Talking Movies

December 9, 2018

From the Archives: The Prestige

Hugh Jackman is in the news this week just as I find in the distant past before even the pre-Talking Movies archives a review of one of his best films.

Every magic trick has three acts, every film has three acts, and Christopher Nolan has wittily combined the two by playing a three-card trick on the audience. Set in 1890s London The Prestige follows the professional rivalry and very personal enmity that develops between magicians Borden (Christian Bale) and Angier (Hugh Jackman) after Borden is responsible for the death of Angier’s wife (a tragically underused Piper Perabo) in a magic trick gone badly wrong.

Christian Bale brings his usual intensity to the role but as always so completely inhabits his character that, despite the presence of fellow Batman Begins alumni Michael Caine and Nolan, you will not think of his Dark Knight once as you watch his poor cockney try to upstage the aristocratic Jackman. Jackman is surprisingly good playing an equally driven and fairly unpleasant character while in support Michael Caine is reliably solid and the tragically overused (by which I mean she appears in the film) Scarlett Johansson is reliably pouty. Caine is pitted against Bale’s character, which for film critics with a chronic inability to focus makes some scenes look amusingly like an act-off over who has the best cockney accent. It has to be said on balance that Bale manages to out-Caine Sir Michael Caine himself. David Bowie could really have stirred things up on this front but he performs his cameo role as Niklos Tesla in a restrained Serbian accent.

The extreme lengths the magicians Borden and Angier are willing to go to in order to sabotage each other will make you wince and are genuinely shocking, one image at least should haunt you for weeks. But, as with all Christopher Nolan films, it is the telling of the tale and not the compelling tale itself that makes the film extraordinary. Narrated by both Borden and Angier the film is a Chinese box of narrative tricks. Christopher Nolan and his brother and screenwriting partner Jonathan Nolan are after all responsible for the intricately structured Memento, one of the defining films of the decade, as well as the frighteningly intelligent blockbuster Batman Begins.

M Night Shyamalan’s biggest success had one twist at the end that took people’s breath away. There are at least four twists scattered throughout The Prestige which will make you feel as if you’ve been punched in the stomach so completely do they reorder your understanding of what you’ve already seen. Which makes it damnably hard to write about without ruining the joy of its structure. When this film ends you will feel cheated. In a way that’s part of the trick. The real fun comes over the next day and a half when you realise ‘oh that’s what that scene meant’ and ‘so that’s why he said that’. While you’re waiting for The Dark Knight go see The Prestige and be the victim of masterful cinematic sleight-of-hand.

4/5

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Any Other Business: Part XXI

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-first portmanteau post on matters of course!

Move over Chekhov, here’s Gresham: bad writing drives out good

I was very late in catching up with Westworld given that I loved Jonathan Nolan’s previous TV show Person of Interest. However, if I had watched the pilot of Westworld unaware of who was behind it I would have never have guessed Nolan, J. I was stunned at how humdrum to lousy so much of the dialogue was, and floored by the immediate and lasting awfulness of the British writer character. Indeed to critique Westworld I find myself digging into the Talking Movies archives for my review of Safe Haven, where I complained “one-note characterisation is far too prevalent,” and find myself grimacing that yes, one could level the same charge against the most acclaimed, epochal, cerebral TV show of our age. But then we come to my complaint regarding Cobie Smulders’ character in Safe Haven: “Indeed the shallowness of the writing is such that it allows an infuriatingly connived third-act reveal, infuriating because it relies on one particular shallow characterisation without realising that hiding it behind shallow characterisation all around hurts the film.” Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy clearly thought they were doing an awesome job of hiding two cards up their sleeves, but dropping hints. The problem being that if your hint that Bernard is a host is that he seems to be unconcerned about the whereabouts of his deputy then you as showrunners should probably be more concerned about the whereabouts of your characters. Why on earth should I worry that Bernard doesn’t seem worried that his deputy has gone missing when this show left two technicians at knifepoint by Thandie Newton’s character, and then never came back to them for the bulk of an episode? If forgetting about characters afflicts the writers of the show who’s going to notice it in one of their creations? What’s worse is that jumping a scene almost with Thandie Newton leaves it very unclear why the techs continue to play ball after they’re no longer at knifepoint.  But as that’s vital to the season arc, it’s just glossed over. And so I end up drawing comparisons between the writer of Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Person of Interest, and Nicholas Sparks…

August 27, 2018

From the Archives: Babylon A.D.

Another trawl thru the depths of the pre-Talking Movies archives recovers what Vin Diesel was reduced to before Justin Lin.

The Dark Knight was so sublime that it caused every other studio to delay their releases, hence the recent avalanche of nonsense which reaches its apotheosis of ridiculousness with Babylon A.D.

Vin Diesel’s gravelly voice and gruff presence are all that keep this inane attempt at a futuristic thriller limping along. He plays Toorop, a hard-bitten American mercenary with a liking for good food, exiled in Russia. He is kidnapped by Gerard Depardieu (wearing outrageous prosthetics) and entrusted with delivering a naïve young girl Aurora (Melanie Thierry) to New York City. The mysterious girl is accompanied from her convent by the enigmatic Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). Other clichés occur as they struggle against harsh landscapes only to find that the truly dark places are within…the human heart…

Matthieu Kassovitz, the maker of La Haine, co-writes and directs this disastrous attempt at a post-apocalyptic action epic with great meaning. The problem is he never bothers explaining how this future came about. It looks like Dark Angel’s Seattle but James Cameron explained that vision of 2019 as a result of a truly global terror attack. Kassovitz, however, seems to think explanations are unworthy of him. Sister Rebeka astounds Toorop by knowing kung fu, but we have been told nothing of her Neolite religious order by that point so the revelation falls flat, and we still don’t know enough about them to make any sense later on of the Machiavellian plotting of their founder, Charlotte Rampling. Kassovitz has flailed around badly since La Haine with The Crimson Rivers, (which explored the fine line between un homage to Se7en and un rip-off) and Halle Berry’s truly awful Gothika, so this mess is really no surprise.

Things start well with RZA sound-tracking realistic action in a grimy Russia but after that fake-looking CGI and plot-destroying bending of the laws of physics start to abound. Staggeringly a French director seems not to know how to showcase the Gallic invention of parkour, with an action sequence fizzling out as it fails to even palely imitate Casino Royale’s thrilling free-running extravaganza. The utter waste of talent in this film is exemplified by noted British character actor Mark Strong who is out-shone by his bad peroxide hair-do as the smuggler Finn. Melanie Thierry sleepwalks her way through proceedings, but perhaps she’s just trying to understand her apparent, and only occasional, Neo powers. Indeed, you will persistently shout ‘What?!’ at the logical lapses, especially the ending.

Vin Diesel can act when forced (Boiler Room) and deliver great big dumb blockbusters (xXx). This falls into some hellish in-between zone and its disaster status can be confirmed by the presence of Wilson Lambert as a mad scientist. Lambert has starred in Catwoman, Sahara, and both Matrix sequels and is the cinematic equivalent of a dead canary in a mining shaft. Avoid.

1/5

July 29, 2018

Notes on Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the only possible choice for movie of the week. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle early this morning.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a more serious film than its two immediate predecessors. There are far fewer jokes, and even the colour palatte is grimmer: Berlin, Paris, London, and snowy Kashmir. No jaunts to Dubai or Morroco here. Instead we have a film that marks 10 years since The Dark Knight with a very Batman/Joker dynamic between Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and the diabolical mastermind he refused to kill, Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane. Just like Batman and the Joker, Hunt’s refusal to take one life may result in many more lives being lost; where is the morality in that? There’s even an elaborately planned assault on a prisoner transfer as Lorne Balfe’s score knowingly dives into the Zimmer Bat-soundscape of ostinato synthesiser and strings.

July 24, 2018

From the Archives: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archive dredges up a sequel that really should have stayed hidden deep down.

There are some spooky things about this film, none of them to do with the plot. It’s been ten years since the first X-Files film Fight the Future, six years since the show ended, and eight years since everyone stopped caring. So why release this film against the all powerful Dark Knight when it’s so obviously a Hallowe’en film? Every scene takes place in a snowy West Virginia winter and the story eschews alien conspiracies for straight horror. Even odder, given that The Dark Knight is a triumphant sequel, original show writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz are pitting against it a sequel that is not faster, harder and better. Where Fight the Future went for big effects (remember the glorious tastelessness of its opening Oklahoma bombing recreation?) this is a sequel that aims to be quieter (!!), and fails…

This film believes itself to be a low-key emotional character study spliced with some deliciously grotesque shlock horror. Fox Mulder is a broken man (we know this because he has a beard) while Dana Scully is working as a doctor in a Catholic hospital. Scully is asked by the FBI to bring Mulder in for a consult on the case of a missing agent, as the only leads come from a psychic paedophile priest Fr Joe, played with surprisingly unshowy aplomb by Billy Connolly as a man tormented by his instincts and desperate for redemption and forgiveness. Mulder is rejuvenated by the case (he shaves off his beard) but Scully remains sceptical, some things never change.

This film never descends to George Lucas dialogue but most scenes between Mulder and Scully take five minutes to run thru three simple ideas; “You need to trust people again, take this job Mulder”, “This job has too much darkness Mulder, you should drop it”, and “This job is all I know how to do Scully”; these longeurs lead to musings –  like the hilarious notion that the militant atheism of Dawkins, so hip since 9/11, will be infuriated by the unashamed leaps of faith taken by Mulder and Scully in believing in the supernatural. Scully may doubt the existence of God as much as ever but she still curses him…

This film is too low-key for its own good. Chris Carter directed episodes of the TV show with more visual flair than he displays here. Amanda Peet and Xzibit do their level best with under-written roles as FBI agents. Callum Keith Rennie, a Canadian character actor best known for his Cylon in Battlestar Galactica and undercover cop in Due South, outshines them in lead support as a sinister Russian serial killer/organ-harvester. A suspenseful chase scene involving him is a highlight but such moments are offset by Scully’s sub-plot which is insultingly emotionally manipulative. It’s nice to see Mulder & Scully together again as older characters, but it would be better if they were in a worthy conspiracy laden sequel and not merely an efficient horror movie.

3/5

July 20, 2018

From the Archives: The Dark Knight

On this day ten years ago I saw The Dark Knight on the biggest IMAX screen in the world. Yeah…

“Where do we begin?” The Dark Knight is a sequel that expands upon and darkens an existing cinematic universe so successfully and unsettlingly that it ranks far above what one would think of as the obvious reference point The Empire Strikes Back and instead starts advancing menacingly towards The Godfather: Part II…

Director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan are very clever, as evidenced by their last collaboration The Prestige, and see greatness where others do not, as evidenced by reading the original novel of The Prestige. In The Dark Knight they have constructed a story that takes the mythology of the DC comic books and turns it into both high tragedy and violent mayhem.

Christian Bale is superb as Bruce Wayne who is quickly becoming a physical and emotional wreck after one year of being the Batman. What was intended as a short-term project to clean up corruption looks to be nearing its end with a final audacious swoop on the mob’s money-men. Bruce’s only chance of a normal life is slipping away though as his sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal at her most winning), tired of waiting for Bruce, is dating the idealistic new District Attorney Harvey Dent (a wonderfully charismatic Aaron Eckhart who also communicates an underlying instability that could lead Harvey to places of great moral darkness). Bruce can only compete against Dent for Rachel if he can trust Dent enough to retire Batman and leave the crime-fighting to the legitimate forces of Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his Major Crimes Unit. However such plans are wrecked when the mob in their desperation at Batman’s success decide to fight back by hiring, in the Don Sal Maroni’s own words, “a two bit whack-job in a cheap purple suit and make up”…The Joker.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, physical and unhinged – licking his lips like a snake sensing its prey, blows away the inert Jack Nicholson performance and retires the role for a generation if not all time. Oscars don’t go to films like this but Ledger’s performance here is worthy of consideration. His Joker is blackly hilarious and utterly terrifying, usually at the same time, and even his musical theme is chilling. The Nolan brothers cross many lines in depicting his psychopathic unpredictability. One of the taglines for this film was “Welcome to a world without rules”. Batman cannot understand Joker.  Carmine Falcone wanted power, Scarecrow wanted money, Ras Al’Ghul wanted order, The Joker? –  “I’m an agent of chaos”… His escalating mind games in the film move from straight crime with a superbly staged opening heist against a Mob bank, to terrorist attacks, to sick mass murder and beyond…

The Dark Knight is fiercely intelligent, ingeniously structured (to reveal plot details would be a sin) and gives memorable lines and moments to each member of a large ensemble, while the twisted bond between Batman and Joker that exists in the comics finally receives a cinematic depiction. This is all incredibly realistic looking with 60% of the film shot on location and if seen on an Imax screen, as Christopher Nolan indeed shot it especially for, Gotham becomes a character in its own right with its cityscape lovingly captured in vertiginous shots. Written, played and directed with supreme assuredness this is one of the most gut-wrenchingly suspenseful films of the year that looks to 1970s crime thrillers like Serpico rather than superhero films for its modus operandi with its theme of police corruption. Indeed this is unlike any previous Bat-sequel, as can be seen by the difference between the grisly Two-Face in this film compared to previous camp interpretations, and is even tonally different in many ways to Batman Begins. Wanted may be the most fun blockbuster this summer but the Bat has captured the classy end of the spectrum with a film that combines meaty drama with explosive action.

You need to see The Dark Knight. Repeatedly…

5/5

March 27, 2018

Mike Pence, like Batman, only has one rule

VP Mike Pence has been having, it’s fair to say, a hell of a time… If he goes to a Broadway musical he gets heckled, from the stage. If he goes to a football game the anthem gets disrespected, from the field. If he goes to the Winter Olympics he gets insulted, by the American athletes. But the death of Rev. Billy Graham, famous for his rule, has seen indiscreet whispers that Pence has suffered ordeals worse still emulating Graham, as Friedrich Bagel now reveals.

July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Brown – RTX3ADUJ

Mike Pence was kidnapped by the President of Mexico. The Mexicans kept him prisoner and tortured him by forcing him to have dinner nightly with a woman who was not his wife, thus forcing him to break the Mike Pence rule. They also referred to him as Miguel Peso.

 

 

In Mike Pence’s office all female secretaries and officials have to wear a Ruth Pence face mask, but at one point the mask slipped and Mike had to abseil out of a White House window.

 

—-

 

Mike was on board Air Force One when he realized that there were no crew present and the pilot’s announcements had revealed her to be a woman. He immediately parachuted out of the airplane but unfortunately landed in a nunnery.

 

—-

 

Ruth Pence got a new haircut and makeover which rendered her unrecognizable. She entered the Pence household and Mike had her escorted from the premises by the female security detachment, who were all wearing the Ruth Pence Prime outfits.

March 4, 2018

Why shouldn’t Fast & Furious 8 win the Best Picture Oscar?

The obvious answer is because it wasn’t nominated, but there’s an awful lot to be said about that obvious fact.

George Bernard Shaw once complained, after hearing one too many twits at dinner parties dismissing Wilde as facile, that he seemed to be the only man in London who could not sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. Fast & Furious 8 would, Vin Diesel promised, star Dame Helen Mirren and win the Oscar for Best Picture. It achieved one of those impossible missions. And probably the one more worth achieving. Can one say that Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture because it was facile? Surely not, because, like Wilde, if it was really that easy then every studio would be able to make their own Fast & Furious at will, and they cannot. This film saga has liberated itself from realism, probability, physics, logic, and continuity in a manner that defines gleefulness. The only people who can save the world are petrol-heads, people escaping explosions or jumping off bridges or falling cars can always land just where someone is driving to pick them, cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, and again cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, the State is welcomed into the family after murdering one of the family because of insinuations that he has a forgiveness-worthy back story. This is glee incarnate.

And glee does not win Oscars.  Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture for the same reason that The Dark Knight was nominated on the understanding that nobody was to actually vote for it. One of my regular theatre cohorts dropped the Freudian slip/zinger “The Dark Knight is great but obviously it wouldn’t the Oscar” when discussing Fast 8 and the Oscars. Think about that, a film is great, but obviously it can’t win the Oscar. Why? Well, because it’s just, um, too popular… A mantra here at Talking Movies is that is what good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good. That would ring alien to Oscar voters, and that’s not my opinion, it’s an empirically observable trend.

Consider the 1980s. Here are the films that topped the North American Box Office and the films that were awarded Best Picture year by year:

1980 The Empire Strikes Back

1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark

1982 E.T.

1983 Return of the Jedi

1984 Beverly Hills Cop

1985 Back to the Future

1986 Top Gun

1987 Three Men and a Baby

1988 Rain Man

1989 Batman

 

1980 Ordinary People

1981 Chariots of Fire

1982 Gandhi

1983 Terms of Endearment

1984 Amadeus

1985 Out of Africa

1986 Platoon

1987 The Last Emperor

1988 Rain Man

1989 Driving Miss Daisy

Only Rain Man won both the commercial and Oscar stakes, but some of the others were damn close. Ordinary People was 11th, Chariots of Fire 7th, Gandhi 12th, Terms of Endearment 2nd, Amadeus 12th, Out of Africa 5th, Platoon 3rd, The Last Emperor 25th, and Driving Miss Daisy 8th at the North American box office in their year of release.

Consider the 1990s, when two films topped the North American box office and were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour.

1990 Home Alone

1991 Terminator 2

1992 Aladdin

1993 Jurassic Park

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Toy Story

1996 Independence Day

1997 Titanic

1998 Saving Private Ryan

1999 The Phantom Menace

 

1990 Dances with Wolves

1991 The Silence of the Lambs

1992 Unforgiven

1993 Schindler’s List

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Braveheart

1996 The English Patient

1997 Titanic

1998 Shakespeare in Love

1999 American Beauty

Oscars were still going to reasonably popular films. Dances with Wolves was 3rd, The Silence of the Lambs 4th, Unforgiven 11th, Schindler’s List 11th, Braveheart 18th, The English Patient 19th, Shakespeare in Love 18th, and American Beauty 13th at the North American box office in their year of release. But the Weinstein campaign that successfully prevented the seminal, serious, and popular Saving Private Ryan from taking the Oscar in favour of their slight but aggressively campaigned for confection bode ill.

Consider the 2000s, and you’ll see the people’s choices at the North American box office getting worryingly and increasingly ever further from the Oscar’s choices.

2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas

2001 Harry Potter 1

2002 Spider-Man

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Shrek 2

2005 Revenge of the Sith

2006 Pirates of the Caribbean 2

2007 Spider-Man 3

2008 The Dark Knight

2009 Avatar

 

2000 Gladiator

2001 A Beautiful Mind

2002 Chicago

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Million Dollar Baby

2005 Crash

2006 The Departed

2007 No Country for Old Men

2008 Slumdog Millionaire

2009 The Hurt Locker

giphy

The Oscars now start to veer sharply away from reality… Gladiator was 4th, A Beautiful Mind 11th, Chicago 10th, Million Dollar Baby 24th, Crash 49th, The Departed 15th, No Country for Old Men 36th, Slumdog Millionaire 16th, and The Hurt Locker 116th at the North American box office in their year of release. Where The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier in the 1980s when all other 9 films placed 12 or higher, now we find Million Dollar Baby at 24, and then beyond it Crash, No Country for Old Men, and The Hurt Locker. Where in the 1990s only 4 films placed lower than 12, now only 4 films placed 12 or higher – something is definitely up.

Consider the 2010s, a decade in which the Oscars have for eight years ostentatiously disdained the North American box office.

2010 Toy Story 3

2011 Harry Potter 7

2012 The Avengers

2013 Catching Fire

2014 American Sniper

2015 The Force Awakens

2016 Rogue One

2017 The Last Jedi

 

2010 The King’s Speech

2011 The Artist

2012 Argo

2013 12 Years a Slave

2014 Birdman

2015 Spotlight

2016 Moonlight

2017 The Shape of Water (?)

edward-norton-and-michael-keaton-in-birdman

Oh dear… The King’s Speech was 18th, The Artist 71st, Argo 22nd, 12 Years a Slave 62nd, Birdman 78th, Spotlight 62nd, Moonlight 92nd, and (sic) The Shape of Water 46th at the North American box office in their year of release. Remember the good old days in the 1980s when The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier as all the other films were placed 12 or higher? Remember the 1990s when only 4 films placed lower than 12? Or the 2000s when 4 films placed 12 or higher? Now only 1 film out of 8 has even broken into the top 20, and 5 films out of 8 couldn’t even crack the top 50.

What is good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good, clearly has no currency as a mantra for the Oscar voters.

Bret Easton Ellis on his Podcast has persuasively trashed the Oscars from their inception as a ruse to pretend that the Hollywood studios were interested in art not money by parading a social conscience and worthy/boring movies for public notice. Talking Movies some years ago argued the Oscars were out of step, with many awards effectively do-overs, such as James Stewart winning Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story not Mr Smith Goes to Washington. But the Ellis verdict doesn’t sit with the notion in this piece that films which top the North American box office were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour. Boxofficemojo.com only has detailed figures going back to 1980, the less documented Filmsite.org has errors that render it unreliable, so we’re forced to Wikipedia to allow us tentatively examine if there is a basis for saying that the biggest film of a year once customarily won the biggest Oscar prize, not just occasionally.

1930 Tom Sawyer

1931 Frankenstein

1932 Shanghai Express

1933 Cavalcade

1934 Viva Villa!

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 Modern Times

1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

1938 Alexander’s Ragtime Band

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

1930 All Quiet on the Western Front

1931 Cimarron

1932 Grand Hotel

1933 Cavalcade

1934 It Happened One Night

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 The Great Ziegfeld

1937 The Life of Emile Zola

1938 You Can’t Take It with You

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 Sergeant York

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 For Whom the Bell Tolls

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Bells of St Mary’s

1946 Song of the South

1947 Unconquered

1948 The Red Shoes

1949 Samson and Delilah

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 How Green Was My Valley

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 Casablanca

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Lost Weekend

1946 The Best Years of Our Lives

1947 Gentlemen’s Agreement

1948 Hamlet

1949 All the King’s Men

 

1950 King Solomon’s Mines

1951 Quo Vadis

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 The Robe

1954 Rear Window

1955 Cinerama Holiday

1956 The Ten Commandments

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 South Pacific

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1950 All About Eve

1951 An American in Paris

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 From Here to Eternity

1954 On the Waterfront

1955 Marty

1956 Around the World in 80 Days

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 Gigi

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1960 Spartacus

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Cleopatra

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 The Bible

1967 The Graduate

1968 2001: Space Odyssey

1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

 

1960 The Apartment

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Tom Jones

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 A Man for All Seasons

1967 In the Heat of the Night

1968 Oliver!

1969 Midnight Cowboy

1970 Love Story

1971 Fiddler on the Roof

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 Blazing Saddles

1975 Jaws

1976 Rocky

1977 Star Wars

1978 Grease

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

 

1970 Patton

1971 The French Connection

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 The Godfather: Part II

1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1976 Rocky

1977 Annie Hall

1978 The Deer Hunter

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

Now then, while there are a lot of boring/worthy films crowding out crowd-pleasers in those years, my impression wasn’t entirely unfounded. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s the Best Picture Oscar went to the North American box office champion a regulation 3 times per decade. In the 1960s and 1970s that rose to a regulation 4 times per decade. And then from 1980 to 2018 reverse all engines: instead of 4 times per decade, it has happened 4 times in 4 decades. Something has changed… The Dark Knight would probably have picked up the Best Picture Oscar had it been a film of the 1960s or 1970s, been as great as it was, and been as popular as it was. Unfortunately it arrived a truly obscurantist time for the Oscars, as the very next year the Oscars suckered viewers by nominating Avatar, a genuinely phenomenally popular film, and then awarding the Oscar to The Hurt Locker, which set a new record for unpopularity; being the 116th most popular film at the North American box office in the year of its release. You have to go to the second page of the 2009 statistics on Boxofficemojo.com to find it.

What seemed a deliberate slap in the face to the audience set up this current decade’s obstinate obscurantism and has reaped the appropriate result, fewer and fewer people watching. Now, one shouldn’t automatically equate popularity with artistic merit, but I can’t see that Fast & Furious 8’s glee is completely alien to 1963’s Oscar-winner Tom Jones, nor can I see that its crowd-pleasing is markedly different to 1976’s Oscar-winner Rocky. If it is well-crafted and pleases so many people globally why is it treated like the damn plague? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to announce that the winner at the North American box office would automatically be given the Best Picture Oscar? Or that the nominees for Best Picture would simply be the top 10 films at the box office? Instead the Oscars wring their hands: Why is nobody watching? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters not young and hip enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters too young and hip? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the nominations not diverse enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Yes! We must make the voters more diverse to produce more diverse nominations, that will make people watch, yes? (No, nobody saw the movies)

The Oscars have tied themselves into knots responding to vitriolic campaigns about their supposed racism lest, in the pompous Guardian terminology, they become increasingly insular and irrelevant if they ignore these sorts of institutional biases. And yet, even just going with the rigorously documented last 4 decades, the Oscars have already demonstrably become insular and irrelevant over these recent decades by becoming like a snooty waiter who when asked what’s good on the menu, laughs and says “Well, we have some fine fare for ourselves in the kitchen, but that’s not for the likes of you, eat the slop you’re given”, and clearly have no intention doing anything about that. It’s almost comical after the viewing figures turn out poorly every year to see them scrabble for any and all solutions except the actual, obvious one: nominate popular films, and not just for show, to win, like in the 1970s.

It might concentrate a few minds in Hollywood to automatically give the Oscar to the box office winners, because if you don’t value your stock in trade, and thereby show your contempt for your audience, how exactly do you expect the audience to feel about that – it’s pretty remarkable to expect them to tune in in their billions to watch you slap yourself on the back for movies nobody saw because in large part nobody wanted or would want to see them. It might also make global blockbusters a bit better to have people not simply start shooting with a shoddy script because they know all they need is CGI visuals when this is going to sell mostly in foreign language markets. The decline of the North American box office in its importance to Hollywood is fodder for a whole series of posts, but re-attaching the Oscars to domestic popularity might work on ego if pride is not enough to get people to stand over their work for the masses.

Fast & Furious 9 needs to win the Best Picture Oscar as a grand apology for the ridiculous conduct of the Oscars for many, many years. Make it happen, Hollywood.

September 8, 2016

Anthropoid

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan star in a brutally compelling take on the cost of assassinating the Butcher of Prague at the height of WWII.

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Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) parachute into Czechoslovakia after years in exile. They quickly discover how deep the occupying Nazis’ regime of fear and infiltration has gone in their attempts to make contact with the Resistance. But with the help of Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones) and Marie Moravec (Alena Mihulova) they begin a life of deep cover in Prague. Fake girlfriends Marie Kovarnikova (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafkova (Anna Geislerova) help to deflect suspicion at these two loitering unemployed men, but it also raises the question of the nature of their mission. Josef is at peace that he has signed up for suicide, but Jan is eager for an escape plan after the assassination. And the assassination attempt itself raises moral questions; articulated by Resistance chief and Doubting Thomas Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski).

If killing Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s third-in-command after Himmler and a chief architect of the Final Solution, would lead to the reprisal execution of 30,000 Czechs, is it morally justifiable to do so? At what point does informing on a handful of men to save thousands of men become morally defensible, or is it ever so when faced against an evil like the Nazis? Sean Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin don’t have any answers to these knotty questions, but allowing the characters to raise them elevate this film from gung-ho heroics. The deepening attachments between Josef and Lenka and Jan and Marie could become stock, but that the philosophical divide between the two men is amplified by the women; Lenka in particular is a breakout performance by Anna Geislerova as a soldier in the shadows of formidable steeliness who, like Josef, regards their death warrants as signed.

Ellis acts as his own cinematographer with a noticeably grainy aesthetic, almost a homage to Zapruder’s JFK footage. This is not a sumptuous recreation of occupied Prague, it is focused on the details of espionage, weapons manufacture, and assassination, and invites comparison with Jason Bourne for extended wordless sequences of practical spy-craft. Oddly enough the timing of the assassination places this structurally beside The Dark Knight, but building towards a climax of historically accurate honourable heroism that is as alien to Hollywood storytelling tropes as (the previously fantastical) 47 Ronin‘s finale. If there is one quibble it is that Bill Milner’s At’a Moravec is so ostentatiously introduced as a violinist, at which point your stomach knots that the ability to play will be taken from him; because sadistic cruelty is the modus vivendi of the Gestapo.

Anthropoid is not a tale of derring-do, but a muted study in suicidal bravery, which will leave an audience saddened beyond measure but glad to have seen such heroism.

3.5/5

December 3, 2014

Trailer Talk: Part III

In another entry in this occasional series I round up some trailers for some of next year’s most anticipated films.

Jurassic World

Jurassic Park is now a heritage title. This is like launching Jaws: Feeding Frenzy in 1997, with Jaws III in 1983 having been the last instalment. A whole generation has gone without a Jurassic Park release. They have no loving nostalgia for the original (especially its extensive model-work), or partial fondness for its sequel (“Oh yeah. Ooh, aah, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming” and Spielberg’s delirious appropriation of Hitchcock’s 39 Steps scream), or bad memories of the final barely-scripted disaster. Chris Pratt’s hero seems to be combining the personae of Goldblum and Neill, which is an interesting move, and velociraptors running disinterestedly past him in their desire to escape the new hybrid dinosaur recalls a Whedon line about when scary things get scared… But, Bryce Dallas Howard’s career hasn’t lived up to her assured lead debut in The Village, and there’s a tough act to follow in Richard Attenborough’s Richard Hammond as orchestrator of the madness; not least as the swooping shots of the park (which I swear are the same as in The Hunger Games and The Phantom Menace) make plain that the original’s grounding CGI in tactile reality is passé.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Well this trailer carries bizarre echoes of The Dark Knight’s teaser at this time of year in 2007… Talk of how a superhero how has changed things, even if he doesn’t want to admit it, and how the supervillain will show him something – even James Spader’s voice slurs into Heath Ledger’s Joker delivery. Just like the original’s trailer, a city-wide apocalypse is some broken windows, flipped cars, and screaming people. A major let-down in The Avengers was its inability to depict an all-out onslaught, but nobody else cared – so here we go again. I found The Avengers pretty damn dull. It wasn’t the laugh-fest it was vaunted as; Guardians of the Galaxy is far funnier; it delivered only moments of memorable action, and balancing all the characters’ screen-time was tragic given that (prior to the Hulk-out) it only took flight when Robert Downey Jr was onscreen. The Person of Interest season 2 finale just aired on RTE 2, and Jonathan Nolan’s parade of awesome comic-book moments there shames not only the pedestrian Agents of Shield but also Marvel’s films which are becoming increasingly joyless as they become ever more obviously formulaic franchise-connecting CGI-laden corporate exercises.

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Andy Serkis narrates some vague mumblings; because this is a teaser trailer; and the internet explodes with the idea that Benedict Cumberbatch has stowed away in the Millenium Falcon. He’s not. The internet is torn into two between the usual illiberal liberal lynch-mobs on Twitter and Star Wars fanatics trying (quite logically) to comprehend how John Boyega can be a Stormtrooper if Temuera Morrison was cloned to be the genetic exemplar for all the Stormtroopers. The prequels are no longer canon (thank God!) perhaps? All that needs to be said about the 60-second trailer is that it looks like more like a Star Wars film than the last three Star Wars films. If Abrams is throwing the prequels into the dustbin alongside every novel since 1983 it’s all to the good – the prequels showed what happens when everyone knows what happens. Indeed his own Star Trek sequel showed how paralysing the fear of total originality can be in this corporate climate. I’m still terrified that one of the big three returning characters is going to be offed as a plot point (par Blake Snyder), but I can live with threat for the pause after “and the light…” and the subsequent John Williams orchestral blast for the Millenium Falcon roaring over Tatooine. Fun has returned.

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