Talking Movies

September 10, 2019

Made in the USA, for Export to China

I’ve been mooching around the notion of writing a piece about the impact of China on Hollywood for long enough, here are some speculative musings.

Bret Easton Ellis on his Podcast some years back observed that gay characters were being quietly pushed out of blockbusters, and places reserved for them in cheaper movies intended as domestic fare only, and generally they could rampage around television. I’ve noted that in passing in a review of Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and a piece on Independence Day: Resurgence. The latter was particularly telling because Roland Emmerich had penned Harvey Fierstein’s role in 1996’s Independence Day, which was exactly the kind of character Ellis had observed was disappearing. But while Emmerich made Brent Spiner’s character gay, the gay couple could still pretend to just be good friends, while Emmerich laughed up his sleeve at the Chinese censor not understanding that male friends do not call each other baby. Also laughing up their sleeve that summer were Simon Pegg and Justin Lin when they made Star Trek Beyond’s Sulu gay, but in a similarly nod and wink fashion.

But these nods and winks are necessary because the American studios live in terror of locking themselves out of the Chinese market. Transformers: Dark of the Moon made 69% of its money overseas, so Michael Bay is now purveying American bombast to a non-American audience; which is quite something. But that creates a weird feedback loop. People in America don’t go see Transformers: Age of Extinction, and they’re sublimely irritated by its very existence because they didn’t go see Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Then Transformers: The Last Knight rolls along, on the back of international revenue (especially Chinese revenue as Transformers: Age of Extinction pandered so extensively to the market), and they howl in anguish that Hollywood is making terrible films, and they go on strike from seeing anything at all… And so Hollywood continues to be immensely profitable, but possibly at the cost of alienating its home market, so that American cinema becomes an export-led industry.

After all, James Gray said on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast that the removal of the 40 million dollar film from the equation has removed Hollywood from the conversation around water-coolers; that’s now been taken over by TV shows like Game of Thrones. The habit of paying money on Saturday night to go sit in a theatre and watch Jimmy Stewart, as he put it, has been lost.

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

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 thirty-third portmanteau post on matters of course!

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

June 17, 2018

Notes on Jurassic World 2

Jurassic World 2, aka Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, certainly is the 800 pound gorilla at the moment. It was playing in the three biggest screens in Movies@Dundrum last night simultaneously. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s breakfast show with the inimitable Patrick Doyle early this morning.

JA Bayona directed 2008 chiller The Orphanage so he knows his way around suspense horror. There is free-floating camera-work that made me dizzy when we follow the shiny new dinosaur Indoraptor. It clambers over the roof and then hangs down over the side to look in a window, and the camera floats with it, behind it, above it, in front of it… There are some delirious moments where characters can’t see dinosaurs just behind them in the shadows, but we keep glimpsing them in flashes of lightning or rains of lava, and so are fully aware there’s a dinosaur sneaking up behind the oblivious characters. Having mentioned shadow though, and aware that Bayona actually used a lot of animatronics, there’s a bit too much CGI vagueness going on. Always be suspicious in a modern creature feature when you end up at night in the rain for your big finale. It’s like Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, they don’t want you to see the monster too well because they have no confidence their graphics are up to snuff.

There’s a lack of crispness about this sequel despite having the same writers, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. They’ve lifted very heavily from the structure of The Lost World. A cold open where people encounter dinosaurs on an island that they are not prepared for. Cut to an old British Person guilt-tripping someone into going to said island to rescue the dinosaurs or something. They meet dodgy mercenary types, and then all hell breaks loose. They bring some dinosaurs back to the mainland, and then all hell breaks loose. They even have Jeff Goldblum for 3 minutes for heaven’s sake because he was in The Lost World. Let us have Goldblum to the full! This is the sort of fear of originality that also bedevilled Star Trek into Darkness with its mirror photocopy routine on Wrath of Khan. Except here, unlike JJ Abrams going big, Bayona goes small, and the dinosaurs don’t run amok in San Diego, they just do it in a stately home. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Bad Times at the Hearst Mansion.

I like The Lost World but why so slavishly follow its exemplar when an even older flaw is apparent? Since Henry IV: Part 2 400 odd years ago sequels have seen characters that went on an arc, reconciled with each other, and looked forward to a happier future together, start the sequel back at each other’s throats, because the writers only knew how to send them on the same character arc, again. Owen and Claire begin the film reset to where they began the last one, and it’s maddening when put beside a wider sense of dissatisfaction. If you read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre at an impressionable age its theory of horror becomes part of your mental architecture: Apollonian order being disrupted by Dionysian chaos until eventually order is re-established. Is it therefore more dramatically satisfying to witness a functioning park descend into chaos like in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World than just have characters walk into existing chaos and get jump-scared constantly? It’s zombies running: it makes it too easy to scare the audience.

I didn’t get to chat about all of these points, but we did cover most of them. Tune into 103.2 FM to hear Patrick Doyle’s breakfast show every Sunday on Dublin City FM, and catch up with his excellent Classical Choice programme on Mixcloud now.

June 2, 2018

Jeff GoldBLUMSDAY

It’s back and bigger and better than last year’s debut celebration – Jeff GoldBLUMSDAY returns to the Lighthouse on June 16th.

Sure, some people will be dressing up in Edwardian boater hats and cycling around town pretending they’ve either actually read or read and liked James Joyce’s Ulysses. But some people will be dressing up in whatever feels right to celebrate the hesitations and mumblings of one cinema’s most famously uh-ing actors. Screen 3 is taken over the entire day to showcase the charisma of Goldblum from glorious cameos in blockbusters, to leading roles in dumb action and gory horror, and memorable supporting turns in rich drama and zany nonsense. Can anyone manage to see all 5 films? Someone will try…

(c)Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

The Big Chill

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1983 saw Goldblum and Harry Shearer as memorable comic support in The Right Stuff, but the breakthrough for Goldblum was a plum role in Lawrence Kasdan’s epochal drama. Seven friends from college reunite for a weekend at a South Carolina winter house to attend the funeral of their friend (Kevin Costner) who has killed himself. Kasdan’s opening use of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to introduce all the characters is taught to aspiring screenwriters, and the richly character driven examination of memory and nostalgia, and enduring friendship, clearly informed 2011’s Little White Lies.

Independence Day

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Roland Emmerich’s meisterwerk: a big dumb blockbuster capable of appealing to two different audiences for two entirely different reasons at the same time, because it is a work of uber-American patriotism, directed by a German. While people in Idaho punch the air, people in Ireland fall off their chairs laughing. Goldblum is the recycling, cycling, chess-playing computer whiz who alone possesses the skills to strike back against the all-conquering aliens. But it will take quips by Will Smith, an epic speech by Bill Pullman, and a dog escaping a wall of flame to pull off.

Thor: Ragnarok

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Thor and Loki come up against their long-lost sister Hela, and get their asses kicked. She takes over Asgard with literally contemptuous ease. And so Thor finds himself pitted against the Hulk in gladiatorial combat on a strange world presided over by an even stranger dictator: The Grandmaster. Is his character name a joking reference to Goldblum’s prowess at chess in Independence Day? Definitely not. But Goldblum is clearly enjoying himself as part of the parade of rambling, improvised tangents as Maori magician Taiki Waititi produces the funniest film Marvel Studios have ever permitted released.

The Fly

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Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis are one of the tallest screen couples ever in David Cronenberg’s 1986 horror re-make, which took Vincent Price’s 1950s original, removed the camp, and added plentiful gore and Cronenberg body horror. Goldblum starts to transform into a giant hybrid of man and fly after an unwise experiment with his new invention goes catastrophically wrong. It’s all very well to be optimistic and aspire to be the first insect politician, but it’s more likely that by the time you are a giant man-fly that you’ll just start melting people’s hands off.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

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What can one say about The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension except that it clearly falls within Hollywood Babylon’s Lighthouse remit of showing trashy films to drunk people. Peter Weller is Buckaroo, Goldblum is New Jersey, and John Lithgow is over the top as the villain. The cinematographer was replaced mid-shoot for making this not look cheap and campy enough. Think on that as you raise an eyebrow, the way Sheriff Lucian Connally raises his hat, at 1984’s most convincing brain surgeon and rock musician.

May 31, 2018

Re-appraisers of the Lost Archives

It has been an odd experience this past six weeks trawling through the pre-Talking Movies archives, finding reviews of films I haven’t seen or even thought about in a decade.

It’s startling that of the 17 films I’ve re-posted the now deleted Dublinks.com reviews to Talking Movies, I’ve only watched 2 of them again since the press screening. And one of them was 10,000 BC. Which was kind of research for my 2010 Dramsoc one-act play Roland Emmerich Movie, but mostly just to share its delirious nonsensicality with friends. A DVD extra that nearly killed us all revealed Erich von Daniken as an official consultant. Erich von Daniken, who a court-appointed psychologist decades ago concluded ‘a pathological liar’ whose book Chariots of the Gods was ‘a marvel of nonsense’, was telling Roland Emmerich what was what on science and history. The other film was a recent re-watch – again in the cinema! There Will Be Blood appealed to me more second time round, and on a battered 35mm print it seemed far older than its actual vintage, which perhaps added to its mood. But, while I found more nuance in Day-Lewis’ turn this time round, I still don’t think the film deserves nearly as much adulation it receives. The only thing I would change about my sceptical review is noting how Greenwood’s score echoes the frenzied 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony; which allegedly represents the demonic energy of Stalin – not a bad counterpoint when you realise Plainview is Capitalism made flesh. And 10,000 BC, likewise, I wouldn’t change a thing. I would now claim that, like the first Velvet Underground album, it was seen by few people, but everybody who did see it went on to write a trashy screenplay in Starbucks. Per my own words; “It’s less a film and more of an illustrated guide on how to write a really cheesy, dumb blockbuster. This is a very bad film indeed but it’s gloriously ludicrous. I haven’t enjoyed myself this much watching rubbish in quite some time”; I certainly set to screenwriting after it.

There are several reasons I haven’t re-watched 15 of these films. I saw so very many films for reviewing purposes in 2007 and 2008 that I had little desire to revisit any of them, indeed I had a strong desire to explore older, foreign films as an antidote to the industrial parade of clichés emanating from the Hollywood dream factory. I then took a break from cinema for most of 2009, to the displeasure of one, which left me hungry to discover as many new films as possible rather than obsessively re-watch familiar ones. It was the same spirit that simultaneously motivated me to read The Crack-Up, This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night in quick succession rather than simply continuing to re-read an almost memorised Gatsby. I then moved on to wanting to round out certain directorial oeuvres. This impulse reached its zenith in 2012 when I substantially completed Woody Allen and made decent progress on Welles and Malle. Life then got in the way of such plans. That’s the macro perspective, but on a micro level I would only have wanted to revisit Stop Loss, Street Kings, Son of Rambow, Juno, and maybe Be Kind Rewind. Keanu’s disappearance from multiplexes put Street Kings out of my mind, Stop Loss disappeared from public view after the cinema, Son of Rambow was charming but I remembered the jokes too well, Juno suffered my increasing disenchantment with Jason Reitman, and Be Kind Rewind I remembered as being just about good – and it should never be a priority to knowingly watch bad movies when you could watch good movies. Talking of which… 27 Dresses, The Accidental Husband, and Fool’s Gold are high in the rogue’s gallery of why I hate rom-coms, Meet the Spartans is only of interest (and barely at that) as a time-capsule of internet memes c.2007, Sweeney Todd and The Cottage were unpleasant agonies to watch even once, Shine A Light verily bored me into a condition of coma, and Speed Racer, Jumper, and The Edge of Love were hard slogs by dint of dullness. Who would willingly re-watch any of them?

May 5, 2018

From the Archives: 10,000 BC

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals what is stunningly the only Roland Emmerich movie I have ever reviewed, despite writing and co-directing a play called Roland Emmerich Movie.

One leaves the cinema at the end of 10,000 BC confident that a truly probing film-maker has left no cliché unused, no platitude un-uttered and no trace of logic intact. Roland Emmerich is the Jedi master of the cheesy blockbuster with this film being almost a summation of his entire career. Universal Soldier, Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot, and The Day After Tomorrow are here all rolled into one bombastic CGI-wrapped bundle. Emmerich has made a nonsense of cybernetics, Egyptology, patriotism, crypto-biology, patriotism again, and climatology and has now decided to add pre-history, geography and Egyptology (again) to the list of disciplines whose experts he has driven demented.

D’Leh (Steven Strait), a hunter of mammoths, is in love with Evolet (Camilla Belle) a girl with blue eyes (remember that, it’ll turn out to be important later on) but constantly broods over his father’s desertion of the tribe years earlier. When Evolet, who has perfect teeth but Groucho Marx eyebrows, is kidnapped along with half the tribe by vicious slave traders he sets out to find her guided by his mentor Tic-Tic (Cliff Curtis). Hilariously despite living in snowy mountains the entire tribe is obviously Aboriginal or Maori, except the Caucasian romantic leads. 2 days trek leads them from a mountain top to a jungle (go figure) where they encounter giant carnivorous ostriches. Introduced blatantly in the style of one of Spielberg’s velociraptor sequences Emmerich eventually pulls back the camera and has to admit they’re not actually dinosaurs, they’re giant birds, after all having dinosaurs co-exist alongside humans would be silly….

A few more days trek leads our heroes to the plains of Africa and the Masai Mara, two more days and they’re in Egypt (presumably why Omar Shariff is narrating) and pyramids are being built a mere 7,000 years before their actual construction. Our heroes have wandered into a PG-13 version of Apocalypto and encounter some effete Egyptians, which always signifies e-vil in an Emmerich film. Guess what? There are prophecies involving celestial constellations and The One (I’m not making this up), and a Spartacus style slave revolt with bad CGI mammoths. All of which should be enough to make your floating ribs part from their moorings under the strain of trying not to laugh or urge characters to check someone is really dead before turning their back on them.

Roland Emmerich doesn’t do subtle. Billy Wilder held that a film worked better if its plot points were not immediately obvious. Roland Emmerich likes to announce his plot points with a trumpet fanfare in the soundtrack. It’s less a film and more of an illustrated guide on how to write a really cheesy, dumb blockbuster. This is a very bad film indeed but it’s gloriously ludicrous. I haven’t enjoyed myself this much watching rubbish in quite some time.

2/5

June 27, 2016

5 Dispatches from Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day has been all over our TV screens, and the sequel, while entertaining enough, is never going to trouble it in popular esteem or take pride of patriotic bombast place in Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre. Here are observations on it.

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1. Hansoloitis

“It doesn’t need matter that you come back, just how you come back” proclaimed Longmire’s gruff season 4 tag-line; and Independence Day: Resurgence bungles beloved characters as badly as The Force Awakens. It’s always great to see Judd Hirsch, but that doesn’t mean he can literally just drive around in a parallel universe to the forward drive of the plot without seeming superfluous. Vivica A Fox’s return is on every level as baffling as Bill Pullman being given a kind of rousing speech to kind of deliver to Jeff Goldblum with kind of the intention of being overheard by pilots, but only kind of, to the point where even the orchestra string section doesn’t know whether to swell or not. And then there’s the great dilemma: is it okay to kill fan favourites just to ‘raise the stakes’?

2. Turn on the bright lights

If The Bling Ring is the most over-lit film of our times, I have rarely wanted to scream ‘Turn on a bloody light!’ as much as for Independence Day: Resurgence. Markus Forderer aggressively discards the lighting schema established in 1996 by Karl Walter Lindelaub. This is possibly Emmerich’s murkiest film since Ueli Steiger hid Godzilla in night, rain, and shadow, and for no very clear reason. It hides scale in the African scenes, muddies action within the alien mothership, and gives the impression that commands are issuing from a bunker with a half-capacity generator.

3. Practical Magic

It is startling to see the practical VFX in the original Independence Day. Aliens that are CGI creations in Independence Day: Resurgence are costumes and puppets in the original. It’s odd to think that Independence Day by dint of being released in 1996 still had regard for tangible reality in blockbuster visuals; models of the White House et al blowing up mingled with real people and cars being yanked about on wires. And now, no, now we mostly get the same ‘awe-inspiring’ CGI as X-Men: Apocalypse. It is of course probably impossible to depict a city being ripped into the air by the gravity of a passing spaceship using models. But even trying and failing to get it all would sure have more impact than watching actors do their ‘amazed at the storyboard for the shot’ expression.

4. ‘Baby’

Bret Easton Ellis lamented that the growing importance of Chinese cinema audiences was leading to a quiet purging of gay characters from blockbusters. He feared supporting characters, like Harvey Fierstein in Independence Day, would be edited out by notes with an eye on the Chinese market, and gay characters, while happily surfing the zeitgeist in television, would disappear from American blockbusters. But Roland Emmerich, while pushing Chinese products and heroic Chinese characters, also reveals that Brent Spiner and John Storey’ Drs Okun and Isaacs are a gay couple. Almost entirely via body language and the word ‘baby’, as if chuckling that he might hoodwink the Chinese censor by insisting they’re just work colleagues, the censor has imagined something that’s not there in translation.

5. Funny haha

Aside from the unintentional hilarity, pointed out to me by John Healy, of cold fusion weapons, this isn’t very funny. Goldblum’s nods to Emmerich trademarks lack pizzaz, and new characters make little impression without memorable zingers. Emmerich co-wrote with trusted collaborators Dean Devlin and James Vanderbilt, and James A. Woods and Nicolas Wright (who starred in White House Down, in which everything paid off). How did writers so attuned to blockbuster structure under-nourish humour and over-complicate plot?

January 20, 2016

2016: Hopes

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Midnight Special

Mud writer/director Jeff Nichols makes his studio debut on April 15th with this tale he places roughly in the territory of John Carpenter’s Starman and De Palma’s The Fury. Nichols regular Michael Shannon plays a father forced to go on the run with his son after discovering the kid has special powers, and the FBI is interested in them… Sam Shepard also recurs, as does cinematographer Adam Stone, while Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, and Joel Edgerton join the Nichols stable. It’s hard to imagine a genre tale from Nichols, but perhaps an unusually heart-felt Stephen King captures it.

Everybody Wants Some

April 15th sees Richard Linklater release a ‘spiritual sequel’ to both Dazed and Confused and Boyhood. Little is known for sure about Everybody Wants Some, other than it’s a comedy-drama about college baseball players during the 1980s, that follows a boy entering college, meeting a girl, and a new band of male friends. The cast features Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, and Zoey Deutch, so in retrospect may be as star-studded as his 1993 exploration of the end of high school. Hopefully it’s as archetypal and poignant as that as regards the college experience.

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Love & Friendship

On April 27th almost exactly four years since Damsels in Distress the urbane Whit Stillman returns with another tale of female friendship, with a little help in the scripting department from Jane Austen. His Last Days of Disco stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny reunite for this adaptation of Austen’s ‘Lady Susan’ novella shot in Ireland. Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, and Xavier Samuel are the supporting players as Beckinsale tries to marry off her daughter (Morfydd Clark) but the real attraction is Stillman, poet of dry wit and elite social rituals, adapting an author with similar preoccupations.

The Nice Guys

Shane Black’s third directorial effort, out on May 20th, sees him back on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang territory. Get ready for Ryan Gosling to Bogart his way thru the seedy side of the City of Angels as Holland March, PI. March partners up with a rookie cop (Matt Bomer) to investigate the apparent suicide of a porn star. But standing in his way is an LA Confidential reunion: Kim Basinger as femme fatale, Russell Crowe as Det. Jackson Healy. It’s hard not to be excited at the prospect of terrific dialogue carrying some hysterically self-aware genre deconstruction.

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Queen of Earth

We can expect writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s latest movie to hit Irish cinemas sometime in June. Listen Up Philip star Elisabeth Moss takes centre-stage here alongside Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston as two old friends who retreat to a lake house only to discover that they have grown very far apart with the passage of time. Keegan DeWitt scores his second movie for ARP not with jazz but a dissonance appropriate to the unusual close-ups, that have invited comparison with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, as a spiky Waterston hurts an emotionally wounded Moss in all the old familiar places.

Independence Day: Resurgence

Roland Emmerich, the maestro of bombastic action that is actually mocking its audience, returns on June 24th (for some reason) with a belated sequel in which the aliens come back. Jeff Goldblum has led a 20 year scramble to harness alien tech to strengthen earth’s defences but will those efforts (and Liam Hemsworth’s mad piloting skills) be enough against an even more imposing armada? Sela Ward is the POTUS, Bill Pullman’s POTUS has grown a beard, his daughter has morphed from Mae Whitman into Maika Monroe, and the indefatigable Judd Hirsch returns to snark about these changes.

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La La Land

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling team up again on July 15th for an original musical from Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle. Gosling is a jazz musician in LA who falls in love with Stone’s aspiring actress, and that’s all you need for plot. Stone did an acclaimed turn as Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway, but whether Gosling or JK Simmons (!!) can hold a tune is unknown. The real question is will it be half-embarrassed to be a musical (Chicago), attempt unwise grittiness (New York, New York), or be as mental as aMoulin Rouge! with original songs?

Suicide Squad

And on August 5th we finally get to see what Fury auteur David Ayer has done with Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery. The latest trailer has amped up the nonsense quotient considerably, and this now looks like The Dirty Dozen scripted by Grant Morrison. Joel Kinnaman’s long-suffering Rick Flagg has to lead into combat the assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), angry mercenary Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), half-man half-crocodile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the psycho in psychotherapy, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). All eyes are on Robbie’s take on Harley, well until Jared Leto’s Mistah J turns up…

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Sausage Party

August 12th sees the release of probably the most ridiculous film you will see all year, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have scripted an adult animation about a sausage in a grocery store on a quest to discover the truth of his existence. Apart from Jay Baruchel, all the voices you’d expect are present and correct: James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, David Krumholtz, as well as Kristen Wiig, Edward Norton, and Salma Hayek. But given how Green Hornet failed can R-rated semi-improvised comedy and animation go hand in hand?

War on Everyone

The Guard in New Mexico! Okay, maybe not quite, but in that wheelhouse. In late August John Michael McDonagh makes his American bow with a blackly comic thriller about two renegade cops (Alexander Skarsgaard and Michael Pena) who have devoted themselves to blackmailing and framing every criminal who crosses their path. And then they come across that somebody they shouldn’t have messed with… McDonagh’s two previous outings as writer/director have been very distinctive, visually, philosophically, and verbally, but you wonder if he’ll have to endlessly self-censor his take no prisoners comedy for ‘liberal’ American sensibilities. Hopefully not.

American actor Matt Damon attends a press conference for his new movie "The Great Wall" in Beijing, China on July 2, 2015. Pictured: Matt Damon Ref: SPL1069228 020715 Picture by: Imaginechina / Splash News Splash News and Pictures Los Angeles:310-821-2666 New York:212-619-2666 London:870-934-2666 photodesk@splashnews.com

The Girl on the Train

Following Gone Girl another book of the moment thriller gets rapidly filmed on October 7th when Emily Blunt becomes the titular voyeur. From her commuter train seat she witnesses the interactions of perfect couple Haley Bennett and Luke Evans as she slows down at a station on the way to London. Then one day she sees something she shouldn’t have, and decides to investigate… The impressive supporting cast includes Rebecca Ferguson, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, and Justin Theroux, but it’s not clear if Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson has relocated the action to New York.

The Great Wall

November 23rd sees Chinese director Zhang Yimou embrace Hollywood, with an English-language story about the construction of the Great Wall of China scripted by Max Brooks and Tony Gilroy. Zhang has assembled an impressive international cast including Matt Damon, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe, Jing Tian, Zhang Hanyu, and Mackenzie Foy for this sci-fi fantasy of the Wall’s completion. Little is known about the actual plot, but Zhang’s recent movies about the Cultural Revolution have been a drastic change of pace from the highly stylised colourful martial arts epics of Imperial China he’s known for in the West.

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The Founder

Michael Keaton cements his leading man comeback on November 25th with a blackly comic biopic of Ray Kroc. Who is Ray Kroc you ask? The Founder of … McDonald’s. Yes the McDonald brothers did own a hamburger store, but it wasn’t them that expanded into a national and then global, brand. That was all Kroc, who bought them out, and then forgot to pay them royalties; one of several incidents of what people might call either unethical behaviour or recurrent amnesia. Supporting players include Nick Offerman, Laura Dern, and Patrick Wilson, so this tale might be quite tasty.

Story of Your Life

Denis Villeneuve gears up for directing Blade Runner 2 with an original sci-fi movie that should arrive late in 2016. A first contact story, adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story, it follows Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics expert recruited by the U.S. military. Her job is to decipher an alien race’s communications, but her close encounter with ET causes vivid flashbacks to events from her life. Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg are physicists and spooks trying to figure out what her unnerving experiences mean for rest of the humanity.

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Passengers

Stomping on Rogue One with a December 21st release date is the dream team of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Poor Keanu Reeves spent years trying to make this sci-fi rom-com happen but as soon as these two expressed interest Jon Spaihts’ long-circling script got permission to land. Pratt wakes from cryo-sleep 90 years too early, so wakes up another passenger to relieve his loneliness on the somnambulant spaceship. Michael Sheen is a robot, but the potential for delight is offset by worthy director Morten Tyldum and the high probability of the contrivance of every other rom-com being used.

Assassin’s Creed

‘One for the studio, One for ourselves’. As it were. December 21st sees the acclaimed Macbeth trio of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and director Justin Kurzel reunite for a blockbuster based on the all-conquering game. Ubisoft Motion Pictures (yes, that’s really a thing now) and New Regency have opted not to adapt the story of Desmond Miles, or Ezio Auditore; perhaps in case this bombs. Fassbender plays original character Callum Lynch who can commune with his ancestor Aguilar, also played by Fassbender; presumably with a devilish grin as he battles the Spanish Inquisition. Fingers crossed that this works.

August 13, 2014

The Expendables 3

Sylvester Stallone and his band of arthritic action heroes return for a surprisingly decent third instalment in this underwhelming franchise.

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Barney Ross (Stallone) and his mercenary crew; Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews; use a helicopter to rescue long-imprisoned Expendable Doc (Wesley Snipes) from a prison train. Their CIA contact Drummer (Harrison Ford) then dispatches the team to Somalia to capture an arms-dealer, but faulty intelligence fails to identify the target as another former Expendable: the extremely dangerous Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). A broken Stallone recruits a new, much younger team – a tech specialist; Thorn (Glen Powell); some muscle; Mars (Victor Ortiz), Luna (Ronda Rousey); and a tactician Smilee (Kellan Lutz). They go up against Stonebanks in Eastern Europe with a foolproof plan. And then a shattered Stallone recruits demented Spaniard Galgo (Antonio Banderas) for another go round at Stonebanks… At this rate he may well need Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Yin (Jet Li) to selflessly help him out.

The Expendables franchise isn’t nearly as funny and knowing as it thinks it is. Its idea of meta-comedy is for actors to make obvious references to their lives and quote past roles without any jokes attached. Indeed its funniest meta-moments are unintentional, the obvious cutaways and wide-angles disguising creaking bones in fight scenes. As a PG-13 movie the CGI blood that bedevilled the last movie is mercifully absent, but instead we have the hilarity of people not being bisected by a steel wire on a fast-moving train in the opening sequence; whose cartoonish climax flags a problem for the whole film – outrageously bad CGI. If, per Nolan and Pfister, cinema is about capturing live-action on film, it makes no sense at all for an action film to stage an elaborate live-action build-up only for the pay-off to be a screensaver.

The outsize cast barely fits on the poster, so predictably most make no impression whatsoever; except MMA fighter Ronda Rousey whose face registers amusement or annoyance – and nothing else… Stallone’s screenplay has been worked over by Olympus Has Fallen scribes Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, but they only manage to make Banderas a live-action Puss in Boots while failing to deliver any good quips. Kelsey Grammer as a fixer gives the impression of ad-libbing the funniest moments of his ‘putting the heist together’ scenes, as does Gibson whose charisma veritably leaps off the screen in this company. There is a quantum leap in directorial competence as Patrick Hughes (the brutal and atmospheric Red Hill) showily stages the extraction at an art gallery with some panache, but even he can’t save the over-extended warzone finale and its ludicrously motivated boss fight.

The Expendables 3 isn’t a genuinely good movie, but as the best instalment so far it legitimately makes this question seriously tantalising – what could this franchise be with Robert Rodriguez or Roland Emmerich onboard?

2.5/5

February 27, 2014

Mugged by Gravity

I’ve watched with increasing bewilderment and growing horror as Gravity has started to outshine 12 Years a Slave at the endless bacchanalias of awards season.

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I saw Gravity in 3-D, you see, and I didn’t want to see Gravity at all… I regard Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter instalment as the most soulful of the trilogy, but I find it hard to think of Children of Men as anything other than a film concerned with its own shooting style above all else. Gravity, as a ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’, seemed bound to ramp up that element of his work to the obliteration of emotional depth. But I knew that if I skipped Gravity in cinemas, and then said it wasn’t very good, after watching it on a 2-D small screen, I’d be hopped on by a certain type of critic for not having seen it in 3-D, and therefore not being entitled to deliver any valid judgement on it. If you were told there was a great play on in the West End, and you said you’d catch it when it came to the Grand Canal Theatre, only to be told that no, it wouldn’t be great then, you had to see it in the original West End production to get its true greatness – you’d have to reply that it couldn’t be a great play then, merely a great originating cast perhaps, but not something that you should get excited about as a play on a historical level of epic greatness. And yet, isn’t that exactly what the reception of Gravity is all about? If you don’t see it in cinemas, you miss the ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’. But realistically most people, over the course of Gravity’s lifetime of being seen, will not see it as it was intended to be seen – for an exorbitant ticket price in a cinema. And if it doesn’t stand up outside of that original format, then it doesn’t stand up at all.

And it doesn’t stand up… I am mystified by the critical valorisation of what is a profoundly empty FX film. It’s as if a portion of Sunshine were taken by itself and blown into a full movie, but with poorer actors – Sandra Bullock is not the world’s most expressive actress if you’re casting for a one-woman show. Her presence highlights that Gravity, despite the critical cachet of its director, is really not that far removed from Roland Emmerich’s most cornball moments. Bullock with luck that would break Vegas survives two catastrophic space disasters, self-generates an improbable House epiphany, and manages to cling to a vessel as it begins re-entry, after she, without any ill effects, opened the door to the space station with an explosive rush that should have either catapulted her into space or broken her wrist. And the script is not salvaged by its visualisation: the sequence inside the space station possess a ghastly unreality as everything around Bullock looks CGI, while the 3-D only truly impresses when it cheats – Cuaron throws splintering pieces of space station at the camera and all over the world audiences jump, because those splinters literally appear from nowhere instead of arriving from an observable flight-path. And needless to say Gravity does not, as has been claimed, replicate in its direction a camera free-floating in space. The camera always artfully ends up at just the right place to observe big moments, rather than weightlessly freewheeling through another badly timed glimpse of the cosmos.

Children of Men had a large degree of practical difficulty in its trademark long-takes of action sequences, even with the helpful aid of CGI compositing of separate shots together. But the idea that Gravity deserves laudatory and exceptional praise for its camerawork, and its 13 minute unbroken opening shot in particular, is nothing other than praise for a veritable vestigial limb of critical reactions to film-making. What exactly are we meant to be praising? Long takes were a hallmark of greatness because they were practically difficult to pull off and therefore a sign of audacity, ambition, and tremendous determination by directors like Welles, Hitchcock, and Godard who achieved them. Spielberg pulled off a wildly OTT action sequence in Tintin, in one long take, but even as you watched it, nodding your head at its ‘ingenuity’, you realised its meaninglessness – there was no difficulty to be overcome: an animated character was not about to forget his lines, neither was an animated background about to suffer an annoying change of lighting from a passing cloud. Cuaron can spend all day shooting the same long-take green-screen sequence without ever reloading film, why should he be given a medal for doing what’s now easy?

I’m annoyed by Gravity, because I feel I was mugged for my money, purely to have the sort of empty experience I feared it would be – but empty in 3-D.

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