Monday 23 November 2015

Monday Night Roundup #4

I've posted one review to Apocalypse Later this week.

This week's Weird Wednesday review was of The Fuzzy Fairy Incident: A Furry Tale (2010), a fairy tale with dogs in the leading roles, courtesy of a dog trainer who can clearly train dogs but not make movies.

Here are brief reviews of the other films I've watched this week that won't end up reviewed on that site, at least anytime soon.

Inserts (1975)

Director: John Byrum
Stars: Richard Dreyfuss, Jessica Harper, Bob Hoskins, Veronica Cartwright and Stephen Davies
I noted in my review of Phantom of the Paradise in last week’s Monday Night Roundup that Jessica Harper had three films in the Top 100 Cult Films list. It’s worth mentioning here that they were all released around the same time. That one was 1975 and Suspiria was 1977. This one came in between in 1975, along with Woody Allen’s Love and Death, but it’s the one of the three that I haven’t seen. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it, surprising given the subject matter.

It turns out that it stars another name who was doing great work around the same time. The lead is Richard Dreyfuss, the same year as Jaws and two after Dillinger and American Graffiti. He’s a major film director in the Hollywood of the early thirties, known as Boy Wonder, who’s fallen from grace because of his alcoholism. Now he’s retreated into his mansion on Hollywood Boulevard, the only one left in a block scheduled for demolition to make way for a freeway, to shoot silent stag pictures. He’s well aware that he’s fallen on hard times but he tries to maintain his artistic integrity, even while looking down on his audience, who he calls ‘syphilitic perverts’.

The leading lady in those black and white blue movies is a drug addicted former actress called Harlene, surprisingly cheerful given that her squeaky voice did for her career in ‘real movies’. She’s played by Veronica Cartwright, who had just returned to features at the age of 26 after more than a decade away. As a child actor, she had appeared in films as notable as The Birds, but her real break wouldn’t come until later in the decade with the trio of Goin’ South, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien over a period of two years. She’s a lot more naked here than I can remember seeing her in anything else.

Her screen partner is Stephen Davies, whose character she calls Rex, the Wonder Dog, either because one part important for his current career is good at sitting up and begging or, more likely, she’s cynically digging at the fact that it isn't. He also appears a lot more naked than I might have expected, given that he graduated from RADA the same year he made this film. As his character says, he has star potential, but he does so well at not being the brightest bulb in the pack in what was originally an X-rated movie that it’s almost unsurprising that he didn’t make another feature for five years.

They’re all working for Big Mac, played by Bob Hoskins in his debut feature in the States. His big break wouldn’t be for another five years, back in England, when he played the violent lead in The Long Good Friday, a film which, probably uncoincidentally, also had a role for Stephen Davies. He’s as calm as everyone else is loud and obnoxious. Well, for about two minutes, then Boy Wonder riles him up and circumstances only make that worse. He’s a businessman who thinks big. With freeways coming, he’s going to build hamburger stands and gas stations up and down so people get them coming and going. Guess why we don’t have a full name for this guy.

Harper is Big Mac’s ‘fiancée, maybe’, with an oddly pale tone and delicate movement to her like she’s a ghost. Like everyone else in Hollywood, she wants to be in the movies and she already has a movie star name, Cathy Cake. She also wants to see it all and do it all, as she explains a number of times during the picture. Unfortunately she gets to see a lot more than she was expecting, because Harlene dies of a drug overdose halfway through the movie. Then the real story begins.

Except for the initial scene, which is of the stag picture we’ll soon watch them shoot, everything unfolds in real time, which feels weird for something set this far back. It’s not a one take deal, like Hitchcock’s Rope or a few recent features like Russian Ark or The Silent House, because there are frequent cuts and, frankly, given how much he drinks, there’s no way that Dreyfuss could have avoided half a dozen trips to the bathroom had this been a one shot take, but the film proper begins and then continues in real time until it ends, almost two hours later, making us feel like we’re there in Boy Wonder’s house along with these characters as an unseen observer. This is only one reason why it feels like a stage play. It wasn’t, having been written for the screen by debuting director, John Byrum, who had, bizarrely for the subject matter, been working as one of the original writers on Sesame Street, but it does feel very much like it could have been.

Like a stage play, we focus a lot less on the setting and the direction and a lot more on the actors and the dialogue heavy script. Dreyfuss is the mainstay throughout. He works well with Cartwright early on and Harper later on, the two screen relationships being very different indeed. With Harlene, Boy Wonder is in charge, not enough to stop her addiction or prevent her death, but he’s the dominant one of the pair. With Cathy, she’s clearly in charge and he runs through a whole story arc during the second half of the film. It’s certainly a much more substantial performance than she gave as Phoenix in Phantom of the Paradise.

It’s an odd film to have a cult following. It’s certainly a magnetic script, with strong dialogue and a few great quotes that are all the more quotable given who delivers them (Dreyfuss mostly, but Hoskins on occasion). There are many namechecks of industry luminaries of the time, especially Clark Gable, who gets mentioned rather a lot as ‘the new kid at Pathé’, but also many of those who either didn’t survive the silent era at all or for long, like Wallace Reid and Jack Pickford, or did so at a notably reduced level of prominence, such as Erich von Stroheim, Francis X Bushman and Lillian Gish.

It’s clever stuff, with a great deal of depth to sit back and analyse once it’s all over, but it seems weird today to see such clever stuff dished out by actors we recognise in an old film with genitalia frequently on show. In a very different way to Phantom of the Paradise, this was a product of its time, porno chic being a cultural phenomenon in the very early seventies, until the Supreme Court redefined obscenity and films like The Devil in Miss Jones, the seventh highest grossing picture of 1973, was prosecuted.

I often talk about the precodes of the early thirties as being constant surprises to the modern audience not used to seeing that sort of edgy material in black and white. The other magic time in American cinema is the early seventies, because the studios had lost the plot entirely and admitted it, handing over seven figure sums of money to counterculture icons to see if they could find it again. It was only with the blockbuster success of Jaws in 1975 that they managed it and this era was over for good. Perhaps Inserts is a cult film because it was made during one of those two brief eras of magic American cinema and set during the other.

This was film #79 in my runthrough of the 100 Greatest Cult Films. You can find the full list here.

Men in Black 3 (2012)

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Stars: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin
Boris the Animal has a visitor. She’s a cute little thing in a skimpy black number with a large pink cake. He’s locked up a long way from the outside world in a massively secure facility on the moon. Out of the cake comes a weird spiderlike thing that crawls into his hand and enables his escape. With the aid of a conveniently vulnerable armoury, he promptly breaks out. ‘Let’s rewrite history,’ he says, right next to the Apollo 11 landing site, and on we go into the opening credits.

I enjoyed the irreverent humour and imagination of the first two Men in Black movies so was hesitant to watch the third, made a full decade after the second in an era where long awaited sequels have tended to disappoint. It doesn’t help that I’ve not found much to enjoy in Will Smith’s post-MIB career, although I’m as big a Tommy Lee Jones fan as ever. What I found was that this mostly picked up where it left off, with the two of them notably older but working just as well together and the imagination still very much on show, including strong work from Rick Baker in the alien character design. I wasn’t disappointed until later.

Naturally, the history that Boris the Animal is talking about involves Agent K, Jones’s character. In the world we know, the young K scuppered his plans at Cape Canaveral in 1969, capturing him alive (but taking one of his arms) and putting up a protective shield around the planet called the ArcNet, thus stopping the Boglodite invasion in its tracks. In the world we’re about to join, the future Boris the Animal has gone back in time, killed the young K and prevented the ArcNet from being deployed. Only Agent J, played by Smith, remembers that other world and naturally does something about it, jumping off the Chrysler building to go back in time himself, save the younger version of his future partner and thus undo the undo to restore the world we know.

One reason this works so well is that Josh Brolin was cast as the young Tommy Lee Jones and he’s spot on. I loved the pairing of Brolin and Smith, which reflected well on the pairing of Jones and Smith that we know well. Alice Eve isn’t anywhere near as convincing as a young Emma Thompson, but she doesn’t have to carry the movie. Brolin does and he nails it. I have to say that Michael Stuhlbarg is better still, stealing the entire film in my eyes as an alien called Griffin who can see multiple divergences of time ahead of them happening. Griffin deserves his own movie and I’d stand in line for that. I noticed David Rasche, Sledge Hammer himself, as the head of the 1969 MIB, but sadly he has a blink and you’ll miss it part.

With Brolin and Smith working well and the wild variety of aliens as imaginative as ever, this belated sequel is right on track for quite some time. There’s a neat continuation to the traditional reveals of celebrities as aliens. This one adds Lady Gaga, Tim Burton and Mick Jagger to that pantheon, along with a number of folk at Andy Warhol’s Factory, all models apparently being aliens, though Warhol himself turns out to be an undercover MIB agent instead. ‘I don’t have a problem pimp-slappin’ the shiznit out of Andy Warhol’ isn’t a line I ever expected to hear in a movie but wasn’t unhappy to hear here. The scriptwriters chose not to involve the Apollo 11 astronauts in this, though. I expected to see more of them than we do.

There are problems, though. This 1969 is a notably sanitised take on the real one, which does get tiring and at points actively annoying, and those sixties Men in Black sure liked to flaunt their tech, contrary to everything we’ve been told thus far, chasing around New York on gyrocycles and jetpacking their way across country. We don’t buy that in the slightest, but worst of all is the finalé. It’s by far the weakest, most clichéd and most obviously greenscreened part of the film, which also happens to throw away the strong potential of Boris the Animal and settle for him being nothing but a cheap cartoon villain. Kiwi actor Jermaine Clement blusters well and has a great character design, which oddly makes him look like Macho Man Randy Savage in 1969, but he’s utterly wasted in the end. Fortunately there’s material after the finalé, which plays much better and helps us to leave with a good taste in our mouths.

A proposed Men in Black 4 is sitting somewhere in the development cycle, presumably because this one made a strong showing at the box office, and, on the face of it, I’m not automatically against it. It could succeed and succeed well, critically as well as financially, but it needs to be a lot more consistent than this one to really kick the franchise back into high gear.

Hitman: Agent 47 (2015)

Director: Aleksander Bach
Stars: Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciarán Hinds, Angelababy, Dan Bakkedahl and Thomas Kretschmann
In case we haven’t seen the first movie, 2007’s Hitman, featuring Timothy Olyphant as Agent 47, or played the game on which both films were based, we’re given a quick rundown at the beginning to give us a grounding. A government program to create human killing machines with no emotion, no fear and no remorse was, of course, successful. These killing machines were called Agents and they’re conveniently identified by barcodes on the backs of their bald heads. Talk about a giveaway. However, the price of the program was the conscience of the creator, Dr Litvenko, and so the program was shut down. Huh? Like the government cares about that sort of thing. Anyway, the Agents disperse. Various people try to kick the program back into gear and fail, but they persevere.

We kick off in Salzburg, Austria, with a huge gesture-driven display. An Agent presses a button on his smartphone to upload a virus to the system and everyone promptly evacuates. OK, credibility is officially lost before the opening credits are over, but at least the proceedings are pretty. They’re also action-packed. We’re only five minutes in and a bunch of people are dead, two secure facilities are compromised, two cars are destroyed and an armoury has been blown up. At least we can’t accuse the film of skimping on action. Sure, we could have done without the supposedly stylish blue flashing light backing the firefight, the only colour in the scene being the Agent’s red tie, but hey, we can’t have everything.

Then it’s off to Berlin. A young lady doesn’t know who she’s searching for or what his name is, but she knows she has to search. She’s an odd duck: she has hypersensitive sight and hearing, which she suppresses with meds. She can’t bear to be touched. She has major maths skills. She cares about people. And, of course, she’s the target of Agent 47, turning this into a chase in The Terminator style, highlighted to no small degree by a man calling himself John Smith suddenly introducing himself and volunteering to help, save and/or protect her. He’s from Syndicate International, about whom we know nothing except that they have huge gesture-driven desks at their HQ in Singapore. He knows her name, Katia van Deese, and he’s just in time because Agent 47 immediately shows up to kill her. The fight is on.

This film in microcosm is the scene shortly afterwards, well represented in the film’s trailer, after Smith gets Katia into safety at the US embassy. Agent 47 walks through the metal detector in the lobby, loaded for bear, and sticks up his hands so they’ll bring him in deeper. It’s a ‘no, you’re locked in here with me’ scene and yes, they even steal that very line from Watchmen, where Rorschach used it in prison. It’s a very cool, very stylish and very powerful scene, but it would be cooler if it wasn’t lifted from another source.

This is a very cool movie, but it’s also very derivative. There’s cool architecture, even before we get to Singapore. There’s cool tech. There’s a particularly cool use of a Gideon Bible as a weapon. There are also imaginative attacks, such as a great bullet POV sniper shot through a train and a neat way to stop a fast car. The notably international flavour to the cast is impressive too. However, that architecture isn’t used to its full advantage, that tech is mostly unbelievable and those attacks come in between a great deal of repetitive action. We’re also massively reminded of the Terminator movies throughout and the story never really escapes that, even with a couple of fair twists to the concept.

Rupert Friend is an appropriate Agent 47, but it’s the sort of part that could have been replaced with CGI and he doesn’t distinguish himself enough from that thought. Zachary Quinto is appropriate too as John Smith, with his odd mix of acting and non-acting underlining why he was cast as Spock in the Star Trek reboots. He does exactly the same thing here, clearly trying to instil emotion into scenes without really understanding what emotion is. It makes more sense when he’s half-human, half-Vulcan. That leaves Hannah Ware and her inconsistent accent as Katia. She’s actually better than both the guys, because she has the opportunity to find some depth in her role, but she can’t save the film on her own. Ciarán Hinds has too little screen time to help much, but he does good work towards the end. I was hoping to see a lot more of Hong Kong actress Angelababy in an English language film, but she hardly appears at all, which is a real shame.

What I left the film with was how awesome Singapore looks nowadays. The Supertree Grove at the Gardens by the Bay is as iconic a location as I’ve seen since Hitchcock was alive and I’m now waiting to see which blockbuster gets to shoot at the Marina Bay Sands, which is the trio of skyscrapers with what looks like another one lying on top of them. It cost $8b to open and I’m sure they’ll be looking for ways to recoup some of that money from Hollywood, who would be crazy not to seize the opportunity. Sadly I don’t think this is what’s supposed to stick with me the most.

The Man from UNCLE (2015)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Luca Calvani, Misha Kuznetsov, Jared Harris and Hugh Grant
Check Point Charlie in 1963 and an American heads from west to east to talk to Gaby Schmidt about her father, Udo Teller, who was ‘Hitler’s favourite rocket scientist’. Apparently, he came to work for the US nuclear program, but disappeared two years ago. Now that he’s shown up again in Rome, working for (or being forced to work for) a couple of Nazi sympathisers, the Vinciguerras, the CIA have naturally become very concerned. As a period piece, this was always going to be about a nuclear bomb, which is ‘end of the world stuff’, and they clearly need Gaby’s help.

This is a Guy Ritchie movie, so the stylish car chase that follows is hardly surprising. It’s shot beautifully and parts of it play out very much like a dance. There’s good music, good camerawork and good driving for whoever’s doubling for the young lady. Everything is promising so far.

The American is Napoleon Solo, a former army sergeant and former art thief, now a successful agent. The CIA felt that he, once he was eventually caught, would be wasted in prison, so they put him to work instead. Chasing him like a Terminator is a KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin, who appears to be equally good, losing the chase only when he’s dropped into a minefield in no man’s land. Well, no, he’s still on the chase even after we think it simply can’t continue. It’s also very nicely done.

At this point I was impressed with the movie but not sold on the fact that it’s supposed to be The Man from UNCLE. Henry Cavill, who I haven’t seen play Superman and don’t remember from Stardust, is appropriately calm as Solo and he’s reasonably suave too but he doesn’t quite have the presence or the wry sense of humour we’re used to from Robert Vaughn. He feels less like an agent and more like an actor playing an agent. At 6’5”, Armie Hammer was well cast at the Lone Ranger but he’s too big, too unemotional and too wooden to play Kuryakin. He does, however, try for the sense of humour that Solo struggles with, and achieves it a little more often.

For the first half of the film, I was much more sold on the script than the stars, even when it throws them together as unlikely partners, teaming up to infiltrate the Vinciguerras’ shipping firm where Gaby’s uncle Rudi also works. Kuryakin plays her Russian architect fiancé and Solo an antiquities dealer (read: high class thief). Solo’s too sassy and obnoxious, Kuryakin’s too robotic and boring. It takes scenes like a wrestling match between Gaby and Illya to break some of the ice and let us believe that these guys might actually be able to work together.

What’s really surprising is that three short words is all it takes Hugh Grant to nail Alexander Waverly. We don’t even see him this early, except from the back, but I honestly thought I was listening to Leo G Carroll. He even gets another brief moment a while before he actually joins the story and that fraction of a second was enough to suggest that he looks like him too. Once he appears as a character, the cracks show but Grant’s work is in a whole higher league to Cavill’s and Hammer’s.

There’s a lot of good on show here. Ritchie’s visual eye is still strong: the vintage cars racing at the Vinciguerra’s party are gorgeous, the set decoration is excellent throughout and there’s a lot less gimmickry on show than is usual for him. When it does appear, such as a couple of wild split screen sessions, it’s appropriate and well done. The music is consistently enjoyable and I didn’t even recognise most of it, which is always a good thing in my book.

However, there’s a lot that’s bad too. Ritchie’s visual eye may be solid but nothing coalesces here; it’s just random cinematic beauty without context. One knife kill, for example, is shot with close ups of the participant’s faces, then the camera leaps above them to watch one fall along with a whirl of raindrops. It’s gorgeous but has precisely no connection to the scenes before or after or at any other point in the movie and this is far from the only example.

Cavill and Hammer continue to struggle. Cavill does get a good scene now and then, such as a confident demonstration of his thieving credentials to Victoria Vinciguerra, which reminds of Cary Grant even more than Robert Vaughn. Hammer has more trouble finding his feet, but he’s hindered by some really odd character decisions on the part of the scriptwriters. While they do play up the characters over the action and intrigue, they do so mostly through bickering and that doesn’t endear either of them to us, especially with Kuryakin ready for childish fits so often. With each of them unlikeable and the pair dysfunctional, I found myself rooting for the bad guys, even if they were Nazi sympathisers. That isn’t good.

And worst of all, the promising script becomes a mess of clichés that fails to distinguish itself above the plethora of cold war spy movies rolling around my brain. What’s strangest of all is that it weakens both Solo and Kuryakin, an odd approach indeed to take on a reboot of The Man from UNCLE, which phrases itself very deliberately in the end as an origin story. Neither agent really contributes much to the grand scheme of things. Solo’s grand achievement is saving his partner’s life in a half-hearted manner and Kuryakin’s is that opening chase scene before we even really begin. Given that the big picture is about saving the world from a Nazi-owned nuclear weapon, those aren’t particularly great achievements.

If I knew everything that happens in this picture and was asked to choose which agent to hire for my new organisation called UNCLE, I’d hire Gaby Schmidt, however horrendous her sunglasses.

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