Talking Movies

September 10, 2018

The Lighthouse Presents Alfred Hitchcock

The Lighthouse is putting the Master of Suspense back on the big screen in September and October with a major retrospective comprising ten films from nearly two decades of work. A new restoration of Strangers on a Train is a highlight of a season showcasing icy blondes, blackly comic moments, pure cinema suspense sequences, and the greatest of director cameos.

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

From 13th September

People who’ve never seen the film know what is meant by uttering the title.  Robert Walker’s psychotic socialite Bruno propounds to Farley Granger’s pro tennis star Guy, who he’s just met on a train, a very plausible theory on how two complete strangers could both get away with murder. By swapping murders the complete absence of motive would stump detection. And Bruno means to prove it… Patricia Highsmith’s first novel epitomised her creeping unease and smiling sociopaths, and Hitchcock embellished it with visual flourishes (reflections of murder in a glass, one sports spectator remaining aloof) and nail-biting suspense.

ROPE

From 14th September

Farley Granger and John Dall are the two young men, clearly modelled on the infamous real-life killers Leopold and Loeb, who strangle a classmate they have decided is inferior in their Nietzschean scheme of things. Displaying a sadistic sense of humour they hide his body in their apartment, invite his friends and family to a dinner party, and serve the food over his dead body. Can their mentor Jimmy Stewart rumble the perfect crime? This was shot by Hitchcock in ostentatiously long 10 minute takes that cut together by means of ‘jacket-wipes’ to give the impression of one unbroken real-time visualisation.

MARNIE

From 19th September

Tippi Hedren’s second film for Hitchcock cast her as the titular compulsive thief, troubled by the colour red, and the touch of any man, even Sean Connery at the height of Bond fame. Bernard Herrmann’s final Hitchcock score (though his rejected Torn Curtain music appeared in Scorsese’s Cape Fear) buoys some dime store pop psychology as Hitchcock displays a less than sure touch in navigating the line between twisted romance and twisted obsession. There is an infamous scene between Connery and Hedren that is arguably the beginning of the decline towards ever more showy cinematic conceits housed in increasingly mediocre films.

VERTIGO

From 20th September

Hitchcock’s 1958 magnum opus recently toppled Citizen Kane from its perch as the ‘greatest film ever made.’ Hitchcock burned money perfecting the dolly-in zoom-out effect so crucial for depicting Jimmy Stewart’s titular condition; and Spielberg cheekily appropriated it for one show-off shot in Jaws. The twisted plot from the French novelists behind Les Diaboliques is played brilliantly by the increasingly unhinged Stewart, Kim Novak as the anguished blonde he becomes obsessed with, and a young Barbara Bel Geddes as the friend who tries to keep him grounded. Visually gorgeous, lushly scored, and dripping pure cinema sequences without any dialogue – see this.

SPELLBOUND

From 22nd September

Ingrid Bergman’s psychiatrist protects her new boss (Gregory Peck) who turns out to be an amnesia victim accused of murder. On the run she attempts to recover his memory, while her old boss Leo G Carroll insists that Peck is a dangerous killer. Salvador Dali famously designed the dream sequence to explain Peck’s trauma, but producer David O Selznick cut it to ribbons. He had insisted Hitchcock make this picture anyway to fulfil his contract because Selznick had had a wonderful time in therapy. Hitchcock had a less wonderful time, even Miklos Rozsa’s score introducing the brand new theremin irked him.

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY

From 23rd September

The trouble with Harry is a bit of a curate’s egg. Foreign Correspondent’s hit-man Edmund Gwenn returns to the Hitchcock fold, and Shirley MacLaine makes her very winning film debut, but this is a black comedy that ends up more of a droll half-romantic drama. Four people in a Vermont village, led by his estranged wife, spend a Fall day running around with Harry’s dead body; one step ahead of the authorities, and each convinced twas they that did him in. After from MacLaine’s debut one must point out that from this unremarkable beginning grew the Hitchcock/Herrmann partnership.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

From 26th September

Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman abandoned a fruitless novel adaptation for a scenario dazzlingly showcasing scenes Hitchcock had always longed to film; a murder at the United Nations, a man attacked by a crop-duster in an empty landscape. Cary Grant’s MadMan (cough) Roger O Thornhill; a man as hollow as  his affected middle initial; blunders into spymaster Leo G Carroll’s elaborate ruse and is ruthlessly and lethally pursued across America by the sinister James Mason and his clinging henchman Martin Landau, all the while dallying with their dangerous associate Eva  Marie Saint. Hitchcock’s preoccupations were never explored more enjoyably…

THE BIRDS

From 30th September

Hitchcock spun out Daphne Du Maurier’s short story which had been inspired by her simple thought when watching a flock wheel towards her over a field, “What if they  attacked?,” into  an unsettling and bloody film. Socialite Tippi Hedren’s pursuit of the judgemental lawyer Rod Taylor to his idyllic small town on the bay seems to cause the local birds to turn homicidal, but don’t look for explanations – just enjoy the slow-burn to the bravura attacks. Watch out for Alien’s Veronica Cartwright as Taylor’s young sister, and a bar stool philosophiser allegedly modelled on Hitchcock’s bruising encounters with Sean O’Casey…

DIAL M FOR MURDER 3-D

From 3rd October

Warner Bros. insisted that Hitchcock join the 3-D craze, so he perversely adapted a play without changing it much, something that had bedevilled cinema during the transition to sound. Hitchcock has immense fun layering the furniture of Grace Kelly’s flat, but after the interval (sic) largely loses interest in 3-D and focuses on Frederick Knott’s, ahem, knotty plot in which tennis pro Ray Milland blackmails Anthony Dawson into bumping off rich wife Grace Kelly. John Williams, who also appears in To Catch a Thief, is in fine form as the detective trying to puzzle out the crime.

PSYCHO

From 10th October

Hitchcock’s low budget 1960 classic boasted one of the drollest trailers imaginable  and his direction is equally parodic in the first act, with its sinister traffic-cop pursuit and endless misdirection, because Hitchcock relished investing the audience  in a shaggy-dog story which sets up a number of prolonged blackly comic sequences as well as some  chilling suspense. Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates emerges as a terrific resonant villain, especially in the chilling final scene scored by Bernard Herrmann with full-on Schoenbergian atonal serialism. The shower scene with Janet Leigh being slashed to Herrmann’s bravura stabbing strings orchestration remains an iconic ‘pure cinema’ scare.

Tickets can be booked at the Lighthouse’s website  (www.lighthousecinema.ie).

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August 3, 2018

From the Archives: Clone Wars

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers an infuriating Star Wars movie, plus ca change and all that.

Clone Wars sees George Lucas continue his Terminator like quest to destroy our childhood memories. He trashed Star Wars, gave us an unnecessary Indiana Jones, and now the only worthwhile piece of the Star Wars prequel enterprise is desecrated, presumably for the sake of consistency. And we have two Star Wars shows starting on American TV this autumn to suffer through. He just doesn’t stop…

Clone Wars follows our heroes (I use the term loosely given that neither displays any personality) Anakin and Obi-Wan as they rescue Jabba’s kidnapped son. This film takes all the worst elements of the prequels and magnifies them. Characters without quirks, dialogue that veers between plodding and unbearable, badly shot action completely without tension as we know the futures of the characters, droids and clones that are visually silly and emotionally uninvolving, and of course plots that are so hilariously over-plotted they become tedious twenty minutes in. This film runs for 100 minutes but feels closer to 200 so boring is the story of Anakin taking on an apprentice. Just to interest kids she’s the feisty/plucky/other patronising synonym for feisty girl Ahsoka, who teaches Anakin as much as she learns from him and….yeah. It’s that bad….

What really galls is that Lucas didn’t ask Genndy Tartakovsky to direct this film. Tartakovsky, the creator of Samurai Jack, is something of a mad genius. His hand drawn animation of the Clone Wars TV series was far superior to this insipid CGI and he was far less faithful to Lucas’ boring vision. He made three minute shorts devoted to showing the Jedi Knights being awesome which are at their best the coolest animation you’ll ever see, check out the dialogue free one where Sam Jackson’s character destroys a whole droid army using the Force. When he made longer episodes his storytelling and visual flair came off like an inspired blend of Hitchockian suspense, Spielbergian action choreography, and Sergio Leone’s use of outrageous close-ups to create mythic confrontations.

Was Lucas was appalled to find someone had made something awesome under his name by going so far off the reservation and decided to fix things by making a really faithful Clone Wars feature? That’s what it feels like. This is very bad, wretched beyond belief actually. The only positive to be drawn is encountering some genuine voice actors for once as only Christopher Lee and Samuel L Jackson reprise their live-action roles. All the other characters are voiced by actors talented enough to do more than one voice (Dreamworks Animation take a hint), the standout performance being the sexy/sinister huskiness of Nika Futterman as the Sith villainess Ventress.

This may be acceptable for very undemanding toddlers but it would be infinitely better for their creative development if parents just performed the original trilogy for them as sock puppet theatre.

0/5

May 5, 2018

From the Archives: 10,000 BC

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals what is stunningly the only Roland Emmerich movie I have ever reviewed, despite writing and co-directing a play called Roland Emmerich Movie.

One leaves the cinema at the end of 10,000 BC confident that a truly probing film-maker has left no cliché unused, no platitude un-uttered and no trace of logic intact. Roland Emmerich is the Jedi master of the cheesy blockbuster with this film being almost a summation of his entire career. Universal Soldier, Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot, and The Day After Tomorrow are here all rolled into one bombastic CGI-wrapped bundle. Emmerich has made a nonsense of cybernetics, Egyptology, patriotism, crypto-biology, patriotism again, and climatology and has now decided to add pre-history, geography and Egyptology (again) to the list of disciplines whose experts he has driven demented.

D’Leh (Steven Strait), a hunter of mammoths, is in love with Evolet (Camilla Belle) a girl with blue eyes (remember that, it’ll turn out to be important later on) but constantly broods over his father’s desertion of the tribe years earlier. When Evolet, who has perfect teeth but Groucho Marx eyebrows, is kidnapped along with half the tribe by vicious slave traders he sets out to find her guided by his mentor Tic-Tic (Cliff Curtis). Hilariously despite living in snowy mountains the entire tribe is obviously Aboriginal or Maori, except the Caucasian romantic leads. 2 days trek leads them from a mountain top to a jungle (go figure) where they encounter giant carnivorous ostriches. Introduced blatantly in the style of one of Spielberg’s velociraptor sequences Emmerich eventually pulls back the camera and has to admit they’re not actually dinosaurs, they’re giant birds, after all having dinosaurs co-exist alongside humans would be silly….

A few more days trek leads our heroes to the plains of Africa and the Masai Mara, two more days and they’re in Egypt (presumably why Omar Shariff is narrating) and pyramids are being built a mere 7,000 years before their actual construction. Our heroes have wandered into a PG-13 version of Apocalypto and encounter some effete Egyptians, which always signifies e-vil in an Emmerich film. Guess what? There are prophecies involving celestial constellations and The One (I’m not making this up), and a Spartacus style slave revolt with bad CGI mammoths. All of which should be enough to make your floating ribs part from their moorings under the strain of trying not to laugh or urge characters to check someone is really dead before turning their back on them.

Roland Emmerich doesn’t do subtle. Billy Wilder held that a film worked better if its plot points were not immediately obvious. Roland Emmerich likes to announce his plot points with a trumpet fanfare in the soundtrack. It’s less a film and more of an illustrated guide on how to write a really cheesy, dumb blockbuster. This is a very bad film indeed but it’s gloriously ludicrous. I haven’t enjoyed myself this much watching rubbish in quite some time.

2/5

January 15, 2018

Hopes: 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh…

Grieving mother takes on cops

Cue absurd mayhem

 

Lady Bird

Northern Cali teen

Gerwig directs Ronan as

Gerwig, critics notice!

 

Meg

The State fights big shark

An Asylum film times ten

Thank China for that

 

Unsane

Soderbergh on phone,

Making a film with Claire Foy,

Don’t tell David Lynch

Ready Player One

Spielberg and 80s

Are like that, so, perfect fit

For 80s ref. Fest

 

Isle of Dogs

Cute Japanese dogs

Do cute Wes Anderson things

All in stop motion

 

Wonderstruck

Todd Haynes does The Hours,

so to speak, Julianne Moore,

stories in two times.

 

Deadpool 2

How to make sequel?

Discuss. He will. In sequel.

In camera. Yeah!

Jurassic World 2

Goldblum finds a way

They never leave well alone

These dino islands

 

Mission Impossible 6

McQuarrie returns

Cruise runs and jumps (and falls too)

Cavill’s tache wows all

 

The Predator

Shane Black was bit part

Now he’s running the whole show

Lightning strike again?

Under the Silver Lake

It Follows: P.I.

Sort of, Garfield the P.I.

Riley Keough the femme

 

Bad Times at the El Royale

Drew Goddard directs

Thor in 60s Tahoe dive

Horror might ensue?

 

Widows

Mainstream Steve McQueen

Gone Girl writer does La Plante

What will this look like?!

Golden Exits

ARP returns

With J Schwartzman in Brooklyn

Domestic dramas

 

Maya

Mia Hansen-Love

a war journo kidnap drama

and, of course, after…

 

Chris Morris TDK

Anna Kendrick stars in-

Um, nobody knows a thing

Bar it’s Chris Morris

 

Crooked House

Familiar ground:

Julian Fellowes, Big House,

Murder, A Christie

January 11, 2018

Fears: 2018

The Post

Hanks fights Nixon – yay!

But at wrong newspaper – boo!

Spielberg, what the hell?

 

Phantom Thread

Day-Lewis swansong

There Will Be Bodices (sic)

Somewhat overwrought?

 

The Shape of Water

Del Toro is back

Less Gothic, more Creature-y

and boo hiss Shannon

 

Red Sparrow

J-Law needs a hit

This will not be it. Too bad.

Ersatz Nikita.

Annihilation

Portman and a man

Odd that, but Garland ‘writes well’

And directs again

 

New Mutants

Fox does X-horror

X-Men that is, obscure ones

They’re affordable

 

The God Particle

Cloverfield in space

Elizabeth Debicki

Looks on earth aghast

 

Pacific Rim

Exit Del Toro,

Enter Steven S DeKnight,

Thanks a bunch, China

Solo

Disney paid a lot

You must help them make it back

Han: the Wall St. Years

 

Avengers: Infinity War

The infinity

is really the damn cast list

Makes LOST seem restrained

 

Sicario 2

Blunt has not come back

Instead the wolf is let loose

Del Toro, that is

 

Ocean’s 8

Cinema’s great hug

Retconned as male privilege;

All girl cast fixes that

 

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Critics applaud, not

because the thing is done well

but because it’s done

 

A Wrinkle in Time

‘Oprah for ’20!’

It starts here! Diverse sci-fi.

Love this or get coat

 

Mute

Duncan Jones does ‘Hush’

Berlin barman tracks girlfriend

His fists speak for him

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

It’s X-3 remade,

with little context for Jean,

who cares? C.G.I!

 

John F Donovan

We have waited long,

Too long for Dolan anglais,

Now we fear for Snow

 

Holmes and Watson

Will Ferrell bromance

Can’t be worse than Downey/Law

A dumb comedy

 

August 15, 2017

100 Best Films of the Century (sic)

Poring over Barry Norman’s ‘100 Best Films of the Century’ list last month set off musings on what a personal version of such a list would be. All such lists are entirely personal, and deeply speculative, but it’s time to be more ambitious/foolhardy than heretofore and nail this blog’s colours to the mast. Norman unapologetically focused on Old Hollywood, but Talking Movies has more regard than he for the 1980s and 1990s. The years to 1939 are allocated 10 films, and each decade thereafter gets 10 films, with an additional 10 films chosen to make up any egregious omissions. What is an egregious omission, or addition for that matter, is naturally a matter of opinion. Like the truest lists this was written quickly with little revision. If you don’t trust your own instincts why would you ever trust anyone else’s?

Gone with the wind

 

The first day to 1939

Nosferatu

The Lodger

M

King Kong

It Happened One Night

The 39 Steps

A Night at the Opera

Top Hat, Secret Agent

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Gone with the Wind

TheBigSleep-011

1940 to 1949

His Girl Friday

Rebecca

Citizen Kane

The Maltese Falcon

Casablanca

Shadow of a Doubt

The Big Sleep

The Stranger

Rope

The Third Man

1950 to 1959

Strangers on a Train

The Lavender Hill Mob

Singin’ in the Rain

Them!

Rear Window

High Society

Moby Dick

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Rio Bravo

1960 to 1969

Last Year in Marienbad

The Manchurian Candidate

The Birds

The Great Escape

Billy Liar

Dr. Strangelove

Goldfinger

Dr. Zhivago

The Sound of Music

The Good The Bad And The Ugly

Once Upon a Time in the West

Ma Nuit Chez Maud

The Italian Job

 

 

1970 to 1979

Kelly’s Heroes

Aguirre the wrath of God

The Godfather

Dog Day Afternoon

Jaws

All the President’s Men

Annie Hall

Star Wars

Superman

Apocalypse Now

1980 to 1989

The Blues Brothers

Chariots of Fire

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Blade Runner

Ghostbusters

Back to the Future

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Aliens

Blue Velvet

Wall Street

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Die Hard

1990 to 1999

JFK

My Own Private Idaho

The Silence of the Lambs

Terminator 2

The Age of Innocence

Jurassic Park

Pulp Fiction

Speed

The Usual Suspects

Scream

The Matrix

Fight Club

 

2000 to 2009

Memento

Almost Famous

Moulin Rouge!

Ocean’s Eleven

Donnie Darko

The Rules of Attraction

The Lord of the Rings

Team America

Brick

Casino Royale

Atonement

The Dark Knight

2010 to the present day

Inception

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World

Incendies

Skyfall

Mud

This is the End

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Birdman

High-Rise

20th Century Women

September 2, 2016

It’s just me and my drone

While watching three different BBC documentaries recently I was struck by the unusually expansive quality of their aerial photography; and then realised they were all using drones.

drone-filming-other-drones-for-bbc-simon-reeve

The first documentary was Simon Reeve’s travelogue in Greece, in which elaborate pull-out shots of mountainous Greek landscapes seemed to come from nowhere; starting too close to Reeve to be a zoom from a helicopter, but ending up too far away to be a crane shot. They were of course drones, and Reeve even made the drone the centre of attention when he and its operator jumped out of a van in a salubrious part of Athens and surreptitiously sent their drone straight up to see how many of the local worthies were cheating the government of tax by pretending they didn’t have a swimming pool when there were clearly nearly twenty in the drone’s frame. Such guerilla tactics would make Werner Herzog proud, and of course Herzog has employed drones himself; nearly making everyone sick in Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D by flying from a vineyard up to the titular site. But drone technology has developed since Herzog’s 2010 shoot.

Brian Cox’s recent Forces of Nature loved nothing better than tracking Cox from a hundred feet above as he walked along English beaches or Icelandic glaciers, and the images were startlingly good. Whereas Herzog’s drone imagery was disjunctive, Cox’s drone imagery was notable only for the style it employed, not for any difference in quality to more traditionally mounted cameras. One of those signature styles was a reprise of the Reeve special, narrating to the camera which suddenly tumbles back in space and reveals itself to now be airborne and the narrator standing near the edge of a Greek valley or the white cliffs of Dover. Peter Barton’s The Somme From Both Sides deployed its drone in a related manner to great effect. At a fraction of the hassle of using a crane camera Barton delivered his narration to a drone which then swooped upwards to reveal the landscape beyond him, so that we went from a trench’s view of the battlefield to an aerial vantage point in seconds. This was tremendously effective in conveying why the Germans made the Somme so bloody for the British; from the trenches you miss the obvious differences in height over the wider landscape which the Germans consistently put to work in their defensive strategy.

But can advances in drone technology and falling drone prices make for a new cinematic aesthetic? David Fincher in Side by Side notes that he was able to place a camera in a boat for a sequence in The Social Network because of how lightweight a digital camera could now be. If a drone camera needing only one operator can achieve a shot that would have taken Orson Welles days to prepare for with the technology of his time then could we be in for a new avalanche of style in indie movies? If someone wants to achieve the isolating effect of the pull-out from Gary Powers in the dock in Bridge of Spies they don’t need the resources of a Spielberg, they could just hover their drone and then fly it away and make their low-budget drama suddenly seem incredibly slick. Forget filming your movie on your iPhone like Tangerine, imagine sitting in the IFI’s smallest screen watching a low-budget film in which unknown actors look out a window when the camera suddenly pulls away from them and keeps on retreating, observe them fading away into irrelevance as just some of the people with stories in this city.

The Drone Aesthetic.

January 8, 2016

Bret Easton Ellis: Page to Screen

Bret Easton Ellis has written seven books, four have been filmed, and two of those have been set in Los Angeles. And yet they are by far the weakest of the Ellis adaptations… Here’s a teaser of my piece for HeadStuff on those adaptations.

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“I stand back from the unfinished canvas. I realise that I would rather spend my money on drugs than on art supplies” – The Rules of Attraction (novel)

While Hollywood was premiering his debut, mangled to appeal to perceived Reaganised teenagers, Ellis published his sophomore novel The Rules of Attraction, in which the influence of Reaganism is present in the Freshmen wanting a weight room and vetoing Louis Farrakhan as a speaker. Camden College life in the 1985 Fall term is narrated in short vignettes by Sean Bateman, Paul Denton, Lauren Hynde, and some secondary characters. An unreliable picture emerges from their overlapping experiences at parties, cafeteria lunches, hook-ups, classes, and trips to town. Denton narrates a secret affair with Bateman, Bateman narrates a minor friendship with Denton, Bateman and Lauren hook up for a disastrous relationship which both record very differently, and Bateman’s secret admirer (who he thought was Lauren) kills herself when he sleeps with Lauren. STDs and abortions are the frequent price of the casual sex merry-go-round of Camden’s never-ending party, and Lauren pays in full. Ellis’ dialogue is a marvel, with one-liners aplenty in concisely captured conversations, while the trademark pop culture references (everybody is listening to Little Creatures) are married to more nuanced narration. Denton, the most self-aware and self-critical character, eschews auditioning for the Shepard play because his life already is one. Spielberg is memorably critiqued for being secular humanism not rigorous modernism, but mostly these intelligent characters play dumb because excess is what’s expected.

“What does that mean? Know me? Know me? Nobody knows anyone else. Ever. You will never, ever know me” – The Rules of Attraction (film)

Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary adapted and directed the novel, and Ellis dubbed the 2002 film “the one movie that captured my sensibility in a visual and cinematic language.” The rise of independent cinema meant Avary could cast James Van Der Beek as Bateman without bowdlerising the novel. The film is alternately shocking (it opens with the rape of Shannyn Sossamon’s Lauren), hilarious (Denton [Ian Somerhalder] and Dick [Russell Sams] perform an entirely improvised dance to ‘Faith’ in their underwear), and romantic (an extended split-screen sequence shows Bateman and Lauren finally meeting at their Saturday morning tutorial). Avary stylishly plays out the climactic ‘End of the World’ party from three viewpoints before winding back to the start of term, and situates Camden in a temporal twilight zone; with broadband internet but a 1980s soundtrack of The Cure and Erasure. Avary radically changes Lauren’s character, by throwing many of her traits onto loose roommate Lara (Jessica Biel). Lauren is now a virgin, waiting for Victor to return from Europe, whereas in the book she waited on Victor while sleeping with Franklyn. From being a mirror of Bateman, who sleeps with her friend while being in love with Lauren, she becomes a Madonna. There’s no longer an alienated road-trip with Sean ending with an abortion, just as Sean’s affair with Denton is reduced to one split-screen scene implicitly showing Denton’s fantasy. Avary’s changes make more violent and consequential Bateman’s successive breaks with Lauren and Denton, when she tells Bateman he will never know her, and he repeats her lines to Denton. Denton and Lauren’s snowy encounter after the ‘End of the World’ party, scored by Tomandandy with electronic eeriness, becomes a haunting summation: “Doesn’t matter anyway. Not to people like him. Not to people like us.” Lauren’s momentary self-condemnatory thought, unsaid in the novel, is spoken and brings things close to Gatsby’s “careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money.”

Click here to read the full piece on HeadStuff.org.

December 13, 2015

Speed-reading towards illiteracy

Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller gave an interview recently to BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, which poses some intriguing questions about how new cinemagoers experience the medium.

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Miller cited Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By as a seminal text; the entire language of cinema was defined pre-sound. Miller was intrigued by the notion that there was a pure film language not reliant on the spoken word, and he decided to tell stories through that language; going so far as to describe Mad Max: Fury Road as a silent movie with sound – what matters is that one shot leads into the next shot to a purpose. As Miller notes this kind of cine-literacy is an acquired language, and a recent one; but it is one that can be mastered, in all cultures, before we’ve got a handle on actual literacy. But it’s his remark that we’re now all speed-reading stories (backed up by some statistics), that is a lit match tossed into a powder keg… Mad Max 2 had 1,200 shots, Mad Max: Fury Road had 2,900 shots, while Miller was told Jurassic Park had 950 shots, and Jurassic World by his estimation had more than triple that.

If we’re speed-reading stories, are we speed-reading into illiteracy? Back in 1997 Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese bemoaned the cine-illiteracy of young audiences:

ALLEN: I was talking to some college kids the other day, and they were bright kids who were going to a good college, and they had no idea about great directors. These bright college kids have no knowledge whatsoever of Truffaut’s films or Fellini’s films. And yet the universities do encourage them to read Mark Twain and Flaubert and Melville. … So many film students are film illiterate. They’re not unsophisticated. They probably know more about steadicams and special effects than the average audience. The guy who drives your cab will use those terms when talking about a film, but they’re illiterate in terms of —

SCORSESE: The lineage.

ALLEN: They’ve never seen any of these films. I think they have a different attention span. [My italics]

I admit my culpability in having that different attention span Woody Allen fretted over. I saw Scream as a teenager and was blown away by it. When I subsequently saw Hallowe’en I was inevitably bored by its slow pacing compared to its younger rival. I knew that without Hallowe’en there would be no Scream, I understood the lineage, I respected the execution, but I couldn’t stop myself wishing Carpenter would hustle things along a bit. As a result I’ve never re-watched Hallowe’en, while Scream remains one of my favourite and oft re-watched films. In 1997 Scorsese bemoaned his inability to be influenced by younger film-makers: “The young people today are the 21st century. I’m 20th century, I can’t help it. It’s hard to let new stuff in.” And there’s an equal generational problem in film criticism. The New Hollywood has been so valorised by audience that Bret Easton Ellis and Quentin Tarantino bemoan the 1980s to each other as the nadir of American movies. Whereas Back to the Future Day demonstrated the impact that decade’s movies had on their audience.

Miller extols the virtues of Buster Keaton and the montage technique of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, but will the youngsters who lapped up Mad Max: Fury Road delve back into cinema history to watch the movies that inspired Miller’s visual storytelling? No. If you are used to 2,900 shots a movie something that’s less than a third of that will bore you senseless. What was already a problem in 1997 is only going to get worse. ‘Jurassic World is a mere inept retread of Jurassic Park’ howl we who saw the original in the cinema. But, like a dead owl, the kids going to Jurassic World don’t give a hoot. They probably haven’t watched Jurassic Park all the way through because they find it unbearably slow-moving. This might explain the Russos’ baffling belief that the execrable Captain America 2 deserved an Oscar for casting Robert Redford and throwing 1970s paranoia shapes.

1970s paranoia was an organic cinematic response to the mood engendered by Watergate and Vietnam, and, like all movements that begin organically, when it became a commercial affectation it died a horrible death. The idea that Captain America 2 in rehashing a trope that was valid and original 40 years ago somehow itself becomes pertinent and (coughs in disbelief) original is as absurd as Gareth Edwards believing that his 2014 Godzilla is a good parallel for the trauma of Fukushima. If Sion Sono’s 2011 Himizu can react almost instantaneously to Fukushima in a valid and original cinematic fashion what makes Edwards think that Hollywood rehashing its interpretation of a 60 year old Japanese response to an entirely different national trauma is anything but a crass attempt to attach spurious relevance (via some extremely patronising cultural voiceover work) to the commercial imperative of rebooting a dormant franchise. But here’s the kicker – it doesn’t matter. None of the fulminations of film-makers or critics or punters of a certain age matter. My complaint that Jurassic World is not as good as Back to the Future doesn’t matter. Logic doesn’t even matter. The 12 year olds who go to Captain America 2 and Godzilla will likely never watch All The President’s Men or The Parallax View or Gojira because they’re too slow-moving and boring. 2045 will see Jurassic World as fondly remembered as Back to the Future is now, and all us haters will be so many Bret Eastons moaning that the 2010s were the nadir of American movies.

Perhaps we’re not speed-reading into illiteracy so much as into an eternal kinetic present. The past is a foreign country, they edit films boringly there.

November 25, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg returns with a true Cold War spy story that’s thankfully imbued with far more energy and clarity of purpose than his meandering Lincoln.

ST. JAMES PLACE

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a deep cover Soviet spy apprehended in Brooklyn in 1957, who is assigned as his counsel insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); after some arm-twisting by Donovan’s boss Thomas Watters Jr (Alan Alda). Watters, and Donovan’s wife Mary (Amy Ryan) are soon surprised by the bond that develops between wry Abel and the stolid Donovan, and Donovan’s dogged determination to demand the rights promised by the Constitution be granted to an illegal alien from an enemy power. The Donovan children Peggy (Jillian Lebling), Roger (Noah Schnapp), and Carol (Eve Hewson) are as uncomprehending as Joe Public of their father’s actions. But when U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in May 1960 Company man Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) brings Donovan to Allen Foster Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to be entrusted with a secret mission.

First off, history… English playwright Matt Charman’s screenplay was polished by the Coens, but in a BBC Radio 4 interview Charman didn’t mention Giles Whittell’s 2010 book Bridge of Spies. Perhaps it’d raise uncomfortable questions; like why Hoffman and Dulles tell Donovan their intelligence suggests the GDR is about to wall off East Berlin when the CIA, despite Berlin crawling with so many spies Willy Brandt derided it as grown-ups playing Cowboys and Indians, had no idea till secretly stockpiled barbed wire went up overnight. Also master spy Abel (Willie Fisher during his British adolescence) perfected his Brooklyn cover, as a retiree taking up painting, at the expense of actually spying. Despite prosecutorial fulminations he wasn’t charged with acts of espionage, because there was no evidence of any. And the arrest of Yale doctoral student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is total melodramatic fiction; the Stasi were simultaneously extremely sinister and blackly hilarious. Their ineffectual interrogations of Pryor were True Kafka.

There are three moments in this tale spun from historical elements; a polite mugging, a pompous phone call, and a fake family; that are pure Coens, but this is Spielberg’s show. His visual storytelling is concise and expressive; especially the opening FBI pursuit of Abel, where we recognise Agents by glances, and Powers’ dismayed expression at his Moscow show trial, where a craning pull-out emphasises his isolation. Janusz Kaminski mostly reins in his diffuse supernova lighting to showcase Adam Stockhausen’s decrepit design, while Thomas Newman stands in for John Williams with orchestral flavours akin to Williams’ JFK score. Donovan’s line, “It doesn’t matter what other people think, you know what you did,” is the moral of the film, emphasised visually twice over. And his bloody-minded defence of the 4th amendment seems extremely pertinent when the 1st amendment is equally beleaguered.

Twitter lynch-mobs wouldn’t appreciate the nuance Donovan tries to impart to Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) but Spielberg’s film is a call for decency over outrage that is alarmingly timely.

3.5/5

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