Talking Movies

June 14, 2012

Stay Hungry

I’ll be writing more in the near future about director Francis Lawrence in his own right, but for now let me emit a whoop of delight and a howl of despair regarding the Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire.

I have a very high regard for Lawrence and am delighted that he’s been given the chance to direct the sequel as I think his flair for suspenseful action directing and deliberately measured pacing, and his aversion to pointless shaky-cam, are precisely what Gary Ross failed to bring to the table. Regrettably along with the announcement that Lawrence was taking the directing helm came the unwelcome rider that two of my least favourite screenwriters are charged with crash-writing an adaptation of the novel for him to start shooting in August. Ross’ screenplay with novelist Suzanne Collins and (the enigma that is) Billy Ray mirrored his shooting style of showily out of focus backgrounds and close-in focus on the faces of his actors. His film was infuriatingly lacking in scope. Some of this was inexperience in action directing, leading to an inability to locate action within a coherent geography, but some was due to frankly bizarre decisions to leave things unsaid which should have been bellowed. When rebellion was whispered about we had almost no knowledge of the history of the rebellion or the current state of Panem and the districts it domineers. And these aren’t additions that necessitated reshoots, they could have been added in ADR; just take Katniss’ send-off of Rue which incites a riot in District 11. If you haven’t read the book you can only guess at what actual meaning this obviously meaningful symbol has (ditto Katniss’ wearing of a Mockingjay); would it have killed Ross to have Wes Bentley ADR over a shot of his back in the control room a horrified “My God! She’s making the salute of the Rebellion!”?

All these problems could be fixed quickly in the opening of the second film, but that Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt are entrusted with the job. I’ve previously berated Beaufoy over his adaptation of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen which sent me scurrying to read the book, which he infuriatingly reversed in multiple respects. Novelist Paul Torday’s dry comedy and political satire was sacrificed at the altar of Beaufoy’s insistence on characters not getting what they want, but instead getting what (they didn’t know) they need; which delivered only clichéd rom-com relationship drama. Fred’s wife was hilariously self-involved in the novel, but largely absent in the film; a synecdoche of how the realism of the novel and its blackly comic conclusion were all completely reversed. Beaufoy’s reversals culminated in the introduction of a romantic obstacle in the third act which made me groan, and later enraged me when I realised that everything I hated most in the film as cliché was delightfully subverted in the novel. Beaufoy also ‘adapted’ Vikas Swarup’s brutal novel Q & A into the disingenuously feel-good Slumdog Millionaire so I despair at what he’ll do to Catching Fire to make it a ‘well-made-screenplay’. And then Michael Arndt will polish the adaptation… Little Miss Sunshine may have won a screenplay for Best Oscar but I passionately hate it as perhaps the supreme example of the maddeningly cutesy indie clichés that win Oscar nominations needed for marketing purposes; from the quirk by numbers characters, to the complete lack of anything approaching emotionally authentic personal relationships, and the ending that solves absolutely none of the characters’ problems but provides a three-card-trick ‘subversive’ feel-good ending.

Jennifer Lawrence will be fantastic again as Katniss Everdeen, but Francis Lawrence can’t fix a screenplay and direct at the same time.

April 16, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Paul Torday’s acclaimed comic novel is brought to life by a top British cast, but screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and director Lasse Hallstrom sabotage the comedy.

Ewan McGregor is Dr. Fred Jones, a humdrum fisheries scientist who is whisked out of his quiet existence in London by an implausible fishery project in the Middle East on the insistence of his superiors; themselves bullied by Kristin Scott Thomas’ terrifying spin-doctor Patricia Maxwell, who sees an opportunity for a rare good news story about British involvement in the region. He begins working for a Yemeni Sheikh of such quiet assuredness and obviously good intentions that Fred’s misgivings slowly melt away. As he becomes more committed to the success of the scheme Fred also steadily becomes more besotted with the Sheikh’s English project manager Harriet (Emily Blunt), to the increasing displeasure of his icy wife Mary (Rachel Stirling). Harriet, however, is pining for her MIA soldier boyfriend Robert (Tom Mison), and Fred is equally oblivious to Al-Qaeda’s murderous objections to the Sheikh’s westernising dream…

There is some wonderful comedy in this film, a highlight being Fred’s patronising doodling on a whiteboard to explain to Harriet how ridiculous the whole project is. But there aren’t enough jokes to really make this work as a comedy. McGregor is on subdued form as the straight man, with irritating references to Asperger’s thrown in to make his awkwardness part of a new cliché zeitgeist. Blunt effortlessly moves from casually charming to emotionally raw, and Amr Waked is on fine form as the charismatic Sheikh who equates fishing with universal brotherhood, but the best scenes come from Scott Thomas’ domineering Press Secretary. All her scenes are delightful; whether she’s harassing the P.M. with IMs re-shuffling his Cabinet for him, terrorising her minions with an instruction to find a good news story from the Middle East in 60 minutes, or verbally abusing her own children.

A bad adaptation sends you scurrying to the book in frustration or bewilderment – looking for more depth or to discover if the original story was poor. Beaufoy’s script made me read the book, which he’s infuriatingly reversed in many respects; just as he ‘adapted’ Vikas Swarup’s brutal Q & A into Slumdog Millionaire. Torday’s dry comedy and political satire is sacrificed at the altar of Beaufoy’s insistence on characters not getting what they want, but instead getting what (they didn’t know) they need; which delivers only clichéd rom-com relationship drama. Fred’s wife is hilariously self-involved in the novel, but largely absent here; a synecdoche of how the realism of the novel and its blackly comic conclusion are all completely reversed. Beaufoy’s reversals culminate in the introduction of a romantic obstacle in the third act which should elicit groans…

This is a prime example of a film that is structurally as sound as a bell, and therefore excruciatingly predictable viewing.

2/5

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…

March 15, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

There’s been an odd prevalence of live blogs surrounding this year’s “goddamn meat-parade” – as George C Scott so memorably described the Oscars. This blog did not do a live commentary on the Oscars for three reasons. Firstly, I rather like sleeping at night and think that many other people share this strange attitude. Secondly, I don’t believe that even Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie writing together could possibly write anything funny or insightful enough LIVE! to justify a live blog. Thirdly, the Oscars are (whisper it) (no in fact bellow it!) POINTLESS!

There are 5,777 voting members of the Academy. These individuals do not have a better idea of what makes a great film than any other 5,777 random individuals around the world. There was a reason that JFK told Ben Bradlee what he’d learned from the Bay of Pigs was this – “Don’t assume that because a man is in the army that he necessarily knows best about military strategy”. If you doubt that consider these three facts.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Alfred Hitchcock, director of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, was not truly exceptional enough in his field to win a Best Director Oscar.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, was.

The Academy nominated both Apocalypse Now and Kramer Vs Kramer for Best Picture of 1979 and thought that the film which would have most impact on popular culture, which pushed the boundaries of film-making, and which would endure and be fondly remembered was…Kramer Vs Kramer. I love the smell of dumbness in the Kodak.

According to the Academy the best 10 films of the Zeros were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker.

Not Memento, Moulin Rouge!, The Two Towers, Master & Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Good Night and Good Luck, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

Or Amores Perros, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rules of Attraction, X-2, Mean Girls, Brick, The Prestige, Zodiac, Hunger and Up in the Air.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that Christoph Waltz gave a great performance in Inglourious Basterds. We don’t need the Academy’s nominations to help us tell the difference between a good blockbuster with commercial clichés and a bad Oscar-baiter with its own set of equally rigid (but more idiotic because they’re ‘edgy’) clichés (Little Miss Sunshine, I’m looking at you). Maggie Mayhem tells Bliss in Whip It “Be your own hero”. Follow her advice, trust your own instincts…

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