Talking Movies

December 9, 2018

From the Archives: W

A penultimate dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up Oliver Stone’s forgotten and rather pointless George Bush Jr takedown.

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This George W Bush biopic reunites Oliver Stone with his Wall Street co-writer. It is thus very disappointing that there is no trace of that film’s searing indictment of American greed, but perhaps even more amazingly the man who directed JFK has lost his visual flair.

W is a very odd film, it’s not satire and it’s not a factual drama. It attempts to straddle, and falls short of, both genres. 13 Days made the Cuban Missile Crisis gripping simply by showing how Kennedy dealt with it blow by blow. Channel 4’s The Deal made the trade between Brown and Blair fascinating, even if it was largely speculative. BBC 4’s The Alan Clark Diaries made real politics hilarious. W hopelessly tries to combine all three approaches. We follow the run-up to and fall-out from the Iraq War, while flashing back to the pivotal moments in W’s life that led him to the White House. Stone though has nothing to say about these moments except that Bush has ‘daddy issues’, and that’s why he went to war. This insight isn’t profound or original but could have been heard in bars, on both the sides of the Atlantic, after too many drinks, for the last five years.

James Cromwell alone among the cast does not try to imitate his character and so nicely counterpoints Brolin’s Jr. Cromwell’s George Sr (or Poppy) appears cold and disapproving but we realise that his shepherding of his son Jeb rather than W towards the Presidency is because he wishes to shelter W from the strain of a job that does not suit his temperament. Josh Brolin is extraordinary as W. He perfectly captures the voice and mannerism of Bush Jr but also makes us care deeply for this uncomplicated jock. When W loses a 1980 run for Congress and storms into his backyard exclaiming “I’ll never be out-Texased or out-Christianed again!” we feel his pain more than the obvious satirical anticipation of his 2000 run for Presidency that Stone intends. W’s born-again Christianity is handled with surprising (and welcome) warmth, but while personally Bush saw the light, politically it led him to some dark places. However to expect that sort of complexity is to want a different, less obvious, film.

And Stone does get very obvious… Jeffrey Wright plays Saint Colin Powell while Richard Dreyfuss needs a moustache to twirl villainously as Dick Cheney. Characters say in private their most infamous public gaffes while Condoleeza Rice is written out of history, perhaps because Thandie Newton’s forced attempts to get Rice’s voice right make her screen presence too painful to dwell on. George Bush is not a bad man, he’s just a very bad president, the worst since Herbert Hoover, who also made way for a charismatic Democrat offering change, FDR. But, Oliver, we already knew that…

2/5

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September 9, 2018

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part IX

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

“No, that doesn’t track”

We now know Wes Anderson’s next film will be live-action and set in post-WWII France, immediately post-war apparently. So perhaps taking cues from Les Enfants de Paradis, Jean Cocteau and Jour de Fete rather than the 50s of Clouzot, Bresson and early New Wave. Insofar as Wes Anderson takes cues from anyone… Any excitement I might have that he’s tackling a specific culture and time is tempered by the knowledge that it will be put thru the wringer until it comes out a Wes Anderson movie. A topic of conversation arises with Paul Fennessy every time there’s a new Wes Anderson – just how much of a straitjacket his trademarks have become. One of our favourite flights of fancy finds Wes and Jason Schwartzman or Roman Coppola or Owen Wilson seated at a diner in Austin; furiously scribbling dialogue and scene ideas in yellow legal pads, and beaming at each other happily, until a shadow crosses Wes’ face, and he asks in horror and disappointment, “But wait, can we do that as a tracking shot or a series of whip-pans?” Because if not, well, there’s no place for it in the cathedral of conventions that Wes Anderson has imprisoned himself within.

Photo: Matt Kennedy

“I can’t help if it I’m popular”

Well now, that didn’t take long. Less than a month after I derided it here, the Oscars abruptly threw engines into full reverse on their wonderfully patronising idea of giving out a new token Oscar for Best ‘Popular’ Movie. It was a bold move to keep the plebeians happy and watching the bloated ceremony honouring films nobody saw. I would wager cold hard cash the decision to ‘suspend’ the new award followed almost instantly on Chadwick Boseman scotching the notion he would be happy to see Black Panther dismissed with a token gong so transparently created merely to commend his all-conquering movie without commending it. He wanted, quite rightly, to be nominated, and seriously, for the Best Picture Oscar; like previous Oscar-winning crowd pleasers The Sting, Forrest Gump, and Rocky. Right now Black Panther has made 700,059,566 dollars at the North American Box Office.  Let us be cruel and note that the combined totals of every Best Picture Oscar winner this decade; The King’s Speech (135,453,143), The Artist (44,671,682), Argo (136,025,503), 12 Years a Slave (56,671,993), Birdman (42,340,598), Spotlight (45,055,776), Moonlight (27,854,932), The Shape of Water (63,859,435); come to just 551,933,062 dollars. That is why fewer and fewer people watch the obscurantist Oscars.

The means defeat the ends

Watching Ken Burns’ incredible documentary The Vietnam War last year it was hard not to think that when someone proclaims ‘the ends justify the means’ any means thus justified actually work against the proclaimed ends.  The brutal means employed in Vietnam actually strengthened the Vietcong and thus worked against the ends of keeping South Vietnam out of their hands.  And, in a disconcerting swoop to utter banality, the shamelessness of the cash-grab of The Hobbit trilogy meant grabbing shamefully little cash. Despite featuring the same writing/producing staff as the Lord of the Rings , (with the regrettable addition of Guillermo Del Toro), Peter Jackson as director, and Andrew Lesnie as cinematographer, the first two Hobbit films (I’ve avoided the last) were nothing like it. They were shot like Janusz Kaminski had left the supernova on in the soundstage, and the greenscreen room, and the digital FX studio, bedevilled by awful acting, unintentionally funny make-up and CGI make-up work, and muddled in nearly every imaginable respect of scripting and directing, with even promising sequences descending into over the top gibberish repeatedly, and this is before we even gripe that the slim volume of Tolkien being made into three films was, as Bilbo once said, like butter spread over too much bread. They were entirely lacking the magic of the Lord of the Rings mostly because of a bewildering lack of reality. Well, not that bewildering after all. The reason that unwelcome CGI was so omnipresent was because the forced perspective practical trickery of set design used to such great effect in the Lord of the Rings would not work for 3-D. So Ian McKellen got to interact with, essentially, named coconuts on sticks, until he started crying; and wailing ‘This is not why I became an actor’. Why abandon forced perspective for 3-D? Because they had to be in 3-D to make as much money as possible! But, because this made them look so awful, on top of the sheer greed of making a trilogy from a small book, people like me, who saw every Lord of the Rings film in the cinema at least twice, and then bought them on home release, in both versions, didn’t go to the cinema to suffer this misbegotten trilogy. Indeed after slogging to the end of the DVD of the second Hobbit film, with its inane love triangle and CGI Smaug whose scale was never clear during his scenes with Bilbo, and which ended with a slap in the face to the audience by leaving his attack till the next movie, I vowed never to watch the third.  And it seems many people felt as I did. The Hobbit’s takings were 1,000m, 958m, and 956m. As opposed to the Lord of the Rings’s takings of 871.5m, 926m, and 1,100m. Note how more people flocked to the Lord of the Rings film by film, while people backed away from The Hobbit. Note also that The Hobbit’s numbers are swelled by inflated 3-D ticket prices, and a decade of inflation. Well, that backfired spectacularly. The ends (making mucho money) justified the means (making awful-looking films, and too many of them, badly). And, the ends, of making mucho money, were defeated by the means employed, an unexpected trilogy of CGI in 3-D.

May 22, 2018

From the Archives: Stop Loss

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives turns up a very under-rated Iraq war film featuring strong supporting turns from Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The Iraq War has become a continuing nightmare for the United States military to set beside Vietnam. Surprisingly it’s also become impossible terrain for American film-makers compared to the cinematic response to Vietnam. It falls to writer/director Kimberly Pierce to make the finest film about the Iraq War to date. This is her first feature since 1999’s acclaimed Boys Don’t Cry and Pierce has waited a long time to provide another absorbing and heartbreaking slice of small town Americana. The film opens with an action set-piece in Iraq that conveys tedium, paranoia, fear, bloodlust and chaos more effectively than the entirety of Brian De Palma’s Redacted. The real focus of this film is the psychological battle on the home-front back in Texas.

There is no place for a warrior in a stable society. This is a melancholy truth that has found expression over and over again in fiction, if you set out to protect your home your violent deeds will unfit you for ever living there again. “I’m going to miss blowing shit up” laments Channing Tatum’s Steve Shriver as he hands over his weapons for discharge from the army having served his required tours of duty. What exactly are these men going to do back in their small town? Jobs are scarce, they’re adrenaline junkies and scarred by the savagery they’ve witnessed and been forced to commit in Iraq. The dilemma is best exemplified by the out of control Pt. Tommy Burgess. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a supporting role as the violent alcoholic Tommy is as superb as his performances in Brick, The Look-Out and Mysterious Skin have led us to expect. Burgess and Shriver desperately need their commanding officer Brandon King to keep them in check. King is leaving the military…until he finds the President has signed an order keeping him in the army against his will.

Ryan Phillipe is impressively mature as the righteously indignant Staff Sergeant Brandon King who thinks he should not be asked to pointlessly lead more men to their deaths. Australian actress Abbie Cornish is a fine foil as Michelle, Shriver’s neglected girlfriend who offers to drive King to Washington. There are echoes of Phillipe’s previous role in Flags of Our Fathers. King is convinced that he can just take the matter up with his local Senator who welcomed him home but he quickly learns the harsh truth. You’re a hero when you’re fighting, but when the war finishes or you’ve gone AWOL from a Stop-Loss, they don’t want to hear about you anymore. The shadow of Vietnam hangs heavy over this film as King suddenly realises his choices are return to Iraq or flee to Canada, start a new life there and never be able to return home again. This is never preachy, always compelling and emotionally taut. An absolute must see.

5/5

October 7, 2015

Sicario

Emily Blunt is an FBI agent in over her head in the crusade against cartels in director Denis Villeneuve’s gripping thriller of a dirty war.

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Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a ‘thumper’. She kicks in doors to rescue hostages. Or, as in the startling opening sequence, her armoured car kicks in an entire wall before unleashing her gun-toting squad. But all her rescues don’t really make a dent in the war on drugs, so when prosecutor Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) offers her the chance to join a taskforce led by Graver (Josh Brolin) she volunteers. But the taskforce soon starts to trouble her. It’s bad enough being surrounded by Graver’s crew, trigger-happy jocks like Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), but their stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is troublingly mysterious, and their mission soon creeps over the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) urges her to quit after that mission erupts into quasi-legal slaughter, but Kate needs the truth.

Sicario is a triumph. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson’s extraordinary score makes you anxious even before the first image, with its insistent sinister rhythm. At times he almost mischievously quotes Brad Fiedel’s Terminator 2 T-1000 cue, as if to relieve tension, but his melding of digital beats with brass and strings consistently unnerves. Sicario is always riveting, and even when the script (by Sons of Anarchy actor Taylor Sheridan) appears to be losing its tension it’s merely misdirection to increase paranoia. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is jaw-dropping: aerial photography gives a drone’s eye view of the warzone, while a pan across the border-crossing makes Juarez seem incredibly alien, and a climactic sequence with thermal imaging surpasses Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve equals Michael Mann in his staging of a prisoner transfer in cartel-run Juarez and a gun battle in a stalled motorway jam.

The opening titles tell us originally ‘sicario’ were Jews murdering occupying Romans. Like Villeneuve’s Incendies, this is a contemporary film with mythic echoes of savagery past. Kate in her conflict with Alejandro is Creon to his Antigone: devotion to upholding the law is the right thing for Kate, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing. Meanwhile Graver’s cynical “If you can’t stop 20% of Americans putting stuff up their noses and in their arms, let’s have some order at least” is not only as grimly realistic as the similar dirty war tactics depicted in ’71 but also oddly reminiscent of the simultaneously historically inspiring and dubiously propagandistic message of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. A major achievement for Villeneuve is that, despite Deakins and Brolin’s involvement with No Country for Old Men, Sicario is its own universe.

Sicario, powered by Blunt’s assured lead performance as a heroine too dogged for her own good, grips from its thunderous opening to its soft-spoken and extremely resonant last lines.

5/5

September 16, 2015

Grounded

Major Barbara star Clare Dunne dominated the Project’s Space Upstairs in a performance of George Brant’s monologue Grounded as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival.

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Dunne is an unnamed fighter pilot, one of the USAF’s Top Guns; returning minarets in the Middle East to the state of the sands that surround them. Or at least presuming that she does, she’s always miles past her target by the time her missiles hit home. She’s cocky, one of the boys; an intimidating figure to most civilian men, until one man is attracted by her flight suit star-power. Finding herself pregnant she has to stop flying because her unborn daughter would not survive the G-force of the ejector seat being deployed. Three years later reporting for duty she is horrified to find herself permanently grounded. F-16s aren’t being made anymore, it’s all drones now; and she’s retrained for the US Chair Force. Relocating to Las Vegas she longs for the feeling of soaring lethally thru the blue sky…

Dunne’s accent initially startles; co-ordinates are somewhere around Wyoming by way of Texas; but it fits her swaggering character perfectly – a lover of AC/DC, a hater of hair-tossing girls, high on self-mythology, short on self-analysis. She is some kind of American archetype. Almost as bad as flying a drone and not having her own plane is not being a lone wolf anymore; now she has to fly a drone, not her drone, in shifts with other pilots, a teenager beside her controlling the camera, and a team of analysts in her ear okaying when she can strike – her individual lethal agency is gone. Killing is now pushing a button, represented by Dunne’s click of a pen. But now she’s forced to linger on the scenes of her kills… And soon the grey images on her monitor bleed into her home life.

Director Selina Cartmell stages the action on a long narrow platform with the audience facing each other across it. The only props are chairs which Dunne manically rearranges to create varied settings for the different scenes: a fight with her c/o, family drama, the boredom of reconnaissance, the tension of hovering surveillance, and the guilty thrill of danger-free drone-strikes. Davy Cunningham’s dazzling light design, which at one point loses Dunne in darkness while the audience looms up, is combined with a thunderous and brilliant use of AC/DC and Elvis. This is a topical piece, but the personal angst of adjusting to new modes of war is more dramatically interesting than the predictable crisis of conscience; which her husband urges her to leave at the base like his ‘clapping out’ at the end of a casino blackjack shift to clock out.

Brant loads the dramatic dice in this high-stakes Vegas game towards the inevitable hand-wringing, but the final image of Dunne’s warrior finally successfully clapping out remains devastating. ‘Boom…’ indeed.

5/5

January 20, 2012

Top 5 Bear Grylls Extractions

I’ve become hooked on Discovery UK’s midnight re-runs of Bear Grylls: Born Survivor so this is probably only the first in a series of lists celebrating his adventures.

(5) Jumping into a river in West Texas
One of the most visually arresting exits in the series has to be the moment Bear disappears from sight and is revealed to have jumped down a very sudden precipice into the Rio Grande. It’s the suddenness of the transition from scrambling over boulders to just running and leaping into space that makes this. And as rivers go it’s one guaranteed to alert people to your predicament merely by being in it.

(4) Hopping a truck in Alabama
The end of Southern Comfort comes to mind as Bear, covered in reddish mud as protection against a raging bushfire, comes back to winter forest that isn’t on fire, and suddenly hears a sound. It’s a honking logging truck as it slows down for making a turn around a bend, and Bear runs like hell and slides down a hillside to cut it off, and hits the road just in time to board it.

(3) Jumping onto a rope in Louisiana
Bear stands on the roof of a flooded house in Louisiana and the chopper comes in and dangles the rope-ladder as near him as it can. Which isn’t all that near. Bear takes a leap of faith and roars off the roof and out over the flooded water teeming with snakes, alligators and disease but manages to grab the oscillating rope-ladder with both hands and stay firmly on as the chopper pulls away.

(2) Chopper rescue off a temple in Guatemala
Never start a fire on an ancient monument unless it’s a survival situation is the rider Bear issues to viewers before setting one on a Mayan temple in Guatemala. He then dashes up the temple to get higher so that he can reach the rope-ladder dropped down for him and swings off after the chopper, barely missing the trees when the rainforest reasserts itself. And, oh joy, leaves the fire burning strongly…

(1) Hopping a train in Montana
Walking along train-tracks to get back to civilisation is a good idea, following them through a long tunnel to avoid having to schlepp over the hillside is not such a good idea. The sinking feeling that the tracks are suddenly vibrating leads Bear and his crew to run for all their worth to dramatically dive out of the narrow tunnel just before the train rampages out of it, and then they bloody hop it!

July 2, 2010

Eclipse

David Slade, director of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, succeeds in returning some of Catherine Hardwicke’s viciousness to Eclipse but takes the romance tongue-in-cheek seriously…

The opening reinstates the nastiness that Hardwicke made so crucial in the first film by depicting a savage vampire attack that agonisingly turns new villain Riley. From there Slade alternates sappy romance with something that New Moon so badly lacked – a plot. The same plot broadly as the first film mind, killing spree heralds vampires heading towards Forks who target Bella, but a plot nonetheless. Slade gleefully ret-cons the vampires into ice-cold beings who shatter like glass when hit hard enough, which allows for decapitations aplenty with exploding heads and nary a drop of blood, and doesn’t make a lick of sense given that they mop up the red stuff, but why complain when it allows a lead vampire to very painfully lose an arm to a werewolf.

Slade also fleshes out the Cullens, giving Rosalie a chance to stop pouting and become a character by revealing her back-story. The real revelation though is Jackson Rathbone as Jasper who after doing a Harpo Marx impression for two films is finally given dialogue and, in revealing his Civil War past in Texas and his experience in training newborn vampires, turns out to be ridiculously charismatic. He’s matched by Xavier Samuel as Riley, who raises an army of insanely destructive newborn vampires that cause such mayhem in Seattle that sinister vampire overlords the Volturi dispatch Jane (Dakota Fanning) to kill them. Whisper it, but Fanning displays an un-nerving flair for sadistic villainy – far surpassing Bryce Dallas Howard’s underwhelming cameo as Bella’s vampire nemesis Victoria – with one moment in particular almost an exorcising of her past career.

Such almost fourth-wall breaches litter Eclipse as Slade is aware that these characters have taken on a life outside their fictional framework. When a hypothermic Bella needs to be warmed up and over-heated werewolf Jacob tells Edward “We both know I’m hotter than you”, you almost expect both actors to look directly at the audience and then return to the scene. Slade knows that teenage girls will wildly cheer Jacob’s first appearance and his first shirtless scene, especially Edward’s reaction by engaging in an epic make-out session with Bella. It is hard not to suppose that Slade and his writing associate Brian Nelson did a dialogue polish as there are tart put-downs at all these moments which make Taylor Lautner’s Jacob a more sardonic and charismatic presence here than in the previous film despite having less screen-time and also give Robert Pattinson something to play other than brooding. New Moon was unintentionally funny in its awfulness but Eclipse’s intentional comedy reaches exquisite heights in a scene when the always droll Billy Burke as Bella’s father tries to discuss accidental pregnancy with Bella while they both die of embarrassment.

Reviewing the performances of Pattinson and Lautner is of course redundant and it could be argued that the unashamed objectification of them is a positive development, but, this conflict between a dependable pretty boy and a moody pretty boy was done far better in seasons 2 and 3 of Gilmore Girls, which only highlights the enormous problem that is Bella Swan. Kristen Stewart’s original turn masked the fact that Bella is a bafflingly anaemic heroine, the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend…

This surpasses New Moon but favourable comparisons to that are like saying fewer people died when the Lusitania sank than when the Titanic went down. Eclipse isn’t as good as Twilight but it’s a qualified success as a horror film spliced with a romance that needs to wink at the audience. But when a romance needs to wink at the audience it means that you’re liable to spend as much time anthropologically observing the audience’s fevered reaction to the movie as actually watching the movie.

3/5

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