Talking Movies

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: Sweeney Todd

A deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives dredges up an unpleasant encounter with my cinematic bête noire, Tim Burton.

Sweeney Todd showcases a match truly made in hell. No, I’m not referring to the serial killer combo of demon barber Todd and cannibal baker Mrs Lovett, but to the pairing of composer Stephen Sondheim and director Tim Burton.

Stephen Sondheim cannot write music, he is a lyricist. Tim Burton cannot direct films, he is a production designer. Both men have deluded themselves into thinking they can do something they really can’t. Burton can make a film look great but he can’t tell a story or make it look real to save his life while West Side Story lyricist Sondheim won’t admit that his work is better when paired with a melodic composer like Leonard Bernstein. Vaughan Williams said the sure sign that a composer had no confidence in their basic material was that it would be over-orchestrated. The deafening organ chords that play over the truly disgusting opening titles betray that very insecurity as well as establishing the queasy universe of gore that Burton wishes us to live in for the next 2 hours.

The real shock is that what follows these credits is a CGI London created with special effects infinitely worse than 2001’s Moulin Rouge! How’s that for progress. The acting is uniformly awful, Alan Rickman deserves special mention as he is practically enacting his Dead Ringers parody. Johnny Depp, needless to say, cannot sing. But then of course Sondheim is the one musicals composer for whom that really doesn’t matter that much. Even his best song ‘Send in the Clowns’ can be croaked by anyone with a feel for phrasing as Judi Dench wonderfully proved on the West End.

Tim Burton has long confused darkness both visual and thematic with quality. Here there is a startling moment, as Burton and Bonham Carter turn a corner into a particularly sepulchral open street, when you realise that this film might as well be in black and white. Tim Burton has, and always had had, a positive fascination with evil. He delights in a story that pits villain against villain and the few heroic characters in this film (Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener) are shoved off the stage quickly whenever they appear and, characteristically, the finale leaves their storyline hanging as Burton quite simply does not care.

1/5

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September 29, 2016

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Tim Burton reunites with his Dark Shadows star Eva Green for a more successful outing than that fiasco, but not any meaningful escape from Burtonworld.

DF-07237 - Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) takes aim at her powerful enemies. Photo Credit: Jay Maidment.

Photo Credit: Jay Maidment.

Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) runs a home for peculiar children on a Welsh island, but this story is really about young Floridian Jake (Asa Butterfield). When his beloved grandfather Abe (Terence Stamp) is murdered, apparently by monsters, Jake is left with instructions to seek out the 1940s Children’s Home Abe lived in after fleeing the Nazis. Encouraged by psychiatrist Dr Golan (Allison Janney), Jake’s sceptical dad Franklin (a bafflingly miscast Chris O’Dowd) brings him to Wales. But they find Miss Peregrine’s Home was bombed by the Lutwaffe in 1943 with no survivors. But Jake in exploring the ruined mansion meets fire-starter Olivia (Lauren McCrostie), homunculi-manufacturer Enoch (Finlay MacMillan), and Abe’s lighter than air former girlfriend Emma (Ella Purnell). Miss Peregrine must explain the time-loop she has created in forever 1943, and the threat posed by Mr Barron (Samuel L Jackson).

The work of Burton’s now regular cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel is completely obscured by the 3-D: I’ve never seen a film so badly plunged into darkness by the act of putting on 3-D glasses. Ransom Riggs’ novel has been adapted by Kick-Ass and Woman in Black scribe Jane Goldman, but despite rattling along more efficiently than any number of Burton’s recent films this never really soars; undone as it is by an endless explaining of time-loops, as well as cliché, and Burton’s customary shortcomings. Burton seems to be targeting the YA audience to restore his credit rating after Dark Shadows and Big Eyes, but he can’t help himself. His love of the grotesque overcomes feigned interest in romance, and spurs him to depict villains feasting on mounds of children’s eyeballs, and go close on a character having his eyeballs showily removed.

Burton’s enduring reputation, born of confusing gothic with grotesque and fascination with evil as psychological darkness, continues to attract actors of high calibre; and, as so often, Burton has nothing for them. Judi Dench and Rupert Everett are almost comically under-used, and Kim Dickens seems to be in the movie because she wandered onto the wrong soundstage. It’s always great to see Stamp in action, and Purnell injects some life into her melancholic lead, while Butterfield is an effective hero, but there’s a hand-me-down feel to too much of the proceedings. Jackson’s Frankenstein’s monster of previous performances (Unbreakable, Jumper, Kingsman) is a lowlight, alongside Burton shamelessly lifting a Ray Harryhausen showstopper for his finale, and the pervasive X-Men-lite vibe emanating from a mansion housing children with superpowers and the betrayals of an elderly mutant who fled Nazis and speaks RP.

Tim Burton, on his 18th feature, is not going to suddenly change his stripes, and this is as wildly unsuitable for marketing to children as his warped Batman movies.

2.5/5

February 3, 2016

The Great Star Wars Lie

You are being lied to, repeatedly and with purpose, by massive entertainment corporations using a media all too happy to shill for the sake of Hollywood glamour driving traffic numbers.

download

I’ve been writing about this truth for almost as long as I’ve been writing this blog. A series of articles in February – April 2010 ruminated on Avatar and its reception, and I posed one very simple question back then which is even more relevant now: why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Summer 2007 was a nadir for sustained mendacity: almost a case of “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spider-Man 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. But now we have a new whopper on our hands: The Force Awakens. Back in 2010 I noted that banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable, and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film made after 1982 that makes the all-time Top 10 once you adjust for inflation.

Yet right now we are being repeatedly whacked over the head with the notion that The Force Awakens is the most popular film in the history of popularity and film. And thankfully Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com has weighed into the fray with a truly irrepressible combo of sarcasm and statistics:

If you squint and fudge in just the right light, The Force Awakens is now sorta-kinda the biggest hit in United States history, and has maybe a 50/50 shot of catching Avatar for the No. 1 global spot.

Actually, a further word on Disney’s loud crowing this week about SW: TFA having reached the status of Biggest Movie Ever. That word would be “oh no, you don’t.” If you adjust for inflation — which is, y’know, how actual economic comparisons are done — it’s not even close. According to Box Office Mojo’s seemingly reasonable calculations, The Force Awakens is now roughly the No. 21 movie of all time, well below such titles as The Lion King, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Exorcist. It will certainly climb a fair bit higher, but I’m not convinced it will earn the extra $300 million required to catch Doctor Zhivago at No. 8. And I would bet Donald Trump’s bottom dollar that it won’t get anywhere near the all-time champ, Gone With the Wind, which made almost $200 million in 1939 dollars, in a nation with less than half our current population where the typical movie ticket cost less than a quarter.

The new Star Wars is a big movie, for sure. But it’s not quite as ginormous and culture-dominating and universally beloved as Disney wants us to think it is. The bigness of TFA, or at least the idea of its bigness, is a central element of the Mouse House strategy to spin Star Wars into a marketing, merchandising and entertainment empire.

death_star_trench

 

Since he wrote that piece The Force Awakens has climbed up to reach 11 on the all-time list, but is still nearly 200 million shy of catching Doctor Zhivago. It would need to double its gross to date to topple Gone with the Wind… But what does it all betoken?

O’Hehir sees deep cynicism in The Force Awakens’ marketing style of lying constantly about record-breaking popularity. Back in 2010 I wrote that the obsession with opening weekends was a betrayal of proper cultural criticism, never mind the lasting quality of the film feel the quantity of its inflated takings, and was actually lobotomising cinema. 2007’s summer of the threequel proved enough eye candy and CGI could, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend; which word of mouth would then collapse precipitously. I hoped Avatar had firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends by starting slow, not breaking any records, being almost dismissed as a failure for that, but then, when its takings didn’t collapse but remained constant week after week, being trumpeted as a phenomenon. But then Shutter Island was hailed as Scorsese’s most successful opening weekend, and Tim Burton’s Alice the most successful 3-D film opening weekend.

Now I think that nothing is ever going to change this hyperbolic approach, because, even more than the cynicism O’Hehir identifies, I believe it betokens desperation. Adjusting for inflation raises the extremely uncomfortable truth for Hollywood that people are historically uninterested in cinema-going, no matter how many sensational headlines about record box-office business are fed out like so much pigswill.

I called for a ruthless insistence that Avatar’s box-office gross be discounted for inflation, because it hadn’t even dented the actual all-time Top 10. But now I think the best approach is mockery. The Force Awakens’ need to scream from the rooftops how popular is it is no less pathetic than Betamax’s plaintive advertisement in the 1980s reminding people it was still in the game. If you were really ginormous, culture-dominating and universally beloved you wouldn’t need to tell people you were quite so much.

Cinema is no longer as important as it once was. The archetypal Saturday night movie memorably recounted by Gus Van Sant on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, where the entire high school rocked up to the cinema because that’s what you did on Saturday night before anything else you might get up to, is long vanished. No amount of hype will bring that world back, just like no amount of fraud can hide the fact you can’t buy a house for the same price your parents did because of inflation, and that inflation didn’t magically not affect cinema tickets too.

Every time you hear The Force Awakens being trumpeted as uber-successful, so much winning it would make Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen tired of winning, remember you’re hearing a desperate plea for relevance rooted in insecurity. And think of this.

November 27, 2012

An Arrow of a different colour

I root for shows to stay on the air, not least because so many shows I’ve loved (Cupid, Studio 60, Vengeance Unlimited) have been prematurely cancelled, but … I really hope Arrow gets scrapped soon.

There’s been a Smallville-sized gap in my world for a year now, and so Arrow you’d imagine would be right up my street. But it’s not, it’s really not; for many reasons, mostly to do with other programmes. Arrow is a show that seems to have been created by putting other hits in a blender, and then just running with whatever derivative gloop emerged. It would appear that the producers noticed that Revenge was popular last season and so figured they also could surf the zeitgeist and take down 99%ers every week, complete with Green Arrow drawing a line thru the name of the fat cat he’d successfully ruined; just like Emily’s crossing an X thru the face of the person in the group photo she’d destroyed at the end of early episodes of Revenge. Every time I see the Queen mansion in Arrow all I can think of is Lex Luthor’s mansion in Smallville. If it’s not actually the same exterior then it sure looks like it, and it’s just a bit distracting. Furthermore while Arrow fails to match the charm of early Smallville, it’s overdosing on the angst that soon blighted that show. 5 episodes in and Laurel Dinah Lance has already stated, for not particularly clear reasons, that she and Oliver Queen can never be together. Even though their character names make it blindingly obvious they will be, eventually. And so Clark and Lana nonsense begins anew…

But these aren’t even the most aggravating or troubling derivative elements of Arrow. The constant flashbacks, to Oliver Queen’s 5 years on a remote island where he became Green Arrow, complete with meaningful life lessons from a cryptically wise Chinese Arrow screamed LOST and that was before The Others showed up… It was bad enough having to endure a flashback vignette every week that related to the main story, but now there are well-organised and well-resourced military personnel on an island where shipwrecked survivors are hunting animals for food. These Others are led by a man with staring eyes, just like Ben Linus, who is the Big Bad of the show, not least because he has sadistic torturer Deathstroke at his disposal. And then for the final kicker it’s revealed that the Mandarin name for the island means … Purgatory. Just, no… we don’t need more LOST meanderings, six years of pointless nonsense was enough. And then there’s the Nolan riffing. In the first episode Oliver was seen at a grinder getting his weapons sharp, in a scene shot farcically like its model in Batman Begins where Bruce makes his first throwing Bats. But then a shadowed Oliver goes on to growl to Laurel about he can give her leverage for a case, just like Batman growled as he gave his lawyer love interest Rachel leverage on Judge Faden. That’d be okay if perhaps Arrow appreciated why Nolan’s Batman worked…

But Arrow doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how comic-book superheroes operate. When in the pilot Oliver Queen, out of costume, caught a criminal who’d kidnapped him and then broke his neck shouting “No one can know my secret!” it was an enormous shock, because it was such a stunning mis-step, and anti-Nolan to the nth degree despite all the borrowings from Nolan elsewhere. It was a return to the ethics or lack thereof of Tim Burton’s Batman who very deliberately murdered the Joker as well as carelessly offing God knows how many goons along the way. Green Arrow’s subsequent shooting of a corrupt tycoon with an arrow thru the hand was far nastier than Batman dropping Sal Maroni to break his ankles, because Nolan’s Batman was being forced to extremes by the Joker’s madness whereas that’s just how this Green Arrow rolls… And for all Green Arrow’s homicidal antics by the end of episode 4 he’s been arrested by the police for being Green Arrow. So his first murder was in vain… Only things get even better. You see, like The Joker, Loki and Silva – he planned on getting caught! He wanted them to lock him up in the MCU Skybase Churchill Bunker Queen mansion. Because, like The Dark Knight Rises, the important thing is not that Oliver Queen is Green Arrow but that there will always be a Green Arrow, no matter who’s under the hood…

Except, why should we care who is under the hood if he’s just a cold-blooded killer? Nolan’s Batman famously only has one rule – don’t kill people. Maim the hell out of them, by all means, but don’t kill them. Arrow seems to think it can lift huge chunks from Nolan’s Bat-verse and then also appropriate the industrial slaughter of Maggie Q’s Nikita, but Nikita comes from a dark place – that’s the character. She’s a drug addict who killed people before she got forced by the government to join a secret government agency and kill people before she went rogue and embarked on a new mission to kill bad people. Killing is an essential part of Nikita as a character, but not killing has always been an equally essential part of DC Comics’ superheroes as characters. David S Goyer noted that they very deliberately had Batman throw Joker off a building and then save him in The Dark Knight as a riposte to the end of Burton’s Batman because both he and Christopher Nolan felt that Batman killing Joker had been a terrible tonal mistake. And it was a mistake, just witness the brilliance of the scene that Batman then shares with the Joker dangling from a rope. There’s a mystical connection between those two characters that doesn’t allow for simple killing. Superman can’t simply knock off Lex Luthor, and it goes beyond the morality of the characters to a sense of epic grandeur. This isn’t just comic-book bilge incidentally, look at Albert Camus’ description in The Rebel of Spartacus seeking out his opposing number Crassus to die in single combat against him and him alone.

The amorality of the lead character who should be a straight arrow, as it were, is only one part of the problem though. Oliver Queen in Smallville was transparently a Batman substitute, but Justin Hartley’s performance as Oliver Queen/Green Arrow had a nonchalance entirely absent from Stephen Amell’s wooden earnestness in Arrow. Some of this may be due to the different functions of the character, Hartley was there for sparring with earnest Clark Kent whereas Amell as lead character to some degree is earnest Clark Kent. But Hartley’s Green Arrow had the same formative traumas in his past, and it didn’t swamp the character’s traditional sardonic nature, while Amell’s inert demeanour never allows him to convince as the party animal that makes Oliver Queen such close kin to Bruce Wayne. Nolan allowed us to see that public Bruce Wayne, private Bruce Wayne and Batman were three distinct personalities; and that private Bruce Wayne was a good man. But Arrow has failed to make private Oliver Queen much more likeable than public Oliver Queen. And this points to a bigger problem.

Thor and John Carter placed alongside Arrow seem to indicate that we are in the middle of a bona fide scriptwriting crisis. There’s a distinction between a rogue and a dick that appears to have been lost. Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter was deeply unlikeable as a hero, and the film was reduced to not only bafflingly introducing Bryan Cranston as a metaphorical cat to be saved, but then introducing an actual dog to be saved as well later, in a vain effort to get us to like Carter.  Thor meanwhile was entirely upended by the fact that Thor was a thoroughly unlikeable jerk who only became bearable in the last act of the film, which enabled the suave Tom Hiddleston as Loki to steal the entire movie as the cleverer brother forever cleaning up the messes of his petulant blowhard sibling. A classic rogue, like Han Solo, or even Ian Somerhalder’s Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries, is cocky, likeable, and from the perspective of the other characters entirely unreliable, even though the audience always has a sneaking suspicion that the bad boy will come through in the end no matter how many times he weasels out on doing the right thing along the way to serve his own agenda. But Thor, John Carter, and Arrow are sunk by heroes who aren’t remotely likeable. Arrow has dropped the Green to emphasise its edginess but it’s dropped its character’s resonance too…

I’m sticking with Arrow for now to see Seth Gabel aka Jeremy Darling from Dirty Sexy Money as Vertigo, but once Gabel leaves the show I won’t be far behind.

June 20, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3-D

Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov returns to the fray with Tim Burton producing an adaptation of his Dark Shadows cohort Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling novel.

In 1818 the 9 year old Abraham Lincoln tries to stop the whipping of his friend Will Johnson as Will’s family is sundered by slavers led by the evil Jack Barts (LOTR actor Marton Csokas), incurring the wrath of Barts who kills Abe’s mother Nancy. The adult Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) attacks Barts only to discover, in a neat long-take, that shooting him in the head isn’t enough… Lincoln is instructed in the art of slaying by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), and in 1837 is dispatched to Springfield, Illinois, to rid the city of vampires. He is distracted from his vengeance by meeting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and, when Will (Anthony Mackie) returns, Lincoln and his employer Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) enter politics to defeat slavery and the Southern vampires, led by Rufus Sewell’s Adam, who depend upon its continuation.

Far from the gleeful nonsense you’d expect, this film takes itself very, very seriously. The vampires are CGI enhanced ‘fangs like sharks’ monsters (think Supernatural) and played for horror as they walk in sunlight and can become invisible. Lincoln narrates that Henry has a few weeks to teach him a lifetime of skills. The same could be said of the jump-cutting script: Sturgess trains Lincoln in a Batman Begins vein before either character has been properly established. This film amazingly is both dragged out (its 105 minutes feel like 135) and rushed – at the same time. It lashes thru training, slaying, politics, and civil war, with infuriating gaps in detail, empathy and logic. Speed seems to know Abe’s secret before he’s told, Sturgess’ secret is obvious from the opening scene, Barts is seemingly killed, and Harriet Tubman appears but nobody mentions it…

There are precious few gags, and only the broadest one works: “We’ll be late for the theatre.” Alan Tudyk is tragically underused as Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s bête noire, here a romantic rival who becomes a political opponent, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead has her customary ‘MEW kicks ass’ moment, but the set-piece finale on a train exemplifies the film; just a bit stupid rather than OTT fun. Sewell enjoys himself and model Erin Wasson is a striking presence as his sister Vadoma but, like Walker (and indeed everyone bar Cooper who has the most interesting role), they have acres of screen-time and nothing interesting to do. Having read Adam Gopnik’s book which highlights the comic absurdity of Lincoln condemning the Southern code of vengeance and then duelling for Mary’s honour I have to say the real Lincoln is infinitely more complex, compelling, and yes, entertaining a character.

This film takes the most enjoyably absurd high concept imaginable, but instead of being delirious mayhem somehow ends up being just dull.

2/5

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part II

Drive has inspired this provisional attempt at asking what different types of movie violence exist, how they can be categorised, and what meanings each might have.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” – Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s defence of the Aesthetes is never far behind any justification of excessive violence in cinema. As a defence it has only one drawback, it’s not remotely true. Art can be deeply immoral. I direct you to Triumph of the Will. Quite often film historians will rave about the innovation or dazzling techniques employed by its director Leni Riefenstahl, and then snap back into their conscious minds, realise just how far down a  particularly crooked garden path they’ve gone, and hastily backtrack with a “BUT of course it’s a terribly evil film….” Films do not exist in a vacuum. They’re part of our lived experience, and if we have any sense of right and wrong surely films are implicated in it in more than a three-act Hollywood good defeats evil structural sense.

I reviewed Paranoid Park for InDublin and was appalled at the bisection of an innocent security guard by its unlikeable hero that was the pivot of the film. But I was stunned to see one American critic summon the courage to dub that moment deeply immoral. We’ve been inured to think about screen violence only in terms of effect, technique, structure, but there are different types of violence and morality cannot always be parked at the door as Wilde would wish. A man getting his head stomped on by Ryan Gosling till bone-dust floats in front of the lens inhabits a different universe than a lengthy sword-fight between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn ending with Rathbone’s death. Cinematic violence can be divided into a number of types, and the most obvious type is spectacle. A swordfight is violent, a cowboy duel is violent, a shoot-out is violent, a suspenseful Spielberg action sequence is violent, the lobby scene in The Matrix is violent – but it is the violence of spectacle. Hugh Jackman said that his musical theatre training was helpful in preparing for boxing in Real Steel because fight choreography is just choreography. When action is spectacle, what you’re really watching and enjoying is the choreography.

“Art is art because it is not nature” – Oscar Wilde

Can violence that is not seeking to appeal to the audience’s admiration for good choreography ever truly be aesthetic? Drive depicts a woman’s head exploding from a shotgun blast in anatomically accurate detail. Scorsese realistically depicts the explosion of a body dropped from a roof when it hits the ground, spraying Leonardo DiCaprio with blood, in The Departed. Why do film-makers engaged in depicting violence which is not spectacle usually go for such extreme verisimilitude? For every Kill Bill touch of blood spurting 30 feet there’s multiple instances of something like a gangster being bashed in the head by a shovel in Miller’s Crossing or a gangster being bashed in the head by a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Wilde’s dictum, if taken seriously, implies that 1950s cowboys keeling over dead without any blood being spilled after being shot is more artistic than R rated violence, because it is so obviously not nature but rather an artistic convention. Spielberg at least acknowledged that he was going for extreme authenticity in Saving Private Ryan to traumatise the audience rather than for his usual purpose of using violence – scaring/entertaining them, we’ll label all such uses of violence as catharsis to make life easier. Violent film-makers though seem to enjoy rendering violence in extreme detail not for reasons of catharsis but because they just like depicting bloody violence.

Can violence detached from the spectacle of choreography ever be aesthetic and nothing else? I doubt it, given that we seemed to have reached a point in cinema history where violence must be very realistic (whether fully depicted or screened from view) or it defeats the verisimilitude of its context. A more important question is just why is violence so important to cinema? Raymond Chandler quipped that whenever he got stuck he simply wrote a guy with a gun walking into the room. I’ve hammered LOST before for exactly this sort of laziness in which violence is used as a cheat, a jump-leads to make a scene tense and raise the dramatic stakes without bothering to write escalating conflict, character based tension, or biting dialogue. But this idea allows us to provisionally divide violence into four categories: spectacle, catharsis, function, sadism – suffering is the key to noting the last as well as a certain monolithic quality of the film as violent film and nothing else. It is also the only one that raises moral qualms, as opposed to seething dissatisfaction at lazy writing and distaste at a high water-mark of violence becoming the norm for ignoble reasons of sheer functionality. The fight in the subway at the end of The Matrix is all about the spectacle of dazzling wire-assisted choreography. By contrast the fights in Batman Begins are a total blur in which Batman wins, because Nolan very deliberately shoots too close to the action so as to shift the focus away from the spectacle; it doesn’t matter how Batman beats people up, what matters is that he can beat people up – it’s a question of function and character, not of aesthetics and spectacle. Functional violence is now the grease on the wheels of the three-act structure in many instances. At the climaxes of films, as villains get their desserts, it often overlaps with catharsis.

Catharsis is obviously an ancient legitimisation for extreme violence, and indeed Incendies will probably be my film of the year because it used shocking violence to purge the emotions of its audience with pity and fear to such powerful effect that the entire cinema sat in a stunned Aristotelian silence for some minutes at the end of my screening before shuffling out feeling somewhat mind-blown. But there is a fine line between catharsis and sadism, even in the greatest works. Oedipus gouging out his own eyes when he discovers the truth of his actions is not the same as Titus Andronicus informing his enemy exactly what was in the pie she just ate. ‘Shakespeare was really violent too’ is therefore not a carte blanche excuse for grotesque violence, though it’s often used in defence of extreme screen violence. Yes, Shakespeare was a bloody nihilist in King Lear and Titus Andronicus; in performance everything in Lear can seem mere build up to Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, while Titus is simply a catalogue of grand guignol horror from start to finish. But Shakespeare also wrote the frothy feather-light follies Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing where you’ll look in vain for any eye-gouging or cannibalism. Shakespeare had range with a capital R. The problem with Tarantino’s spawn is that they specialise in violence to a worryingly monolithic extent, and their violence often veers towards the Titus approach rather than Lear – audiences do not cry with pity and fear for what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally purged, they moan in revulsion and disgust at what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally contaminated.

“Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie” – Last House on the Left tagline

Sadism – the true differentiator. Violence as spectacle, function or catharsis doesn’t provoke the same shudder. Incendies was deeply shocking in its depiction of violence, but, crucially, it wasn’t shocking because of graphic depictions of that violence, but because of the connections between who was committing the acts and who they were victimising, on both an individual and societal basis. Sadism does not have that concern which elevates catharsis. It is concerned with depicting suffering for its own sake. Hostel auteur Eli Roth wants you to see a man lose two fingers on both hands as he breaks his bonds and then keep going in his quest to escape the deadly hostel, leaving his fingers behind him. I’ve written about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, noting that the theatrical cut showcased all the most obnoxious moments of his director’s cut: Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer. Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off – ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him to die in agony when Alan Moore’s script slashes his throat for an instant death? I said previously that Snyder was adding sadism to an already nasty story, but now I note he’s changing the category of violence – from function to sadism. He wants you to see people suffering, and that is a sensibility I find deeply troubling, not least because it seems to be shared at certain times by celebrated directors like Refn, the Coens, Tarantino, Scorsese, Burton, Haneke and Miike. I won’t say that what these film-makers do with violence at their worst moments is immoral, but it is deeply troubling, and it’s time to stop meekly accepting their cod-Wildean ersatz-Shakesperean defences and ask just why it is that they apparently get off so much on depicting violence in gory detail with an emphasis on suffering.

Drive didn’t perturb me because it was a film purely of sadistic violence; the first outbreaks of bloodletting are all about function and catharsis, while the ominous killing on the beach is violence as both spectacle and catharsis. No, it’s taken me a long time to fathom what lies behind my feeling that Drive really was a film of two parts; the first of which I loved, the second of which I despised. And this is it. A film makes a contract with the audience, and for me Drive broke that contract – I didn’t expect that sort of violence to develop from the first part of the movie, and I don’t appreciate being told I’ve seen equally graphic violence in films that signed a different contract and delivered the goods as agreed. Spielberg and Hitchcock are pranksters, asking you where the line is repeatedly, to establish it in their minds, and then crossing that line for fun. Robert Rodriguez, in Machete or Planet Terror, establishes his ground rules for schlocky violence in the opening minutes. Saying I shouldn’t attack Drive because I enjoyed Wanted ignores the different contracts that they proffered regarding the nature of the screen violence to expect, and is akin to this:

BORIS: A 0-0 draw. Great. What a riveting football match…
JOHNSON: What are you complaining about? Have you forgotten that 0-0 draw last week that had you enthralled?
BORIS: What, the one with the 2 disallowed goals, 3 sendings off, 4 shots off the crossbar, 5 off the post and 60 shots saved?
GODUNOV: The very one.
BORIS: (beat) I think that was a bit different. How many shots were there tonight?
JOHNSON: What, on target?
BORIS: No, at all.
GODUNOV: Um… None. It was 90 minutes of 22 men on their own goal-lines.
BORIS: Yeah, it was 0-0 and so was last week’s match, but this one was excruciating.

As Enda Kenny used to bellow (but not at Nicolas Winding Refn, though he’d stand hearing it) “Sign the Contract!”

August 9, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

James Franco, as smugly self-satisfied as ever, develops a cure for Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately he also manages to bring about the apocalypse. Dude… Not cool.

This movie has been almost destroyed by its unusually long TV spots, which added to the cinema trailers that consisted solely of plot points and thematic statements masquerading as dialogue, leaves precious few surprises for cinema viewing. Franco’s scientist makes a breakthrough on a drug which repairs cognitive functioning in one chimpanzee, however, when she runs amok the entire research programme is canned. Everyone’s favourite slacker Tyler Labine doesn’t have the heart to put down the baby that chimpanzee had been protecting and so gives it to a reluctant Franco. Franco raises it at home where he discovers that it has inherited the effects of the drug, resulting in super-intelligence. Eventually he decides to test the drug on his own Alzheimer’s stricken father Charles (John Lithgow). Frieda Pinto’s vet warns him about messing with nature, but he convinces his boss Jacobs (a nicely cavalier David Oyelowo) to allow him develop an even more potent strain…

There are similarities with this week’s other chimpanzee release Project Nim, as Caesar is raised in a human setting, and shown using sign language and displaying very human traits, before his increasing viciousness sees him abruptly removed to live with chimpanzees who ostracise him. But this is a wild animal, a point made needlessly nastily when Caesar very deliberately bites off and eats a man’s fingers when attacking the angry next-door neighbour to protect a confused Charles. Caesar’s incarceration is interesting as Caesar is subjected to humiliation as the new inmate before using his superior intelligence to rise up the food-chain. It’s like watching Audiard’s A Prophet in a zoo. I’ve said it before but Andy Serkis is an unappreciated marvel as he does so much acting work in motion-capture. His performance as Caesar is wonderfully nuanced; you can see in his eyes the dawning of responsibility for his fellow less smart primates. John Lithgow does wonders with the material he’s given, though his transformation from mangling ‘Clair de Lune’ to concert pianist as the Alzheimer’s drug works is tasteless in its emotional manipulation. Characterisation isn’t this film’s strong point though. Frieda Pinto in particular has a barely written character.

There are a number of deliriously showy moments by director Rupert Wyatt, such as the montage of Caesar climbing a giant redwood that takes us thru 5 years in about a minute (please copy Terrence Malick), a panning shot thru a building as the apes rampage thru office space before tumbling onto the street, Jacobs entering a deserted building and not noticing what’s above him (a homage to The Birds), and a delightfully Spielbergian touch in the first arrival of the evolved primates in San Francisco being conveyed by a sudden gentle rain of loose leaves onto the joggers on a suburban road. Other highlights are an iconic line from the 1968 original, a hilarious moment when the signing circus orangutan gives the raspberry to Caesar’s grandiose plans, and a startlingly well-staged action finale on the Golden Gate Bridge.

This is a vast improvement on Tim Burton’s 2001 disaster but while it features a number of showy moments, and a nicely choreographed finale, the shallowness of characterisation holds it back.

2.5/5

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Peer Gynt 27 Sep – 16 Oct Belvedere College
Rough Magic’s writer Arthur Riordan updates Ibsen’s most fantastical play about loves lost and folkloric psychosis. Talking Movies favourite Rory Nolan plays the titular delusional hero and Tarab, not Grieg, provide a live musical accompaniment. Phaedra last year was a misfiring production with a similar blend of ingredients so this 3 hour show is a recommendation, with caveats…

The Lulu House 27 Sep – 16 Oct James Joyce House
Selina Cartmell, who wowed the Fringe last year directing Medea, returns with another femme fatale. Lorcan Cranitch and Camille O’Sullivan star in a mixture of musical, drama and film inspired by German playwright Wedekind’s original character and also Pabst’s silent film Pandora’s Box. This only lasts one hour, but it should be a visually rich experience.

Donka, A letter to Chekhov 29 Sep – 2 Oct Gaiety
The traditional circus spectacular at the Gaiety comes from Russia, and is one of two Festival shows about Chekhov. Clowns, acrobats and musicians not only create the world of Chekhov’s characters but, by using his diaries, portray his inner emotional world. Writer and director Daniele Finzi Pasca has previously helmed a Cirque de Soleil show and Broadway musical Rain so this should be dazzling.

Testament 29 Sep – 16 Oct Project Arts Centre
Colm Toibin writes a play, Garry Hynes directs it and Marie Mullen performs it. What could possibly go wrong? Well…. Toibin’s not a playwright, Druid do occasionally screw up, and Mullen destroyed 2007’s Long Day’s Journey into Night with her hammy turn. This is a 90 minute uninterrupted monologue with Mullen as the Virgin Mary (or maybe not, it’s vague) which could become very long…

Juno and the Paycock 29 Sep – 15 Oct Abbey
The Abbey team up with Southbank’s National Theatre for this co-production of Sean O’Casey’s old war-horse. A starry cast includes Ciaran Hinds as Captain Boyle, Risteard Cooper as his drinking buddy Joxer and Sinead Cusack as Mrs Boyle. Druid and Abbey regulars like Clare Dunne and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor fill out the ensemble grappling with melodramatic misfortunes in the middle of the Civil War.

The Speckled People 29 Sep – 15 Oct Gate
Patrick Mason is a great director, and Denis Conway, John Kavanagh and Tadhg Murphy accomplished actors, but it’s hard to regard Hugo Hamilton’s adaptation of his own memoir as anything but ‘ugh, complain theatre’, to paraphrase Clueless. Stephen Brennan will undoubtedly play the ultra-nationalist Irish father oppressing his son’s German identity, probably as a variant on his abrasive patriarch from Phaedra.

La Voix Humaine 29 Sep – 2 Oct Samuel Beckett Theatre
Jean Cocteau’s celebrated story of a desperate woman making a last-ditch phone call to her ex-lover is performed with surtitles by acclaimed Dutch actress Halina Reijn. This is a bit pricey (2 euro a minute) given that’s it’s an hour long monologue with minimalist set, but Ivo van Hove is a celebrated director and will play on the audience’s voyeuristic instincts to achieve catharsis.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets 29 Sep – 2 Oct Project Arts Centre
Theatre company 1927’s macabre cabaret style unfurls a bizarre tenement story that’s a mixture of Fritz Lang, Charles Dickens and Tim Burton. A mix of live music and performance with pre-recorded film and animation this might be the most distinctive show of the festival aesthetically. Again nearly 2 euro a minute…

16 Possible Glimpses 30 Sep – 15 Oct Peacock
Chekhov is highly regarded at this year’s festival, but that doesn’t stretch to any of his plays being performed. Instead a second play about his life and work sees Abbey favourite Marina Carr thankfully eschewing misery in the midlands for an imaginative fantasia on Chekhov, using a series of vignettes to throw his most haunting characters into his turbulent productive life.

Slattery’s Sago Saga 6 Oct – 16 Oct Rathfarnham Castle
In our end is our beginning, Arthur Riordan re-writing an old master, here adapting an unfinished novel by Flann O’Brien. Rathfarnham Castle? A dashed odd place for a play you’d say, unless you knew that this was the site-specific Performance Corporation unleashing a surreal political satire involving the quiet life of Poguemahone Hall being shattered by a T.D. with an insane plan. It involves sago…

July 25, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Franchise

Shia LaBeouf is done. Michael Bay is done. Transformers as a franchise is not done. But maybe it ought to be…

Whispers (by which I mean the usual incessant briefings by publicists) abound that Jason Statham is about to assume the lead role in the Transformers franchise and take it in ‘a darker direction’. While it’s always nice to see ‘The State’ in action movies, the last thing this franchise needs is to go any darker. It’s positively screaming out for a reboot to the sunnier climes of its original vision. And yes, I am aware that talking of something needing a reboot to capture the halcyon era of four years ago is a new level of preposterousness, but it’s justified. The third act of Transformers 3 is so dark as to resemble Independence Day by way of the back-stabbing betrayals by humans collaborating with exploiting aliens of Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD rather than the fun of 2007’s Transformers. This is amplified by very questionable touch of District 9 in the Deception guns that vaporise flesh so that piles of bones fall to the ground after they shoot people.

Ehren Kruger has written a script that, like his Scream 3 which also featured Patrick Dempsey, is structurally very sound and has any number of nice touches, but which fundamentally strays from the existing tone of the franchise.  Kruger’s rewriting of the space race as a cover story for a covert mission to retrieve an alien artefact, and the meltdown at Chernobyl being a disastrous attempt to utilise that alien technology, works as well as X-Men: First Class’ similar slyness. Patrick Dempsey impresses as two kinds of villain, the romantic rival who has more money and power to impress the girl, and the Quisling of smooth collaboration and self-justificatory villainy. The comedy with Ken Jeong maniacally harassing Sam, John Malkovich chewing scenery as Sam’s eccentric colour-coded boss, and Alan Tudyk freaking out as John Turturro’s unhinged PA is all very funny….but it’s insane; you’re laughing nervously because this doesn’t fit in with the rest of film almost as much as you’re laughing because it’s funny.

Kruger’s comedy is a style of humour which is entirely different from the comedy of the first film which organically grew from the characters around who an action story suddenly took place. This lack of organicism is a problem unwisely highlighted in-camera when Frances McDormand’s spook tells Sam he really has no function in this story, and sure enough Sam later inserts himself into the storyline by sheer perseverance rather than any interior logic. A greater problem is the discordant note struck by Kruger’s approach against Kurtzman and Orci’s template. It’s always embarrassing to remember just how juvenile a director the middle-aged Michael Bay is, but the ogling of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (all low-angle shots and short skirts) is different than that of Megan Fox, because it lacks the nod and wink self-awareness of Kurtzman and Orci’s script. It’s as if Kruger has no interest in semi-apologising for this nonsense. Bay’s lingering introductory shot of Huntington-Whiteley is, fittingly, of her arse, which is what her performance is a load of, to paraphrase Shirley Manson. But this can be forgiven as just Bay being Bay…

What is unforgivable, after the disastrous introduction of so many non-characterised or racially caricatured robots in the last film, is that Kruger doesn’t retrench and try to fully utilise the original Transformers, but instead retains racially caricatured characters and then (like a LOST scripwriter) continues to hoover up yet more new characters. I’ve complained about this before but Kruger here reaches the apotheosis of this franchise’s incomprehension of the riches available in the Transformers comics. Sentinel Prime may be from the comics but so is Shockwave, and he’s outrageously wasted in the film when in the comics he has the most distinctive style of delivery of any Transformer bar Grimlock and is a wonderfully nuanced villain. Kruger’s shocks are effective but the killing of Ironhide is incredibly gimmicky and the weak exits of Starscream and Megatron from the franchise are disgracefully disrespectful to their characters’ status in both the comics and the previous films, and, in Megatron’s case, as tonally wrong as Burton’s Batman dispatching the Joker. But then how Optimus finally deals with Sentinel plainly belongs in a macho action movie for adults, not a sunny blockbuster for children. Characters gushing blood oil, having limbs parts torn off, and their spines CPUs torn out is too much. The darkness makes this film feel loooong…

Transformers was a cartoon series designed to sell toys by creating archetypal characters who had entertaining adventures. The comics injected cod-Shakespearean parallels and ended in traumatic apocalypse but they were also great fun. Surely the film-makers could remember their true target audience and lighten up a bit…

February 2, 2011

2011: Fears

The franchise is over, please go home
Man of the hour Andrew Garfield is your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man in Spider-Man 4. If ever a franchise needed a reboot less it was Spider-Man. Inexplicably back in high school Spidey will again bond with Martin Sheen’s ill-fated Uncle Ben, perhaps actually have a relationship with Gwen Stacey at the second cinematic attempt, and once again become a masked crime-fighter. Just like he already did in 2002. Are we operating on dog-years now or something that we’re remaking films we’ve just seen? What’s next, a remake of Sin City using new computer technology to make it good? Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides sees Johnny Depp spend the last remnants of his credibility on another instalment in a now thoroughly despised franchise. Pirates 3: At World’s End was a nigh endless joyless bore that sucked all the comedic energy out of the franchise in favour of convoluted plotting and purely green-screen action to the point of insanity. No one liked it. It’s even embarrassed away nearly its whole cast, and Russell Brand passed on appearing, so why make another one? Mission: Impossible 4 meanwhile sees over-rated Ratatouille director Brad Bird attempt to make Tom Cruise a viable star again despite the obvious fact that no one wants to see him top-lining blockbusters anymore. Mission: Impossible 3 was a damn good blockbuster whereas Mission: Impossible 2 was a bloated disaster, yet, despite the effect of 6 years worth of inflation on the box-office figures, M:I-3 made less money than M:I-2. Cruise’s star has dimmed, he just hasn’t accepted it yet.

A sequel? There wasn’t enough to make one good film
Cars 2 – coming soon. Yes, the very worst film Pixar have ever made gets a sequel. Cars followed the underwhelming The Incredibles and enabled a streak of 4 ho-hum films, with the unbearable Ratatouille and the hit-and-miss Wall-E confirming that not only can Pixar do wrong, but they can do wrong spectacularly. Fear this film. The Hangover 2 meanwhile sees Bill Clinton make an acting cameo beside the re-united original cast. The Hangover wasn’t a very good film, for all its baffling success here. It had some very funny moments but overall it was the same crudely moronic shtick we expect from writer/director Todd Philips, the maker of Starsky & Hutch, one of the very worst films of the last or any other decade. Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes a whopping 10 years after Tim Burton’s lamentable re-make of the Charlton Heston classic. We’re promised genetic engineering by James Franco with Tom Felton, intelligent apes, and apocalyptic war to boot, and who cares?? The endless sequels in the 1970s were riffing off a great film. This is a prequel to one of the very worst films of the 2000s.

You screwed up last time
Michael Bay has actually apologised for the unholy mess that was Transformers 2, and that’s quite something given how ludicrously profitable a movie that was. Transformers 3: The Dark of the Moon sees Megan Fox leaving the franchise, but from the trailer it looks like it still has enough racial profiling in its approach to characterisation to keep the California branch of the ACLU tied up for years. Can it really only be 4 years since the original movie was a surprisingly fun blast? The writers’ strike is largely responsible for the disastrous outing last time but can the properly working writers save things now, and perhaps not introduce about 40 new robots this time round? Scream 4 comes out 11 years after the last movie in the series which suffered greatly from creator Kevin Williamson’s abandonment of his franchise to script his TV show Dawson’s Creek. Williamson has been producing supreme dark popcorn of late in the shape of TV series The Vampire Diaries so fingers crossed that his script for this new combination of the original cast with youngsters including Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere lives up to the high standards of its mighty predecessors.

8 Miles High Concept
Cowboys & Aliens may in future years come to be regarded as the moment where the masses totally abandoned cinema in favour of forms of entertainment that were slightly more philosophically challenging, like tiddlywinks. It could be a good film, after all the redoubtable Daniel Craig is starring and Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau is directing, but from just seeing the title and then reading the pitch it seems almost like some drunken executives made a bet as to what the most ludicrous high-concept they could possibly get green-lighted was, and this narrowly beat out Flying Monkeys Vs Crab People in 3-D.

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