Talking Movies

June 2, 2016

The Nice Guys

Shane Black’s third film as writer/director sees him back in familiar R-rated crime comedy territory after his unexpected Iron Man sojourn in PG-13 comic-book land.

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Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is the heavy you hire to rough up a creepy pot-dealer, or the PI who’s dogging your footsteps. The PI in question is Holland March (Ryan Gosling), ethically challenged since California introduced no-fault divorce; in that he now searches for missing husbands while their ashes are on display on their widow’s mantelpiece. But probably not ethically challenged enough to deserve what Amelia (Margaret Qualley) hires Healy to do to him. Soon after their set-to Healy is himself roughed up by two heavies (Beau Knapp and Keith David), and finds getting Holland back on Amelia’s trail a matter of some personal urgency. Holland’s 13 year old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) helps the investigation into Amelia’s whereabouts and the related murder of porno performer Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) actually get somewhere, but conspiracy and a Detroit hit-man lurk…

The Nice Guys may be the funniest film of 2016. Black is on top form when it comes to absurdist comic routines, there are a number of set-piece bickering arguments that would not be out of place in a Martin McDonagh script. The physicality of Crowe and Gosling quite obviously recalls Laurel & Hardy, with Gosling’s scream a particular joy, as well as his attempt to maintain his dignity in a piece of business involving awkward manoeuvres with a toilet door and a gun. This mines a similar cinematic seam to 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but replaces that film’s nods to Chandler with a tip of the hat to 1970s conspiracy thrillers; and a more amused in-camera acknowledgement of how things conveniently turn out for the best when everything looks like it’s going to hell thru our heroes’ bungling.

The juxtaposition of extreme violence and comic slapstick served up by Black and his Doc Savage co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi jars initially, but you quickly become comfortable with this imaginary 1970s universe; in which Tim Allen is gigging everywhere and pornos are omnipresent. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography casts a 1970s haze over proceedings, to match the distrust of authority that dogs Holland and Healy as they deal with Justice Department officials Judith (Kim Basinger) and Tally (Yaya DaCosta). An unexpected carry-over from Iron Man 3 is Black’s use of younger characters to upbraid the leads. Rice gives a standout performance as the 1970s Veronica Mars driving her father around and tracking down leads, easily holding her own against Gosling and Crowe’s fine turns. Matt Bomer’s enigmatic character is a visual treat in the finale, but what you’ll remember most is the dialogue.

From a peerless Richard Nixon story, to a validation of profanity, and a refusal to give up on the possibility of romance that bends reality itself, this is delightful.

5/5

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July 31, 2015

Don’t Mess With Veronica Mars

The second novel in the Veronica Mars mystery series has been published, and creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are talking about reviving the TV show for an 8 episode run in the vein of True Detective. What better time to fondly remember one of the last decade’s best shows? Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on Veronica Mars.

Logan: I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me.

Veronica: Epic how?

Logan: Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, blood shed. Epic! But summer’s almost here. And we won’t see each other at all. Then you’ll leave town, and it’s over.

Veronica: Logan…

Logan: I’m sorry. About last summer. If I could do it over…

Veronica: C’mon… Ruined lives? Blood shed? You really think a relationship should be that hard?

Logan: No one writes songs about the ones that come easy.

It may seem odd to talk about Veronica Mars as a romantic show, but there’s a reason the ‘epic love’ scene was reprised in the 2014 movie; the show could be swooningly romantic, as evidenced by the giddy crane-work when Veronica kissed Logan for the first time in season 1. That was also one of the most shocking moments of season 1, not only because it felt like Veronica was betraying her dead best friend Lily by moving in on her boyfriend, but also because the pilot had introduced Logan with Veronica’s caustic voiceover: “Every school needs its psychotic jackass. Logan Echolls is ours”. Veronica’s on-off romance with Logan was not unlike Rory Gilmore’s with the equally charismatic but erratic Jess. There were nicer boys than Jason Dohring’s movie-star scion Logan, like Teddy Dunn’s Duncan Kane and Max Greenfield’s rookie cop Leo, but Leo’s fate was the voiceover gag; “It’s the old story. Girl meets boy. Girl uses boy. Girl likes boy. Boy finds out, girl gets what she deserves”; while Duncan’s entanglement with the ill-fated Meg saw Veronica nobly sacrifice her own relationship with Duncan to help him and his baby daughter evade the FBI and the Manning family, sadly pinning to her mirror a note saying ‘True love stories never end’. Season 3’s ‘nice boyfriend’ Chris Lowell’s Piz was the nicest boyfriend of all, and, in incredibly revealing commentary on the season 3 finale, Thomas noted that when Logan extravagantly apologises to a bruised Piz for beating him up earlier over a leaked sex-tape, Piz looks totally defeated; because he knows that Veronica, well-intentioned but ruthless, is the kind of girl who will only ever end up with the kind of guy who, repeatedly, has beaten people to a bloody pulp with his bare hands for hurting her.

Click here to read the full article on how Veronica Mars handled female friendship, a father-daughter detective agency, and how the sunny setting belied a dark heart of noir cynicism.

March 12, 2014

Veronica Mars in Dundrum and Dundrum Only

I was doubtful that it would even get a cinema release here, but come Friday Veronica Mars will open exclusively in Movies at Dundrum, and the premiere’s already sold out.

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Veronica Mars ran from 2004 to 2007 but now, just like Firefly, it has risen from the ashes of unjust cancellation on TV to sneak into cinemas to continue its story. Kristen Bell has never quite found the equal of her iconic role as the teen detective, and creator Rob Thomas’ 90210 reboot never quite hit the heights he’s capable of, so it’s nice to see them reunited for more sleuthing. And, owing to the movie’s small budget being raised by fans on Kickstarter, there’s no question of dumbing things down for a cinema audience unaware of who the beloved characters are – indeed some websites have hailed this as a first: a movie made for the fans because they’re the people who paid for it.

And for that reason Veronica Mars: FBI has been deemed non-canonical by Thomas, because it made it too hard to reunite the cast. So instead rising legal eagle Veronica returns from NYC to sunny and class-ridden Neptune, CA to attend her high school reunion. Present and correct are loyal friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), 09er nemesis Madison (Amanda Noret) and frenemy Dick (Ryan Hansen). Dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) remains a sage, warning against the obvious peril of insipid college boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) being replaced in her affections by roguish high school ex Logan (Jason Dohring), who is once again accused of murder and so asking for V’s help. Just when she thought she was out, they pull her back in…

Thomas as good as hinted in commentary on season 3’s finale that Piz couldn’t win in the long run against Logan, so here’s hoping that, come Friday, we see the sparks of ‘epic love’ spanning ‘decades and continents’ fire up.

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January 28, 2014

2014: Hopes

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The Monuments Men

George Clooney stars, co-writes with Grant Heslov again, and directs what seems like a promising mash-up of The Train and Ocean’s 11, arriving sometime in February. Somewhat based on fact, a crack team of art experts and soldiers are assembled in the dying months of WWII to try and rescue priceless works of art from wanton destruction at the hands of nihilistic Nazis. The team includes regular Clooney cohort Matt Damon and the great Cate Blanchett, alongside the undoubtedly scene-stealing comedic duo of Bill Murray and John Goodman, and oddly Jean Dujardin. Can Clooney pull off a more serious art heist from Nazis caper? Fingers crossed he can.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson returns in March, apparently in thrall to Lubitsch and Lang. Edward Norton did so well in Moonrise Kingdom that he’s invited back alongside Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Owen Wilson. Newcomers are Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, and F Murray Abraham. Fiennes is the legendary concierge of the titular hotel in inter-war Europe, where any gathering storms are ignored in favour of absurd murder plots, art thefts and family squabbles gone mad, as Fiennes gives his lobby-boy protégé an education in dealing with the upper classes which he’ll never forget; if they escape a sticky end long enough to remember.

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Veronica Mars

AW YEAH!! It was cancelled in 2007 but Kristen Bell’s iconic teen detective snoops again as creator Rob Thomas sends NYC legal eagle Veronica back to sunny Neptune to attend her high school reunion. Present and correct are friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), nemesis Madison (Amanda Noret), and frenemy Dick (Ryan Hansen). Dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) remains a sage, warning against the obvious peril of insipid boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) being replaced in her affections by roguish ex Logan (Jason Dohring), who is once again accused of murder and asking for V’s help. Please let the sparks of ‘epic love’ spanning ‘decades and continents’ rekindle!

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness have been put to one side for this rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Literally everything I loved most about the original disappeared with the time-jump. So the major attraction of April’s sequel isn’t Robert Redford as a shady new SHIELD director, but Revenge’s icy heroine Emily VanCamp as the mysterious Agent 13. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow regrettably take the place of Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell in support, but Anthony Mackie as sidekick Falcon is a major boon. The real worry is that directors Joe and Anthony Russo (You, Me and Dupree, yes, that’s right, that’s their resume) will be intimidated by their budget into endless CGI action and precious little else.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m excited and nostalgic, because May 23rd sees the arrival of the X-3 we deserved, but never got. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he launched for one of Claremont/Byrne’s most famous storylines. In a dystopian future, where mutantkind has been decimated by the Sentinels of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage),Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman – this is a movie, not a comic, it’s all got to be about Wolverine!) is sent back into the past by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) to alter history by rapprochement of their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence co-stars, with every X-Men actor!

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22 Jump Street
A proper summer blockbuster release date of June 13th for this sequel recognises the hilarious success of the absurd original. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) (or was it the other way round?) go undercover in college to crack another drug ring, and once again their fantastic bromance starts to crack under the strain. The original’s unwieldy team of writers and directors are back, as are Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco. Amber Stevens and Wyatt Russell are the college kids, but sadly Brie Larson is absent. Jonah Hill appears in full goth gear, which seems to suggest that the absurdity levels remain healthy.

The Trip to Italy

It’s not clear yet if we’ll get this as an abridged film or just be treated to the full version as 6 episodes on BBC 2. In either case Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite to play heightened versions of themselves as they bicker their way around restaurants in Italy for the purposes of writing magazine reviews. 2010’s endearing roving sitcom The Trip, with its competitive Michael Caine impersonations was a joy, and director Michael Winterbottom takes the show on tour here. And no better man for the job, as this originated with their duelling Al Pacinos at the end of his A Cock and Bull Story.

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Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen’s latest should hit our screens around September. This time round the cottage industry is giving us a period romantic comedy, set in the south of France, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. The cast is as usual intimidating: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, the imperious Eileen Atkins (one of the few actresses capable of domineering over Judi Dench), and Jacki Weaver. Will F Scott and his ilk make an appearance? Who knows! There are no details, just stills of open-top cars, drop waists, and cloche hats so this could be a close cousin of Sweet & Lowdown or Midnight in Paris.

Gone Girl

The start of October sees the great David Fincher return, with his first film in three years, and it’s another adaptation of a wildly successful crime novel. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are seemingly the perfect couple, but when she disappears suddenly on their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect as he discovers his wife told friends she was scared of him. Could he have killed her? Or is the truth far more twisted? Gillian Flynn has adapted her own work, and, incredibly, penned an entirely new third act to keep everyone guessing. The unusually colourful supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Fugit.

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The Interview
The pitch is that an attractive talk show host and his producer unwittingly get caught up in an international assassination plot. So far so blah, if that was say Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson directed by Shawn Levy, except that the host is actually James Franco, the producer is Seth Rogen, the interview is in North Korea, and the awesome Lizzy Caplan is the rogue femme fatale CIA agent who drags them into all sorts of mischief. And it’s written and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg who distinguished themselves with 2013’s best comedy This is The End. This is very likely to mop up the non-Gone Girl audience.

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan tries to redeem himself after TDKR with a small personal project, taking the same release date as The Prestige did. Well, small, in that the WB needed Paramount to stump up some cash for it, and personal, in that Spielberg spent years developing it; albeit with the assistance of Jonathan Nolan. Scientists attempt to observe a wormhole into another dimension, and that’s about all we know, other than vague speculations about ecological crises. Matthew McConaughey 2.0 stars alongside Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, and, yes, Michael Caine – who is now as essential a part of the signature as Bill Murray for Wes Anderson.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence goes for third biggest hit at the North American box office for the third year in a row with her latest turn as rebel heroine Katniss Everdeen on November 21st. Having survived the Quarter Quell and the destruction of her District, she discovers President Snow has Peeta hostage, and that the rebellion has a leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore), ready to embark on a full-scale bloody war of rebellion against the Capitol. Recount writer (and Buffy shmuck) Danny Strong is the new screenwriter, and Elementary star Natalie Dormer joins the cast, but director Francis Lawrence remains in situ, with his considered visual style.

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

October 12, 2012

Hit and Run

Punk’d provocateur Dax Shepard co-directs and also co-writes and stars in a hybrid of action and rom-com as a goodhearted ex-con who riskily drives girlfriend Kristen Bell to Los Angeles.

Annie (Bell) is a teacher in a terrible community college issued with an ultimatum by her boss (Kristen Chenoweth) – do a job interview in L.A. for the chance to create a course based on her unique approach to conflict resolution or lose her job. Annie decides to go, but it involves a parting of the ways with her boyfriend Charlie (Shepard), who is in witness protection after testifying against some L.A. bank-robbers and can’t go back there without endangering himself and Annie too. So of course he goes. Much to the chagrin of his case marshal (Tom Arnold), Annie’s controlling ex-boyfriend (Michael Rosenbaum), and, eventually and inevitably, the gang he testified against (Bradley Cooper, Ryan Hansen and Joy Bryant). But will Annie be able to forgive Charlie for the awful secret he has kept from her about his past life?

Some films possess a mysterious quality that makes you want to like them, and this is one of them. You are rooting for this film to work, and it so nearly takes flight that you end up feeling bad at its consistent failure to soar. Tom Arnold blusters for all he’s worth as a hopelessly inept federal marshal but while his slapstick scenes of vehicular mayhem have all the necessary elements they never catch full comedic fire. The cast is ultimately the best thing about this movie. Smallville fans will enjoy seeing Lex Luthor sporting hair but still acting like an entitled bully, while Veronica Mars fans will enjoy seeing Bell and her old 09er nemesis Hansen clash. Bell will never find as a good a role as Veronica but she carries this movie effectively with her real-life boyfriend Shepard.

The car-chases are the selling points of this movie but these are car-chases shot on a shoe-string budget with hand-held cameras, and while the three chases are good they’re not brilliant. Indeed nearly everything is good but not brilliant. Bradley Cooper has a standout scene with an irresponsible dog-owner that is memorable but quite questionable. Definitively not good are the endless complaining and explaining conversations between Annie and Charlie. These are meant to create a crossover hit by appealing to women, but they’re inferior to the very similar emotional confrontations that punctuate the gory carnage on Supernatural, and they make it increasingly difficult to care about annoying Annie. Indeed the funniest moment comes at the end of the film when her character is undercut with an absurdist cameo by Sean Hayes from Will & Grace.

It’s hard to dismiss a film so many talented actors volunteered to work for scale on but Shepard’s script has noble intentions yet just can’t achieve its own ambitions.

2/5

October 5, 2012

Sinister

The producers of Paranormal Activity eschew their look for a more classically shot horror that has odd echoes of recent art-house oddity Berberian Sound Studio.

In the name of research true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) moves into a house where a family was murdered. He neglects to tell his wife their new home is a crime scene… Law & Order fans will get a kick out of some minor roles as Ellison is brusquely welcomed by Fred Dalton Thompson (That’s Senator Thompson of Tennessee to you!) as the local Sheriff who wants him gone, and later he gets research help from an expert on the occult (Vincent D’Onofrio). He needs that help after stumbling over some old 8mm films in the attic, which turn out to be the home movies of a serial killer that include many other massacres besides the one Ellison’s researching, all just dripping occult symbols. Ellison gleefully believes this discovery will propel him back into the limelight. But then strange things start to literally go bump in the night…

Ethan (Training Day) Hawke as a man trying to re-scale the heights of a hit from the early 2000s seems like cruel casting that would do Veronica Mars proud. He’s very effective though as there’s an unexpectedly meaty emotional throughline with Juliet Rylance as his long suffering English wife Tracy; who’s worried about the malign effect his work has on their two children. There’s also great comedic relief from Deputy “So and So” (James Ransone); embarrassingly eager to assist Ellison’s research. Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson displays flair in building dread thru the effect the horrors of the 8mm films have on Ellison’s psyche. The idea of a serial killer who slaughters families before abducting one child, and who has been this doing since the late 1960s, is chilling, and Derrickson stages some wonderful scares as an increasingly paranoid Ellison chases shadows.

But even a truly terrifying sequence involving the night terrors of Ellison’s young son has not involved anything ghoulish. And then a spectacular scare moment loudly announces that this serial killer’s methods are supernatural; and he is now after Ellison… Sinister doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Woman in Black because Derrickson cheats a good deal. Ellison has a bizarre preference for working in the dark. He never switches on a damn light in the house at night, making it easier for the audience to fill the shadows with all kinds of scary monsters; which Derrickson takes advantage of for one heart-stopping supernatural jump scare. A brace of central ideas are also lifted from Doctor Who and American Gods. Gripes aside, this is tense stuff that patiently, inexorably builds towards a suspenseful, traumatic finale.

I don’t understand why Sinister is being released this early in October, because it is by way of being the perfect Hallowe’en scary movie.

4/5

December 22, 2011

Fanboys Vs Paul

At what point on the homage-o-meter does a film become so dependent for its laughs on just referencing other films that it simply ceases to exist in its own right?

I’m posing this question because I quite recently watched both Paul and Fanboys which are so referentially dependent that taking away that crutch of familiarity would cripple both. Paul would be less hobbled than Fanboys, because it’s operating on a higher level of comedic sureness, but the two films share the same basic DNA – nerds go on a road trip and things get very silly, with copious references to late 1970s/early 1980s pop culture, and Seth Rogen even appearing in both movies. There is obviously a huge difference in budgets between the two films, evident in looking at the star wattage of the casts. Sam Huntington, Jay Baruchel, Dan Fogler, and Kristen Bell for Fanboys weigh in substantially lighter than Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jason Bateman, and Kristen Wiig for Paul. But that’s not that clinching, throwing money at bad jokes doesn’t make them funny.

Huntington is a gifted comedian who was a sublime Jimmy Olsen, Jay Baruchel is a reliable comedic presence, and Kristen Bell rarely gets to be as awesome in film as she was as Veronica Mars but she’s always got that charisma in reserve. Dan Fogler, however, sums up the problem with Fanboys. I’ve been mystified by Fogler’s rise because I don’t think he’s particularly funny in Balls of Fury, Good Luck Chuck, or Fanboys. Indeed the only time I’ve been impressed by him was in Love Happens where in a straighter role than usual he was quite good, even damn good in one serious scene. Fanboys sees him purvey his usual brand of crude, physical humour (constant dry humping) and he puts so much obvious energy and commitment into his performance you actually feel bad singling him out as a synecdoche of the film’s failings.

Fanboys is a film where the script constantly falls back on crudity and slapstick and asks its performers to mug like hell to hide the shortcomings of the material. It is intermittently amusing, but, with some exceptions, those laughs come from references to the Star Wars film, or from the efforts of cameoing stars whose presence are the only reason jokes work – think Carrie Fisher saying “I know” when someone says “I love you”, or William Shatner boasting “I’m William Shatner, I can score anything”. Even Rogen’s dual roles only work because of the sublime moment where as a Trekkie his beloved Kirk statue is destroyed and he cradles it shouting “KHAAAAAAAAAAN!” Take away the famous actors in tiny roles, and you’re left with a deeply suspect attempt to graft an emotionally manipulative arc about a dying friend’s last wishes onto raucous road trip comedy.

Paul by contrast has a far less weighty arc that works much better. It just wants Pegg to get a girlfriend and Frost to finish writing his novel as the transformative result of encounter with runaway alien Paul. It’s a funnier film than Fanboys because, though Paul’s dialogue is crude and the Kristen Wiig sub-plot is foul-mouthed and oddly mean-spirited, there is still more comedic gold left when you sift away the referential gags. Those references to Lucas, Spielberg, Zemeckis and Landis are hysterically funny, not least the moment when our heroes walk into the Roadhouse to find the band playing the Cantina music. But they are equalled by the absurdity of Jason Bateman’s character name, and the peerless Kristen Wiig’s crestfallen reaction to Pegg telling her she ‘should go’, meaning to visit the UK, but she takes it as meaning to just go away.

Paul is better than Fanboys but, while it’s hilarious to see Paul offering Spielberg advice on the phone on creating E.T., does Paul just feature too many referential gags versus original gags compared to the previous two Pegg/Frost movies directed, and crucially co-written, by Edgar Wright? Sigourney Weaver’s appearance saw me start a mental timer until the line ‘Get away from her you bitch!’ was referenced, and of course it was. Are Pegg and Frost compensating for the loss of Wright’s flair for visual absurdity by gripping ever more tightly their pop culture talismans? If, by some miracle, you could find a viewer entirely unfamiliar with cinema and pop culture from 1974 onwards would they still find Paul, and especially Fanboys, funny at all? Or would they merely look baffled and say ‘I don’t get it, what’s meant to be so funny about that line?’ Obviously though such an ideal viewer is impossible as Lucas and Spielberg colonised the popular imagination in a manner most film-makers can only dream of.

Still, it must be asked at what point doffing the cap to Lucas and Spielberg becomes a despairing admittance of defeat at ever conjuring up something equal to their magic?

June 15, 2011

Top 10 Father’s Day Films

Heroes tend to be portrayed as lone wolves, and families rarely interest Hollywood unless they’re psychotic, but here’s a list of men who made the protagonists what they are, and the complicated bonds that gave them the self-confidence to individuate. Joss Whedon defined Mal in Firefly as being a terrific (surrogate) father for Simon and River in contrast to their actual father, because he wasn’t just there and terrific when it was convenient for him, he was sometimes great, sometimes inept, but always there. There’s too much written about surrogate fathers in the movies (read any article on Tarantino’s work) so I thought I’d mark Fathers’ Day with a top 10 list of films featuring great biological dads and great complicated but loving father-son bonds.

Honourable Mentions:
(Inception) The moment when Cillian Murphy opens the safe and tearfully discovers his father held on to Cillian’s childhood kite as his most treasured possession is an enormously powerful emotional sucker-punch of post-mortem father-son reconciliation.
(The Day After Tomorrow) Dennis Quaid excels as a father who was always around but half-distracted by work, who makes good by braving death in a quest to rescue his son from a snowpocalyptic demise.
(Twilight Saga) Bella Swan’s taciturn relationship with her small-town dad, who she only ever holidayed with and who embarrasses her, slowly blossoms as he steps up to the parenting plate with some hilariously comedic unease.

(10) Boyz N the Hood
Before he got trapped in a zero-sum world of directing commercial tosh John Singleton’s coruscating 1991 debut portrayed the chaos of gang-infested ghetto life in a world almost entirely lacking positive male role models. His script privileges the bluntly honest wisdom of Laurence Fishburne to such an extent that he basically becomes the ideal father for a generation of black men that Bill Cosby acidly noted was raised by women, for the exact same reason that Singleton has Fishburne deliver: it’s easy to father a child, it’s harder to be a father to that child.

(9) Kick-Ass
Yes, an odd choice, but filmic father-daughter double-acts of the Veronica & Keith Mars ilk are surprisingly hard to find. Nic Cage does an amazing job of portraying Big Daddy as an extremely loving father who has trained Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl to survive independently in a hostile world and to never need to be afraid. Matthew Vaughn mines an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos from suggesting that such empowering mental training is a legacy that would keep Big Daddy ever-present in his daughter’s life even after his death. It takes Batman to raise a true Amazon…

(8) The Yearling
Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque lawyer Atticus Finch was held up as the perfect father in Vanilla Sky, but I’d strenuously favour his father in this whimsical 1946 movie that at times feels it’s an original screenplay by Mark Twain. Peck plays the type of father who’ll let you run free, and make mistakes so that you can learn from your mistakes, but will always be there to swoop in and save the day when you get in over your head. This may be an idyllic portrait of the rural South but the father’s parenting style is universally recognisable.

(7) The Godfather
Vito grooms Sonny to succeed him and consigns Fredo to Vegas, but he loads all his hopes of respectability onto his favourite son, Michael. Eventually, in a touching scene in the vineyard, he accepts that the one son he tried to steer away from the family business is the only son truly capable of taking it on, and that he has to let Michael live his own life and become Don. The tragedy of Part II is that Michael makes his father’s dreams of assimilation his own, but his attempts to achieve them only destroy his family.

(6) Taken
Liam Neeson has been divorced by the grating and shallow Famke Janssen who has remarried for a privileged lifestyle, which she continually rubs Neeson’s face in. His relationship with his daughter, whose birthday he was always around for even if the CIA disapproved, has suffered from this disparity in wealth. But when she’s kidnapped hell hath no fury like an enraged father rescuing his little girl. Neeson’s absolute single-mindedness in rescuing his only child makes this an awesome action movie that uses extreme violence to prove the superiority of blue-collar values and earnest protective parenting over whimsical indulgence.

(5) Finding Nemo
Marlin, the clownfish who can’t tell a joke, is perhaps the greatest example of the overprotective father who has to recognise that maybe he’s projecting his own weaknesses onto his son; and that he has to let Nemo attempt something that he, Nemo, might fail at, if Nemo’s ever going to succeed at anything. This lesson is of course learned over the length of an extremely hazardous journey as Marlin displays his absolute dedication, to the point of self-sacrifice, to saving his only child. In a weird way this combines elements of both The Godfather and Taken

(4) Wall Street
“Boy, if that’s how you really feel, then I must have done a crappy job as a father.” Martin Sheen’s words to Charlie Sheen show just how far under the spell of Michael Douglas’ daemonic father figure Charlie has fallen at that point in the movie. Oliver Stone followed Platoon’s opposition between two surrogate fathers with a clash between the humble blue-collar integrity of Charlie’s actual father Martin and the unscrupulous white-collar extravagances of his mentor Douglas. In the end Martin manages to make jail-time sound like an exercise in redemption because he will never desert Charlie.

(3) Gone with the Wind
Scarlett O’Hara, the ultimate survivor, is very much her father’s daughter. The post-Famine Irish obsession with the land is transported to America, and with it a desire never to be beholden to other people. Add in her father’s furious and quick temper, which gets him killed, and huge pride, and nearly all the elements that make up Scarlett are complete. She adds a ruthless skill in fascinating malleable men to become the supreme movie heroine. When Rhett leaves her and she’s inconsolable, her father’s words echo thru her mind, and she returns triumphantly to Tara.

(2) Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade
“He’s gone Marcus, and I never told him anything at all”. Spielberg likes to joke that only James Bond could have sired Indiana Jones, and Henry Jones Jr despite his eternally fraught relationship with Senior really is a chip off the old block; hilariously evidenced in their sequential relationship with Allison Doody’s Nazi; and that’s why they don’t get along. In a convincing display of male taciturnity it takes both of them nearly losing the other for them to finally express how much they love the other, well, as much they ever will.

(1) Field of Dreams
“I refused to play catch with him. I told him I could never respect a man whose hero was a cheat”. Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella has to bankrupt himself building a baseball field in his crops and magick the 1919 White Sox back into existence to do it, but he finally manages to atone for his sins and play catch again with his deceased father. There are few better pay-offs to shaggy-dog screenplays than when Ray realises the last player on the field is his father, as he never knew him, a young and hopeful man, before life ground him down. If you aren’t in floods of tears by their lines, ‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, it’s Iowa’, then you’re already dead.

May 18, 2011

Scream on the Rocks

I was listening to ‘Pure Shores’ while unsuccessfully trying to find someone else excited about seeing Scream 4 a few weeks ago, and it led to these musings on how something can be all-conquering, then just disappear…

I was surprised that no one I knew was excited about a new Scream film, given that Kevin Williamson had returned to writing duties, and has lately been writing wonderful (cliff-hanger a minute, major twist every episode) dark popcorn for The Vampire Diaries. 11 years though is a long time… The Beach was released in February 2000 and, this being in prehistory when MTV not only played music but played certain videos on constant rotation, its imagery penetrated deep into people who never saw the film courtesy of All Saints’ video for the sublime ‘Pure Shores’ incorporating an awful lot of clips from Danny Boyle’s film. 11 years ago I finally saw Scream on TV and then Scream 3 in the cinema in quick succession and never got round to watching The Beach till 2003. It’s odd to think that these films, which were all pervasive at the time, seem to have been more or less forgotten. In the case of Danny Boyle his belated and ill-advised entrance to major Hollywood movies has been completely forgotten because of a couple of belting truly Alex Garland scripted movies since, and an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. The Beach also represented after the American Psycho debacle DiCaprio’s attempt to make a post-Titanic film that proved he could act. He’s long since been able to point to his Scorsese collection, and latterly Revolutionary Road and Inception, so The Beach is also a footnote for him.

But why has Scream fallen so low in popular esteem that its belated sequel could so utterly flop? Perhaps Scream has been a victim of its own success. It brought forth a wave of self-conscious horror films like Final Destination where good jokes were as important as scary shocks, and the audience and film-makers continually winked at each other regarding clichéd conventions of horror cinema that could still be exploited to make you jump in your seat, but only if that was followed by a good pay-off line. That arguably brought forth a counter-wave, the infamous torture porn of Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek, where the film-makers grabbed the audience by the throat, demanded they stop winking, stop turning away, look at this horror, be horrified, and start screaming now… Now it seems to safe to declare torture porn more or less dead, we seem to be stuck in a field of shlock, Piranha 3-D, the everpresent efficient teen horror, My Bloody Valentine, and nouvea 70s viciousness in the form of remakes, Last House on the Left, and nasty originals, Eden Lake. In that landscape where torture porn seems to have permanently upped the acceptable ante for both gore and viciousness the very concept of a Scream 4 is an anomaly if not an embarrassment.

I only hoped that Scream 4 might be as good as Scream 2, but truthfully it’s more like Scream 3, the one Williamson didn’t write – an efficient film with flashes of inspiration. There are wonderful moments throughout, not least Courteney Cox muttering that a massacre must take place at a Stab marathon, “what could be more meta?”; a confused David Arquette asks what that means, to which she replies “I don’t know, it’s just some word I heard the kids using.” Scream was a great film because it was original, the cold open of Scream 4 with its nods to how Scream 2 introduced Stab, a film of the events of Scream, goes far too far in alienating the audience with postmodern meta-nonsense at the expense of emotional engagement. When you have not one, not two, but three different sets of TV stars (from, deep breath, 90210, Privileged, Veronica Mars, True Blood, oh forget it) all enacting the same basic scenario with commentary on the predictability of said scenario, mixed with snipes at torture porn, it’s time to return to basics. But the basics aren’t easy. The motive of the Ghostface Killer is a huge problem. Each sequel has tied itself in ever more preposterous knots regarding motivation, and Scream 4 obeys that rule of sequels. An even greater problem is the split focus caused by the bizarre notion the film persistently voices about itself being a remake rather than a sequel. The ‘new’ versions of original characters Billy Loomis, Randy and Stu don’t work at all because they are severely underwritten, while the beloved original characters aren’t given enough screen-time either. Hayden Panetierre and Emma Roberts are the only actors of the new young cast given enough material to really make an impression, and a good deal of this is purely due to their skills rather than the script. Roberts in particular is not afraid to be shown in a far colder light emotionally than you can imagine her aunt ever being willing to play, and her relationship with screen cousin Neve Campbell powers the film.

And then, if you’re me, you realise something with a shock while watching – Adam Brody isn’t going to step up to the plate in the third act and do something, his minor supporting role is just that; he has been totally forgotten. How terrifyingly forgotten The OC has become. Only 4 years after it finished its 4 season run which was captivating and hilarious and spawned a whole set of music, books, comics, styles and clichés, Seth Cohen himself, Adam Brody, can’t seem to get good parts anymore outside of Jason Reitman enabled cameos. Josh Schwartz is now the guy who co-created Gossip Girl or Chuck. He’s never thought of as the youngest creator of a primetime network show which was what The OC made him. And so it is that Kevin Williamson is now the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries not the wunderkind behind Scream or even Dawson’s Creek. Glory is fleeting…

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