Talking Movies

September 21, 2019

From the Archives: Disturbia

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pull ups Shia LaBeouf’s second major summer hit of 2007, a Hitchcock homage.

Depressed teen Kale Brecht (Shia LaBeouf) is sentenced to house arrest and starts spying on his neighbours. When he begins to suspect a neighbour is a serial killer he desperately needs the help of the new girl next door.

It’s not a good idea to say you’re remaking a Hitchcock film. A Perfect Murder got torn apart for being a reworking of Dial M for Murder, whereas if everyone had kept shtum it would probably have been regarded as an okay thriller. There are only a handful of directors that one would trust with a Hitchcock remake and DJ Caruso is not one of them. Spielberg, Fincher or Peter Jackson could conceivably do a good job of helming a Hitch remake, the miracle here is that DJ Caruso does not disgrace himself with this loose riff on Rear Window. Shia LaBeouf’s shtick is going to tire pretty soon but at the moment it’s flavour of the month and he’s very good in his role as a teenager going off the rails since the death of his father, shown in the prologue. Unable to leave his house thanks to an electronic tag on his ankle he soon goes all Jimmy Stewart; “It’s passive observation. It’s a harmless side-effect of chronic boredom”; spying on his neighbours and becoming convinced that Mr Turner (David Morse) is a serial killer….

Where would Rear Window be without Grace Kelly? Up a creek that’s where. It is thus astounding that 53 years later Grace Kelly’s smart, assertive Lisa Carol Fremont has been replaced by a ridiculously sexualised ‘hot chick’. Sarah Roemer has a thankless task playing Ashley, the girl who moves in next door to Kale and is ogled at by him. Her decision to just join Kale and his friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) in their snooping is unfathomable, why she is so cool with being spied on and drooled over never being convincingly explained. The other female role in the film is equally bizarre. Only four years ago Carrie-Anne Moss was the sexy female lead in The Matrix sequels. Now, courtesy of some severe looking dresses, she’s the mother. There are two hilarious moments near the end of the film where it looks as if wardrobe and/or lighting forget they were meant to be making her look dowdy and she steps forward as her old kick ass persona.

These objections to the underwritten female characters aside the film does work quite efficiently. David Morse is skilfully ambiguous as Mr Turner and there some very nice Hitchcockian plot feints. DJ Caruso finally manages to parlay his undoubted slickness behind the camera into a hit film. Disturbia has got a lot of goodwill because it only cost 20 million, which made it seem a moment of sanity in a summer of ridiculously over budgeted and under-scripted blockbusters. But while it is quite enjoyable given its teen horror genre limitations you just wish there had been more ambition in the script.

3/5

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April 5, 2013

Any Other Business: Part VI

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 a sixth portmanteau post on television of course!

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CSI: NY’s Pure Cinema

Some timing is so uncanny that it’s best regarded as semi-magical. I’d just seen Rear Window in the IFI’s magnificent Hitchcock retrospective when an hour later CSI: NY’s ‘silent’ season 9 episode ‘Unspoken’ popped up on RTE 2. I had somehow never heard that top writer/producer Pam Veasey had celebrated her return to the show after trying to salvage Ringer from its own absurdities with a high concept episode. So it was a slow penny dropping as I realised that the cold open had been entirely dialogue free, and that the subsequent scenes instead of using dialogue were going to lean on Green Day songs to carry the emotions. And what was startling was how well this worked. The CSI franchise has always showcased montages of forensic science scored by pop music, in which the audience sees the clues processed and turned into leads, but this episode realised that, in addition to such basic visual narrative, Lindsay searching a crowd for her lost toddler or an assassin visiting a hospital ward to kill Lindsay could work equally well as wordless sequences. Hitchcock believed in constructing purely visual narrative in which sound and vision worked together to convey character moments and suspenseful action without needing dialogue; and watching this episode just after Rear Window, such Hitchcockian skill in using sound but not dialogue stood out. It’s odd this episode got such a critical cold shoulder, and you can’t help but feel that a HBO show tossing aside dialogue and doing half an episode with only music by Yo La Tengo would have been hailed to the skies; and such nonsense by critics should enrage anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the idea that the true mark of a quality TV show is that it carries an R rating.

 

48: Part II

Yes, it’s time for the second instalment of what is in grave danger of now becoming an almost annual ritualised bashing of 02’s MVNO yoof spin-off 48 and its omnipresent and evermore infuriating promotion. Last May I wrote of my annoyance at ever-present TV ads, endless promo voiceovers on Phantom FM, and posters at every bus stop based around the 48 TV spot of a burlesque-costumed orgy in a massive warehouse space. 18 to 22 year olds, you see, have access to vast party spaces that exist only somewhere between 1970s New York and the copywriter’s imagination, where they conduct ‘oh so daring’ bisexual experimentation; but only between girls because that’s titillating whereas say James Van Der Beek and Ian Somerhalder making out a la The Rules of Attraction wouldn’t be. And then there was the voiceover, in which Irish names like Emer were dropped into the middle of a monologue delivered in the neutral tones of the American Mid-West. But then 48 went one better, their next advertisement was of the type which Charlie Brooker rightly labels a Japanese advert for an incomprehensible product. As I was listening to Gwen Stefani’s Love Angel Music Baby at the time this bothered me less than it should have, as one of the featured actresses was a pretty decent Harajuku Girl approximation of Stefani’s 2004 look. But now 48 return with another campaign featuring debauched Westerners – this time apparently in some Tijuana locale. It’s not bad enough that Meteor wrote the book on value, and are apparently determined to read it to us a page at a time in an English accent, 02 can’t seem to decide what bloody continent they’re advertising 48 in, America or Asia. Can you imagine an equivalent American firm pushing Irish-centric advertising in America…?

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

November 4, 2010

Let the Right Script In

If you haven’t seen Let the Right One In now would be a good time to stop reading as I’m about to do a spoiler-tastic comparison between it and the American version Let Me In.

I was whelmed last year by Let the Right One In, not least because I went to it many weeks after its release having read nothing but ridiculous praise for it. Most of those reviews were littered with condemnations of Twilight mixed in with praises of how this movie was Art, unlike, say, Twilight. The trouble was that many of these hyperbolic notices had confused glacial pacing with artistic substance, and vacuous ambiguity with intellectual integrity. I was thus intrigued when I heard Cloverfield director Matt Reeves was to write/direct an American version. Could he fix the problems? The answer is yes, apart from the pacing. It turns out that glacial pacing is structurally embedded because of the way Lindqvist unfurls his story. It’s at this point I should state that I still haven’t read the book so I’m basing my assumption that this is Lindqvist’s modus operandi on his screenplay adaptation for the Swedish version. Reeves’ version is thus slow-paced but considerably better at generating suspense, with one scene where the detective hunts Abby becoming unbearably tense, courtesy of a violin crescendo by LOST composer Michael Giacchino.

Reeves’ opening disrupts clichés about Hollywood simplification by upending the straightforward chronology of the Swedish version in favour of a film-noir style opening which renders the first half of the film an extended flashback. His sustained long-shot of an ambulance and cop-cars roaring down a snowy road in New Mexico leads to interior shots of an unseen criminal with acid burns being taken to hospital where Elias Koteas’ detective tries to interrogate him. The manhunt by this cop is one of the huge changes of this version and it injects considerable momentum. Also interesting is how the Familiar’s melted face is never seen during this lengthy pre-credits opening sequence. Reeves replaces utter ambiguity with clarity for his own purposes, but substitutes an off-focus camera style when it’s needed; for instance Owen’s isolation is rendered by having his mother’s face never being glimpsed while his father is a mere voice on the phone. I criticised the Swedish film for having utterly pointless scenes. One of the most epically purposeless was the scene where the boy visits his father and his father’s friend/boyfriend, here replaced by a short to the point phone-call. Reeves also dispatches with an entire sub-plot with the female neighbour who accidentally gets turned by Abby. That awful padding led to unintentionally hilarious scenes as she burst into flames in the hospital when a nurse opened the curtain, after being attacked by preposterously bad CGI cats. Reeves simply has her attacked by Abby and then kills her in the hospital scene after a gory moment that stifles any laughter at her subsequent conflagration.

Reeves instead uses CGI in long-shots to make Abby super-agile in her vampiric attacks, which, alongside close-ups of her demonic veined face, renders her far scarier in this version. He also inserts a new highly realistic scene where Owen takes Abby out to play Pac-Man at the local arcade and Abby takes some of his favourite sweets, which she knows will make her sick, rather than hurt his feelings. This appears cute on the surface but because Reeves has made Abby more sinister we’re suspicious and so pick up on the ambiguity of her actions, which is hammered home in the scene where she starts bleeding after Owen forces her to enter his flat uninvited. In the Swedish version it seems like this is a surprise to her but here Abby states that she knew it would happen, but also knew that Owen would belatedly invite her in. Once again Abby is being sweet but there’s a certain level of a vampire manipulating a potential Familiar underneath the surface interpretation.

Reeves has Abby’s Familiar kill by breaking into cars and hiding in the back-seat before garrotting the driver and harvesting his blood. This is a more realistic and sustainable m.o. than the varied methods employed in the Swedish version and leads to the Familiar bungling a harvest, not because of random passers-by intruding on an absurd crime scene, but because he’s getting sloppy. He muses to Abby, as only the inimitably subdued Richard Jenkins can do to such involving effect, that he’s tired of this life so maybe subconsciously he wants to get caught. This realism extends to his self-inflicted injuries. The Swedish version presented a prosthetics Two-Face where Reeves opts for a simple melted off nose, lips and tongue, so that “I’m sorry Abby” are his last scrawled words. This is less of a horror moment, but it’s far sadder. It also of course means Abby has known she might need a new Familiar…

Abby explicitly tells Owen that the Familiar was not her father, removing the ambiguity of the Swedish version which traded on the fake pathos of a father killing for his cursed daughter. Reeves then places Owen in Abby’s room when the detective bursts into it, and has Owen save Abby from the cop, before closing the door as she feeds on him. The iconic image of the original was the splash of blood on that white door, but here the huge splash of blood on the door isn’t just Hollywood excess it’s a signal that the iconic image of this version is about to come; the blood-soaked Abby emerging from the room to hug Owen from behind for saving her; and in its own way it’s an even more stark image. Koteas’ detective is almost a variant on Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff in No Country for Old Men, emotionally troubled by vicious murders, and, here, ultimately fatally betrayed by a new amorality. The fact that an early nod to Rear Window makes all Abby’s victims known to Owen personally only increases his complicity. He embraces the role of the Familiar, even after seeing a photograph which confirms that Richard Jenkins’ character has wasted 50 years of his life on Abby after meeting her at the same age as Owen. The Swedish version achieved a ridiculously happy ending by glossing over the doomed fate he embraces in becoming her Familiar. Reeves by contrast makes that same ending bleaker by having emphasised throughout that Owen is in effect selling his soul. Re-instating moral horror into this sinister coming-of-age story reverses the clichés of Hollywood’s addiction to upbeat conclusions.

Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more emotionally affecting. A true re-imagining.

March 15, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

There’s been an odd prevalence of live blogs surrounding this year’s “goddamn meat-parade” – as George C Scott so memorably described the Oscars. This blog did not do a live commentary on the Oscars for three reasons. Firstly, I rather like sleeping at night and think that many other people share this strange attitude. Secondly, I don’t believe that even Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie writing together could possibly write anything funny or insightful enough LIVE! to justify a live blog. Thirdly, the Oscars are (whisper it) (no in fact bellow it!) POINTLESS!

There are 5,777 voting members of the Academy. These individuals do not have a better idea of what makes a great film than any other 5,777 random individuals around the world. There was a reason that JFK told Ben Bradlee what he’d learned from the Bay of Pigs was this – “Don’t assume that because a man is in the army that he necessarily knows best about military strategy”. If you doubt that consider these three facts.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Alfred Hitchcock, director of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, was not truly exceptional enough in his field to win a Best Director Oscar.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, was.

The Academy nominated both Apocalypse Now and Kramer Vs Kramer for Best Picture of 1979 and thought that the film which would have most impact on popular culture, which pushed the boundaries of film-making, and which would endure and be fondly remembered was…Kramer Vs Kramer. I love the smell of dumbness in the Kodak.

According to the Academy the best 10 films of the Zeros were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker.

Not Memento, Moulin Rouge!, The Two Towers, Master & Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Good Night and Good Luck, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

Or Amores Perros, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rules of Attraction, X-2, Mean Girls, Brick, The Prestige, Zodiac, Hunger and Up in the Air.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that Christoph Waltz gave a great performance in Inglourious Basterds. We don’t need the Academy’s nominations to help us tell the difference between a good blockbuster with commercial clichés and a bad Oscar-baiter with its own set of equally rigid (but more idiotic because they’re ‘edgy’) clichés (Little Miss Sunshine, I’m looking at you). Maggie Mayhem tells Bliss in Whip It “Be your own hero”. Follow her advice, trust your own instincts…

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