Talking Movies

January 22, 2021

Top 10 Films of 2020

10) Vampires vs the Bronx

The Lost Boys meets Attack the Block? Sorta… This was a deliriously entertaining and knowing slice of genre nonsense as teenage heroes realise the gentrifying property company forcing them out is actually run by vampires.

9) Yes, God, Yes

Karen Maine’s directorial debut was uncomfortable but rewarding as Natalia Dyer’s innocent teenager gets victimised by scandalous gossip, and is sent to a religious retreat as punishment, but learns more there than was planned

8) Possessor

Brandon Cronenberg’s second film, after an eight year wait, proved he is quite good at the family business of body horror as an assassin hijacking a mark’s mind finds herself in a fight for survival as the mark and her meld eerily

7) The Boys in the Band

Matt Crowley’s 1968 play gets a second big screen adaptation, with Jim Parsons and Zachary Quinto heading the cast that gathers for a dinner party exposing the complications sinister and farcical of pre-Stonewall gay life.

6) Une Fille Facile

Rebecca Zlotowski makes the best Eric Rohmer film since he died in 2010. Mina Farid is the Cannes teenager at a crossroads who follows her glamorous cousin into high society, but like Pauline a la Plage learns too much.

5) An American Pickle

The dream team of writer Simon Rich and Seth Rogen (flexing his acting muscles) combined for a surprisingly more serious take on the absurdist comic novella Sell Out. Yes, Rogen was hysterically funny as Herschel the pickled immigrant, but he also conveyed the quiet desperation of Ben, leading to an unexpected affirmation of faith and family.

4) Wasp Network

Director Olivier Assayas made a sharp turn from last year’s French romantic comedy Non-Fiction with this multilingual sun-kissed thriller set in 1990s Havana and Miami following the exiles, spies, defectors, and double-agents playing merry hell with Castro’s regime, the CIA, and all points in between. Audaciously structured, this was always absorbing and frequently tense.

3) Spenser Confidential

Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg combined again for a thriller loosely based on the classic Robert B Parker PI creation. ‘Loosely’: because this took place in the sort of chaotic Boston milieu familiar from The Fighter, and seemed every bit as interested in setting up absurdist comedy riffs as it was in actually solving the mystery.

2) Tenet

In a normal year this film would’ve charted lower… The Protagonist’s quest to find pieces of an infernal machine dismantled in the future had a very enjoyable puzzle piece intricacy which will repay multiple viewings, but the Debicki/Branagh emotional motor did not hum, making me question whether this should’ve been a Memento noir rather than a plane-crashing blockbuster.

Cr. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

1) The Trial of the Chicago 7

I had the odd complaint about Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut Molly’s Game that it wasn’t Sorkin enough. No such concerns with this courtroom drama, this is a tour-de-force of Sorkin dialogue, once intended for Spielberg to direct. Every speaking part seems to have a zinger at some point, and the political import of 1968 to 2020 leaps off the screen without any need for the occasional anachronism. I watched this twice within a week with no loss of relish for the flashback structure, the fantastic ensemble, and the trademark Sorkin sincerity.

November 22, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXVII

As the title suggests, so forth.

The late Spielberg and the late Hitchcock

Having recently, finally, watched The Post, just because it was on prime-time Film4 twice inside a week, I regard my scepticism towards it as having been fully justified. A movie about the wrong newspaper and the wrong heroic actors who were all not breaking a huge story, and featuring an intolerably annoying lead performance even for Meryl Streep, it’s only value was it that it set me to thinking about the late Hitchcock and the late Spielberg. It is no secret that Spielberg found it so hard to get financing for his ponderous Lincoln that it looked like it might end up like Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra – a cable TV movie in America, given a small art-house release in Europe. Such an outcome would have been a shocking fall from grace from a man who made his name being a crowd-pleaser par excellence.  But the truth is that Spielberg has entered a phase of decline in that regard. Since nuking the fridge in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Spielberg has struggled to find an audience. His 2010s output (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, War Horse, LincolnBridge of Spies, The BFG, The Post, Ready Player One) has been prolific, but desperately uneven when it comes to connecting with an intended blockbuster audience, and the more niche trilogy of Constitutional Amendment films plagued by dull writing. The technical mastery is still there, but, like the late Hitchcock (Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot), it is in service of poor to middling scripts – so that outre camera moves stand out more and more than they would have in previous decades where the entire films were good, not just certain sequences or conceits standing out like oases in a desert. The fact that Spielberg’s next film is an unnecessary remake of West Side Story worked over by his Munich and Lincoln writer Tony Kusher does not inspire confidence that Spielberg can pull out of this slump, and that’s before you realise the star is … Ansel Elgort.

Yippee Ki Yay Memoriser!

A Die Hard Christmas jumper having just arrived in the mail I found myself wondering the other day whatever happened to its director John McTiernan. Lawsuits. Indictments. Jail. His Wyoming ranch being liquidated. And not a film made since 2003’s Basic. In fact, it’s kind of remarkable that McTiernan only made 11 films in his 18 active years, (allegedly he is making sci-fi blockbuster Tau Ceti Four with Uma Thurman, but I will believe that when I see it), but those films include both impeccable classics and unwatchable disasters. How can someone capable of Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard with a Vengeance have ended up battling studio incompetence and his own poor choices to have come away carrying the bag for Last Action Hero, The 13th Warrior, Rollerball and Basic? McTiernan has given some extensive and revealing interviews explaining how things went sideways so often, and he seems to have had a lot of bad luck. But one thing he said leapt out: while studying at the AFI a crazed teacher insisted on him memorising movies – shot for shot. On the grounds that a concert pianist would commit piano concertos to memory, and when asked to improvise a cadenza would have those to draw on, so a film director should have a set of classics in his cerebellum to creatively rework when needed. And so McTiernan said he had memorised every shot in A Clockwork Orange, among others. Which leads to one to think about his films in terms of such classicism. I can easily believe that it is possible to memorise every shot in Die Hard, with especial relish for the many delightful focus-pulls, but Rollerball?… Can the decline of McTiernan’s artistic clout in the editing room be directly seen in the betrayal of the principle of memorable shots rather than hyper-cut gibberish?

May 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

If not Lazenby, then who?

Almost anyone. But seriously, folks. There were any number of actors in England in 1968 who could have done a better job of picking up the keys to Sean Connery’s Aston Martin. A typically three-cornered hat discussion with Friedrich Bagel and The Engineer to the music of de Falla produced this shortlist of contenders:

Rod Taylor, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Terence Stamp, Anthony Hopkins

Patrick McGoohan, Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Lee, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Edward Fox

Now, not all of these people would have been asked, and some of them would likely have refused had they been asked, (Alan Bates and Nicol Williamson spring to mind), and some of them would likely have refused contemptuously (*Dear EON, Patrick McGoohan has had quite enough of playing spies at this point, thank you very much). The EON producers would never have seriously asked a bona fide film leading man like Caine, in order to keep the budget down. They would have asked a TV star like Roger Moore, sadly tied up with The Saint, or Timothy Dalton, a supporting player in a major film. As indeed they did. But the actual shortlist of undistinguished Bond contenders from whom Lazenby won based on a screen test is the stuff of madness when you consider that all these alternatives were available. The roguishness of Oliver Reed’s 007, the undercurrent of menace of Malcolm McDowell’s Bond, the unpredictability of David Warner’s agent: these are the roads not taken. There seems to be some sort of retrospective attempt to insist they needed to cast an unknown actor, like they had with Sean Connery. But Sean Connery was not unknown when he was cast. Far from it, he had already appeared in Darby O’Gill and the Little People and his supporting role in The Longest Day would have been appreciated by British TV audiences who, between 1959 and 1961, had seen him as Count Vronsky, Hotspur, Macbeth and Alexander the Great. He was not an unknown, he was quite well known to British audiences as a leading man playing historic roles. Lazenby by contrast was quite well known to British audiences for advertising Fry’s chocolate bars.

The critical rehabilitation narrative

I’ve been thinking recently about what we might dub the critical rehabilitation narrative. Nothing seems to please some critics more than to discover neglected masterpieces, to rescue from the discard bin gems that were unappreciated at the time. The only problem is sometimes the critics are very pleased with themselves, their wider critical narrative powers along, and it’s only a minor detail that the film in question is still rubbish. That’s not to say that it is wrong to revisit films and see if they were misjudged; after all Fight Club suffered hugely from being released so soon after Columbine. But sometimes there is much to be said for reading the original reviews and getting a bracing perspective, like disinterring The Cabinet of Dr Caligari from the reverence of generations of film students and discovering in Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture that its own writers disowned the finished film for changes made to its finale which they regarded as dangerously reversing its political message, and doing so at a time that imperilled the nascent republic. Or realising that Matthew Modine saying recently that Full Metal Jacket has aged better than other Vietnam films because it’s finale of urban insurgency could be in Iraq only proves the point of the objections made by critics on release. Because of the WB indulging Kubrick’s power-tripping laziness he had departed from the novel’s jungle war conclusion to instead depict the (easily manufactured in England) ruined city of Hue, because he couldn’t be bothered leaving England. And it would be hard to easily manufacture in England a jungle war. Just as well Vietnam wasn’t noted for being a JUNGLE WAR. Revolution was reviled on release and exiled Pacino to Broadway. But Revolution is an unfocused film of baffling decisions, like shooting it entirely in England and not having Annie Lennox sing, rather than an outright atrocity. Watching its depiction of the start of the American Revolution, the mob bullying, the expropriation, the self-interested and abrasive self-righteousness is oddly reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago’s portrayal of the Bolsheviks. It’s hard not to think that this enraged American critics at the time, who sublimated that rage into attacks from other angles. And yet the final minutes of Revolution feature a truly astonishing tracking shot, a technical marvel and a triumph of production design, that I have never ever heard anyone praise or even mention. If you can’t do the hard work of salvaging the good from amidst the bad then what is the point of critical rehabilitation?

March 13, 2020

Any Other Business: Part XLV

As the title suggests, so forth.

If we just hold our position here, fellas, a plot might stumble across us

The Winds of the Pacific War

Having staggered to the end of HBO’s incredibly underwhelming miniseries The Pacific I found myself growing irate at the closing credits which revealed the fates of a number of the characters who were real. The sense of camaraderie and regret among these men over the decades following the war only highlighted the failure of the series to depict any of this camaraderie. This stands in stark contrast to the C Company in-jokes and friendships that made its predecessor Band of Brothers so compelling. Characters the show lost interest in, that I had given up for dead, turned out to have survived and the band of brothers all re-united Stateside after VJ Day. What a colossal waste of resources it was to take these ten scripts and give them the big bow wow HBO treatment. I can’t help but feel that in the golden age of miniseries in the late 1970s and early 1980s if someone had brought these ten scripts to a network executive two things would have happened. First, he would have beaten senseless the writers room who had confused the mores of New Hollywood with network television. Second, he would have patiently explained that the ten episodes proposed lacked any sense of focus or direction or indeed point. Band of Brothers was based on one book about one company on their journey from training to D-Day thru the Battle of the Bulge to Germany. The Pacific by contrast tried to pull together three books about disparate bands of brothers on different missions and failed miserably. Ditching John Basilone entirely to focus on Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie would be the most obvious fix for some of the problems, but even then… Shortly before watching this series I had seen The Pacific War in Colour, which covers the same battles with the same soldier-memoirists using their actual words as voiceover. And maps and diagrams that gave the geography as well as the stakes of the engagements. How is it possible to have got more of a sense of the battles from CGI maps plus vague colour war footage and voiceover than from a big budget show depicting the authors of those voiceovers literally in the trenches fighting? Did The Pacific need to introduce officer characters as an excuse for some big maps on big boards in war rooms, as well as dialogue to explain how the strategy of the theatre informs the tactics that Sledge and Leckie must execute? That sort of clarity, along with putting far more effort into fleshing out the friendships of these men, should surely have been the first order of business in the outlining stage of the writing, and would have made The Pacific feel less disjointed and prone to wandering off on aimless tangents to the point where you perversely doff your cap in astonished disbelief that anybody could take the Greatest Generation’s own accounts of their Hell in the Pacific and make it so goddamn boring.

I know, Holden. Charles Manson… Even thinking about the guy makes me start to yawn.

Where is my Mind(hunter)?

I admit defeat. My temporary Netflix subscription has expired and I still had the final 4 episodes left to watch of Mindhunter season 2. I just couldn’t motivate myself to do it. I stuck in there for as a long as I could. I managed to hold on for longer than my sometime co-writer the Engineer did, making it thru the horrors of Anna Torv’s newly yellow appearance all the way to Justified star Damon Herriman’s fantastic turn as Charles Manson. And yet, for all that Herriman gave that long-anticipated sequence all he could, it was let down by, of all things, a seeming lack of confidence by the writers of Mindhunter that the audience would be interested in Holden Ford and Bill Tench interviewing Charles Freaking Manson without that Tench be given some thoroughly bogus (and oh so very painfully and slowly manufactured) ‘personal’ stake in the Manson case via his son being dragged into a macabre crime by youths. It’s Charles Manson. If you’re watching Mindhunter, you’ll be interested.

One Nation, Indivisible?

There is a keen if not sickening irony in Leo Varadkar calling for national unity at this time of global coronavirus crisis. As a minister and as Taoiseach he has presided directly and indirectly for nearly a decade over a number of campaigns designed specifically to set citizen against citizen. Public money was spent on cinema advertisements to propagandise to students that their teachers were wrong to resist Ruari Quinn’s debasement of the Junior Cert. Varadkar himself beamed broadly shortly before he became Taoiseach as he held a placard to launch his ‘Welfare cheats cheat us all’ campaign – his sole achievement as Minister for Social Protection. He was deeply involved in gay marriage and abortion referendum campaigns that were deliberately run in as bitter a fashion as possible. And his government continues advertisements lecturing us about sexual harassment on television, teaching us to always assume the worst of each other. And now, after Fine Gael losing a second election in a row, but showing even less inclination than last time to leave government, he has the audacity to turn around and lecture us all on the need for national unity – having just rejected the national unity of a national government to deal with this coronavirus crisis; because it seems fully 1/4 of the voters he wants to unify behind his continued unelected (and indeed actually rejected) leadership would fit neatly into his own personal basket of deplorables. To mash together the 1940 sentiments of David Lloyd George and Leo Amery – There is nothing which can contribute more to unity in this time than that he should sacrifice the seals of office. In the name of God, GO!

The Fall of New Seattle

And as I continue catching up with iZombie the feeling of disappointment only grows stronger. The idea of making Ravi a part-time zombie for the lolz seems a Scrappy-Doo like innovation to the format, the depiction of the walled city of New Seattle never satisfies in the way that Dark Angel‘s technologically crippled Seattle after the terrorist Pulse did, and the season arc of Liv becoming the new Renegade opposed to Chase Graves’ Robespierrean rule rings hollow because it ignores the fact that Chase’s behaviour is motivated not by outright psychopathy but a food supply that cannot support the zombie hordes already in existence. The feelgood riff on Buffy being elected Class Protector at her Prom doesn’t feel remotely earned as a finale, and frankly I am not sure I want to watch another 13 episodes of iZombie if it’s going to keep declining this precipitously.

85,000 dead, Leo?

I’m curious as to the provenance of this figure of coronavirus potentially killing 85,000 people in Ireland. My back of the envelope calculations last week put it at potentially 39,000 dead in the Republic, and that was working from an American estimate that 39% of the population would be infected. Either Leo is assuming that closer to 80% of the population is going to be infected, or he’s assuming the coronavirus is twice as lethal as the given figure. Either of which is a startling change of parameter that I’d like to hear more about. In any case 39,000 dead from the coronavirus here would sit on top of around 30,000 deaths a year in Ireland. Which is equivalent to doubling the amount of funerals you attended last year. A nasty jolt to the national psyche. After all only 20,000 people were reported to have died here from the Spanish Flu in 1918 and 1919.

December 3, 2019

From the Archives: Strength and Honour

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

People with gravelly voices shouldn’t try to do Cork accents, or Welsh accents, or any accents requiring a lilt. Michael Madsen’s speaking voice resembles a cement mixer. Suffice it to say that his mercifully sporadic attempts at a Cork accent don’t work. Madsen certainly has the physique to impress as a retired fighter who killed his brother-in-law in a sparring session. Likewise Vinnie Jones as Smasher O’Driscoll, psychotic Puck of the Travellers at bare-knuckle boxing. But can actors rescue a script which is a riff off the back-story of The Quiet Man? Michael Madsen’s Sean Kelleher promised his wife never to fight again but after she dies and his son is diagnosed with the same fatal heart condition he must return to the ring. So far so corny, but this film never becomes so bad it’s good. The problem is Mark Mahon’s George Lucas-like credit as writer/director/producer. Even directors as great as Spielberg and Lean need that oppositional voice on set that says “Yeah, we thought about it and then…NO”.

There are far too many ‘very handy indeed’ coincidences floating about this film. The operation for Kelleher’s son Michael will cost $300,000. “Where am I going to get that kind of money?” rumbles Madsen, briefly attempting a Cork accent. Well, if he can raise $250,000, the government will provide $50,000 under the radar. Entering the Puck contest could win him $250,000…Billy Wilder said plot points were more effective the better you hid them. These ones are lit with flashing neon. This is the sort of obvious writing that Rodriguez had such fun with in Planet Terror. Strength & Honour though somehow never becomes enjoyably silly, even when the Champions League theme music is used for the build up to the climactic bout it never becomes absurdist, thanks to the committed playing of the cast especially Madsen and Patrick Bergin. The emotional impact of the relationship between Kelleher and fellow boxer Chaser McGrath (Michael Rawley) exemplifies how hard work by the actors can overcome the ham-fistedness of the script.

The visual flair shown by an in-jokey use of Ocean Colour Scene’s ‘100 Mile High City’ for a tracking shot across a number of bare knuckle boxing bouts in a Fight Club style grimy locale is quite startling, and suggests a level of inventiveness that Mahon also displays in his theatrical opening with a boxing ring of white light in pitch darkness. The fight scenes are well choreographed, especially the final showdown between Kelleher and O’Driscoll, and Richard Chamberlin has great fun as the hard-bitten boxing coach urging our hero through the pain barrier. Mahon proposes to direct an Irish Braveheart about Brian Boru. There is enough promise in this predictable outing to suggest that with a talented writer and a strict producer that might not be an embarrassment.

2/5

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: Beowulf 3-D

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

The warrior Beowulf arrives to kill the monster Grendel, who is terrorizing King Hrothgar’s court. Killing Grendel enrages his demon mother, who made a deal with the treacherous Hrothgar, and Beowulf’s actions unleash a dragon.

Robert Zemeckis’ film of the Old English epic poem is a visually amazing triumph, which you should see in 3-D for full impact. There is a tracking shot which turns into an outrageous pull-out from Hrothgar’s hall, across the landscape, to Grendel’s cave. Hilariously this is more or less a tale of violence caused by noisy neighbours, as Grendel’s super-hearing is driven wild by the raucous celebrations at Hrothgar’s feasting hall. This film provides a deep down and dirty portrayal of Dark Ages bawdiness, especially in the salacious songs of the warriors and Anthony Hopkins’s startling performance as the lecherous drunken King Hrothgar. All of which makes Beowulf radically unsuitable for children. Zemeckis is after all Spielberg’s protégé and takes equal delight in seeing just what he can and cannot get in to a 12A film. The motion capture technology Zemeckis used in The Polar Express has been vastly improved (characters’ eyes are no longer soulless) and Zemeckis, who was always visually inventive, wows with the physically impossible shots it allows him achieve.

Hrothgar’s call for a hero to kill Grendel is answered by the warrior Beowulf. Killing Grendel is the easy part though as Beowulf discovers that Hrothgar was Grendel’s father. He had been seduced by a temptress demon who now wants her way with Beowulf. That popping sound you hear is the noise made by the imploding heads of Professors of Old English the world over. Screenwriters Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction), who worked on the screenplay for nearly a decade, have based their script on the idea that Beowulf is an unreliable narrator. Which it must be admitted is a compelling justification for re-telling a tale that dates from around the 8th century. Their version is filled, in the spirit of the original campfire telling, with over the top butch moments of heroism. Beowulf’s battles with sea-monsters and the climactic showdown with the dragon have moments which rival 300 for ridiculous machismo. The changes also tie together the three disconnected battles of the original in a more satisfying fashion while academics will be mollified by all Grendel’s dialogue being in Old English.

Crispin Glover’s portrayal of Grendel as a tortured half-demon, half-human outcast is quite touching and nicely counterpoints Ray Winstone’s cockney bellowing as Beowulf. Angelina Jolie appears, startlingly, full frontally nude but she’s a water demon and has some archly minimalist scales on her breasts so that’s okay. Hmmm, all I’ll say is that she’s suspiciously more photo-realistic than some other characters. This version of Beowulf was dogged by suspicions of style beating substance but Zemeckis justifies this approach by combining budget blowing spectacle (such as the dragon fight) with quiet moments between characters, and adhering to the poem’s spirit.

4/5

November 10, 2019

Notes on Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep, the very belated sequel to The Shining, was the catch-up film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

Rising horror maestro Mike Flanagan attempts to reconcile the book of The Shining with the movie of The Shining while at the same time making a sequel that is nothing like The Shining. No wonder this is 2 hours 30 minutes. And yet it is above all things a leisurely movie. If it were better one would compare it to how David Fincher let The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo breathe by burrowing into character and mystery. But such a comparison is unearned, instead there is a more apt (and dreaded) comparison to Ready Player One. Spielberg recreated the Overlook Hotel in CGI, and Flanagan resurrects a gargantuan set, but in both cases once the initial thrill wears off you realise you are essentially on a ride at a nostalgia theme park – the recognition is all, nothing of great pith or moment or heavens preserve us originality is going to happen here. Besides which Doctor Sleep is not very scary for most of its running time, it’s perfectly agreeable but as it goes nowhere goodwill evaporates afterward.

Listen here:

September 21, 2019

From the Archives: Disturbia

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pull ups Shia LaBeouf’s second major summer hit of 2007, a Hitchcock homage.

Depressed teen Kale Brecht (Shia LaBeouf) is sentenced to house arrest and starts spying on his neighbours. When he begins to suspect a neighbour is a serial killer he desperately needs the help of the new girl next door.

It’s not a good idea to say you’re remaking a Hitchcock film. A Perfect Murder got torn apart for being a reworking of Dial M for Murder, whereas if everyone had kept shtum it would probably have been regarded as an okay thriller. There are only a handful of directors that one would trust with a Hitchcock remake and DJ Caruso is not one of them. Spielberg, Fincher or Peter Jackson could conceivably do a good job of helming a Hitch remake, the miracle here is that DJ Caruso does not disgrace himself with this loose riff on Rear Window. Shia LaBeouf’s shtick is going to tire pretty soon but at the moment it’s flavour of the month and he’s very good in his role as a teenager going off the rails since the death of his father, shown in the prologue. Unable to leave his house thanks to an electronic tag on his ankle he soon goes all Jimmy Stewart; “It’s passive observation. It’s a harmless side-effect of chronic boredom”; spying on his neighbours and becoming convinced that Mr Turner (David Morse) is a serial killer….

Where would Rear Window be without Grace Kelly? Up a creek that’s where. It is thus astounding that 53 years later Grace Kelly’s smart, assertive Lisa Carol Fremont has been replaced by a ridiculously sexualised ‘hot chick’. Sarah Roemer has a thankless task playing Ashley, the girl who moves in next door to Kale and is ogled at by him. Her decision to just join Kale and his friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) in their snooping is unfathomable, why she is so cool with being spied on and drooled over never being convincingly explained. The other female role in the film is equally bizarre. Only four years ago Carrie-Anne Moss was the sexy female lead in The Matrix sequels. Now, courtesy of some severe looking dresses, she’s the mother. There are two hilarious moments near the end of the film where it looks as if wardrobe and/or lighting forget they were meant to be making her look dowdy and she steps forward as her old kick ass persona.

These objections to the underwritten female characters aside the film does work quite efficiently. David Morse is skilfully ambiguous as Mr Turner and there some very nice Hitchcockian plot feints. DJ Caruso finally manages to parlay his undoubted slickness behind the camera into a hit film. Disturbia has got a lot of goodwill because it only cost 20 million, which made it seem a moment of sanity in a summer of ridiculously over budgeted and under-scripted blockbusters. But while it is quite enjoyable given its teen horror genre limitations you just wish there had been more ambition in the script.

3/5

July 31, 2019

From the Archives: Transformers

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings us to where it all began with Sam Witwicky trying to impress his hot classmate by buying his first car, and not bargaining on that car being an alien robot or his grandfather’s glasses being key to ending an alien civil war.

Two warring factions of a race of sentient robots invade Earth searching for the powerful Allspark which alone can end their battle. A geeky teenager who holds the key to its location will be protected by one of the most iconic characters of the 1980s.

If that last sentence sounds a bit like a description of Die Hard 4.0 that’s because Transformers, like Die Hard, is a blockbuster that just scraped the American PG-13 rating but is really not aimed at kids so much as kidults. Transformers is the blockbuster that saves this underperforming summer of wet weather and wetter sequels. Which is quite something given that it’s directed by Michael Bay, the man who gave us Pearl Harbour, a cinematic atrocity that will live in infamy. But Bay, suitably chastened by the failure of The Island, has finally grown up. The fingerprints of his producer Steven Spielberg are all over this film. He has managed to make Bay stop editing his films like a 5 year old on a sugar rush and adopt a sceptical attitude to the godlike status of the American military. He has also, in a nod to another film he executive produced, turned the Decepticon Frenzy (the sneaky one who spied on people, here a small ghetto-blaster) into a robotic Gremlin who is mischievous as hell and even chuckles maliciously like the Gremlins.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is our typically nerdy Spielbergian hero, desperately trying to impress classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox) with his first car. The car though is the Autobot BumbleBee, sent to protect Sam, who can only communicate thru the car radio (frequently hilariously). Transformers is surprisingly funny. Between LaBeouf and John Turturro as a secretive government agent there are scenes in this film with so much neurotic bumbling going on that you half expect Woody Allen to show up demanding royalties. There’s a full very entertaining hour of Sam trying to impress Mikaela and failing miserably, and Bumblebee trying to keep Sam safe from Frenzy, Blackout and Scorponok (the Decepticons hunting him and hacking American military computers for the whereabouts of their leader Megatron) before the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, arrives on earth.

Prime, still voiced by Peter Cullen, is exactly as you remember him. Rendered in the colours of Superman, willing to sacrifice his own life to save others, he remains one of the pre-eminent Jesus figures of pop culture. When that truck-rig emerges from a mythical mist you know he will still have never-ending reserves of compassion. Sadly his nemesis Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) is given too little time to make the menacing impression he really should. The last 40 minutes are an utter orgy of destruction on freeways and city streets but as Bay has made us care deeply about all these characters, human and robot, this is the most gripping pyrotechnics he’s ever delivered.

4/5

July 21, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XVII

As the title suggests, so forth.

A supposedly fine film I’ll never view again

I keep coming back of late to  a thought by GK Chesterton that I can’t seem to pin down anywhere in his voluminous writings. In which he said he didn’t mind how far an artist dipped the human soul into the mire so long as he didn’t break the mechanism. Well, Robert Bresson, J’accuse! You have broken the mechanism, and on purpose. I staggered out of Au Hasard Balthazar in the IFI this week considering that one ought not to praise excessive cynicism in art, because it is merely the other side of the coin of excessive sentimentality. If you want to criticise Spielberg or Capra or Dickens for sentimentality, that is to say painting in black and white with outrageous villains and suffering heroes, and no grey area of nuance, then you must also criticise Bresson for painting in black and black with outrageous villains and suffering jackasses (literally in this case) without any silver lining, a portrait painted entirely in black lacks also grey nuance, it is merely a picture of pitch. The rapist, thief, and murderer Gerard outdoes anything Dickens presents in Uriah Heep or Bill Sikes. He is pure evil, he inflicts suffering because he enjoys watching people and animals in pain, except that his blank face doesn’t seem to register much enjoyment of it. I have no idea what Bresson was getting at it in presenting Gerard’s rampage of brutality in southern France. And no interest in thinking more about this movie in order to find out.

The Wasp cries to be implicated in such mendacity

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Kevin Feige et al boasted at Comic-Con yesterday that Avengers: Endgame had just beaten Avatar to become the most popular movie ever. No, it didn’t. Because they didn’t adjust for inflation. It’s a lie. It’s not that hard to adjust for inflation, go to boxofficemojo.com and then plug the relevant figures into westegg.com/inflation/. It shouldn’t take you even two minutes. If you would be happy to never have your salary adjusted for inflation then by all means repeat this Marvel talking point. (Which is a lie.) If not…

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/avengers-endgame-passes-avatar-become-no-1-film-all-time-1225121

What is a film?

This may sound rather like a film critic having an existential crisis but it seems like a rather pertinent question now that we’re drawing the curtain on two decades of the 21st Century. Not least because the idea that Twin Peaks: The Return is one of the best films of the 2010s seems to collapse all ideas into gibberish. The idea that a film is real physical action captured in camera on a piece of celluloid, with additional material added to it later as it’s assembled into a coherent assemblage of images, before being run thru a projector and by flickering light taking up a huge space in a public place where an audience of strangers sit without interruption for 2 hours to watch a story that only needs 2 hours of motion doesn’t seem to hold true anymore – it’s a very 20th Century notion. What is a film now? By the year 2030 we might have to define it as something released by Disney into cinemas where disruptive, almost exclusively under-20s, audiences play with their phones while flickering light projects a digital record of a semi-coherent assemblage of digitally animated landscapes populated by digitally animated characters with occasional humans interspersed to keep the pretence that the digitally animated action unfolding onscreen means something. And as many of these pieces of art (sic) will not be remotely self-contained stories within 2 hours, the MCU having revived the idea of the matinee serial but made it into the main attraction, that won’t even hold true for a definition of this brave new world.

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