Talking Movies

September 30, 2015

The Martian 3-D

Director Ridley Scott tacks away from the Erich von Daniken-inspired marvel of nonsense that is the Prometheusverse for a cracking foray into hard science sci-fi.

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Ares III astronauts carry out their varied tasks on the surface of Mars, until a storm unexpectedly lethally strengthens. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leads her crew; Martinez (Michael Pena), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), Vogel (Aksel Hennie); from their quarters, the Hab, through the blinding sandstorm to their ship, which blasts off just before it would’ve tipped fatally off-balance. But Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind, killed by flying debris. NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) leads mourning for Watney, but when Mars maven Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) convinces him to pinpoint Watney’s corpse via satellite, Sat Operator Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers Watney’s still alive. Teddy, Vincent, PR director Montrose (Kristen Wiig), and Ares director Mitch (Sean Bean), agonise over the ethical and logistical quandaries of a rescue mission, while Mark uses his wits to colonise Mars.

It’s a bold move to start with the evacuation: imagine Zemeckis cutting the lead-in to the plane crash in Cast Away. But it works because it so quickly funnels us to NASA, and the personalities who will decide Mark’s long-term future as he ensures his short-term survival. This is probably the most consistently funny film Scott’s ever directed, courtesy of Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. Goddard knowingly pushes ratings boundaries with Mark’s cursing, and renders Mark’s never-ending vlog a series of riffs and one-liners. But it’s not a one-man show. Prometheus’ Benedict Wong is wonderful as Bruce, the Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks, Davis breaks out from indies (What If, Bad Turn Worse) to share archly comic moments with Ejiofor, Pena delivers another assured turn, while Daniels and Bean duel with gravitas and humour.

Sunshine showed one mistake creating dilemma after dilemma. The Martian shows a series of problems to be solved with a can-do spirit, and it’s nice to see characters mentally calculating trajectories, accelerations, and chemistry problems. Arguably this actually realises Tomorrowland’s stated intention to restore technological optimism to the popular imagination. Although the valorisation of science is complicated when you realise Mark only survives because his potatoes were not genetically modified to be barren… The sacrifice on the altar of Blake Snyder’s beats annoys, but Mark’s slight hubris and its inexplicable random flashing ‘Malfunction’ sign mitigate. It also makes the finale very tense because statistically something ought to go badly wrong after that long in space. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, a regular Scott collaborator, renders Earth in blue tones, Mars in red, and the Ares III in white; emphasising the different environments.

Ridley Scott has become a seriously prolific director this century, and on the evidence of this triumph he ought to sign Drew Goddard to write all his future films.

5/5

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September 25, 2015

Miss You Already

Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore are thirty-something BFFs whose bond is sorely tested when Collette’s reformed wild child loses her way while battling breast cancer. Here’s a teaser of my review for HeadStuff.org.

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The film opens with a quick gallop through the lives of Milly and Jess, from Jess’ arrival as an American kid to an English school, to hanging out with Milly’s actress mother Miranda (Jacqueline Bisset), to being groupies until an unplanned pregnancy sees Milly marry roadie Kit (Dominic Cooper) and settle down to a PR career while Kit embraces the business side of music. Jess meanwhile works for a Green NGO and lives on a houseboat with Jago (Paddy Considine), a builder and oil-rig worker. And then Milly is informed she has breast cancer. So begins debilitating bouts of chemotherapy and the psyche-destroying hair-loss before the emperor of maladies unleashes the full arsenal of horrors. As Milly’s condition deteriorates it takes a heavy toll not only on her marriage, but also drives a wedge between Jess and Jago as Jago becomes increasingly aggrieved at IVF being put on hold for the sake of Milly; especially as Milly becomes increasingly unbearable.

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.org with Judd Apatow, Greta Gerwig, and Mia Hansen-Love in the mix.

February 4, 2015

2015: Hopes

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Chappie

The Water Diviner

Russell Crowe makes his directorial debut with a timely WWI tale about the formative trauma for the Antipodes of the slaughter of the ANZAC in Turkey. TV writer/producers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios provide the screenplay, which is a step away from their usual crime caper comfort zones, in which Crowe travels to Gallipoli in search of his three missing sons in 1919. He is aided in this likely fool’s errand by Istanbul hotel manager Olga Kurylenko and official Yilmaz Erdogan, while familiar Australian faces like Damon Herriman, Isabel Lucas and Jai Courtney round out the cast.

 

Chappie

Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver are career criminals who kidnap the titular character and raise him as their own adopted son – but he’s a robot! Yeah… This peculiar feature is definitely a change of pace for writer/director Neill Blomkamp but it’s not clear from his first two features District 9 and Elysium whether he has the chops for a smart sci-fi crime comedy mash-up. District 9 was a gore-fest with a hysterically muddled message about apartheid, while Elysium was an embarrassing, illogical call to arms for Obamacare. Jackman’s been on a bit of a roll though so fingers crossed.

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The Gunman

March 20th sees Sean Penn attempts a Liam Neeson do-over by teaming up with Taken director Pierre Morel for a tale of a former special forces operative who wants to retire with his lover, only for his military contractor bosses to stomp on his plan; forcing him to go on the run. The lover in question is Italian actress Jasmin Trinca, while the organisation and its enemies have an unusually classy cast: Idris Elba, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, and Ray Winstone. Morel will undoubtedly joyously orchestrate mayhem in London and Barcelona, but can he make Penn lighten up?

 

Furious 7

The death of Paul Walker delayed his final film. Following the death of Han, Dom Torreto (Vin Diesel) and his gang (Walker, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Dwayne Johnson) seek revenge against Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham as the brother of Fast 6’s villain). Chris Morgan pens his third successive Furious screenplay but, apart from dubious additions like Ronda Rousey and Iggy Azalea to the cast, the main concern is how director James Wan (The Conjuring) will rise to the challenge of replacing Justin Lin. Wan can direct horror but how will he handle Tony Jaa’s chaos?

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John Wick

April 10th sees the belated release of Keanu Reeves’ acclaimed low-fi action movie in which his sweater-loving retired hit-man wreaks havoc after his dog is killed; it being his last link to his dead wife for whom he’d quit the underworld. M:I-4 villain Michael Nyqvist is the head of the Russian mob who soon discovers his son Alfie Allen has accidentally unleashed a rampage and a half. Chad Stahelski, Reeves’ stunt double on The Matrix, directs with a welcome emphasis on fight choreography and takes long enough to make the action between Reeves and Adrianne Palicki’s assassin comprehensible.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road

Well here’s an odd one and no mistake. Original director George Miller returns to the franchise after thirty years, co-writing with comics artist Brendan McCarthy and Mad Max actor Nick Lathouris. Max Rockatansky is now played by Tom Hardy channelling his inner Mel Gibson, roaring around the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback with Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult. This does look like Mad Max 2, but it’s not a remake; merely an excuse to do Mad Max 2 like sequences of vehicular mayhem but with a huge budget for the mostly practical effects, and some CGI sandstorm silliness.

Jurassic World

Jurassic World

Jurassic World opens its gates in June, boasting an all-new attraction: super-dinosaur Indominus Rex, designed to revive flagging interest in the franchise park. From the trailer it appears that in reviving this franchise new hero Chris Pratt has combined the personae of past stars Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill. Bryce Dallas Howard meanwhile takes over Richard Attenborough’s presiding over disaster with the best of intentions gig. Apparently there will be some animatronic dinosaurs, but the swooping CGI shots of the functioning park emphasise how far blockbuster visuals have come since Spielberg grounded his digital VFX with full-scale models.

 

Mission: Impossible 5

July sees Tom Cruise return as Ethan Hunt for more quality popcorn as Christopher McQuarrie makes a quantum directorial leap from Jack Reacher. Paula Patton is replaced by Rebecca Ferguson, but Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, and Ving Rhames all return, as do Robert Elswit as cinematographer and JJ Abrams as producer. The trademark stunt this time appears to be Tom Cruise hanging onto the side of a flying cargo plane, the villain is possibly Alec Baldwin’s character, and the screenplay is by a curious combo of Iron Man 3’s Drew Pearce and video game writer Will Staples.

ST. JAMES PLACE

St James Place

October 9th sees the release of something of an unusual dream team: Steven Spielberg directs a Coen Brother script with Tom Hanks in the lead. Hanks plays James Donovan, a lawyer recruited by the CIA to work with the Russian and American embassies in London in 1961 after Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane is shot down. The Company hope to secretly negotiate a release for the pilot, and keep all operations at arms’ length from DC to maintain plausible deniability. Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, and Eve Hewson round out the impressive cast of this drama.

 

Crimson Peak

October 16th sees Guillermo del Toro reunite with Mimic scribe Matthew Robbins. Their screenplay with Lucinda Coxon (Wild Target) sees young author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) travel to the titular mansion of a mysterious man, who lives in seclusion in the mountains. Apparently del Toro has outdone himself with the production design of the mansion’s interior. The cast includes Supernatural’s Jim Beaver as Wasikowska’s father (!!!), Tom Hiddleston, Doug Jones, Charlie Hunnam, and the inevitable Jessica Chastain. But can del Toro, who’s not had it easy lately (The Strain), deliver a romantic ghost story mixed with Gothic horror?

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Spectre

The latest Bond film will be released on November 6th. In a hilarious reversal of prestige John Logan’s screenplay was overhauled by perennial rewrite victims and action purveyors Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Sam Mendes returns to direct as Daniel Craig’s 007 investigates the titular shadowy organisation, which makes a most welcome return after decades of lawsuits. Christoph Waltz may be Blofeld, Daniel Bautista is definitely his henchmen, Lea Seydoux and Monica Belluci are Bond girls, and charmingly Jesper Christensen’s Mr White links Paul Haggis’ Solace and Spectre. And Andrew Scott joins the cast! Perhaps Moriarty’s a Spectre operative.

 

Mr Holmes

Writer/director Bill Condon has been on quite a losing streak (Breaking Dawn: I & II, The Fifth Estate). So he’s reteamed with his Gods & Monsters star Ian McKellen for another period piece. Adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Stage Beauty) from Tideland novelist Mitch Cullin’s work, this finds a 93 year old Holmes living in retirement in Sussex in the 1940s troubled by a failing memory and an unsolved case. Condon reunites with Kinsey’s Laura Linney, and intriguingly has cast Sunshine’s Hiroyuki Sanada, but this will be closer to ‘His Last Bow’ or Michael Chabon’s retired Holmes pastiche?

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Mockingjay: Part II

All good things come to an end, and Jennifer Lawrence’s duel with Donald Sutherland’s President Snow reaches its climax in November with what director Francis Lawrence considers the most violent movie of the quadrilogy. Familiar TV faces join the cast, with Game of Thrones’ Gwendolen Christie as Commander Lyme and Prison Break’s Robert Knepper as Antonius, and Philip Seymour Hoffman takes his posthumous bow as Plutarch Heavensbee. The last movie shook up the dynamic of these movies with a propaganda war, so it will be interesting to see how Lawrence stages an all-out rebellion against the Capitol.

 

Macbeth

Arriving sometime towards the end of year is Australian director Justin Kurzel’s version of the Scottish play starring Michael Fassbender as Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. That pairing enough is reason to be excited, but we’ll also get Paddy Considine as Banquo, Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff, David Thewlis as Duncan, and Jack Reynor as Malcolm. Not to mention that Kurzel directed The Snowtown Murders and his DP Adam Arkapaw shot True Detective. Hopes must be high therefore that this will be both visually striking and emotionally chilling in its depiction of Macbeth’s descent into bloody madness.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The movie event of 2015 arrives on December 18th. The original heroes (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford) and their sidekicks (Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels) will all be making a welcome return after the passionless prequel protagonists. Director JJ Abrams has also cast a number of rising stars (Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Gwendolen Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Oscar Isaac) and a total unknown (Daisy Ridley – allegedly the protagonist!) The trailer seemed to indicate that this trilogy might actually be some fun, but Super 8 showed that fan-boys sometimes forget to bring originality.

November 10, 2014

Interstellar

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Christopher Nolan redeems himself after the patchy The Dark Knight Rises with a hard tack into heavy-duty theoretical sci-fi in a mind-bending, oddly abstract blockbuster.

The McConaissance continues as Matthew McConaughey takes on the role of Cooper, a Texan engineer and pilot turned farmer in the near future. Cooper’s is a self-professed caretaker generation, trying to eke a subsistence living from a devastated planet with a collapsed population. Indeed Cooper’s daughter Murph is subjected to some Orwellian education about the futility of technological civilisation. But among the cornfields stalked by blight and storming dust-clouds there are still some people who dream big: NASA in hiding. Michael Caine’s wise professor and his icy daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway) convince Cooper to pilot their last ditch Lazarus mission, to travel through a wormhole next to Saturn in an attempt to find a new home for humanity. But as Cooper leaves an inconsolable Murph behind him, and joins fellow astronauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), he finds that the search for humanity’s salvation seems oddly underpinned by losing all traces of humanity…

Interstellar is a bold change of pace for the Brothers Nolan. The script, written by Jonathan Nolan and then reworked by Christopher, sketches in this future world in the manner of a John Wyndham novel; taking for granted that we know about the macro which we actually only learn about when it impacts the micro world of Cooper and Murph. This leads to some double-take moments, such as Bill Irwin’s comic relief, which are amplified by Nolan’s insistence on secrecy. Some familiar faces appear to shocking effect, which would be dissipated by mentioning them; but among them is a cheerful cameo from William Devane aka 24’s President Heller. Interstellar could best be described as a version of Sunshine written not by Alex Garland, but instead boasting a screenplay by Rod Serling based on a story outline by Carl Sagan. Hard science of a theoretical bent mixes with a soured vision of humanity’s worst tendencies being dominant.

Interstellar is unlikely to get as fond a welcome as previous Nolan movies, but it does have much in common with them; from the Twilight Zone finale like The Prestige, to simultaneous set-pieces as adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Cooper wrestle with similar dilemmas like Inception. Hans Zimmer’s score avoids nearing Richard Strauss’ template by borrowing Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible organ and plugging it into a million IMAX amplifiers; achieving solemnity (without melody) by dint of volume. The replacement of Wally Pfister as DP by Hoyte van Hoytema doesn’t jar, but the changeover is aided by the fact that a very different cinematic world is being captured than that of the Nolan/Pfister paradigm. Nolan wrings good performances from his large cast, with Mackenzie Foy blowing Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of the indomitable Murph, and McConaughey counteracting the heartless science of the Brand family with the emotional sensitivity of the Coopers.

Interstellar walks a tricky high-wire, attempting to create a heart-rending family saga dependent for its emotion on theoretical physics being literalised in a way that defeats traditional blockbuster visuals.

4/5

February 27, 2014

Mugged by Gravity

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I’ve watched with increasing bewilderment and growing horror as Gravity has started to outshine 12 Years a Slave at the endless bacchanalias of awards season.

I saw Gravity in 3-D, you see, and I didn’t want to see Gravity at all… I regard Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter instalment as the most soulful of the trilogy, but I find it hard to think of Children of Men as anything other than a film concerned with its own shooting style above all else. Gravity, as a ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’, seemed bound to ramp up that element of his work to the obliteration of emotional depth. But I knew that if I skipped Gravity in cinemas, and then said it wasn’t very good, after watching it on a 2-D small screen, I’d be hopped on by a certain type of critic for not having seen it in 3-D, and therefore not being entitled to deliver any valid judgement on it. If you were told there was a great play on in the West End, and you said you’d catch it when it came to the Grand Canal Theatre, only to be told that no, it wouldn’t be great then, you had to see it in the original West End production to get its true greatness – you’d have to reply that it couldn’t be a great play then, merely a great originating cast perhaps, but not something that you should get excited about as a play on a historical level of epic greatness. And yet, isn’t that exactly what the reception of Gravity is all about? If you don’t see it in cinemas, you miss the ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’. But realistically most people, over the course of Gravity’s lifetime of being seen, will not see it as it was intended to be seen – for an exorbitant ticket price in a cinema. And if it doesn’t stand up outside of that original format, then it doesn’t stand up at all.

And it doesn’t stand up… I am mystified by the critical valorisation of what is a profoundly empty FX film. It’s as if a portion of Sunshine were taken by itself and blown into a full movie, but with poorer actors – Sandra Bullock is not the world’s most expressive actress if you’re casting for a one-woman show. Her presence highlights that Gravity, despite the critical cachet of its director, is really not that far removed from Roland Emmerich’s most cornball moments. Bullock with luck that would break Vegas survives two catastrophic space disasters, self-generates an improbable House epiphany, and manages to cling to a vessel as it begins re-entry, after she, without any ill effects, opened the door to the space station with an explosive rush that should have either catapulted her into space or broken her wrist. And the script is not salvaged by its visualisation: the sequence inside the space station possess a ghastly unreality as everything around Bullock looks CGI, while the 3-D only truly impresses when it cheats – Cuaron throws splintering pieces of space station at the camera and all over the world audiences jump, because those splinters literally appear from nowhere instead of arriving from an observable flight-path. And needless to say Gravity does not, as has been claimed, replicate in its direction a camera free-floating in space. The camera always artfully ends up at just the right place to observe big moments, rather than weightlessly freewheeling through another badly timed glimpse of the cosmos.

Children of Men had a large degree of practical difficulty in its trademark long-takes of action sequences, even with the helpful aid of CGI compositing of separate shots together. But the idea that Gravity deserves laudatory and exceptional praise for its camerawork, and its 13 minute unbroken opening shot in particular, is nothing other than praise for a veritable vestigial limb of critical reactions to film-making. What exactly are we meant to be praising? Long takes were a hallmark of greatness because they were practically difficult to pull off and therefore a sign of audacity, ambition, and tremendous determination by directors like Welles, Hitchcock, and Godard who achieved them. Spielberg pulled off a wildly OTT action sequence in Tintin, in one long take, but even as you watched it, nodding your head at its ‘ingenuity’, you realised its meaninglessness – there was no difficulty to be overcome: an animated character was not about to forget his lines, neither was an animated background about to suffer an annoying change of lighting from a passing cloud. Cuaron can spend all day shooting the same long-take green-screen sequence without ever reloading film, why should he be given a medal for doing what’s now easy?

I’m annoyed by Gravity, because I feel I was mugged for my money, purely to have the sort of empty experience I feared it would be – but empty in 3-D.

June 1, 2012

Prometheus

Director Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise that made his name back in 1979, but sadly this semi-prequel fails to match his own classic…
 
Archaeologists Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green discover cave-paintings in Scotland in 2089 that appear to clinch their theory that a race of intelligent aliens that they’ve dubbed The Engineers appeared to humanity thousands of years earlier and initiated civilisations from Hawaii to Babylonia. Four years later they awake from cryo-sleep on the good ship Prometheus of the sinister Weyland Corporation to explore the distant planet that could possibly be the home of the Engineers, according to the star map they left behind. Aloof mission commander Vickers (Charlize Theron) is bitingly sceptical of the value of their quest for humanity’s origin while hard-bitten captain Vanek (Idris Elba) is happy to let the scientists poke around futilely so long as he gets to drink and play Stephen Stills’ accordion. Things of course go horribly wrong, as they always do in Alien movies…
 
It’s notable that Scott was praised in 1979 for dirtying up sci-fi by presenting a vision of the future which was already old yet Michael Fassbender’s android picks up a speck of grit off the gleaming floor of Prometheus as if it was an aberration. Scott’s vision of the future this time round is positively gleaming, and rather too full of CGI hologram technology. One suspects Fassbender’s android would have malfunctioned at the first sight of the Nostromo, a spaceship held together by duct tape if there ever was one. A very measured and precise Fassbender has some fun as the android styling his hair in imitation of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and not being entirely honest with the crew, but while this film shares the slow first hour of Alien, it never really finds a higher gear.
 
The crew of underdeveloped characters played by colourful British actors like Benedict Wong, Rafe Spall and Emun Elliott are picked off by creatures that are more chimera than xenomorph; and perhaps there’s a nod to the scientific principle that you can never observe a phenomenon without changing its nature, but what of it? There’s no real gear-shift into suspense horror or even action. Noomi Rapace is, with apologies to Stieg Larsson and Patricia Highsmith, The Girl Who Followed Ripley, yet her role is, bar one outstandingly nasty suspense sequence, largely a cipher for ‘Faith’ and her wobbly English accent constantly distracts. The Darkest Hour scribe Jon Spaihts and LOST main-man Damon Lindelof provide the screenplay which feels all too often like a bad mythology episode of LOST. There’s a plot revelation towards the end that should surprise absolutely no one who read the credits at the start, the ‘big idea’ of the movie feels derivative, and the questions of faith and ultimate purpose and meaning that are raised are dealt with facilely. And that’s to say nothing of the conclusion, twenty minutes in which the search for an end leads to the beginning of the sequel.
 
Prometheus is always watchable, largely due to the stellar cast, but doesn’t even equal Benedict Wong’s other faith in space movie Sunshine. A missed opportunity…
 
2.5/5

May 18, 2011

Scream on the Rocks

I was listening to ‘Pure Shores’ while unsuccessfully trying to find someone else excited about seeing Scream 4 a few weeks ago, and it led to these musings on how something can be all-conquering, then just disappear…

I was surprised that no one I knew was excited about a new Scream film, given that Kevin Williamson had returned to writing duties, and has lately been writing wonderful (cliff-hanger a minute, major twist every episode) dark popcorn for The Vampire Diaries. 11 years though is a long time… The Beach was released in February 2000 and, this being in prehistory when MTV not only played music but played certain videos on constant rotation, its imagery penetrated deep into people who never saw the film courtesy of All Saints’ video for the sublime ‘Pure Shores’ incorporating an awful lot of clips from Danny Boyle’s film. 11 years ago I finally saw Scream on TV and then Scream 3 in the cinema in quick succession and never got round to watching The Beach till 2003. It’s odd to think that these films, which were all pervasive at the time, seem to have been more or less forgotten. In the case of Danny Boyle his belated and ill-advised entrance to major Hollywood movies has been completely forgotten because of a couple of belting truly Alex Garland scripted movies since, and an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. The Beach also represented after the American Psycho debacle DiCaprio’s attempt to make a post-Titanic film that proved he could act. He’s long since been able to point to his Scorsese collection, and latterly Revolutionary Road and Inception, so The Beach is also a footnote for him.

But why has Scream fallen so low in popular esteem that its belated sequel could so utterly flop? Perhaps Scream has been a victim of its own success. It brought forth a wave of self-conscious horror films like Final Destination where good jokes were as important as scary shocks, and the audience and film-makers continually winked at each other regarding clichéd conventions of horror cinema that could still be exploited to make you jump in your seat, but only if that was followed by a good pay-off line. That arguably brought forth a counter-wave, the infamous torture porn of Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek, where the film-makers grabbed the audience by the throat, demanded they stop winking, stop turning away, look at this horror, be horrified, and start screaming now… Now it seems to safe to declare torture porn more or less dead, we seem to be stuck in a field of shlock, Piranha 3-D, the everpresent efficient teen horror, My Bloody Valentine, and nouvea 70s viciousness in the form of remakes, Last House on the Left, and nasty originals, Eden Lake. In that landscape where torture porn seems to have permanently upped the acceptable ante for both gore and viciousness the very concept of a Scream 4 is an anomaly if not an embarrassment.

I only hoped that Scream 4 might be as good as Scream 2, but truthfully it’s more like Scream 3, the one Williamson didn’t write – an efficient film with flashes of inspiration. There are wonderful moments throughout, not least Courteney Cox muttering that a massacre must take place at a Stab marathon, “what could be more meta?”; a confused David Arquette asks what that means, to which she replies “I don’t know, it’s just some word I heard the kids using.” Scream was a great film because it was original, the cold open of Scream 4 with its nods to how Scream 2 introduced Stab, a film of the events of Scream, goes far too far in alienating the audience with postmodern meta-nonsense at the expense of emotional engagement. When you have not one, not two, but three different sets of TV stars (from, deep breath, 90210, Privileged, Veronica Mars, True Blood, oh forget it) all enacting the same basic scenario with commentary on the predictability of said scenario, mixed with snipes at torture porn, it’s time to return to basics. But the basics aren’t easy. The motive of the Ghostface Killer is a huge problem. Each sequel has tied itself in ever more preposterous knots regarding motivation, and Scream 4 obeys that rule of sequels. An even greater problem is the split focus caused by the bizarre notion the film persistently voices about itself being a remake rather than a sequel. The ‘new’ versions of original characters Billy Loomis, Randy and Stu don’t work at all because they are severely underwritten, while the beloved original characters aren’t given enough screen-time either. Hayden Panetierre and Emma Roberts are the only actors of the new young cast given enough material to really make an impression, and a good deal of this is purely due to their skills rather than the script. Roberts in particular is not afraid to be shown in a far colder light emotionally than you can imagine her aunt ever being willing to play, and her relationship with screen cousin Neve Campbell powers the film.

And then, if you’re me, you realise something with a shock while watching – Adam Brody isn’t going to step up to the plate in the third act and do something, his minor supporting role is just that; he has been totally forgotten. How terrifyingly forgotten The OC has become. Only 4 years after it finished its 4 season run which was captivating and hilarious and spawned a whole set of music, books, comics, styles and clichés, Seth Cohen himself, Adam Brody, can’t seem to get good parts anymore outside of Jason Reitman enabled cameos. Josh Schwartz is now the guy who co-created Gossip Girl or Chuck. He’s never thought of as the youngest creator of a primetime network show which was what The OC made him. And so it is that Kevin Williamson is now the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries not the wunderkind behind Scream or even Dawson’s Creek. Glory is fleeting…

April 23, 2010

Who the Hell is … Mark Strong?

This second in a series of occasional features celebrating character actors who deserve more attention focuses on the current blockbuster villain of choice Mark Strong.

I first noticed Mark Strong when he starred as an East End Jewish gangster in 1960s London in the BBC 2 four-parter The Long Firm. After that he had minor film roles as the torturer who pulls out George Clooney’s fingernails in Syriana and as the crazed Russian cosmonaut trying to destroy humanity in Sunshine. Matthew Vaughn gave him a more substantial film part in Stardust as the surprisingly bloodthirsty villain of the fairytale who continues to duel even after his death, in a show-stopping piece of mechanical special effects. At this point Strong became a fine actor who should be getting better parts, like Linus Roache in The Chronicles of Riddick, with a minor role in another Vin Diesel mess Babylon AD. Thankfully that didn’t derail him and Vaughn’s old collaborator Guy Ritchie gave him a high profile gig in Sherlock Holmes as the evil revenant Lord Blackwood. Vaughn cast Strong again in his next movie, the outrageous Mark Millar comic-book flick Kick-Ass, as Frank D’Amico the crime-lord driven to distraction by amateur superheroes ruining his business. Vaughn has now been joined in praising Strong by Ian McKellen who called him the greatest actor in England at the present moment.

Strong, like Ben Kingsley, possesses features which casting agents deem capable of portraying a span of nationalities from Jewish to Syrian, via English and Italian. But he can do this without it seeming insulting because of his chameleon like ability to change for each role – a complete lack of vanity which saw him buried under fright make-up and shot out of focus for his appearance in Sunshine, or, as Vaughn raved to me in a 2007 interview for Stardust, to go limp like a rag-doll, be wired up to a rig overhead, and be physically puppeteered for a swordfight as a magically animated corpse. So, now that you know who Mark Strong is look out for him as The Lord Villain (not the actual character name but accurate) in Robin Hood, and as Sinestro, the renegade alien Lantern, in 2011’s long-in-development Green Lantern. Geoff Johns has been masterminding a resurgence in the comics title of late and an unreliable appraisal of the screenplay last year suggested that this was going to be the real deal. The casting of Strong along with Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern and Blake Lively as Carol Ferris certainly bodes well for a movie as romantic, thrilling and sweeping as Johns has made the comics.

It would be a great pity if Strong was reduced to playing villains for the rest of his career but for the moment let’s just enjoy an unsung actor having his star ascend by sheer talent and hard work.

October 6, 2009

Love Happens

This film is a real oddity. Aaron Eckhart, Martin Sheen and Zodiac’s John Carroll Lynch all seem to think they’re in a serious drama about bereavement and grieving. Everyone else thinks they’re in a sappy rom-com…

The always charismatic Eckhart plays Burke Ryan, a psychologist who has moved from writing practical newspaper columns to an uneasy fame conducting workshops to deal with bereavement on the back of his best-selling book A-Okay (complete with inane hand symbol) about his recovery from the impact of his wife’s violent death at his side in a car-crash. While (against his better judgement) conducting a workshop in Seattle he encounters Manic Pixie Dream Girl,  sorry,  I meant florist, Eloise (Jennifer Aniston), who likes scribbling obscure words like Quidnunc in odd places in hotels. Eloise has a wonderful moment where she pretends to be deaf to avoid Burke’s advances but this film is not a romantic comedy, the only laughs come from Eckhart doing slapstick with a parrot. Instead, though Judy Greer and Dan Fogler give it their all as the archetypal best friends of the leads, this is that rare beast, a romantic drama.

Co-writer/director Brandon Camp started work on this film after his mother’s death, and there is a strong authenticity to much of the material, which he deserves great credit for tackling. Danny Boyle noted in his Sunshine commentary that cinema’s forward momentum makes it nearly impossible to grieve for a character, so this film is one of the very few you will see in mainstream cinema seriously tackling loss. Eckhart has a phenomenal scene when his character is ambushed at the end of one of the first workshop sessions by his father-in-law (Sheen) who lambasts him for exploiting the death of his daughter. Eckhart has no dialogue – we simply watch his completely silent reaction as the façade of confidence crumbles. Following this Burke makes it his mission to save ex-contractor Walter (Lynch) from his cul-de-sac of guilt over his young son’s death on a building site. Some of these scenes are rom-com structural tropes, but filled with such dramatic sizzle that they actually make an impression. But this tension between form and content is never satisfactorily resolved, even a climactic scene between Eckhart and Sheen becomes slightly suspect when obligatory romantic sappiness bleeds into it. There are also cameos by NCIS star Sasha Alexander as a photographer and Joe (charisma to burn) Anderson as Aniston’s unfaithful musician boyfriend that are bizarrely pointless.

This should be the kind of brainless fluff like The Core and No Reservations that Eckhart does to make money (without exercising his brain) to subsidise LaBute plays and films like Thank You For Smoking. Instead it’s a strange beast. Saddled with rom-com clichés and stranded half-way between romantic drama and serious drama it bends its formal structures to breaking point without quite achieving the heights that should come from such a daring imposition of challenging material in a trifling genre. A decent film, just a very confused one.

2.5/5

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