Dark Shadows (2012)

Tim Burton

A movie which falls flat even as it hints at what it could have been.

Eva Green is as always great even as she chews the hell out of the scenery and loves every second of it. As both actor and character Green dominates Johnny Depp who seems restrained and unsure of his choices. The basic story, based upon a 70’s TV show I’ve never seen, is ok and the fish out of water concept of a vampire waking up in the 1970’s is flimsy but fun even as the movie seems to seek to avoid period settings and the political spirit of the times.

This film could have been a lot of things. Even some simple editing changes may have been enough to fix it. I know characters are based upon tv source material but Chloe Grace Moretz’s character, as much as I love her and as fine as she is in this with what little she has, could have been edited out with little alteration to the story. The same could be said for Johnny Lee Miller who, too, is fine but seems to be given unnecessary screen time because… well… he’s Johnny Lee Miller.

A cameo from an old Alice Cooper breaks the suspension of disbelief while also acting as the only highlight in a film that in its third act becomes confusing and boring. This movie plays out as if perhaps in an earlier cut there was a longer running time which explained or justified some of the sub-plots. It is this kind of half commitment which is its biggest failing.

That said Eva Green is great even if it is a worry that she seems likely to become trapped in these schlocky genre films. She highlights too that this by now familiar Burton ensemble of Depp, Bonham-Carter, and Elfmen needs new life. After so many awful films over the last two decades I’ve no interest in seeing any film with Johnny Depp directed by Tim Burton. Green’s role in this film though hints at the possibility that Burton could regain a sort of relevance if he was to work with new people. He needs people that are actually thrilled and excited to be in his world. Who are fans rather than freinds, peers or ex-spouses.

eva

Tell it fast?

I’m currently writing a review of (Tom Cruise’s) The Mummy and a look at the state of Universals fledgling dark universe.

It’s been widely reported that The Mummy is a bad movie and it is on most fronts though it has the potential for a good (if not great) movie within it. One of the bigger problems I have with The Mummy is that the story is completely linear and the story time, as far as I could tell, is perhaps only 12-16 hours.

Linear story lines with short story times seem to be relatively common over the last year. Rogue One was a very straight ahead story and other than a flash back in it’s opening scene the events took place over the course of less than 12 hours. Wonder Woman uses a present day framing device to tell the story of the movie within flash back and also shows Diana’s upbringing through flashback but is otherwise also a very linear story with maybe 48 hours of total story time.

There doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection between these films. The Mummy and Rogue One share the commonality of not being great films that probably should have been. Wonder Woman fares better though it’s third act suffers because of the usual poor CGI boss battle common to all DC films to date.

My theory is that all of these movies have sought to model themselves after Mad Max: Fury Road and it’s linear story with a scantmadmax 12 hours of story time. Mad Max worked because the action was so tactile, sensational and innovative. It was also a chase movie and didn’t ask for the audience to need  know or care to much about the titular or support characters.

By contrast the films above insist and rely upon empathy with the main characters, are trying to tell stories and to fit into bigger universes (Star Wars, DC, and Dark Universe respectively) and don’t provide enough or big enough action for such straightforward stories.

It’s a shame that these films were probably created under such heavy influence from Mad Max: Fury Road. I wonder what they could have been otherwise? I also wonder how many other films will try and fail with the same formula?

Perhaps the upcoming Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan will create a new trend. There is no running time released yet but the trailer hints at multiple character arcs and story lines and it seems safe to assume the movie will come close to the three hour mark. I don’t expect it will lead to superhero movies running to three hours but perhaps, hopefully, it will mean a return to less linear and longer style of story within big budget films and an end to trying to emulate a movie as unique as Mad Max.

 

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Jordan Vogt-Roberts

You’ve got a giant ape movie? I’ll take it. I’m there. The ticket is sold. I don’t even question why. More than anything I’m surprised when people aren’t as quite set to go see it by default. When they ask me why I’m so interested? Interested? How on earth do you not want to just go along and see what they’ve done with Kong this time. It’s not going to be awful. Probably.

Sure, it’s probably going to be cheesy. They’re pop-corn movies! Almost a perfect trope of the cinema going experience. The continual evolution of the story of a giant ape and how he is portrayed and what technical tools, budget and feats are utilised in this portrayal. In the same way that Jaws changed cinema and Jurassic Park after it Kong is a sort of watermark which bobs along in the wake of these films.

The original King Kong is a sort of model T ford of movies. It’s mainstream and it’s problematic but it’s also something that was revolutionary in its way and integral to the course of film history. Peter Jackson’s version may not be nearly as important but it was a well-constructed vehicle for Kong which paid probably too much adulation to its forebear’s story and concentrated too much on added extras and style without examining the essential problems of the Kong story. It was just another Ford. Another family sedan. Far advanced from its model T predecessor but essential the same beast with more power.

In this latest version directed by the relatively unknown Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Universal Studios is attempting to build a monster universe franchise in the same way that Marvel/Disney has done with its properties and DC/Warner Brothers is failing to do with theirs. To be cynical it seems as if they’re doing a relatively poor job at it and following the DC/Warner Brothers model rather than that of Marvel/Disney’s. The 2014 Brian Cranston Godzilla, we’re now told, was supposed to be the start of this epic ‘MonsterVerse’ while the box office flop Dracula Untold, also released in 2014 though no one noticed, was the start of another monster universe (I don’t really know if they’re under the same name of slightly differentiated) which is going to be rebooted with Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy this year (2017). This sort of blind floundering and large missteps in a universe doesn’t seem too positive. Then again as much as Marvel may like to make out as if they had all of their moves planned it still seems as if they were lucky with Iron Man (and Robert Downey Jnr) and have continued to play off of that luck and goodwill ever since.

As such this film is designed as an origin story for Kong to bring him into the modern monster universe. Kong is not fully grown though he is massive! In this film, he does not leave Skull Island and he has his own sort of agency and mission. His relationship with the natives of the island makes a little more sense than in other depictions. He is also, even as a teenager, seemingly much bigger than ever before on the big screen.

The film really doesn’t need too much else for me to be happy, which is lucky, as what else is shoehorned into the film is superfluous at best. The film as a period piece faintly plays off of the turmoil in America as the country struggles with withdrawal from the Vietnam war and domestic political upheaval. Yet at the same time the film isn’t interested in exploring any sort of racial tension between the soldiers or scientists and as such most of the characters are pretty two dimensional with very little real chemistry or character development. Brie Larson is fine as the inevitable love interest to Tom Hiddleston who himself manages to pull off (just) being some sort of shadowy military type. His casting also begs the question as to whether Hollywood, in casting Adrian Brody and Tom Hiddleston, look for thin men with angular features in Kong films. Perhaps in some way intending to cast male leads who look as unlike the ape as possible? Two examples aren’t the best sample test but it will be interesting to see what happens in the Kong versus Godzilla movie and who gets the call up. Anyhoo. Meanwhile Samuel L. Jackson chews the hell out of the scenery and makes the best of a character whose sole purpose is irrationally propelling plot. The real highlight of the film, other than Kong, is John C. Reilly, who seems to be the only one on set who understands and enjoys what he is doing with his character and lights up the movie for the time he is in it.

Ultimately, I liked this as a standalone film. Even if it was a little weak on plot and afraid to lean into the true troubles of its period. As an origin film, I think it is moderately successful as it shows why Kong is willing to be humanity’s hero against the other monsters. Sadly, though I’d be very surprised if Universal manages to do much better with their next film. It’ll probably, again, merely be ok. There is foreshadowing in this with Kong’s attraction to Brie Larson that they may once again take Kong to New York by using the bait of a girl and shoe horn that played-out story into the fight against Godzilla or one of the other monsters.

Universal hasn’t reinvented the vehicle. This isn’t a hybrid, electric or flying car version of Kong. It doesn’t portray the ape more effectively or much better. It’s just another Ford with a shiny new paint job and some retro throwback sixties features. The building blocks were there for this to have been something better and for a real sort of drama play out underneath the Kong story. Instead it’s more of the great ape and spectacle while puny humans scurry to and fro beneath him.

Cassavetes on Cassavetes (2001)

Ray Carney

What’s my take on Cassavetes?

Well I first heard properly of the man not as director or from realising who he was in Dirty Dozen or Rosemary’s Baby but from the Le Tigre song (lyrics below).

I picked up this book almost as a joke. 500 densely packed pages would surely help inform me properly as to what my take on Cassavetes would, could or should be. This was around the same time I started my ill-fated non-fiction, guilty-pleasure and punishing literature simultaneous reading plan. The basic idea of this plan was that I would read 10 pages of each book each night and so slowly work through varied readings. It was a fine enough plan that was perhaps the only reason I was able to finish Infinite Jest. Cassavetes on Cassavetes was the non-fiction, James Joyce’s Ulysses the punishing literature and Phil Klay’s Redeployment the guilty pleasure. But there’s nothing guilty about redeployment. It’s brilliant! And made me want to read more contemporary brilliance which I did in reading Holly Child’s No Limits before I was snowed under by work and school. In the meantime, Ulysses languished (it still does) under a pile of comics and Cassavetes on Cassavetes was picked up and read reluctantly over the course of eight months of being both busy and quiet but also joyful and bored in the reading.

This is a textbook rather than a biography and as such all credit should go to Ray Carney for the sheer depth of research. Carney is a fan which, like in the Updike, acts as a double-edged blade. He revels in every detail of Cassavetes’ life but sometimes this goes too deep and for too long, though, again, this is a textbook.

The simultaneous strength and weakness of the book is the choice Carney has made in its construction. Rather than a straight biography with quotations Carney has stitched together what feels like (and could be) every interview Cassavetes ever gave. His own input is used more to provide a chronological and subjective flow to these excerpts of interview. As such, and as the title implies, this is a book which details the life and work of Cassavetes in his own words. From a scholarly perspective, it is very effective. Cassavetes was very articulate and philosophical in his interviews. His voice is clear and consistent throughout. The problem is that Carney is often repeating or pre-empting what Cassavetes says and so at times the text feels repetitive.

Carney’s other choice in construction was to divide the book into sections based around each of Cassavetes’ directorial features. There is a section for his early life at the start and his later life at the end. In between each chapter doesn’t so much cover his life as the film or films he was working on. This is an effective move considering the book is a textbook designed for arts students. It would be valuable to study the intricacies of a film in a sectionalised manner like this. In terms of reading the book as biography it isn’t too bad as so much of Cassavetes’ time, energy and passion was poured into each film and often, always, also included much of his friendship group and family.

I would love to have read a more conventional biography of the life of Cassavetes but having now read Carney’s book I can’t imagine what any other author could possibly hope to contribute that I haven’t already learnt. The duel voices of Carney and Cassavetes himself effectively portray the passion and belief Cassavetes had in his art. There are the stories of self-sabotage, sabotage and extreme manipulation. Carney avoids, in part, too deeply examining the ramifications of Cassavetes characteristic anger and passion early in the book even as the actor and budding director buts heads with studio heads as a director and, as an actor, various directors, including Polanski on Rosemary’s Baby. By the end of the book much of this passion and anger has worked hand in hand with lifelong alcoholism and a perhaps unhealthy compulsion to his art.

There is too a marked lack of perspective from Cassavetes wife Gena Rowland or his family. In this way, Carney almost seems to be enabling Cassavetes and his acolytes into still placing his art above all else in his life even when it is to his, or this books, detriment. But, like Carney’s other choice, maybe this is the most accurate representation of the man.

Truth be told I’m no more sure of what Cassavetes was now than I was before reading this. Confusing, interesting, self-destructive, inherently creative and artistic, joyous, spiteful generous and yet also mean, counter-productive and almost oddly possessive of his various creations.

What’s my take? Messiah? Yes, apparently for a lot of people. Misogynist? Maybe, maybe not. Genius, yup. Alcoholic, definitely.

 

 

Le Tigre – What’s Yr. Take on Cassavetes

 

We talked about it… in letters. And we talked about it on the phone

But how you really… feel… about it… I don’t really know

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

Misogynist!

Genius!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

Alcoholic

Messiah!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

Genius, misogynist, alcoholic – Hey, where’s Gena?

Genius!

Misogynist!

Messiah!

Alcoholic!

 

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on Cassavetes?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on?

What’s yr take on…

CASSAVETES?!?

 

[Dogs barking]

Trainspotting 2 (2017)

Danny Boyle

I’ve watched this film twice now. The first time intentionally and the second because it was the last film to sell out on a busy labour day weekend. I’m happy for the second viewing though because it really elevated my appreciation for this film a lot.

Since then I’ve been chatting about the film to people since and it’s been surprising how many haven’t seen the original trainspotting. It doesn’t seem like it has continued to be as popular with younger viewers as it initially was. Perhaps, probably, because once upon a time every share house in Melbourne (and I’d assume most western countries) had a copy of this film on DVD (as well as, it seemed, Human Traffic, Requiem for a Dream and The Fifth Element all share house staples in the late nineties and early 2000’s). Trainspotting’s popularity then seemed to be driven by it’s cheap and ready availability on DVD. I guess with the decline of DVD it’s not so much a classic by default anymore.

That aside the first film was and is amazing. It’s so hateful, so full of venom. A visceral exploration and part romanticisation and, simultaneously also damnation of heroin culture, Scotland, and post-punk, all contrasted with the rise of brash 90’s commercial culture. The first film is an iconic chain of events which are collected in a series of scenes which only forms into a loose narrative in the third act of the film to provide culture.

The author of Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh (who cameos as Mikey Forrester in both films), wrote a sequel to his first novel in 2002 entitled Porno. The same characters from the first novel reunited and hatched a scheme to get rich off the porn industry. It’s a good book and great character sequel to the events of the first novel but I think everyone assumed that it was unfilmable because of the high level of sexual content, and more recently, because with the collapse of the porn industry no one really expects to get rich off of amateur porn.

I was suspicious of a sequel when it was announced. There have been enough unwatchable late in the game sequels. Dumb and Dumber 2 and it’s mean spiteful nature is perhaps the worst example though Indiana Jones & the Crystal Skull and it’s sheer clumsiness and stupidity is a pretty close second while later instalments of Die Hard simply seem unnecessary.

On my first watch, of trainspotting 2 it took until almost three quarters into the film before my suspicion and distrust eased off and I began to enjoy it. Trainspotting 2 is the same characters and uses the basic setup of the novel Porno minus the get rich amateur porn storyline. It’s much different to the first film however because it relies upon narrative to tell a story of its characters rather than simply detailing their chaotic self-destructive lifestyles. For me at least the narrative ambition of trying to say what had happened to the characters and their city and how they felt payed off.  Not only did I get over my mistrust but I came to love this film and what’s more it made value the first all the more.

This film doesn’t try twist or ignore the events of it’s predecessor, to create a new franchise or hide how old the actors are or how out of touch their characters are with youth culture. Bald spots are actually shown off. The mile a minute pop-culture dialogue between Johhny Lee Miller’s Sickboy and Ewan MacGregor’s Rentboy is still entertaining but not so much biting and funny now as self-deprecating, rueful and almost sad. In terms of these two characters, who were central to the first film, this second film examines them in a culture and stage of life where they are beyond punk and heroin and the irony of post-punk and are instead middle aged and merely low level and not very successful criminals rather than rebels happily wasting their potential.

The film updates it’s ‘choose life’ manifesto and takes subtle jabs at online culture, nostalgia, a conformist society and gentrification but just as all the characters are leery of younger generations ironically enjoying their own youth culture (in music and fashion) so too they are cautious now in attacking what is new.

Meanwhile the real surprise and main story of the film centres around Ewan Bremmer’s character of Spud and Robert Carlyle’s Begby and it’s in showing more of the backstory of one and the shattered dreams and despair of the other that the film really transcends itself and become not just good but a genuinely great film is so amazing in how much it treasures and loves its predecessor and the lives of the characters.

Dead Snow (2009)

Tommy Wirkola

I re-watched this film at the start of 2017. It was around this time I started keeping track of what I was watching and reading. Mainly because I was bored and housebound. I had wondered if perhaps some sort of pattern might emerge in my media consumption. Or, if nothing else, I might start to understand what I kept coming back to and perhaps what I should concentrate on in the future.

As far as I can remember I’ve only seen this film twice. The first time was circa 2004 when I hired it from a video store in Preston. It had a little more novelty then. Though consuming foreign indie film was much different as well.

*edit: the films wasn’t released until 2009. I had moved back to near Preston and was hiring videos from a different but similar store.

Twelve years (actually eight) later this sort of idea of the double hinged camp horror film has been fairly well mined and yet this film still holds up well. The zombies look great, it’s all shot perfectly and the acting is fine. The plot is bare and doesn’t try to do anything other than play as expected. Group of friends travel to remote location, a ghost story signposts coming horror, said ghost(s) materialise and kill and terrorise until what is left of the group can turn on and destroy the ghosts.

For the budget this is a good film and I respect how well they executed a flimsy concept. Still I don’t think I’ll watch this a third time. Though still I’m curious about the sequel even as everyone campily combines Nazis into their speculative/sci-fi/horror stories. It’s true there’s nothing more evil then a Nazi. It’s depressing though seeing true evil so easily defeated by sexed up bumbling Norwegian teens. Even Bed knobs and Broomsticks treated the concept more seriously.

The Founder (2016)

John Lee Hancock

What this movie has? Well… It has an excellent and flawless cast. One of the most entertaining parts of the film was the frequent population of so many known faces in almost every scene. No matter how big or small. It was as if only the best character actors had been cast. Everyone performs well even though some actors are cast against their type particularly a meek Nick Offerman and a quiet and powerless Lura Dern as Ray Kroc’s housewife. It was good too to see some well known faces being cast into greater roles. Notably, for me, B.J. Novak from The Office and Linda Cardellini from Freaks and Geeks.

That said the movie is fun and interesting but ultimately unrewarding. The story is at its most interesting while it covers the McDonald’s brother’s initial development of their speedy burger system and restaurant setup. The plot and pacing then suffers as the focus turns more fully back and onto Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc. The movie then seems a little lost as to how to portray his increasingly unethical behaviour. In the third act the movie misses beats as Kroc’s personal life changes as his wealth and power increases. The movie has set itself up as being about Kroc’s journey from struggling salesman to fast food mogul but can’t really maintain the audience’s sympathy. Told in this way the character development struggles and Ray Kroc’s financial rewards and success feel unearned and the true-life resolution of the film an anti-climax. Meanwhile much seems to be left out or glossed over. The film ends as the McDonalds corporation is beginning to expand across America and only hints at the coming international cult of Ray Croc as, in the closing scenes, he practices a speech addressed to Ronald Reagan.

Little context is given for what Ray Kroc means when he urges the McDonald brothers to ‘do it (franchise their business) for America’. The movie doesn’t’ explain that Kroc was a staunch republican and thought that the export of American burgers could help in the fight against communism. This kind of partisan view is carefully kept out of the film as if it is seeking to appeal to everyone even as it tells the tale of ‘the founder’ essentially stealing his business from the McDonald brothers. While the movie is fine, very good even, and extremely watchable, well-acted and well shot it may have worked better if it had concentrated solely upon the origin story of the McDonald brothers as they developed their business where too it needn’t have had to skirt around or lessen certain events. Also, it had been that story and their initial journey it could have coincided with a changing America in the fifties through to the sixties and seventies. Instead these cultural changes were actually minimised and ignored in this film. Of course, too, by the same token a whole other film could have been made about the latter period in which Ray Croc takes over and the modern international colonial style expansion of the modern franchise. Both or either of these films could have been great. This film though which seeks to encapsulate these two very different stories and time periods does its best but cannot help but feeling disjointed and so too also, unfortunately, powerless in its portrayal of all parties and events.