Talking Movies

June 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIV

As the title suggests, so forth.

2001: A very bad year

Well, I finally saw Evolution last weekend. Just because it was on. And because I was eating dinner. It was a sorta ambient film-watching experience. Watch 45 minutes. Tape the rest. Watch that during lunch the next day. Wonder then why I bothered watching any of it. Muse on not knowing about Head & Shoulders’ efficacy against aliens. Cheer on some truly minor TV actors in small roles. Wonder why on earth David Duchovny took the lead. Muse on whether its failure stopped him from parlaying his X-Files fame into a leading man career on the big screen. And then remember that, even though it was from the director of Ghostbusters, I’d skipped the film on purpose in 2001 from a complete lack of interest. A lack of interest not limited to Evolution. There were multiple reasons why I saw only eleven films in the cinema in 2001, an alarming number of them rep showings. But one of them is that the year 2001 was not a very good year for cinema. In fact it was by way of being a very bad year. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Tigerland, which were 2001 highlights for me arrived here then but were actually 2000 films. And the hangover went the other way with Ocean’s 11 and Monsters Inc being 2002 experiences here. Shrek, Planet of the Apes, AI, Moulin Rouge!, The Others, The Fellowship of the Ring. These were the films of 2001 I saw on the biggest screens in the Savoy and Ormonde during 2001, and if not for the Antipodeans Luhrmann and Jackson unleashing immortal classics in the final four months of the year what a washout it would have been. I don’t know if anything can really be said to cause a slump the likes of which Hollywood experienced in 2001 but it was a slump for sure.

John Cusack: Former Film Star

John Cusack turned 54 yesterday which led me to the question: What in the hell happened to John Cusack? In what should have been the decade of his career in which he played a defining role, like Kirk Douglas in Spartacus or John Wayne in The Searchers, or Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko or Keanu Reeves as John Wick, the best that Cusack rose to as a fortysomething was his lead role in the minor Stephen King horror story 1408 and his hero repeatedly escaping just ahead of the shockwave(s) in Roland Emmerich’s over-egged disaster pudding 2012. What went wrong? How did he end up making so many films that were not released, barely released, or sunk without trace here? 1408 and Cell, his two Stephen King horrors with Samuel L Jackson, got cinema releases in late summer 2007 and 2016 – they almost neatly cordon off the decade of disaster under scrutiny, and the decline in Cusack’s celebrity, as the latter went to VoD before a very limited cinema release. Before 1408 came Grace is Gone and The Contract. Ring a bell? Nope… 2012 and Hot Tub Time Machine while not great films got wide releases and made money. The Raven and The Frozen Ground are better films but got less wide releases and made considerably less money. They also flag a recurring problem – there are way too many films here that merge together when you read the loglines; impressive casts assembled for some glossy crime thriller, involving a serial killer or assassination or heist: The Factory, The Numbers Station, The Bag Man, Drive Hard, The Prince, Reclaim. There’s even a Phone Booth–like appearance in Grand Piano. And what’s stranger is that in the midst of these formulaic films Cusack made We Are Not Animals in Argentina, about a Hollywood star fleeing formulaic films, and then went back to Hollywood to make more formulaic films. There have not been enough meaty roles like his older Brian Wilson in the split-focus biopic Love & Mercy. Instead he’s made cameos in The Paperboy, The Butler, Adult World, taken more substantial roles in glossy films that sank without trace (Dragon Blade, Shanghai), indie films that failed to connect (Maps to the Stars, Chi-Raq), and somehow bungled a spiritual sequel to his towering 90s achievement Grosse Pointe Blank in the shape of War, Inc. Cusack has not stopped working, and perhaps that’s the problem. Like Matthew McConaughey, he needs to say no to a looooot of scripts for a while if he wants to get back on track. Otherwise Cusack will continue to work steadily, but solely on trashy nonsense (constantly declining in quality), that is made for midnight drunken Netflix buffoonery, and clicked on increasingly only by people who remember that his was once a face that appeared on posters inside cinemas.

December 22, 2011

Thus Endeth the Winning Streak

I’ve already cast doubt on the wisdom of using Bane as the villain in The Dark Knight Rises, but I have strong presentiments of disaster that extend well beyond that.

I was alarmed after writing my piece to read Christopher Nolan talking about Bane to Empire and specifically extolling how he makes Batman physically vulnerable; and Scarecrow setting Bats on fire, Ras Al’Ghul dropping a log on him and Two-Face shooting him can go to ret-con hell. Nolan then went on to quite graphically describe Bane’s brutal fighting style before belatedly backtracking and talking about Bane’s great tactical mind hidden behind the monstrous physique. The scent of Knightfall is heavy in the air, and the sound of breaking spines emerge from crystal balls and runes everywhere. But I’ve come to feel that it’s inevitable that The Dark Knight Rises is going to be a disaster because Nolan is quite simply overdue one at this point.

Indeed in an article during the summer I wrote “Christopher Nolan is due a disaster at some point. Every director, writer, playwright, musician, artist will make a screw-up of epic proportions at some point.” I’ve quoted an old Charlie Brown line as my title because I’ve since traced back the origins of my belief in the inevitability of disaster in artistic careers to a Peanuts comic strip.  Charlie Brown’s baseball team had been on an unwonted winning streak, and as he stood on the base he knew this couldn’t possibly last – a massive disaster had to scupper them at some point to restore the cosmic balance. And they immediately lost, and he sighed “Thus endeth the winning streak.” But how does this apply to artists?

My favourite directors Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg have both suffered disastrous ends to great winning streaks. I think that The Dark Knight Rises is going to be that moment when the wheels come off the wagon spectacularly, and Christopher Nolan will stand up amidst the wreckage, look around, mutter “Thus endeth the winning streak”, and dream it all up again. And it’s not all superstition that somehow one can become overdrawn at the Bank of Inspiration – if we may call whatever that external well of ideas is that Jung dubbed the spiritus mundi, and which every writer knows the tingling feeling of tapping into; when the characters start to say things to each other that you, their creator, didn’t know they were going to…

There are obvious tangible reasons why great directors suddenly make a catastrophic hash of things. Continued success surrounds you with money, yes men, and a feeling of invincibility. Your judgement is temporarily euphorically suspended, as you breezily take risks you wouldn’t have taken before, and you become implacably convinced that whatever idea you come up with is pure gold because you’re a genius (rather than sifting thru a number of ideas to find which is the best one because you’re good but you need hard work and inspiration to hit pay-dirt) – and then WHACK! Box office disaster slaps you back to reality like a wet fish right in the kisser. Disaster is what makes next the winning streak possible. Forced back to smaller budgets and second-guessing yourself you sift thru ideas, regain your critical eye and return stronger than ever.

Spielberg screwed up with 1941 and returned with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hitchcock bored everyone with The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man and roared back with Vertigo. Even Joel Schumacher rose from the ashes of Bat-disaster with Tigerland and Phone Booth. Who knows just how good Nolan’s comeback would be?

December 6, 2011

Top 7 Joel Schumacher Movies

It’s easy to make fun of the director of Batman & Robin, and God knows I’ve done it myself, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Joel Schumacher. He doesn’t have a distinct visual style or trademark thematic concerns so he’ll never be acclaimed as an auteur, but as a journeyman director he reclaims the original meaning of that word as he’s a skilled practitioner of his craft whose name usually guarantees solid entertainment.

(7) The Phantom of the Opera
This was the last Schumacher film that did decent box-office, despite lukewarm reviews, and it’s a solid adaptation. Hilariously the then unknown cast has become retrospectively impressive as the disfigured Phantom Gerard Butler tries to win the ingénue singer Emmy Rossum away from the foppish Patrick Wilson. Lloyd Webber’s music is the star, but Schumacher stages the numbers well, especially in the underground lair.

(6) St Elmo’s Fire
Schumacher co-wrote and directed the definitive Brat Pack movie. Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson, all give some of their best 1980s performances in a film about college graduates with great expectations struggling to live up to the promises of Reaganomics by self-actualising (and, pace Judd, becoming Republicans) while being buffeted by the unpredictable desires of their own hearts.

(5) The Lost Boys
Schumacher coaxed a star-making performance from Kiefer Sutherland as the villain while creating an influential version of vampires: forget Anne Rice’s philosophical angst, these are eternally teenage bad boys, bloodily partying to rock music. The great Edward Hermann’s dignity is hilariously abused by the kids who suspect he’s a vampire master. Jason Patric’s hero is anaemic opposite Kiefer, but there Anne Rice’s Louis/Lestat template is observed.

(4) Tigerland
Schumacher ‘discovered’ Colin Farrell by directing him in this incendiary first lead performance as rebellious Texan Bozz, causing discontent at a training camp for Vietnam. Part of Schumacher’s atonement for Batman & Robin, this was a defiant move to truly gritty drama, even down to the rough shooting style, and it worked – Farrell’s charisma making a fairly archetypal arc about the assumption of responsibility seem emotive and fresh.

(3) Flatliners
“Today’s a good day to die…” Schumacher’s second film with Kiefer confirmed his striking ability to foster young talent (Julia Roberts, Hope Davis and Oliver Platt) who would quickly go on to even bigger things. Medical students experiment with stopping their hearts to allow brief excursions into the afterlife, only to find they’ve unexpectedly brought back their own worst demons. Schumacher creates creeping dread with numerous nail-biting sequences.

(2) Phone Booth
Schumacher’s second film with Farrell deployed considerable visual flair, not least in its extensive split-screens, to make its titular fixed location properly cinematic. Farrell’s sleazy arrogant agent is reduced to a gibbering wreck while pinned down by Kiefer’s insidious, and verbally taunting, sniper. Part glorious high concept executed well, and part cheeky reversal of Kiefer’s 24 comeback, this was Schumacher announcing his return to the glossy mainstream.

(1) The Client
The pre-eminent John Grisham adaptation is powered by Susan Sarandon’s charm and doggedness, the latter so underpinned by integrity that even antagonist Tommy Lee Jones eventually respects it. Sarandon may have won an Oscar for Dead Man Walking but (along with Thelma & Louise) this is the film for which she’ll be fondly remembered. Schumacher also drew a great performance from Brad Renfro as her young client, and mixed nicely orchestrated suspense with a wonderfully warm humanity.

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