Tag Archives: Bryan Cranston

Godzilla – Terror without character

King of the movie by the guy who made Monsters: Godzilla makes a move on San Francisco

King of the movie by the guy who made Monsters: Godzilla moves on San Francisco

Godzilla turns 60 this November. The King of the Monsters had a great run between 1954 and 2004, when Japan celebrated his golden anniversary by having him squash the life out of almost every monster in his rogue’s gallery in Godzilla: Final Wars; including dishing out a veritable curb-stomping to the mutant iguana beast of Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned 1998 would-be reboot.

But looking back on 1954’s Godzilla (or Gojira), it’s easy to forget how important a film it was, reclaiming the monster movie from the B-movie bin where Son of Kong dumped it only nine months after King Kong(1933) became the genre’s first masterpiece. Gojira balanced strong pacing, effective monster attacks and light characterization with a highly political but not overwrought metaphor for nuclear destruction in the atomic age.

So where does that leave us in 2014? A Godzilla reboot with state-of-the-art digital effects is where; featuring strong pacing, effective monster attacks and light characterization. But it’s not all it could have been, and it so easily could have been great.

Gareth Edwards’s take on the colossal lizard is a mixed bag. Opening with flashes of historical drawings of mediaeval monsters, there is an air of pretention to this project which is quickly rinsed away. Images of A-bomb tests in the Pacific from the 1950s are shown to apparently destroy Godzilla (the Godzilla? A Godzilla?). Cut to the late 1990s and some Japanese nuclear facility (let’s just call it ‘Fake-ashima’) comes under attack from an apparent earthquake caused by some burrowing beastie – the white guy (Bryan Cranston) saw it coming, but could not prevent it.

In the present, Cranston looks to his estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to help him prove that something unnatural happened at Fake-ashima, and that a cover-up has taken place. Soon soldier Ford, scientists Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins and the U.S. military are chasing creatures across the Ocean towards a final showdown in San Francisco.

Breaking Dad: Bryan Cranston with Aaron Taylor-Johnson

All the components of a best-of Godzilla franchise are in place. The design of Godzilla is sublime. The drama is very much in check (Ford’s wife and son are in San Fran). The action sequences and monster fights are choreographed with balletic composure. Alexandre Desplat’s bombastic score is a noble successor to the work of Akira Ifukube. So then what’s wrong? The answer mostly lies in characterization, but not where you might expect.

Edwards rose to notoriety in film circles when his 2010 film Monsters managed to tell an engaging human drama against the backdrop of a semi-apocalyptic monster attack; all for $500,000. Here, working with a budget nearly 500 times that size, the monsters are infinitely more satisfying, but the human drama hasn’t succeeded. That falls largely on the fact the central romance, Taylor-Johnson and wife Elizabeth Olsen, only get one scene together. It’s a strong scene of married life marred by military duty, but it’s not enough to hang the emotional core of the film on. Secondly, looking back on the entire Godzilla oeuvre, there’s a reason the heroes of those films are regular scientists and journalists and never soldiers – soldiers are only interesting characters when they’re forced to go against the orders they’ve dedicated their lives to follow through, but here Ford is actually the good little soldier boy throughout, and it’s not exactly endearing.

Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen are given far too little to work with, acting only as emotional fulcrums for a weight Taylor-Johnson still can’t lift. David Strathairn struggles to fit into his role as a top-tier general worse than he struggles to fit into camos a size too big for him. Ken Watanabe, that ever-reliable token Japanese star, is given the preposterous exposition section of the script; you’ll buy everything he’s selling, but when he’s not telling you what to believe, it’s hard to believe in what’s happening.

In an awkward (ex)position: Ken Watanabe

In an awkward (ex)position: Ken Watanabe

And that’s because of Godzilla. What is Edwards’s Godzilla? The film never seems certain. Certainly no product of the nuclear tests as in 1954 or 1998. More curious still, having a bomb dropped on him in 1954 has not left him with any vengeance towards mankind (in fact, like last year’s Pacific Rim, the film seems oddly unconcerned with nuclear power as a danger at all – an awkward Hiroshima reference gets briskly swept aside). The rival monster has far more explanation of where he came from; Godzilla comes off as an awkward plot-device, “addressing an imbalance in nature”, if we can excuse such hippy nonsense coming Watanabe’s mouth, and hunting that monster because… because. A line of dialogue from the trailer where Watanabe calls Godzilla “a god” has thankfully not made the final cut, which would have dumped even more confusion into the mix.

But the real shame is not the “what is he?”, but the “who is he?” Godzilla over his 50-year Toho run has been wrathful, vengeful, arrogant, proud, delighted, caring, even overtly sarcastic. Here the monster ranges from angry, to sad, to kinda tired, to kinda happy. He’s been reduced from a complex monster to a bland array of Seven Dwarf names. He has less characterization than the average Taylor-Johnson.

Which is not to say that when he unleashes his classic roar, or stomps defiantly on his opponent, that he isn’t clearly a worthy version of the classic monster. He’s just not quite there yet. Despite inherent problems, Godzilla is assertively satisfying, with a finale that rewards wholeheartedly after 100 minutes of monster foreplay. There’s enough innate craftsmanship on show to demand more appearances by this version of Gojira, but some proper fantasy world-building is required before we can buy this monster wholesale. Edwards has a lot to learn as a filmmaker (his reliance on Spielbergian child-shots to sell his disaster scenes proves this), but he is well on his way to becoming a force of nature himself. Should he return to Godzilla, there may no stopping the pair next time.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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The coffee’s on, the beer is chilling, popcorn’s popping… it’s nearly time for the 85th Academy Awards

The Oscars Liveblog hosted by David Neary

The Oscars Liveblog hosted by David Neary

Last year life got a little in the way of some good old-fashioned live-blogging, so this year there’s simply no excuse. It’s gonna be a long night… good thing I stocked up on supplies. For those of you joining me from East of USA, start the coffee now (and have a reserve Red Bull tucked away at the back of the fridge). For those of you in the US and Canada, welcome, be grateful for your timezone and be understanding of the several typos that follow – things won’t kick off ’til after 1am and I won’t be watching what the keyboard.

If you missed my predictions, check them out here, but in short Argo for Best Picture, Spielberg for Best Director and a cleanish sweep of the technicals for Life of Pi.

Be sure to check back here as events on the red carpet, and later and more importantly the Awards themselves, kick off. As always I will be simultaneously live-tweeting on @DeusExCinema.

See you back here in a little bit…

[all times are in Pacific Time. Add eight hours to comprehend how tired I am]

3:20pm – OK, here we go.

3:22pm – Jessica Chastain looks sensational. If her dress was a little more gold she’d be an award statuette herself.

3.27pm – Amy Adams does not like Ryan Seacrest much. Also, her dress looks it would be good for dusting.

3.28pm – Samantha Barks’s dress! Give it the Oscars! All the Oscars!

3.30pm – Reese Witherspoon looks better than many of the nominees. Good dress, great hair. Now all she needs is a good movie.

3.32pm – Channing Tatum. So hot right now. Never gonna win an Oscar though.

3.34pm – Quvenzhané Wallis’s little princess outfit is perfect. She looks like Tiana in The Princess and the Frog. Ryan Seacrest is the frog.

3.37pm – Taking Octavia Spencer after her recent cameo in 30 Rock is not very easy.

3.43pm – Kerry Washington has just been talking to Ryan Seacrest longer than she was in Django Unchained.

3.46pm – In my head I imagine Jacki Weaver is married to Cloud Atlas star Hugo Weaver.

3.49pm – Kelly Osbourne’s hair is a colour I describe as dead pink.

3.51pm – Love Amanda Seyfried’s dress. She looks superb, but did she drive to the Oscars with the top down?

3.52pm – THAT’S what every Oscars has been missing up to now – Bryan Cranston!

3.54pm – Jennifer Lawrence; looking perfect, if a little minimalist. Dress isn’t exactly… accentuating anything…

3.59pm – Not liking Sally Field’s dress. Also, why is Joseph Gordon-Levitt talking in that deeper-than-usual voice?

4.03pm – Jennifer Hudson looks better and better every year. Does she still do movies though?

4.05pm – Is it just me, or is the red carpet actually kind of mauve?

4.07pm – Anyone else want Channing Tatum’s baby to be born during the show?

4.12pm – Catherine Zeta-Jones looking like a Valkyrie. Michael Douglas looking healthy. Things we like to see.

4.14pm – Helen Hunt looks like she just showed up for the 1998 Oscars. Still as good as it gets, apparently.

4.17pm – I can’t make fun of Christoph Waltz’s hispter glasses because my new glasses are sadly very similar.

4.18pm – Argo or Lincoln… who cares? Anne Hathaway’s dress is clearly going to be the most divisive issue of the night.

4.20pm – Naomi Watts came to the Oscars wearing Nicole Kidman’s skin.

4.22pm – Charlize Theron is still the best-looking woman in Hollywood. Unless, as her last film suggests, you count Kirsten Stewart.

4.27pm – Bradley Cooper’s hair is more handsome than my face.

4.45pm – Adele looks totally ready for the 1965 Oscars.

4.47pm – Nicole Kidman is dressed like an evil female Oscar. I kind of love it.

4.51pm – I wish Hugh Jackman wasn’t so charming, I’ll feel bad now when he loses to Day-Lewis.

5.01pm – Somehow Jennifer Aniston’s red dress clashes with the red carpet. Someone did their job wrong.

5.03pm – And Jennifer Garner’s (stunning) mauve dress matches the red carpet! What is going on?!?

5.05pm – Halle Berry: “I’ve never been more proud to be part of a franchise as that one (Bond).” Sucks to be the X-Men franchise right now.

5.15pm – Jamie Foxx’s grey tux has more personality than Jamie Foxx.

5.19pm – No, seriously, is it the Oscars yet?

5.24pm – Renée Zellweger is ready for the Space Oscars!

5.30pm – Here we go! Seth MacFarlane, you are very welcome.

5.31pm – Making Tommy Lee Jones laugh on the first beat. Terrific comedy.

5.32pm – And a direct swipe at the Oscars for snubbing Ben Affleck. Wow, amazing start.

5.34pm – “If you bumped into Don Cheadle on the studio set, did you try and free him?” Seth to DDL on his method.

5.36pm – William Shatner cameo! This is pure Family Guy.

5.38pm – A jaunty musical number about boobs. Shame it’s pre-recorded.

5.40pm – Channing Tatum dancing with Charlize Theron. The world cannot handle this much sex appeal.

5.42pm – Flight done with sock-puppets. I now never need to see that film.

5.43pm – And now MacFarlane is singing with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Daniel Radcliffe this is properly entertaining stuff.

5.45pm – Gidget jokes! I get these now!

5.47pm – And a parody of Be Our Guest. This is far more Beauty than Beast.

5.49pm – Octavia Spencer presenting Best Supporting Actor. All of the nominees have an Oscar already. Huh. Hoping for Jones, but we’ll see.

5.50pm – Christoph Waltz wins! For basically an identical role to the won he already won for! Hooray!

5.52pm – Waltz quotes Tarantino at Tarantino. Surely Tarantino quotes Tarantino at himself often enough.

5.57pm – Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy here to be loud and silly. I have no problem with this as long as it’s short.

5.58pm – Yes, that went on too long. Now, Best Animated Short.

5.59pm – Paperman wins. Very deserving. Gorgeous film. Plus I called it. So yeah. I win!

6.00pm – Best Animated Feature goes to Brave. Controversial stuff. Gutted for The Pirates! and Wreck-It Ralph.

6.02pm – Reese Witherspoon is here to look amazing. Also to talk about Life of Les Beasts of the Misérable Pi.

6.04pm – Quevenzhané Wallis looks delighted to be mentioned by the voice of Stewie Griffin.

6.06pm – The cast of The Avengers are here to make sure that people care about cinematography. This is good for everyone.

6.07pm – Claudio Miranda wins for Life of Pi. Superbly deserving.

6.09pm – Claudio Miranda should also win for Best Hair.

6.10pm – Best Visual Effects goes to…

6.11pm – Life of Pi! I called a clean sweep of technicals. Think I may have been right…

6.13pm – Oh wow, that may have been the most embarrassing musical ushering off stage I have ever seen.

6.17pm – Channing Tatum and Jennifer Aniston make an odd couple. Here they are to prepare us for the “less interesting” styley awards.

6.18pm – Anna Karenina gets the costume nod. Hugely deservingly. I think I called that. Did I call that?

6.20pm – And now Best Makeup goes to Les Misérables. Didn’t see that one coming at all.

6.21pm – Halle Berry is here to launch the Bond love-in. Even though she may be the worst Bond girl ever. I think we’ll all die another day.

6.24pm – Well now I just want to watch Bond films…

6.26pm – Shirley Bassey. Goodness!

6.28pm – Auric Goldfinger would be pissed to realise Oscars are only covered in a very thin layer of gold.

6.32pm – *snooze* Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington out on stage to some very dull applause.

6.34pm – Best Short Film goes to Curfew. I did not see it, so have no comment to make. I’ll be over here when you need me.

6.36pm – Oh, Washington and Foxx are still there. Best Documentary Short goes to Inocente.

6.38pm – Liam Neeson is here to be badass.

6.39pm – Oooh, here come some clips from Argo Dark Lincoln.

6.42pm – “150 years and it’s still too soon.” MacFarlane got gasps there with a Lincoln assassination joke.

6.43pm – Ben Affleck is here to talk about documentaries. And to talk a swipe at Seth. Ouch.

6.44pm – Searching For Sugarman takes Best Documentary! I didn’t see it, but I sure as hell called it!

6.46pm – MacFarlane makes a quick stab at Prometheus. I’ll allow it.

6.50pm – Jennifer Garner and Jessica Chastain come on stage to the Cinema Paradiso theme. Now I’m just thinking of kissing in the rain…

6.51pm – If Amour doesn’t take Best Foreign Language Film this’ll be a big upset… and it does!

6.52pm – Michael Haneke seems a surprisingly chirpy fellow.

6.54pm – John Travolta looking suspiciously young is here present a celebration of recent movie musicals. Some of them are going to be awful.

6.56pm – I really dislike Chicago. The movie. The music. This is not pleasant.

6.57pm – That said, I probably hated Dreamgirls even more. Just get to Les Mis already!

6.59pm – But yeah, Jennifer Hudson can seriously damn well sing!

7.01pm – Excellent, sounds like the Les Mis crowd are doing ‘One Day More’. Epic tune.

7.02pm – This is a superb medley. And everyone looks fantastic.

7.05pm – OK, so the set-up is stolen from the 25th Anniversary Les Mis concert. But they’ve kind of killed it. Better than in the movie!

7.07pm – The upcoming films advertised in the ad breaks look almost universally terrible.

7.09pm – Here’s Chris Pine, our second Captain Kirk of the night, to regale us with a “previously on the Oscars” about the tech awards with Zoe Saldana.

7.12pm – Oh, OK, Ted and Mark Wahlberg are here. What are the audience seeing right now?

7.13pm – Best Sound Mixing goes Les Misérables. Deserved I guess.

7.15pm – Slightly dodgy Jewish jokes from Ted there. Sure they went down a treat with the audience.

7.16pm – Best Sound Editing is a tie! This very rarely happens. Zero Dark Thirty takes the first…

7.17pm – Skyfall takes the second! A huge surprise, but a great win!

7.19pm – Christopher Plummer welcomed onstage with a MacFarlane-esque movie reference. Clever stuff.

7.20pm – This is a rather lovely intro from Plummer to the Best Supporting Actress nominees.

7.22pm – If Anne Hathaway doesn’t win the world may vomit. Just a universal vomit.

7.23pm – Thank god. I wanted to keep down all this beer and popcorn.

7.24pm – It’s not an Oscars ’til there’s a hint of tears. Nice job Anne Hathaway!

7.30pm – Brief discussion about the upcoming Academy Museum. I like to work in film museums. Can I work there please?

7.32pm – Sandra Bullock is here to give out the editing award. One of the most important of all – let it never be forgotten. I called Argo.

7.34pm – And how right I was! Argo takes Best Editing. William Goldenberg did a terrific job, especially in the opening scenes.

7.35pm – Jennifer Lawrence and her Metroid dress introduce Adele to sing ‘Skyfall’. Wonder if it’ll win Best Song later…

7.38pm – Great performance of a great song. Worried Shirley Bassey is gonna kick Adele’s ass backstage after for stealing her thunder.

7.44pm – Nicole Kidman is here to tell us a little about Silver Django’s Amour.

7.48pm – Daniel Radcliffe and an amusingly hobbling Kristen Stewart, who keeps grunting in pain, announcing nominees for Production Design.

7.49pm – Lincoln takes it! I think I actually called that one! Hooray for Lincoln! Hooray for me!

7.52pm – Salma Hayek, looking like an exotic princess from a Pink Panther movie, tells us about some people who won some nice awards for niceness.

7.57pm – George Clooney, proving with his grey beard that time rolls forever onward, reminds us of those we’ve lost. Tears time!

8.01pm – A lot of sad losses this year, from Borgnine to Tony Scott. But the big surprise is Barbra Streisand coming out to sing ‘The Way We Were’. Fitting.

8.09pm – Chicago being honoured for no great reason. Oh wait, it’s to announce the Best Score award. That… sort of makes sense.

8.11pm – Another envelope struggle and… Life of Pi wins it! That puts it well in the lead tonight!

8.13pm – Best Song goes to ‘Skyfall’ or I know nothing of the Oscars.

8.15pm – Norah Jones performs ‘Everybody Needs a Best Friend’ from Ted, co-written by host Seth MacFarlane. A nice touch.

8.17pm – But still Adele takes it, and she weeps. Thank goodness, we’re overdue some proper tears!

8.19pm – Yet another ad break. And still six awards to go. Getting sleepy…

8.23pm – Dustin Hoffman propping up Charlize Theron. The unoriginal odd couple. Now some writing awards.

8.24pm – Best Adapted Screenplay. This could go almost anywhere…

8.25pm – Chris Terrio wins for Argo! Pretty much seals the deal for Best Picture later…

8.26pm – A great, rapidfire speech about the good of solving troubles non-violently there.

8.27pm – Somewhat disgracefully, Quentin Tarantino takes Best Original Screenplay for Django Unchained.

8.28pm – Tarantino takes a moment to thank people other than himself. Good for him.

8.33pm – Some good gags from MacFarlane there to bring out Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, children of Hollywood legends.

8.34pm – Though my goodness Jane Fonda’s dress is loud! Best Director is on the way…

8.35pm – Shock and terror! Ang Lee takes it for Life of Pi! This could mean a lot of things. Terrible for Spielberg, but a deserved win all the same.

8.35pm – “Thank you movie god.” – Ang Lee

8.40pm – And Jean Dujardin is here to present Best Actress. There may some swooning.

8.43pm – I know I’ve called this for Lawrence already, but now I just don’t know…

8.44pm – But I was right! And then she fell on the steps going up. At least she made a gag about it!

8.45pm – A good quick speech by Jennifer Lawrence there. Now Meryl Streep is here to give Daniel Day-Lewis something.

8.48pm – Three for you Day-Lewis. You go Day-Lewis.

8.50pm – Standing ovation for a charmingly beffudled Day-Lewis. Who makes a great joke to Streep about swapping Lincoln for Thatcher.

8.52pm – A brilliantly worded and emotive speech there. Day-Lewis did the tall man proud.

8.52pm – Jack Nicholson to give out Best Picture. Surely it’s Argo

8.53pm – Nicholson joined via videolink by Michelle Obama from the White House. What a brilliant, if strange, surprise!

8.56pm – Michelle Obama announces it for Argo! No big surprise, other than in the way it was read out.

8.58pm – Did George Clooney really need another Oscar? Stupid perfect Clooney.

8.59pm – Ben Affleck given the nod to discuss the film as its director. The whole team seem a little upset at him not getting that nomination.

9.00pm – Ah, but can Ben Affleck win an Oscar for acting?

9.01pm – Kristen Chenoweth joins Seth MacFarlane on stage to sing a song for the losers. The credits roll, no one really cares any more.

9.05pm – And that’s the end. A decent show. With the exception of the gongs for Django and Brave‘s win, I am very happy with the night.

9.08pm – OK, that’s me wrapped for another year. Now to look forward to tomorrow when the average person once again no longer cares very much about the movies. Oh well, it’s always good while it lasts. Hope you enjoyed following. Good night to all!

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Argo – Hollywood’s finest exodus since The Ten Commandments

Big decisions: Affleck and Cranston in Argo

With tensions increasing in the Middle East as Iran comes ever closer to developing the bomb, this quite brilliant, witty political thriller seems very timely, despite being set over 30 years ago.

Argo, the latest from one-time Hollywood poster boy/laughing stock Ben Affleck, now a respected director of punchy, entertaining if until now slight films, tells the so-improbable-it-must-be-true tale of a CIA operation to evacuate six American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis of ’79-’81 by pretending they are members of a science fiction film crew. In its unlikely fusion of genres, the film manages to lampoon the audacity of Hollywood while also racking up the tension as the crisis escalates.

Affleck himself plays CIA consultant Tony Mendez, a so-called “Moses”, whose expertise is in extracting American civilians from international hotspots. During the crisis which follows the Iranian Revolution, six of the staff members at the American Embassy in Tehran escape the embassy, the centre of the crisis, and hole up in the residence of the Canadian ambassador to Iran.

With no hope of smuggling them across the border into Turkey, Mendez comes up with the plan of sneaking them out in broad daylight through Tehran’s airport, by coaching them to pose as a Canadian film crew doing a reccy in “exotic locations” for a sci-fi B-movie, called “Argo”. To sell the deception, Mendez teams up with (fictional) one-time Hollywood big leaguer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and real-life Oscar-winning make-up effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), who worked on Planet of the Apes and the original Star Trek series. Hosting gala events in service of their Star Wars knock-off (which most closely resembles 1980’s Flash Gordon movie), the trio land an ad for Argo in Variety and generate buzz for the fraudulent film. All that has to be done then is for the terrified embassy staff to keep their nerve.

Full of punchy one-liners, especially from Goodman, Arkin and Bryan Cranston as CIA boss Jack O’Donnell, Argo’s script jets along at a very enjoyable pace before its nerve-wracking finale. Editing tricks cut between the film and documentary footage to emphasise the remarkable reality that lies behind the story. The almost excessive period detail, shot in bright ’70s colours, sells the movie to its audience even better than Mendez sells his film to the Iranians.

I’ll drink to that!: Goodman and Arkin (also Affleck, just about)

Acting is mostly solid across the board, although Affleck is perhaps not the strongest actor who might have fronted it, and he fluffs some of his best lines. Goodman and Arkin have remarkable fun as the pair who see through the “bullshit business” while also doing remarkable pro bono work for their endangered countrymen. Cranston, so hot right now it burns the eyes, has a strong go at the “disapproving chief who’s actually incredibly proud of his renegade underling” role, and it’s a treat to behold. The rest of the exhaustive cast is assembled from some of the best TV and movie character actors out there; Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Zeljko Ivanek, Bob Gunton, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver… the list goes on and on.

What the film does that no amount of perusing declassified State Department documents can do is truly get at the heart of the movie business, and give it a deserved ribbing. From the moment the film opens with the red Warner Bros logo from the 1970s, you can tell this is a film gleefully in love with a different age of moviemaking. Much of the opening preamble, bringing clueless audiences up to speed on the history of Iran (think Persepolis, but less sweet), is explained using storyboards. When Mendez reaches Hollywood, the hokey sets, ridiculous costumes and obnoxious self-promoters seem far more alien than Iran itself.

While Iran is the villain of the piece, so to speak, Argo is not overly critical of the nation, refusing to demonise it as it underlines the need for change that resulted in the Iranian Revolution. Using Istanbul as its shooting location, it paints the country as one of massive contradiction, where US flags are burnt while Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants are found on the high street.

Despite its energy, Argo slumps a little in the middle, as it struggles to define the characters of the six refugees, who are even more over-shadowed by the titanic performances of Arkin and Goodman than Affleck is. As the nail-biting finale approaches, the film blatantly goes beyond the real history and artificially raises the tension without any need. Yes, it’s intense, but for the only brief moment in its two-hour run-time this impossible story becomes unbelievable.

Affleck’s finest film to date, Argo is an endlessly witty, powerful and thrilling drama. With skilful craft in recreating an age almost out of memory, it has a unique honesty to it that is far more interested in the individual figures involved than flag-waving patriotism. A spy movie without guns or sex, Argo is nothing less than a ridiculous adventure with fine, clever characters and a fist-chewing climax like few others.

Be sure to stick around during the closing credits where actual photos from the real-life Argo exodus are placed side-by-side with images from the film. It is a final testament to the remarkable work Affleck and his team put into telling this story.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Total Recall – An unmemorable remake

Colin Farrell as Doug ‘Dougie’ Quaid, aka Carl Hauser (aka Dougie Hauser?)

It’s hard to stifle a giggle as the lights go down for Total Recall when the name of the film’s production studio, Original Film, comes up on screen. Coming 22 years after the Paul Verhoeven-directed version, it’s hard to find much “original” about this Len Wiseman production, at least on the surface. It doesn’t help the filmmakers’ arguments that they insist the film is more closely based on the source material, Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’; but really swathes of Total Recall 2012’s content comes from the 1990 film.

Wiseman, that packer of action who brought us the highly entertaining Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) and the remarkably successful Underworld series, has here steered into cinemas an action movie that builds on its predecessor only in terms of gloss, not in terms of depth or content.

Colin Farrell, on autopilot, stars as Doug Quaid, a worker at a robot factory in a futuristic Britain, which has become the world’s sole superpower after a chemical holocaust made most of the planet uninhabitable. This ever-so-slightly despotic Britain rules over a colony, called the Colony, in what was once Australia, and its supposedly oppressed workforce are imported every day via a colossal elevator, the Fall, which connects the territories via the Earth’s core.

But Quaid is not who he thinks he is. Bored with his dull life and his outrageously beautiful wife (how?!), he attempts to have false memories of a more exciting reality inserted in his brain through a system called Rekall, only to cause a major system crash when it turns out he already has those memories, for real, and everything else has been inserted. Learning he is actually Carl Hauser, a military big wig turned pro-Colony freedom fighter, he goes on the run from the cops (both human and robot) and his wife, Lori (Kate Beckinsale), who is also an imposter and the top agent assigned to keep him under lock and key.

Soon Quaid/Hauser teams up with his real love interest Melina (Jessica Biel), and following clues left by himself before the memory implant embarks on a quest to save the Colony from all-out enslavement by the Big Brotherish Britain.

No-road rage: Kate Beckinsale in her magnetic hover car

Production-wise Total Recall has more money than it knows what to do with. Inspired by, amongst others, Blade Runner and Minority Report, it adequately shows a fusion of cultures (Asian and South American) in the Colony, and the soaring metropolis that has built up around London in the United Federation of Britain. And yet, there’s nothing particularly dystopic about this world. Its class system seems unfair, but not much worse than what we have at present, and the horror that the villains wish to unleash is never actually seen. Unlike the drab and lifeless world of Verhoeven’s Total Recall, this doesn’t look at all like the worst of possible futures.

Yet there are plenty of fine touches in the production; the gravity reversing elevator of the Fall feels fresh to sci-fi, while electric web guns, magnetic hover cars and a device that shoots hundreds of tiny cameras show signs of creativity and inspiration lacking in much of the script. Quaid finds himself tracked not by a bug in his brain as in the original film, but by a mobile phone built into his hand – a technology that feels not impossibly far off now.

Where Wiseman excels is in the lengthy action scenes, which include some barnstorming set pieces, all of which slightly overstay their welcome but never exhaust. Upon being surrounded by elite cops, Quaid proceeds to take them out in a frenetic, sweeping digitally altered single take, shortly before being confronted by his vicious, flexible fake wife, who proceeds to teach him a move or two. Beckinsale is given the majority of the best stunts to do, and performs them with plenty of panache – her knees-first slides are some of the most memorable moments in the film. A major central action piece, involving a series of elevators that can travel sideways as well as upwards, feels a little too much like a Mario Bros. game, with the characters leaping from platform to platform and avoiding getting crushed in corridors. Indeed, the entire film has quite a computer gamey feel to it. The epilepsy-inducing scrolling lens flares don’t help.

Jessica Biel and Colin Farrell in some sort of threatening situation or other

The screenplay by Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, Salt) and Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4) is as lacking in urgency as it is in one liners (comparatively, the 1990 film was written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who wrote Alien). Worse still it fails to build in any way on the original story, which given 22 years has passed is almost inexcusable. In the interim audiences have been exposed to The Matrix, eXistenZ and Inception, so questions of reality and identity are no longer new, or even pressing. The one scene in the original Total Recall that truly questioned Quaid’s reality (he is confronted by a scientist who claims he is dreaming) is reproduced here in an exhaustingly extended form, where Quaid is confronted by a close friend rather than an expert. The conclusion to the scene is slightly different, but not enough to justify a Total Recall post-Matrix.

Even the always brilliant Bryan Cranston as the villain Cohaagen can’t elevate this film beyond a passing entertainment. Bill Nighy and John Cho show up in brief cameos, but they could be anyone. While Beckinsale looks as though she is always having plenty of fun (her husband directing may have given her free rein), Farrell only really pushes his limits during the action sequences, and slumps when he’s not on the run. A highlight of the film sees him come face to face with an interactive recording of his former self – the two Farrells are played by his very different guises, the clean-shaven, slick-haired, baby-faced Farrell of In Bruges and Phone Booth, and the goateed, dangerous Farrell of Daredevil and Intermission. It’s a cute touch. Meanwhile, Jessica Biel, usually a limited actress, is deadwood in a criminally underwritten role.

For all its gloss and bang, this is a fun but forgettable sci-fi action movie, that crucially fails to justify itself as a remake at this time. There’s plenty of talent evident, let’s just hope it can be used more substantially in future.

2/5

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An interview with Len Wiseman

Len Wiseman on set

I recently interviewed Hollywood action movie director Len Wiseman for Film Ireland magazine while he was in town to promote Total Recall (2012). We discussed his new film, how to structure an action sequence, the unfortunate censorship of Live Free or Die Hard/Die Hard 4.0 and the big question of the day: which was the better action movie, The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises?

It took making a movie with Colin Farrell to get Len Wiseman to Ireland. The Californian director of Total Recall was on his star’s home turf for the European premiere of the movie, when I spoke with him at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. Busy with press and the premiere that day, he assured me that Farrell had promised to show him the town before he left.

Wiseman, a director of high-octane video game-influenced action blockbusters was a strong choice to put in charge of this sci-fi remake, originally made by the Dutch master Paul Verhoeven in 1990. That film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, a blue collar worker who discovers all his memories have been implanted, and he is actually a spy. Big shoes had to be filled, especially when remaking a film that was so commercially successful while also wooing critics. Wiseman launched his name through the Underworld movies, vampires versus werewolves romps, which he created and now produces – the series has now taken nearly $500,000,000 worldwide. His Total Recall, following The Dark Knight Rises into cinemas, has not had as warm a reception thus far. So what drew him to the project?

“It kind of came to me out of left field,” he admitted. “I’d been focused on prepping a different movie at the time that didn’t go through. They sent me a script, I actually read it with quite a bit of scepticism about what it would be. I’m a fan of the original, so I was more reading it trying to convince myself why not to do it. I was just hooked by the direction that it went in, it was a very different take, and it felt like such a different experience than the Verhoeven film.”

Wiseman is a fan of the original film, but confessed when he saw it first, aged 17, he was “just going to see the next Arnold action movie!” Years later, in college, he read the short story it was based on, ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, by sci-fi soothsayer Philip K. Dick, unaware of the connection. “I remember reading and thinking: ‘Hey this is that movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger!’ When I read the story it did have a very different kind of Quaid to me, and it was a different experience. So that’s what made me feel both more comfortable and [with the script]; it reminded me more of the short story.”

Total Recall (1990) and Total Recall (2012): How times have (sort of) changed

Verhoeven’s Total Recall can still surprise now, given that it touches on concepts such as “what is reality?” nearly 10 years before The Matrix and eXistenZ. So what message can Total Recall carry now, another 12 years later? Wiseman said the idea of implanting happier memories than the ones we have, through the sci-fi product ‘Rekall’, is more pertinent now than ever. “If the technology actually gets to the point where we can experience something like Rekall, is it the right thing to do?” he suggested. “Is it safe? To me it’s amazing that Philip K. Dick’s work, not just in this story, is so relevant. Some people just have a window into our future and where we’re going. I mean even Facebook, look at what we have today, we’re ordering up, putting up the pictures that we want, saying this is who I am, how I’m describing myself. I’ll leave out all the bad stuff. This is my alter ego of me, who I want to be. Rekall is an extension of that science. An extension of our technology of being actually able to say ‘this is who I want to be’.”

This Total Recall has a particularly glossy look, with its story shifting between a futuristic London and its enslaved colony in Australia. Influenced by the likes of Blade Runner and Minority Report and Wiseman’s ever-growing collection of sci-fi artwork (he refers to his home as a “big geek fest”), the director explained that his team also borrowed the look of Rio de Janeiro’s slums and Asian fishing villages to create a “hodge podge” of interlocking cultures. The decision to bathe the film in light was taken on his own distaste for underlit action movies. “I love to see what is going on,” he said, “both in my camera movements, in the way that things are choreographed. [Cinematographer] Paul Cameron did an amazing job. We talked about it a lot; that’s why there’s so much practical light within those sets, so we can have a reason to splash light all over the place. I think you can have a very dark image – Total Recall is very dark – but you can still see everything because the contrast level is able to be really dark when it’s black, but as long as you’re putting spots on everything that you need to see it works.”

And what about those extended, frenetic action scenes? “I think it’s very important for an action sequence to be its own story, and have a first act, second act, third act within the action. Otherwise it’s just relentless action – it doesn’t make any sense. There is a difference between just an action scene and an action sequence, and what it means to me is that in an action sequence you can remember the sequence, it should tell some story and ratch it up and tell its conclusion rather than just be noise and shaky cameras.”

Wiseman directs Jessica Biel

Perhaps the film’s finest moment is a sequence where Farrell’s Quaid rediscovers his talents as a spy and surprises himself by taking out a dozen SWAT team members in what appears to be a single, swooping take. “It appears to be!” Wiseman laughed, like a magician who delights in revealing his tricks. “That was something that was very difficult. It’s funny because when there’s something that people don’t quite grasp they go *snap fingers* “CG”, because we’re in a day and age where that’s commonplace. But it was 100% practical – it was put together with what are called super slider rigs, that they shoot football games with. They’re these remote cameras that move at about 35mph so you can’t man them. It was a lot of R&D on our end, but we put seven of those tracks together and what would happen is one of these cameras would go along at 35mph and when it crossed another one the computer would pick up and this one would take off from where the other left off. And we stitched all of those together. It took two days to shoot. Colin and the guys had to do the fight 22 times!”

Wiseman was clearly impressed with his leading man. “I had the funnest time with Colin. He’s a complete pleasure, and such a professional as well. And immensely funny, that’s one thing really struck me. He’s very talented, he has a hold body of work that’s wildly intelligent, but I was not aware of just how quick witted and funny he is. It really makes a difference on set to have somebody who’s devoted but also keeps it fun.”

Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale: Not-so-happily married

It’s less easy to ask Wiseman about working with his leading lady, Kate Beckinsale, without feeling as though your probing like a tabloid mag; the pair are married, having met on the set of the first Underworld film. She plays Lori, a spy pretending to be Quaid’s wife, keeping him under her thumb before having to hunt him down when he discovers who he is. I asked Wiseman if it’s coincidence he gave her character all the best lines. “A lot of those lines are her!” he replied. “Part of what I wanted from Kate and why I thought she’d be great for this movie is that people don’t realise through the Underworld movies or through the serious dramas and indies that she’s done is that she has such a sharp and fun and cunning sense of humour. And I knew that she would be able to bring a lot of that to the film. I wanted Laurie to have a taunting quality to Colin, and I knew that she would know how to bring that. So a lot of the one-liners are hers.”

Very much in demand these days, Bryan Cranston was cast as the totalitarian Chancellor Cohaagen, his first villainous role in a movie since his character Walter White shifted from hero to villain in his TV series Breaking Bad. The choice was an obvious one for Wiseman. “He was my first choice. I was watching Breaking Bad at the time and I was like ‘I’ve gotta work with this guy’. The thing that surprised me about him is that I had no idea about his other show (the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, which ran for six years in the early ‘00s), so I didn’t see that side of him. I only know him as Walter White. So he shows up and I thought ‘You know what, this guy has such a menacing quality about him that he may be difficult to work with’. I was setting myself up for who knows. He could not be a sweeter guy! And I kept waiting for that [mean] side of him to come out … because he’s so great in that role as Walter White. He’s a dear guy but just has a great presence in the film.”

Colin Farrell regrets trying to steal meth from Bryan Cranston

Wiseman went on to tell me about his pre-Underworld days, when he worked as a props master on Independence Day director Roland Emmerich’s biggest films of the 1990s. He described the experience as “a bit of film school for me in terms of problem solving, technique and using a budget”, before sharing an anecdote in which Emmerich, despite having a $75,000,000 for Independence Day, was ordering sets to be built at the last minute from leftover pieces of other film’s sets. “We literally built this little set in an hour of a hallway that was needed, just on the fly, and then walk them through and done. That was really helpful.”

With a fifth film in the Die Hard series due next year, was Wiseman ever in the run for to direct it, following his successful fourth instalment Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0) back in 2007? “It was, it was. Bruce [Willis] kind of went out there publicly and said so, but I was already working. I would love to jump in the ring again, but I was already well into the mix.”

Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard (4.0)

The director also admitted his disappointment at how the studio censored that film. “I shot a rated R movie,” he insisted, and referenced the ‘Harder’ cut available on DVD. “I had no idea it was going to be PG-13; that came in halfway through the process. And I gotta tell you as a fan I felt like “I’m gonna walk.” If they it PG-13! You know Bruce was really up in arms about it and everything. But in the end it was the most expensive Die Hard. It was also my first studio film, so I lost that battle over the rating. I’m not big on doing the cartoon gore. But McClane is McClane, so that’s really why I was glad to get that (the extended cut) out.”

The question all action movie fans need to be asked this summer is The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises? Wiseman seemed very torn up about having to choose. “I actually thought beforehand ‘Dark Knight Rises is gonna hit it out of the park, but Avengers, that’s gonna be interesting, how are you gonna pull that one off?’ And I mean I was just watching [Avengers] thinking ‘I’m really liking this. It’s servicing the characters very well, it’s tying in very well, it’s really fun’, and I completely got into. I gotta say, the end of Dark Knight, how it all wrapped up and tied up I really liked. But Avengers was just… you walk out of that movie saying ‘That was so much fun.’ The difference is: Avengers I’ve seen twice.”

Kate Wiseman in Underworld: Evolution

So when the media circuit, or “circus” as Wiseman corrected me, for Total Recall is done, what will he do next? More Underworld? “I actually don’t know about Underworld!” he admitted, somewhat sheepishly. “I should be the right guy to ask, but I actually said there wasn’t going to be a fourth one! So I’m not sure about that. I’m producing a movie called Darkness, which is based off the Top Cow comic books. Then I’ve got two scripts that I’m working on – I’d love to get back to my own creations again.

“That’s how I started my career. Sequels and remakes are a thing of the past for me, I’d love to go back to getting my scripts off the ground.”

Total Recall is out in cinemas in Ireland and the UK now.

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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