Cool character Steve McQueen is a hardened criminal in hard-man director Sam Peckinpah’s tough-minded version of hard-boiled novelist Jim Thompson’s brutal pulp novel, adapted by the thinking man’s hard man auteur Walter Hill. Yeah, there was a lot of competing machismo on the development and production of this 1972 movie. Poor Love Story star Ali McGraw got dog’s abuse for her poor acting from a perpetually drunk Peckinpah even as smitten co-star McQueen began a scandalous affair with her.

 

Ascenseur pour l’echafaud

Sunday 17th June 15:30

Louis Malle somehow convinced jazz great Miles Davis to simply improvise a score while watching footage of his 1957 directorial debut. Not technically a Nouvelle Vague film but it seems churlish to deny Malle’s kinship with them on account of two years’ chronology. Jeanne Moreau enigmatically wanders the streets of Paris at night waiting for her lover (Maurice Ronet), after their perfect murder of her husband goes predictably sideways, while a sub-plot sees two younger lovers cause chaos.

 

Pretty Poison

Wednesday 20th June 18:30

Psycho star Anthony Perkins is released from a mental institution under strict conditions but immediately runs into the murderous arms of manipulative teenager Tuesday Weld in this bizarre black comedy. A haze of insane conspiracies, mayhem, and bloodshed ensue, with an RD Laing zeitgeist-surfing vibe that the sane people are the ones in the asylum – the truly crazy people are the ones running around outside in the dramatically disintegrating America of 1968. Who wouldn’t prefer being safely locked up?

 

The Honeymoon Killers

Saturday 23rd June 15:30

French Connection and Jesus of Nazareth actor Tony Lo Bianco stars in Leonard Kastle’s blackly comic thriller as a con man who offers love and marriage to lonely women via lonely hearts newspaper classifieds but has something very different in mind, aided and abetted by his partner Shirley Stoler. A few scenes directed by Martin Scorsese still remain in the picture; astonishingly the exuberant motor-mouth was fired after 4 days because he was working too … slowly. Yep.

 

Natural Born Killers

Sunday 24th June 15:30

I think the IFI rather enjoys showing Oliver Stone’s 1994 throw-every-film-format-and-editing-style-there-is-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks media satire/fiasco just to remind everyone how they were prevented from doing so by the boo-hiss censor back in 1994. Now showing in 35mm, this may be your last chance to enjoy this as an original piece of madness before Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is finally released (soon, allegedly) and we can see the footage that Stone was shown privately pre-JFK and NBK

Gun Crazy

Thursday 28th June 18:30

Rope star John Dall is a naive young man who meets and marries (unhinged) carnival sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Irish actress Peggy Cummins) only to fall into a world of trouble due to her criminal proclivities. Dalton Trumbo co-wrote this while blacklisted, and there is some showy single-take and fixed-position direction by Joseph Lewis. Recent contributor hereabouts Friedrich Bagel somehow fell asleep during a screen 2 showing of this B-movie classic in the IFI some years ago, for shame!

Heavenly Creatures

Saturday 30th June 18:20

Before the unexpected transition to epic fantasy with The Lord of the Rings and after Meet the Freebles was Peter Jackson’s equally unexpected gothic drama based on a real life cause celebre in 1950s New Zealand. Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey both made their impressive screen debuts as the teenagers whose obsessive bond and shared fantasy world led to a very savage murder in the here and now. Legendary Weta was formed by Jackson to create that fantasy world.

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September 13, 2017

IFI Open Day 2017

The IFI is holding its annual Open Day on Saturday September 16th with a line-up of free movies running from 1pm to 11pm. As well as free movies, the customary barbecue in the courtyard and special discount on annual IFI membership, there are a number of tours and a jazz brunch in the cafe bar.

 

In addition to the one preview, handful of old favourites, and several sheer oddities, there are chances to lift the curtain and see the wizard; with talks from the IFI Archive staff and tours of the Projection Booth. The ‘Ask an Archivist’ desk in the foyer will give visitors the opportunity to learn about different film stocks, preservation, restoration, digitisation, and even view and handle film. But projection tours to go behind the little window of flickering light, and check out the busy working of the specialised department; handling anything from digital, to 16mm and 35mm, up to 70mm – the IFI being the only cinema in the country that can run 70mm reels; are sadly sold out. As always IFI Membership will be available at a discounted rate for the Open Day and there’s a BBQ on the terrace from 16.00 onwards. And this year Air France are running a competition for a pair of return flights to Paris so that one might finally fulfil that nagging desire to run thru the Louvre as if in a nouvelle vague picture.

But what are the free movies? Well, here is a guide to the 12 films being shown in Temple Bar.

Film 1

The Mighty Ducks (13.00)
It’s 25 years since the IFI opened its door in Temple Bar, and there is one notable film also turning 25 this year that has been much discussed this summer. But enough about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me… Emilio Estevez is Gordon Bombay, a cut-throat lawyer sentenced to community service after a DUI, who coaches an unruly youth ice-hockey team with ruthlessness to earn redemption.

The Big Sleep (13.15)
A high water-mark of film noir, The Big Sleep was adapted by William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett from the first of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled novels about PI, and all-round shop-soiled Galahad, Philip Marlowe. The great Howard Hawks directs Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in a murky tangle of shady LA characters, innuendo laden dialogue, literate zingers, and baffling plotting. Just don’t ask who killed the chauffeur.

Speedy (13.30)
Harold Lloyd’s final silent film from 1928 sees his customary ‘glasses’ character this time appearing as a baseball-obsessed New Yorker determined to save the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar, just as another expression of a fine, noble, and disinterested nature, and also to impress the girl whose grandfather owns it. 86 minutes of rapid-fire sight gags and elaborate comedy set-ups ensue, and a cameo from Babe Ruth to boot.

Film 2

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (15.10)

Robert Wise, director of The Sound of Music, was the unlikely figure picked to lead the crew of the starship Enterprise into the new frontier of cinema. 132 minutes, a regrettable portion of which is lovingly sustained shots of the post-Star Wars VFX accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s new Trek theme, sees Kirk, Spock, Bones, et al investigate a mysterious alien entity posing a threat.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (15.30)
Steve Martin continued his fruitful collaboration with director Carl Reiner after The Jerk with this homage to 1940s film noir. While Woody Allen was busy inserting Len Zelig into world events, Reiner and Martin wrote a zany plot and built a farcical amount of sets in order to have Martin interact with old footage of Humphrey Bogart, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, and many more.

Intermission (15.40)
Cillian Murphy woos Kelly MacDonald, Colin Farrell is obsessed with woks, bus-driver Brían F. O’Byrne is aggrieved at a kid, David Wilmot is being unnerved by Deirdre O’Kane’s lust, and vainglorious Garda Colm Meaney is being filmed by documentarians. The blackly comic intersections of Mark O’Rowe’s screenplay no longer seem as impressive as they initially did back in 2003 when everyone was talking about brown sauce in tea.

MILLER’S CROSSING, Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, 1990. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.

Film 3

Sorcerer (17.30)
William Friedkin decided, for reasons passing understanding, to use his post-French Connection and Exorcist clout to remake Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 suspense classic The Wages of Fear. Roy Scheider stars in a tale of men driving trucks with highly unstable nitroglycerine over rickety bridges on a mission to extinguish an oil well blaze. This is remembered now for Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ account of its disastrous production and reception.

Miller’s Crossing (18.00)
The Coen Brothers stepped up their ambitions from indie noir and screwball comedy with this expansive Prohibition-era gangster film. Gabriel Byrne is right-hand man to Albert Finney’s mob boss. When Byrne is banished, over John Turturro’s bookie and Marcia Gay Harden’s moll, it begins a deadly game of cat and mouse between rival gangs; featuring much double-crossing, hard-boiled badinage, and a spectacularly OTT use of ‘Danny Boy’.

Delicatessen (18.10)
Amelie creator Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his one-time directing partner Marc Caro’s 1991 debut is a queasily slapstick spin on Sweeney Todd. Clapet is a landlord in an apartment building in post-apocalyptic France, who controls his tenants’ food supply via his butcher’s shop; prime cuts from the men he hires. Louison (Dominique Pinon) fills the regular vacancy, but his love for Clapet’s daughter complicates matters in this queasy comedy.

Film 4

Weirdos (20.00)

In 1976 Nova Scotia fifteen-year-old Kit and his girlfriend Alice run away from home in order to reunite with his estranged mother (Molly Parker), while the USA bombastically celebrates its bicentennial. Accompanied by Kit’s imaginary version of Andy Warhol, the two undertake a road trip during which they confront the difficulties they face in their teenage romance. Quirky and comedic, Bruce McDonald’s film features beautifully photographed Canadian landscapes.

??? (20.20)

The audience choice is yet to be announced but voting for the shortlist of 10 drawn up by IFI staff has closed. Here’s hoping for Hunt for the Wilderpeople! Although as that screened in preview at last year’s Open Day having it again as a returning favourite might be pushing it. Past winners include SubmarineGood Vibrations, Short Term 12, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

The Cohens and Kellys (20.30)

A genuine oddity is a silent movie in prime time on Open Day… Accordionist Dermot Dunne and saxophonist Nick Roth, Artistic Director of the Yurodny Ensemble, will provide a live musical accompaniment, drawing heavily on Irish and Jewish folk music. The 1926 film is an ethnic comedy of the broadest of stock characters in 1920s NYC: Irish cop, Jewish storekeeper, cheerful Irish wife, Jewish mother.

 

So, those are the films, but that’s only planning’s first step… Sadly after two years of running five sets of films; which saw movies begin near 11pm and end near 1am; things are back to the traditional four in this 25th anniversary year. Trying to do four films was always an endurance marathon, but to get into five films was surely beyond mere mortals, and yet undoubtedly somebody did try in those two years… But even to do four movies one must sort out strategy, for two sets of reasons.

One can, obviously, only watch one of the three films running, but the film chosen from each set determines what films are available in subsequent sets. Choose The Big Sleep from the first set of films, and it becomes damn near impossible to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture from the second set of films. To make a quick-change from Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Sorcerer involves having to leave one screen and join a queue for another screen, with neither film starting on time, especially as some introductory speaker always overdoes curating their favourite film. The unexpected can derail well-laid plans as some films will be unexpectedly in demand whilst others unexpectedly languish, and it is impossible to predict which. Might one casually pick up a ticket for Miller’s Crossing a minute before it starts as Talking Movies’ occasional guest writer Elliot Harris once memorably did for The Purple Rose of Cairo? And how can popularity be predicted in the absence of announced screens? After all amongst past audience choice winners Good Vibrations and Short Term 12 did not make Screen 1, yet Submarine did. One needs a good mental map of run-times and queue-times for improvised plans.

And then there’s the second, newer reason to sort strategy if attempting multiple films. Tickets were allocated, 4 per person, first come first served, at 11am; which saw a queue forming from 9.30am, snaking to Dame Street. The days of that Open Day morning buzz are gone. For the second year in a row queues will form inside the IFI, a desk for each movie, an hour before screenings –2 tickets per person. Multiple movie devotees must work together, because they’d have to not be watching a movie in order to queue for tickets for the next movie; reducing them to a mere 2 movies! Expect the queue to form 30 minutes before tickets will be disbursed. Don’t expect pseudo-economists trading off queuing during films they don’t mind missing in order to get extra tickets for a film they do want to see, in order to get someone to queue for them for a later film they want to see.

September 1, 2017

How Will Game of Thrones End?

It should be obvious by now that George RR Martin is never going to finish his series, because he patently has no interest in writing it when he could be having far more fun not writing it. But if he did write it, how would he actually end the saga?

“Kill me now…”

Now, Friedrich Bagel (which I strongly suspect of being an assumed name) is a man who knows something about not finishing a writing project; we have been assiduously not finishing our masterly screenplay for the great Irish short film for some nine years now. Moved by Martin’s plight he has suggested some endings, and I have helped out some. So, for the consideration of the blocked GRRM, here are some ways to fill the blank page of the final page…

 

Hard Boiled Manner

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell. Me, I was part of the nastiness now. Far more a part of it than Jon Snow was. But the old Targaryen didn’t have to be. She could lie quiet in her canopied bed, with her bloodless hands folded on the sheet, waiting. Her heart was a brief, uncertain murmur. Her thoughts were as gray as ashes. And in a little while she too, like Jon Snow, would be sleeping the big sleep.

 

Augustan

Last, o’er the urn the sacred earth they spread,
And rais’d the tomb, memorial of the dead
(Strong guards and spies, till all the rites were done,
Watch’d from the rising to the setting sun).         1010
Kings Landing  then moves to Cersei’s court again,
A solemn, silent, melancholy train:
Assembled there, from pious toil they rest,
And sadly shared the last sepulchral feast.
Such honours Westeros to her hero paid,         1015
And peaceful slept the mighty Jon Snow’s shade.

 

Elegiac

And as I sat there brooding on the old, and new, gods, I thought of Melisandre’s wonder when she first picked out the white fire hidden in Jon Snow’s afterlife. She had come a long way to this Iron Throne, and her dream must have seemed so close that she could hardly fail to grasp it. She did not know that it was already behind her, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond Kings Landing, where the dark fields beyond the Wall rolled on under the Night’s Watch.

Melisandre believed in the white fire, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning –

So we charge on, knights against the dragons, borne back ceaselessly into the Targaryens.

September 28, 2016

So long, and unthanks for all the Fish

It’s been a very long wait for RTE 2 to screen season 2 of Gotham, and that might say much about the state of popular opinion towards the misfiring show.

gotham06

The first season of Gotham arrived with much more fanfare in January 2015, down to the WB organising a cinema screening of the pilot which I covered for HeadStuff.org. On the big screen Gotham’s cold open was undeniably arresting, tracking a teenage Selina Kyle (Carmen Bicondova) across the rooftops of the absurdly begargoyled city until she happened upon a certain dark alleyway just in time for murder of the Waynes. Catwoman’s presence intriguingly made Batman’s formative trauma a random incident in someone else’s life. But showrunner/writer Bruno Heller and director Danny Cannon also upped the gore, and salvaged the now-pardoic crane swoop by young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) not giving the expected “NOOOOO!!!” but an ear-splitting pre-pubescent shriek.

It would be cruel to say it was all downhill from there, but not entirely untrue. Danny Cannon and director of photography David Stockton had previously brought Nikita to TV on the CW, but Gotham is on Fox, and from the beginning lacked the slick coherence of a CW show. The pilot was all about the young James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), starting work at Gotham PD as the new partner of corrupt Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). They bungled investigating the Waynes’ murder, and got investigated by Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), who already disliked Bullock because of his deal-making friendship with mobster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett-Smith). Gordon felt compelled (perhaps by the dramatic imperative) to promise Bruce and his guardian Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) that he would throw away his badge if he didn’t solve the case. But with the squirrelly behaviour of his fiancé Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), the obvious madness of his CSI Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), and the menacing warnings of his father’s old acquaintance Don Carmine Falcone (John Doman), it was questionable if Gordon would live long enough to throw away his badge a la Dirty Harry…

But that set-up promised a clear path of plot that Heller simply did not possess. Montoya’s presence on the show became increasingly sporadic and tokenistic until eventually she and Allen simply disappeared from the story, while Barbara’s lost little rich girl antics were worthy of Smallville at its very worst, and eventually an extended hiatus produced the desperate gambit of bringing in Milo Ventimiglia as a serial killer for a short and trumpeted mini-arc to give the show some semblance of purpose as it staggered toward the finishing line. Reviewing Gotham‘s pilot I said there was to much to like: specifically the look of Nolan’s Gotham having Gothic elements added to it, Pertwee’s tough Alfred, Logue’s amiably shady Bullock, and Doman’s revelatory avuncular Falcone – the force for order against the chaos enveloping Gotham. There were further praiseworthy elements as the season progressed, the outre villainy of the Balloon Man serial killer felt like it stepped from the pages of early 1990s Batman comics, a flashback heavy episode in which Bullock faced off against the same possibly supernatural murderer at either end of a decade felt like late 1980s Grant Morrison Batman material, and the siege of GCPD in which Gordon was left alone to face off against a team of assassins led by Victor Zsasz was stirring enough to be Nolan-worthy.

gotham-gordon-and-bullock

But this is not a show about Gordon and Bullock fighting weird crime, and more’s the loss. It’s a show about…

Well, what is it about?

The adventures of the young Bruce becoming Batman at the unusually young age of say 15 at the end of season 3? No.

Well, maybe, after all don’t forget the cliffhanger finale of Bruce discovering, deep sigh, his father’s Batcave; in a transparent riff on the LOST season 1 finale, despite the fact that finale enraged people.

The adventures of young Bruce meeting literally everyone he will meet again ‘for the first time’ 17 years later when he dons the cape at the age of 29? No.

Well, sort of. I accused Heller of having a veritable ‘Where’s Wally?’ of future super-villains: Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Ivy. He then added in Joker for good measure, and Colm Feore’s Dollmaker, as well as lumbering under the lamentable weight of Fish Mooney, a placeholder original villain, twirling her extravagant nails to hide lack of actual character.

The adventures of all of Batman’s supervillains sans the Bat but with Gordon, in a move worthy of Hamlet without the Dane? No.

Well, yes, that’s sort of where this is all heading. But as ever, only sort of. Gotham’s split focus has been its downfall. Gordon and Bullock are never allowed to do their thing, instead we have to head off and agonise over Barbara’s latest idiocy, or check in on the budding romance of Bruce and Selina; mixing tortured romance with grittier crime procedural as if Heller is confused as to both genre and what network he’s on. But this problem; that Gotham is trying to be about four different shows at once, failing in its whirling dervish act to dance between four stools, and giving everyone a nosebleed into the bargain; is in the ha’penny place to the real flaw bedevilling the show – some of the very worst writing since Smallville‘s lowest points.

the-gotham-tv-show-3

It was hard reviewing Anthropoid a few weeks ago not to make a connection between it, Green Room, and Gotham. The connection to be traced between them goes to the heart of why Gotham rapidly became a chore to watch. Anthropoid saw Nazis take a hammer to a violinist’s hand to break him in interrogation; they’re Nazis, that sort of cruelty is their way. Green Room saw Neo-Nazis take a machete to a guitarist’s hand to break a siege; they’re Neo-Nazis, they want their gun back so they can kill the band. Gotham saw The Penguin take charge of breaking up a romance to curry favour with a possible crime partner. The problem was a musician. As soon as the word ‘musician’ was mentioned you knew what was coming next. A beating doesn’t work on the guy, so Penguin steps in with some handy hedge-clippers, “He’s a musician, lose the fingers.” And the director obliged with a huge close-up of a bejewelled severed finger hitting the ground as the editors debated which to make louder, the scream of agony or the satisfying plop sound. It’s not just that it’s part of a wider problem with the violence on Gotham, which we’ll get to, but as with so much of Penguin’s psychopathy it doesn’t really make any sense. What exactly happened next? Something like this?

INT.ITALIAN PIZZA PLACE-NIGHT.

THE GIRL is looking at her watch, and looking out the window. Where is her boyfriend musician already? Her cellphone rings.

GIRL: Where the hell are you?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) (muffled voices in background) We should break up.

GIRL: What? Why? What’s that sound?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) I’m in the hospital.

GIRL: Oh my God! That’s horrible. Which one? Gotham General? I’ll come now. Why are you in the hospital?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) Someone cut off my fingers.

GIRL: Oh my God! Oh my GOD! Will you still be able to play the guitar?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) Of course I won’t be f****** able to play the f******guitar! THEY CUT OFF MY F****** FINGERS!!

GIRL: (sobbing) Oh God! Who? Why? Baby, why would anyone do such a horrible thing to you?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) I don’t know. I forgot to ask them as they took away my identity and career with a hedge clippers. But in totally unrelated news, babe, totally unrelated, I think we should break up.

This is the kind of nonsense that drove Smallville into inanity; that you could watch Lex bump someone off, and just wonder ‘Why on earth did he do that?!’ Gotham has fallen into the LOST trap of inserting Quentin Tarantino’s ‘really bitching torture scene’ whenever they run out of dramatic oomph and can’t be bothered to let conflict grow organically from characters. A sort of amped-up version of Raymond Chandler’s dictum that you have a guy with a gun walk into the room whenever you get stuck in your writing. It is of course, if done week after week, scene after scene, incredibly lazy writing. It makes things predictable despite the aim being to make things unpredictable: ‘psychopaths be crazy’ and all that. When you just ping pong from hideous double-cross to hideous double-cross, with bodies and eyeballs flying everywhere it actually becomes tiresome, and the cumulative effect is to make the whole show faintly ridiculous. All the maneuvering between Penguin, Fish, and Falcone to be King of Gotham Crime seemed like a pantomime via the Grand Guignol. At times, such as Fish’s imprisonment on Dollmaker’s island laboratory, you could literally fast-forward through the action without missing anything so poor was the dialogue and telegraphed the action. And that is to say nothing of the outrageous gore that Heller seemed in love with; Catwoman gouging out a goon’s eyes in the 2nd episode, Penguin maiming and killing half Gotham and environs, Fish gouging out her own eye to spite Dollmaker, and, in a Smallville moment, Dollmaker responding to that by giving his inept henchman an unwanted sex change and granting Fish a new eye because… Um, because that’s what was written down in the script.

The exhausted retirement of Falcone in the finale almost serves as a metaphor for the audience. We did at least get to see Fish being dropped off a large building to allow Penguin have his “Made it Ma! Top of the World!” moment, but how a show run by experienced people could’ve misjudged everything that led to the point quite so hugely is baffling. I don’t know if a radical shake-up like James Cameron and Charles H Eglee gave Dark Angel season 2 can redeem Gotham, but let’s see if having got rid of its most annoying original character it can start to become a bit more sensible.

Gotham season 2 starts on RTE 2 at the less than desirable time-slot of 10.55pm today.

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

March 22, 2016

Any Other Business: Part XI

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 an eleventh portmanteau post on television of course!

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, Tom Hollander as Major Corkoran, Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper - The Night Manager _ Season 1, Gallery - Photo Credit: Mitch Jenkins/The Ink Factory/AMC

Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, Tom Hollander as Major Corkoran, Elizabeth Debicki as Jed Marshall, Olivia Colman as Angela Burr, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper – The Night Manager _ Season 1, Gallery – Photo Credit: Mitch Jenkins/The Ink Factory/AMC

The Height Manager

At first I thought The Night Manager might be a good three episode show trying to escape from a six episode run. But then, as I found myself fast-forwarding through sweeping shots apparently accompanied by mislaid John Barry Bond cues, I started to doubt that. As I started fast-forwarding through protracted suspense sequences and pointless tracking shots I thought there might be a decent movie buried trying to escape from John Le Carre’s story. As I started fast-forwarding through dialogue scenes because a piece of spy-craft involving ice creams resembled an SNL sketch I stopped thinking and just hit delete on the DVR. I will remember little in a few months of The Night Manager except how director Susanne Bier dealt with Elizabeth Debicki’s great height: never stand her directly next to Hugh Laurie or Tom Hiddleston if possible, and if they must stand beside each other, cheat. Debicki stood in bare feet next to Laurie standing in shoes, so that both were standing at the same height. And, even more farcically, Debicki walked beside Hiddleston on a steeply sloping beach, but closer to the ocean so that he appeared fractionally taller. Jed “I don’t care who sees me naked, I do care who sees me crying” Marshall brought to mind Richard Yates’ castigation of Hemingway’s Catherine Barkley as not a real character but merely a ‘high-school masturbatory fantasy’. It’s baffling that Debicki chose to slum it in such a vacuous role, but what exactly is the fuss about female directors all about when Bier so ridiculously upholds the convention of leading man looming over leading lady?

Jerk-Ass Seeley

Bones has long been a startling exemplar of decline without any obvious parallel. In its marvellous first season it was a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags delivered by complicated characters. In its current eleventh season it is an average intelligence forensics sitcom with constant average gags delivered by characters whose level of complication can be gauged by new addition FBI Agent Aubrey being defined as gourmand. Bones’ trajectory has been so consistently downhill that each season is observably slightly worse than its predecessor. Forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember social niceties and her conversation suffered from total ignorance of pop culture. By season 6 she was, so to speak, consciously unconsciously anti-social. And it’s only got worse. After 11 years of working with Seeley Booth, during which she has observed his example of what to say and how to act in nearly every conceivable circumstance, she has not only not learnt, but has regressed: becoming ruder and given to hideous attempts at humour. But a recent NSA episode, transparently about Snowden, was truly jaw-dropping. The penultimate episode of season 1 tackled the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. By contrast the NSA episode of season 11 saw Booth snarling like a deranged bear at everyone, and Hodgins deferring meekly to Booth’s party line that if you didn’t serve, you have no right to speak. Given that the leak in question was about not just illegal spy programs but an NSA hit-squad operating without Congressional oversight you have to wonder if Booth just wants all but a handful of his Army Rangers buddies disbarred from voting. After all if you didn’t serve, are you really worthy of voting on where to support the troops next? How did Bones get to this state of shocking disrepair?

MARVEL'S AGENT CARTER - "Better Angels" - Peggy's search for the truth about Zero Matter puts her on a collision course with her superiors as Howard Stark barnstorms in, on "Marvel's Agent Carter," TUESDAY, JANUARY 26 (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal) HAYLEY ATWELL, REGGIE AUSTIN

MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER – “Better Angels” – Peggy’s search for the truth about Zero Matter puts her on a collision course with her superiors as Howard Stark barnstorms in, on “Marvel’s Agent Carter,” TUESDAY, JANUARY 26 (9:00-10:00 p.m. EST) on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Kelsey McNeal)
HAYLEY ATWELL, REGGIE AUSTIN

Agent Carter: LA Noir

“I drove across town to La Brea then straight north to Hollywood. The canyon road was narrow and winding but there was no traffic at all. We hadn’t even seen a police car on the ride and that was fine with me, because the police have white slavery on the brain when it comes to coloured men and white women.” – Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

Devil in a Blue Dress, the first of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins noir novels, is set in Los Angeles in 1948. Mosley was born in 1952 and published his book in 1990, but he was interested in capturing a sense of the lived reality of black life in the era of Raymond Chandler’s PI mythologies. The second season of Agent Carter is set in Los Angeles in 1947. Except it’s not. Agent Carter is interested in the 1940s purely for set-dressing and steam-punk plotting. When black scientist Wilkes instantly hits on Peggy Carter and she reciprocates the show doesn’t hear historical accuracy alarm bells ringing. Indeed it goes out of its way to have a white guy make racist assumptions about the pair because he’s a horrible racist, and Howard Stark treats Wilkes like he would a white scientist because Stark’s a great guy. More people will casually watch Agent Carter than will actively read Devil in a Blue Dress, so surely it matters that history is being made into pigswill. And surely it matters that people will be soothed by the idea that people were always decent but a few racists made trouble, when the man who accosts Wilkes and Peggy is representative, not exceptional. Michael Portillo was told in a BBC documentary that there were no signs indicating segregation in Washington DC in the 1940s, black people just knew where they weren’t allowed: racism didn’t need to physically accost, it already had a policing voice mentally inside its victims. I can think of few more terrifying, gut-churning scenes of fiction than Easy waiting to meet DeWitt Albright and hoping upon hope that a bunch of white teenagers will not approach him, only for a white teenage girl to strike up an aimless conversation with him that nearly sees Easy lynched on the pier. It’s depressing to think that having Wilkes means Agent Carter scores a tick on the diversity checklist, regardless of the opiate ahistoricity of his use.

July 31, 2015

Don’t Mess With Veronica Mars

The second novel in the Veronica Mars mystery series has been published, and creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are talking about reviving the TV show for an 8 episode run in the vein of True Detective. What better time to fondly remember one of the last decade’s best shows? Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on Veronica Mars.

Logan: I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me.

Veronica: Epic how?

Logan: Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, blood shed. Epic! But summer’s almost here. And we won’t see each other at all. Then you’ll leave town, and it’s over.

Veronica: Logan…

Logan: I’m sorry. About last summer. If I could do it over…

Veronica: C’mon… Ruined lives? Blood shed? You really think a relationship should be that hard?

Logan: No one writes songs about the ones that come easy.

It may seem odd to talk about Veronica Mars as a romantic show, but there’s a reason the ‘epic love’ scene was reprised in the 2014 movie; the show could be swooningly romantic, as evidenced by the giddy crane-work when Veronica kissed Logan for the first time in season 1. That was also one of the most shocking moments of season 1, not only because it felt like Veronica was betraying her dead best friend Lily by moving in on her boyfriend, but also because the pilot had introduced Logan with Veronica’s caustic voiceover: “Every school needs its psychotic jackass. Logan Echolls is ours”. Veronica’s on-off romance with Logan was not unlike Rory Gilmore’s with the equally charismatic but erratic Jess. There were nicer boys than Jason Dohring’s movie-star scion Logan, like Teddy Dunn’s Duncan Kane and Max Greenfield’s rookie cop Leo, but Leo’s fate was the voiceover gag; “It’s the old story. Girl meets boy. Girl uses boy. Girl likes boy. Boy finds out, girl gets what she deserves”; while Duncan’s entanglement with the ill-fated Meg saw Veronica nobly sacrifice her own relationship with Duncan to help him and his baby daughter evade the FBI and the Manning family, sadly pinning to her mirror a note saying ‘True love stories never end’. Season 3’s ‘nice boyfriend’ Chris Lowell’s Piz was the nicest boyfriend of all, and, in incredibly revealing commentary on the season 3 finale, Thomas noted that when Logan extravagantly apologises to a bruised Piz for beating him up earlier over a leaked sex-tape, Piz looks totally defeated; because he knows that Veronica, well-intentioned but ruthless, is the kind of girl who will only ever end up with the kind of guy who, repeatedly, has beaten people to a bloody pulp with his bare hands for hurting her.

Click here to read the full article on how Veronica Mars handled female friendship, a father-daughter detective agency, and how the sunny setting belied a dark heart of noir cynicism.

August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

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Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

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Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

August 22, 2014

Sin City 2

Comic-book writer and artist Frank Miller returns with a sequel nobody particularly wanted, except presumably himself and co-director Robert Rodriguez.

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Hard-drinking hard-bitten hard man Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes up surrounded by dead bodies, so, just another Saturday night in Sin City… Supernaturally lucky gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arrives in town to take down unfriendly neighbourhood super-villain Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) at his infamous poker game, assisted by lucky charm/hooker Marcie (Julia Garner). That doesn’t work out too well… Elsewhere Dwight (Josh Brolin, not Clive Owen), gets entangled with his seductive ex Ava (Eva Green) and her man-mountain muscle Manute (Dennis Haysbert, not Michael Clarke Duncan), and then another ex, Gail (Rosario Dawson), and her petite but equally terrifying muscle Miho (Jamie Chung, not Devon Aoki)… (Sheesh! Recasting is confusing!). And, in the final thread, stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) prepares to shoot Roark as revenge for the suicide of her protector Hartigan (Bruce Willis); who now observes proceedings as a ghost.

I dismissed 2005’s Sin City as grotesque, witless garbage that was not so much pseudo-noir as porno-noir. And, hilariously, the sequel isn’t nearly as bad largely because of its abandonment of grotesquerie for the proud adoption of my latter tag. There still is nasty business; involving fingers, eyeballs, and bone splinting with Christopher Lloyd (who, joy!, insists a character call him Doctor); but there’s less of an emphasis on sadistic cruelty. Instead the emphasis is on lingering on Eva Green’s tits long enough so that (to paraphrase David Mamet) half America could draw them from memory. Green should watch Angel Face to see an actual noir version of her character, because her constant nudity is at first unusual, then laughably stupid, before it becomes a game of stop-watch to see if she’s topless for more than 50% of her screen-time.

Miller has written two new stories for this film, ill-serving JGL whose character really has no plan, and whose entire storyline is basically pointless. And ‘new’ is a strong term, because, like the original, this is incredibly repetitive stuff. Chandler used to have Marlowe get worked over real good once a book, Miller seems to have his characters get worked over good once a chapter. The violence is rendered more abstract this time round by greater recourse to white silhouettes, but Miller’s addiction to ultra-violence as the solution to all of life’s problems remains intact. Boothe is terribly one-note as Roark, but he has nothing to work with – Chandler or Paretsky can be opened on any page to find a zinger, Miller’s dialogue is unremittingly clunky. Sin City was an event, but the visuals don’t dazzle, they just highlight the poverty of writing behind them.

Sin City 2 is a less sadistically violent but more gratuitously sexualised (Juno Temple I’m looking at you…) reprise of its predecessor. It passes the time, but caveat emptor.

2/5

February 14, 2014

Bastards

French provocateur Claire Denis returns with a moody slice of elliptical noir as a rich businessman is suspected of unspeakable sexual crimes against a family dependent on his financial generosity.

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Broody supertanker captain Marco Silvestri (Vincent Lindon) abandons his ship when his sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) calls. Her husband Jacques (Lauren Grevill), who was also Marco’s best friend, has committed suicide. Debts are about to envelop the family business, and Sandra’s daughter Justine (Lola Creton) is in hospital and deeply traumatised by a sexual assault. Marco is informed by Justine’s carer Dr Bethanie (Alex Descas) that she will need corrective surgery so savage was her raping. In the background to the Silvestri family drama is the figure of famous ageing tycoon Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor). Marco takes it upon himself to raise enough money to move into the apartment building where Laporte keeps his mistress Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), and insinuates himself into her life by fixing her son’s bicycle and giving her cigarettes, to begin an elaborate revenge against Laporte…

Claire Denis co-wrote this with her regular writing partner Jean-Pol Fargeau, and it’s impressively cagey and enigmatic for a long portion of its running time of 94 minutes. However, towards the end, you start to feel a sense of terminal drift; that Denis has no real interest in wrapping up what she’s laid out. Echoes of Chinatown and Chandler, in a savage beating of Marco in a hallway from two mysterious assailants, show up Denis’ deliberate vagueness rather than complement it. We are given answers to some questions, at the very death, but they come after events have taken a distinctly Cormac McCarthy turn, which makes the film feel overlong. In some respects Bastards is reminiscent of Only God Forgives, as being easier to admire than to like; and in being in thrall to hypnotic scenes (notably rainfall and cars).

Denis uses silence and sound to great effect, making the pulsing score of Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples startling when it erupts, most notably for a hallucinatory sequence of dangerous driving. Lindon is a fantastically weather-beaten hero, taking no nonsense as he conducts his own vendetta against an untouchable man, by stealing away his mistress. The affair, however, lacks a certain sense of reality as we never understand why Raphaelle would endanger her dependent relationship with Laporte for the doubtful charms of Marco. Subor nicely layers an imperious viciousness with some notes of concern for his son and a greater understanding of the morally muddled situation than the taciturn Bogart of the piece. Creton (so great as a lead in Goodbye First Love) is sadly over-exposed but under-used as the abused Justine, and the laconic understated script never truly plumbs her character.

Denis’ film, especially in its explicit scenes of abuse, but will not be everyone’s taste, but it’s definitely an intriguing take on a neo-noir.

2.75/5

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