Talking Movies

October 22, 2020

Any Other Business: Part LXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

It’s March, Bones, but not as we knew it, not as we knew it, not as we knew it then

Something approaching a red alert

Now is the winter of our discontent… Etc. Hours before the clock struck midnight and we entered Level 5, a return to a modified form of the panicked lockdown of March and April, news leaked that the number of coronavirus cases in schools were actually surging. But no matter, the important thing is that most people stay under house arrest for six weeks, while the schools stay open. If the numbers don’t improve, we will be chided for our complacency, rather than the schools being shuttered just to see if that might make a difference. The 5 Level plan fell apart from the moment it was announced Dublin was between two of the stages. The Engineer held forth last week to me that all we needed was a simple 3 Level plan — 1) basic precautions 2) things are hotting up 3) lock it down — and simple empirical thresholds to trigger those transitions, like 14-day new cases/per 100,000 population figures applied by county. Instead we have had our own ‘chaotic disaster’ of illogic, inconsistency, endless leaking by Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris, and pointless back and forth. And what frustrates more than all is the insistence that the schools stay open, even though this logically consistently offends against reason when all gatherings are bad, all indoor gatherings are very bad, but schools are somehow magically grand.

I for one have this vision of —-Level 6: Apocalypse—

BUT THE SCHOOLS STAY OPEN

Trop de Grand Tours

Yesterday while watching Eurosport manfully attempt to cover the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta Espana at the same time my mind rebelled. I had slowly realised that the Giro seemed light on big names this year after Geraint Thomas was invalided out, and then when watching highlights showing Roglic pipping Alaphillipe for Liege-Bastogne-Liege I figured out that if they were there then many big names had skipped the Giro because it overlapped with the Vuelta. The Vuelta was therefore the bigger race. But watching them both in these past few days has been an unnerving experience. I have literally started to feel cold just from watching the unusual vistas: there is something karmically wrong about Grand Tour cycling in the late autumn, indeed the Vuelta is going to hurtle into November. And even when temperatures were still high in Sicily the landscapes looked autumnal, and increasingly desolate. Not exactly the mood you usually get from the sun-kissed tours. And not exactly the mood you want to imprint on yourself for six weeks of strictest lockdown either…

August 26, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXV

As the title suggests, so forth.

I tell you R-Patz, I just can’t stop washing my hands lately. You’d think I’d been reading Heidegger or something.

The End of Cinema, or at least American-led cinema

And so Tenet is here. Eventually. The most anticipated summer blockbuster of 2020 might also be the only summer (or autumn or winter) blockbuster of 2020 that actually gets released in cinemas. But not in America. I am still tentative about venturing to a cinema for the first time since the coronavirus arrived, but it’s a dilemma. There is no such dilemma Stateside, because Tenet is not being released in America. In some senses this merely makes painfully obvious what was already to be gleaned from statistical analysis of say Transformers or Fast and Furious: major American movies make more money overseas than in America. But the risk, to simply cut off the American market and throw it away as unnecessary, is still breathtaking on the part of Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. And it seems, in this week of make-believe by Donald Trump that everything is rosy in the Rose Garden, that the pandemic has been defeated by his amazing leadership, that the roaring economy is now roaring again in a V shaped recovery, to take on an almost mythic cultural and political heft. The free world has given up on America providing any sort of leadership, and now even America’s own dream factory has given up on America. Americana still sells overseas, but the country itself is no longer a viable market.

There is an idea of a United States of America, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real country, only an entity, something illusory, and though it can hide its cold heart and you can see its flag-waving and hear its anthem deafening your ears and maybe you can even sense its values are probably comparable: it simply is not there.

Tarantino misreads 1960s television

When I returned home last August from watching Quentin Tarantino make shameful pigswill of reality with his nonsense version of the Manson Family Murders I watched the end of Kill Bill: Volume 2 randomly playing on TV and then turned on True Movies for their late night re-runs of The Man from UNCLE, and this only increased my annoyance with QT for also shamefully calumning late 1960s TV. Cinematographer Robert Richardson has noted that Tarantino deliberately included camera moves in the Western pilot that our hero Rick Dalton appears in that would have been utterly impractical for the era. Taken beside how he presents Rick’s appearance in the real show The FBI as a bad joke, you’d be hard put not to think that Tarantino is implying 1960s television was a waste of time. Which is odd given how he’s been perpetually circling a movie based on a 1960s TV show – Star Trek. The truth is that 1960s television was actually pretty good: The Prisoner, The Avengers, The Fugitive, The Man from UNCLE, Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Thunderbirds, Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-O, The Monkees, Batman, The Invaders, Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, Doctor Who, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Hogan’s Heroes, Rawhide, The Champions,  Land of the GiantsGilligan’s Island, Get SmartThe Munsters, My Favourite Martian, The Addams FamilyFlipper, The Flinstones, Joe 90, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the MysteronsDad’s ArmySteptoe and Son. Ask yourself why pop culture would still be in thrall to so many of these shows if they were all a bad joke…

February 23, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXV

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a blog post proper? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-fifth pormanteau post on matters of course!

Reruns receiving runaround

I’ve previously lamented the attitude of millenials who veritably trashed a screening of Halloween in the Lighthouse with their stunning contempt for anything dating from before last Tuesday never mind anything dating from before they were born. I had a sudden realisation the other day; perhaps their attitude is born of ignorance in more ways than one – to wit, they were never exposed to anything from the past when they were children. The rise of reality TV has filled acres of airtime with witless trash in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. (And night too sometimes). Look at the location location location of someone coming to dine in an escape to a new home abroad while flogging antiques on an Alaskan trip from a survivalist farm to the lobster pots. All those hours used to be filled with reruns. That is where as a child I soaked up the culture of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s: The Phil Silvers Show, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Hogan’s Heroes, Star Trek, The Man from UNCLE, The Champions, The Avengers, Land of the Giants, The Prisoner, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, Batman, Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, The Munsters, My Favourite Martian, Lost in Space, The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, Flipper, Mission: Impossible, The Flinstones, The Invaders, The Time Tunnel, Gentle Ben, Thunderbirds, Joe 90, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the MysteronsThe Fugitive, Dad’s ArmyColumbo, The Incredible Hulk, Happy Days, Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em, The Two Ronnies, Shoestring, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Minder, Benny Hill, Citizen Smith, Three’s Company, The Bionic Woman, Mork and Mindy, Battlestar GalacticaDiff’rent Strokes, Grizzly AdamsThe New Avengers, Doctor Who, Blake’s SevenThe Dukes of Hazzard, The Muppets, Tales of the UnexpectedWonder Woman, and later Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son, The Prisoner, The Rockford Files, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, SykesKojak, and Starsky and Hutch. By the contemptible logic of ‘Ugh, I wasn’t born then’ I shouldn’t have bothered watching any of those shows. But those shows informed me to a huge degree: I remained aloof from general hysteria about The X-Files because I saw Mulder and Scully investigating bizarre murders as an American reworking with less suavity and more seriousness of Steed and Mrs Peel investigating bizarre murders. And I don’t think possessing a mite of historical objectivity to avoid passing moments of total hysteria is a bad thing to absorb from TV.

What ho, Clive Exton!

Well knock me down with a feather but I’ve just discovered that Clive Exton more or less decided what I was going to read for a good chunk of the 1990s and I never even knew. It turns out this Exton chappie was not only the scribbler who adapted PG Wodehouse all by his lonesome for all 23 spiffing episodes of Jeeves & Wooster starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, but before that he also was the main writer for David Suchet’s celebrated Poirot. Blimey! I mean once one knows the connections jump at one, don’t you know? The absurd moments of physical comedy with Hastings, the mischievous poking fun at Poirot’s vanity, above all the double act of the man about town who hasn’t a clue and the fussy man behind him who knows everything. You could almost view some of the funnier episodes of Hastings being a nitwit while Poirot solves everything as a dry run for Exton’s next series. And I lapped up both those shows as they ran simultaneously, without ever noticing it was the same Johnnie behind them both! Well, I mean to say, what? I might as well have taken Exton’s correspondence course on what to read for five years as just plunge in to Christie and Wodehouse as I did.

July 13, 2018

At least we still have… : Part III

The third entry in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

‘This Deal’s Getting Worse All The Time’ is a marvel. I saw this sketch roughly a decade ago and rediscovered it recently, and couldn’t credit it how I could ever have forgotten it in the intervening years. Its 60 seconds are relentless in upping the ante with the constant repetition of ever more ludicrous alterations to the deal. The background shudders of laughter from Bobba Fett and the Stormtroopers are a joy, as are the particulars of Darth Vader’s humiliating alterations, and the icing on the cake is the voice of Lando himself, Billy Dee Williams, enabling all this nonsense.

‘Wrong Place Wrong Time’ reminds me of the sequence in Angel season 2 where an episode followed a villain who’d been disarmed by Angel in the season 1 finale and we saw the mundanity of pulling on shirts with one hand, looping pre-knotted ties over his neck, and looking in depression at his gathering dust guitar. But that this is not a Whedonesque fleshing out of a villain, but rather a Stoppardian absurdist tangent following the minor players in someone else’s story, with even more absurdity in its conception than that which Stoppard deployed when fleshing out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

What can one say about ‘Dr Ball MD’? Beyond that it is screamingly funny, and typical of the Robot Chicken approach to Star Wars. Take a ‘character’ onscreen for a few seconds in one Star Wars movie, give it a life of its own by granting it a personality combining Bones from Star Trek and Quincy ME, run up some idiotic 1970s TV show title credits, and then use this to mock the prequels and poke fun at moments in the original trilogy. And, once again, just like ‘This Deal’s Getting Worse All The Time’, all done within 60 seconds.

January 31, 2018

1967

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January 18, 2016

2016: Fears

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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

January 29th sees the release of a small (a mere $50 million dollar) personal movie by an auteur, truly un film de Michel Bay. Six military contractors (including The Office’s John Krasinski, 24’s James Badge Dale, and The Unit’s Max Martini) make a desperate last stand when a US consulate in Libya is attacked on the anniversary of 9/11. Chuck Hogan (The Town, The Strain), of all people, writes for Bay to direct; with the resulting Bayhem being memorably characterised by The Intercept as Night of the Living Dead meets The Green Berets.

Zoolander 2

February 12th sees the release of the sequel nobody was particularly asking for… It’s been 14 since Zoolander. An eternity in cinematic comedy as the Frat Pack glory days have long since yielded to the School of Apatow; itself fading of late. Seinfeld has refused reunions noting that the concept of his show becomes depressing with aged characters, but Stiller apparently has no such qualms about airhead models Derek (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) being on the catwalk. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kristen Wiig and Penelope Cruz bring new energy, but an air of desperation/cynicism hangs over this project.

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Gods of Egypt

February 26th sees Bek (Brenton Thwaites) forced to align with Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) when the god of darkness Set (Gerard Butler) assumes control of Egypt in a truly stupid blockbuster. But not as stupid as the reception it can look forward to after Deadline’s Ross A. Lincoln wrote “based on the statuary and monuments that have survived, not to mention thousands of years of other cultures commenting on them, they definitely weren’t white people with flowing, curly blond locks, and their gods were definitely not Europeans.” Lincoln’s argument dynamites Idris Elba’s role in Thor, which is not permissible, so logically (sic) it’s now racist to not depict the Egyptian gods as Egyptian, but it’s also racist to depict the Norse gods as Norse. If the gods of Egypt ought to look Egyptian, who, that’s bankable, can play them? Amir Arison, Mozhan Marno, Sarah Shahi, and Cliff Curtis wouldn’t merit a $140 million budget. And casting them because (barring the Maori Curtis) they hail from nearer Egypt than Gerard Butler, but are not actually Egyptian, is itself racist. Does Alex (Dark City) Proyas, who hasn’t directed anything since 2009, really deserve this firestorm for just trying to work?

Hail, Caesar!

The Coens stop writing for money and return to directing on March 4th with a 1950s Hollywood back-lot comedy. A lighter effort than Barton Fink, this follows Josh Brolin’s fixer as he tries to negotiate the return of George Clooney’s kidnapped star from mysterious cabal ‘The Future’ with the help of fellow studio players Channing Tatum, Alden Ehrenreich, and Scarlett Johansson. The relentlessly mean-spirited Inside Llewyn Davis was a surprise aesthetic nadir after True Grit’s ebullience, so we can only hope the return of so many of their repertory players can galvanise the Coens to rediscover some warmth.

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Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

Zack Snyder gave us the neck-snap heard around the world in Man of Steel. On March 25th he continues his visionary misinterpretation of Superman, and can also ruin Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, Alfred Pennyworth, and Doomsday. Ben Affleck and Jeremy Irons entice as Bruce and Alfred, and Affleck has undoubtedly got the script punched up by inserting his Argo scribe Chris Terrio into the mix, but Snyder is still directing. How Snyder ever got the keys to the DC cinematic kingdom is amazing, but when if he blows this he cripples The WB.

The Neon Demon

Keanu Reeves made a comeback in 2015 with John Wick and Knock Knock. But can he impart some of that momentum to Nicolas Winding Refn to help him recover from the unmerciful kicking he got for Only God Forgives? Refn is working on a third of Drive’s budget for this horror tale of Elle Fanning’s wannabe actress who moves to LA, to find her vitality drained by a coven led by Christina Hendricks. Details are very sparse, other than that it’s about ‘vicious beauty,’ but this could be intriguing, blood-spattered, gorgeous, and enigmatic, or a total fiasco…

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The Avengers 3 Captain America: Civil War

Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors who gave you the worst choreographed and edited fight scenes you’d ever seen in Captain America 2, return with …more of the same, because why bother doing it better when you’ll go see it anyway? May 6th sees Mark Millar’s comic-book event become a camouflaged Avengers movie as Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans’ superheroes fall out over the fate of Sebastian Stan’s reformed Bucky. Expect incomprehensible fights, the occasional decent action sequence, wall to wall fake-looking CGI, and more characters than Game of Thrones meets LOST.

Snowden

The master of subtlety returns on May 12th as Oliver Stone continues his quest to make a good movie this century. His latest attempt is a biopic of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose distrust of the American government should be catnip to Stone’s sensibilities. Zachary Quinto is journalist Glenn Greenwald, Shailene Woodley is Snowden’s girlfriend, and supporting players include Timothy Olyphant, Nicolas Cage, and Melissa Leo. Expect a hagiography with stylistic brio, and no qualms about whether the next large building that blows up might be on Snowden for blowing the lid on how terrorists were monitored.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Oscar Isaac is Apocalypse, the first mutant, worshipped for his godlike powers, who awakes in alt-1980 and turns Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to the dark side as one of his Four Horsemen alongside Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Angel (Ben Hardy). James McAvoy loses his hair from the stress of being upstaged by the powers of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and the ever-increasing star-power of Jennifer Lawrence. Director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-fold in 2014 was a triumph, but rushing this out for May 27th invites disaster; can enough time really have been spent on scripting?

Warcraft

Duncan Jones completes the Christopher Nolan career path by moving from Moon to Source Code to Warcraft. June 10th sees Vikings main-man Travis Fimmel daub on blue face-paint as Anduin Lothar. The battle with the Orcs has an interesting cast including Ben Foster, Toby Kebbell, Paula Patton, Dominic Cooper, and the great character actors Clancy Brown and Callum Keith Rennie. But its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Has there ever been a truly great adaptation of a computer game to a movie? And if Warcraft’s a good movie that’s unfaithful to the game will gamers stay away?

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Finding Dory

June 17th sees another unnecessary unwanted sequel to a beloved early Zeroes film. Why exactly do we need a sequel to Finding Nemo? Besides it being a post-John Carter retreat into an animated safe space for director Andrew Stanton? Marlin (Albert Brooks) sets out to help forgetful Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) find her long-lost parents, who are voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy. Other voices include Ty Burrell as a beluga whale, Kaitlin Olson as Dory’s whale shark adopted sister, and Ed O’Neill as an ill-tempered octopus. Stanton is writing too, but can aquatic lightning really strike twice?

Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek marks its 50th anniversary with this reboot threequel on July 8th, but the recent trailer didn’t whet any appetites. Despite having Furious maestro Justin Lin in charge and Simon Pegg as the final writer on a script with 5 credited scribes the footage was solely notable for (a) Kirk’s bad hair (b) a vaguely Star Trek: Insurrection with gaudier colours vibe (c) forced attempts at humour. Star Trek Into Darkness was a frustrating exercise in creative cowardice, a flipped photocopy of Star Trek II. Let us hope this time originality has been actively sought out.

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Ghostbusters

July 15th sees… another reboot. Paul Feig couldn’t stow his ego and just direct Dan Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters 3 script, so… “REBOOT!”. Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig are great, but Feig wrote this with Katie Dippold (who penned his execrable ‘comedy’ The Heat) so it won’t be. Feig’s drivel about gender-swapping hides an obvious truth. The Ghostbusters were all male because Akyroyd and Ramis wrote for themselves, SNL pal Murray, and Eddie Murphy; when Murphy dropped out, Zeddmore’s part shrank as his jokes were redistributed. Feig’s Ghostbusters are all female to cynically reposition attacks on his creative bankruptcy as sexism.

Doctor Strange

November 4th sees Benedict Cumberbatch swoosh his cape as Stephen Strange, (That’s Dr. Strange to you!), an arrogant surgeon taught magick by Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. Director Scott Derrickson is perhaps hoping to mash his resume of Sinister and The Day The Earth Stood Still, especially as Sinister co-writer C Robert Cargill has polished this. Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Rachel McAdams co-star, but before we get excited, this is Marvel. Marvel took the outré world of comic-books and cinematically rendered it as predictable, conservative, self-aggrandising, boring tosh. How off the leash do you bet Derrickson will get?

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The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Kit Harington is the titular movie star who is undone when Jessica Chastain’s gossip columnist reveals his correspondence with a young girl, and an unreasoning witch-hunt begins. And it’s the first movie written and directed by Xavier Dolan in English! So, why Fears not Hopes, you ask? Because Dolan in a BBC Radio 4 interview expressed nervousness that he didn’t instinctively understand English’s nuances the way he did with French, and because with big names (Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Michael Gambon) comes pressure to tone down material and make a commercial breakthrough.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Didn’t you always desperately want to know the back story of that throwaway line about how brave rebels died to smuggle out the plans for the Death Star? … Whaddya mean ‘No’?!! Do you have any idea how much money Disney has on the line here?? You damn well better develop an interest by December 16th when Oppenheimer of the Empire Mads Mikkelsen has a crisis of conscience and enlists the help of his smuggler daughter Felicity Jones. Disney paid 4 billion for the rights to Star Wars, they retrospectively own your childhood now.

October 22, 2015

Getting Back to Back to the Future

Watching the Back to the Future trilogy yesterday for ‘Back to the Future Day’ made me think again about the Films You’d Love Your Kids To See season in the Lighthouse cinema this past summer.

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Back to the Future of course featured in that season. Time travel has never, ever been as much fun as 1980s teenager Marty McFly’s jaunt back to 1950s Hill Valley where he must ensure his teenage parents meet and fall in love to ensure his own future existence. Watching all three films you realised anew what a great double-act Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd were as Marty and Doc Brown, how stirring Alan Silvestri’s score was, the incredible 1980s-ness of everything, and just how sharp a script Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote. Watching the waves of nostalgia washing over ITV 2 yesterday you also wondered if the 1980s really was a golden age for kid’s films or if it’s just the generation that grew up with them wallowing in nostalgia for their own childhood rather than the films.

Back in the summer I wrote about the paradox of the Lighthouse encouraging adults to take their children to see films they had enjoyed as children. Your children cannot have the same childhood you had because films are part of a cultural matrix. You can’t separate them from the culture surrounding them. Observe Huey Lewis, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Star Wars, Star Trek and Japanese corporations in the Back to the Future trilogy. These are films of the 1980s, with all that means for politics, music, fashion, television, and on and on and on… To remember originally experiencing Back to the Future involves comics and annuals that accompanied it, which tied it together with a whole complex of movies; Ghostbusters, Short Circuit, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Goonies, E.T., The Karate Kid, Roger Moore’s Bonds; and television; Doctor Who, The Real Ghostbusters, Thundercats, Transformers, Mask, ALF, Family Ties, MacGyver, The A-Team, Knightrider. That’s some fearsome nostalgia.

But in a smartphone age there is something retro not just about making children experience movies with hundreds of people who have all ditched their phones to unite as an audience and groan as one at Indy being served monkey brains but also in showing them movies shot in such an old-fashioned way as Back to the Future. Robert Zemeckis recently said vis a vis The Walk that spectacle doesn’t just mean CGI. A close-up is cinematic spectacle, because close-ups don’t happen in reality. Look at all the moments in Back to the Future when Silvestri’s score tells you how to read a scene while Zemeckis moves the camera as outrageously as Hitchcock to draw your attention to something, convey importance, or just dazzle you. When Zemeckis unleashes the train pushing a DeLorean finale of Back to the Future: Part III it shames today’s blockbusters. This summer saw many action sequences that were neither choreographed nor legible, but simply CGI edited in a frenzy to create an impression of thrilling action. Zemeckis’ train finale by contrast, is so perfectly constructed, shot by shot, that a 1910s audience would comprehend it and thrill to it as Guido Silvestri hammered his piano.

Twitter went crazy because Back to the Future: Part II’s future day had arrived, but watching that 2015 sequence yesterday it was striking just how much of its vista of hoverboards and flying cars was realised practically. To say nothing of how the earliest cinema pioneers would have smiled approvingly at the lo-fi trick Zemeckis employed in the sequels to have multiple versions of Fox and Lloyd interacting with each other onscreen. And watching Zemeckis’ inspired writing partner Bob Gale effortlessly handle the parallel timelines chaos of Back to the Future: Part II’s time-travel antics you couldn’t help but sigh, remembering just how insultingly nonsensical Terminator: Genisys was. Zemeckis and Gale are no doubt appreciative of how beloved their work is, but Zemeckis probably wishes people would go see the movie he released last month instead of hyping one he made thirty years ago. Perhaps the takeaway from ‘Back to the Future Day’ is we get the movies we deserve.

Zemeckis & Gale had a horrible time getting their script greenlighted in the 1980s. But the idea that anybody would touch it with a bargepole now is fantasy. It’s not a sequel, it’s not based on a comic book, or a toy, or a TV show, or a YA novel, it is simply an original idea that happens to be cinematic lightning in a bottle. If we want films now that will be as beloved in 2045 as Back to the Future is now then we need to put our foot down: we want sharp scripts and properly choreographed action.

March 6, 2015

Top 5 Cinematic Spock Moments

To mark the passing of Leonard Nimoy here’s five of his best moments in the eight Star Trek movies he appeared in over 34 years.

 

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(5) Casuistry

“You lied!” “I exaggerated” “Hours instead of days! Now we have minutes instead of hours!” (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)

Saavik is horrified that her fellow Vulcan would have lied, but (too much hanging around with humans) Spock is adamant that his obfuscation was ethically just about acceptable, and justified tactically (therefore ethically too?) as it gave Kirk the element of surprise he needed against Khan.

 

(4) Etiquette

“Your knees’ll start shaking and your fingers pop/Like a pinch on the neck of Mr Spock” (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home)

Fine, that’s not dialogue from the movie, and that’s not what happens when you get the Vulcan nerve pinch. But it’s highly likely that the Beastie Boys had this scene in mind when writing those lyrics, as Spock’s wordless instruction in manners is a comedic delight.

 

(3) Destiny

“I have been, and always shall be, your friend” (Star Trek XI)

JJ Abrams’ reboot was a mixture of fantastic in-jokes and infuriating ret-conning. But the moment when Phantom Menace-level CGI business led young Kirk to a cave and a mysterious figure sent mythic shivers down my spine. Yes, there’s a certain introduction of Obi-Wan about things, but the passing of the franchise flame has a huge resonance.

 

(2) Memory

“Jim. Your name … is Jim?” (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock)

Star Trek III gets far too much abuse for a film featuring Christopher Lloyd chewing scenery as a Klingon, and the heartbreaking destruction of the Enterprise (“My God, Bones. What have I done?”) The moment when Kirk realises that their sacrifice has not been in vain, that Spock’s mind has survived, is a fitting finale.

 

(1) Logic

“Don’t grieve Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…” (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan)

The logical choice for best Spock moment is the scarred and dying Spock collecting himself to say goodbye to Kirk, and explain, with his best Benthamite utilitarianism, how his self-sacrifice for the sake of the ship and crew was the only possible choice he as a Vulcan could make. Like Michael Palin choosing Monty Python’s ‘Fish Dance’, you feel Leonard Nimoy would be happy to have this be the only piece of his work that remained: it says everything.

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…

December 22, 2011

Fanboys Vs Paul

At what point on the homage-o-meter does a film become so dependent for its laughs on just referencing other films that it simply ceases to exist in its own right?

I’m posing this question because I quite recently watched both Paul and Fanboys which are so referentially dependent that taking away that crutch of familiarity would cripple both. Paul would be less hobbled than Fanboys, because it’s operating on a higher level of comedic sureness, but the two films share the same basic DNA – nerds go on a road trip and things get very silly, with copious references to late 1970s/early 1980s pop culture, and Seth Rogen even appearing in both movies. There is obviously a huge difference in budgets between the two films, evident in looking at the star wattage of the casts. Sam Huntington, Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, and Kristen Bell for Fanboys weigh in substantially lighter than Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, and Kristen Wiig for Paul. But that’s not that clinching, throwing money at bad jokes doesn’t make them funny.

Huntington is a gifted comedian who was a sublime Jimmy Olsen, Jay Baruchel is a reliable comedic presence, and Kristen Bell rarely gets to be as awesome in film as she was as Veronica Mars but she’s always got that charisma in reserve. Dan Fogler, however, sums up the problem with Fanboys. I’ve been mystified by Fogler’s rise because I don’t think he’s particularly funny in Balls of Fury, Good Luck Chuck, or Fanboys. Indeed the only time I’ve been impressed by him was in Love Happens where in a straighter role than usual he was quite good, even damn good in one serious scene. Fanboys sees him purvey his usual brand of crude, physical humour (constant dry humping) and he puts so much obvious energy and commitment into his performance you actually feel bad singling him out as a synecdoche of the film’s failings.

Fanboys is a film where the script constantly falls back on crudity and slapstick and asks its performers to mug like hell to hide the shortcomings of the material. It is intermittently amusing, but, with some exceptions, those laughs come from references to the Star Wars film, or from the efforts of cameoing stars whose presence are the only reason jokes work – think Carrie Fisher saying “I know” when someone says “I love you”, or William Shatner boasting “I’m William Shatner, I can score anything”. Even Rogen’s dual roles only work because of the sublime moment where as a Trekkie his beloved Kirk statue is destroyed and he cradles it shouting “KHAAAAAAAAAAN!” Take away the famous actors in tiny roles, and you’re left with a deeply suspect attempt to graft an emotionally manipulative arc about a dying friend’s last wishes onto raucous road trip comedy.

Paul by contrast has a far less weighty arc that works much better. It just wants Pegg to get a girlfriend and Frost to finish writing his novel as the transformative result of encounter with runaway alien Paul. It’s a funnier film than Fanboys because, though Paul’s dialogue is crude and the Kristen Wiig sub-plot is foul-mouthed and oddly mean-spirited, there is still more comedic gold left when you sift away the referential gags. Those references to Lucas, Spielberg, Zemeckis and Landis are hysterically funny, not least the moment when our heroes walk into the Roadhouse to find the band playing the Cantina music. But they are equalled by the absurdity of Jason Bateman’s character name, and the peerless Kristen Wiig’s crestfallen reaction to Pegg telling her she ‘should go’, meaning to visit the UK, but she takes it as meaning to just go away.

Paul is better than Fanboys but, while it’s hilarious to see Paul offering Spielberg advice on the phone on creating E.T., does Paul just feature too many referential gags versus original gags compared to the previous two Pegg/Frost movies directed, and crucially co-written, by Edgar Wright? Sigourney Weaver’s appearance saw me start a mental timer until the line ‘Get away from her you bitch!’ was referenced, and of course it was. Are Pegg and Frost compensating for the loss of Wright’s flair for visual absurdity by gripping ever more tightly their pop culture talismans? If, by some miracle, you could find a viewer entirely unfamiliar with cinema and pop culture from 1974 onwards would they still find Paul, and especially Fanboys, funny at all? Or would they merely look baffled and say ‘I don’t get it, what’s meant to be so funny about that line?’ Obviously though such an ideal viewer is impossible as Lucas and Spielberg colonised the popular imagination in a manner most film-makers can only dream of.

Still, it must be asked at what point doffing the cap to Lucas and Spielberg becomes a despairing admittance of defeat at ever conjuring up something equal to their magic?

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