Talking Movies

July 19, 2015

Comic-Con 2015

Another year, another San Diego love-in of Hollywood’s brightest stars and all things comic-book and fandom-y, but what were the cinematic highlights of Comic-Con 2015? Here’s a teaser of my round-up for HeadStuff.org.

Suicide Squad

Fury writer/director David Ayer took to the stage to talk trash about Marvel, claiming DC had the better villains; and then backed it up with the first look at Suicide Squad. It’s kind of staggering that a film not scheduled for release until August 2016 could have such a polished trailer, down to the spine-tingling version of ‘I Started a Joke’. While the sheer size of the cast still worries, it looks like Ayer’s promise to deliver The Dirty Dozen with DC characters holds good. And for all Will Smith’s prominence as a perceptive but depressed Deadshot in the trailer, there are really only two characters that matter: Harley Quinn and her Puddin’. Margot Robbie appears an inspired choice for the first cinematic incarnation of Dr Quinzell, hitting notes of naivety, menace, playfulness, and sheer insanity. Jared Leto, who has received endless inane stick over the appearance of his Joker, also seems a perfect fit as the Harlequin of Hate. In full make-up his wiry frame makes him seem similar to the Joker as drawn by Dustin Nguyen, in close-up the much-debated steel teeth rock, and his sinister lines could actually be Batman dialogue; which is quite intriguing.

Click here for the full piece on HeadStuff.org, with X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, The Man from UNCLE, Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice in the mix.

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January 12, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

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(10) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer triumphantly linked X-ensembles as Wolverine time-travelled from a Sentinels-devastated future to 1973 to prevent Mystique assassinating Bolivar Trask and being captured by Stryker. X-2 vim was displayed in Quicksilver’s mischievous Pentagon jail-break sequence, J-Law imbued Mystique with a new swagger as a deadly spy, and notions of time itself course-correcting any meddling fascinated. The pre-emptive villainy of Fassbender’s young Magneto seemed excessive, but it didn’t prevent this being superb.

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(9) The Guest

Dan Stevens was preposterously charismatic as demobbed soldier David who ‘helped’ the Peterson family with their problems while director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett riffed on Dominik Moll and Stephen King archetypes. Wingard edited with whoops, Stephen Moore’s synth combined genuine feeling with parody, ultraviolent solutions to Luke (Brendan Meyer) and Anna (Maika Monroe)’s problems were played deliriously deadpan, a military grudge-match was staged with flair: all resulted in a cinema of joyousness.

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(8) Mystery Road

Writer/director Ivan Sen’s measured procedural almost resembled an Australian Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Aaron Pedersen’s dogged Detective Jay Swan battled official indifference as well as suspicion from his own community as he investigated an Aboriginal teenager’s death. Strong support, from Tamsa Walton as his estranged wife and Hugo Weaving as a cop engaged in some dodgy dealings, kept things absorbing until a climactic and startlingly original gun-battle and a stunning final image.

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(7) In Order of Disappearance

Nils (Stellan Skarsgaard), snow-plougher and newly-minted citizen of the year, embarks on a killing spree when authorities deem his son’s murder an accident. Nils’ executions accidentally spark all-out war between the Serbian gang of demoralized Papa (Bruno Ganz) and the Norwegian gang of self-pitying and stressed-out vegan The Count (Pal Sverre Hagen). Punctuated by McDonaghian riffs on the welfare state and Kosovo provocations, this brutal fun led to a perfectly daft ending.

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(6) Frank

Director Lenny Abrahamson loosened up for Jon Ronson’s frequently hilarious tale of oddball musicians. Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon joined the band of benevolent melodist Frank (Michael Fassbender wearing a giant head) and scary obscurantist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Great comedy was wrung from Jon viewing writing hit music as a means to fortune and glory, but then affecting drama when music was revealed as the only means by which damaged souls Frank and Clara could truly connect.

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(5) Begin Again

Once director John Carney delivered a feel-good movie as Mark Ruffalo’s desperate record executive took a chance on a guerilla recording approach when he discovered British troubadour Keira Knightley performing in a bar. The Ruffalo was on glorious shambling form, and was matched by an exuberant Knightley; who in many scenes seemed to be responding to comic ad-libbing by James Corden as her college friend. Carney was surprisingly subversively structurally, perfectly matched Gregg Alexander’s upbeat music to sunny NYC locations, and stunt-casted wonderfully with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine as Knightley’s sell-out ex.

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(4) Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan’s wondrously ambiguous thriller saw Tom (Dolan) bullied by his dead lover’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), into keeping Guillaume’s sexuality hidden from mother Agathe (Lise Roy); but exactly why Guillaume had elided Francis’ existence, and why Francis needed Tom to stay at the remote Quebec farm, remained murky. Dolan showed off subtly; the lurid colours getting brighter during an ever-darkening monologue in a bar; and flashily; expressionistly changing screen format during violent scenes; and deliriously; a transgressive tango on a nearly professional standard dance-floor unexpectedly hidden in a barn.

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(3) Gone Girl

David Fincher turned in a 2 ½ hour thriller so utterly absorbing it flew by. Ben Affleck’s everyman found himself accused of murdering his icy wife Rosamund Pike. Only twin sister and spiky voice of reason Carrie Coon stood by him as circumstantial evidence and media gaffes damned him. Fincher, particularly in parallel reactions to a TV interview, brought out black comedy that made this a satire on trial by media, while, from fever dreams of arresting beauty to grand guignol murder and business with a hammer, making this material his own.

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(2) Dallas Buyers Club

Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee drew incredibly committed performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in this harrowing drama. McConaughey wasted away before our eyes as Ron Woodroof, an archetypal good ole boy diagnosed with HIV, who reacted to his terminal diagnosis with total denial before smuggling drugs. Leto matched McConaughey’s transformation as transvestite Rayon, who sought oblivion in heroin, even as he helped Woodroof outwit the FDA via the titular group. This was an extremely moving film powered by Woodroof and Rayon’s friendship, beautifully played from initial loathing to brotherly love.

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(1) Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater’s dazzling technical achievement in pulling off a twelve-year shoot was equalled by the finished film’s great heart. The life of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen in Texas with mother Patricia Arquette, sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and weekend dad Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) was followed in seamless transitions with teasing misdirection and subtle reveals. Child performances that began in comedy grew thru shocking scenes to encompass depth of feeling. Hawke gave a wonderful performance of serious comedy, Arquette grew older but not wiser, and Linklater was richly novelistic in revealing how surface facades belied the truth about characters and personality formation defied self-analysis. Watching Boyhood is to be wowed by life itself; your own nostalgia mixes with Mason Jr’s impressively realised youth.

May 21, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past 3-D

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Director Bryan Singer triumphantly returns to the franchise he launched in 2000 to link two ensembles together for one of the classic Claremont/Byrne comics stories.

Professor X (Patrick Stewart) narrates a Terminator 2 cold open as dead bodies are piled amidst rubble while machines hunt down and kill mutants and humans. Can this war of extinction be won by changing the past? X, Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travel to a Chinese monastery where mutants familiar [Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore)] and strange [Blink (Fan BingBing), whose portal-creating power is visually intricate] are kept one step ahead of Sentinels by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who uses her powers to send the consciousness of Bishop (Omar Sy) back thru time. Defeating the Sentinels means preventing Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinating Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) at the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, then being captured by Major Stryker (Josh Helman); actions which kick-start the program and see her DNA make the Sentinels unstoppable. Only Wolverine can physically survive the time-shift, but in 1973 he is reliant on the broken men Charles (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) patching up their differences with the imprisoned Erik (Michael Fassbender). But might the past be immutable?

The X-movies are a farrago of continuity, and this instalment ignores that (Wolverine has adamantium claws? Professor X has his own body?). It’s a sequel toFirst Class, with Charles and Erik rejoining battle for Mystique’s soul; as a wonderful exchange has it – “You got inside her head.” “That’s not my power, Charles.” The future, with Sentinels attacking like The Matrix’s squiddies, is mostly a glorified framing device; but its startling killing of characters in the prologue establishes the stakes. The past is a foreign country; where Singer displays X-2 vim. Beast acts as Q in freeing Erik, Wolverine gets two wonderful sight gags, and there’s a delightful nod to the parentage of Quicksilver (Evan Peters). The fast-talking Quicksilver’s mischievous liberation of Erik is the outstanding action sequence; it’s like watching Seth Cohen wielding superpowers. Erik’s curving of a bullet at the Paris summit is thrilling, as is the idea that time is course-correcting their meddling. But Page has precious little to do, and the great Fassbender is overshadowed by McAvoy and Jackman as they get all the best lines.

This lands somewhere around X-2 and First Class, but I preferred First Class because Erik was less muddled. The future comes into play in the finale, and Magneto battling future sentinels while Erik manipulates old sentinels is a brilliant cross-cutting of action sequences to interrogate character; questioning the ability of people to change even as the future characters hope their younger selves will change. Lawrence (more recognisable as Mystique than Rebecca Romijn ever was) is a world of swagger away from First Class; Mystique is a driven and accomplished spy. She wants to kill Bolivar for murdering her friends just like Erik wanted to vengefully kill Shaw. Charles once again is opposed to such motives. But in First Class Erik flung missiles back at people, here his villainy becomes incomprehensibly pre-emptive; as if the Singer special sequence where he retrieves his helmet unleashes a need for flair; the option of silent sabotage of the Sentinel programme doesn’t cut it, when you can (undoubtedly quite counter-productively) stage a stadium-sized spectacle of terrorism. But this is quibbling about what is only the third superb X-movie in the series: an intricate, thoughtful adventure in which Singer returns from the wilderness with surprising confidence.

The ending made me think of the Doctor’s emphatic lines at the end of Moffat’s Doctor Who Blitz story in 2005. And after suffering thru X-3 we surely all deserve that calibre of resolution.

4/5

June 2, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Matthew Vaughn finally gets to direct an X-Men movie, and the result is the best instalment of the X-franchise to date…

Beginning (as X-Men did) with Erik Lensherr traumatically discovering his powers of magnetism in Poland in 1944, the pre-credits sequence contrasts the parallel childhood experiences of Charles Xavier in upstate New York, where he welcomes in the young and terrified Mystique to his luxurious home, with that of Erik in a Nazi concentration camp, where Dr Schmidt sadistically hones Erik’s powers. Vaughn’s film pivots around the subsequent emotional and political developments, during the Cuban Missiles Crisis in 1962, of the events of this cold-open. Rose Byrne’s CIA agent Moira McTaggart endures Mad Men-style sexism while investigating the shady activities of the Hellfire Club. In a Mark Millar touch Vaughn and co-writers integrate Cuba into the story wonderfully, not by rewriting history but by suggesting that history as we know it is a carefully constructed cover-story to hide mutant involvement. Legendary comics villains the Hellfire Club, led by Sebastian Shaw (a nicely malevolent Kevin Bacon) and Emma Frost (an appropriately icy and under-dressed January Jones), appear to be manipulating both sides to ignite the Cold War. Moira needs help against mutants and so recruits Xavier, and subsequently Erik.

James McAvoy is yet again upstaged by someone lower-billed, because while McAvoy is very funny as a young Xavier using genetics as a chat-up routine, it pales next to the dark charisma of Michael Fassbender’s globe-trotting Nazi-hunter Erik. On seeing Xavier’s mansion Erik sardonically asks, “Charles, how did you ever survive such hardship?” The clash in philosophy between Erik and Xavier is finally given the substance it lacked in the original trilogy, and is personalised by Mystique (an affecting Jennifer Lawrence) being drawn to Erik over Xavier. Erik’s driven life is killing Nazis to avenge his race, while Xavier’s life has always been one of privilege. ‘Mutant and proud’ is a chat-up line for Xavier but, as Erik affectionately teaches her to embrace her appearance rather than hide it as Xavier wishes, it becomes Mystique’s self-definition. Erik’s quest to murder Shaw is a fulfilment of his tutelage by Schmidt, Xavier’s determination to prevent Erik the fulfilment of his compassion. Mystique must choose one philosophy…

Vaughn balances this tragedy with montages, of Erik and Xavier recruiting mutants for the CIA and training mutants at Xavier’s mansion, which are heavy on the Fassbendering. There are delightful cameos by a couple of cast members from the original trilogy as well as superb gags based on our knowledge of these characters’ futures. The action is also very well-handled with Erik’s single-handed attack on a Russian military base utterly thrilling, while an assault by the Hellfire Club on the CIA is notable for Vaughn showing real terror on the face of Xavier’s unprepared recruits, especially Mystique. The only gripe is that the second act can at times feel like two screenplays are being audibly bolted together. But these are mere quibbles when Vaughan can casually toss in an enormous shock in the finale, and then have a final scene that complicates comic-book morality as much as Kick-Ass.

There was a danger with this film’s title that critics would immediately call it second-rate at the slightest provocation; instead, it really is X-Men: First Class in every sense.

4.5/5

June 2, 2010

Icon: Werner Herzog

Herzog’s dementedly brilliant The Bad Lieutenant is currently in cinemas and another feature My Son What Have Ye Done? is winning acclaim at film festivals, so it’s time for a brief spot of hero-worship of the insane German auteur.

Werner Herzog was born in 1942 and worked in a steel factory to fund his film education. When he was thirteen his family had shared an apartment in Munich with an eccentric actor called Klaus Kinski. Kinski had a small role in For a Few Dollars More but was widely considered impossible to work with. Herzog (who said of Kinski, “I had to domesticate the wild beast”) was thus uniquely positioned to extract performances of grandeur from the actor in the five films they made together. Herzog spent the mid-60s trying to get his award winning feature script Signs of Life off the ground. He had written it in 1964 and in 1967 finally managed to make it with only $20,000 and a stolen 35 mm movie camera. It was released to acclaim in 1968 and his debut established his directorial style. Languidly paced with long takes and dreamy landscape shots it followed the descent into madness of an injured soldier while working as caretaker of a military fortress with his wife on a Greek island. Herzog followed it up with a National Geographic documentary The Flying Doctors of East Africa establishing a pattern of alternating features with documentaries that persists to this day.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) established Herzog as a truly visionary director with an extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography and a talent for exploring states of deep psychological madness in its epic narrative of a Conquistador’s search for El Dorado. Herzog revisited this theme with Fitzcarraldo (1982) which was another story of insanity in the South American rainforests and during which he remarked, “I shouldn’t make movies anymore. I should go to a lunatic asylum”. Both films benefited from extraordinary performances by Klaus Kinski of whom he said:  “People think we had a love-hate relationship. Well, I did not love him, nor did I hate him. We had mutual respect for each other, even as we both planned each other’s murder”. It is alleged that Herzog threatened Kinski with a gun during takes on Fitzcarraldo

Documentaries became Herzog’s mainstay following Kinski’s death in 1990. Herzog’s reputation in that field is immense. He was responsible for forcing Errol Morris, director of 2004’s The Fog of War, to stop talking about it and finally make his documentary debut, the off-beat 1978 pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, with a challenge that Herzog made good on in the 1979 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe… Herzog’s most notable documentaries include 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly and 2005’s Grizzly Man. He also starred in 2004’s Incident at Loch Ness, an uproariously funny mockumentary about Herzog making a film about the phenomenon of Nessie, co-written and directed with X-2 scribe Zak Penn.

While being interviewed about Grizzly Man by Mark Kermode for BBC 2’s Culture Show Herzog was shot live on camera by an air-rifle. Herzog, Kermode and the crew dived for cover and scurried from the Beverly Hills to Herzog’s house to finish the interview. Herzog was remarkably unperturbed, merely muttering “I have been shot at before, but this is the first time I have been shot at in those hills”. Kermode was aghast to discover that Herzog was bleeding having been shot in the stomach by the sniper. Herzog steadfastly refused to go to hospital maintaining, “It is an insignificant wound”, and finished the interview. The morning after the interview was broadcast Joaquin Phoneix revealed Herzog had rescued him from a car wreck. Phoenix overturned his car on a canyon road above Sunset Boulevard after his brakes failed. Phoenix said “I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, ‘Just relax’…I’m saying, ‘I’m fine. I am relaxed’…this head pops inside. And he said, ‘No, you’re not’. And suddenly I said to myself, ‘That’s Werner Herzog’ There’s something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog’s voice. I felt completely fine and safe. I climbed out. I got out of the car and I said, ‘Thank you’, and he was gone”. After such a truly Batman like escapade it was only suitable that Herzog’s next film was with Christian Bale. Rescue Dawn dramatised the true story of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, an account of USAF pilot Dieter Dengler’s attempts to escape from a Vietcong POW camp.

Herzog followed up his highest-profile feature in many years with Encounters at the End of the World, an inspired portrayal of Antarctica’s wildlife and landscape and the oddballs who live there, which was Talking Movies’ pick of 2009. Herzog may well win it and place this year…

March 15, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

There’s been an odd prevalence of live blogs surrounding this year’s “goddamn meat-parade” – as George C Scott so memorably described the Oscars. This blog did not do a live commentary on the Oscars for three reasons. Firstly, I rather like sleeping at night and think that many other people share this strange attitude. Secondly, I don’t believe that even Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie writing together could possibly write anything funny or insightful enough LIVE! to justify a live blog. Thirdly, the Oscars are (whisper it) (no in fact bellow it!) POINTLESS!

There are 5,777 voting members of the Academy. These individuals do not have a better idea of what makes a great film than any other 5,777 random individuals around the world. There was a reason that JFK told Ben Bradlee what he’d learned from the Bay of Pigs was this – “Don’t assume that because a man is in the army that he necessarily knows best about military strategy”. If you doubt that consider these three facts.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Alfred Hitchcock, director of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, was not truly exceptional enough in his field to win a Best Director Oscar.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, was.

The Academy nominated both Apocalypse Now and Kramer Vs Kramer for Best Picture of 1979 and thought that the film which would have most impact on popular culture, which pushed the boundaries of film-making, and which would endure and be fondly remembered was…Kramer Vs Kramer. I love the smell of dumbness in the Kodak.

According to the Academy the best 10 films of the Zeros were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker.

Not Memento, Moulin Rouge!, The Two Towers, Master & Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Good Night and Good Luck, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

Or Amores Perros, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rules of Attraction, X-2, Mean Girls, Brick, The Prestige, Zodiac, Hunger and Up in the Air.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that Christoph Waltz gave a great performance in Inglourious Basterds. We don’t need the Academy’s nominations to help us tell the difference between a good blockbuster with commercial clichés and a bad Oscar-baiter with its own set of equally rigid (but more idiotic because they’re ‘edgy’) clichés (Little Miss Sunshine, I’m looking at you). Maggie Mayhem tells Bliss in Whip It “Be your own hero”. Follow her advice, trust your own instincts…

April 29, 2009

Wolverine

After the fiasco that was X-3 it’s nice to report that Wolverine is a relatively inoffensive addition to the X-Men franchise, although well below the standard of X-Men never mind X-2.

The film opens brilliantly with a startling credits sequence in which Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) fight in the American army from the Civil War right up to Vietnam, taking full advantage of their healing abilities and animalistic claws and strength. However as Victor becomes psychotic Logan becomes disillusioned with their military mutant unit led by Major William Stryker (Danny Huston). Retreating to the wilds of Canada the film begins a heroic use of cliché above and beyond the call of duty as Logan becomes a lumberjack and settles down with his girlfriend Kayla. This will never do, we need to get our reluctant hero into the second act for action set-pieces, so insert the relevant names and events into this universally applicable Hollywood scene:

‘The Man’ arrives and urges ‘Our Hero’ to come back and do ‘That Thing’.

“No, I’ll never do ‘That Thing’. I’ve built ‘A New Life’ for myself here”

“This isn’t you, ‘Hero’, ‘That Thing’ is the real you. Forget our quarrel and think about the ‘Others in Peril’”.

“It’s your fault they’re in peril, ‘You fix it’”.

Exit ‘The Man’.

Then ‘Something Awful Happens’ and ‘Our Hero’ realises it was because he was being ‘Selfish’ so he joins ‘The Man’ to do…‘That Thing’.

It’s surprising that Gavin Hood, director of acclaimed South African drama Tsotsi, sacrifices depth for such clichés. There are times when this film resembles a bad episode of Smallville, especially a bizarre sequence that begins when Wolverine streaks in front of a truck driven by what appears to be Jonathan and Martha Kent. We’re introduced to a rake of characters who are killed off almost at random, but we don’t care about their deaths because the unwieldy cast is so badly under-used. Only Danny Huston, who delivers another charismatic turn as Stryker, manages to make an impression. Liev Schreiber is mis-cast as Victor, relying on a trench-coat to create menace when co-star Kevin Durand is the one with the appropriately intimidating physique, while Gambit’s long awaited appearance is tragically underwritten.

Wolverine has a number of amusing moments and clever references to the comics, and, of the two plot twists, the second is actually quite clever, but it’s too little too late and in any case is ruined by the ever audible creaking of the plot mechanics. Above all the film suffers from prequelitis. We know the characters that survive into the X-Men films which removes any tension from scenes involving them in peril. One lengthy and allegedly tense sequence already appeared in X-2 and as Logan and Victor are equally matched and can’t die anyway their various clashes are pointless. Unveiling Deadpool with minutes to go smacks of desperation (and is even more of a waste than Venom in Spider-Man 3) and his horrific appearance is dwarfed by a cameo which is either CGI enhanced make-up or total CGI but terrifyingly it’s hard to tell which…

Hugh Jackman whoops it up as Wolverine but truthfully comics great Mark Millar has written more interesting Wolverine stories than this in his sleep. A missed opportunity.

2.5/5

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