Talking Movies

August 15, 2017

100 Best Films of the Century (sic)

Poring over Barry Norman’s ‘100 Best Films of the Century’ list last month set off musings on what a personal version of such a list would be. All such lists are entirely personal, and deeply speculative, but it’s time to be more ambitious/foolhardy than heretofore and nail this blog’s colours to the mast. Norman unapologetically focused on Old Hollywood, but Talking Movies has more regard than he for the 1980s and 1990s. The years to 1939 are allocated 10 films, and each decade thereafter gets 10 films, with an additional 10 films chosen to make up any egregious omissions. What is an egregious omission, or addition for that matter, is naturally a matter of opinion. Like the truest lists this was written quickly with little revision. If you don’t trust your own instincts why would you ever trust anyone else’s?

The first day to 1939

Nosferatu, The Lodger, M, King Kong, It Happened One Night, The 39 Steps, A Night at the Opera, Top Hat, Secret Agent, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Gone with the Wind

1940 to 1969

His Girl Friday, Rebecca, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Shadow of a Doubt, The Big Sleep, The Stranger, Rope, The Third Man

Strangers on a Train, The Lavender Hill Mob, Singin’ in the Rain, Them!, Rear Window, High Society, Moby Dick, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Rio Bravo

Last Year in Marienbad, The Manchurian Candidate, The Birds, The Great Escape, Billy Liar, Dr. Strangelove, Goldfinger, Dr. Zhivago, The Sound of Music, The Good The Bad And The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Ma Nuit Chez Maud, The Italian Job

1970 to 1999

Kelly’s Heroes, Aguirre the wrath of God, The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, Star Wars, Superman, Apocalypse Now

The Blues Brothers, Chariots of Fire, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Aliens, Blue Velvet, Wall Street, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Die Hard

JFK, My Own Private Idaho, The Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2, The Age of Innocence, Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, Speed, The Usual Suspects, Scream, The Matrix, Fight Club

2000 to the present day

Memento, Almost Famous, Moulin Rouge!, Ocean’s Eleven, Donnie Darko, The Rules of Attraction, The Lord of the Rings, Team America, Brick, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight

Inception, Scott Pilgrims Vs the World, Incendies, Skyfall, Mud, This is the End, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Birdman, High-Rise, 20th Century Women

July 11, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes 3-D

Andy Serkis, via motion capture, returns one last time for more monkey business as Caesar, the Moses of intelligent apes.

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Caesar is in the woods, with his apes, and just wants to be left alone; to brood over his murder of rival Koba (Toby Kebbell), and raise his new young son. But not only have Koba’s followers started to collaborate with the humans against Caesar in order to avenge his death, the humans have also become menacingly organised under a new leader, the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). An early bloody skirmish is followed by a night raid with the Colonel himself attempting to terminate Caesar’s command, with extreme prejudice. Caesar abdicates his duties as leader, vowing revenge. While the apes set out for the promised land beyond the desert, Caesar, with trusted lieutenant Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval), and two gorilla bodyguards, sets out to assassinate the Colonel. But matters are complicated by a new mutation of the virus assailing humanity.

War for the Planet of the Apes would be more accurately titled Commando Raids for the Planet of the Apes. Indeed a large portion of the movie is Prison Break for the Planet of the Apes, cycling back to the pivotal sequence of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes where super-intelligent Caesar was incarcerated with regular chimpanzees – because he chewed off a man’s fingers for being rude. Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’ does not advocate having your hero chew off a man’s fingers for being rude to elicit audience sympathy, quite the opposite really. Yet we are expected to automatically root for Caesar through three films progressively less interested in human characters. If one could call the ciphers in this franchise human. This is surely the worst written trilogy this decade, and logically so; if an audience accepts ciphers, why bother sweating writing characters? If an audience accepts Gary Oldman’s noble sacrifice to save humanity resulting in nothing, why bother even setting up protagonist and antagonist humans? Woody Harrelson’s Colonel McCullough is the only articulate human, and even Harrelson can’t excel with this straw man antagonist. Hard to credit this franchise was spawned by Rod Serling’s mischievous screenplay.

Rupert Wyatt in Rise, and Matt Reeves in Dawn, both threw in striking sequences of directorial bravura to try and paper over the poor scripting. But here, there is nothing going on in that department, which is a tremendous surprise given that Reeves returns as director. Where are his visual trademarks – the lengthy tracking shots following chaos exploding into frame, the fixed-position sequences, the Hitchcockian visual suspense? This is all the more surprising given the unsubtle references to the visually extravagant Apocalypse Now: slogans daubed everywhere, a shaven-headed Colonel expounding on history, culture and morality, a mission to exterminate (‘The only good Kong is a dead Kong’), Jimi Hendrix, and, just in case you didn’t get it, ‘Ape-pocalypse Now’ graffiti. It’s as if Reeves has just given up, going through the motions in a permanently 3-D darkened landscape of snow and concrete that renders things verily sepia-vision. Steve Zahn as a nebbish ape is a highlight, mostly because, when dressed akin to Bob Balaban’s Moonrise Kingdom narrator, he appears to have wandered in from Wes Anderson’s Planet of the Apes; the idea of which is more entertaining than this tedious movie, dragged out by its insistence on ape sign language.

The powerful and emotive finale is unintentionally hilarious when you realise just how literal the Caesar as Moses motif is being taken, but it’s just one final plodding mis-step. Caesar blows up the Colonel’s base and yet escapes the fiery blastwave because it is all-encompassing but apparently all to one side just to avoid enveloping him, Caesar’s final confrontation with the Colonel sees him extend a character redeeming mercy that looks uncannily like the height of cruelty, and the new mutation of the virus, which reduces humans to mute amiable simpletons, leads us seamlessly into the world of the Charlton Heston classic. So, we are required to cheer for the devolution of the human race into mute amiable simpletons, and yet that isn’t presented as a somewhat challenging proposition when even 2008’s disastrous The Invasion noted the paradox of rooting for free will at the cost of world peace. To reference another 1979 film that’s been in the air this summer Caesar’s story involves us losing the ability to produce another Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Louis Armstrong, Ingmar Bergman, Gustave Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Paul Cezanne or even understand who they were or appreciate what they did. Hail, Caesar?

0.5/5

July 2, 2017

RIP Barry Norman

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of former BBC film critic Barry Norman. I can’t add to the obituaries, all I can contribute is a personal note on what I think he meant to me and other film fans of my generation.

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Barry Norman for a whole generation was the archetypal film critic. His avuncular remarks from his comfy chair in the studio that morphed with changing fashions over the decades let you know exactly what films were worthy of recognition and championing in the ongoing narrative of cinema. His retirement from the BBC in 1998, volubly aghast at what Hollywood was purveying as their stock in trade, seems like a merciful escape for him now that some American film critics are writing serious thinkpieces about their duty to avoid reviewing much of Hollywood’s current (even worse) stock in trade lest it destroy their critical palate. I watched Film 98 and its previous incarnations religiously, and howled in outrage every summer as Norman buggered off on his holliers just as we all most needed his guidance on what blockbusters were worth watching.

Norman was famously unimpressed by the ego and entitlement of famous actors and directors, from John Wayne to Mel Gibson, and would never have stooped to the recycling of breathless press releases gushing about the all-time record box-office grosses just achieved by … (never of course adjusted for inflation, for painfully obvious reasons) that drives so much of online film commentary. Instead he took the long view, a very long view indeed. His 1992 book 100 Best Films of the Century ostentatiously dwelt mostly in the past; a duty given the tremendous present bias that afflicts our culture; with only 5 films being made after 1980. I read it an impressionable age, and when revisiting it after a decade was aghast/amused/astonished to discover I had been parroting many of Norman’s contentions under the genuine belief they were my own opinions.

Not of the individual films, I hasten to add, but the broad sweep of cinema as outlined in his contextualising introduction to his picks. Some of the lines about certain films still resonate, Apocalypse Now being the best example; I read his piece on it before seeing it, yet frame in my mind in his terms. Barry Norman was such a fixture that something similar happens with Back to the Future II. I didn’t see it in the cinema, but I think of his review on BBC and the scene he picked to illustrate it whenever I see that scene in the movie. What he talked about on Film affected what I thought was worth watching, even if I disagreed. He valorised Woody Allen for years, and I never got it; but I eventually investigated 1970s Woody and thus began to appreciate the body of work. Alas, I never made it to the Helix in DCU years after he’d stopped presenting to see him speak on some of his favourite Old Hollywood films, but I still have his book, and helpfully someone on IMDb has used it to create a watch-list of Norman’s picks: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls055207230/

The Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, The Gold Rush, The General, Napoleon, All Quiet on the Western Front, Frankenstein, Duck Soup, It Happened One Night, The 39 Steps, Top Hat, Modern Times, La Grande Illusion, Oh, Mr. Porter!, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Bringing Up Baby, The Lady Vanishes, Pygmalion, La regle du jeu, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, The Grapes of Wrath, The Thief of Bagdad, The Bank Dick, His Girl Friday, The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Bambi, To Be or Not to Be, Double Indemnity, Laura, Les enfants du paradis, I Know Where I’m Going, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Big Sleep, The Best Years of Our Lives, My Darling Clementine, A Matter of Life and Death, Great Expectations, Bicycle Thieves, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Red River, The Red Shoes, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Whisky Galore!, The Third Man, Orphee, Rashomon, Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve, The Lavender Hill Mob, The African Queen, Jeux Interdits, High Noon, Pat and Mike, Singin’ in the Rain, Genevieve, Shane, Seven Samurai, On the Waterfront, La Strada, Bad Day at Black Rock, Pather Panchali, Richard III, The Searchers, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Nights of Cabiria, Paths of Glory, Some Like It Hot, Psycho, A Bout de Souffle, Lawrence of Arabia, The Leopard, Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Z, The Wild Bunch, M.A.S.H., The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Cabaret, The Godfather, Mean Streets, Sleeper, The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Raging Bull, Gregory’s Girl, E.T, Ran, Hannah and Her Sisters.

While some people may worship at the protean altar of the crowd-sourced IMDB Top 250 or the too cool for film school hipster fashions of the Sight & Sound poll this will always be for me the North Star of cinema. An unapologetic focus on Old Hollywood, foreign films picked because they made a huge impact not because you need to fill a quota, the silent era dismissed in just 5 films rather than (as Sight & Sound’s polled experts are wont) pretentiously behaving akin to a lover of the theatre who bemoans everything since the Greeks, and the recent past put on hold to see how it sets before celebrating it: only 5 films since 1980 in a list compiled in 1992, and only 12 films admitted from the 1970s. Norman never pretended the present moment was uniquely awesome.

Barry Norman’s legacy is to forever be the voice in your head which asks, “Yes, this film is fun, but will it endure?” In a way every Irish film critic of my generation, professional or dilettante, will have internalised for life Barry Norman’s scepticism of commercial success being equated with artistic quality as well as his sardonic “…And why not?”

December 2, 2016

Hail the 1930s Generation!

Leonard Cohen’s morbid remarks about waiting for death some weeks before his death had made me think about the 1930s generation who were actively working and not thinking about death. So the day that Clint Eastwood (86) releases his latest film Sully into Irish cinemas, and a day after Woody Allen turned 81 having recently made his first TV show, I thought I’d round up some people born in the 1930s who are still very much alive and well and working as hard as ever.

Clint Eastwood

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Woody Allen

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Donald Sutherland

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Glenda Jackson

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Michael Caine

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James Earl Jones

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Vanessa Redgrave

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Martin Sheen

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Dustin Hoffman

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Anthony Hopkins

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Maggie Smith

Downton Abbey Season 2 on MASTERPIECE Classic, Part 4 - Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 9pm ET on PBS; Shown: Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham; (C) Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE This image may be used only in the direct promotion of MASTERPIECE CLASSIC. No other rights are granted. All rights are reserved. Editorial use only.

Ian McKellen

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Quincy Jones

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Harvey Keitel

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Morgan Freeman

 

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William Shatner

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Robert Redford

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Ridley Scott

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John Williams

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Judi Dench

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Judd Hirsch

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December 13, 2015

Speed-reading towards illiteracy

Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller gave an interview recently to BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, which poses some intriguing questions about how new cinemagoers experience the medium.

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Miller cited Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By as a seminal text; the entire language of cinema was defined pre-sound. Miller was intrigued by the notion that there was a pure film language not reliant on the spoken word, and he decided to tell stories through that language; going so far as to describe Mad Max: Fury Road as a silent movie with sound – what matters is that one shot leads into the next shot to a purpose. As Miller notes this kind of cine-literacy is an acquired language, and a recent one; but it is one that can be mastered, in all cultures, before we’ve got a handle on actual literacy. But it’s his remark that we’re now all speed-reading stories (backed up by some statistics), that is a lit match tossed into a powder keg… Mad Max 2 had 1,200 shots, Mad Max: Fury Road had 2,900 shots, while Miller was told Jurassic Park had 950 shots, and Jurassic World by his estimation had more than triple that.

If we’re speed-reading stories, are we speed-reading into illiteracy? Back in 1997 Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese bemoaned the cine-illiteracy of young audiences:

ALLEN: I was talking to some college kids the other day, and they were bright kids who were going to a good college, and they had no idea about great directors. These bright college kids have no knowledge whatsoever of Truffaut’s films or Fellini’s films. And yet the universities do encourage them to read Mark Twain and Flaubert and Melville. … So many film students are film illiterate. They’re not unsophisticated. They probably know more about steadicams and special effects than the average audience. The guy who drives your cab will use those terms when talking about a film, but they’re illiterate in terms of —

SCORSESE: The lineage.

ALLEN: They’ve never seen any of these films. I think they have a different attention span. [My italics]

I admit my culpability in having that different attention span Woody Allen fretted over. I saw Scream as a teenager and was blown away by it. When I subsequently saw Hallowe’en I was inevitably bored by its slow pacing compared to its younger rival. I knew that without Hallowe’en there would be no Scream, I understood the lineage, I respected the execution, but I couldn’t stop myself wishing Carpenter would hustle things along a bit. As a result I’ve never re-watched Hallowe’en, while Scream remains one of my favourite and oft re-watched films. In 1997 Scorsese bemoaned his inability to be influenced by younger film-makers: “The young people today are the 21st century. I’m 20th century, I can’t help it. It’s hard to let new stuff in.” And there’s an equal generational problem in film criticism. The New Hollywood has been so valorised by audience that Bret Easton Ellis and Quentin Tarantino bemoan the 1980s to each other as the nadir of American movies. Whereas Back to the Future Day demonstrated the impact that decade’s movies had on their audience.

Miller extols the virtues of Buster Keaton and the montage technique of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, but will the youngsters who lapped up Mad Max: Fury Road delve back into cinema history to watch the movies that inspired Miller’s visual storytelling? No. If you are used to 2,900 shots a movie something that’s less than a third of that will bore you senseless. What was already a problem in 1997 is only going to get worse. ‘Jurassic World is a mere inept retread of Jurassic Park’ howl we who saw the original in the cinema. But, like a dead owl, the kids going to Jurassic World don’t give a hoot. They probably haven’t watched Jurassic Park all the way through because they find it unbearably slow-moving. This might explain the Russos’ baffling belief that the execrable Captain America 2 deserved an Oscar for casting Robert Redford and throwing 1970s paranoia shapes.

1970s paranoia was an organic cinematic response to the mood engendered by Watergate and Vietnam, and, like all movements that begin organically, when it became a commercial affectation it died a horrible death. The idea that Captain America 2 in rehashing a trope that was valid and original 40 years ago somehow itself becomes pertinent and (coughs in disbelief) original is as absurd as Gareth Edwards believing that his 2014 Godzilla is a good parallel for the trauma of Fukushima. If Sion Sono’s 2011 Himizu can react almost instantaneously to Fukushima in a valid and original cinematic fashion what makes Edwards think that Hollywood rehashing its interpretation of a 60 year old Japanese response to an entirely different national trauma is anything but a crass attempt to attach spurious relevance (via some extremely patronising cultural voiceover work) to the commercial imperative of rebooting a dormant franchise. But here’s the kicker – it doesn’t matter. None of the fulminations of film-makers or critics or punters of a certain age matter. My complaint that Jurassic World is not as good as Back to the Future doesn’t matter. Logic doesn’t even matter. The 12 year olds who go to Captain America 2 and Godzilla will likely never watch All The President’s Men or The Parallax View or Gojira because they’re too slow-moving and boring. 2045 will see Jurassic World as fondly remembered as Back to the Future is now, and all us haters will be so many Bret Eastons moaning that the 2010s were the nadir of American movies.

Perhaps we’re not speed-reading into illiteracy so much as into an eternal kinetic present. The past is a foreign country, they edit films boringly there.

October 16, 2015

Simon Rich: Absurdist Conscience

Simon Rich’s work as a staff writer at Pixar finally saw the light of day with Inside Out, and with a second series of Man Seeking Woman coming soon to FXX, here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on how Rich has moved from pure absurdism to something more like a biting satirist.

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“‘Chess players are not naturally confrontational. But by the time I entered the number five spot, my opponents were growing bolder. ‘We know you’re cheating,’ they’d say. Or, ‘You’re obviously cheating.’ Or, ‘Please, Terry, why won’t you stop cheating?’” – Elliot Allagash

Rich’s first novel was published in 2010. A novel of scheming and anecdotage (and the anecdotes are mostly about scheming), its tale of a bored teenage billionaire upending his school’s social hierarchy was labelled a Pygmalion riff and optioned for cinema by writer/director Jason Reitman. Elliot and his raconteur father Terry have obvious predecessors in Percy and Braddock Washington in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, with the innocent John T Unger being reinvented as Rich’s narrator Seymour Herson. Seymour becomes president after Elliot destroys rivals with schemes that include diabolical exam cheating. But as Seymour edges closer to Harvard he reaches his limit with Elliot’s antics… To read Elliot Allagash is to want to tell people, verbatim, just how Terry became the Harvard chess champion without understanding chess, what the secret of ancestor Cornelius Allagash’s private club was, and how Elliot took revenge on the restaurant that refused him service. It’s that hysterically quotable.

Click here for the full piece on HeadStuff.org covering the evolution of Simon Rich’s prose comedy from Ant Farm to Spoiled Brats.

April 1, 2015

While We’re Young

Frances Ha director Noah Baumbach returns to the NYC art scene, but loses Greta Gerwig as co-writer and reinstates Greenberg cohort Ben Stiller as protagonist.

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Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentarian. He’s married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a film producer, whose father is the legendary documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin).  Josh and Cornelia’s best friends Fletcher (Beastie Boy’s Adam Horovitz!!) and Marina (Maria Dizzia) have just had a kid. Indeed the misleading opening finds Josh and Cornelia gazing at the baby while a mobile playing a cutesy version of Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ hangs over the cot. Having lost Fletcher to the children cult Josh is receptive to a hipster couple he meets after one of his New School extension lectures. Jamie (Adam Driver) is a would-be documentarian, his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) makes home-made ice cream, and they live in a Brooklyn flat with friend and occasional band-mate Tipper (Dree Hemingway). Josh is enchanted, and soon so is Cornelia, but can this rejuvenation end well?

While We’re Young is less sunny than Frances Ha, but thankfully not as bitter as Greenberg, and, from the opening hilarious quotes from Ibsen’s The Master Builder, is always engaging. Some montages of Josh and Cornelia’s rediscovery of their youth thru hip-hop and hats equal Frances Ha’s use of pop, and Baumbach also mocks ‘Eye of the Tiger’ motivational status (“I remember when this song was just bad”). But Frances Ha was about being lost and aimless. This is about a couple who have everything, and are jaded, meeting a couple who have little, but are liberated. Josh has spent 8 years not finishing a documentary, and laments “I only have two moods: wistful and disdainful.” For Jamie making a documentary is a free and easy process, as whimsy-driven as choosing to not know a factoid rather than google it.

But when Jamie uses a remote control to zoom-in for a close-up on his face during a ‘spontaneous’ tearful scene when interviewing old school-friend Kent (Brady Corbet), Josh realises Jamie’s directing is as affected as the love of vinyl and VHS… Then things get All About Eve as Jamie supplants Josh in the affections of Leslie (veteran Grodin on fine comedic form). It’s a bit silly, not least as it draws attention to Baumbach’s own idol-supplanting. Josh is Woody Allen in Crimes & Misdemeanours: a film-maker unable to finish a documentary showcasing an aged academic proffering arcane wisdom. It’s as odd as James Murphy’s music and Baumbach’s staging creating an oddly sinister intercutting of a valedictory speech and an ethical confrontation, almost as if Baumbach is parodying his own concerns: Woody’s stakes were life and death, his, just passé ethics.

While We’re Young has moments of genuine sadness, like Cornelia (who’s miscarried repeatedly) freaking out a baby music class, but Baumbach opts for an all too pat comedy ending.

3.5/5

March 21, 2015

JDIFF 2015: Barry Lyndon 40

If there’s a better way to see Barry Lyndon for the first time than on Screen 1 of the Savoy with Ryan O’Neal and Jan Harlan being interviewed afterwards by Lenny Abrahamson then I’d like to hear it.

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

Whatever I knew about Barry Lyndon from reading a biography of Stanley Kubrick over a decade ago had long since fallen out of my head, so it was a treat to be able to approach the 1975 classic not having a clue what to expect. The first thing I didn’t expect was an intermission. The second thing I didn’t expect was that the first part of the movie would be quite so funny; I nearly fell out of my chair when I realised that Leonard Rossiter was playing an important role. Yes, Kubrick directed Dr Strangelove, but thereafter the black comedy in his films always seemed to me to be muted by his increasing desire to showcase an emotional detachment from the material. But Barry Lyndon is a hoot. The duelling in the first part doesn’t get as nonsensical as that in another 1975 period piece, Woody Allen’s Love & Death, but it’s started down that road with Rossiter’s craven attempts to buy his way out of gaining ‘satisfaction’. I also hadn’t expected the film to be quite so picaresque. Little wonder that Bret Easton Ellis repeatedly holds up 1975 as a golden year for Hollywood compared to the current predictable to the page number beat by beat method of screenwriting, as Kubrick faithfully reproduces Thackeray’s approach of depicting a series of misadventures that romp across countries and introduce new characters and throw away old characters, before sometimes bringing them back, whenever Thackeray damn well feels like it. Here is the early ramshackle Pickwickian Dickens’ approach to plotting, rather than the High Victorian rigour and schemae.

I was less enamoured, however, with the second part. Jan Harlan made the observation that Barry Lyndon should not be considered an oddity in Kubrick’s ouevre, but a vital entry in a continuing exploration of the frailty of the individual in the face of the pressures of a corrupt society. In this sense he said all of Kubrick’s films were political message movies. Barry Lyndon, he said, is a good man, a young boy in love, manipulated by his cousins, uncle, friends, and then brutalised by English and Prussian military, until it is inevitable that he becomes a conscienceless rake. But even then he is capable of acts of goodness, which cause him the two most crippling misfortunes in his life. All of which is true, and yet I couldn’t help feel that the second part was Thackeray fulfilling a Victorian desire to punish the wicked, and, especially in the detestable Lord Bullingdon, to assert the privileges of aristocracy over the nouveau riche. Given how Dan Gilroy ended Nightcrawler you feel that if (somehow) Barry Lyndon was made in 2015, the movie would end roughly 10 minutes into its second part. Indeed, given how Kubrick ended A Clockwork Orange in 1971, with the rake triumphant, it’s odd to see him follow a Victorian prescription to moralise…

Lenny Abrahamson handed over questions to the audience at a surprisingly early stage, with regrettably few questions being directed to the erudite Harlan. Harlan interestingly explained that Irish actors were plucked from the theatre because Kubrick, who’s not usually positioned in that world rather than photography and cinema, knew that the Abbey and Gate would provide interesting character actors.O’Neal, meanwhile, got the bulk of the questions, and gave every indication that his recurring role as Brennan’s roguish father Max in Bones is the closest a dramatic persona has got to approximating his own personality. The experience of playing Barry Lyndon changed his life, but he couldn’t say how. Marisa Berenson has very few lines, because women weren’t allowed to talk much back then. The film looks like paintings from the 18th century, because Kubrick would compose shots to resemble paintings; in one case forcing O’Neal to hold a tea-cup in his right hand because it matched the painting – O’Neal being left-handed this was extremely awkward to pull off…

But when he stopped giving comic and/or comically short answers he elaborated with two anecdotes. For six months he trained at fencing, including at nights with the University of Kansas at Lawrence coach while working on Paper Moon. When he arrived to meet Kubrick he was so cocksure of his ability that he refused to wear a mask, “Barry Lyndon wouldn’t wear a fencing mask”, only to be forced to don one by the British Olympic fencer who was to teach him and refused to fence without one. Harrumphing at this nonsense O’Neal donned the mask, struck his stance, and was disarmed within two seconds. So much for impressing Kubrick with his great swordsmanship. O’Neal also responded to a question about how he cried during a death scene by saying he thought of dead puppies, and tried like hell to ignore the noise of chattering monkeys floating in from outside. For they were filming at Longleat with its animal park. Eventually Kubrick had enough of the audio recording being ruined by simian gibbering and asked someone to sort it out. The ingenious solution? Throw the monkeys more bananas than they’d ever seen in their lives, and this would keep them too occupied to interrupt the scene with their cackling. The next day Kubrick and O’Neal got ready to go again. The tears flowed, the raw emotions were captured, and then an “Oh! Ohhhhh. Uggggh. Uuuuhhhh” floated into the air. The monkeys had eaten too many bananas and were now volubly gassy, stuffed, and digesting…

And yet, out of such chaos, Kubrick’s insane repetitious takes with no direction, and lighting and relighting scenes for hours with actors not stand-ins, came a film of some beauty and much wit.

February 27, 2015

Paper Souls

Belgian director Vincent Lannoo displays a more whimsical side to his usual blackly comic preoccupations in this absurdist Parisian rom-com.

Paper Souls

Paul (Stephane Guillon) is a depressed novelist, still mourning the death of his wife 5 years previous. But that’s not why the start of the movie finds him in a cemetery. He’s there to observe Madame Thomassin (Marie-Jeanne Maldague) deliver an acerbic graveside eulogy for her late husband; said eulogy being the handiwork of Paul. Afflicted with writer’s block he has not written anything except eulogies since his wife died. Thomassin’s niece Emma (Julie Gayet) approaches him to write about her late husband Nathan (Jonathan Zaccai), a photojournalist killed in Mauritania a year before, as an 8th birthday present for her son Adam (Jules Rotenberg), who is in denial that Nathan is dead. Paul accepts the job, despite pressure from his neighbour Victor (Pierre Richard) to hop in bed with the attractive widow. And then Nathan appears at his door…

From the first strains of a clarinet-heavy jazz score there’s a definite Woody Allen vibe off of this French/Belgian co-production, but not in the sense of Sophie Lellouche’s Paris-Manhattan. Whereas Lellouche successfully set up Allen scenarios, only to channel the vibe without the one-liners, TV writer Francois Uzan’s screenplay is at times riotously funny. Claudine Baschet’s Hortense, who keeps her stuffed dead cat on display, and listens to Paul’s eulogies about her on her iPod is a delightful supporting character. But it is Pierre Richard who steals the show as Paul’s elderly Jewish neighbour Victor, whose research into the Warsaw Ghetto is continually derailed by his need to meddle in Paul’s love life with endless ‘helpful’ nagging. Victor’s trip to the shops with Paul is a minor masterpiece. And that’s before addressing the return of amnesiac Nathan from the dead.

Paper Souls plays the return of Nathan, rudely interrupting the romance of Paul and Emma, totally deadpan. The question of how Nathan could have been mistakenly buried alive sees such daft reactions as local guide Diarra (Alain Azerot) musing that sometimes in Mauritania people come back, if they have a door to close. The treatment of totally nonsensical moments as perfectly normal at times emulates Allen’s similar treatments of the fantastical in Purple Rose of Cairo and Deconstructing Harry. And, to boot, Lannoo stages some wonderful slapstick as Paul attempts to sneak Nathan around Paris, without Emma or Adam seeing him, in an attempt to jog Nathan’s memory. Paper Souls then does something rather unusual. It leaves comedy behind and embraces full-blown magic realism. It’s a bold move, and is quite a gear change, but it achieves an affecting ending.

Paper Souls showcases a fine supporting turn from Pierre Richard (in what would be the Alan Arkin/Donald Sutherland role in a remake) and manages to combine rather good comedy with unexpected and affecting drama.

3.5/5

June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

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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.

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…

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