Talking Movies

July 13, 2017

Taking Stock of Keanu

7 years ago to the day I wrote a piece on how Keanu Reeves, then 45, was dealing with mid-life cinematically. I think it’s time to check on Keanu again.

In the distant halcyon past of 2004 I wrote a profile of Keanu Reeves for the University Observer. He had just declined Superman for Warner Bros when I wrote that profile, and in 2010, not having any currently lucrative franchise, I said he’d be now be considered about 20 years too old to even audition, and George Reeves be damned.  In the Observer piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles”, but lacked the space to really flesh that out. Somebody, perhaps Barry Norman, had suggested Hollywood leading men lose their cachet on hitting 50, so their 40s are the years where they have both the maturity and the box-office clout to take on the roles for which they will be best remembered. Think John Wayne (Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers), Gregory Peck (Moby Dick, The Big Country, On the Beach, The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, To Kill a Mockingbird), Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down). It seems a good enough theory.

Between 2004 and 2014 Keanu appeared in Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi, 47 Ronin, and John Wick. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in Mike Mills’ first movie. His turn in Rebecca Miller’s Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem them. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find large audiences. Richard Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if odd film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as leading dramatic roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best characters. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas, while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; making his directorial debut. Utilising what Lawrence has since spoken of as the twilight zone between PG-13 and R it had a fine sense of metaphysical rather than visceral horror, and was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

And then came John Wick

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June 1, 2012

Glengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet won a Pulitzer in 1984 for his black comedy about desperate real estate agents, and this Gate theatre production is a note-perfect rendition.

The first act is almost the definitive Mamet, being three two-hander scenes in which one person struggles to get a word in edgeways while the other tells them to stop interrupting. Shelley Levene (Owen Roe), an over the hill salesman, tries to cajole, bully, and beg his younger office manager Williamson (John Cronin) for the vital ‘leads’ without which he doesn’t stand a chance of making it onto the leader-board for sales completed; which decides who wins a Cadillac at the end of the month, and who gets fired. The other agents Moss (Denis Conway) and George (Barry McGovern) complain about the cruelty and unfairness of this process and ‘talk’ about ripping off their own office. Finally a timid man Lingks (Peter Hanly) is accosted by the freight-train of confidence that is salesman Ricky Roma (Reg Rogers); who swans into the Chekhovian second act so drunk on ‘closing’ Lingks and thus winning the Cadillac that it takes him a while to notice that the office has been ransacked and the leads and closed contracts stolen…

Mamet’s rhythmic, profane, overlapping dialogue is one of the most distinctive theatrical accomplishments of the past half-century; and every actor in this production excels in its delivery. The famous finagling by Moss and George of ‘talking’ and ‘speaking’ about a robbery is performed exquisitely by the great McGovern and Conway. They also nail the subsequent indignation of their characters at being questioned by Patrick Joseph Byrnes’ no-nonsense cop, while Cronin is magnificent as the overwrought Williamson yelling at George to just for the love of God go for lunch… If there is a flaw in this production it’s that Cronin at times can appear nervous at sharing the stage with such heavyweights of Irish theatre, but even that flaw works for the play as Williamson is subject to such vicious verbal abuse by these men (whose need to belittle him outranks their instincts for self-preservation) that being occasionally nervous in their presence is entirely in character. The two showy parts though are the salesman leading a life of noisy desperation and the scenery-chewing Pacino role.

Director Doug Hughes steered the original production of Doubt to Tony glory some years ago before reviving Mamet’s Oleanna on Broadway and he is alert to every nuance of the text. He coaxes from Roe a performance that alternates between despair, self-delusion, and arrogance as Levene, and from Broadway actor Rogers a barnstorming powerhouse of bombast, hostility, and cunning as Roma. Levene can seem like Mamet’s riff on Miller’s tragic hero Willy Loman, with the uncaring Williamson as a version of the son of Loman’s old boss who doesn’t care about Loman’s service to the firm and humiliates him. Ricky Roma though is all Mamet. The new face of capitalism isn’t like Miller’s successful brother Ben Loman, indeed he’s Levene’s protégé, and, in his outrageous machismo, actually behaves like one of Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe on Wall Street, despite being a small-time property salesman. The impressively decrepit ransacked office set by In Treatment designer Neil Patel is an apt setting for the comings and goings of men deluding themselves about the American Dream.

Mamet’s attack on ruthless capitalism is given its full punch here by a cast who bring out the comedy and the cruelty – essential theatre.

5/5

Glengarry Glen Ross continues its run at the Gate Theatre until July 14th.

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.

October 6, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

‘Is Greed Good?’ is the new more reflective mantra of Michael Douglas’ corporate monster Gordon Gekko who returns after 23 years for a sequel dissecting the Great Recession.

I’ve previously dubbed Wall Street the film that summed up the 1980s. Its sequel aspires to sum up what the hell just happened to the global economy and largely achieves it. The film opens with an amusing prologue in which Gekko is released from prison in 2001 before fast-forwarding to Wall Street during the early summer of 2008. A flashy dizzying climb up the skyscrapers of NYC after young trader Jacob (Shia LaBeouf) parks his motorbike is reminiscent of David Fincher at his most expansive and signals that Oliver Stone has got his directorial mojo working again. The early scenes of this film, especially a Federal Reserve emergency meeting, are wonderfully crisp and while it doesn’t fulfil that early promise this is undoubtedly Stone’s best film since Nixon. The sense that he’s rejuvenated by revisiting one of his greatest achievements is heightened by his use of David Byrne & Brian Eno, down to reprising at the end Wall Street‘s closing credits song ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’ by Byrne’s band Talking Heads. Nostalgia also delivers an unexpected and great cameo, although on reflection it seems to reverse the message of Wall Street.

Jacob is our new Bud Fox. He receives an unexpected bonus-cheque from his mentor, Frank Langella in a wonderfully desperate performance, but fails to see the writing on the wall – Langella knows that his venerable investment bank is about to go under as a result of exposure to risky financial instruments that he didn’t really understand. This Lehman Brothers style collapse is connived at by his banking nemesis Bretton James, a wonderfully callous Josh Brolin, and leaves Jacob out for revenge. He is aided in his quest to hold Bretton accountable for the damage caused by his financial manoeuvrings by his prospective father-in-law Gekko. Gekko has returned to the limelight with his book ‘Is Greed Good?’ and has a history with Bretton. He would only have got a year for the insider trading Bud Fox implicated him in but Bretton sold him out on securities fraud and so he got sent down for eight years. This strand of the story is the film’s strong point with Gekko as prophet of doom, delivering a barnstorming lecture dissecting the credit crunch before it happens that is a devastating critique of modern high finance.

The emotional arc of Jacob becoming corrupted as he starts to work for Bretton even as he tries to get his fiancé Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan) to reconcile with her father, who she maintains cannot be trusted, is weaker. This is not the fault of Mulligan, who has one crackling scene of recriminations with Douglas over the death of her brother, but the over-extended screenplay. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is far too long and too cluttered compared to the straightforward morality play of the original. Stone maintains the importance of working at a real job producing tangible results, espoused by Martin Sheen in the original and here applied to Susan Sarandon as Jacob’s deluded mother – stung by the implosion of a real-estate bubble in Florida. Things all work out a bit too neatly here, but if a real job is defined by producing tangible results then Stone has produced an interesting companion piece that is well worth seeing.

3/5

July 13, 2010

Keanu Takes Stock

Keanu Reeves will be 46 in a few months, so how is he dealing with mid-life cinematically?

Back in 2004 when I wrote a profile of Keanu for the University Observer he had just refused to play Superman for Warner Bros, and now (not being connected to any lucrative franchise) unlike the era of George Reeves, he’d be considered about 20 years to old to even get an audition.  In that piece I’d cryptically noted that “The 40s is the decade where film stars have their last big roles” but didn’t have time to expand on my meaning, which was that Hollywood leading men tend to lose their cachet on hitting 50 so their 40s are the years where they have the maturity and the box-office clout to take on big roles – like John Wayne doing Red River and The Searchers, Gregory Peck doing Moby Dick, Cape Fear and To Kill a Mockingbird and even Michael Douglas doing Romancing the Stone, Wall Street and Basic Instinct.

Since Keanu turned 40 he’s appeared in only seven films Constantine, Thumbsucker, The Lake House, A Scanner Darkly, Street Kings, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Like Jack Nicholson in the 1980s he’s not been afraid to play supporting parts. His gleefully self-parodic performance in a glorified cameo in Thumbsucker as a zen orthodontist who spouts Gnostic nonsense to the titular hero is by far the best thing in the movie. His turn in Pippa Lee is also a joy, as his middle-age failed pastor and failed husband screw-up embarks on a tentative romance with Robin Wright’s eponymous character that may just redeem both their lives. Keanu’s sci-fi films, Scanner and Earth, struggled to find sustained audiences. Linklater’s roto-scoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel is a good if flawed film but Robert Downey Jr’s manic turn eclipses everything else, while Earth is a serviceable Christmas blockbuster in which Keanu nicely plays the emerging empathy with humans of the alien with awesome powers but the film struggles to truly justify remaking the revered original for the sake of CGI destruction sequences.

As far as mature roles go Street Kings’ Tom Ludlow must rank as one of his best. Ludlow is ‘the tip on the spear’ of the LAPD, a blunt instrument who stages ‘exigent circumstances’ to act on his Dirty Harry impulses and kill the worst criminals. Wrongly implicated in the murder of his former partner he jeopardises an elaborate cover-up by his friends in his single-minded search for the cop-killers, his unstoppable thirst for answers acting as a tragic flaw which reveals that his violent tendencies have been exploited by smarter people. Beside that career highlight The Lake House can seem insubstantial although it is a very sweet entry in the lengthy list of Keanu’s romantic dramas while Constantine stands out commercially as the franchise that never was… Keanu’s chain-smoking street magus John Constantine bore little resemblance to Alan Moore’s comics character but it powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing and a fine sense of metaphysical horror that was Keanu’s best film since The Matrix. Keanu seems to have moved away from franchise movies but that might just reduce the audience for his upcoming roles. He faces a dilemma it seems – does he take on another box-office behemoth or just cameo in indie movies?

Where he goes from here is a choice we leave up to him…

October 13, 2009

Films of the Decade?

Lists are generally easy when you don’t think about them too much. Easter 1998, lying in the grass on a sunny Kingston Hill, I and my friend John Fahey paused from football and in about 5 minutes picked out the one film that defined its decade, right back to the 1930s.

1990s – Pulp Fiction
1980s –Wall Street
1970s – All the President’s Men
1960s – Goldfinger
1950s – Ben-Hur
1940s – Casablanca
1930s – Gone with the Wind

Looking back at that list over 11 years later it holds up pretty well for what was a pretty facile exercise in that each film can arguably be held to represent a particular cultural zeitgeist in each decade (even if one has to reach to shoe-horn in Ben-Hur) with the arrival of Gone with the Wind just before the world plunges into World War II seeming particularly apt, indeed its still unbeatable box-office success may be because people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling thru it all. Now trying to do an equivalent list of the top 10 films of just this decade seems well nigh impossible… How do you make a list of the best films of the 2000s hereinafter known as the Zeros? I have no idea, well, that’s not true, I have too many ideas, hence the utter agony of trying to construct the list…

Should you simply pick the 10 films that you liked best? (The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings) Or should it be 10 films that in some (in)tangible way seemed to sum up the decade? (Fahrenheit 9/11) If you choose the latter route do you pick films that were influential over films that came later that were better but needed the initial film’s breakthrough? (Brokeback Mountain, Milk) Even more importantly do you pick films that you didn’t like or didn’t see just because you know they’re ‘important’? (Crash, Babel) Do you act like a pretentious film critic and load the list with foreign films that only 45 people in the country ever saw because they were at the press screenings too? (Waltz with Bashir) Or is allocating a set number of places for foreign films an unforgivably tokenistic way to get round the problem of popular imagination being largely defined by American releases? (Mesrine: 1& 2)

Does a film need to be set in its own decade to actually define that decade or can it do so by allegory? (Good Night and Good Luck) Do films reflecting the awesome impact of 9/11 and Iraq inherently capture the decade in a way films that blithely ignore those events simply cannot? (War of the Worlds, Land of the Dead) Does torture porn reflect/critique the Abu Ghraib mindset and therefore demand a place on any serious list even if you despised it? (Hostel) Do you just try to be comprehensive by shoe-horning in as many genres as possible into your top 10? (Superbad, The Fog of War) If a genre dominates a decade does it deserve disproportionate weighting, like Spider-Man and The Dark Knight both getting into the Top 10 as opposite ends of the comic-book spectrum?

At the moment I’m thinking that films which have stood the test of time and have matured deserve places most. So, here’s the top 20 films of the decade:

2000-2002

Memento    Almost Famous    Moulin Rouge!    Donnie Darko    The Lord of the Rings    Ocean’s Eleven                                                          

2003-2006

The Rules of Attraction    Master & Commander    Mean Girls    Good Night and Good Luck    Brick    Casino Royale    Stranger than Fiction

2007-2009

Zodiac    Atonement    I’m Not There    Wanted    Caramel    The Dark Knight    Milk                           

 

As of right now…

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