Talking Movies

April 7, 2020

Any Other Business: Part XLIX

As the title suggests, so forth.

RIP Honor Blackman

Honor Blackman has died aged 94; she was the oldest surviving Avenger. I wrote last summer about what a disconcerting experience it was watching True Movies’ scrambled late night re-runs of The Avengers. I had only previously seen a handful of Cathy Gale episodes late at night on RTE 1 over 20 years earlier. As True Movies jumped between episodes and seasons of the first three years of the show it became evident that it was something of a miracle that it ever became the classic show it did. It was only when Blackman debuted in the first episode of the second season, ‘Mr Teddy Bear’, that things really started to click. The chemistry between Steed and Gale, and her judo prowess, defined the show as The Avengers. In retrospect she fared much better than Diana Rigg in transferring from The Avengers to Bond. I remember watching On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for the first time after devouring Channel 4’s re-runs of The Avengers in the mid-90s, and being immensely frustrated that Rigg’s Bond girl was so damn passive. By contrast Blackman as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger walked from a TV role into a movie role and traded away none of her antagonistic strength, flirtatious charm, and judo prowess. And that is not something that can be said, even now, for many actresses making that transition; just look at Jessica Alba’s failure to ever find a film role to remotely equal her star-making lead in Dark Angel.

Trump Delenda Est

I think at this point we can say that Trump has not grown into the job; he has actually got far worse. What can be said about a man whose ego is so monstrous that he has transformed press briefings on a pandemic into virtual campaign rallies, who is so incredibly incapable of not making a pandemic all about him that it drives hardened journalists to profanity in their disbelief? This is his shooting people on 5th Avenue moment. People have died, are dying, and will continue to die because of Donald J Trump’s ego. The bragging, the bluster, the bullsh-t, the strong impression of functional illiteracy; a ten year old is trying to run one of the world’s biggest countries, and not a smart ten year old, but the type of bully who when called upon to read aloud in class painfully plods along not reading so much as sounding out the letters he sees as he sees them as if he’s never seen them before in his life. It explains much when you actually allow yourself to admit that Trump probably cannot read. He can pick out certain words, and improvise around them, with his simplified vocabulary. But he cannot read. If you forced him to deliver a well-known Bible passage at a Mass, he would endure agonies, because it would be made obvious thru cutting off his favourite tactic of paraphrase and riffing. His decision to weigh in on the firing of Captain Crozier, who was actually trying to do his job, makes a lot of sense from that perspective: the peculiar gripe that this was not English Lit, don’t write a letter, just call someone, makes perfect sense coming from a man who cannot read. Mike Pence probably wouldn’t do a stellar job of steering America thru this pandemic, but, freed of Trump and the need to continually massage Trump’s ego, he might not make things worse by actively promoting snake-oil remedies from the White House. Invoke the 25th Amendment now.

April 1, 2020

President Trump announces plan to 25 himself

President Donald J Trump will shortly be removed from office, writes B. Bradley Bradlee who talked to Trump exclusively; after he was mysteriously teleported from quarantine in Hubei province to the Presidential suite in Mar-a-Lago when Bill Nye’s attempts to prove Chopped do not slice salads to subatomic level backfired.

Trump said the idea came to him while watching Donald Sutherland as the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded

President Trump explained that he had decided to sign a letter invoking Section 3 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America; removing himself from office until such time as he shall write another pursuant letter reinstating himself in office; after catching the end of The Matrix Reloaded on Fox the other night. “I was watching that, with the Architect. You know the scene. Everyone knows it. Tremendous actor, Donald Sutherland. Great guy. Great American. Really loved him as the wise leader in the Hunger Games movies. You know the Hunger Games movies? Everybody does.”

Trump then came to the point – “And he says, this is what he says, in the movie, I couldn’t solve the problem, because I’m too perfect. Isn’t that something? I couldn’t solve the problem, because I’m too perfect. It wasn’t that he couldn’t solve the problem, it was that the problem, it could only be solved, by somebody who wasn’t as perfect. And I thought, My God, that’s me! You know?” When pressed Trump confirmed he was talking about the Wuhan Flu Coronavirus. “What the country needs now, Bradley, is for me to step away, because I’m just too perfect.”

Trump continued, at length –“Did you know it says it, right there in the Constitution, that the Constitution is there to form a more perfect Union? Did you know that? Most people don’t know this. But it’s right there. I know it. Nobody knows more about the Constitution than I do. And I thought about that and it makes sense, of course it makes sense. If I’m perfect, that’s what I should be focusing on – not just Keeping America Great Again, but making America as perfect as I am. So that’s where my focus should be for the next while.”

When pressed on when he would resume office Trump speculated “the 4th of July has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? I think that would be a good time. Mike Pence can handle this Wuhan Flu Coronavirus. I mean don’t get me wrong, he’s a great guy, very appreciative of what I’ve done for him, but he’s not perfect. If it wasn’t for me he’d probably have lost the election in Indiana to that kid Mayor. He’s exactly the kind of lesser mind you need to stop everyone from getting the common cold.” Trump then asked whether I was with Fox. He was puzzled as to why a German weekly had been granted access, and how I didn’t sound German. I explained I was American, writing for a German weekly, but had worked for — at which point the President instructed the Secret Service to “kick this bum to the kerb”. As I was being manhandled out of the suite Trump asked how I had got in. I protested that with quantum physics it’s hard to assign blame, but the bag should probably stop with Bill Nye, and he roared “The SCIENCE Guy?! You liberal elite ARE all working together!”

B. Bradley Bradlee is the fictional editor emeritus of The New York Times. He is currently a roving reporter breaking quarantine by strange physics for the German weekly Die Emmerich-Zeitung.

*Bill Nye wishes to clarify that his experiment slicing salad did not ‘backfire’, it simply disproved his hypothesis, and that is why science is science; failure always teaches you something – in this case that overly sliced salads can open wormholes.

December 22, 2019

From the Archives: Talk to Me

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

This would be one of the films of the year, if it ended just 20 minutes sooner than it does. Petey Green was a DJ in Washington DC in the late 1960s and Don Cheadle is terrific as this ex-con keeping it real on the airwaves. Martin Sheen plays EG Sonderling, the head of the WOL radio station that broadcasts Green’s show. In one episode of Sheen’s political show The West Wing a character made reference to DC being one of the blackest cities in America, but that you would never guess it from the exclusively white faces of the corridors of power in Washington. Sheen is tremendous here in a supporting role as his character changes from utter hostility to Petey Green to a great respect for Green’s truth-telling about the city’s racial divide.

Cedric the Entertainer, who disgraced himself in last week’s Code Name: The Cleaner, has a wonderfully droll small role as a Barry White-voiced DJ in this film which offers an incisive interrogation of black American culture. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is Cheadle’s match as black radio executive Dewey Hughes. The dramatic crackle between these two men, especially in an electrifying pool game where they verbally dissect each other, is of the highest calibre. It is two great actors sparking off each other using a script that is literate, detailed and engaged. In a desperate attempt to avoid using the racial epithet that usually follows the prefixes field- and house- in American slang let us describe Hughes and Green as they do each other. Green regards Hughes as a collaborator with the white man, talking frightfully proper English, dressing in a suit and sucking up to merit a patronising pat on the head. Hughes regards Green as a willing victim, who will spend his life in and out of jail, while boasting about how ‘real’ he is, and asking for a handout.

How these men find common ground is brilliantly handled and the period setting is tremendously evoked while everyone deserves especial acclaim for the sequence that follows the death of Martin Luther King. Nowhere has that assassination been portrayed to such devastatingly emotional effect, the impact here is so great that you may well end up crying at an event that happened 39 years ago. Primarily though this is a very funny film, especially Hughes’ initial attempts to get Petey Green on the air. The last 20 minutes stray from the radio station, as Hughes masterminds Green’s transition to TV star and stand-up comedian, and act as an epilogue to the main drama. As epilogues go it’s involving but it destroys the film’s momentum so that the end becomes something of an anti-climax. For all that though Talk to Me is both entertaining and has an important message, it deserves a wide audience.

4/5

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Rescue Dawn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down on his first mission over Vietnam. Captured by the Vietcong he plots to escape and find his way home.

Christian Bale adds another impressive characterisation to his resume playing real life Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler. Rescue Dawn is inspired by events in Dengler’s life previously documented by the legendary (by which I mean famously bat-crazy) German director Werner Herzog in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Bale expertly plays a German who has become an American citizen and whose accent is American, but not quite genuine, and whose mental state could best be described as…peculiar. Herzog, the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo is quite at home in this cinematic territory of insane heroes in the jungle and produces his best fictional feature in years. Werner Herzog is after all the man who dragged a boat over a mountain for the making of Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century rubber baron in Brazil who wanted to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon.

Herzog brilliantly uses minimal dialogue for the first half hour to tell the story of Dengler’s capture and torture at the hands of the Vietcong thru the medium of pure cinema. He wordlessly conveys the utter terror of the Vietcong whenever an American airplane screams overhead. Herzog achieves a sense of location few Vietnam films have, even Apocalypse Now’s intense feeling for its locale is eclipsed by his extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography which makes the lush jungle almost another character. Bale’s time in the POW camp moves out of this art-house territory towards more mainstream fare, and the film slows down and becomes less distinctive. The men sit and bitch about being prisoners of war, plot escape plans (as all prisoners of war seem to spend most of their time doing, to the detriment of their guards’ nerves) and try to raise morale by fantasising over their favourite meals. Herzog inserts some excellent gags here but never lets you forget that Dengler is a very odd hero figure for these men to rally round.

The relationship between Bale and Steve Zahn as a fellow American prisoner in the small Vietcong camp is highly convincing but Jeremy Davies is endlessly irritating as the only other American POW. Davies has been using the same mannered tics since 1994 and has blighted films from The Million Dollar Hotel to Solaris. His popularity with casting directors continues to mystify. Steve Zahn, by contrast, grasps with both hands the chance to do something more substantial than his usual comedic sidekick roles and delivers a touching portrayal of man worn down by despair and malnutrition. Herzog’s languid pacing in this film, particularly in the second act, may irritate people raised on MTV editing but the majesty of the landscape and the emotional depth he achieves is more than adequate recompense, Rescue Dawn is an offbeat take on a familiar genre, welcome to the extreme as a matter of course.

3/5

October 15, 2019

From the Archives: The Invasion

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

A NASA shuttle disintegrates on re-entry transmitting a deadly alien virus which removes people’s emotions. Can Claire (Nicole Kidman) keep her son safe from her infected ex-husband while a doctor (Daniel Craig) seeks to find a cure?

“And how many times must a film be remade, before it can be remade no more?” Bob Dylan didn’t say that but he didn’t have to sit through this baffling mess. The Invasion is archly titled to hide the fact that it is the third (!) remake of 1956 B-movie classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Directed by Don Siegel the original was a master-class of forced economy as he eschewed effects, instead creating an atmosphere of creeping unease and paranoia as the truth emerged. Siegel’s film was a political metaphor so effective it could chill the blood whether you regarded it as allegorical of McCarthyism or Communism. The original “pod-people” were polite…but a bit off, as Stephen King noted, they had no community spirit. By contrast the pod people in this film are all about community, they have no emotions but only because they seem to have achieved a blissful state of nirvana. But that’s not the first change to be noted.

The creeping unease and subtle exposition of Siegel’s version has been thrown out and replaced by an indecent haste to cut to the chase, which ironically makes the film less exciting as there’s no escalating paranoia. At points it looks like The Invasion was originally meant to be an intensely first person narrative from Nicole Kidman’s point of view with the presence of the pod people on the streets becoming ever more obvious and menacing. Sadly such subtlety, if that was the original intention, has been lost in the welter of changes made to Oliver Hirschbiegel’s original cut by the Wachowksi brothers. The constant jumpy cutting though betrays the heavy hand of studio executives as Hirschbiegel’s Downfall was replete with extended tracking shots while the Wachowkis have an elegance in visual storytelling entirely absent here.

Who knows who wrote what but it’s a safe bet the hilarious political message comes from the terminally confused Wachowski brothers whose V for Vendetta can easily be read as a paen to neo-conservatism if one was so michievously inclined….Here the pod people confront Nicole Kidman with the world they offer: no wars, no poverty, no rape, no murder, no exploitation of others because there are no others, we are all one. She promptly shoots them dead….as you begin scratching your head trying to figure out what on earth the film is trying to say. News reports show us Bush and Chavez signing trade agreements, the US occupation in Iraq coming to a joyous end, and generally world peace is breaking out all over. All of which will end if Daniel Craig’s doctor can find a cure for the alien virus. Craig gives the best performance but by the end even he looks defeated by the film’s logic…

1/5

September 10, 2019

Made in the USA, for Export to China

I’ve been mooching around the notion of writing a piece about the impact of China on Hollywood for long enough, here are some speculative musings.

Bret Easton Ellis on his Podcast some years back observed that gay characters were being quietly pushed out of blockbusters, and places reserved for them in cheaper movies intended as domestic fare only, and generally they could rampage around television. I’ve noted that in passing in a review of Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and a piece on Independence Day: Resurgence. The latter was particularly telling because Roland Emmerich had penned Harvey Fierstein’s role in 1996’s Independence Day, which was exactly the kind of character Ellis had observed was disappearing. But while Emmerich made Brent Spiner’s character gay, the gay couple could still pretend to just be good friends, while Emmerich laughed up his sleeve at the Chinese censor not understanding that male friends do not call each other baby. Also laughing up their sleeve that summer were Simon Pegg and Justin Lin when they made Star Trek Beyond’s Sulu gay, but in a similarly nod and wink fashion.

But these nods and winks are necessary because the American studios live in terror of locking themselves out of the Chinese market. Transformers: Dark of the Moon made 69% of its money overseas, so Michael Bay is now purveying American bombast to a non-American audience; which is quite something. But that creates a weird feedback loop. People in America don’t go see Transformers: Age of Extinction, and they’re sublimely irritated by its very existence because they didn’t go see Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Then Transformers: The Last Knight rolls along, on the back of international revenue (especially Chinese revenue as Transformers: Age of Extinction pandered so extensively to the market), and they howl in anguish that Hollywood is making terrible films, and they go on strike from seeing anything at all… And so Hollywood continues to be immensely profitable, but possibly at the cost of alienating its home market, so that American cinema becomes an export-led industry.

After all, James Gray said on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast that the removal of the 40 million dollar film from the equation has removed Hollywood from the conversation around water-coolers; that’s now been taken over by TV shows like Game of Thrones. The habit of paying money on Saturday night to go sit in a theatre and watch Jimmy Stewart, as he put it, has been lost.

July 31, 2019

From the Archives: Transformers

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings us to where it all began with Sam Witwicky trying to impress his hot classmate by buying his first car, and not bargaining on that car being an alien robot or his grandfather’s glasses being key to ending an alien civil war.

Two warring factions of a race of sentient robots invade Earth searching for the powerful Allspark which alone can end their battle. A geeky teenager who holds the key to its location will be protected by one of the most iconic characters of the 1980s.

If that last sentence sounds a bit like a description of Die Hard 4.0 that’s because Transformers, like Die Hard, is a blockbuster that just scraped the American PG-13 rating but is really not aimed at kids so much as kidults. Transformers is the blockbuster that saves this underperforming summer of wet weather and wetter sequels. Which is quite something given that it’s directed by Michael Bay, the man who gave us Pearl Harbour, a cinematic atrocity that will live in infamy. But Bay, suitably chastened by the failure of The Island, has finally grown up. The fingerprints of his producer Steven Spielberg are all over this film. He has managed to make Bay stop editing his films like a 5 year old on a sugar rush and adopt a sceptical attitude to the godlike status of the American military. He has also, in a nod to another film he executive produced, turned the Decepticon Frenzy (the sneaky one who spied on people, here a small ghetto-blaster) into a robotic Gremlin who is mischievous as hell and even chuckles maliciously like the Gremlins.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is our typically nerdy Spielbergian hero, desperately trying to impress classmate Mikaela (Megan Fox) with his first car. The car though is the Autobot BumbleBee, sent to protect Sam, who can only communicate thru the car radio (frequently hilariously). Transformers is surprisingly funny. Between LaBeouf and John Turturro as a secretive government agent there are scenes in this film with so much neurotic bumbling going on that you half expect Woody Allen to show up demanding royalties. There’s a full very entertaining hour of Sam trying to impress Mikaela and failing miserably, and Bumblebee trying to keep Sam safe from Frenzy, Blackout and Scorponok (the Decepticons hunting him and hacking American military computers for the whereabouts of their leader Megatron) before the leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime, arrives on earth.

Prime, still voiced by Peter Cullen, is exactly as you remember him. Rendered in the colours of Superman, willing to sacrifice his own life to save others, he remains one of the pre-eminent Jesus figures of pop culture. When that truck-rig emerges from a mythical mist you know he will still have never-ending reserves of compassion. Sadly his nemesis Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving) is given too little time to make the menacing impression he really should. The last 40 minutes are an utter orgy of destruction on freeways and city streets but as Bay has made us care deeply about all these characters, human and robot, this is the most gripping pyrotechnics he’s ever delivered.

4/5

July 4, 2019

5 Works of Americana

For the day that’s in it here’re five pieces of 20th Century American music to score the 4th of July from sunrise to midnight. Shake off your drowsiness with the tremulous clarinet glissando of Gershwin, roll up your shirtsleeves with the frontier rambunctiousness of Copland, go for lunch (will you just go to lunch, George!) with the bustle of Bernstein, greet the evening with the alternating amplitude and frenzy of Gershwin (again), and then hit the energetic streets after dusk with the chromatic, romantic but nervy energy of John Adams.

Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin

Rodeo by Aaron Copland

Candide Overture by Leonard Bernstein

Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin

City Noir by John Adams

 

June 23, 2019

Notes on Brightburn

A disappointing piece of counter-programming was the film of the week much earlier today on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle.

What if Superman did not grow up to be the embodiment of Kansan farm-grown decency? It’s not a bad premise, but this is a bad exploration of it. While I was twitching thru 80 minutes in the cinema I was thinking about Mark Millar’s Red Son in which Kal-El landed in 1938 Ukraine not Kansas and grew up with very different ideas about Truth, Justice, and the American Way. I was thinking about Mark Millar’s Chosen, in which a small-town American teenager realises he has powers, and thinks he may be the Second Coming. As this teenage dark Superman mucked about I began to think of Smallville, when it had descended into total gibberish. I thought of Damien in The Omen as Elizabeth Banks and David Denman struggled with their adopted son’s growing menace. And I thought a lot about Chronicle, and how Dane DeHaan’s character turned to the dark side once he acquired powers because he’d been subjected to such bullying by his peers. Regrettably the Gunn family didn’t give these as much thought.

Listen here:

July 4, 2018

Fanfare for the Common Man

For the day that’s in it here’s Brooklyn composer Aaron Copland’s stirring fanfare written at the frenzied height of WWII.

And here are some excerpts from the speech by VP Henry Wallace that so inspired Copland in the composition process.

The march of freedom of the past 150 years has been a long-drawn-out people’s revolution. In this Great Revolution of the people, there were the American Revolution of 1775, the French Revolution of 1792, the Latin-American Revolutions of the Bolivarian era, the German Revolution of 1848, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Each spoke for the common man in terms of blood on the battlefield. Some went to excess. But the significant thing is that the people groped their way to the light. More of them learned to think and work together. The people’s revolution aims at peace and not at violence, but if the rights of the common man are attacked, it unleashes the ferocity of the she-bear who has lost a cub. … … The people, in their millennial and revolutionary march toward manifesting here on earth the dignity that is in every human soul, hold as their credo the Four Freedoms enunciated by President Roosevelt. These four freedoms are the very core of the revolution for which the United Nations have taken their stand. We who live in the United States may think there is nothing very revolutionary about freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom from fear — freedom from the secret police. But when we begin to think about the significance of freedom from want for the average man, then we know that the revolution of the past 150 years has not been completed, either here in the United States or any place else in the world. We know that this revolution cannot stop until freedom from want has actually been attained.

Some have spoken of the “American Century”. I say that the century on which we are entering — the century which will come into being after this war — can be and must be the century of the common man.

Perhaps it will be America’s opportunity to support the Freedoms and Duties by which the common man must live. Everywhere, the common man must learn to build his own industries with his own hands in practical fashion. … … No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations. Older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the path to industrialization, but there must be neither military nor economic imperialism. Yes, and when the time of peace comes, the citizen will again have a duty; the consumer will have a duty — the supreme duty of sacrificing the lesser interest for the greater interest of the general welfare. Those who write the peace must think of the whole world. There can be no privileged peoples. We ourselves in the United States are no more a master race than the Nazis. And we cannot perpetuate economic warfare without planting the seeds of military warfare. We must use our power at the peace table to build an economic peace that is charitable and enduring.

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