Talking Movies

September 1, 2015

Six Years, what a surprise

Filed under: Talking Movies,Talking Nonsense,Talking Television,Talking Theatre — Fergal Casey @ 10:06 pm
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Previous milestones on this blog have been marked by features on Michael Fassbender and a vainglorious, if requested, list (plays to see before you die). But as today marks exactly six years since Talking Movies kicked off in earnest on Tuesday September 1st 2009 with a review of (500) Days of Summer I’ve rummaged thru the archives for some lists covering the various aspects of the blog’s expanded cultural brief.

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Top 6 Films

There’s been a lot of films given a write-up and a star rating hereabouts. So many films. Some fell in my estimation on re-watching, others steadily increased in my esteem, and many stayed exactly as they were.

 

Here are my favourites of the films I’ve reviewed over the past six years:

 

Inception

X-Men: First Class

Shame

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Skyfall

Mud

 

And that’s a selection from this list…

Iron Man, Indiana Jones 4, Wolverine, (500) Days of Summer, Creation, Pandorum, Love Happens, The Goods, Fantastic Mr Fox, Jennifer’s Body, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Bright Star, Glorious 39, The Box, Youth in Revolt, A Single Man, Whip It!, The Bad Lieutenant, Eclipse, Inception, The Runaways, The Hole 3-D, Buried, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Let Me In, The Way Back, Never Let Me Go, Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D, Win Win, X-Men: First Class, The Beaver, A Better Life, Project Nim, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie, The Art of Getting By, Troll Hunter, Drive, Demons Never Die, The Ides of March, In Time, Justice, Breaking Dawn: Part I, The Big Year, Shame, The Darkest Hour 3-D, The Descendants, Man on a Ledge, Martha Marcy May Marlene, A Dangerous Method, The Woman in Black, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 3-D, Margaret, This Means War, Stella Days, Act of Valour, The Hunger Games, Titanic 3-D, The Cabin in the Woods, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lockout, Albert Nobbs, Damsels in Distress, Prometheus, Red Tails, Red Lights, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3-D, Ice Age 4, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 2, My Brothers, The Watch, Lawless, The Sweeney, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Liberal Arts, Sinister, Hit and Run, Ruby Sparks, On the Road, Stitches, Skyfall, The Sapphires, Gambit, Seven Psychopaths, Lincoln, Men at Lunch – Lon sa Speir, Warm Bodies, A Good Day to Die Hard, Safe Haven, Arbitrage, Stoker, Robot and Frank, Parker, Side Effects, Iron Man 3, 21 and Over, Dead Man Down, Mud, The Moth Diaries, Populaire, Behind the Candelabra, Man of Steel 3-D, The East, The Internship, The Frozen Ground, The Wolverine, The Heat, RED 2, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Diana, Blue Jasmine, How I Live Now, Thanks for Sharing, Escape Plan, Like Father, Like Son, Ender’s Game, Philomena, The Counsellor, Catching Fire, Black Nativity, Delivery Man, 12 Years a Slave, Devil’s Due, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mr Peabody & Sherman 3-D, Dallas Buyers Club, The Monuments Men, Bastards, The Stag, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Calvary, Magic Magic, Tracks, Hill Street, X-Men: Days of Future Past 3-D, Benny & Jolene, The Fault in Our Stars, 3 Days to Kill, Boyhood, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3-D, SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, God’s Pocket, Hector and the Search for Happiness, The Expendables 3, What If, Sin City 2, Let’s Be Cops, The Guest, A Most Wanted Man, Wish I Was Here, Noble, Maps to the Stars, Life After Beth, Gone Girl, Northern Soul, The Babadook, Interstellar, The Drop, Mockingjay – Part I, Electricity, Birdman, Taken 3, Wild, Testament of Youth, A Most Violent Year, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Son of a Gun, Patrick’s Day, Selma, It Follows, Paper Souls, Home 3-D, While We’re Young, John Wick, A Little Chaos, The Good Lie, Let Us Prey, The Legend of Barney Thomson, Hitman: Agent 47.

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Top 6 Film Features

There’s been a lot of film features, from me obsessing over ignored inflation at the box-office and omnipresent CGI on the screen to the twaddle of Oscar ceremonies and thoroughly bogus critical narratives of New Hollywood.

 

Here are my favourite film features from the last six years:

 

A Proof – Keanu Can Act

Snyder’s Sensibility

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree

5 Reasons to love Tom at the Farm

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

 

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Top 6 TV Features

There’s been quite a bit of musing about TV here, usually in short-form howls about The Blacklist or other such popcorn irritants, but sometimes in longer format, like two disquisitions on Laurence Fishburne’s stint in CSI.

 

Here are my favourite TV features from the last six years:

 

TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimensions In Smartness

Double Exposure: Cutter’s Way/House M.D.

Medium’s Realism    

2ThirteenB Baker Street, Princeton

Funny Bones

An Arrow of a different colour

 

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Top 6 Plays

Since I decided to start reviewing plays in summer 2010 there’s been a steady stream of reviews from the Dublin Theatre Festival and regular productions at the Gate, the Abbey, the Olympia, the Gaiety, and Smock Alley.

 

Here are my favourites of the plays I’ve reviewed over the last six years:

 

John Gabriel Borkman

The Silver Tassie

Pygmalion

Juno and the Paycock

The Select: The Sun Also Rises

A Whistle in the Dark

 

And that’s a selection from this list:

Death of a Salesman, Arcadia, Phaedra, John Gabriel Borkman, Enron, The Silver Tassie, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Attempts on Her Life, Pygmalion, Translations, Hay Fever, Juno and the Paycock, Peer Gynt, Slattery’s Sago Saga, Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, Big Maggie, Hamlet, Improbable Frequency, Alice in Funderland, Glengarry Glen Ross, Travesties, The House, The Plough and the Stars, The Lark, Dubliners, The Select: The Sun Also Rises, A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming, The Talk of the Town, King Lear, Major Barbara, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Critic, Desire Under the Elms, Neutral Hero, Macbeth, A Skull in Connemara, The Vortex, An Ideal Husband, Twelfth Night, Aristocrats, Ballyturk, Heartbreak House, The Actor’s Lament, Our Few and Evil Days, Bailegangaire, Spinning, She Stoops to Conquer, The Walworth Farce, The Caretaker, The Man in Two Pieces, Hedda Gabler, The Gigli Concert, A Month in the Country, The Shadow of a Gunman, The Importance of Being Earnest, Bob & Judy, By the Bog of Cats.

 

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Top 6 Colour Pieces

It must be admitted that I’ve written fewer colour pieces for the blog than I would have liked, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the occasional adventures of Hollywood insider Micawber-Mycroft; a homage to PG Wodehouse’s Mr Mulliner.

 

Here are my favourite colour pieces from the last six years:

 

How to Watch 300

Mark Pellegrino gets ambitious

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: Apocalypse Now

Micawber-Mycroft explains nervous action directing

Alfred & Bane: Brothers in Arms

Kristen Bell, Book and Candle

 

Six years, my brain hurts a lot…

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June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

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

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

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

Cowboys and Aliens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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