Talking Movies

October 18, 2013

Like Father, Like Son

A successful Japanese company man is horrified to discover his son was actually switched at birth and is living with a slovenly lower-middle class family.

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Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a high-flying architect with a firm who pushes his son Keito to win a place at his old school, master the piano at age 6, and generally become a miniature version of him. His wife Midori (Machiko Ono) is kinder and gentler, mere weaknesses in his eyes. Ryota’s world is turned upside down when they receive a call from the hospital and are brought to a meeting with the slobbish Saiki (Riri Furanki) and his big-hearted wife (Yoko Maki) and informed that their sons were switched by accident in the maternity ward. As they struggle with whether to switch back their sons and exchange Keita for Ryusei, Ryota unravels emotionally; distancing himself from Keito, who was never really his heir. But is it really that easy to expel a human cuckoo from the family nest?

Writer/director Hirokazu Kore-Eda gets many comparisons with the redoubtable Ozu, but I couldn’t help but think an equally apt comparison would be with contemporary American auteur Tom McCarthy. If Tom McCarthy remade this film for an American audience Paul Giamitti and Amy Ryan would seamlessly fit into the roles of the Saikis. And for a large part of this film’s running time Kore-Eda shares McCarthy’s fascination with finding the dignity, drama and comedy in small moments of ordinary life. But then we come to the moment which reminded me of when a play being performed without an interval infuriates by playing thru an obvious curtain. Kore-Eda stages a haunting photo-shoot of the two families as they prepare to finally exchange sons after months of preparation and agonising. You think the screen will fade to white, and credits; not another act…

Like Father, Like Son is far too long, and it becomes more aggravating the longer it runs, as, not only it does its 2 hours running time feel like an endless 3 hour epic, but it becomes ever more emotionally manipulative. Ryota’s bad experiences with his own father, from whom he nevertheless takes bad advice against that proffered by his sage step-mother, are nicely understated, but Ryota’s counter-productive strict parenting of his new son is hammered home needlessly. Veronica Mars did this to more heartbreaking and less manipulative effect in just 40 minutes when Mac discovered that she had been switched at birth, and then left in the wrong family by her parents who kept the mix-up from her for fear of damaging her; leaving her a square peg in a round hole, and separated from her simpatico blood sister.

This would be a fascinating and quiet character-study if Kore-Eda had resisted the temptation to pull at our heartstrings, but it instead tests the patience with its obvious machinations.

2/5

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July 19, 2012

Trevor/Bowen Literary Festival

History, Architecture and Literature will be intertwined at this year’s Trevor/Bowen Literary Festival when Eoghan Harris officially opens the 6th annual weekend of literary activity in Mitchelstown, Cork this Friday.

Outside of the opening ceremony and talk by Tom McCarthy, who has chosen “Bowen, De Valera and the Neutrality of the Dead” as his topic, all the other events over the weekend will be held in buildings whose origins date many centuries. Kingston College was built in the late 18th Century to provide accommodation to the less well-off members of the Church of Ireland community. Its chapel will host readings by members of the local creative writing group earlier on Friday afternoon. Other venues include Farahy Church, originally built in the 12th Century then rebuilt as a rare example of an 18th century rural Church of Ireland church, where Sophia Hillan will speak about “Elizabeth Bowen’s sense of place” on Saturday afternoon. The Kingston Arms, located in Kings’ Square, was built in the 18th Century and on the Saturday and Sunday mornings it will be the venue for Creative Writing Workshops for Adults. The facilitators are John MacKenna and Mary O’Donnell who will mostly concentrate on helping those who are at an earlier stage of their writing efforts. Sharpe screenwriter Eoghan Harris will, on the other hand, be concentrating on the plot as the basis for all good story writing.

Mitchelstown Town Hall, which was built as a Catholic Church in the late 18th century before being converted into a school 50 years later, will house all of the remaining weekend’s activities. These events include talks, screenings and readings. “A Childhood friendship with Elizabeth Bowen” by Sally Phipps, daughter of Mollie Keane, will see her talk about her memories of the Elizabeth Bowen she remembers as a child. Stephanie McBride presents her very successful talk “The Films of William Trevor”, as well as showing excerpts from various films made of Trevor’s works, preceding a screening of “The Ballroom of Romance” which will be followed by the eponymous Dance with a three piece band. Jim Ryan presents his interpretation of the Bowen’s novel “The Last September” as a reader and, after showing the film, will chair a discussion regarding the film presentation of the book as against the readers’ interpretation. Finally, Danielle McLaughlin, winner of the Trevor/Bowen Short Story Competition 2012, will read her winning entry.

Admission prices per person (excluding workshops) are €10.00 for individual events, €25.00 for a Saturday only ticket, and €45.00 for a weekend ticket. Prices for the Adults Creative Writing Workshops are available on the website. There will be a cheese and wine reception and a short, musical performance by local folk group, Eistigi, on the opening night. There will also be a Festival trad/folk session in Auntie Mae’s pub on the Saturday night at 11.00pm. See www.mitchelstownlit.com for full details.

December 3, 2011

The Movies Aren’t Dead, they just smell funny: Part III

Mark Harris’ GQ article ‘The Day the Movies Died’ rightly notes that the standard which journeymen film-makers operate at has collapsed, but I want to add studio tactics, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself as elements working against cinema, in addition to his recurring and important culprit – marketers.

Harris quotes a studio executive as lamenting, “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is (as noted in a previous piece) all the screenwriting is apparently done by deeply jaded supercomputers which have been programmed with all the right story structure software but just can’t find it in their diodes to generate any surprises. The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this really could go anywhere. Could the Joker really blow up two boats full of people? Yes, after what he’d done up to that point, sitting in the cinema you were sick with suspense that Nolan would go that far in letting this supervillain off the leash. I praised Win Win for the same quality, that you couldn’t easily predict what was going to happen next and therefore got nervous for the characters’ fates in a way you usually don’t, and indeed noted that the delightfully ramshackle Troll Hunter also had a surprisingly clear three-act structure, in retrospect. The point with all of these films is that they’re so successful in dazzling the audience with their content that no one is looking at the structure while they’re watching it. Which is at it should be, Billy Wilder after all having said plot points were more effective the better a job you made of hiding them. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The problem is that mediocre films can’t cloak their structure with content, and so you notice just how clichéd they are. Harris brilliantly isolates The Bounty Hunter and Prince of Persia as ‘the new okay’, the film that is just about worth the ticket price but won’t linger in your memory.

Harris is very funny in noting just how disastrous a decline a system has to be in for films like those two flops to become the new benchmark of competence. He blames marketers who thought from the poster, and the existing brand, backwards to making the film, rather than from a good story forwards. But I think his characterisation of such mid-range movies as the greatest victim of Hollywood’s “collective inattention/indifference to the basic virtues of story development” is unjust. Prince of Persia is a good brand for a computer game, but offers nothing new for cinema audiences. The Bounty Hunter’s poster and tagline might have presaged a good movie, if someone had written it. There is a trend in Hollywood of pleasing the top brass by writing ‘stories’ that hit every mark they’re supposed to, but the craft has overtaken the art, these aren’t stories that need to be told, the writer is merely assembling a product, not channelling inspiration. Joel Schumacher for me represents the height from which journeymen have fallen. Movies like Flatliners or The Client set the bar far higher than any workaday studio production today. They don’t dazzle with content in the way I’ve discussed, but the structure doesn’t obtrude because they’re tremendously entertaining films. We need journeymen today to aspire to that level of basic competency in entertaining with a nice but not spectacular concept neatly done. I know that Joel Schumacher is not of beloved of most people as he is of me (I actually feel bad at not trying to pass him off as an auteur), but the man who made solid entertainments like Lost Boys and Phone Booth seems to be exactly the sort of person we’re lacking right now, stuck as we are with Brett Ratner as this generation’s equivalent.

I think the decline in the aims of screenwriting and journeymen directing is part of a deep malaise of ‘it’ll do’ that has fallen over Hollywood. We now have CGI being as obnoxiously fake as 1950s back-projection, but for worse reasons. There were actual technical difficulties, as well as laziness, involved with avoiding location shooting back then. Now, every time a TV show uses an obvious CGI backdrop for an outdoor dialogue scene (Bones) or an hysterically fake moving background for car scenes (24) it’s because they can’t be bothered going outside when they can just shoot it in a green room and expect the audience to put up with it. The laziness of omnipresent CGI can be demonstrated by some great practical magic in The Adjustment Bureau.

BORIS: So, we need to move from a bathroom in a building to the field of Yankee Stadium in one continuous tracking shot thru a door.
JOHNSON: Well, we’ll just CGI it right?
BORIS: Move from a bathroom into a green screen room and then pan around, and add in the Stadium later? I like it.
GODUNOV: Or, we could just build a bathroom set on the field of Yankee Stadium and shoot it without any CGI at all.
BORIS: Oh. (beat) How very… practical…

People don’t think about options anymore, they just use CGI. I’ve noted this before when wondering why the Hulk can’t be played by an actor anymore using Lord of the Rings-style perspective tricks to make someone like The Rock truly loom over people. CGI always has to be used, because that’s what’s done. Scripts have to be written according to a flow chart, because that’s what’s done. And, I think one of the biggest problems we’re faced with because of the rise of the marketer’s love of brand, and the concomitant franchise movie, is the Hollywood hype machine which now fundamentally distorts the way in which writers pen, and audiences view, sequels. Every sequel now has to be bigger and better and feature higher stakes, because that’s what’s done. The result is bloated messes like Pirates 2. In the Golden Age of Hollywood people might just make a sequel if they had a good idea and wanted to have fun with the same characters again, or if they didn’t have any good ideas they might instead just round up the same guys for another original movie. I interpret Fast Five as pretty much a return to that older approach. Fast Five’s trailer has clearly given up on the idea that these films are getting bigger and better. Vin Diesel promises us that they’ll get caught or killed one day, but not today, situating the film as just another chapter in the continuing adventures of some petrol-head loveable rogues. If it can return us to a slightly less hysterical and creatively self-defeating approach to franchises then the successful but utterly inconsequential Fast Five may well prove to be the saviour of modern cinema. I may be embellishing that…

In conclusion (at long last) The Movies Aren’t Dead. Shame arrives in January. I’ve seen it and Steve McQueen’s second film as director, again with Talking Movies’ favourite Michael Fassbender as his leading man, is a devastating piece of work that shows what’s possible aesthetically and emotionally if you can free yourself from the self-defeating commercial strictures currently strangling cinema.

July 18, 2011

The Movies aren’t Dead, they just smell funny – Pt I

Mark Harris’ GQ article The Day the Movies Died has caused quite the stir this year.

Harris makes a number of interesting points in his article, which I’ll get to in Part II, but he also adopts a number of poses which I’ve criticised in the past. I was infuriated by the speciousness of his opening salvo which characterises the present as the nadir of cinema. His characterisation of the studio response to Inception is entertaining but his clinching quote “Huh. Well, you never know” isn’t real; it’s a characterisation by him of the studio response. I could rewrite that entire paragraph to end with my Groucho & Me in-joke producer character Delaney wailing “I don’t get it. I saw that movie twice and I still don’t understand it. I couldn’t even get a single trailer to properly explain it, according to people who understood it, so why did people go see it?”, and it might be just as accurate albeit more generous. If I added “And why did they see Inception and then boycott Scott Pilgrim?” it would be even more accurate. What’s frustrating is that Harris is better than this. He quotes uber-producer Scott Rudin, whose warning of the danger of betting on execution rather than a brand name is exactly what led to the studio shrug at Inception that Harris misinterprets. 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. Would you like to have to explain to your shareholders how you bet $300 million on it not being at this particular point? There is no point in making a movie no one will want to see. Even when execution is perfect, as in the case of another whack-job concept from last summer, Scott Pilgrim, people may just not go.

Harris almost destroys his argument by the way he makes it. It’s an extremely cheap shot to list movies coming out in summer 2011 and summer 2012, not by their titles but by de-contextualised sneers based on their sources, before footnoting what the films are so that you can’t easily check which sneer corresponds to which film. This is the snobbery I questioned in my Defence of Comic-Book Movies run riot, and is incredibly inane bearing in mind that The Godfather would be ‘pulp fiction crime novel’, Gone with the Wind – ‘airport novel historical romance’, Casablanca – ‘failed stage play that couldn’t even get staged’ and The Empire Strikes Back – ‘sequel to a kids sci-fi movie’. Harris’ tactic can devastate 2011’s attractions when they’re listed as adaptations of comic-books, a sequel to a sequel to a film devised from a theme-park ride, two sequels to cartoons, adaptations of children’s books, and a 5th franchise instalment. But shall we parse that approach to listing Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Winnie the Pooh, The Smurfs, and Fast & Furious 5?

The underlying assumption is that comic-book movies are rubbish because comic-books are rubbish. Never mind that Green Lantern was an enormously risky undertaking when he’s just complained Hollywood doesn’t take risks – I’ve read Green Lantern comics, no one else I know has, and many consider him to be the most ridiculous character in the DC Universe – a position tantamount to saying that execution doesn’t matter, only the source material, which is patent nonsense. Sneering at POTC’s origins is embarrassingly 2002; POTC 4 should have been sneered at because POTC 3 was an endless joyless bore that forgot everything that made POTC1 such fun. Sequels to cartoons are not intrinsically bad, something Harris unwittingly demonstrates by yoking together sequels to a charming animation and an unbearable animation. If Winnie the Pooh has no right to exist because it’s an adaptation of a children’s book we must also blacklist Babe and Watership Down, while The Smurfs is almost entirely dependent on execution. Any source can be good or bad, depending on the execution. Stephen Sommers could direct War and Peace and it would be awful, and titled War. PG Wodehouse didn’t apologise for knocking out another Jeeves & Wooster novel when he thought of an amusing storyline for them, and Fast & Furious 5 isn’t bad because it has 5 in the title – what is this, numerology?

Harris criticises summer 2011 for not having an Inception type wildcard. But does he really think people have concepts like Inception every day? What was the blockbuster people grasped for as a reference point for Inception? The Matrix. So, it only took 11 years thru the alimentary canal, as Harris puts it, for the success of the Wachowksis’ whack-job high-concept blockbuster to produce another successful whack-job high-concept blockbuster. But the lack of Inception in Space in the summer 2012 slate informs his dismissive roster-call whose lowlights are The Dark Knight Rises being a sequel to a sequel to a reboot of a comic-book movie, and Breaking Dawn: Part II being a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a YA novel. Harris’ logic appears to be (a) directors have no right to film all of a multi-novel cycle or (b) artistic integrity demands the cinematic Twilight story be left hanging. Neither of which persuades, while dismissing Nolan’s Bat-finale in such ludicrous fashion purely because of a dislike of comic-books undermines all his judgement calls.

Harris semi-apologises that some of these movies will be great, but surely he knows this apology is defeated by his prior cleverly contrived presentation of an avalanche of stupidity heading towards the multiplexes? He quotes a studio executive lamenting: “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is the screenwriting is apparently done by jaded supercomputers… The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this could go anywhere. I praised Win Win for the same quality. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The question is whether studio tactics, counter-productive market research, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself are all working against cinema by lowering the standard journeymen film-makers operate at…

May 18, 2011

Win Win

Tom McCarthy’s third film as writer/director, after The Station Agent and The Visitor, is another understated little gem.

Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a small town lawyer in New Providence, New Jersey, whose legal practice is struggling almost as much as the abysmal high-school wrestling team he coaches. In dire need of money he spots an unethical opportunity to get $1,500 a month simply by acting as guardian for an elderly client with early dementia whose estranged daughter cannot be located. His plans are complicated, however, by the unexpected arrival of the man’s taciturn grandson Kyle. The boy is quickly adopted by the Flaherty family and, as he becomes more outgoing, his unsuspected prowess at wrestling sees him rapidly become the star of Flaherty’s high-school team. This win-win scenario is threatened by the sudden appearance of Kyle’s unstable mother (Melanie Lynskey) who may unravel everyone’s happiness by exposing the original deceit regarding Leo’s guardianship that Mike has engaged in…

It would be ridiculous to label McCarthy a cinematic American Chekhov, but it is accurate to say that his films sometimes feel like the best modern American short stories come to life. He has a regard for mundane details, defeated characters, and everyday struggles, and treats them with a humane sympathy and an eye for comic absurdity that makes them truly engaging. Giamatti is as wonderful as ever as a good man who has done one bad thing out of desperation but has parlayed it into a number of good things, all of which are now in peril because of his original sin. Amy Ryan is fantastic as Mike’s wife Jackie, a loving mother; whose violent verbal reproaches of Kyle’s mother Cindy belie an all encompassing compassion; counterpointed by Lynskey’s tremendously ambiguous turn as the unreliable Cindy. Jeffrey Tambor meanwhile has some wonderful moments as Mike’s assistant coach and fellow struggling lawyer who advocates ignoring their clanging office boiler until it explodes rather than pay for repairs.

This realistic portrait of an America in recession, where the villains are faceless systems of bureaucracy and a tanking economy, is rarely seen in pop culture, but McCarthy also has a talent for achieving redemptive moments without straying into bombast. There are numerous such moments here, from a guitar led montage of small victories in life, and the effect Kyle has on the worst member of the team Stemler, to the developing bond between Kyle and Mike, and the initiation into selfless responsibility of Mike’s roguish friend Tommy – enthusiastically played by Bobby Cannavale (TV’s Cupid himself). Indeed the ‘victory’ of Stemler despite Tommy’s doubts encapsulates McCarthy’s message, winning by ignoring your own morality just isn’t satisfying.

Win Win isn’t quite as good a film as the more revelatory The Visitor, but you never know where a Tom McCarthy film is going, and these days that’s most praiseworthy.

3.5/5

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