Talking Movies

January 27, 2019

Notes on Vice

Postmodern Dick Cheney biopic Vice was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Vice, perhaps fittingly, stands in relation to writer/director Adam McKay’s The Big Short as George Bush Jr stands in relation to Jeb Bush; not nearly as competent but more likely to be showered with unearned prizes. The Big Short was sprawling, but, despite following three storylines; Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling, Finn Wittrock and Brad Pitt, and Christian Bale; was surprisingly focused in explaining the housing bubble and credit crunch they were all betting on. You would think that following just one character, Dick Cheney, would make for a tighter movie. And you would be wrong. This is a ramshackle mess; exemplified by its opening in 1963, purposelessly jumping forward to 9/11, and then back to 1963 again, followed by opening credits that feel like they belong in an early 1970s crime movie, about 15 minutes in.  There’s another two hours to go after that conceit and McKay has here achieved the unenviable and baffling feat of making a film that is both far too long yet also doesn’t go into enough detail on anything.

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January 31, 2018

Top Performances of 2017

 

 

 

Top Performances of 2016


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.

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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

January 20, 2016

2016: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 3:38 pm
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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.

February 3, 2015

2015: Fears

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 11:20 pm
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Jupiter Ascending

The Wachowskis return, 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 unloveable Eddie Redmayne is the villain, but the extremely loveable Tuppence Middleton is also in the cast, and, oddly, there’s a cameo from Terry Gilliam, whose work is said to be an influence on the movie. Alongside Star Wars, Greek mythology, and the comic-book Saga it seems…

 

Fifty Shades of Grey

Jamie Dornan is Christian Grey, Dakota Johnson is Bella Swan Anastasia Steele, Universal are terrible gamblers. Take one novel: which is 100pp of hilariously obvious Twilight homage leading to pornography for hundreds more and an unsatisfactory ending; a sensation because of the ability to secretly read it. Now hire art-house director Sam Taylor-Johnson to make an R-rated film focused on the romance, after 5 Twilight movies of said romance shtick; and force people to say out loud what film they’re seeing, or at least be seen going to it. Sit back, and watch this gamble fail.

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Blackhat

Michael Mann returns with his first film since 2009’s uninspired Public Enemies. Chris Hemsworth, now officially a god in Iceland again, plays a hacker who gets a free pass from jail to help Viola Davis’ FBI agent liaise with her Chinese counterpart (pop star Wang Leehom) following a devastating cyber-attack in China which led to a nuclear incident. Hemsworth is distracted in his mission by Lust, Caution’s Chen Lien, and, if you’ve read the vituperative reviews, an appalling script. Mann’s been on a losing streak for a while, and his hi-def video camera infatuation only doubles down on that.

 

In the Heart of the Sea

March sees director Ron Howard take on Moby Dick. Or rather, tell the true story that inspired Moby Dick, rather than try and out-do John Huston. Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson are among the hapless crew of the whaling ship Essex out of New England that runs afoul of a curiously vindictive sperm whale in 1820. Martin Sheen starred in a rather good BBC version of this disaster its grisly aftermath at Christmas 2013. Who knows if Howard will match that, but he’ll definitely throw more CGI at the screen.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron

Joss Whedon takes off the Zak Penn training wheels and scripts this sequel to 2012’s hit solo. James Spader voices the titular evil AI, unleashed by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man when fiddling about in Samuel L Jackson’s Pandora’s Box of Shield secrets. The great Elizabeth Olsen is Scarlet Witch, and Aaron Johnson is Quicksilver, but I find it hard to work up any enthusiasm for another ticked box on the Marvel business plan. Why? CGI and Marvel empire-building fatigue, a lack of interest in most of the characters, and great weariness with Whedon’s predictable subversion.

 

Lost River

What is the difference between a homage and le rip-off? The French should know and they loudly booed Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut as little more than Nicolas Winding Refn and David Lynch meeting up for a whimsical night out. Gosling also wrote this tale of a boy who finds a town under the sea down a river, and has to be rescued by his mother. Matt Smith, Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Eva Mendes, and Ben Mendelsohn are the actors roped in by Gosling to flesh out his magical realist vision of a hidden beauty lurking underneath decrepit Detroit.

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

 

Tomorrowland

Well this is a curio… Brad Bird directs George Clooney and Secret Circle star Britt Robertson in a script he co-wrote with Damon LOST Lindelof about a genius inventor and a parallel universe, or something. Nobody really seems to know what it’s about. But then given Lindelof’s resume even after we’ve watched it we probably won’t know what it’s about. Bird proved extremely capable with live-action in Mission: Impossible 4, but explicitly viewed the talky scenes as mere connective tissue between well-executed set-pieces; pairing him with ‘all questions, no answers’ man seems like a recipe for more puzzled head-scratching.

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Ant-Man

Ant-Man was in 2015: Hopes until director and co-writer Edgar Wright walked because Marvel shafted him after years of development. I was highly interested in seeing Paul Rudd’s burglar become a miniature super-hero who’s simpatico with ants after encountering mad scientist Michael Douglas and his hot daughter Evangeline Lilly; when it was from the madman who made Scott Pilgrim Vs the World. When this deservedly nonsensical take on a preposterous property is being helmed by Peyton Reed; whose only four features are Bring It On, Down With Love, The Break-Up, and Yes Man; my interest levels drop to zero.

 

Terminator: Genisys

Quietly brushing 2009’s Terminator: Salvation into the dustbin of history in July is this script by Laeta Kalogridis (Pathfinder, Night Watch) and Patrick Lussier (Drive Angry). Game of Thrones’ Alan Taylor directs, which presumably explains Emilia Clarke’s baffling casting as Jason Clarke’s mother. That’s going to take some quality Sarah Connor/John Connor timeline shuffling. And this is all about timelines. Arnie returns! Byung-Hun Lee is a T-1000! Courtney B Vance is Miles Dyson! YAY!!!!! Jai Courtney is Kyle Reese … BOOOOOO!!!!!!! Did we learn nothing from McG’s fiasco? We do not need another muscle-bound actor with zip charisma.

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Fantastic Four

August sees Josh Trank shoulder the unenviable task of rebooting the Fantastic Four after two amiable but forgettable movies. Trank impressed mightily with the disturbing found-footage super-yarn Chronicle, and scripted this effort with X-scribe Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect). The cast is interesting; Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Kate Mara as Sue Storm, Michael B Jordan as Johnny Storm, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, and Toby Kebbel as Dr Doom; but this has had a troubled production, and carries an albatross around its neck as it must bore us senseless with another bloody origin story.

 

The Man from UNCLE

August sees 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 Sherlock Holmes scribe Lionel Wigram. Sigh. Hugh Grant plays Waverley, while the very talented female leads Alicia (Omnipresent) Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki will highlight the lack of suavity and comic timing of the male leads; particularly troublesome given the show was dry tongue-in-cheek super-spy nonsense.

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Black Mass

Poor old Johnny Depp is having something of an existential crisis at the moment. People moan and complain when he does his quirky thing (Mortdecai). But when he doesn’t do his quirky thing people moan and complain that he’s dull (Transcendence). September sees him team up with Benedict Cumberbatch and Joel Edgerton for Scott Cooper’s 1980s period thriller about the FBI’s real-life alliance with Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger, exploring how  the bureau’s original good intention of running an informant was derailed by Bulger’s clever connivance, ending up as a sort of state-sanctioned take-over of the criminal underworld.

 

The Martian

Ridley Scott just can’t stop making movies lately, but he’s having a considerably harder time making good movies. November sees the release of The Martian starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars after being presumed dead in a ferocious storm. The supporting cast includes Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Sebastian Shaw, Kate Mara, and the regrettably inevitable Jessica Chastain. Damon must try to send an SOS forcing NASA to figure out how on earth to go back and rescue him. Drew Goddard wrote the script. There’s the reason this might work.

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The Hateful Eight

November sees the return of Quentin Tarantino. The writer/director who never grew up follows his rambling gore-fest Django Unchained with another Western. But this one is shot in Ultra Panavision 70, despite being set indoors, and has more existential aspirations. Yeah… Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, and Zoe Bell return to the fold for this tale of bounty hunters holed up during a blizzard, while newcomers to Quentinland include Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Nobody’s told Tarantino to stop indulging himself in years so expect endless speechifying and outrageous violence.

June 27, 2012

Killer Joe

1970s legend William Friedkin teams up with controversial Tony-winning playwright Tracy Letts for a disturbing slice of what might be usefully dubbed Kentucky Fried Noir.

Small-time drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in debt after his estranged mother plunders his cocaine stash. He suggests to his father Anselm (Thomas Haden Church) that they murder her for the insurance money which will be paid to Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple), a plan supported by his father’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). Bent Dallas cop Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) doubles as a hit-man, but with no money for a deposit he agrees to an unusual retainer – Dottie. But as Joe and Dottie grow close the murderous insurance scam unravels nastily and unpredictably…

It’s no exaggeration to dub this McConaughey’s Drive. From the exaggerated sound of his clicking lighter (not unlike Ryan Goslin’s creaking driving gloves), to his toothpick, to his insistence on rules and calm demeanour while making and executing threats of extreme violence, to his growing attachment to a girl softening his cold exterior, to the superhero outfit (here a fetishised hat, gun and badge), Joe has eerie similarities to Driver and McConaughey gives a revelatory performance. Friedkin may borrow from Refn’s bag of tricks but this is not equally virtuoso film-making. If you’ve read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls you won’t lament Friedkin’s precipitous decline after The French Connection and The Exorcist. His episodes of CSI: LV have probably been viewed by more people than most of his movies since 1973, with the possible exception of the tedious Rules of Engagement.

Killer Joe is all over the shop tonally. There is a piece of visual comedy involving a suit which is hilarious, which, like Joe replying “I like Digger” to the question why he doesn’t arrest the gangster Digger, and Chris being beaten up by Digger’s goons who then inform him “He really likes you”, belongs in another film. You don’t care for a second what happens to Hirsch which makes you realise how Joe’s query of Anselm; “Were you aware of this?” “I’m never aware”; exemplifies the unnerving stupidity of the characters. Friedkin also does for unnecessary female nudity here what he did for unnecessary male nudity in To Live and Die in LA. Temple bares all several times for no very clear reason, and Gershon flashes repeatedly, but the fact that Dottie is clearly not the full shilling makes a scene where Joe makes her strip naked incredibly disturbing. And that’s before we get to the unbelievable use of a “K fry C” chicken wing as part of the intensely theatrical climax in which persistent interrogation cuts thru lies – a bravura sequence that almost redeems previous queasy scenes.

This is a tough watch, and it’s debatable whether it’s really worth the struggle, but McConaughey’s performance erases all his disastrous rom-coms. He’s that good.

2/5

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part II

Drive has inspired this provisional attempt at asking what different types of movie violence exist, how they can be categorised, and what meanings each might have.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” – Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s defence of the Aesthetes is never far behind any justification of excessive violence in cinema. As a defence it has only one drawback, it’s not remotely true. Art can be deeply immoral. I direct you to Triumph of the Will. Quite often film historians will rave about the innovation or dazzling techniques employed by its director Leni Riefenstahl, and then snap back into their conscious minds, realise just how far down a  particularly crooked garden path they’ve gone, and hastily backtrack with a “BUT of course it’s a terribly evil film….” Films do not exist in a vacuum. They’re part of our lived experience, and if we have any sense of right and wrong surely films are implicated in it in more than a three-act Hollywood good defeats evil structural sense.

I reviewed Paranoid Park for InDublin and was appalled at the bisection of an innocent security guard by its unlikeable hero that was the pivot of the film. But I was stunned to see one American critic summon the courage to dub that moment deeply immoral. We’ve been inured to think about screen violence only in terms of effect, technique, structure, but there are different types of violence and morality cannot always be parked at the door as Wilde would wish. A man getting his head stomped on by Ryan Gosling till bone-dust floats in front of the lens inhabits a different universe than a lengthy sword-fight between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn ending with Rathbone’s death. Cinematic violence can be divided into a number of types, and the most obvious type is spectacle. A swordfight is violent, a cowboy duel is violent, a shoot-out is violent, a suspenseful Spielberg action sequence is violent, the lobby scene in The Matrix is violent – but it is the violence of spectacle. Hugh Jackman said that his musical theatre training was helpful in preparing for boxing in Real Steel because fight choreography is just choreography. When action is spectacle, what you’re really watching and enjoying is the choreography.

“Art is art because it is not nature” – Oscar Wilde

Can violence that is not seeking to appeal to the audience’s admiration for good choreography ever truly be aesthetic? Drive depicts a woman’s head exploding from a shotgun blast in anatomically accurate detail. Scorsese realistically depicts the explosion of a body dropped from a roof when it hits the ground, spraying Leonardo DiCaprio with blood, in The Departed. Why do film-makers engaged in depicting violence which is not spectacle usually go for such extreme verisimilitude? For every Kill Bill touch of blood spurting 30 feet there’s multiple instances of something like a gangster being bashed in the head by a shovel in Miller’s Crossing or a gangster being bashed in the head by a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Wilde’s dictum, if taken seriously, implies that 1950s cowboys keeling over dead without any blood being spilled after being shot is more artistic than R rated violence, because it is so obviously not nature but rather an artistic convention. Spielberg at least acknowledged that he was going for extreme authenticity in Saving Private Ryan to traumatise the audience rather than for his usual purpose of using violence – scaring/entertaining them, we’ll label all such uses of violence as catharsis to make life easier. Violent film-makers though seem to enjoy rendering violence in extreme detail not for reasons of catharsis but because they just like depicting bloody violence.

Can violence detached from the spectacle of choreography ever be aesthetic and nothing else? I doubt it, given that we seemed to have reached a point in cinema history where violence must be very realistic (whether fully depicted or screened from view) or it defeats the verisimilitude of its context. A more important question is just why is violence so important to cinema? Raymond Chandler quipped that whenever he got stuck he simply wrote a guy with a gun walking into the room. I’ve hammered LOST before for exactly this sort of laziness in which violence is used as a cheat, a jump-leads to make a scene tense and raise the dramatic stakes without bothering to write escalating conflict, character based tension, or biting dialogue. But this idea allows us to provisionally divide violence into four categories: spectacle, catharsis, function, sadism – suffering is the key to noting the last as well as a certain monolithic quality of the film as violent film and nothing else. It is also the only one that raises moral qualms, as opposed to seething dissatisfaction at lazy writing and distaste at a high water-mark of violence becoming the norm for ignoble reasons of sheer functionality. The fight in the subway at the end of The Matrix is all about the spectacle of dazzling wire-assisted choreography. By contrast the fights in Batman Begins are a total blur in which Batman wins, because Nolan very deliberately shoots too close to the action so as to shift the focus away from the spectacle; it doesn’t matter how Batman beats people up, what matters is that he can beat people up – it’s a question of function and character, not of aesthetics and spectacle. Functional violence is now the grease on the wheels of the three-act structure in many instances. At the climaxes of films, as villains get their desserts, it often overlaps with catharsis.

Catharsis is obviously an ancient legitimisation for extreme violence, and indeed Incendies will probably be my film of the year because it used shocking violence to purge the emotions of its audience with pity and fear to such powerful effect that the entire cinema sat in a stunned Aristotelian silence for some minutes at the end of my screening before shuffling out feeling somewhat mind-blown. But there is a fine line between catharsis and sadism, even in the greatest works. Oedipus gouging out his own eyes when he discovers the truth of his actions is not the same as Titus Andronicus informing his enemy exactly what was in the pie she just ate. ‘Shakespeare was really violent too’ is therefore not a carte blanche excuse for grotesque violence, though it’s often used in defence of extreme screen violence. Yes, Shakespeare was a bloody nihilist in King Lear and Titus Andronicus; in performance everything in Lear can seem mere build up to Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, while Titus is simply a catalogue of grand guignol horror from start to finish. But Shakespeare also wrote the frothy feather-light follies Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing where you’ll look in vain for any eye-gouging or cannibalism. Shakespeare had range with a capital R. The problem with Tarantino’s spawn is that they specialise in violence to a worryingly monolithic extent, and their violence often veers towards the Titus approach rather than Lear – audiences do not cry with pity and fear for what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally purged, they moan in revulsion and disgust at what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally contaminated.

“Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie” – Last House on the Left tagline

Sadism – the true differentiator. Violence as spectacle, function or catharsis doesn’t provoke the same shudder. Incendies was deeply shocking in its depiction of violence, but, crucially, it wasn’t shocking because of graphic depictions of that violence, but because of the connections between who was committing the acts and who they were victimising, on both an individual and societal basis. Sadism does not have that concern which elevates catharsis. It is concerned with depicting suffering for its own sake. Hostel auteur Eli Roth wants you to see a man lose two fingers on both hands as he breaks his bonds and then keep going in his quest to escape the deadly hostel, leaving his fingers behind him. I’ve written about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, noting that the theatrical cut showcased all the most obnoxious moments of his director’s cut: Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer. Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off – ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him to die in agony when Alan Moore’s script slashes his throat for an instant death? I said previously that Snyder was adding sadism to an already nasty story, but now I note he’s changing the category of violence – from function to sadism. He wants you to see people suffering, and that is a sensibility I find deeply troubling, not least because it seems to be shared at certain times by celebrated directors like Refn, the Coens, Tarantino, Scorsese, Burton, Haneke and Miike. I won’t say that what these film-makers do with violence at their worst moments is immoral, but it is deeply troubling, and it’s time to stop meekly accepting their cod-Wildean ersatz-Shakesperean defences and ask just why it is that they apparently get off so much on depicting violence in gory detail with an emphasis on suffering.

Drive didn’t perturb me because it was a film purely of sadistic violence; the first outbreaks of bloodletting are all about function and catharsis, while the ominous killing on the beach is violence as both spectacle and catharsis. No, it’s taken me a long time to fathom what lies behind my feeling that Drive really was a film of two parts; the first of which I loved, the second of which I despised. And this is it. A film makes a contract with the audience, and for me Drive broke that contract – I didn’t expect that sort of violence to develop from the first part of the movie, and I don’t appreciate being told I’ve seen equally graphic violence in films that signed a different contract and delivered the goods as agreed. Spielberg and Hitchcock are pranksters, asking you where the line is repeatedly, to establish it in their minds, and then crossing that line for fun. Robert Rodriguez, in Machete or Planet Terror, establishes his ground rules for schlocky violence in the opening minutes. Saying I shouldn’t attack Drive because I enjoyed Wanted ignores the different contracts that they proffered regarding the nature of the screen violence to expect, and is akin to this:

BORIS: A 0-0 draw. Great. What a riveting football match…
JOHNSON: What are you complaining about? Have you forgotten that 0-0 draw last week that had you enthralled?
BORIS: What, the one with the 2 disallowed goals, 3 sendings off, 4 shots off the crossbar, 5 off the post and 60 shots saved?
GODUNOV: The very one.
BORIS: (beat) I think that was a bit different. How many shots were there tonight?
JOHNSON: What, on target?
BORIS: No, at all.
GODUNOV: Um… None. It was 90 minutes of 22 men on their own goal-lines.
BORIS: Yeah, it was 0-0 and so was last week’s match, but this one was excruciating.

As Enda Kenny used to bellow (but not at Nicolas Winding Refn, though he’d stand hearing it) “Sign the Contract!”

October 26, 2011

The Ides of March

Director George Clooney returns to the borderlands of American politics and media he mined so well in Good Night and Good Luck but hits an inferior seam.

Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov open up Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North for a taut portrayal of political back-stabbing during the end of campaigning in a crucial Ohio Democratic presidential primary. Ryan Gosling’s hot-shot press secretary is a true believer in his candidate, George Clooney. An attempt by rival campaign manager Paul Giammati to poach Gosling though leads to a clandestine conversation that, parallel to his beginning an affair with Evan Rachel Wood’s intern, may ruin his career as his loyalties are questioned amidst his boss Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tense attempts to get a North Carolina Senator to endorse their candidate. The Ides of March begins in The West Wing mould with Gosling using the LBJ trick of spreading hysterically untrue rumours, “I know he doesn’t own a diamond mine in Liberia, I just want to hear him deny it for the whole day.”

It changes gears quickly, however, as this is an intelligent but very pessimistic film. It plays well as a companion piece to the 1972’s The Candidate, which charted with alarming realism the transformation of Robert Redford’s idealistic rebel into a pragmatic politician indistinguishable from the establishment he loathed. Gosling is disillusioned by the dirty business of how politics operates as he learns just how much integrity his candidate is willing to sacrifice to get the nomination, and how little ‘loyalty’ really means. Clooney’s direction is wonderfully crisp, including a scene where traumatic news is relayed to a character while all we see is a slow push-in on the car where the conversation is taking place. Clooney also excels in his supporting role by investing Governor Morris with infinite shades of grey: articulate, funny, and attempting to be idealistic but perhaps a weasel at heart.

Ryan Gosling is initially charming before switching to distraught and vengeful and, like Drive, walking around menacingly a lot, but thankfully without stomping anyone’s head. Jeffrey Wright is wonderfully oily as the king-making Senator, and Wood’s intern is a nicely played layering of naivety and guile, with her reaction to one shock an amazing piece of acting as her entire seductive facade crumbles. Giamatti’s outburst, “I have seen too many Democrats bite the dust over the last 25 years because they wouldn’t get down in the f****** mud and wrestle the elephants”, bespeaks a frustration that The West Wing chose never to overcome. Clooney disillusions us not just with the process of politics but its possibility to effect any positive change so that, like The Good German, this work oddly contradicts the real Clooney who believes in the efficacy of keeping a satellite over Darfur.

The pure cinema of the closing sequences is emotionally devastating, especially the visual introduction of a new character which implies that the events of this tragedy will repeat themselves again, with the same players in different roles. It is Jan Kott’s Grand Staircase interpretation of Shakespeare’s history plays as a never-ending cycle, the king is killed by an usurping rebel, but that new king is then challenged by an usurping rebel, and so on forever… This, like The Candidate, is an admirable film that’s impossible to truly like.

4/5

September 21, 2011

Drive

Ryan Gosling is an enigmatic part-time getaway driver who falls foul of LA gangsters in this misfiring existential thriller.

Drive is a film of two parts, the first part is rather good, and the second part is quite troubling. We’re introduced to Gosling’s unnamed driver in a great, great opening. Rumbling beats (that Fincher’s probably already bought the rights to) underscore a getaway of sublime skill and suavity. Those beats give way to a synthtastic 1980s homage soundtrack as the film slows to an enigmatic and brilliant crawl as it fleshes out Gosling’s life. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston is Gosling’s mentor, a mechanic and film stunt co-ordinator crippled by men close to Ron Perlman’s savage Jewish mobster Nino, who now dreams of getting his protege to put his driving skills to more public use in stock-car. Albert Brooks is the ‘nice’ mobster who’ll fund their team. This move to normality is mirrored by Gosling’s growing friendship with neighbour Carey Mulligan, as he becomes a surrogate father to her young son.

This humanising of the taciturn Gosling is beautifully photographed and reminiscent of Fish Tank in its finding of pastoral in an urban landscape. Mulligan is an empathetic presence while Brooks excels at using his nice-guy persona to complicate our attitudes to his mobster. The introduction of the plot, rather than turning this film into 1978’s sublime The Driver, merely scuppers things. The Obstacle Carey’s husband returns from jail owing protection money so our hero decides to help him and a cameoing Christina Hendricks out on a low-risk heist, which goes disastrously wrong. Brooks’ in-camera mission statement, “I used to produce movies in the 80s. Action, arty stuff. The critics liked them, called them European. I thought they were shit”, then kicks in. Director Nicolas Winding Refn uses music, a car-crash, and surf rolling into a deserted beach at night to incredibly foreboding effect in staging one murder, but mostly his use of violence is both unnecessary and excessive.

Do you want to see a woman’s head get blown apart by a shotgun blast in slow motion, a man have his hand smashed repeatedly with a hammer, a man have a fork thrust in his eyeball to distract him while his assailant searches for a cleaver to plunge repeatedly into his neck and chest, a man have his arm slit open by a cut-throat razor, or a man have his head kicked in until he’s quite dead and then kicked some more until bone-dust rises up into the camera? Well if you don’t then you should leave half-way thru Drive. Gosling is charismatic in his Eastwoodian role, and you can see why he personally chose Refn as director, but this is less an existentialist thriller and more just humourless grindhouse masquerading as arthouse.

If you loved The Driver, you might like half of Drive

2/5

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