Talking Movies

June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

I come not to praise Seth MacFarlane, nor to bury him, but to consider his failure with a comedy-western alongside Damon Lindelof’s Cowboys & Aliens.

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I found A Million Ways to Die in the West to be oddly reminiscent of early Woody Allen films like Bananas; intermittently hilarious, but not really a film. But if Woody pre-Annie Hall was simply stitching together sketches without anything but the most broadly-drawn larger narrative purpose, then it seemed like the reverse was happening to MacFarlane – making ‘a Western, goddamnit!’ sucked the humour out of his comedy-western script. And so to a knotty point – there was a grindingly efficient story structure at work, but the central comic conceit of MacFarlane’s movie was unclear. Critic Joe Griffin pitches the film as – “it’s a normal guy with 21st century sensibilities who lives in the violent frontier of the Old West and is dragged into a typical Western story.” This nails MacFarlane’s interactions with Amanda Seyfried, which come close to replicating the clinical psychoanalysis terms Woody uses with Louise Lasser in Bananas with an almost identical purpose – the comedy of language entirely inappropriate to the situation. But the first genuinely funny moment is MacFarlane’s later riff on the dead mayor, which literally comes out of nowhere. Along with the inevitably blood-soaked county fair, it suggests that the titular conceit of horrible deaths would’ve been a far better source of thematic comedy. Instead MacFarlane decides to mine comedy by working the most exhausted seams of the rom-com with Charlize Theron; even down to the obligatory big lie – she chose not to tell him she’s married to terrifying Liam Neeson. Only very occasionally (to wake the audience) does he sprinkles absurdist comic moments; and meanwhile he’s also trying to touch every Western generic base.

Griffin writes “This, I think, is what happens when someone has had too much control on a project so early in his film career.” MacFarlane is the star, director, co-writer, and producer of A Million Ways; and his co-writers are his Ted and Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. That’s a lot of control. To put it in context, it’s more than M Night Shyamalan ever managed to acquire at the height of his hubris. It’s undeniable that without the success of Ted it’s unthinkable that MacFarlane would have been allowed to cast himself as the physical lead, and it’s probably equally unlikely that Wellesley and Sulkin would alienate their TV day-job boss by proposing a page-one rewrite of his pet film project. I have to agree with Griffin because getting too much control because of success is part and parcel of the disastrous creative bubble I described in 2011 which I predicted would scupper The Dark Knight Rises; Wellesley and Sulkin wouldn’t be silent because they wouldn’t want to rain on MacFarlane’s scripting parade, they’d be silent because they’d be doing the Macarena in the middle of the parade. Because they’d written Ted they’d assume whatever any of them suggested would be equally awesome, and so nobody cries halt until the train has gone far over the horizon. But I want to dissent against myself and speculate that what happened in the Million Ways writers’ room (story structure and Western tropes pushing out badly needed jokes) was the same as the fiasco that occurred not so long ago in another writers’ room not so very far away…

Cowboys and Aliens

Remember 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens? No, well, don’t feel bad. Here’s what its co-writer Damon (LOST) Lindelof had to say about it in an extremely interesting 2013 interview: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.” Cowboys & Aliens was supposedly based on a comic-book by Scott Mitchel Rosenberg, which, from the small sample available on Amazon, appears to proudly wear ‘guilt over the treatment of Native Americans in times gone by’ on its sleeve. That suggests that Ace Ventura creator Steve Oedekerk was right to create a fun screen story distinct from the comic-book. And then rewrites began… Of the credited writers a draft was done by Mark Fergus & Howard Ostby (Iron ManChildren of Men), whose credits suggest that a more serious tone had begun to emerge. Which is presumably why Lindelof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, M:I-3, Star Trek) were brought in to do the final draft of the script. Add some humour? Some nonsense? Yeah, well, obviously that didn’t work. But look at what Lindelof characterised as a genre trapping of the Western: Native American allies. What?! That would certainly be news to the Duke…

In 1991 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr took aim at America’s universities in his polemic The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger was extremely alarmed at the mass of evidence that political correctness had triumphed over sanity: “When a student sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual,’ a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: ‘This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.’” (117) In his 1982 novel Before She Met Me Julian Barnes had a history professor baffled by the genuine horror and anger of a student whenever the wrong side triumphed in any given stand-off. Schlesinger Jr was damning of attacks on ‘Eurocentric’ American history, and it was essentially an appeasement of Barnes’ fictional student; by rewriting history. In one district where Native Americans had political clout it was taught that their tribal politics had influenced Thomas Jefferson every bit as much as European Enlightenment. It had not, as Schlesinger Jr flatly stated. And yet… In Sleepy Hollow, co-created by Cowboys & Aliens scribes Kurtzman and Orci, we find Ichabod Crane noting how in his 1770s existence Native American tribal politics had been a pivotal influence on Thomas Jefferson. A throwaway cute line; to anyone who hasn’t read Schlesinger Jr’s book. If you have, you’re stunned that this is not meant as a joke or provocatively revisionist statement; it is simply stated as true when it is not.

Rio Bravo John Wayne Dean Martin

MacFarlane, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof were all born in 1973. This puts them in college at Brown, Wesleyan, UT Austin, and NYU Film School, respectively, during the height of the ‘Death to DWEMs’ tide that Schlesinger Jr was trying to turn back. I honestly think every time somebody sits down to write anything Western-related in Hollywood these days they get some epic pol.sci/film studies college flashback. As a result, in between apologising to Native Americans, rewriting the role of women in the West, inserting grim truths about the lawlessness and brutality of life then, demythologising Wayne and Ford’s back catalogue, and faithfully inserting and then attempting to subvert in the accepted revisionist mode every Western trope they were ever taught, they lose any sense of fun. Lindelof posited “a Western that had aliens as bad guys” as “the cooler movie”, and yet Cowboys & Aliens is entirely lacking any sense of being a cool adventure. It is, indeed, simply unthinkable that anybody could produce a Western right now that is exuberant fun; nobody would give you the finale of Rio Bravo. I think that may be a combination of film school prioritising, nay, canonising, serious Westerns like The Searchers and Red River over entertainments like El Dorado and Gunfight at the OK CorralRio Bravo isn’t a silly movie, but it is unabashed adventure played with great humour. But Lindelof’s description of embracing “the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies” suggests an inability to take the Western genre as it was, not as it ought to have been…

The complete failure of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t stop the even more epic failure of The Lone Ranger following it down the trail two years later. The savage darkness of The Lone Ranger was completely unsuitable for a Disney blockbuster supposedly aimed at kids, but it fitted perfectly the template of the Western produced by people Schlesinger couldn’t save. It’s admirable to insert a Sergio Leone tone into a Western romp for children, only if you also take that bloody-minded approach to your contemporary blockbusters and give us Transformers directed by Ken Loach as the working poor fighting against transforming robots who’re the highest form of capitalism. Really I think the idea of the Western as conceived by the children of 1973 is fundamentally incompatible with exuberance. In the 1970s radical directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill and Michael Cimino couldn’t wait to make a Western. But the revisionist Western wasn’t what audiences wanted. Nicholas Jarecki on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast recently made some interesting points about ‘genre exhaustion’, when an audience has seen every possible permutation arising out of a generic set-up. I don’t believe that’s what happened to the Western in the 1970s. I follow Stephen King in believing that George Lucas took the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the Western and simply, in a belated emulation of JFK’s call for a New Frontier, relocated it in space. And, as Spielberg’s Western framing at the end of The Last Crusade transparently indicates, crying for the death of the Western is like bemoaning the death of the dinosaurs while looking at flying birds: dinosaurs aren’t dead, they evolved.

Clint_GranTorino

If the blockbuster is the repository of the spirit of exuberant fun that lights up Rio Bravo, what does that make the contemporary Western? Well, it’s tempting to twist Lindelof’s words and say merely the outward trappings of the genre, stripped of its soul. Since Heaven’s Gate we’ve had serious Westerns like Dances with WolvesOpen RangeWyatt EarpUnforgivenTombstoneThe Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford3:10 to Yuma, and Seraphim Falls. We’ve had comedy mash-up disasters like Wild Wild WestCowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. And we’ve had nothing like a Rio Bravo… It’s admirable to try and cinematically reinstate the reality of the shameful treatment of the Native Americans in the Old West. But this admirable endeavour may run up against a problem if it’s part of a wider refusal to accept the Western genre for what it was and to believe that it can simply be rewritten to make it what it ought to have been. Such a massive undertaking may be more than the genre can accommodate, in one important respect – it can make for a good film, a good Western, but not a fun film. A Million Ways is not a fun film, even though it’s meant to be a comedy. And I think it’s because MacFarlane tried to hit every base; Native Americans as allies, the brutality and lawlessness of the West, rewriting the role of women (with particular emphasis on the brothels), the exploitation of Chinese labour; because he is one of that generation that can’t see a Western without giving a lecture on its propagandising.

MacFarlane certainly won’t be getting A Million Ways 2 off the ground, and his fiasco has probably scuppered any competent Destry Rides Again for the 2010s that was out there. But, considering Lindelof’s tropes, surely Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino comes closer to the cool movie that Lindelof wanted than Cowboys & Aliens. It shouldn’t be impossible to combine the 1973 generation’s ideal Western with exuberant fun – maybe it just needs Clint back in the saddle…

September 24, 2013

5 Reasons to Hail White House Down

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Short & Sweet

This has not been a good summer for blockbusters but unlike endless nonsense like The Lone Ranger, noisy mayhem like Pacific Rim, or painfully overextended finales like Man of SteelWhite House Down doesn’t take forever to tell a reasonably simple story. And even when it throws in a ludicrous but logical twist at the end it sorts everything out in one stupidly simple scene rather than dragging us thru another 20 exhausting minutes of CGI chaos.

Everything Pays Off…

There’s a reason Keith Thompson and I chose Roland Emmerich when parodying well-made scripts. Everything pays off – nothing is too stupid to be forgotten, the President’s Lincoln fandom saves his life. Everything Roland sets up will pay off later, even down to Channing Tatum missing his daughter’s talent show. She practised for six weeks honing a skill that, like everything else, will come in extremely handy later on; so better make a mental note of it now.

‘Subtle’ Satire

Roland Emmerich gave you a Dick Cheney lookalike climate change sceptic VP in The Day After Tomorrow being humiliated when climate change forced his people into refugee camps in Mexico. Here he has a black academic President with a liking for Lincoln teaching John Cale what the military-industrial complex is and being prevented from withdrawing from the Middle East by those entrenched interests. And that’s before we get to the aggressive right-wing news anchor who won’t stop crying…

Actually a Good Day to Die Hard

So, there’s a villain discovering a connection between the hero and his prominent annoying female hostage. And, also, misguided good guys roaring in on helicopters to kill everyone with a ill-judged rescue attempt, who end up in flames because they won’t listen to our hero or his conduit; and then start machine-gunning our hero on the roof of the building as he tries to help. Hmm… Wait, and he’s wearing a white vest!

Maggie Gyllenhaal

Maggie Gyllenhaal is basically playing Al to Channing Tatum’s John McClane. That makes no sort of sense at all. She’s all wrong for the part in the Die Hard analogical sense in every way imaginable but her answer to that problem is to give it EVERYTHING she’s got. She’s so ferociously committed, especially in scenes revolving around betrayal and possible redemption, that she provides some kind of perverse dignity that makes all the nonsense around her cinematically plausible.

February 14, 2013

2013: Fears

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Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell’s 2004 novel is one of the most bafflingly over-rated books of  the last decade. Six novellas stitched together, and wanting a medal for  referencing their own sub-Stoppardian structuring, it comprises pastiches of  Golding/Melville, Huxley/Isherwood, 1970s Pakula, Amis, and even The Matrix; small wonder then that it’s the  Wachowskis who’ve filmed it with co-writer/director Tom Twyker. But they’ve  added another layer of inanity, not since Zelig have people played other races so  ridiculously. February 22nd sees Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim  Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, and Ben Whishaw being racially insensitive in the  service of a misguided interpretation of the novel as in thrall to  metempsychosis rather than meta-textuality.

 

Oz: The Great and Powerful

James Franco achieves every stoner’s dream when listening to a certain  synched Pink Floyd album and floats his way to Oz. Or rather to a greenscreen  warehouse where Sam Raimi promised he’d CGI Oz in around his roguish Kansas  magician later. The rights to Baum’s novels are out of copyright but don’t  expect to see any innovations made in the classic 1939 film because it’s not out  of copyright. Raimi’s not directed anything truly impressive in ages but his  witches are quite a triumvirate: Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, and Rachel  Weisz. Incidentally did you know that Wicked is coming to Dublin in November? Go see Wicked

 

The Host

Saoirse Ronan has been on a bad run of giving performances better than the  film that houses them, and this looks like another example. In Time auteur Andrew Niccol adapts and  directs the latest Stephenie Meyer franchise. Ronan is Melanie Stryder, whose  body has been claimed by an alien but whose mind resists the parasite. Liam  Hemsworth is her love interest and William Hurt and Diane Kruger are Melanie’s  relatives put on the spot by her reappearance. On March 29th we’ll  find out if Niccol has managed to find a method to convey the struggle of two  minds in one body that is any way, shape, or form visual.

 

Gatsby

I venerate F Scott Fitzgerald’s  masterpiece, and the trailers of Baz Lurhmann’s suspiciously postponed splashy  film bespeak a totally disastrous adaptation. Leonardo DiCaprio is a good choice  to play the enigmatic titular old sport, as is Joel Edgerton as his  nemesis Tom Buchanan, but the blanker-than-thou Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway  may narrate us all into a coma, while Carey Mulligan has the eternally thankless  role of Daisy. Lurhmann has a remarkable inability to handle subtlety; Gatsby is not about swooping thru raucous  parties and zeroing in on high camp comedy scenes. And as for the delay, ‘allegedly’ for a Jay-Z score; Aliens  was scored in less than a fortnight…

 

The Hangover: Part III

May sees the latest instalment of the inexplicable comedy franchise spawned  by a crude film with a handful of good gags and a not nearly as clever structure  as it thought it had. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis this time  head to Mexico. So, more racist stereotypes, idiotic cameos, and crass humour.  But at least a different plot as we’re promised a character death… The Hangover is largely responsible for making  Galifianakis a star, and, given how dispensable he is from Bored to Death say, that’s an awful lot to set  against getting Cooper in the position where he could star in Silver Linings Playbook.

 

Man of Steel

On June 14th 300 director  Zack Snyder will unveil his first PG-13 film deliberately scripted as such.  Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry  White, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner as Martha and Jonathan Kent are all solid  casting choices, while Michael Shannon as General Zod is truly inspired. Against  that Henry Cavill as Superman is a gamble. The first non-American to don the  cape, he’ll struggle unless David S Goyer’s script eschews angst and that  doesn’t seem likely. Maybe this’ll be the origin story we didn’t know we needed,  but trying to Nolanise such an optimistic character seems like a folly.

THE LONE RANGER

 

World War Z

June 21st finally sees Brad Pitt’s UN worker try to prevent a  global zombie epidemic in an adaptation of the seminal Max Brooks novel by  Matthew Michael Carnahan, writer of the inert Lions for Lambs. The studio ordered massive  reshoots and the third act was rewritten by Drew Goddard so we’ll see if that  and the presence of Matthew Fox and David Morse can save proceedings. Director  Marc Foster was handpicked by Pitt, but reports have it that they ended up  communicating only by messages to a studio executive; perhaps because of small  mishaps like how production started before there was an agreed make-up design  for the zombies.

 

Pacific Rim

Guillermo Del Toro hasn’t made a film since 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Talking Movies was rather hoping he’d never  make another one, and just stick to writing novels with Chuck Hogan, but  somebody has relented and financed a giant aliens versus men in giant robots  blockbuster. So, the last 5 minutes of Aliens but supersized and with bad CGI instead  of great VFX… Oh, and clockwork. It’s great to see Rinko Kikuchi’s stellar  turn in The Brothers Bloom rewarded with  a leading role opposite Charlie Hunnam as the mind-melding pilots fighting the  Kaiju water monsters in IMAX 3-D, but, even with Clifton Collins Jr, can this  work?

 

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

This film should have been released last  year but was pushed to this year (in one of the funniest stunts ever pulled by a  major studio) because Channing Tatum had some major hits just before its release and so they  wanted to do some reshoots, as he died in the first act. So a Superbowl ad,  warehouses full of toys, and Jon Chu’s original directorial vision be damned!  Here comes a completely different G.I. Joe:  Retaliation in which The Rock, Bruce Willis and Adrianne Palicki tackle  Cobra’s evil Jonathan Pryce, Arnold Vosloo, Lee Byung-Hun, and Ray Park in a  script from Zombieland’s writers – now  with added Tatum!

 

The Lone  Ranger

Pirates of the Caribbean shipmates  Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp lurch aboard a tremendously over-budget  revisionist take on the Lone Ranger character. It has the same release slot as  the first POTC, August 9th,  but the self-indulgence involved in this movie’s budgeting farces makes you  think it’s more of a POTC 3 endeavour.  Armie Hammer is the masked avenger who’ll be playing second fiddle to Depp’s  super-authentic Native American tracker Tonto.  Helena Bonham Carter also  appears, even though Tim Burton is not directing. Mind you, Verbinski does share  some traits with Burton; he also gets fixated on quirkiness and loses sight of  his story and his bland heroes.

 

Elysium

August sees District 9 writer/director Neill Blomkamp make  his Hollywood debut with a sci-fi that pits the 1% in the shape of Jodie Foster  against the 99% in the shape of a bald Matt Damon. Blomkamp’s South African  colleague Sharlto Copley is also in the cast as is I Am Legend’s Alice Braga. This is set in a  2159 world where the poor live in overcrowded slums on Earth while the rich  orbit above in an immaculate spaceship. The concept sounds not dissimilar in  feel to the Total Recall remake. But  that could be because this film’s been much delayed by reshoots and  rescheduling; which might suggest grave studio concerns.

 

Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron hasn’t made a film  since 2006’s Children of Men, perhaps  because he’s returning in October with another film which is more about its own  shooting style than anything else. It’s in 3-D, it’s incredibly CGI heavy as it  tries to grasp weightlessness, and the opening sequence is shot in one  continuous silent 17 minute take. Sandra Bullock stars, with support from George  Clooney, as astronauts who survive a catastrophic incident aboard a space  station and have to find a way to return to Earth. Every actress in Hollywood  seems to have been interested in this script, but not to the point of committing  to it; which raises suspicions…

 

The  Counsellor

The 2000s were marred by two notable  co-dependencies; Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott;  which hurt all involved. Let us hope that poor Michael Fassbender is not  getting sucked into the sinkhole that sunk Crowe’s leading man career as he  reunites with his Prometheus director  Scott for a drama about a lawyer getting in too deep with his drug-trafficking  clients. The cast includes Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris, logically enough,  and Javier Bardem, also logically enough; as this is No County for Old Men novelist Cormac  MacCarthy’s first original screenplay. Expect terse dialogue, stark amorality,  brutal violence and no catharsis.

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