Talking Movies

April 30, 2018

Why Fund the Arts?

A little over two years ago a post here bemoaned the impact of austerity on the arts. Now I’d like to re-examine the topic with a considerably more critical eye.

The clash between Minister Hacker and Sir Humphrey still carries much weight. Art subsidies can easily be presented as a middle-class rip-off.  Take the funding of cinema, distribution rather than production that is. Cinema is not in any trouble. Well, historically it is, but let’s not open that can of worms here. Cinema is not in any trouble. (Hear, hear) There are cinemas everywhere, and people go to them ever Saturday night.  Advertisements for cinema roar at you from buses and phones, radios and televisions, billboards and newspapers. You would have to be in a coma not to have some subliminal awareness of what blockbuster is playing right now. Cinema is not in peril. What is in peril are unpopular films. Now, I like unpopular films. I routinely end up in screen 3 of the IFI, watching the films that are the most unpopular in the home of unpopular films. When the IFI writes to the Government they are obliged to camouflage their simple request for subsidies that they may show films nobody wants to see. That is brutal, but it’s the truth. I personally benefit enormously from this; I saw Alex Ross Perry’s masterful Queen of Earth during its six day run in the IFI. I am an appreciable percentage of its entire Irish audience. But should everybody else have to pay so that I can indulge my obscure tastes? Is that right and proper that Sean Citizen stump up so that I can watch a film flickering on the big screen as intended by ARP rather than get with the programme and just watch it on Amazon video?

A key argument against cutting arts funding in the last decade’s ceaseless austerity was that art develops empathy, and is therefore very useful for society. But the current obsession here, in England, and in America with *representation* completely vitiates that contention. I have identified completely with Seth Cohen, Rory Gilmore, Louis de Pointe du Lac, Esther Greenwood, and multiple characters in Brideshead Revisited and Michael Chabon novels. But the American Jewish experience is alien to me, as is the small town New England female adolescence. I know nothing of vampiric existential angst, or of 1950s female depression. I am neither a gay English aristocrat, nor a depressed creative writing student. I can look at all these characters that not like me, in nationality or gender or class or era or humanity or life experience, and empathise… But *representation* can be summed up by Mark Waid celebrating the much loathed character of Rose Tico purely because young Asian-American girls can look at an Asian-American woman onscreen and empathise – with themselves. That is not empathy. There is a GK Chesterton quote that hits this at an angle: “They say they wish to be as strong as the universe, but they really wish the whole universe as weak as themselves”. Representation is the opposite of empathy because it demands that art be a mirror held up to the person consuming the art. No work of empathy is to be done in imagining themselves in someone else’s life, and looking in this solipsistic mirror they expect that art will be representing them with positive feedback only, please; this is a safe space, you know.

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May 21, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past 3-D

Director Bryan Singer triumphantly returns to the franchise he launched in 2000 to link two ensembles together for one of the classic Claremont/Byrne comics stories.

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Professor X (Patrick Stewart) narrates a Terminator 2 cold open as dead bodies are piled amidst rubble while machines hunt down and kill mutants and humans. Can this war of extinction be won by changing the past? X, Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travel to a Chinese monastery where mutants familiar [Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore)] and strange [Blink (Fan BingBing), whose portal-creating power is visually intricate] are kept one step ahead of Sentinels by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who uses her powers to send the consciousness of Bishop (Omar Sy) back thru time. Defeating the Sentinels means preventing Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinating Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, then being captured by Major Stryker (Josh Helman); actions which kick-start the program and see her DNA make the Sentinels unstoppable. Only Wolverine can physically survive the time-shift, but in 1973 he is reliant on the broken men Charles (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) patching up their differences with the imprisoned Erik (Michael Fassbender). But might the past be immutable?

The X-movies are a farrago of continuity, and this instalment ignores that (Wolverine has adamantium claws? Professor X has his own body?). It’s a sequel toFirst Class, with Charles and Erik rejoining battle for Mystique’s soul; as a wonderful exchange has it – “You got inside her head.” “That’s not my power, Charles.” The future, with Sentinels attacking like The Matrix’s squiddies, is mostly a glorified framing device; but its startling killing of characters in the prologue establishes the stakes. The past is a foreign country; where Singer displays X-2 vim. Beast acts as Q in freeing Erik, Wolverine gets two wonderful sight gags, and there’s a delightful nod to the parentage of Quicksilver (Evan Peters). The fast-talking Quicksilver’s mischievous liberation of Erik is the outstanding action sequence; it’s like watching Seth Cohen wielding superpowers. Erik’s curving of a bullet at the Paris summit is thrilling, as is the idea that time is course-correcting their meddling. But Page has precious little to do, and the great Fassbender is overshadowed by McAvoy and Jackman as they get all the best lines.

This lands somewhere around X-2 and First Class, but I preferred First Class because Erik was less muddled. The future comes into play in the finale, and Magneto battling future sentinels while Erik manipulates old sentinels is a brilliant cross-cutting of action sequences to interrogate character; questioning the ability of people to change even as the future characters hope their younger selves will change. Lawrence (more recognisable as Mystique than Rebecca Romijn ever was) is a world of swagger away from First Class; Mystique is a driven and accomplished spy. She wants to kill Bolivar for murdering her friends just like Erik wanted to vengefully kill Shaw. Charles once again is opposed to such motives. But in First Class Erik flung missiles back at people, here his villainy becomes incomprehensibly pre-emptive; as if the Singer special sequence where he retrieves his helmet unleashes a need for flair; the option of silent sabotage of the Sentinel programme doesn’t cut it, when you can (undoubtedly quite counter-productively) stage a stadium-sized spectacle of terrorism. But this is quibbling about what is only the third superb X-movie in the series: an intricate, thoughtful adventure in which Singer returns from the wilderness with surprising confidence.

The ending made me think of the Doctor’s emphatic lines at the end of Moffat’s Doctor Who Blitz story in 2005. And after suffering thru X-3 we surely all deserve that calibre of resolution.

4/5

June 12, 2013

Snyder’s Superman

I’ve written two pieces about Zack Snyder and one about re-booting the Superman franchise, so here’s my clever ploy to avoid repeating myself by this time writing a blog about Zack Snyder’s re-booting of Superman.

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Man of Steel hits cinemas this Friday. The promotional push has come oddly late, here at any rate, with nary a poster or TV spot visible until June 3rd for a movie out June 14th. But Warner Bros has obvious confidence in this project, muttering as they are of their expectations that it will break the $1 billion dollar mark, so it’s obviously a considered choice. But have Zack Snyder’s choices as the rebooting director been equally considered? It’s long been my contention that limits are good, that Tarantino’s CSI: LV special ‘Grave Danger’ is better than Death Proof and Kill Bill: Vols 1 & 2 because he had to creatively respond to artistic limitations rather than engage in his usual self-indulgence. Inglourious Basterds likewise needed to be a hit with some urgency so he had to rein himself in from his original grandiose vision. You could even speculate, as I have, that, given a small budget Richard Kelly’s imagination is focused onto small-scale scenarios which hum with wit and heart, but that given a large budget his vision becomes hopelessly diffuse as it expands over ever more elaborate conspiracies; always involving water, time-travel or aliens. I say this because I think that, unlike the unloved Sucker-Punch which was co-written and directed by Snyder as an R movie and then edited into a PG-13 after the shoot, receiving Goyer’s PG-13 Man of Steel script and bringing his flourishes to bear is the best thing that could happen to him creatively.

Snyder has cast intriguingly and well. Laurence Fishburne has the natural authority you want from a Perry White, Amy Adams has the comic timing and also the abrasiveness to be Lois Lane, and the double-act of Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents looks very promising. Russell Crowe as Jor-El looks like a solid choice, although it depends largely on the levels of pompousness depicted on Krypton – which we’re promised will be a caped society, whatever that means, perhaps Gerard Butler’s Sparta. By far the best choice is Michael Shannon as General Zod, a move every bit as bizarre as Scarecrow and French Connection star Gene Hackman putting aside grittiness and realism to don a comedy wig as Lex Luthor in 1978. Shannon, from the latest trailer, is bringing the baffled questioning tone of his Revolutionary Road madman as well as the customary menacing fury of Boardwalk Empire and The Iceman. Indeed the only obvious dud in the casting is picking Henry Cavill as Superman, so, only mildly important then… Cavill is physically perfect for the part, but being built like Superman is only half the task, you need the comic timing to be Clark too. Brandon Routh had the physique for Superman, but his Clark wasn’t very good, and the film suffered as a result. Cavill abundantly does not have great comic timing, which makes the promises from Snyder and Goyer that this Clark is an interpretation we’ve never seen before a worrying admission/pre-emption of comic timing failure.

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And comedy is the big worry when it comes to Man of Steel. The teaser trailer which made it look like Clark was going to spend the whole film moping around the Pacific Northwest ruing the Discovery Channel’s decision to once again not pick his crew to feature on the next season of Deadliest Catch started the concerns. The next trailer deepened those concern, eschewing as it did super-action and seeming to promise a deeply sombre Superman which would resemble nothing else so much as a dramatisation of Seth Cohen’s essay on the loneliness of being Superman which moved his teacher to tears… Finally we got a trailer that softened the pomposity of grand thematic statements about sacrifice, leadership, moral examples by showing us some super-action, but sadly said super-action looked as if it was directed by Michael Bay in blacks, blues, greys and red with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski on hand with his customary supernova to backlight the action. It also seemed to suggest this interpretation’s Lois might play like the reporter in Mr Deeds Goes to Town, debunking the small-town hero under the guise of romance and then feeling guilty. Except Goyer can’t write Capra. Indeed, under his own steam he’s given us Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Nick Fury: Agent of Shield and Jumper, while the Brothers Nolan, without him, have penned Memento, The Prestige and Inception. You feel sure the Nolans work hard to pen gags, but Superman cinematically needs some good gags or it will implode.

And then there’s the CGI… Brandishing the ‘Produced by Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight trilogy’ on your promotional material only goes so far. Nolan shoots on film, on location and in meticulously dressed sound-stages, and with largely practical effects – oftentimes where anybody else would just use ghastly CGI – rendered with a very precise eye for detail by cinematographer Wally Pfister. Snyder really … doesn’t. Zod’s CGI armour and awful looking spaceship stood out for me like a sore thumb, because, along with the CGI cape for Superman, they’re the sort of bizarre decisions that could really blight a movie. Richard Donner said his Superman aimed at not at reality but at verisimilitude, but it appears Snyder has with customary abandon decided to abandon verisimilitude and go for total fantasy. Partly this is because of the times we live in, but also partly because Snyder is not particularly attached to reality at the best of times. But no matter how sombre the trailers make it look, no matter how emotionally devastating the handling of Clark’s pivotal relationships are, and no matter how thrilling it is too see a Superman Begins in which his morality is in formation – and close to Hancock than himself as a result – the scripting by David S Goyer won’t matter a damn if you just tune out when you notice that, like certain action sequences in the blighted Star Wars prequels, not one thing onscreen is actually real. And Sucker-Punch does not inspire confidence there…

So, there you go. This Man of Steel has a strong chance of crash-landing, but it could soar – let’s hope…

November 16, 2011

Funny Bones

Last year, just before they handed the series over to Living, Sky 1 aired a season 1 episode of Bones instead of the expected season 6 episode, and it was stunning how drastically the show has changed over its run.

I wrote about Bones twice for the University Observer. The first time I was writing about the trend in US television of heroes that we already sympathised with being depicted as achingly alone, rather than their loneliness simply being a device to get us onboard with an unlikely hero such as The OC’s Seth Cohen. Dr Temperance Brennan, the brilliant crime-fighting forensic anthropologist, would tell her FBI partner Seeley Booth, “There’s nothing wrong with going on vacation by yourself”, and then do so frequently, when she wasn’t simply working through the weekend. Bones and House suggested that the excellence of these characters at their jobs was only possible by the sacrifice of their personal lives.

I later wrote an article dissecting Bones’ dramatic motor – the unresolved sexual tension between Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth. Bones was not alone in using that device as a dramatic motor but it had perhaps the most obviously thwarted yet plausible of the many frustrated relationships littering the TV schedules in 2007, and one that cried out in season 1 for a symbolic Red State/Blue State reading. Towards the end of season 1 Brennan was in New Orleans identifying victims of Hurricane Katrina when she was drugged and framed for murder. Booth immediately rushed from Washington DC to rescue her only to be upbraided on arrival for his sneering attitude towards Voodoo: “I mean, you believe that Jesus rose from the dead…”, “Jesus was not a zombie! I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff!!”

Brennan and Booth have common values and a genuine attraction that exists despite their ‘ideological’ enmity. Like Barack Obama’s famous 2004 peroration to the Democratic National Convention you can say of their partnership, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America”. Neither is a mere cipher of a political position. Brennan is militantly atheistic and scientific, but supports the death penalty unreservedly and is emotionally distant as a result of being abandoned to foster-care by her fugitive criminal parents. Booth seems modelled on John Wayne’s heroic straight-shooting all-American persona, but is an unmarried father battling to see his son, who uses his FBI job as atonement for his enormous religious guilt at murdering 50 people as an army sniper. Both characters desperately need the qualities of the other in order to be effective.

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The penultimate episode of season 1 managed minor miracles in tackling the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. There was of course only so much tension that could be generated by the politico-sexual friction between the two leads. The first episode of the second season saw Brennan complain at Booth’s snippiness: “I thought we were having an interesting discussion about the War on Drugs”, “Can we please just talk about something we don’t disagree on?!” The dead silence that followed exemplified their deadlocked relationship. Little surprise then that creator Hart Hanson introduced new characters as romantic obstacles to keep the leads apart, seeming happy to relinquish to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the task of depicting a Blue State/Red State romance for the 2006/7 season with Aaron Sorkin’s Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes as the lovers sundered by politics and faith.

Regrettably Hanson never seemed to take up that task seriously again and season 6 confirmed a number of alarming developments in the show. Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember the social niceties and her conversation suffered from an almost total ignorance of pop culture. Yet season 6 saw her presented as consciously unconsciously anti-social, if that makes sense. Despite 6 years of working with Booth she acted rudely when surely she must have learnt from his example what to say by now in nearly every circumstance. In many ways her character seemed to have regressed – the hideous attempts at jokes in particular were nothing more than horrible gurning by Emily Deschanel which was as uncomfortable to watch as it probably was to perform. This impulse towards comedy at the expense of character consistency was not an isolated incident though, but part of a trend.

The music changed over the seasons from mere background mood music to cutesy cues to indicate that everything was funny; in other words that the show itself had changed from what it originally was, a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags, to a modestly smart forensics sitcom with no laugh track for its constant modestly funny gags. Any doubt of this change in direction can be dispelled by noting the change in psychiatrist from Stephen Fry to John Francis Daley. Fry was cast because as a tall clever British psychiatrist he could literally look down on Booth in judgement. Daley is a young silly American psychiatrist who Booth literally just looks down on. Similarly when Zach was written out of the show at the end of season 3 he was replaced by a revolving line-up of squinterns, each of which appeared chosen for their particular comedic shtick, even if they would eventually be belatedly granted a modicum of depth. A dramatic imperative was consistently replaced by a comedic dynamic.

The decision to kill Mr Nigel-Murray at the hands of Booth’s sniper nemesis Brodsky, after a lengthy ominously scored montage which put all the characters potentially in jeopardy, was therefore terribly misjudged. The show simply cannot sustain that type of dramatic weight at this point in its development, whereas it still could when Zach was shockingly revealed as the apprentice to the cannibal serial killer Gormagon in the traumatic finale of season 3. By far the best episode of season 6 was the episode that most closely approximated season 1 – Brennan losing her grip on reality as she investigated the death of her apparent doppelganger, a brilliant socially isolated surgeon. Her tearful declaration of love for Booth and subsequent heartbroken acceptance that she had missed her chance for happiness by her reluctance to take a risk on him when he suggested it in season 5 was both incredibly dramatically satisfying and a reminder of what the show used to be.

Season 7 will largely eschew Emily Deschanel – written out for her pregnancy. Can the show survive that and will it ever square its political circle when she returns now that Booth’s romantic anger has subsided and Brennan’s imperviousness/strength balance has reached the point where they can get it together properly?

Bones season 7 begins its run on Living at 9pm tonight.

May 18, 2011

Scream on the Rocks

I was listening to ‘Pure Shores’ while unsuccessfully trying to find someone else excited about seeing Scream 4 a few weeks ago, and it led to these musings on how something can be all-conquering, then just disappear…

I was surprised that no one I knew was excited about a new Scream film, given that Kevin Williamson had returned to writing duties, and has lately been writing wonderful (cliff-hanger a minute, major twist every episode) dark popcorn for The Vampire Diaries. 11 years though is a long time… The Beach was released in February 2000 and, this being in prehistory when MTV not only played music but played certain videos on constant rotation, its imagery penetrated deep into people who never saw the film courtesy of All Saints’ video for the sublime ‘Pure Shores’ incorporating an awful lot of clips from Danny Boyle’s film. 11 years ago I finally saw Scream on TV and then Scream 3 in the cinema in quick succession and never got round to watching The Beach till 2003. It’s odd to think that these films, which were all pervasive at the time, seem to have been more or less forgotten. In the case of Danny Boyle his belated and ill-advised entrance to major Hollywood movies has been completely forgotten because of a couple of belting truly Alex Garland scripted movies since, and an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. The Beach also represented after the American Psycho debacle DiCaprio’s attempt to make a post-Titanic film that proved he could act. He’s long since been able to point to his Scorsese collection, and latterly Revolutionary Road and Inception, so The Beach is also a footnote for him.

But why has Scream fallen so low in popular esteem that its belated sequel could so utterly flop? Perhaps Scream has been a victim of its own success. It brought forth a wave of self-conscious horror films like Final Destination where good jokes were as important as scary shocks, and the audience and film-makers continually winked at each other regarding clichéd conventions of horror cinema that could still be exploited to make you jump in your seat, but only if that was followed by a good pay-off line. That arguably brought forth a counter-wave, the infamous torture porn of Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek, where the film-makers grabbed the audience by the throat, demanded they stop winking, stop turning away, look at this horror, be horrified, and start screaming now… Now it seems to safe to declare torture porn more or less dead, we seem to be stuck in a field of shlock, Piranha 3-D, the everpresent efficient teen horror, My Bloody Valentine, and nouvea 70s viciousness in the form of remakes, Last House on the Left, and nasty originals, Eden Lake. In that landscape where torture porn seems to have permanently upped the acceptable ante for both gore and viciousness the very concept of a Scream 4 is an anomaly if not an embarrassment.

I only hoped that Scream 4 might be as good as Scream 2, but truthfully it’s more like Scream 3, the one Williamson didn’t write – an efficient film with flashes of inspiration. There are wonderful moments throughout, not least Courteney Cox muttering that a massacre must take place at a Stab marathon, “what could be more meta?”; a confused David Arquette asks what that means, to which she replies “I don’t know, it’s just some word I heard the kids using.” Scream was a great film because it was original, the cold open of Scream 4 with its nods to how Scream 2 introduced Stab, a film of the events of Scream, goes far too far in alienating the audience with postmodern meta-nonsense at the expense of emotional engagement. When you have not one, not two, but three different sets of TV stars (from, deep breath, 90210, Privileged, Veronica Mars, True Blood, oh forget it) all enacting the same basic scenario with commentary on the predictability of said scenario, mixed with snipes at torture porn, it’s time to return to basics. But the basics aren’t easy. The motive of the Ghostface Killer is a huge problem. Each sequel has tied itself in ever more preposterous knots regarding motivation, and Scream 4 obeys that rule of sequels. An even greater problem is the split focus caused by the bizarre notion the film persistently voices about itself being a remake rather than a sequel. The ‘new’ versions of original characters Billy Loomis, Randy and Stu don’t work at all because they are severely underwritten, while the beloved original characters aren’t given enough screen-time either. Hayden Panetierre and Emma Roberts are the only actors of the new young cast given enough material to really make an impression, and a good deal of this is purely due to their skills rather than the script. Roberts in particular is not afraid to be shown in a far colder light emotionally than you can imagine her aunt ever being willing to play, and her relationship with screen cousin Neve Campbell powers the film.

And then, if you’re me, you realise something with a shock while watching – Adam Brody isn’t going to step up to the plate in the third act and do something, his minor supporting role is just that; he has been totally forgotten. How terrifyingly forgotten The OC has become. Only 4 years after it finished its 4 season run which was captivating and hilarious and spawned a whole set of music, books, comics, styles and clichés, Seth Cohen himself, Adam Brody, can’t seem to get good parts anymore outside of Jason Reitman enabled cameos. Josh Schwartz is now the guy who co-created Gossip Girl or Chuck. He’s never thought of as the youngest creator of a primetime network show which was what The OC made him. And so it is that Kevin Williamson is now the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries not the wunderkind behind Scream or even Dawson’s Creek. Glory is fleeting…

October 30, 2009

Jennifer’s Body

Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody’s second feature script was expected to be a subversive feminist horror film, but it’s merely standard shlock with good gags.

The opening shot is very Evil Dead but turns out to be the first of many odd structural decisions as it bafflingly leads us into a lengthy spoiler-tastic prologue in a lunatic asylum. The patient is our narrator and heroine Anna ‘Needy’ Lesnicki. Ignore the posters and top billing, this is Amanda Seyfried’s film rather than Megan Fox’s. Seyfried plays a dork (Cody disappointingly conveys this thru her wearing glasses and writing for the school newspaper) who is best friends forever with mean cheerleader Jennifer (Fox). Jennifer bullies Needy into attending a concert by indie band Low Shoulder at the town bar and after an inferno rips thru the venue Needy discovers that her BFF has changed from high school evil to actual evil…

Juno was a good film enlivened by a great lead performance but neither Seyfried nor Fox are in Ellen Page’s league, and the structure of this film is far less logical. There are two incredibly creepy images, of Jennifer smiling at Needy while dripping blood, and crouching spider-like over a dead body in a sequence inter-cut with Needy having sex, but many of the scares are too well signposted. There are some subversive touches – neither lead actually appears naked (despite the marketing of the film around Fox’s hotness) and the link between virginity and survival is reversed – but given the teenage characters’ pop culture reference points surely they’d know that that’s been done before (and better) by Scream. Even the feminist angle is underdeveloped apart from a few good lines. Compared to last year’s Teeth where violently misogynist males got castrated by a rampaging feminist there’s no vicious justice served up here by the choice of male victims.

JK Simmons, almost unrecognisable in a curly wig, is rather good in another subdued outing in a Cody script but supporting honours are stolen by Adam Brody’s cameo. Brody is awesome as the lead singer of indie band Low Shoulder, and this is not just my Seth Cohen obsession speaking. His turn could best be described as a Satanic version of Brandon Flowers. Indeed the bizarre scene where the action stops near the end of the film so that Jennifer can explain to Needy what actually happened near the start of the film between Low Shoulder and Jennifer is the best of the movie as the flashback is pitch-perfect comedy-horror, dripping with blood but eminently quotable. It is baffling why Cody didn’t go with that gory comedy-horror formula for the whole movie rather than just occasionally enliven routine shlock with her flair for bitchy comedic dialogue like this three-way repartee: “She can fly?!” “She’s just hovering, it’s not that impressive” “God, do you have to undercut everything I do?!”

This is fine Hallowe’en fare, with a satisfyingly vindictive super-powered final fight between humans and demons, but Juno fans should lower their expectations.

3/5

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