Talking Movies

July 20, 2018

From the Archives: The Dark Knight

On this day ten years ago I saw The Dark Knight on the biggest IMAX screen in the world. Yeah…

“Where do we begin?” The Dark Knight is a sequel that expands upon and darkens an existing cinematic universe so successfully and unsettlingly that it ranks far above what one would think of as the obvious reference point The Empire Strikes Back and instead starts advancing menacingly towards The Godfather: Part II…

Director Christopher Nolan and his screenwriter brother Jonathan are very clever, as evidenced by their last collaboration The Prestige, and see greatness where others do not, as evidenced by reading the original novel of The Prestige. In The Dark Knight they have constructed a story that takes the mythology of the DC comic books and turns it into both high tragedy and violent mayhem.

Christian Bale is superb as Bruce Wayne who is quickly becoming a physical and emotional wreck after one year of being the Batman. What was intended as a short-term project to clean up corruption looks to be nearing its end with a final audacious swoop on the mob’s money-men. Bruce’s only chance of a normal life is slipping away though as his sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal at her most winning), tired of waiting for Bruce, is dating the idealistic new District Attorney Harvey Dent (a wonderfully charismatic Aaron Eckhart who also communicates an underlying instability that could lead Harvey to places of great moral darkness). Bruce can only compete against Dent for Rachel if he can trust Dent enough to retire Batman and leave the crime-fighting to the legitimate forces of Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his Major Crimes Unit. However such plans are wrecked when the mob in their desperation at Batman’s success decide to fight back by hiring, in the Don Sal Maroni’s own words, “a two bit whack-job in a cheap purple suit and make up”…The Joker.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, physical and unhinged – licking his lips like a snake sensing its prey, blows away the inert Jack Nicholson performance and retires the role for a generation if not all time. Oscars don’t go to films like this but Ledger’s performance here is worthy of consideration. His Joker is blackly hilarious and utterly terrifying, usually at the same time, and even his musical theme is chilling. The Nolan brothers cross many lines in depicting his psychopathic unpredictability. One of the taglines for this film was “Welcome to a world without rules”. Batman cannot understand Joker.  Carmine Falcone wanted power, Scarecrow wanted money, Ras Al’Ghul wanted order, The Joker? –  “I’m an agent of chaos”… His escalating mind games in the film move from straight crime with a superbly staged opening heist against a Mob bank, to terrorist attacks, to sick mass murder and beyond…

The Dark Knight is fiercely intelligent, ingeniously structured (to reveal plot details would be a sin) and gives memorable lines and moments to each member of a large ensemble, while the twisted bond between Batman and Joker that exists in the comics finally receives a cinematic depiction. This is all incredibly realistic looking with 60% of the film shot on location and if seen on an Imax screen, as Christopher Nolan indeed shot it especially for, Gotham becomes a character in its own right with its cityscape lovingly captured in vertiginous shots. Written, played and directed with supreme assuredness this is one of the most gut-wrenchingly suspenseful films of the year that looks to 1970s crime thrillers like Serpico rather than superhero films for its modus operandi with its theme of police corruption. Indeed this is unlike any previous Bat-sequel, as can be seen by the difference between the grisly Two-Face in this film compared to previous camp interpretations, and is even tonally different in many ways to Batman Begins. Wanted may be the most fun blockbuster this summer but the Bat has captured the classy end of the spectrum with a film that combines meaty drama with explosive action.

You need to see The Dark Knight. Repeatedly…

5/5

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July 9, 2018

From the Archives: Wanted

Another excursion to the pre-Talking Movies archives returns with the most outre blockbuster of summer 2008.

Just when it looked like the summer blockbusters had settled for polite dullness along comes Wanted, which in its finest moments resembles nothing so much as In Bruges on speed. Not having read the graphic novels I can’t speak as to how faithful an adaptation this is, but having read other comics by Scottish writer Mark Millar (who co-produced this film) I can say that it displays an appropriate love of  outrageously cool violence and profane dark humour. Timur Bekmambetov is a name we should all learn to remember because, following up the promise of his Russian films Night Watch and Day Watch, this film is shot with more flair and a deeper sense of fun than most of 2008’s other popcorn blockbusters combined.

Atonement star James McAvoy is a humdrum accounts manager, put upon by his boss, cheated on by his girlfriend (with his best friend for added insult) and reduced to popping pills to combat his superbly staged anxiety attacks. Until a woman shows up, who explains the heightened senses he experiences when stressed are really the 400 beat a minute heart rate that marks him as one of The Fraternity, a 1,000 year old organisation of elite assassins who read codes in the weaves of a loom for the names of mass murderers that fate decrees must die before they start their murderous ways. The first hour of Wanted is ridiculously exhilarating as the obligatory training at the hands of the mentors become funnier and more unexpected than ever before.

Things inevitably run out of steam in the middle but thankfully the film ends with a truly deranged action finale dripping with priceless moments. Treasure the sound effect of the year as a rat, about to explode, utters a squeak which betrays a note of some concern. Wince as a man is shot thru the eye and then shot thru it again and again as his corpse is used as a human shield. Savour the wise old man Morgan Freeman delivering an expletive better than Samuel L Jackson…

Finally rejoice in the awesomeness of Angelina Jolie. I was unmercifully hostile to A Mighty Heart which I said failed because her public persona swamped her acting. Personas are odd things. John Wayne took a number of years to create the persona of ‘John Wayne’, perfected in Stagecoach and re-hashed for the next 37 years. Angelina Jolie’s persona is more a purely public creation that cannot be captured on celluloid. Her smash hit Mr & Mrs Smith centred on a tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt, and so was a heightened expression of the comic book which is her life. Well… her preposterous sexuality, sly humour and dark allure are it turns out perfect casting for an assassin of few words called Fox. Her performance alone makes Wanted a must-see.

4/5

February 10, 2016

Deadpool

Seven years later Ryan Reynolds gets to play Deadpool properly, but X-Men Origins: Wolverine is neither forgotten nor forgiven in this uproarious scabrous assault on cliché, and the fourth wall.

Deadpool International Quad

Deadpool begins with a credits sequence insulting all the crew (save the writers), and listing not actors but their tokenistic functions (British Villain, Hot Chick). Riffing on Batman Begins’ chronology we begin with Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) shooting the breeze with cabbie Dopinder (Karan Soni) before a massive motorway bloodbath, and get his origin story in flashbacks between arguments with Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) over said bloodbath. Once mercenary Wade Wilson did bad things to worse people for money, hung out in a merc bar run by Weasel (TJ Miller), and hooked up with equally abrasive hooker Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Then, attempting to beat terminal cancer, he said yes to a recruiter [‘Agent Smith’] (Jed Rees), and ended up being forcibly mutated by sadistic Ajax [Not his real name] (Ed Skrein) and Angel Dust (Gina Carano).

And lo, Deadpool… His mask looks like Spider-Man’s but there’s an R-rated lip under it; quipping about genre clichés, and anything else he might want to rip. There’s an Adult Swim vibe to proceedings, think Robot Chicken and The Venture Brothers: sarcastic questioning of the safety of Professor X’s mansion getting the immortal reply [from now Russian Colossus] “Please… house blowing up builds character,” Stan Lee making his most unlikely cameo ever, and Deadpool mumbling “It’s weird. This house is really big but there only ever seems to be the two of you in it. It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man…” FX’s Archer [Corinth is famous for its leather!] is also present spiritually in a festive sex montage [International Women’s Day – Ouchie!] and the abusive Archer/Woodhouse dynamic between Deadpool and his elderly blind housemate Al (Leslie Uggams).

Alas, the Fourth Wall. [And good riddance…] It never stood a chance against Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza’s creation. Imagine Seths Rogen and Green riffing over the first Wolverine and you’re close to how Deadpool feels. Deadpool’s origin is V’s in V for Vendetta, but such rehashing doesn’t matter because this movie knows the perfect Iron Man film would be all Tony Stark, no Iron Man. Deadpool’s fights are nifty, but the draw is the scatological absurdities director Tim Miller has Reynolds and Miller improvise over Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s script. Superhero landings, female superhero costumes, Hollywood; nothing is off limits [“Looks are everything! Do you think Ryan Reynolds got this far based on his acting technique?”]. Especially Hugh Jackman and the first Wolverine; there’s an inexplicable flight deck in a scrap yard in order to parody its finale.

Guardians of the Galaxy sprinkled absurdity over stale MCU story structure, but Deadpool mocks what little structure it doesn’t discard. Not since Wanted has a comic-book movie swaggered so unpredictably, and it’s to be hoped people respond to this the way they didn’t to Scott Pilgrim. We need more.

5/5

June 20, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3-D

Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov returns to the fray with Tim Burton producing an adaptation of his Dark Shadows cohort Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling novel.

In 1818 the 9 year old Abraham Lincoln tries to stop the whipping of his friend Will Johnson as Will’s family is sundered by slavers led by the evil Jack Barts (LOTR actor Marton Csokas), incurring the wrath of Barts who kills Abe’s mother Nancy. The adult Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) attacks Barts only to discover, in a neat long-take, that shooting him in the head isn’t enough… Lincoln is instructed in the art of slaying by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), and in 1837 is dispatched to Springfield, Illinois, to rid the city of vampires. He is distracted from his vengeance by meeting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and, when Will (Anthony Mackie) returns, Lincoln and his employer Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) enter politics to defeat slavery and the Southern vampires, led by Rufus Sewell’s Adam, who depend upon its continuation.

Far from the gleeful nonsense you’d expect, this film takes itself very, very seriously. The vampires are CGI enhanced ‘fangs like sharks’ monsters (think Supernatural) and played for horror as they walk in sunlight and can become invisible. Lincoln narrates that Henry has a few weeks to teach him a lifetime of skills. The same could be said of the jump-cutting script: Sturgess trains Lincoln in a Batman Begins vein before either character has been properly established. This film amazingly is both dragged out (its 105 minutes feel like 135) and rushed – at the same time. It lashes thru training, slaying, politics, and civil war, with infuriating gaps in detail, empathy and logic. Speed seems to know Abe’s secret before he’s told, Sturgess’ secret is obvious from the opening scene, Barts is seemingly killed, and Harriet Tubman appears but nobody mentions it…

There are precious few gags, and only the broadest one works: “We’ll be late for the theatre.” Alan Tudyk is tragically underused as Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s bête noire, here a romantic rival who becomes a political opponent, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead has her customary ‘MEW kicks ass’ moment, but the set-piece finale on a train exemplifies the film; just a bit stupid rather than OTT fun. Sewell enjoys himself and model Erin Wasson is a striking presence as his sister Vadoma but, like Walker (and indeed everyone bar Cooper who has the most interesting role), they have acres of screen-time and nothing interesting to do. Having read Adam Gopnik’s book which highlights the comic absurdity of Lincoln condemning the Southern code of vengeance and then duelling for Mary’s honour I have to say the real Lincoln is infinitely more complex, compelling, and yes, entertaining a character.

This film takes the most enjoyably absurd high concept imaginable, but instead of being delirious mayhem somehow ends up being just dull.

2/5

January 11, 2012

The Darkest Hour 3-D

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Emile’s fine…

Emile Hirsch stars as a young tech entrepreneur in Chris Gorak’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama set in Moscow, and produced by Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov. Hirsch and his business partner and lifelong friend Max Minghella arrive in Moscow to launch a Russian expansion of their social networking site Globe Trot. Only to find that they’ve been royally screwed by their dodgy business associate played by Alexander Skarsgaard lookalike Joel Kinnaman, who has the advantage over them of actually speaking Russian and has stolen their idea. Disconsolate they retreat to Zvezda nightclub where they meet two users of Globe Trot, Olivia Thirlby and Rachael Taylor. Kinnaman shows up for a celebration of his business deal, but a fight is halted by a sudden power-cut that heralds the descent of alien invaders. What resemble glowing jellyfish descend from the skies and then become invisible, before shredding any human who touches them with a blast of electromagnetic wave energy that reduces them to their molecular structure instantly.

The Darkest Hour recalls Cloverfield in its quick setting up of a small group of people before realistically killing them off in shocking and suspenseful ways as they grapple with an alien invasion they don’t really comprehend. The script by Jon Spaiht was originally conceived for small town Ohio by Leslie Bohem & MT Ahern but became a far different beast when the chance to explore Russia opened up. Unfortunately the script lacks Drew Goddard’s wit and so, unlike Cloverfield, you’re not fully on board with rooting for these characters before they’re thrown into peril. The peril though is very well handled. A sequence in a deserted Red Square is memorable both for its stunning location and its tension as our heroes try to escape detection by an enemy they cannot see. Gorak’s love of 28 Days Later is clear from the joy he finds in filming scenes in a Moscow whose 14 million citizens have been reduced to a thin dust on the eerily empty streets.

These Americans and Australian are totally lost in an urban environment where even the street signs are in an alphabet they can’t read. Gorak makes daytime a source of terror as only at night can the aliens be easily detected when they light up electric outlets. The science is explained by a nicely deranged Dato Bakhtadze as Sergei, riffing on Brendan Gleeson’s role in 28 Days Later. Indeed the stars are comprehensively outshone by their support. Veronika Vernadskaya as Vika has some wonderful moments as the resolute teenage survivor. Gohas Kutsnko as Matveo is magnificent as a Russian soldier who has figured out to how to defeat the aliens and plans a Leningrad style resistance; he would rather die with Moscow at his back than survive in exile. This recalls Colin Farrell’s character in The Way Back, but with Bekmambetov advising we can apparently now regard this as a real Russian trait.

The ending stresses the note of hope too much, when the world’s population could now probably live comfortably in North London, but this is a solid piece of work.

3/5

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part II

Drive has inspired this provisional attempt at asking what different types of movie violence exist, how they can be categorised, and what meanings each might have.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” – Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s defence of the Aesthetes is never far behind any justification of excessive violence in cinema. As a defence it has only one drawback, it’s not remotely true. Art can be deeply immoral. I direct you to Triumph of the Will. Quite often film historians will rave about the innovation or dazzling techniques employed by its director Leni Riefenstahl, and then snap back into their conscious minds, realise just how far down a  particularly crooked garden path they’ve gone, and hastily backtrack with a “BUT of course it’s a terribly evil film….” Films do not exist in a vacuum. They’re part of our lived experience, and if we have any sense of right and wrong surely films are implicated in it in more than a three-act Hollywood good defeats evil structural sense.

I reviewed Paranoid Park for InDublin and was appalled at the bisection of an innocent security guard by its unlikeable hero that was the pivot of the film. But I was stunned to see one American critic summon the courage to dub that moment deeply immoral. We’ve been inured to think about screen violence only in terms of effect, technique, structure, but there are different types of violence and morality cannot always be parked at the door as Wilde would wish. A man getting his head stomped on by Ryan Gosling till bone-dust floats in front of the lens inhabits a different universe than a lengthy sword-fight between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn ending with Rathbone’s death. Cinematic violence can be divided into a number of types, and the most obvious type is spectacle. A swordfight is violent, a cowboy duel is violent, a shoot-out is violent, a suspenseful Spielberg action sequence is violent, the lobby scene in The Matrix is violent – but it is the violence of spectacle. Hugh Jackman said that his musical theatre training was helpful in preparing for boxing in Real Steel because fight choreography is just choreography. When action is spectacle, what you’re really watching and enjoying is the choreography.

“Art is art because it is not nature” – Oscar Wilde

Can violence that is not seeking to appeal to the audience’s admiration for good choreography ever truly be aesthetic? Drive depicts a woman’s head exploding from a shotgun blast in anatomically accurate detail. Scorsese realistically depicts the explosion of a body dropped from a roof when it hits the ground, spraying Leonardo DiCaprio with blood, in The Departed. Why do film-makers engaged in depicting violence which is not spectacle usually go for such extreme verisimilitude? For every Kill Bill touch of blood spurting 30 feet there’s multiple instances of something like a gangster being bashed in the head by a shovel in Miller’s Crossing or a gangster being bashed in the head by a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Wilde’s dictum, if taken seriously, implies that 1950s cowboys keeling over dead without any blood being spilled after being shot is more artistic than R rated violence, because it is so obviously not nature but rather an artistic convention. Spielberg at least acknowledged that he was going for extreme authenticity in Saving Private Ryan to traumatise the audience rather than for his usual purpose of using violence – scaring/entertaining them, we’ll label all such uses of violence as catharsis to make life easier. Violent film-makers though seem to enjoy rendering violence in extreme detail not for reasons of catharsis but because they just like depicting bloody violence.

Can violence detached from the spectacle of choreography ever be aesthetic and nothing else? I doubt it, given that we seemed to have reached a point in cinema history where violence must be very realistic (whether fully depicted or screened from view) or it defeats the verisimilitude of its context. A more important question is just why is violence so important to cinema? Raymond Chandler quipped that whenever he got stuck he simply wrote a guy with a gun walking into the room. I’ve hammered LOST before for exactly this sort of laziness in which violence is used as a cheat, a jump-leads to make a scene tense and raise the dramatic stakes without bothering to write escalating conflict, character based tension, or biting dialogue. But this idea allows us to provisionally divide violence into four categories: spectacle, catharsis, function, sadism – suffering is the key to noting the last as well as a certain monolithic quality of the film as violent film and nothing else. It is also the only one that raises moral qualms, as opposed to seething dissatisfaction at lazy writing and distaste at a high water-mark of violence becoming the norm for ignoble reasons of sheer functionality. The fight in the subway at the end of The Matrix is all about the spectacle of dazzling wire-assisted choreography. By contrast the fights in Batman Begins are a total blur in which Batman wins, because Nolan very deliberately shoots too close to the action so as to shift the focus away from the spectacle; it doesn’t matter how Batman beats people up, what matters is that he can beat people up – it’s a question of function and character, not of aesthetics and spectacle. Functional violence is now the grease on the wheels of the three-act structure in many instances. At the climaxes of films, as villains get their desserts, it often overlaps with catharsis.

Catharsis is obviously an ancient legitimisation for extreme violence, and indeed Incendies will probably be my film of the year because it used shocking violence to purge the emotions of its audience with pity and fear to such powerful effect that the entire cinema sat in a stunned Aristotelian silence for some minutes at the end of my screening before shuffling out feeling somewhat mind-blown. But there is a fine line between catharsis and sadism, even in the greatest works. Oedipus gouging out his own eyes when he discovers the truth of his actions is not the same as Titus Andronicus informing his enemy exactly what was in the pie she just ate. ‘Shakespeare was really violent too’ is therefore not a carte blanche excuse for grotesque violence, though it’s often used in defence of extreme screen violence. Yes, Shakespeare was a bloody nihilist in King Lear and Titus Andronicus; in performance everything in Lear can seem mere build up to Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, while Titus is simply a catalogue of grand guignol horror from start to finish. But Shakespeare also wrote the frothy feather-light follies Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing where you’ll look in vain for any eye-gouging or cannibalism. Shakespeare had range with a capital R. The problem with Tarantino’s spawn is that they specialise in violence to a worryingly monolithic extent, and their violence often veers towards the Titus approach rather than Lear – audiences do not cry with pity and fear for what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally purged, they moan in revulsion and disgust at what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally contaminated.

“Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie” – Last House on the Left tagline

Sadism – the true differentiator. Violence as spectacle, function or catharsis doesn’t provoke the same shudder. Incendies was deeply shocking in its depiction of violence, but, crucially, it wasn’t shocking because of graphic depictions of that violence, but because of the connections between who was committing the acts and who they were victimising, on both an individual and societal basis. Sadism does not have that concern which elevates catharsis. It is concerned with depicting suffering for its own sake. Hostel auteur Eli Roth wants you to see a man lose two fingers on both hands as he breaks his bonds and then keep going in his quest to escape the deadly hostel, leaving his fingers behind him. I’ve written about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, noting that the theatrical cut showcased all the most obnoxious moments of his director’s cut: Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer. Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off – ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him to die in agony when Alan Moore’s script slashes his throat for an instant death? I said previously that Snyder was adding sadism to an already nasty story, but now I note he’s changing the category of violence – from function to sadism. He wants you to see people suffering, and that is a sensibility I find deeply troubling, not least because it seems to be shared at certain times by celebrated directors like Refn, the Coens, Tarantino, Scorsese, Burton, Haneke and Miike. I won’t say that what these film-makers do with violence at their worst moments is immoral, but it is deeply troubling, and it’s time to stop meekly accepting their cod-Wildean ersatz-Shakesperean defences and ask just why it is that they apparently get off so much on depicting violence in gory detail with an emphasis on suffering.

Drive didn’t perturb me because it was a film purely of sadistic violence; the first outbreaks of bloodletting are all about function and catharsis, while the ominous killing on the beach is violence as both spectacle and catharsis. No, it’s taken me a long time to fathom what lies behind my feeling that Drive really was a film of two parts; the first of which I loved, the second of which I despised. And this is it. A film makes a contract with the audience, and for me Drive broke that contract – I didn’t expect that sort of violence to develop from the first part of the movie, and I don’t appreciate being told I’ve seen equally graphic violence in films that signed a different contract and delivered the goods as agreed. Spielberg and Hitchcock are pranksters, asking you where the line is repeatedly, to establish it in their minds, and then crossing that line for fun. Robert Rodriguez, in Machete or Planet Terror, establishes his ground rules for schlocky violence in the opening minutes. Saying I shouldn’t attack Drive because I enjoyed Wanted ignores the different contracts that they proffered regarding the nature of the screen violence to expect, and is akin to this:

BORIS: A 0-0 draw. Great. What a riveting football match…
JOHNSON: What are you complaining about? Have you forgotten that 0-0 draw last week that had you enthralled?
BORIS: What, the one with the 2 disallowed goals, 3 sendings off, 4 shots off the crossbar, 5 off the post and 60 shots saved?
GODUNOV: The very one.
BORIS: (beat) I think that was a bit different. How many shots were there tonight?
JOHNSON: What, on target?
BORIS: No, at all.
GODUNOV: Um… None. It was 90 minutes of 22 men on their own goal-lines.
BORIS: Yeah, it was 0-0 and so was last week’s match, but this one was excruciating.

As Enda Kenny used to bellow (but not at Nicolas Winding Refn, though he’d stand hearing it) “Sign the Contract!”

June 7, 2011

James McAvoy needs a new agent

INT.HOLLYWOOD OFFICE-DAY
DELANEY, agent to a galaxy of stars, well, James McAvoy and Mark Pellegrino, sits at his desk lovingly watering his potted plant while JAMES MCAVOY, paces around the office restlessly, waves his arms passionately, and complains volubly…

MCAVOY: It’s happened again! Again!
DELANEY: What? That I got you the lead role in a great film, yeah, you’re welcome.
MCAVOY: Pshaw! I’ve been upstaged as the lead in a great film, again, you mean!
DELANEY: What do you mean ‘again’?
MCAVOY: This is continually happening to me. Take The Last King of Scotland.
DELANEY: I did, you wanted that! You’re Scottish.
MCAVOY: Yes, I wanted it but look what happened. Forest Whitaker won the bloody Oscar for his supporting role. Best Actor for a supporting role! And I didn’t even get nominated!
DELANEY: Yeah, but then I got you Atonement.
MCAVOY: Where I was upstaged by a 12 year old girl! Who also got nominated! When I didn’t. Again!
DELANEY: She’s a very good actress.
MCAVOY: I’ll grant you that. (beat) Perhaps no one could have seen that one coming. But, Wanted, there’s no excuse for that.
DELANEY: You loved Wanted! When I told you I had the lead role in a Mark Millar action-movie, Mark Millar, Scottish comics genius, you nearly we-
MCAVOY: Yes! Yes, that’s true. But… if you’d told me Angelina Jolie was going to be playing Fox I would have thought twice about it, because she upstaged me! And she was always bound to upstage me from that role.
DELANEY: And your gripe with X-Men: First Class is what exactly?
MCAVOY: What do you think, Delaney? Fassbender upstaged me!
DELANEY: Well, couldn’t you have tried harder?
MCAVOY: Tried harder! Tried harder? He clearly had the better part!
DELANEY: What? That’s insane. Your name comes first on the cast-list. I checked before I told them you’d consider it. Only the best for my MacAvoy!
MCAVOY: Answer me this. What do I do in the movie that’s cool?
DELANEY: You drink from that silly long tubey glass, and hit on girls, oh, and read people’s minds, oh, oh, and make them do stuff they don’t want to.
MCAVOY: No, that’s funny, that’s what I do that’s funny, what do I do that’s cool?
DELANEY: Um…
MCAVOY: Nothing that’s what! Professor X wanders around like a spoilt rich kid, ignoring the fact that Mystique is plainly in love with him, and that the world does not want to sit down by a campfire and sing Cumbaya with the mutants. Meanwhile freaking Fassbender is…is… just…
DELANEY: Fassbendering?
MCAVOY: YES! He’s off in Argentina killing Nazis like he’s wandered in from some sort of deleted storyline from Inglourious Basterds while I’m doing my best to be as sleazy as Patrick Stewart’s proposed take on Professor X in Extras!
DELANEY: So, what’ s your point?
MCAVOY: My point, and I want you to pay very close attention to this because I’ve been talking to Pellegrino and so have a very realistic appreciation of the chances of you actually grasping this, is that – just because a name comes first in the list of characters or in the cast-list doesn’t mean that it’s the best part in the movie.
DELANEY: Wh-what?
MCAVOY: Sometimes, and I’m sorry for this because I know this will wound you deeply, it is actually necessary to read the script first and not just the list of characters before deciding what part is the best part.
DELANEY: Read…. Read…. (Delaney starts to hyperventilate)
(McAvoy walks over and places a finger to Delaney’s forehead)
MCAVOY: Just breathe. Calm your mind. Be Calm.
DELANEY: (Delaney’s equilibrium is magically restored) Read… the script?!
MCAVOY: Yes, or which would be better, just get Janine to read the script for you.
DELANEY: But what would she know about something like that? I’m the agent, I’m the litmus test of dramatic quality around here. She’s just the secretary.
(McAvoy hits speakerphone switch.)
MCAVOY: Janine, did you by any chance read the script for X-Men: First Class when it was lying around the office a while back?
JANINE (O/S): Yes.
MCAVOY: Now, Janine, don’t think about this, just answer instantly, which is the better part in your opinion in that script, Xavier or Erik?
JANINE (O/S): Oh, Erik of course. Erik is just a more complex and challenging role. He’s got such a compelling and justifiable motivation for his actions that it just completely skews all traditional comic-book morality. It’s probably Vaughn’s touch after co-writing Kick-Ass, but it’s hard not to think that he’s portraying Erik much like Big Daddy, as a dark superhero rather than as a super-villain.
MCAVOY: Thank you, Janine. (He clicks off speakerphone switch) You see?
DELANEY: X-traordinary. I’ve never seen anything like this before…
(McAvoy groans and slumps in chair.)

December 6, 2010

Dramatis Personae: Annie & Zooey

This meditation on personae and typecasting began as a proposed comment on Paul Fennessy’s piece on She & Him’s Volume II, but soon developed a life of its own…

While reading his blog I thought of the episode of Elvis Costello’s music show in which both She & Him and Jenny Lewis performed new material. She & Him’s music seemed inconsequential beside Jenny Lewis, perhaps because she had the achievements of Rilo Kiley behind her, but perhaps also because Zooey’s presence visually indicated this was merely quirky fluff and not to be taken seriously. But listen to it on the radio without any visuals and it stands up beside Jenny Lewis’ solo output. Which begs the question has Zooey become almost as much a victim of her screen persona as the Annie of my title, Angelina Jolie?

When I first sat thru the trailer for Salt and saw a blonde Jolie wearing smart work-clothes, who goes on the run by dyeing her hair black and dressing in leather, I asked out loud in disbelief – “Wait, so her disguise is to turn into Angelina Jolie?!” The persona that Jolie has created is something I’ve discussed in reviews of A Mighty Heart and Wanted which remains fascinating. Many stars have eschewed acting in favour of creating a persona which they impose on every role. The Duke took years to create the persona that he was able to live off for four decades. He was able to play against it in The Searchers, and toy with its comedic potential in The Quiet Man, but mostly he just imposed it on every script. Hence John Ford’s apocryphal outburst on seeing Red River, “I never knew the son of a bitch could act!” Jolie though is burdened not with a cinematic persona created thru a decade of hard-graft in B-movies, but with a purely public persona created thru a decade of tabloid headlines. This cannot be captured on celluloid, except parodically. Her sole smash hits in the last decade were Mr & Mrs Smith and Wanted. Mr & Mrs Smith centred on her tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt’s character, and at times it played merely as a cinematic objective-correlative of the preposterous comic-book which is her life, as depicted by the tabloids. Wanted seemed to say that her persona of voluptuous sexuality, sly humour and dark allure couldn’t be taken seriously, but could be perfect casting for an assassin of few words called…Fox.

This glorious playing up to her ridiculous persona followed her failure to win an Oscar for A Mighty Heart. It certainly wasn’t for want of trying. The curled hair, darkened pigmentation, French accent, and despairing shouting did everything short of run ‘For Your Consideration’ subtitles across the bottom of cinema screens. Yet the baggage of her all too public life sank what would have been a great role for a lower profile actress. All her best moments were in quiet unshowy scenes when she stopped giving ‘a performance’, but that’s increasingly hard to do, as Changeling also saw her fail to convincingly morph into an everywoman character. Jolie seems painfully aware that this outlandish persona is destroying her, hence her uber-grim directorial debut and those attempts with A Mighty Heart and Changeling to return to serious drama. Salt’s more serious return to Mr & Mrs Smith action-land seems to reflect distinct unease with comedically approaching the persona and perpetuating it as Membektov did with such visual panache in Wanted. Salt suggests a plan to alternate money-making dutiful nods to her persona (The Tourist) with focused attempts to overcome it.

Deschanel’s persona is a horse of a different colour. The apocryphal anecdote of Emily returning from auditioning to fume to her kid sister that they were looking for ‘a Zooey Deschanel type’ emphasises how quickly her deadpan quirkiness, showcased to perfection as the cool older sister in Almost Famous, became a persona. The point of a persona of course is that it’s a heightened construct. Jolie has trouble finding a cinematic home for her tabloid-created persona whereas Zooey’s persona, being in the classic Wayne mould, is infinitely more useful. She’s been able to use it both in supporting roles as the idiosyncratic best friend in Failure to Launch, The Good Girl, and Showtime’s Weeds, and as the dead-pan romantic heroine in Elf, Yes Man and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hitchhiker’s in particular saw her breathe some badly needed life and depth into the character of Trillian. The adorable Zooey from Almost Famous and Elf was reinforced with some emotional weight to become the definitive Trillian. In doing so much with a historically underwritten role she proved that she had considerable dramatic ability behind the persona. Indeed the delightful absurdist black comedy Eulogy boasts an enviable ensemble but it’s hard to think that its whimsical madness could be held together by anyone else but her.

Conversely with The Happening it is hard not to think any other actress would have been better, as M Night Shymalan in his current state of disrepair obviously had no earthly notion how to use either her persona or her deeper skills. That is obviously the low-light of her career but by simultaneously branching into a music career, retiring her old L.A. based cabaret duo in order to form the far higher-profile country-pop duo She & Him, the perception that she had become trapped by her persona was bound to gain currency. Perhaps this was the motive behind her turn in (500) Days of Summer. This was extremely courageous as a career move because it deconstructed her persona as the uncommunicative but adorably quirky girl by showing just how capricious and cruel that free-spirit shtick could become in real life. She was luminous when she needed to be but Deschanel also didn’t hold back on cruelty, and, while the combination of charm and emotional realism divided people hilariously when it came to judging Summer, this made her performance a career highlight. Sadly Gigantic and her guest appearance in Bones seem to indicate she’s being offered, indeed being custom-written, only roles that require her to dial in her persona. She & Him seem to be slowly gaining some level of popularity, but whether their particular brand of pop reinforces her quirky persona is debatable. In any case her ‘escape’ from her persona handsomely beats Jolie’s.

Personae can be problematic because of the fine line between typecasting and playing to your strengths. Being offered similar roles is a vote of confidence that you will do a good job with this material, but after a while it also trades on the perception audiences will have of you from previous performances, the persona you may have created. Type-casting has its own reward, being able to play against type; Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, Robin Williams in Insomnia. But its danger is that, like Eugene O’Neill Senior as The Count of Monte Cristo, not only can audiences only accept you in one type of role, but your range contracts so that you can only actually play one role. Zooey Deschanel’s persona is her own creation, not that of the tabloids. Her quirky persona may cause difficulties of reception on live music shows, but it is her screen profile and not their meagre sales that gets She & Him onto those shows in the first place. Indeed, as their elegant summery pop reflects in her song-writing the creative energies that created her persona originally, in a way, the persona will remain an ever-present even if She & Him get the popular success they deserve to the extent that Deschanel gives up acting.

Paul recommends She & Him. Seconded.

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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