Talking Movies

January 9, 2012

Top 10 Films of 2011

(10) The Adjustment Bureau
George Nolfi’s Philip K Dick adaptation had a too neat resolution, but against that one flaw must be set a brace of wonderfully nuanced and contrasting villains, a truly dazzling romance that craftily worked on two different levels, superb comedy from Emily Blunt and Matt Damon, and a delightful temporally skipping structure that organically built to an unexpected and thrilling action chase finale. Nolfi took an idea from Dick and built something warm and great around it.
 
(9) Never Let Me Go
Mark Romanek’s direction was ridiculously self-effacing, but he coaxed the performances to match Alex Garland’s subtle screen imagining of Kazuo Ishiguro’s offbeat sci-fi novel, while the casting of child actors to match their adult equivalents was very impressive. Keira Knightley as the villainous Ruth outshone Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield as she invested the smallest role of the trio with great cruelty and then complexity. This was a heartbreaking slow-burner.

(8) Submarine
Richard Ayoade made his directorial debut from his own adaptation of the Welsh novel and impressed mightily. The comedy was superb, as you’d expect, whether it was the offbeat character moments, deflating jump cuts and preposterous slow-mos, or priceless cinematic in-jokes. What surprised was his assurance in handling drama, from depression to mortal illness and infidelity to suicide, with growing overtones of menace and a refreshing lack of predictability.

(7) Little White Lies
An incredibly Americanised French film, whether it was fun on a yacht being sound-tracked by Creedence or grand romantic gestures being accompanied by Antony and the Johnsons. Marion Cotillard & Co leave a comatose friend’s bedside for their annual holiday and comic madness involving weasels and crushes and endless dramas over love ensue. It’s over-long but mostly the Flaubertian lack of plot made time cease to matter for both the characters and the audience.

(5) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher’s version surpassed the Swedish original by reinstating more of the texture of Stieg Larsson’s book, creating a mystery rather than a thriller, in which the characters dominate the plot and are allowed to have complex emotional lives outside of cracking the cold case. The villain is marvellously drawn, and Fincher not only draws out maximum suspense from the story, but betters the Swedish version by both keeping the nastiest sequences and then also refusing to soften Lisbeth Salander. Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig are both pitch-perfect in the lead roles.

(5) Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen amazed by somehow delivering a fantastical romantic comedy with screamingly funny lines and a great high concept brilliantly developed. Allen granted Owen Wilson and Rachel MacAdams’ bickering engaged couple numerous hysterical scenes of utterly failing to connect, not least with her hilariously snooty parents. The recreation of the roaring Twenties Paris of America’s Lost Generation writers was positively inspired, most notably in its Hemingway who monologues in an abrupt monotone, and the film itself equally warm and wise.

(4) Take Shelter
This stunning film is both a Donnie Darko inflected tale of approaching apocalypse that only our hero has foreknowledge of but which sets his sanity on edge, and a terrifyingly realistic story of a man’s descent into a mental illness so subtle yet devastating that he can bankrupt his family by being plausible enough at the bank to secure loans to carry out construction to safeguard against an imaginary threat. Taut, terrifically ambiguous, and nightmarishly scary on several levels, this achieves such intensity that at its climax the simple act of Michael Shannon opening a storm shelter door becomes a moment of unbearable suspense and incredible emotional consequence.

(3) The Guard
John Michael McDonagh’s directorial debut was an impressively inventive profane farce which could be best described as Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – Connemara. Brendan Gleeson seized with both Fassbendering hands the chance to play the world’s most demented Guard while Don Cheadle was an effective foil as the exasperated FBI Agent teaming up with him to bring down the preposterously philosophical drug-smugglers Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Mark Strong. Endlessly quotable and showcasing wonderful running gags, an unlikely action finale, and an ambiguous ending that poked fun at Hollywood resolutions this was the comedy of 2011.

(2) X-Men: First Class
Matthew Vaughn finally got to direct an X-Men movie and, with his co-writers, at last gave some substance to the friendship and enmity of Magneto and Professor X. Michael Fassbender’s rightly vengeful Nazi-hunter Erik complicated comic-book morality as much as Kick-Ass and added real weight to the tragedy of Mystique turning to his philosophy over the compassion personified by her mentor Xavier. Vaughn balanced this trauma with very funny montages of Erik and Xavier recruiting and training mutants for the CIA, but it was the casual tossing in of an enormous shock in the finale which exemplifed the supreme assuredness of this fine blockbuster.

(1) Incendies
This French-Canadian film unnerves from its opening shot, is always enthralling, and by the end has become quite simply devastating. A couple of Montreal siblings discover that their mother had unbeknownst to them lived a life of startling savagery in Lebanon’s 1980s civil war before emigrating. This is a merciless depiction of a vicious war where each side torches the other’s orphanages, burns women and children alive in buses, and recruits the other’s young boys as soldiers when not just shooting them in the head. The siblings uncover and come to terms with an extraordinary journey in search of vengeance, leading to the ultimate crime, and forgiveness…

December 3, 2011

The Movies Aren’t Dead, they just smell funny: Part III

Mark Harris’ GQ article ‘The Day the Movies Died’ rightly notes that the standard which journeymen film-makers operate at has collapsed, but I want to add studio tactics, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself as elements working against cinema, in addition to his recurring and important culprit – marketers.

Harris quotes a studio executive as lamenting, “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is (as noted in a previous piece) all the screenwriting is apparently done by deeply jaded supercomputers which have been programmed with all the right story structure software but just can’t find it in their diodes to generate any surprises. The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this really could go anywhere. Could the Joker really blow up two boats full of people? Yes, after what he’d done up to that point, sitting in the cinema you were sick with suspense that Nolan would go that far in letting this supervillain off the leash. I praised Win Win for the same quality, that you couldn’t easily predict what was going to happen next and therefore got nervous for the characters’ fates in a way you usually don’t, and indeed noted that the delightfully ramshackle Troll Hunter also had a surprisingly clear three-act structure, in retrospect. The point with all of these films is that they’re so successful in dazzling the audience with their content that no one is looking at the structure while they’re watching it. Which is at it should be, Billy Wilder after all having said plot points were more effective the better a job you made of hiding them. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The problem is that mediocre films can’t cloak their structure with content, and so you notice just how clichéd they are. Harris brilliantly isolates The Bounty Hunter and Prince of Persia as ‘the new okay’, the film that is just about worth the ticket price but won’t linger in your memory.

Harris is very funny in noting just how disastrous a decline a system has to be in for films like those two flops to become the new benchmark of competence. He blames marketers who thought from the poster, and the existing brand, backwards to making the film, rather than from a good story forwards. But I think his characterisation of such mid-range movies as the greatest victim of Hollywood’s “collective inattention/indifference to the basic virtues of story development” is unjust. Prince of Persia is a good brand for a computer game, but offers nothing new for cinema audiences. The Bounty Hunter’s poster and tagline might have presaged a good movie, if someone had written it. There is a trend in Hollywood of pleasing the top brass by writing ‘stories’ that hit every mark they’re supposed to, but the craft has overtaken the art, these aren’t stories that need to be told, the writer is merely assembling a product, not channelling inspiration. Joel Schumacher for me represents the height from which journeymen have fallen. Movies like Flatliners or The Client set the bar far higher than any workaday studio production today. They don’t dazzle with content in the way I’ve discussed, but the structure doesn’t obtrude because they’re tremendously entertaining films. We need journeymen today to aspire to that level of basic competency in entertaining with a nice but not spectacular concept neatly done. I know that Joel Schumacher is not of beloved of most people as he is of me (I actually feel bad at not trying to pass him off as an auteur), but the man who made solid entertainments like Lost Boys and Phone Booth seems to be exactly the sort of person we’re lacking right now, stuck as we are with Brett Ratner as this generation’s equivalent.

I think the decline in the aims of screenwriting and journeymen directing is part of a deep malaise of ‘it’ll do’ that has fallen over Hollywood. We now have CGI being as obnoxiously fake as 1950s back-projection, but for worse reasons. There were actual technical difficulties, as well as laziness, involved with avoiding location shooting back then. Now, every time a TV show uses an obvious CGI backdrop for an outdoor dialogue scene (Bones) or an hysterically fake moving background for car scenes (24) it’s because they can’t be bothered going outside when they can just shoot it in a green room and expect the audience to put up with it. The laziness of omnipresent CGI can be demonstrated by some great practical magic in The Adjustment Bureau.

BORIS: So, we need to move from a bathroom in a building to the field of Yankee Stadium in one continuous tracking shot thru a door.
JOHNSON: Well, we’ll just CGI it right?
BORIS: Move from a bathroom into a green screen room and then pan around, and add in the Stadium later? I like it.
GODUNOV: Or, we could just build a bathroom set on the field of Yankee Stadium and shoot it without any CGI at all.
BORIS: Oh. (beat) How very… practical…

People don’t think about options anymore, they just use CGI. I’ve noted this before when wondering why the Hulk can’t be played by an actor anymore using Lord of the Rings-style perspective tricks to make someone like The Rock truly loom over people. CGI always has to be used, because that’s what’s done. Scripts have to be written according to a flow chart, because that’s what’s done. And, I think one of the biggest problems we’re faced with because of the rise of the marketer’s love of brand, and the concomitant franchise movie, is the Hollywood hype machine which now fundamentally distorts the way in which writers pen, and audiences view, sequels. Every sequel now has to be bigger and better and feature higher stakes, because that’s what’s done. The result is bloated messes like Pirates 2. In the Golden Age of Hollywood people might just make a sequel if they had a good idea and wanted to have fun with the same characters again, or if they didn’t have any good ideas they might instead just round up the same guys for another original movie. I interpret Fast Five as pretty much a return to that older approach. Fast Five’s trailer has clearly given up on the idea that these films are getting bigger and better. Vin Diesel promises us that they’ll get caught or killed one day, but not today, situating the film as just another chapter in the continuing adventures of some petrol-head loveable rogues. If it can return us to a slightly less hysterical and creatively self-defeating approach to franchises then the successful but utterly inconsequential Fast Five may well prove to be the saviour of modern cinema. I may be embellishing that…

In conclusion (at long last) The Movies Aren’t Dead. Shame arrives in January. I’ve seen it and Steve McQueen’s second film as director, again with Talking Movies’ favourite Michael Fassbender as his leading man, is a devastating piece of work that shows what’s possible aesthetically and emotionally if you can free yourself from the self-defeating commercial strictures currently strangling cinema.

May 10, 2011

‘Matt Damon is Not Jason Bourne’

Matt Damon is Not Jason Bourne. An obvious truth I know, but one which seems to need re-stating of late…

I’ve been bemused by more than a few posters for movies of late because of two problems, the second of which concerns Matt Damon. The first problem is ho-hum films with unmemorable titles which make matters worse for themselves by blowing up their equally generic taglines to the same size so that looking at the poster on a bus stop you can find yourself looking at the top and bottom of the poster, and wondering if that new rom-com with Vince Vaughn is actually called The Truth Hurts or The Dilemma, or if Russell Brand is voicing a CGI character in something called Hop or Candy, Chicks, and Rocky and Roll. Now it’s undoubtedly true that good films make their titles memorable even if those titles aren’t particularly great objectively, but that’s no excuse for mediocre films settling for utterly banal titles. Similarly with taglines; how far we have fallen from when taglines like ‘In space no one can hear you scream’ became as famous as any lines of dialogue from the film they advertised.

This seems to display a lack of effort by all concerned that ties into my second problem – incredibly lazy journalism being utilised for incredibly lazy marketing. Green Zone displayed on its poster a quote stating ‘Bourne Goes Epic’. The Adjustment Bureau displayed on its poster a quote stating ‘Bourne meets Inception’. It’s got to the stage now that if Paul Thomas Anderson was to make a companion piece to Boogie Nights starring Matt Damon instead of his lookalike Mark Wahlberg, you would put serious money that some idiot somewhere would obligingly write ‘Bourne goes Porn’ as a handy pull-quote for the poster. Matt Damon is Not Jason Bourne: not every film he makes will be a gritty hand-held action thriller, nor will he be taciturn and amnesiac in every role he plays. Could Hereafter be accurately described as ‘Bourne meets Medium’? This trend is as idiotic as plastering the sentence ‘Indiana Jones meets Perry Mason’ on a poster for Presumed Innocent would have been, and it desperately needs to stop now.

The death of film was loudly declared some weeks ago in an article I may parse in the near future, but, while I don’t subscribe to the idea that Hollywood doesn’t tell stories anymore, I do think it may be accurate to suggest that a malaise of sorts has indeed descended over Burbank. Possibly it’s related to the decline in DVD sales, and a consequent feeling that if everything will just be pirated and watched online for free anyway, then what’s the point of wasting your time designing a Saul Bass class poster with a tagline that will become a catchphrase to entice people to see a film in theatres, when you could just plaster a barely adequate tagline and an inane quote from a pressed for time journalist over a cast photo?

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