Talking Movies

June 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIV

As the title suggests, so forth.

2001: A very bad year

Well, I finally saw Evolution last weekend. Just because it was on. And because I was eating dinner. It was a sorta ambient film-watching experience. Watch 45 minutes. Tape the rest. Watch that during lunch the next day. Wonder then why I bothered watching any of it. Muse on not knowing about Head & Shoulders’ efficacy against aliens. Cheer on some truly minor TV actors in small roles. Wonder why on earth David Duchovny took the lead. Muse on whether its failure stopped him from parlaying his X-Files fame into a leading man career on the big screen. And then remember that, even though it was from the director of Ghostbusters, I’d skipped the film on purpose in 2001 from a complete lack of interest. A lack of interest not limited to Evolution. There were multiple reasons why I saw only eleven films in the cinema in 2001, an alarming number of them rep showings. But one of them is that the year 2001 was not a very good year for cinema. In fact it was by way of being a very bad year. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tigerland, which were 2001 highlights for me arrived here then but were actually 2000 films. And the hangover went the other way with Ocean’s 11 and Monsters Inc being 2002 experiences here. Shrek, Planet of the Apes, AI, Moulin Rouge!, The Others, The Fellowship of the Ring. These were the films of 2001 I saw on the biggest screens in the Savoy and Ormonde during 2001, and if not for the Antipodeans Luhrmann and Jackson unleashing immortal classics in the final four months of the year what a washout it would have been. I don’t know if anything can really be said to cause a slump the likes of which Hollywood experienced in 2001 but it was a slump for sure.

John Cusack: Former Film Star

John Cusack turned 54 yesterday which led me to the question: What in the hell happened to John Cusack? In what should have been the decade of his career in which he played a defining role, like Kirk Douglas in Spartacus or John Wayne in The Searchers, or Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko or Keanu Reeves as John Wick, the best that Cusack rose to as a fortysomething was his lead role in the minor Stephen King horror story 1408 and his hero repeatedly escaping just ahead of the shockwave(s) in Roland Emmerich’s over-egged disaster pudding 2012. What went wrong? How did he end up making so many films that were not released, barely released, or sunk without trace here? 1408 and Cell, his two Stephen King horrors with Samuel L Jackson, got cinema releases in late summer 2007 and 2016 – they almost neatly cordon off the decade of disaster under scrutiny, and the decline in Cusack’s celebrity, as the latter went to VoD before a very limited cinema release. Before 1408 came Grace is Gone and The Contract. Ring a bell? Nope… 2012 and Hot Tub Time Machine while not great films got wide releases and made money. The Raven and The Frozen Ground are better films but got less wide releases and made considerably less money. They also flag a recurring problem – there are way too many films here that merge together when you read the loglines; impressive casts assembled for some glossy crime thriller, involving a serial killer or assassination or heist: The Factory, The Numbers Station, The Bag Man, Drive Hard, The Prince, Reclaim. There’s even a Phone Booth–like appearance in Grand Piano. And what’s stranger is that in the midst of these formulaic films Cusack made We Are Not Animals in Argentina, about a Hollywood star fleeing formulaic films, and then went back to Hollywood to make more formulaic films. There have not been enough meaty roles like his older Brian Wilson in the split-focus biopic Love & Mercy. Instead he’s made cameos in The Paperboy, The Butler, Adult World, taken more substantial roles in glossy films that sank without trace (Dragon Blade, Shanghai), indie films that failed to connect (Maps to the Stars, Chi-Raq), and somehow bungled a spiritual sequel to his towering 90s achievement Grosse Pointe Blank in the shape of War, Inc. Cusack has not stopped working, and perhaps that’s the problem. Like Matthew McConaughey, he needs to say no to a looooot of scripts for a while if he wants to get back on track. Otherwise Cusack will continue to work steadily, but solely on trashy nonsense (constantly declining in quality), that is made for midnight drunken Netflix buffoonery, and clicked on increasingly only by people who remember that his was once a face that appeared on posters inside cinemas.

April 10, 2020

Top 5 Connery Bonds

As we now look forward to another 3 weeks of Status Burgundy, which by its sheer duration might be more appropriately thought of as Status House Arrest at this point, let us give thanks for ITV 4’s insistence on continually airing one of the crown jewels of 1960s cinema – the first five Connery Bonds.

5) Dr No

Joseph Wiseman’s titular Spectre agent is revealed late in the film with icy dinner party repartee and sets an impressive bar, as does Ken Adam’s first ever expansive supervillain lair. We see Bond’s home, something apparently forgotten by Mendes and Craig when it came to puffing up his minimalist flat in Spectre, and get some nice ruthlessness from 007: “You’ve had your six”. Ursula Andress’ memorable entrance as Honey Ryder rising from the sea set the marker for Bond girls’ glamour, but this is in retrospect a surprisingly grounded film with Bond doing some dogged detective work.

4) From Russia with Love

The second Bond film has no Ken Adam, busy creating Dr Strangelove’s War Room, but from the dashing title credits composer John Barry really starts to impose himself with his brass heavy, jauntily heroic secondary Bond theme. There is trade-craft aplenty but the action is a bit disconnected and notably bound to the location of Istanbul until the finale which pays homage to North by Northwest twice over with its espionage on a train and then a helicopter attack. Robert Shaw’s muscular psychotic and Lotte Lenya’s high-kicking Spectre supremo are hugely memorable as archetypal villains.

3) Thunderball

I have warmed to Kevin McClory’s Bond production in recent years. Ken Adam launched a thousand parodies with his modernist cavernous Spectre office, complete with lethal chairs, not to mention the Spectre agent du jour, eye-patched Emilio Largo, maintaining a pool for sharks to dispatch incompetent henchmen and MI6 gadflies. Claudine Auger’s Domino is a more than just a very pretty face, with a character arc climaxing in monumental brass. Elsewhere John Barry’s sinuously sinister descending woodwind motif conjures underwater intrigue before boisterously matching director Terence Young’s showy underwater battle and bravura carnival chase with Hitchcockian assassination attempt.

2) You Only Live Twice

The men in blue boiler suits versus the men in grey boiler suits as Stephen King put it. Ninjas versus Spectres: inside a VOLCANO. Ken Adam spent £1 million on the volcano set, complete with functioning monorail, gantry, lift, and full-scale rocket model. The next year Harold Wilson devalued sterling. John Barry created a suspenseful space march for Spectre’s extraterrestrial sabotage, as well as the signature use of his secondary Bond theme for Little Nellie’s helicopter battle. Donald Pleasance revealed to us at last the face of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, quipping from Roald Dahl’s fantasia.

1) Goldfinger

The most quoted exchange in all the Bond films; “Do you expect me to talk?” “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die”; sits among cinematic riches equivalent to Fort Knox. Ken Adam’s gargantuan and gleaming Fort Knox set, the garrulous Goldfinger and his lethal laser, the mute Oddjob and his lethal hat, Felix Leiter in the role of Triumph the insult comic dog. Honor Blackman, Shirley Eaton and Tania Mallet are the knockout trio of English blondes in the series’ ‘traditional’ roles of the bad girl who dies, the good girl who dies, and the bad girl who lives. Sean Connery is in fine mid-season form as 007, matched by Blackman’s characteristic swagger; her Pussy Galore helping save the day when John Barry’s stirring Goldfinger march complements Guy Hamilton’s gorgeous direction, with more subtle push-ins and zoom-outs than Terence Young ever considered.

March 22, 2020

At least we still have… : Part XI

The eleventh 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.

1980s flashback flashback

Which is to say that I was surprised to see this song appear on MTV Classic in a countdown of 1980s film hits, until I saw River Phoenix and Wil Wheaton appear beside an aged Ben E King in the video. Making this a flashback to the 1980s that was itself a flashback 25 years to when Ben E King as a young man had a worldwide smash with this in 1961.

Social Distancing

I have been watching rather a lot of MTV Classic in its pop-up MTV 80s guise recently. For obvious reasons. And I realised that the oxymoronic call for us all to come together by staying apart could almost see in the national psyche/soundtrack Ben E King’s song of love and solidarity be abruptly followed by The Police urging you to back up the minimum 3 feet for the love of God.

Status Red

And if we are putting together a playlist for these strange times then this would be the fitting final entry. The Specials weren’t actually singing about streets deserted because of fear of the coronavirus but…

October 31, 2019

From the Archives: Eastern Promises

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

London midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) tries to uncover the mystery surrounding a Russian teenager who died in childbirth. Her quest to translate the girl’s diary leads her into conflict with restaurant owner and crime-lord Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and his menacing foot-soldier Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).

Viggo Mortenson and director David Cronenberg follow their collaboration on A History of Violence with another film about a mysterious man connected to vicious criminals. Viggo Mortensen gives a tremendously committed lead performance. Most of his dialogue is in Russian and with his dark glasses, erect bearing, measured walk and slicked back hair he remains an enigmatic presence throughout. Cronenberg is very smart in avoiding the usual clichés about hitmen having a crisis of conscience. It’s impossible to guess the motivations of Viggo’s Nikolai and the film is all the more intriguing for it. It is also graphically violent, Cronenberg did after all give us the infamous exploding head scene in 1981’s Scanners. It’s hard not to think of Stephen King’s analysis of Psycho. Hitchcock, he claimed, served up such a big steak of violence early on with the shower scene that he was able to terrify the audience with just sizzle for the rest of the film because they feared another rare slice of gore. Cronenberg opens his film with a repulsively gruesome throat-slitting. This lends an air of tension to every scene with Mafioso that follows.

But Cronenberg doesn’t just use sizzle in Eastern Promises, we get a steak too, in what will become an infamous scene. A very naked Viggo has to defend himself at the Finsbury Public Baths against two men armed with linoleum knives in a fight twice as gruelling as that of The Bourne Ultimatum. Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain with its notoriously lengthy murder scene springs to mind here as there is a tour de force tracking shot by Cronenberg that ends in a violent act guaranteed to have audiences moaning. It’s worth noting here that the film is also surprisingly funny. Steven Knight, co-creator of Who Wants to be a Millionaire (seriously!), also wrote Dirty Pretty Things, another acclaimed picture of immigrants being exploited in London, but before that he was a comedy writer. The humour here is all the more potent for being so incongruous in the milieu of the Vory V Zakone criminal fraternity.

The acting is uniformly superb except for Vincent Cassell’s one note psychopath, the heir apparent Kirill. Naomi Watts excels opposite Viggo as the depressed midwife Anna driven to seek justice for the dead 14 year old victim of sex trafficking. She and her ordinary English mother (Sinead Cusack) and grouchy Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) are painfully powerless against the dangerous people she drags them into contact with in this dangerous quest, and we fear for them, especially against Armin Mueller-Stahl’s deceptively avuncular crime lord Semyon. This is an important film of great humanity but its graphic violence makes it hard to recommend wholeheartedly.

4/5

October 15, 2019

From the Archives: The Invasion

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

A NASA shuttle disintegrates on re-entry transmitting a deadly alien virus which removes people’s emotions. Can Claire (Nicole Kidman) keep her son safe from her infected ex-husband while a doctor (Daniel Craig) seeks to find a cure?

“And how many times must a film be remade, before it can be remade no more?” Bob Dylan didn’t say that but he didn’t have to sit through this baffling mess. The Invasion is archly titled to hide the fact that it is the third (!) remake of 1956 B-movie classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Directed by Don Siegel the original was a master-class of forced economy as he eschewed effects, instead creating an atmosphere of creeping unease and paranoia as the truth emerged. Siegel’s film was a political metaphor so effective it could chill the blood whether you regarded it as allegorical of McCarthyism or Communism. The original “pod-people” were polite…but a bit off, as Stephen King noted, they had no community spirit. By contrast the pod people in this film are all about community, they have no emotions but only because they seem to have achieved a blissful state of nirvana. But that’s not the first change to be noted.

The creeping unease and subtle exposition of Siegel’s version has been thrown out and replaced by an indecent haste to cut to the chase, which ironically makes the film less exciting as there’s no escalating paranoia. At points it looks like The Invasion was originally meant to be an intensely first person narrative from Nicole Kidman’s point of view with the presence of the pod people on the streets becoming ever more obvious and menacing. Sadly such subtlety, if that was the original intention, has been lost in the welter of changes made to Oliver Hirschbiegel’s original cut by the Wachowksi brothers. The constant jumpy cutting though betrays the heavy hand of studio executives as Hirschbiegel’s Downfall was replete with extended tracking shots while the Wachowkis have an elegance in visual storytelling entirely absent here.

Who knows who wrote what but it’s a safe bet the hilarious political message comes from the terminally confused Wachowski brothers whose V for Vendetta can easily be read as a paen to neo-conservatism if one was so michievously inclined….Here the pod people confront Nicole Kidman with the world they offer: no wars, no poverty, no rape, no murder, no exploitation of others because there are no others, we are all one. She promptly shoots them dead….as you begin scratching your head trying to figure out what on earth the film is trying to say. News reports show us Bush and Chavez signing trade agreements, the US occupation in Iraq coming to a joyous end, and generally world peace is breaking out all over. All of which will end if Daniel Craig’s doctor can find a cure for the alien virus. Craig gives the best performance but by the end even he looks defeated by the film’s logic…

1/5

September 8, 2019

Notes on IT: Chapter Two

The epic horror adaptation IT: Chapter Two was the film of the week earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

IT: Chapter Two is looooong. 2 hours 49 minutes long. It takes damn near as long to tell half the Stephen King story as the 1990 mini-series did to tell the whole story. And while there are undeniably good scares and some sequences of genuine dread, I came away with a feeling of dis-satisfaction; feeling that somehow the 1990 mini-series had done more in less time than this bloated shocker. Honest Trailers mocked the TV network censorship of the mini-series, and yet the almost parodic plethora of F-bombs masquerading as considered dialogue in this movie make you yearn for Taste & Decency. The practical effects of the Chinese restaurant scene are predictably swapped out for CGI, which of course isn’t nearly as effective a gross-out; and indeed the CGI gets so out of control that by the end we are confronted with the great cliche of our times – the giant swirling trashcan in the sky. I was always dubious about abandoning King’s structure to have a Losers Club as kids movie, and then a sequel if it went well, rather than the two-parter Cary Fukunaga intended which would flesh out King’s story with more detail and more gore.

Listen here:

September 6, 2019

From the Archives: 1408

This expedition into the pre-Talking Movies archives doth descry cynical writer John Cusack hacking out books debunking supposedly haunted houses. For the final chapter of his latest tome he checks into a notorious New York hotel room, only to find that this room is actually evil….

Stephen King’s work has been the source for nearly 100 films over the last 30 years and has provided many meaty acting roles. John Cusack, who had a minor role in Rob Reiner’s 1986 King adaptation Stand By Me, is on fine form here as the jaded writer Mike Enslin. The film’s opening act is surprisingly funny as Enslin remains mordantly undaunted despite the best efforts of hotel manager Gerald Olin to dissuade him from checking in to 1408. Even after the room turns on him Enslin’s jaded cynicism still enables him to deliver one-liners. Samuel L Jackson has very little screen time as Olin but is an absolute hoot in his best turn in some years. His delivery of the line “It’s an evil f***ing room” is guaranteed to elicit cheers.

Director Mikael Hafstrom impressively manages to ratchet up tension for pure shocks and also to comically undercut it. The entrance of Mike Enslin into room 1408 for the first time is particularly joyous as music, editing and camera angles all combine to create creeping dread. It’s difficult to discuss the plot without ruining it but suffice it to say that the horrors inflicted on Enslin began quite plausibly as the room sounds him out. Later the terrors become more nightmarish as it becomes clear that the room skims the subconsciousness of guests in order to inflict their darkest fears upon them. Mike Enslin is thus increasingly fleshed out as a character the more the room tries to scare the bejaysus of out him. We find out in snatches what it is that has made him so detached from people.

It’s important at this point to note that there is more humanity in 10 minutes of 1408 than in all of Eli (Hostel) Roth’s oeuvre. It is cheering to see a PG-13 horror film being made, and doing well, in the current climate. It proves that a good script complete with laughs, genuine jumps and a heart can still succeed. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski wrote Man on the Moon, Agent Cody Banks and the forthcoming Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Matt Greenberg, the other screenwriter, comes from a gory horror background but he’s been affected here by their sense of fun. It is impossible to enjoy any of those misogynistic exercises in cruelty like Hostel which have been rightly dubbed ‘torture porn’. 1408 is a throwback to the traditional horror film. It does not want you moaning in revulsion while covering your eyes, wondering why you paid money to see such inhuman barbarism, it wants to make you jump in fright and send you away smiling. For that intention and its successful execution it deserves an audience.

3/5

July 27, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XVIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

Phase IV

FilmFour are showing Phase IV, Saul Bass’ singular movie as director, very late next Friday night. So late it’s technically Saturday morning at 2:20am. But it’s well worth watching. Mayo Simon, who also scripted the sequel to Westworld and The Man from Atlantis in the 1970s, provides the screenplay very reflective of its time. 20 years after classic creature feature Them! where the ants were scary for their size these ants are scary for their smarts, and the product not of atomic anxiety but burgeoning green consciousness. Them!’s practical monsters are replaced by wildlife photographer’s Ken Middleham’s stellar close-up photography of real ants. Who knows whether FilmFour are showing the version which restores Saul Bass’ original trippy finale, but the journey to it is wonderful as scientists under siege in their laboratory start to suffer paranoia and panic as ants seemingly become intelligent and aggressive. Michael Murphy as the naive idealistic scientist is unrecognisable from his Manhattan jaded sophisticate, while Avengers stalwart Nigel Davenport is customarily redoubtable as the cynical older scientist; whose determination to overcome his arm swelling to giant and useless size from an ant bite earned a special mention from Stephen King in Danse Macabre.

Oh, you thought I meant Phase 4!

No. No, I generally don’t have that much interest in business plans or announcements of new product lines. There is as much excitement to be gathered from Disney’s blustering about their plans to bother cinemas with a conveyor belt of green-screened grey-tinted generic CGI ‘spectacle’ as there is in learning about a new line of just super-duper hoovers from Mr Dyson. There are 5 TV shows that will no doubt be inexplicable without watching the films, so you have to shell out for your streaming subscription and head to the multiplex which might well be showing only Disney films because Disney might well have that much power soon. And in the multiplexes we will see Black Widow, surrounded by an air of pointlessness Natasha R having been killed off by the time Kevin Feige deigned to let her fly solo, Doctor Strange 2, bearing a notably silly title, and Thor 4, which seems suspiciously focused on Natalie Portman deigning to return to the MCU as female Thor and (insufferable since Veronica Mars) Tessa Thompson outing Valkyrie rather than on Taika Waititi’s winning comedy. Blade and Fantastic Four have no directors attached, but it doesn’t matter. Directors don’t matter. Edgar Wright was kicked off Ant-Man for having a directorial vision. Disney is wasting the time of directors like Scott Derrickson and Destin Daniel Cretton who will be remembered for their horrors and dramas, not their CGI assemblages. Shang-Chi and The Eternals will likely not be given the latitude that James Gunn was given to bring obscurities to success with Guardians of the Galaxy but instead rely on the Too Big to Fail ethos that now pervades the production and reception of the MCU. I see a lot of business here, but not much show.

January 9, 2019

Hopes: 2019

Glass

They called him Mister…

Glass, an unlikely sequel

to Unbreakable

 

Cold Pursuit

U.S. remake, but…

with same director, Neeson

in for Skarsgard. Hmm.

 

Happy Death Day 2U

Groundhog Day: Part II.

I know what you Screamed before.

Meta-mad sequel.

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Cate Blanchett missing,

Daughter on her trail, thru time,

Very Linklater…

Pet Sematary

Stephen King remake.

Yes, sometimes dead is better,

but maybe not here.

 

Shazam!

Chuck: superhero.

Big: but with superpowers.

This could be great fun.

 

Under the Silver Lake

It Follows: P.I.

Sort of, Garfield the P.I.

Riley Keough the femme

 

Pokemon: Detective Pikachu

Ryan Reynolds is voice

Pikachu is the shamus

PG Deadpool fun?

The Turning

of the screw, that is.

Mackenzie Davis the lead,

can the ghosts be real?

 

John Wick: Parabellum

Keanu is back

On a horse while in a suit

Killers in  pursuit

 

Ad Astra

James Gray does sci-fi,

Brad Pitt looks for dad in space,

Gets Conradian.

 

Flarksy

Rogen heart Theron;

High school crush, now head Canuck.

No problem. Wait, what?!

Ford v Ferrari

Mangold for long haul;

Le Mans! Ferrari must lose!

Thus spake Matt Damon

 

Hobbs and Shaw

The Rock and The Stath.

The director of John Wick.

This will be bonkers.

 

The Woman in the Window

Not the Fritz Lang one!

Amy Adams: Rear Window.

Joe Wright the new Hitch.

CR: Chris Large/FX

Gemini Man

Will Smith and Ang Lee,

Clive Owen and the great MEW,

cloned hitman puzzler.

 

Charlie’s Angels

K-Stew’s big comeback

French films have made her, um, hip?

Just don’t bite your lip…

 

The Day Shall Come

Anna Kendrick stars in-

Um, nobody knows a thing

Bar it’s Chris Morris

 

Jojo Rabbit

‘My friend Adolf H.’

is Taika Waititi-

this could get quite strange…

Fears: 2019

The Death and Life of John F Donovan

We have waited long,

Too long, for Dolan anglais,

Now we fear for Snow

 

Captain Marvel

Brie Larson arrives

To save the day, 90s day.

Nick Fury’s phone friend

 

Dumbo

Tim Burton is back

Pointless ‘live action’ remake

This will not fly high

 

Avengers: Endgame

Free at last, says Bob.

Downey Jr’s contract’s up!

Snap away, Thanos!

Godzilla: King of Monsters

Um, may not contain

Godzilla… going by last

bait and switch movie

 

Men in Black: International

Thor plays dumb, again

Reunites with Valkyrie

But where is Will Smith?

 

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

It’s X-3 remade,

with little context for Jean,

who cares? C.G.I!

 

The Lion King

Like the classic one

But now CGI drawings

Why not just re-release?…

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

QT does Manson.

Bad taste abounds, but also

Pitt, Leo, et al

 

New Mutants

Fox does X-horror.

X-Men that is, obscure ones.

They’re affordable

 

It: Chapter Two

They’re all grown up now.

But fear never does grow old.

Yet may be retread?

 

Joker

Phoenix: Mistah J.

Dark take, from Hangover man.

I’m Still Here: Part two?

The Goldfinch

Dickens in New York,

Bret Easton Ellis Vegas,

Tartt’s chameleon.

 

Zombieland 2

Hey, the gang is back!

But what can they do that’s new?

A needless sequel.

 

Terminator: Dark Fate

Arnie’s back. Again.

All save T-2 not canon.

But Linda H back!

 

Kingsman ‘3’

Hasty sequel two-

Except, gasp, it’s a prequel!

So, but still hasty.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Critics applaud, not

because the thing is done well,

but because it’s done.

 

Star Wars: Episode IX

Fans don’t give a damn…

Who to kill off next? Lando?

Money grubbing sham.

 

Little Women

Gerwig’s needless film-

(Winona forever!)

-version seven. Sigh.

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