Talking Movies

April 22, 2018

And he built a crooked house

Stephen Errity, who has occasioned a few pieces like this, prodded me to mark 10 years since the first spark of this blog in 2008.

Talking Movies proper began on Sep 1st 2009, but April 22nd 2008 saw the staking of this claim in the digital terrain; and there is an obvious topic to hang an anniversary post on. Just over a week later the first review went up – Iron Man… 10 years later, that bloated business plan known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to finally pay-off (HA!! Yeah, right…) in the shape of (The) Avengers (3): Infinity of Characters War. I will not be going to it. It’s not just that I don’t care about Thanos, of many of the other characters, or the Infinity Stones that have become a deadly serious ‘Fetch’. Marvel Studios’ omnipresence have made the last 10 years seem very long indeed, and have successfully killed off my interest in their characters, comic-book movies, and comic-books themselves. “Oopsies!”

I’ve charted my obvious decline of interest in the Marvel movies below. I saw the bold in the cinema, the italics on DVD, and the others remain unwatched.

Iron Man

The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man 2

Thor

Captain America

The Avengers

 

Iron Man 3

Thor 2

Captain America 2

Guardians of the Galaxy

The Avengers 2

Ant-Man

 

Captain America 3

Doctor Strange

Guardians of the Galaxy 2

Spider-Man

Thor 3

Black Panther

The Avengers 3

Working my way through the archives in the last week I find myself complaining over time that the Marvel movies lack the outrageous fun of Mark Millar’s comic extravaganza of these same characters, The Ultimates. I vividly remember being pedantically lectured by a bore on how audiences wouldn’t accept a scene as outré as the ultimate Millar action movie fantasy beat where Black Widow jumps from building to building and calls for a gun to be dropped from a chopper above her so she can grab it in mid-air and crash into the next building spraying bullets to save Hawkeye. Clearly, audiences wouldn’t accept this. I mean 3 movies into the MCU audiences had already accepted a bank vault being towed and used as a prehensile wrecking ball in Fast & Furious 5, and would later accept an endless runway in Fast 6, a man running up a falling truck at the same speed and so remaining in situ in Fast 7, and, oh yeah, cars driving out of one skyscraper, into another skyscraper, out of that skyscraper, and into another one. But yeah, Marvel actually adapting a panel from one of their own comics, clearly, audiences would rebel. Just as they howled in outrage and ripped up the seats when X-Men: First Class put the characters in their original yellow and blue outfits rather than the fetish leather that we were told was the only choice in 2000 because audiences wouldn’t accept those silly costumes. Oh wait, they didn’t.

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August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

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Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

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Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

June 20, 2014

3 Days to Kill

Kevin Costner tries to do a Liam Neeson and escape blockbuster supporting roles by fighting international villains in Paris while looking after an estranged daughter.

4d129f52-9ca0-4c07-83b7-b52dff337b64Wallpaper1CIA asset Vivi (Amber Heard) is dispatched to Eastern Europe to kill The Wolf (Richard Sammel), who will be at a hotel overseeing a transaction by his lieutenant The Albino (Tomas Lemarquis) (yes, the names are absurd; Luc Besson spits on reality). The transaction, a dirty bomb, will be sabotaged by local CIA agent Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), and Vivi is not to interfere. The operation, however, goes gruesomely sideways. Ethan wounds The Albino, but collapses before capturing him. Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Ethan retires and returns to Paris to reconnect with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and daughter Zooey (Hailee Stainfeld); and awkwardly share his CIA hideout with Malian squatters. But Vivi knows Ethan is the only person who can identify The Wolf. She offers an experimental drug to prolong his life in return for some freelancing…

One-man studio Besson produces demented action films: Mark Millar’s bombastic comics moments (Black Widow catching a gun dropped from a chopper above while she’s jumping between buildings in The Ultimates) threaded together with basic plotting. But 3 Days to Kill, from a surprisingly sadistic early killing, isn’t the house style of knowing nonsense and crunching violence. McG fashioned some amusing sequences in This Means War, but, bar some moments in the hotel cold open, his action directing in a washed-out Paris is not very impressive. More worryingly this is an action movie that is seriously lacking in actual action. 3 Days to Kill can come across as an early draft of Taken; written as a serious drama about estranged father-daughter parenting. Except that such ‘serious drama’ includes ludicrous unfunny business with a purple bike, and electrocuting fixers for parenting advice.

All I can think is that Besson and Adi Hasak wrote tongue-in-cheek, but, bar a pointedly directed comedy scene with a ‘real Italian’ accountant for The Albino, that tone just got lost in McG’s shooting; which prevents Mitat (Marc Andreoni) from emulating Inspector Tarconi in The Transporter. Amber Heard tragically disappears for lengthy stretches, but in her occasional appearances Besson seems to be tapping into the hypersexualised persona she’s honed in films like The Rum DiaryThe Informers, and The Joneses. Vivi’s always dressed in some sort of leather and outré hairstyle, attends Crazy Horse cabaret to flirt with naked girls, makes both driving and injecting a cancer drug seem sexual, delivers what may be 2014’s filthiest PG-13 gag, and (in what may or may not be a hallucination by medicated Ethan) does rifle drills under Roger Rabbit red spotlights.

Costner was always a still centre as a leading man rather than a warm presence like Neeson, and his tonally confused Bessoner surely won’t reinvigorate his leading man career.

2/5

August 15, 2012

On Refusing to Assemble

I’ll admit it, I’m one of the few people who still haven’t seen The Avengers aka Marvel(’s) Avengers Assemble. It was by choice. I’m going to wait for the DVD.

If you ask why I chose not to see it I have to admit that there were reasons for not seeing it that pre-dated the movie’s release, and then new reasons spawned by the movie’s reception. Perhaps the most important reason for not going to see the super-hero super team-up was that I quite frankly never really cared about it. I don’t like Thor or Thor. From the first moment that Thor and Loki appeared as children I was rooting for Loki, and Tom Hiddleston kept me onboard for the rest of the movie; down to the bitter end I was with Loki. I enjoyed Captain America, but if you check the piece I wrote about it last year you’ll realise that everything I loved about it quite literally died a death in the final scenes. As for the Hulk, I didn’t love either attempt at the grumpy green giant, and Iron Man 2’s introduction of Black Widow did very little for me. I’d effectively be watching The Avengers purely to see Robert Downey Jr wisecrack. But then I could just wait for Iron Man 3 for that, or, indeed, just watch damn near any old Robert Downey Jr movie.

Then there were the new and less important reasons spawned by the movie’s reception. The huge opening had the unfortunate effect of spoiling a key plot point, as with so many people chatting about it I accidentally overheard something. The problem was that ‘something’ struck me as the most aggravatingly clichéd thing that Joss Whedon could possibly do. There’s only so many times in your work that you can subvert a cliché before your subversion of the cliché itself becomes so expected when you’re writing that it is in fact now also a cliché. And anyone who read my review of The Cabin in the Woods will know that my Whedon tolerance has become very low after Buffy Season 8. Then there was the horror of finding out that Marvel had presented a business plan in the mid-2000s to get financing for their own studio which proposed making all the individual hero movies as prep-work for producing the cross-over flick The Avengers as the real money-spinner. So, before any one film even worked artistically, the cross-over film was planned as the payday. I don’t know what horrifies me more, such blatant prioritisation of business over show, or that it worked.

Finally there was Samuel L Jackson’s petulant Twitter war against the New York Timesfilm critic AO Scott, who described Nick Fury as a master of ceremonies rather than a mission commander. I’ve been told that’s actually pretty accurate. But Jackson decided to tweet his 825,315 followers “#Avengers fans, NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!” Was it ever likely that Scott would lose his job? Probably not, which seems to have been Jackson’s belated defence for his actions, but then why call for it in the first place? The last drip of enthusiasm I had for dragging myself to see a film I didn’t care about ebbed away when I thought that I might thereby be endorsing the position that an actor who earns maybe $15 million a year very publicly trying to get his fans to start a witch-hunt so that a man who earns maybe $60,000 a year would lose his job is any way, shape or form acceptable behaviour.

I’ve read Mark Millar’s hilarious and exciting The Ultimates, and prefer his version of those iconic characters to the cinematic imaginings. The Avengers can wait.

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

November 17, 2009

I’d Rather See the Wires

Possibly it was Lou Ferrigno’s cameo in The Incredible Hulk that inspired this piece. Everyone smiles at seeing Lou Ferrigno do his cameo, but he’s only alone in making the obligatory cameo with Stan Lee because Bill Bibxy is dead, otherwise Bixby and Ferrigno would be making their cameos together in the way Lee and Ferrigno shared their cameo in Ang Lee’s Hulk.

Which begs the question why shouldn’t two people play the Hulk and Bruce Banner? Why is it considered absolutely necessary for the Hulk to be a fake CGI creation? What if, to use the suggestion of the characters in Mark Millar’s The Ultimates in casting a film of their own lives, Steve Buscemi was to play Dr Bruce Banner and then transform him into say The Rock who would be painted green and shot with LOTR style tricksy perception filming techniques to tower over everyone else (a bit more than usual). Would it really be any more ridiculous than a plainly CGI creation rampaging around a plainly green-screened location throwing plainly CGI objects about at a plainly CGI villain with a few actual actors and physical props dotted here and there to give some feeling of reality to proceedings, unlike say Attack of the Clones’ over-dependence on pure CGI constructions around actors forlornly stranded in green-screen deserts.

It seems that CGI has become the first option in the blockbuster film-maker’s bag of tricks. I Am Legend’s vampires we were told were CGI creations rather than actors wearing vampire prosthetics and make-up because the producers wanted the vampires to be terrifyingly agile. Well, yes, they were terrifyingly agile, but did it really make up for the silliness that ruined 40 minutes of high tension when we first glimpsed them in all their shockingly obvious CGI glory? If only some technology existed for making actors seem super-humanly agile, some way of making people run up walls, and levitate in air, some way of – oh wait, it does, it’s called wire-work and you may have seen it used extensively in The Matrix where it looked, at least it did the last time I checked, extremely cool rather than silly, and beat the mortal crap out of the use of CGI Keanu v CGI Hugo Weaving in Reloaded’s showpiece fight scene which ended up looking…silly.

Cinema produced marvels for damn near a hundred years before CGI took over. The Thing has no CGI whatsoever, can you imagine anyone having the inventiveness to do that now? CGI has stopped being a technological tool that we marvel at, it’s become meat and potatoes, and the over-reliance on it by lazy film-makers has left special effects somewhat less than special. ‘How did they do that?’ is always now answered by ‘Oh, they just CGI’d it – of course’. That’s why the truck-flip in The Dark Knight drew astonished gasps from audiences. So here’s a plea for the next over-digitised summer blockbuster – I’d rather see the wires.

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