Talking Movies

June 10, 2018

They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people

The IFI presents a Killer Couples season for the month of June. Extremely notable by its absence is Bonnie & Clyde, which one would have thought essential. In its place there is a grab-bag of noirs, B-movies, black comedies, latter-day B-movies, and art-house drama, ranging from the 1940s to the 1990s, and Hollywood to New Zealand via the Nouvelle Vague.

Double Indemnity

Wednesday 6th June 18:20

Neil Brand claims for Miklos Rozsa’s opening chords the origin of the classic uneasy dissonance of high film noir music. One might note that the writing credits are equally seminal: the knowing dialogue of Raymond Chandler, the cynical plotting of James M Cain, and the chilly irony of director Billy Wilder. Nice guy Fred MacMurray is cast wonderfully against type as an insurance salesman who begins an affair with the wife of a client, Barbara Stanwyck’s definitive femme fatale.

Compulsion

Sunday 10th June 15:45

Orson Welles cameos as a thinly disguised Clarence Darrow pleading, at some length, for mercy for the upstanding rich young psychopaths he’s defending (Braford Dillman and Dean Stockwell). Based on the same infamous Leopold & Loeb murder case of 1924 that inspired Hitchcock’s Rope, director Richard Fleischer, in less fantastical territory than usual for him, chillingly depicts the students outwitting their elders with Nietzschean aphorisms before their abrogation of morality comes a cropper over a (providentially?) misplaced pair of glasses.

The Getaway

Wednesday 13th June 18:20

Cool character Steve McQueen is a hardened criminal in hard-man director Sam Peckinpah’s tough-minded version of hard-boiled novelist Jim Thompson’s brutal pulp novel, adapted by the thinking man’s hard man auteur Walter Hill. Yeah, there was a lot of competing machismo on the development and production of this 1972 movie. Poor Love Story star Ali McGraw got dog’s abuse for her poor acting from a perpetually drunk Peckinpah even as smitten co-star McQueen began a scandalous affair with her.

 

Ascenseur pour l’echafaud

Sunday 17th June 15:30

Louis Malle somehow convinced jazz great Miles Davis to simply improvise a score while watching footage of his 1957 directorial debut. Not technically a Nouvelle Vague film but it seems churlish to deny Malle’s kinship with them on account of two years’ chronology. Jeanne Moreau enigmatically wanders the streets of Paris at night waiting for her lover (Maurice Ronet), after their perfect murder of her husband goes predictably sideways, while a sub-plot sees two younger lovers cause chaos.

 

Pretty Poison

Wednesday 20th June 18:30

Psycho star Anthony Perkins is released from a mental institution under strict conditions but immediately runs into the murderous arms of manipulative teenager Tuesday Weld in this bizarre black comedy. A haze of insane conspiracies, mayhem, and bloodshed ensue, with an RD Laing zeitgeist-surfing vibe that the sane people are the ones in the asylum – the truly crazy people are the ones running around outside in the dramatically disintegrating America of 1968. Who wouldn’t prefer being safely locked up?

 

The Honeymoon Killers

Saturday 23rd June 15:30

French Connection and Jesus of Nazareth actor Tony Lo Bianco stars in Leonard Kastle’s blackly comic thriller as a con man who offers love and marriage to lonely women via lonely hearts newspaper classifieds but has something very different in mind, aided and abetted by his partner Shirley Stoler. A few scenes directed by Martin Scorsese still remain in the picture; astonishingly the exuberant motor-mouth was fired after 4 days because he was working too … slowly. Yep.

 

Natural Born Killers

Sunday 24th June 15:30

I think the IFI rather enjoys showing Oliver Stone’s 1994 throw-every-film-format-and-editing-style-there-is-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks media satire/fiasco just to remind everyone how they were prevented from doing so by the boo-hiss censor back in 1994. Now showing in 35mm, this may be your last chance to enjoy this as an original piece of madness before Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is finally released (soon, allegedly) and we can see the footage that Stone was shown privately pre-JFK and NBK

Gun Crazy

Thursday 28th June 18:30

Rope star John Dall is a naive young man who meets and marries (unhinged) carnival sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Irish actress Peggy Cummins) only to fall into a world of trouble due to her criminal proclivities. Dalton Trumbo co-wrote this while blacklisted, and there is some showy single-take and fixed-position direction by Joseph Lewis. Recent contributor hereabouts Friedrich Bagel somehow fell asleep during a screen 2 showing of this B-movie classic in the IFI some years ago, for shame!

Heavenly Creatures

Saturday 30th June 18:20

Before the unexpected transition to epic fantasy with The Lord of the Rings and after Meet the Freebles was Peter Jackson’s equally unexpected gothic drama based on a real life cause celebre in 1950s New Zealand. Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey both made their impressive screen debuts as the teenagers whose obsessive bond and shared fantasy world led to a very savage murder in the here and now. Legendary Weta was formed by Jackson to create that fantasy world.

Advertisements

June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

I come not to praise Seth MacFarlane, nor to bury him, but to consider his failure with a comedy-western alongside Damon Lindelof’s Cowboys & Aliens.

o-A-MILLION-WAYS-TO-DIE-IN-THE-WEST-TRAILER-facebook

I found A Million Ways to Die in the West to be oddly reminiscent of early Woody Allen films like Bananas; intermittently hilarious, but not really a film. But if Woody pre-Annie Hall was simply stitching together sketches without anything but the most broadly-drawn larger narrative purpose, then it seemed like the reverse was happening to MacFarlane – making ‘a Western, goddamnit!’ sucked the humour out of his comedy-western script. And so to a knotty point – there was a grindingly efficient story structure at work, but the central comic conceit of MacFarlane’s movie was unclear. Critic Joe Griffin pitches the film as – “it’s a normal guy with 21st century sensibilities who lives in the violent frontier of the Old West and is dragged into a typical Western story.” This nails MacFarlane’s interactions with Amanda Seyfried, which come close to replicating the clinical psychoanalysis terms Woody uses with Louise Lasser in Bananas with an almost identical purpose – the comedy of language entirely inappropriate to the situation. But the first genuinely funny moment is MacFarlane’s later riff on the dead mayor, which literally comes out of nowhere. Along with the inevitably blood-soaked county fair, it suggests that the titular conceit of horrible deaths would’ve been a far better source of thematic comedy. Instead MacFarlane decides to mine comedy by working the most exhausted seams of the rom-com with Charlize Theron; even down to the obligatory big lie – she chose not to tell him she’s married to terrifying Liam Neeson. Only very occasionally (to wake the audience) does he sprinkles absurdist comic moments; and meanwhile he’s also trying to touch every Western generic base.

Griffin writes “This, I think, is what happens when someone has had too much control on a project so early in his film career.” MacFarlane is the star, director, co-writer, and producer of A Million Ways; and his co-writers are his Ted and Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. That’s a lot of control. To put it in context, it’s more than M Night Shyamalan ever managed to acquire at the height of his hubris. It’s undeniable that without the success of Ted it’s unthinkable that MacFarlane would have been allowed to cast himself as the physical lead, and it’s probably equally unlikely that Wellesley and Sulkin would alienate their TV day-job boss by proposing a page-one rewrite of his pet film project. I have to agree with Griffin because getting too much control because of success is part and parcel of the disastrous creative bubble I described in 2011 which I predicted would scupper The Dark Knight Rises; Wellesley and Sulkin wouldn’t be silent because they wouldn’t want to rain on MacFarlane’s scripting parade, they’d be silent because they’d be doing the Macarena in the middle of the parade. Because they’d written Ted they’d assume whatever any of them suggested would be equally awesome, and so nobody cries halt until the train has gone far over the horizon. But I want to dissent against myself and speculate that what happened in the Million Ways writers’ room (story structure and Western tropes pushing out badly needed jokes) was the same as the fiasco that occurred not so long ago in another writers’ room not so very far away…

Cowboys and Aliens

Remember 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens? No, well, don’t feel bad. Here’s what its co-writer Damon (LOST) Lindelof had to say about it in an extremely interesting 2013 interview: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.” Cowboys & Aliens was supposedly based on a comic-book by Scott Mitchel Rosenberg, which, from the small sample available on Amazon, appears to proudly wear ‘guilt over the treatment of Native Americans in times gone by’ on its sleeve. That suggests that Ace Ventura creator Steve Oedekerk was right to create a fun screen story distinct from the comic-book. And then rewrites began… Of the credited writers a draft was done by Mark Fergus & Howard Ostby (Iron ManChildren of Men), whose credits suggest that a more serious tone had begun to emerge. Which is presumably why Lindelof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, M:I-3, Star Trek) were brought in to do the final draft of the script. Add some humour? Some nonsense? Yeah, well, obviously that didn’t work. But look at what Lindelof characterised as a genre trapping of the Western: Native American allies. What?! That would certainly be news to the Duke…

In 1991 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr took aim at America’s universities in his polemic The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger was extremely alarmed at the mass of evidence that political correctness had triumphed over sanity: “When a student sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual,’ a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: ‘This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.’” (117) In his 1982 novel Before She Met Me Julian Barnes had a history professor baffled by the genuine horror and anger of a student whenever the wrong side triumphed in any given stand-off. Schlesinger Jr was damning of attacks on ‘Eurocentric’ American history, and it was essentially an appeasement of Barnes’ fictional student; by rewriting history. In one district where Native Americans had political clout it was taught that their tribal politics had influenced Thomas Jefferson every bit as much as European Enlightenment. It had not, as Schlesinger Jr flatly stated. And yet… In Sleepy Hollow, co-created by Cowboys & Aliens scribes Kurtzman and Orci, we find Ichabod Crane noting how in his 1770s existence Native American tribal politics had been a pivotal influence on Thomas Jefferson. A throwaway cute line; to anyone who hasn’t read Schlesinger Jr’s book. If you have, you’re stunned that this is not meant as a joke or provocatively revisionist statement; it is simply stated as true when it is not.

Rio Bravo John Wayne Dean Martin

MacFarlane, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof were all born in 1973. This puts them in college at Brown, Wesleyan, UT Austin, and NYU Film School, respectively, during the height of the ‘Death to DWEMs’ tide that Schlesinger Jr was trying to turn back. I honestly think every time somebody sits down to write anything Western-related in Hollywood these days they get some epic pol.sci/film studies college flashback. As a result, in between apologising to Native Americans, rewriting the role of women in the West, inserting grim truths about the lawlessness and brutality of life then, demythologising Wayne and Ford’s back catalogue, and faithfully inserting and then attempting to subvert in the accepted revisionist mode every Western trope they were ever taught, they lose any sense of fun. Lindelof posited “a Western that had aliens as bad guys” as “the cooler movie”, and yet Cowboys & Aliens is entirely lacking any sense of being a cool adventure. It is, indeed, simply unthinkable that anybody could produce a Western right now that is exuberant fun; nobody would give you the finale of Rio Bravo. I think that may be a combination of film school prioritising, nay, canonising, serious Westerns like The Searchers and Red River over entertainments like El Dorado and Gunfight at the OK CorralRio Bravo isn’t a silly movie, but it is unabashed adventure played with great humour. But Lindelof’s description of embracing “the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies” suggests an inability to take the Western genre as it was, not as it ought to have been…

The complete failure of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t stop the even more epic failure of The Lone Ranger following it down the trail two years later. The savage darkness of The Lone Ranger was completely unsuitable for a Disney blockbuster supposedly aimed at kids, but it fitted perfectly the template of the Western produced by people Schlesinger couldn’t save. It’s admirable to insert a Sergio Leone tone into a Western romp for children, only if you also take that bloody-minded approach to your contemporary blockbusters and give us Transformers directed by Ken Loach as the working poor fighting against transforming robots who’re the highest form of capitalism. Really I think the idea of the Western as conceived by the children of 1973 is fundamentally incompatible with exuberance. In the 1970s radical directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill and Michael Cimino couldn’t wait to make a Western. But the revisionist Western wasn’t what audiences wanted. Nicholas Jarecki on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast recently made some interesting points about ‘genre exhaustion’, when an audience has seen every possible permutation arising out of a generic set-up. I don’t believe that’s what happened to the Western in the 1970s. I follow Stephen King in believing that George Lucas took the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the Western and simply, in a belated emulation of JFK’s call for a New Frontier, relocated it in space. And, as Spielberg’s Western framing at the end of The Last Crusade transparently indicates, crying for the death of the Western is like bemoaning the death of the dinosaurs while looking at flying birds: dinosaurs aren’t dead, they evolved.

Clint_GranTorino

If the blockbuster is the repository of the spirit of exuberant fun that lights up Rio Bravo, what does that make the contemporary Western? Well, it’s tempting to twist Lindelof’s words and say merely the outward trappings of the genre, stripped of its soul. Since Heaven’s Gate we’ve had serious Westerns like Dances with WolvesOpen RangeWyatt EarpUnforgivenTombstoneThe Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford3:10 to Yuma, and Seraphim Falls. We’ve had comedy mash-up disasters like Wild Wild WestCowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. And we’ve had nothing like a Rio Bravo… It’s admirable to try and cinematically reinstate the reality of the shameful treatment of the Native Americans in the Old West. But this admirable endeavour may run up against a problem if it’s part of a wider refusal to accept the Western genre for what it was and to believe that it can simply be rewritten to make it what it ought to have been. Such a massive undertaking may be more than the genre can accommodate, in one important respect – it can make for a good film, a good Western, but not a fun film. A Million Ways is not a fun film, even though it’s meant to be a comedy. And I think it’s because MacFarlane tried to hit every base; Native Americans as allies, the brutality and lawlessness of the West, rewriting the role of women (with particular emphasis on the brothels), the exploitation of Chinese labour; because he is one of that generation that can’t see a Western without giving a lecture on its propagandising.

MacFarlane certainly won’t be getting A Million Ways 2 off the ground, and his fiasco has probably scuppered any competent Destry Rides Again for the 2010s that was out there. But, considering Lindelof’s tropes, surely Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino comes closer to the cool movie that Lindelof wanted than Cowboys & Aliens. It shouldn’t be impossible to combine the 1973 generation’s ideal Western with exuberant fun – maybe it just needs Clint back in the saddle…

January 30, 2013

Bullet to the Head

I am not a Walter Hill fan… I venerate The Driver, but was nonplussed by The Warriors, and a recent viewing of the execrable Streets of Fire left me too enraged to review this film reasonably so my sometime co-scriptwriter John Healy, a man who actually likes The Warriors, writes:

Walter Hill fans can rejoice at a return to form, while Stallone fans continue to enjoy the veteran action star’s Indian summer, in this entertaining variation on the buddy-cop formula.

bullet_to_the_head

 

Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) is a hitman whose latest employer considers him a loose end and tries to have him killed. Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang, Fast Five) plays a New York cop after the man who had his corrupt former partner executed. Thrown together, they tear around New Orleans, chasing down powerful criminals (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and the evergreen Christian Slater) who are protected by a team of elite mercenaries headed up by the apparently unstoppable Keegan (Jason Momoa, Game of Thrones). They agree on the target, but not on the tactics.

Fans of Hill’s work will recognise all the old familiar pieces: the unconventional pairing of cop and criminal (48 Hours), the cop in an unfamiliar city (Red Heat), the exploding cabin in the bayou (Southern Comfort), the standoff with unconventional weapons (Streets of Fire), and the man with an unconventional moral code (pretty much everything he’s ever made). Yes, he’s repeating himself, but Hill is at his best working on variations of his favourite themes, and this is no exception. The references don’t stop there either – anyone who’s seen Once Upon a Time in the West can’t help but see something familiar in the relationship between Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s crippled, money-obsessed kingpin and Momoa’s muscle who cares more about honour. The familiarity is forgiven, however, as the plot ticks along nicely from each well-choreographed action set piece to the next. I’ve never seen New Orleans look better on film. Lloyd Ahern, Hill’s cinematographer of choice for the past 20 years, delivers a crisp, slick look – this is a modern action movie, not a relic of the 1980s. Stallone is comfortable in a role that wouldn’t fit a younger man, and the supporting cast are uniformly good; particularly Momoa, who shows some variation from the near-mute brutes he has made his name playing.

We move then to the negatives. Perhaps the film suffers from one villain too many; as good as Slater is, I’m not sure his character was necessary. Sarah Shahi’s role as Bobo’s daughter is transparently there for three things: romance with Kwan leading to tension between him and Bobo, a late kidnapping to up the stakes, and eye candy for the audience. Each element is executed well, but I resented being introduced to a character whose entire role was so predictable. The violence is a little excessive; not quite to the degree that Tarantino indulges himself, but certainly enough to be distracting at times. To say the dialogue can be expository is to downplay the fact that Kwan’s phone is literally used as an expository device. And, while we’re on dialogue, Bobo’s racist banter with Kwan never comes off quite as well as the same trick did in 48 Hours. I’m not sure if it’s used more, or the delivery just isn’t as good, but it feels a little off at times.

On the whole this is a perfectly good dumb action movie, a notch above most of the dreck dumped in the post-Oscar slots, which can be recommended as a solid 90 minutes’ entertainment. Three stars, with bonus half stars for fans of action movies, Stallone and Hill.

3/5

September 21, 2011

Drive

Ryan Gosling is an enigmatic part-time getaway driver who falls foul of LA gangsters in this misfiring existential thriller.

Drive is a film of two parts, the first part is rather good, and the second part is quite troubling. We’re introduced to Gosling’s unnamed driver in a great, great opening. Rumbling beats (that Fincher’s probably already bought the rights to) underscore a getaway of sublime skill and suavity. Those beats give way to a synthtastic 1980s homage soundtrack as the film slows to an enigmatic and brilliant crawl as it fleshes out Gosling’s life. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston is Gosling’s mentor, a mechanic and film stunt co-ordinator crippled by men close to Ron Perlman’s savage Jewish mobster Nino, who now dreams of getting his protege to put his driving skills to more public use in stock-car. Albert Brooks is the ‘nice’ mobster who’ll fund their team. This move to normality is mirrored by Gosling’s growing friendship with neighbour Carey Mulligan, as he becomes a surrogate father to her young son.

This humanising of the taciturn Gosling is beautifully photographed and reminiscent of Fish Tank in its finding of pastoral in an urban landscape. Mulligan is an empathetic presence while Brooks excels at using his nice-guy persona to complicate our attitudes to his mobster. The introduction of the plot, rather than turning this film into 1978’s sublime The Driver, merely scuppers things. The Obstacle Carey’s husband returns from jail owing protection money so our hero decides to help him and a cameoing Christina Hendricks out on a low-risk heist, which goes disastrously wrong. Brooks’ in-camera mission statement, “I used to produce movies in the 80s. Action, arty stuff. The critics liked them, called them European. I thought they were shit”, then kicks in. Director Nicolas Winding Refn uses music, a car-crash, and surf rolling into a deserted beach at night to incredibly foreboding effect in staging one murder, but mostly his use of violence is both unnecessary and excessive.

Do you want to see a woman’s head get blown apart by a shotgun blast in slow motion, a man have his hand smashed repeatedly with a hammer, a man have a fork thrust in his eyeball to distract him while his assailant searches for a cleaver to plunge repeatedly into his neck and chest, a man have his arm slit open by a cut-throat razor, or a man have his head kicked in until he’s quite dead and then kicked some more until bone-dust rises up into the camera? Well if you don’t then you should leave half-way thru Drive. Gosling is charismatic in his Eastwoodian role, and you can see why he personally chose Refn as director, but this is less an existentialist thriller and more just humourless grindhouse masquerading as arthouse.

If you loved The Driver, you might like half of Drive

2/5

Blog at WordPress.com.