Talking Movies

August 3, 2018

From the Archives: Clone Wars

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers an infuriating Star Wars movie, plus ca change and all that.

Clone Wars sees George Lucas continue his Terminator like quest to destroy our childhood memories. He trashed Star Wars, gave us an unnecessary Indiana Jones, and now the only worthwhile piece of the Star Wars prequel enterprise is desecrated, presumably for the sake of consistency. And we have two Star Wars shows starting on American TV this autumn to suffer through. He just doesn’t stop…

Clone Wars follows our heroes (I use the term loosely given that neither displays any personality) Anakin and Obi-Wan as they rescue Jabba’s kidnapped son. This film takes all the worst elements of the prequels and magnifies them. Characters without quirks, dialogue that veers between plodding and unbearable, badly shot action completely without tension as we know the futures of the characters, droids and clones that are visually silly and emotionally uninvolving, and of course plots that are so hilariously over-plotted they become tedious twenty minutes in. This film runs for 100 minutes but feels closer to 200 so boring is the story of Anakin taking on an apprentice. Just to interest kids she’s the feisty/plucky/other patronising synonym for feisty girl Ahsoka, who teaches Anakin as much as she learns from him and….yeah. It’s that bad….

What really galls is that Lucas didn’t ask Genndy Tartakovsky to direct this film. Tartakovsky, the creator of Samurai Jack, is something of a mad genius. His hand drawn animation of the Clone Wars TV series was far superior to this insipid CGI and he was far less faithful to Lucas’ boring vision. He made three minute shorts devoted to showing the Jedi Knights being awesome which are at their best the coolest animation you’ll ever see, check out the dialogue free one where Sam Jackson’s character destroys a whole droid army using the Force. When he made longer episodes his storytelling and visual flair came off like an inspired blend of Hitchockian suspense, Spielbergian action choreography, and Sergio Leone’s use of outrageous close-ups to create mythic confrontations.

Was Lucas was appalled to find someone had made something awesome under his name by going so far off the reservation and decided to fix things by making a really faithful Clone Wars feature? That’s what it feels like. This is very bad, wretched beyond belief actually. The only positive to be drawn is encountering some genuine voice actors for once as only Christopher Lee and Samuel L Jackson reprise their live-action roles. All the other characters are voiced by actors talented enough to do more than one voice (Dreamworks Animation take a hint), the standout performance being the sexy/sinister huskiness of Nika Futterman as the Sith villainess Ventress.

This may be acceptable for very undemanding toddlers but it would be infinitely better for their creative development if parents just performed the original trilogy for them as sock puppet theatre.

0/5

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August 15, 2017

100 Best Films of the Century (sic)

Poring over Barry Norman’s ‘100 Best Films of the Century’ list last month set off musings on what a personal version of such a list would be. All such lists are entirely personal, and deeply speculative, but it’s time to be more ambitious/foolhardy than heretofore and nail this blog’s colours to the mast. Norman unapologetically focused on Old Hollywood, but Talking Movies has more regard than he for the 1980s and 1990s. The years to 1939 are allocated 10 films, and each decade thereafter gets 10 films, with an additional 10 films chosen to make up any egregious omissions. What is an egregious omission, or addition for that matter, is naturally a matter of opinion. Like the truest lists this was written quickly with little revision. If you don’t trust your own instincts why would you ever trust anyone else’s?

Gone with the wind

The first day to 1939

Nosferatu

The Lodger

M

King Kong

It Happened One Night

The 39 Steps

A Night at the Opera

Top Hat

Secret Agent

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Gone with the Wind

TheBigSleep-011

1940 to 1949

His Girl Friday

Rebecca

Citizen Kane

The Maltese Falcon

Casablanca

Shadow of a Doubt

The Big Sleep

The Stranger

Rope

The Third Man

1950 to 1959

Strangers on a Train

The Lavender Hill Mob

Singin’ in the Rain

Them!

Rear Window

High Society

Moby Dick

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Rio Bravo

1960 to 1969

Last Year in Marienbad

The Manchurian Candidate

The Birds

The Great Escape

Billy Liar

Dr. Strangelove

Goldfinger

Dr. Zhivago

The Sound of Music

The Good The Bad And The Ugly

Once Upon a Time in the West

Ma Nuit Chez Maud

The Italian Job

1970 to 1979

Kelly’s Heroes

Aguirre the wrath of God

The Godfather

Dog Day Afternoon

Jaws

All the President’s Men

Annie Hall

Star Wars

Superman

Apocalypse Now

1980 to 1989

The Blues Brothers

Chariots of Fire

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Blade Runner

Ghostbusters

Back to the Future

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Aliens

Blue Velvet

Wall Street

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Die Hard

1990 to 1999

JFK

My Own Private Idaho

The Silence of the Lambs

Terminator 2

The Age of Innocence

Jurassic Park

Pulp Fiction

Speed

The Usual Suspects

Scream

The Matrix

Fight Club

2000 to 2009

Memento

Almost Famous

Moulin Rouge!

Ocean’s Eleven

Donnie Darko

The Rules of Attraction

The Lord of the Rings

Team America

Brick

Casino Royale

Atonement

The Dark Knight

2010 to the present day

Inception

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World

Incendies

Skyfall

Mud

This is the End

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Birdman

High-Rise

20th Century Women

February 12, 2015

Ennio Morricone: My Life in Music

Film composer Ennio Morricone belied his 86 years for a sprightly concert conducting some of his most beloved scores in a sold-out Point last Saturday.

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Morricone was conducting the full Czech National Symphony Orchestra, some 86 musicians, backed by the 76 singers of the Kodaly Choir of Debrecen in Hungary. He began with the piano-led title theme from The Untouchables with its unusual wailing brass, before segueing into a suite of rich string-led themes from his last collaboration with director Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in America, and then his lengthy theme for frequent collaborator Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900, which combined lush orchestration with surprising diversions into cabaret and blues to musically recreate the feel of years going by on a cruise ship. Morricone’s fondness for bundling so many themes into one set caused more than a few disruptive moments where the audience determinedly applauded, drowning out the start of the next tune, leading my sometime co-writer John Healy to suspect rhythmic holding patterns in later segues…

Morricone has scored an unreasonable amount of films and TV miniseries, most of them Italian, so he showcased his less familiar work with a selection from the late 60s and early 70s, including H2S and Metti, una sera a cena. Two themes from Love Circle had an unfortunate tendency to lapse into 70s romance pastiche, but Maddalena and The Sicilian Clan were unfamiliar works which stood out; utilising electric guitar and drums gave a rockier feel akin to Lalo Schifrin’s Dirty Harry score, and Sicilian Clan in particular managed to combine romance and menace simultaneously. Morricone’s final pre-interval set showcased his career-defining work with Leone with the slowly building choral and orchestral splendour and jagged guitars of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dynamite, and ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’.

After the interval Morricone unveiled three more sets of themes. Collaborations with directors Tornatore, Brian De Palma, and Gillo Pontecorvo were highlighted in the choice of themes from Cinema Paradiso, Malena, Casualties of War, The Battle of Algiers, and Burn! all. While those scores for Tornatore and De Palma are all about tugging at the heart-strings thru lush strings, the edgier music for Pontecorvo is all about percussion – indeed the ironically joyous ‘Abolisson’ from Burn! was performed with no fewer than five percussionists. Morricone also conducted more scores from obscure Italian films, with the jokey percussion instrumentation and mock-suspense melody of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and the distorted keyboard and jaunty melody of La classes operaia va in paradise particularly noteworthy. Morricone’s final set was inevitably The Mission: ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, ‘Falls’, ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’.

The maestro spoke only thru his music, but his three encores; ‘Here’s to You’, ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’, ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’; said it all. Morricone is one of that select band of composers whose music has escaped the films they were meant to complement to take on a life of their own. Whether it’s the inimitable whistling of Leone’s Wild West or the quasi-sacramental effect of his famous oboe solo Morricone has transcended the medium.

4/5

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.

Rio Bravo John Wayne Dean Martin

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.

Clint_GranTorino

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…

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