A Dark Twist on an Old Story? Not Even Close

Okay, I know how I started writing about a 2010 movie based on a 2001 novel but I am not sure why I am posting an entry in my blog about them.

I guess it all started when I watched the Brit TV series based on the Jack Taylor novels by Irish writer Ken Bruen (an appreciation of Mr. Bruen’s unique – to me – prose style appears elsewhere in this blog.)

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I noticed a second hand copy of London Boulevard at a book sale and since I had become an aficionado of Mr. Bruen’s works I picked it up. Okay, it wasn’t a Jack Taylor novel but the protagonist, a wary, volatile ex-con named Mitchell, his run-ins with former criminal associates, his relationship with mentally unstable sister, Briony, his reluctant affair with the aging but still alluring  reclusive actress Lillian Palmer and her enigmatic butler, Jordan. held my attention.

Then I became aware of a movie adapted from the novel.  Since it was written by William Monahan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who adapted the Asian box office hit Infernal Affairs for the Martin Scorsese-directed North American cinematic success The Departed (one of my favorite films) I had high hopes when the acclaimed screenwriter chose London Boulevard as his directorial debut. 

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Imagine my surprise when I looked closer at the back of the DVD dust cover and saw that Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley had been cast in leading roles. While reading the novel I kept picturing Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren or Charlotte Rampling in the roles. (On the other hand, the casting of Anna Friel as Briony and Ray Winstone as Mitchell’s criminal nemesis, Gant, was spot-on.)

I understand the need to attract “name” stars to secure investors. However, the casting – and rewriting – completely destroys Mr. Bruen’s original intent: to write a British version of Sunset Boulevard, or, as it says on the front cover of the novel, “a dark twist on a classic story.” Imagine a version geared to a youthful demographic directed by Zack Snyder and starring, say, Scarlett Johansson as Ms. Palmer (renamed “Lily”) and one of the Hemsworth boys as Mitchell (MC Mitch?)  

Mr. Monahan’s second attempt at directing, the dismal Mojave. didn’t fare much better (24% Audience Rating). Perhaps Peter Howell of Toronto’s Globe & Mail (quoted on RT) says it best:  “Writer/director William Monahan won an Oscar for penning The Departed and he obviously needs the discipline Martin Scorsese brought to that picture.”

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WTF2: “THE LOBSTER”

Head-scratchers like David Lynch, Leos Carax and Michael Haneke may have competition as cinematic masters of the bizarre now that director Yorgas Lanthimos (and his co-writer Efthimis Filippou) have entered the field.

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Film- maker Yorgas Lanthimos
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Screenwriter Efthimis Filippou

In a previous post on this weblog, I called Dogtooth (which I watched on Netflix) one of the most polarizing films ever offered on the popular streaming service.

Now I am forced to amend that statement after watching The Lobster, also on Netflix. If possible, the Greek duo’s follow-up to Dogtooth is even stranger.

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Colin Farrell and John C. Reilly in “The Lobster”

Irish heartthrob Colin Farrell plays against type as David, a meek, mild-mannered guy who has neither the skills or the looks (Mr. Farrell is outfitted with unflattering glasses, nerdy mustache and slight paunch) to score with women (no, this is not a science fiction film).  He finds himself in a special hotel where he is given 45 days to find a female mate among the guests  or be turned into an animal of his choosing.  (He chooses a lobster.) He is accompanied by his brother, Bob, who flunked the test and was transformed into a dog.

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Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in “The Lobster”

The international A-list cast also includes Oscar-winning English actress Rachel Weisz, French beauty Lea Seydoux, American indie vet John C. Reilly and Greek actress Angeliki Papoulia (she played the older daughter in Dogtooth ).

If the premise doesn’t sound strange enough, the stars deliver their dialogue in flat, tone-deaf line readings. The effect is of a big ol’ farm boy who may be good with his hands but has absolutely no talent when it comes to reading aloud in front of his high school class. 

As near as I could figure, the film says something about relationships, the pressures society places on people to find a mate (I am usually seated by the bar even though I have told the host or hostess that I wish to order a meal) and, to quote an old pop song, the things we do for love. (There are enough metaphors here to sink a studio.)

(I resisted the temptation to write “It’s all Greek to me” in a previous blog post on Dogtooth so I am certainly not going to do it now.)

There are moments of pitch black humor, bizarre imagery, those offbeat line readings and, of course, Mr. Farrell’s admirable but odd performance.

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What next for Mr. Lanthimos and/or the equally  twisted Mr. Filippou?

Somehow I don’t see them being tagged for the next Marvel superhero movie. ( At least I hope not.)

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I Watched It on V.O.D.: DEAD MAN DOWN

Noomi Rapace as Colin Farrell’s accident-scarred neighbour, looks as sullen as she did in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I’m guessing that was the idea; the producers even hired Niels Arden Oplev, director of the original  Tattoo, the first, and,in my opinion, the best of the Swedish language  trilogy based on the books  by Stieg Larsson).  But without the signature Lisbeth Salander look she  is just not as effective.

As for Irish actor Farrell as a Hungarian born family man breaking bad so he can exact a revenge on an American gangster (Terrence Howard), well, all I can say is … give me a break!

Some worthy character actors (F. Murray Abraham, Dominic Cooper, Armand Assante) and a certifiable international star  (France’s Isabelle Huppert) are wasted in this bleak thriller.

Mr. Farrell was allegedly The Next Big Thing in the early 90s (remember him in Minority Report? ) . However,  in recent years he seems to be spending the majority of his time in smaller features.  Some are great  (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths); others are merely mediocre (Triage, London Boulevard).

Dead Man Down is, regrettably, in the latter category.

(The less said about  Alexander , Horrible Bosses and the recent ill-fated reboot of Total Recall the better.)

Obviously, His Career in Hollywood is Doomed …

“I’m sick of all these stereotypical Hollywood murderous scumbag type psychopath movies. I don’t want to see one more movie about guys with   guns in their hands. I want it  overall to be about love and peace.

But it still has to be about seven psychopaths.

So this Buddhist psychopath, he doesn’t believe in violence. I don’t know what the (bleep) he’s going to do in the movie.”

Marty (Colin Farrell) outlines his idea for a new screenplay  to skeptical pal Billy (Sam Rockwell) , who is a big fan of Hollywood-style shootouts, in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, the latest film from In Bruges screenwriter/director Martin Donagh.  

PS  Billy would have loved Gangster Squad.

True Confessions of an All Nite Country DJ (Inspired By the Movie “Crazy Heart”)

"Could someone wake up Rick Dennis before his shift?"

For years Hollywood city slickers have been trying to exploit the deceptively large and wide demographic for whom country is more than just songs on the radio. It is a lifestyle and a passion.

Crazy Heart may be the first movie I’ve seen that  gets it right.

Now, I never claimed to be an authority on the subject.  I have never lived in Nashville or hung around the bars in Austin.

No, my opinion is based on five years of working the all night shift at a radio station in that hotbed of country music …. Victoria B.C.

Well, let me amend that remark. Cuz although CJVI-AM was based in Victoria the overwhelming majority of calls I got were from the satellite communities of the city … Langford, Colwood and Sooke, known better as the Western Communities or, as some city folks called it,  “Dogpatch.”

Okay, they may not have been as sophisticated in their cultural tastes as yer average Victorian but when it came to country music, they took things very seriously indeed.

And that’s where Crazy Heart gets it exactly right.

Jeff Bridges plays scruffy country music hasbeen Bad Blake  as a flesh and blood character rather than a caricature.

He sings songs that sound as if they could have been actual hits (rather than the mouthwash that spills all over most alleged country movie soundtracks.)

Better still, he sounds as if he wrote them. And, contrary to rumor, not all country songs are about trucks and trains and cheating love affairs.

“He played his last refrain/oh but the song will remain/Though he’s put his bow down and closed his case,” Bridges sings in one scene, “Open the gates/welcome him in/ ‘Cause there’s a brand new angel/with a old violin.”

Man, that’s deep. Singing in a gravelly weathered voice, Bridges finds the somber truth in the lyrics just as he locates the truth of the complex character he portrays.

It’s a marvelous, unaffected performance that fits comfortably on Bridges’ rumpled frame like a faded pair of jeans.

Yes, the people listening to Bad Blake in the humble venues in which he has been booked are mostly working class blue collar types but the movie never talks down to them. Cuz these folks possess a kind of innate wisdom that doesn’t translate into five dollar words.

I met more than a few of them. Cuz when my longtime live-in girlfriend left (that’s a whole other movie) I began to hang around with the folks who phoned me up on my radio show. And I started taking them up on their invitations.

Most of the bands played at small venues like the ones in the movie. And whether onstage or off we all enjoyed yourselves because we all liked the same kind of music and had the same understanding of what it was all about. 

I quickly learned that country folks are very forgiving. That’s why Bad could get away with the stuff he did. And that’s why George Jones kept getting bookings even at the height of his alcoholic misbehaviour.

And that’s another thing the movie gets right. The toxic allure of alcohol.

Bad seems to be imbibing most of the time on and off stage.

The country musicians I knew back in the day were heavy drinkers too.

Like Bad it never seemed to interfere with the show.

Unlike Bad they also knew when to stop.

Unfortunately, I didn’t. 

I guess I was what you could call a social alcoholic (to put it politely).

People always seemed to be surprised when they visited my place and didn’t find any booze in the fridge. Frankly, I didn’t like to drink alone.

But take me along to a country music festival, Saturday afternoon jam session, house party or club gig and I couldn’t stop.

Unlike Bad, I had a glass jaw when it came to the stuff. Two drinks and I was funny and charming for fifteen minutes. Then came several hours of slurred speech and intermittently idiotic behaviour.

Like Bad, I eventually realized the toll this was taking on my friends and  my life and I stopped for good.

Still listen to country music though. In fact, I like the way film producer and music co-ordinator T-Bone Burnett put the soundtrack together.

Burnett mixes c&w classics by artists like Buck Owens and Louvin Brothers with newer material by rising star Ryan Bingham and the late Stephen Bruton.

The soundtrack also has a sample from Waylon Jennings’ outlaw anthem “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”.

A lyric snippet from Texas native Billy Joe Shaver has a key role in the dialogue of one scene.

Burnett uses the original version of  Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” rather than the better known cover by Nashville vets Emmylou Harris and Don Williams.

Yeah, I figure Crazy Heart gets it right.

To see how you can get it wrong, rent Country Strong. It takes more than custom tailored country outfits, dropping the names of a few country music greats and putting Tim McGraw in a supporting role to make a movie “country.”  The whole idea of the character played by Colin Farrell in “Crazy Heart” is to show how country music has changed in the era of Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and other arena country acts who seem to have lost the earthy roots and true country spirit exemplified (for better or for worse) by Bad Blake.

"Are You Sure Pete Done It This Way?" Jeff Bridges to "Crazy Heart" co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal (Mrs. Peter Sarsgaard in real life)

This article goes out to Orville Henry, Terry Murray and the late great Norm Watson