Talking Movies

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

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

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

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March 2, 2016

Time Out of Mind

Actor/producer Richard Gere teams up with The Messenger writer/director Oren Moverman for a portrait of homelessness in New York City.

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George (Gere) is rudely awakened from his slumber in a bathtub by Frank (Steve Buscemi) and thrown out of an apartment that his friend Sheila has been evicted from. George is a nuisance in Frank’s eyes, in fact he’s a nuisance to most people. Nurse Maire (Geraldine Hughes) tells him he can sleep in the ER waiting room but an orderly countermands her compassion. Private schoolboys and frat boys mock and prank George when he’s at his most vulnerable. His estranged daughter Maggie (Jena Malone) can’t stand the sight of him. When he falls at his feet at a shelter he’s quickly intimidated by the younger, physically stronger Jack (Jeremy Strong). But there he also makes an unlikely friend, former jazz musician and current garrulous optimist Dixon (Ben Vereen). Can Dixon steer George back on to the straight and narrow?

That description makes Time Out of Mind sound almost plot-driven. It’s not. To a fault. At an ADIFF Q&A last week actor/producer Gere was proud of how he and Moverman had worked hard to strip away almost all elements of plot from the movie. There is no true arc nor backstory. We begin abruptly in media res ,and our feelings of disorientation are heightened by a chaotic sound mix; reflecting the long-lens cinematography of Bobby Bukowski that captures from afar the astonishing verite of real people blanking Richard Gere because of his shabby apparel, as well as emulating 1960s anti-Magnum photography by wrapping images in and thru reflections. But this lack of backstory greatly hurts the father/daughter dynamic. Without context Maggie appears hypocritical and narcissistic, her repeated ‘What else?’ reminiscent of and as irritating as Diane Keaton’s ‘As what?’ refrain in Reds.

Time Out of Mind lacks the bravura camerawork Bukowski and Moverman deployed on 2011’s Rampart, but there are numerous long-takes that are so unobtrusive you start with surprise when you suddenly realise that minutes have passed without a cut. Gere doesn’t match the recent gold standard of his barnstorming turn in Arbitrage, because he’s essentially a passive, if occasionally self-destructive, figure. Instead Vereen remains long in the memory. His Dixon is a comic creation given to lengthy monologues, but also gifted incredibly affecting notes of despair and delusion that come to a head when he hesitates agonisingly over playing an out of tune piano. Moverman’s previous directorial effort Rampart was just as much a character study, but it was driven by a ferociously complex and layered character actively moving through a reasonably fleshed out plot. Moverman’s pared back too much…

Time Out of Mind is that most frustrating of things: an important film. It’s incredibly depressing, paints a not too rose-tinted picture of urban homelessness, and is exceptionally well-intentioned. It’s just not great film-making.

3/5

October 12, 2012

On the Road

Acclaimed director Walter Salles tackles Jack Kerouac’s classic 1957 novel only to demonstrate directors shied away from it for 55 years for a good reason…

On the Road is a fiercely autobiographical work as all the ‘characters’ are barely disguised real people. Our hero, aspiring novelist Sal Paradise aka Jack Kerouac (Sam Riley), lives in Queens, NYC. In conservative 1947 his best friend is flamboyantly gay aspiring poet Carlo Marx aka Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge). Into their bohemian scene roars Dean Moriarty aka Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund), a literary borstal boy with a 16 year old wife Mary Lou (Kristen Stewart). But hanging out with bebop trumpeters like Terrence Howard’s cameoing saxophonist cannot satisfy Dean’s wanderlust and so he drags Sal and company across America on a series of road-trips. Sal works as a picker in California, Dean gets romantically entangled with the icy Camille (Kirsten Dunst) in San Francisco, and both men hang out with the genteel junky Bull Lee aka William Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen) in the Deep South. But what drives Dean onwards?

Hedlund is not the Dean you’d imagine from the novel, but he improves on his inert Tron: Legacy hero even if he occasionally channels Tyler Durden to an embarrassing degree. Control star Riley is equally unlikely casting; especially in affecting a curiously wheezy American accent. Mortensen impresses most as an unexpected voice of common sense who accuses Dean of ‘compulsive psychosis’ and ‘psychopathic irresponsibility’. Poor Sturridge, doing a good Ginsberg, exemplifies this film’s failure. Compared to David Cross’ Ginsberg in I’m Not There Sturridge’s version is unbearably annoying – because Kerouac’s dialogue shorn of Kerouac’s dazzling and comic prose makes ‘Carlo’ appear incredibly self-important and self-involved. The fact that the hackneyed ‘mad ones’ riff is spoken as voiceover when Dean and Carlo are literally monkeying around hammers home the problem that it’s impossible to like these characters, or believe they’re talented (not least as Dean seems to take 18 months to read 1/5th of Swann’s Way.)

Jose Rivera’s script dashes thru the novel’s events without obvious purpose, and Salles’ direction veritably trumpets minor appearances by major actors (Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss). This film is simply soaked in sex, drugs and freeform jazz, yet is desperately dull. It never actually feels like fun on the road, and you groan when you realise the Mexican road-trip is still to come. Salles’ visually recreates an impressively detailed post-war America, but prioritises swivelling camera shots observing the Hudson roaring past along the road to another set of encounters rather than ever lingering in the car observing; so that he never conveys the hypnotic beauty of driving that drags these characters back for more.

Salles so fails to capture the spirit of the book that watching Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho might better serve cineastes unwilling to just read Kerouac’s original.

2/5

February 1, 2010

Youth in Revolt

Youth in Revolt stars Michael Cera, who pushes his luck by once again playing his customary role of awkward diffident teenager, this time named Nick Twisp. Cera’s Sinatra loving aspiring novelist is desperate to lose his virginity and sees the chance when he meets Francophile Portia Doubleday during an enforced trip to a trailer-park upstate.

But to win her he has to ensure that his deadbeat dad (Steve Buscemi) moves upstate and that his alimony-dependent mother (Jean Smart) kicks him out for his awful behaviour. This is where Cera escapes criticism that he can only play one role by also playing Twisp’s very own Tyler Durden – a dastardly French alter-ego (complete with villainous moustache) named Francois Dillinger who has no problem being bad…as the poor citizens of Berkeley quickly find out in a wonderfully choreographed sequence of property destruction.

Things are complicated however by Doubleday being sent to French Academy in Santa Cruz with her irritatingly preppy boyfriend to avoid Twisp’s ‘bad influence’. This causes Francois’ attempts to woo her to spiral out of control amidst nice comedic cameos from Fred Willard, Justin Long and Ray Liotta.

Youth in Revolt is always warm, and does have some hilarious moments, but overall it doesn’t add up to much. The main problem is that even though it is based on a epistolary novel the dialogue throughout seems to be aiming for Juno style hip quirkiness but keeps falling short and ends up just sounding faux-literary and stilted. Wait for the DVD.

2.5/5

November 17, 2009

I’d Rather See the Wires

Possibly it was Lou Ferrigno’s cameo in The Incredible Hulk that inspired this piece. Everyone smiles at seeing Lou Ferrigno do his cameo, but he’s only alone in making the obligatory cameo with Stan Lee because Bill Bibxy is dead, otherwise Bixby and Ferrigno would be making their cameos together in the way Lee and Ferrigno shared their cameo in Ang Lee’s Hulk.

Which begs the question why shouldn’t two people play the Hulk and Bruce Banner? Why is it considered absolutely necessary for the Hulk to be a fake CGI creation? What if, to use the suggestion of the characters in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates in casting a film of their own lives, Steve Buscemi was to play Dr Bruce Banner and then transform him into say The Rock who would be painted green and shot with LOTR style tricksy perception filming techniques to tower over everyone else (a bit more than usual). Would it really be any more ridiculous than a plainly CGI creation rampaging around a plainly green-screened location throwing plainly CGI objects about at a plainly CGI villain with a few actual actors and physical props dotted here and there to give some feeling of reality to proceedings, unlike say Attack of the Clones’ over-dependence on pure CGI constructions around actors forlornly stranded in green-screen deserts.

It seems that CGI has become the first option in the blockbuster film-maker’s bag of tricks. I Am Legend’s vampires we were told were CGI creations rather than actors wearing vampire prosthetics and make-up because the producers wanted the vampires to be terrifyingly agile. Well, yes, they were terrifyingly agile, but did it really make up for the silliness that ruined 40 minutes of high tension when we first glimpsed them in all their shockingly obvious CGI glory? If only some technology existed for making actors seem super-humanly agile, some way of making people run up walls, and levitate in air, some way of – oh wait, it does, it’s called wire-work and you may have seen it used extensively in The Matrix where it looked, at least it did the last time I checked, extremely cool rather than silly, and beat the mortal crap out of the use of CGI Keanu v CGI Hugo Weaving in Reloaded’s showpiece fight scene which ended up looking…silly.

Cinema produced marvels for damn near a hundred years before CGI took over. The Thing has no CGI whatsoever, can you imagine anyone having the inventiveness to do that now? CGI has stopped being a technological tool that we marvel at, it’s become meat and potatoes, and the over-reliance on it by lazy film-makers has left special effects somewhat less than special. ‘How did they do that?’ is always now answered by ‘Oh, they just CGI’d it – of course’. That’s why the truck-flip in The Dark Knight drew astonished gasps from audiences. So here’s a plea for the next over-digitised summer blockbuster – I’d rather see the wires.

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