Talking Movies

June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

I come not to praise Seth MacFarlane, nor to bury him, but to consider his failure with a comedy-western alongside Damon Lindelof’s Cowboys & Aliens.

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I found A Million Ways to Die in the West to be oddly reminiscent of early Woody Allen films like Bananas; intermittently hilarious, but not really a film. But if Woody pre-Annie Hall was simply stitching together sketches without anything but the most broadly-drawn larger narrative purpose, then it seemed like the reverse was happening to MacFarlane – making ‘a Western, goddamnit!’ sucked the humour out of his comedy-western script. And so to a knotty point – there was a grindingly efficient story structure at work, but the central comic conceit of MacFarlane’s movie was unclear. Critic Joe Griffin pitches the film as – “it’s a normal guy with 21st century sensibilities who lives in the violent frontier of the Old West and is dragged into a typical Western story.” This nails MacFarlane’s interactions with Amanda Seyfried, which come close to replicating the clinical psychoanalysis terms Woody uses with Louise Lasser in Bananas with an almost identical purpose – the comedy of language entirely inappropriate to the situation. But the first genuinely funny moment is MacFarlane’s later riff on the dead mayor, which literally comes out of nowhere. Along with the inevitably blood-soaked county fair, it suggests that the titular conceit of horrible deaths would’ve been a far better source of thematic comedy. Instead MacFarlane decides to mine comedy by working the most exhausted seams of the rom-com with Charlize Theron; even down to the obligatory big lie – she chose not to tell him she’s married to terrifying Liam Neeson. Only very occasionally (to wake the audience) does he sprinkles absurdist comic moments; and meanwhile he’s also trying to touch every Western generic base.

Griffin writes “This, I think, is what happens when someone has had too much control on a project so early in his film career.” MacFarlane is the star, director, co-writer, and producer of A Million Ways; and his co-writers are his Ted and Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. That’s a lot of control. To put it in context, it’s more than M Night Shyamalan ever managed to acquire at the height of his hubris. It’s undeniable that without the success of Ted it’s unthinkable that MacFarlane would have been allowed to cast himself as the physical lead, and it’s probably equally unlikely that Wellesley and Sulkin would alienate their TV day-job boss by proposing a page-one rewrite of his pet film project. I have to agree with Griffin because getting too much control because of success is part and parcel of the disastrous creative bubble I described in 2011 which I predicted would scupper The Dark Knight Rises; Wellesley and Sulkin wouldn’t be silent because they wouldn’t want to rain on MacFarlane’s scripting parade, they’d be silent because they’d be doing the Macarena in the middle of the parade. Because they’d written Ted they’d assume whatever any of them suggested would be equally awesome, and so nobody cries halt until the train has gone far over the horizon. But I want to dissent against myself and speculate that what happened in the Million Ways writers’ room (story structure and Western tropes pushing out badly needed jokes) was the same as the fiasco that occurred not so long ago in another writers’ room not so very far away…

Cowboys and Aliens

Remember 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens? No, well, don’t feel bad. Here’s what its co-writer Damon (LOST) Lindelof had to say about it in an extremely interesting 2013 interview: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.” Cowboys & Aliens was supposedly based on a comic-book by Scott Mitchel Rosenberg, which, from the small sample available on Amazon, appears to proudly wear ‘guilt over the treatment of Native Americans in times gone by’ on its sleeve. That suggests that Ace Ventura creator Steve Oedekerk was right to create a fun screen story distinct from the comic-book. And then rewrites began… Of the credited writers a draft was done by Mark Fergus & Howard Ostby (Iron ManChildren of Men), whose credits suggest that a more serious tone had begun to emerge. Which is presumably why Lindelof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, M:I-3, Star Trek) were brought in to do the final draft of the script. Add some humour? Some nonsense? Yeah, well, obviously that didn’t work. But look at what Lindelof characterised as a genre trapping of the Western: Native American allies. What?! That would certainly be news to the Duke…

In 1991 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr took aim at America’s universities in his polemic The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger was extremely alarmed at the mass of evidence that political correctness had triumphed over sanity: “When a student sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual,’ a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: ‘This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.’” (117) In his 1982 novel Before She Met Me Julian Barnes had a history professor baffled by the genuine horror and anger of a student whenever the wrong side triumphed in any given stand-off. Schlesinger Jr was damning of attacks on ‘Eurocentric’ American history, and it was essentially an appeasement of Barnes’ fictional student; by rewriting history. In one district where Native Americans had political clout it was taught that their tribal politics had influenced Thomas Jefferson every bit as much as European Enlightenment. It had not, as Schlesinger Jr flatly stated. And yet… In Sleepy Hollow, co-created by Cowboys & Aliens scribes Kurtzman and Orci, we find Ichabod Crane noting how in his 1770s existence Native American tribal politics had been a pivotal influence on Thomas Jefferson. A throwaway cute line; to anyone who hasn’t read Schlesinger Jr’s book. If you have, you’re stunned that this is not meant as a joke or provocatively revisionist statement; it is simply stated as true when it is not.

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MacFarlane, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof were all born in 1973. This puts them in college at Brown, Wesleyan, UT Austin, and NYU Film School, respectively, during the height of the ‘Death to DWEMs’ tide that Schlesinger Jr was trying to turn back. I honestly think every time somebody sits down to write anything Western-related in Hollywood these days they get some epic pol.sci/film studies college flashback. As a result, in between apologising to Native Americans, rewriting the role of women in the West, inserting grim truths about the lawlessness and brutality of life then, demythologising Wayne and Ford’s back catalogue, and faithfully inserting and then attempting to subvert in the accepted revisionist mode every Western trope they were ever taught, they lose any sense of fun. Lindelof posited “a Western that had aliens as bad guys” as “the cooler movie”, and yet Cowboys & Aliens is entirely lacking any sense of being a cool adventure. It is, indeed, simply unthinkable that anybody could produce a Western right now that is exuberant fun; nobody would give you the finale of Rio Bravo. I think that may be a combination of film school prioritising, nay, canonising, serious Westerns like The Searchers and Red River over entertainments like El Dorado and Gunfight at the OK CorralRio Bravo isn’t a silly movie, but it is unabashed adventure played with great humour. But Lindelof’s description of embracing “the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies” suggests an inability to take the Western genre as it was, not as it ought to have been…

The complete failure of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t stop the even more epic failure of The Lone Ranger following it down the trail two years later. The savage darkness of The Lone Ranger was completely unsuitable for a Disney blockbuster supposedly aimed at kids, but it fitted perfectly the template of the Western produced by people Schlesinger couldn’t save. It’s admirable to insert a Sergio Leone tone into a Western romp for children, only if you also take that bloody-minded approach to your contemporary blockbusters and give us Transformers directed by Ken Loach as the working poor fighting against transforming robots who’re the highest form of capitalism. Really I think the idea of the Western as conceived by the children of 1973 is fundamentally incompatible with exuberance. In the 1970s radical directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill and Michael Cimino couldn’t wait to make a Western. But the revisionist Western wasn’t what audiences wanted. Nicholas Jarecki on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast recently made some interesting points about ‘genre exhaustion’, when an audience has seen every possible permutation arising out of a generic set-up. I don’t believe that’s what happened to the Western in the 1970s. I follow Stephen King in believing that George Lucas took the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the Western and simply, in a belated emulation of JFK’s call for a New Frontier, relocated it in space. And, as Spielberg’s Western framing at the end of The Last Crusade transparently indicates, crying for the death of the Western is like bemoaning the death of the dinosaurs while looking at flying birds: dinosaurs aren’t dead, they evolved.

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If the blockbuster is the repository of the spirit of exuberant fun that lights up Rio Bravo, what does that make the contemporary Western? Well, it’s tempting to twist Lindelof’s words and say merely the outward trappings of the genre, stripped of its soul. Since Heaven’s Gate we’ve had serious Westerns like Dances with WolvesOpen RangeWyatt EarpUnforgivenTombstoneThe Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford3:10 to Yuma, and Seraphim Falls. We’ve had comedy mash-up disasters like Wild Wild WestCowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. And we’ve had nothing like a Rio Bravo… It’s admirable to try and cinematically reinstate the reality of the shameful treatment of the Native Americans in the Old West. But this admirable endeavour may run up against a problem if it’s part of a wider refusal to accept the Western genre for what it was and to believe that it can simply be rewritten to make it what it ought to have been. Such a massive undertaking may be more than the genre can accommodate, in one important respect – it can make for a good film, a good Western, but not a fun film. A Million Ways is not a fun film, even though it’s meant to be a comedy. And I think it’s because MacFarlane tried to hit every base; Native Americans as allies, the brutality and lawlessness of the West, rewriting the role of women (with particular emphasis on the brothels), the exploitation of Chinese labour; because he is one of that generation that can’t see a Western without giving a lecture on its propagandising.

MacFarlane certainly won’t be getting A Million Ways 2 off the ground, and his fiasco has probably scuppered any competent Destry Rides Again for the 2010s that was out there. But, considering Lindelof’s tropes, surely Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino comes closer to the cool movie that Lindelof wanted than Cowboys & Aliens. It shouldn’t be impossible to combine the 1973 generation’s ideal Western with exuberant fun – maybe it just needs Clint back in the saddle…

January 28, 2014

2014: Fears

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 7:25 pm
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300: BATTLE OF ARTEMESIUM

Noah
Arriving in March is Darren Aronofsky’s soggy biblical epic starring Russell Crowe as Noah, and Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s dad, the oldest man imaginable Methuselah. Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Logan Lerman round out the family, and Ray Winstone is the beastly villain of the piece. Aronofsky doesn’t lack chutzpah, he passed off horror flick Black Swan as a psychological drama in which Natalie Portman did all her own dancing after all, but this will undoubtedly sink without trace in its own CGI flood because it apparently tackles head-on the troublesome references to the Sons of God while somehow making Noah an ecological warrior – which neatly alienates its target audience.

300: Rise of an Empire

The ‘sequel’ to 300 finally trundles into cinemas 7 years and about three name changes later. Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) urges the Greeks to unite in action against the invading army of Persian ruler Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), while Athenian Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads the Hellenic fleet against the Persian fleet (which we’re supposed to accept is) led by the Greek Artemisia (Eva Green). 300 is a fine film, if you regard it, following PG Wodehouse’s dictum, as a sort of musical comedy without the music. Zack Snyder took it deadly seriously… and has co-written this farrago of CGI, macho nonsense, Bush-era patriotic bombast, and deplorable history.

TRANSCENDENCE

The Raid 2: Berandal
March sees the return of super-cop Rama (Iko Uwais), as, picking up immediately after the events of the first film, he goes undercover in prison to befriend the convict son of a fearsome mob boss, in the hope of uncovering corruption in Jakarta’s police force. 2012’s The Raid was bafflingly over-praised (Gareth Evans’ script could’ve been for a film set in Detroit, and in the machete scene a villain clearly pulled a stroke to avoid disarming Rama), so this bloated sequel, running at nearly an hour longer than its predecessor, is a considerable worry. At least there’ll be some variety with subway fights, and car chases promised.

Transcendence
Nolan’s abrasive DP Wally Pfister makes the leap to the big chair in April with this sci-fi suspense thriller. Dr. Caster (Johnny Depp), a leading pioneer in the field of A.I., uploads himself into a computer upon an assassination attempt, soon gaining a thirst for omnipotence. Pfister has enlisted Nolan regulars Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy, as well as Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, and the inimitable Clifton Collins Jr, and Jack Paglen’s script was on the Black List; so why is this a fear? Well, remember when Spielberg’s DP tried to be a director? And when was the last time Depp’s acting was bearable and not a quirkfest?

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

May 2nd sees the return of the franchise we didn’t need rebooted… Aggravatingly Andrew Garfield as Spidey and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacey are far better actors than Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, but the material they were given felt inevitably over-familiar. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci wrote the sequel, and, after Star Trek ‘2’, their Sleepy Hollow riffs so much on Supernatural it casts doubt on their confidence in their own original ideas, which is a double whammy as far as over-familiarity goes. And there’s too many villains… Electro (Jamie Foxx), Rhino (Paul Giamatti), Harry Osborn/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), and Norman Osborn(/Green Goblin too?) (Chris Cooper).

Boyhood
Richard Linklater and Michael Winterbottom as transatlantic parallels gains ground as it transpires they’ve both been pulling the same trick over the last decade. Linklater in Boyhood tells the life of a child (Ellar Salmon) from age six to age 18, following his relationship with his parents (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette) before and after they divorce. Linklater has spent a few weeks every year since 2002 shooting portions of this film, so Salmon grows up and his parents lose their looks. Hawke has described it as “time-lapse photography of a human being”, but is it as good as Michael Chabon’s similar set of New Yorker stories following a boy’s adolescence?

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Edge of Tomorrow

Tastefully released on the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Tom Cruise plays a soldier, fighting in a world war against invading aliens, who finds himself caught in a time loop of his last day in the battle, though he becomes better skilled along the way. So far, so Groundhog Day meets Source Code. On the plus side it’s directed by Doug Liman (SwingersMr & Mrs Smith), who needs to redeem himself for 2008’s Jumper, and it co-stars Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton. On the minus side three different screenwriters are credited (including Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth), and, given how ‘development’ works, there’s probably as many more uncredited.

Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis return in July, oh joy, in 3-D, more joy, with a tale of a young woman (Mila Kunis) who discovers that she shares the same DNA as the Queen of the Universe, and goes on the run with a genetically engineered former soldier (Channing Tatum), oh, and he’s part wolf… The cast includes the unloveable Eddie Redmayne, but also the extremely loveable Tuppence Middleton and the always watchable Sean Bean, and, oddly, a cameo from Terry Gilliam, whose work is said to be an influence on the movie. Although with bits of Star Wars, Greek mythology, and apparently the comic-book Saga floating about, what isn’t an influence?

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

An unnecessary prequel to 2005’s horrid Sin City follows the story of Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) and his dangerous relationship with the seductive Ava Lord (Eva Green). Shot in 2012 but trapped in post-production hell the CGI-fest will finally be ready for August, we’re promised. Apparently this Frank Miller comic is bloodier than those utilised in the original, which seems barely possible, and original cast Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis and Jaime King return alongside newcomers Juno Temple and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But who cares? The original’s awesome trailer promised cartoon Chandler fun, and delivered gruesome, witless, sadistic, and misogynistic attempts at noir from Miller’s pen.

Guardians Of The Galaxy
Also in August, Marvel aim to prove that slapping their logo on anything really will sell tickets as many galaxies away Chris Pratt’s cocky pilot (in no way modelled on Han Solo) falls in with alien assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), warrior Drax The Destroyer (wrestler Dave Bautista), tree-creature Groot (Vin Diesel’s voice uttering one line), and badass rodent Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper’s voice), going on the run with a powerful object with half the universe on their tail. Writer/director James Gunn (SlitherSuper) has form, and reunites with Michael Rooker as well casting Karen Gillan as a villain, but this silly CGI madness sounds beyond even him.

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Far From the Madding Crowd
Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a wilful, flirtatious young woman unexpectedly inherits a large farm and becomes romantically involved with three widely divergent men: the rich landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), the exciting Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge), and the poor farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). John Schlesinger’s 1967 film of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel is a formidable predecessor. This version is from slightly morbid director Thomas Vinterberg (FestenThe Hunt), in his first period outing, and, worryingly, he co-scripted this with David Nicholls of One Day fame; whose own tendencies are not exactly of a sunny disposition. Can the promising young cast overcome Vinterberg’s most miserabilist tendencies?

The Man from UNCLE

Probably a Christmas blockbuster this reboot of the 1960s show teams CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB man Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) on a mission to infiltrate a mysterious criminal organization during the height of the cold war. Steven Soderbergh nearly made this with George Clooney from a Scott Z Burns script. Instead we get Guy Ritchie and his Sherlock Holmes scribe Lionel Wigram. Sigh. Hugh Grant plays Waverley, while the very talented female leads Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki will highlight the lack of suavity and comic timing of the male leads; particularly troublesome given the show was very dryly done tongue-in-cheek super-spy nonsense.

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Exodus

Another year, another Ridley Scott flick among my greatest cinematic fears… Thankfully Fassbender is not implicated in this disaster in waiting. Instead it is Christian Bale who steps into Charlton Heston’s sandals as the leader of the Israelites Moses in this Christmas blockbuster – don’t ask… Joel Edgerton is the Pharoah Rameses who will not let Moses’ people go, Aaron Paul is Joshua, and the ensemble includes Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Emun Elliott and John Turturro. But Tower Heist scribes Adam Cooper & Bill Collage are the chief writers, with Steve Zaillian rewriting for awards prestige, and Scott’s on an epic losing streak, so this looks well primed for CGI catastrophe…

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