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The Sopranos

THE WHOLE NINE YARDS: High concept, low returns (2000 in Film #7)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, I’m looking at Jonathan Lynn’s mobster comedy, The Whole Nine Yards

The Whole Nine Yards is a strange confluence of elements. It puts together a high concept Hollywood comedy premise with two household names, one known for comedy, the other not, alongside a director from an entirely different pedigree.

When it comes to box office, the concoction worked. In one of the most crowded weekends for cinematic releases in the year 2000 up to this point, The Whole Nine Yards ends up qualitatively ruling the roost on those terms. You can understand why. Bruce Willis has by this point brought in punters on the strength of his name for over a decade, well established as one of the defining leading men of the 90’s. Matthew Perry, conversely, was perhaps the breakout star of the era-defining sitcom Friends as Chandler Bing, the deadpan master of the sarcastic one-liner. Friends was here in its wind up years, with Perry and many of the main cast spreading their wings into cinematic careers; indeed coincidentally this same weekend, Friends co-star Lisa Kudrow appears in another comedy, Hanging Up, just two weeks after Courteney Cox’s key role in Scream 3.

If back in the late 90’s you would have put money on the Friends star most likely to maintain a successful, post-show movie career, it would have been Jennifer Aniston, and by and large you would have been right, but The Whole Nine Yards puts a lot of faith in Perry that he can hold his own as a leading man against someone with the casual on-screen magnetism of Willis. And on the whole, Perry manages to translate elements of his awkward, geeky Chandler persona into the role of dentist Nicholas ‘Oz’ Ozeransky, and the fact The Whole Nine Yards doesn’t entirely work is not on Perry’s shoulders. The film doesn’t convince you that Perry is a natural romantic comedy lead but the problems lie in deeper roots.

Ultimately, The Whole Nine Yards—a phrase which translates as “the lot”—is remarkably, for a comedy, lacking in a lot of what you would call laughs, thanks to a cluttered, needlessly muddled script.

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TREADSTONE: Spy fun, but don’t say the B-word (Season 1 – Review)

Treadstone feels like a show that somebody made in 2008 and forgot about for over ten years.

There is something a little strange about Tim Kring’s series set in the Jason Bourne universe. For one thing, it seems utterly determined to never mention the ‘B word’ at any point. Not Blackbriar, the second secret CIA project to recruit, train and brainwash super-spies. That gets a mention, having collapsed during The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy. The events of those films, particularly Ultimatum, are expressly referenced or at least heavily hinted at. Bourne *himself* is referred to (as “the asset”, or something deliberately wink wink nudge nudge), but his name? Nope. It could be a rights issue. The credits do after all say “based on an organisation from the Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum” which is about as thin a tether as you can mine in order to put together a TV show. You can have the name Treadstone, and that’s it.

Yet at the same time, Kring goes out of his way to make this show, effectively, a lower-budget tribute act to the Bourne franchise, predominately the Paul Greengrass films which really established the tone and style of that saga – all shaky cam, pass the sick bag Krav Maga fight sequences, a global travelogue, lots of shady government intelligence agents in rooms trying to outfox assassins working as much with raw instinct as intellect. You’ve all seen a Bourne film, right? This doesn’t just inhabit the same narrative world but also the same visual and iconographic one. The music has John Powell’s percussive style. The fighting is close combat, no quarter, balletic hand to hand. The intrigue is post-Cold War (and mid-Cold War, actually) spycraft. It works to place itself as a side-story to the Bourne saga in the same manner as The Bourne Legacy from Tony Gilroy. That worked to distance from Greengrass in many ways. Treadstone works to revel in the comparisons.

The biggest surprise of all is that Treadstone, well… it’s actually not that bad, for what it is, even as a show caught between two worlds and two eras.

2019 Top 10: TV Shows

As we close out 2019, it’s time to put together a few Top 10 lists based on my key entertainment passions – film, TV and film scores.

I’ve gone back and forth on decade lists but I suspect I’m just going to keep to 2019 releases on the blog, and maybe do something more with the decade on my Twitter or FB, so stay tuned in that regard.

Next up – TV shows. I’ve watched *loads* of TV this year, perhaps more than any other year I can remember, so I have plenty of series I can rifle through to decide what constitutes the best of the bunch. It’s been a cracking year for telly, all told, so this wasn’t the easiest list to compile, but here we go…

From the Vault #10: GOODFELLAS (1990)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from April 26th, 2014, revisited with Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman having landed…

David Chase, creator of hit HBO series The Sopranos, once described Goodfellas as ‘my Koran’ and it’s very easy to see why. Martin Scorsese’s epic crime drama about the rise & fall of Henry Hill, and through him the mythology of the ‘gangster’, truly is a remarkable piece of cinema from start to finish.

What Scorsese does is paint a vivid, kinetic portrait of a descent into fame & fortune, glamorising the so called ‘wise guy’ without oddly enough ever making it appealing. In adapting Nicholas Pileggi’s book about Hill, Wiseguy, Scorsese manages in many respects to tell a cautionary tale about the perils of, as Henry himself puts it from his very first line of a continuous narration, ‘always wanting to be a gangster’. Goodfellas shows that while it may in some respects be a charmed life, it’s also a hollow existence fraught with unexpected danger, paranoia & viciousness that can destroy the souls of men.

Scorsese shows that in magnificently entertaining fashion, both visually, through a sublime screenplay, and some peerless acting.

TV, Book, Movie & Podcast Roundup – May 2019

Welcome to June! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on Cultural Conversation but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black.

Let’s start this month with TV…

TV, Book and Movie Roundup – April 2019

Welcome to May! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on Cultural Conversation but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black.

Let’s start this month with Film…

Fleabag and the Masterpiece criteria

The word masterpiece is too often thrown around with abandon in this hyperbolic day and age, but the term might well be apt for the BBC comedy drama Fleabag, which reached a much anticipated conclusion this week.

Writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge had to be talked into developing a follow up to her nihilistic dark comedy from 2016, in which she played the titular, unnamed ‘Fleabag’; a grief-stricken early thirty-something in modern London using sex as coping mechanism for her guilt and attachment issues. While it sounds intense on that description, Fleabag was anything but, as the hugely impressive second season has proven. Fleabag was beautiful, insightful, sad, moving, melancholic and laugh out loud funny, often in the most mordant and inappropriate way.

What qualifies it as a masterpiece? That’s the question. What makes it, potentially, as important a piece of comedy and drama to deserve a place among the recognised greats.

The Sense of an Ending: Game of Thrones, Lost and Delayed Anticipation

There really is nothing like an ending.

We are obsessed, as audiences, with endings. At times we lose sight of how important the journey is of the stories we digest precisely because of how obsessed we are at what will happen in the grand denouement. Often it takes rediscovering a series long after it has all been said and done, taking in the breadth and scope of it, to truly understand and appreciate the piece as a complete entity. We judge so much on the destination. This is a fate about to happen with Game of Thrones, much as it did with the last true genre phenomenon of mainstream television: Lost.

Neither of these two shows are alike in any way except for one key aspect. Both of them saw their audiences become enraptured in the power of delayed anticipation like no other series before them. No other series outside of them have been so assiduously studied, examined, picked apart and theorised about, all of them, in many respects, to crack what has been most important to their audiences from day one: how they are going to end.

Alias – ‘The Box – Pt 1’ (1×12)

If The Confession was the point of no return, The Box is the tale which catapults Alias into what is, barring one or two exceptions, a season and a half of dynamic, top drawer storytelling.

Alias was a high concept TV series from the outset. The ‘high concept’ in Hollywood vernacular defines an idea which can be distilled into a pure, accessible, often blockbuster form. ‘What if we could clone dinosaurs?’ for example with Jurassic Park, or to use another Michael Crichton example, ‘What if theme park robots became sentient and took control?’. Alias itself flaunts the high concept in its DNA, pitched essentially as ‘What if a spy found out she was working for the enemy?’. Even from Truth Be Told, Alias perhaps throws a few extras caveats into that pitch but in basic terms, that’s the point JJ Abrams’ show starts from. The Box, however, is the first episode to truly deliver on a high concept idea.

If you look at Alias across the first half of its first season, we haven’t seen an episode anything like The Box. Right from the get go, Alias engaged in a level of serialised storytelling through which it broke the 90’s mould of stand-alone, easy to syndicate episodes of television to depict a compelling, ongoing narrative journey for Sydney Bristow as she becomes more embroiled in her double-agent life with SD-6 and the CIA. Each episode, even those which carried heavily over to each other such as Reckoning and Color-Blind, tells an espionage tale on a scale which never overwhelms the broader character and narrative arcs in play: Syd & Jack’s relationship, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, the Rambaldi mythology etc… Thus far, the spy stories have been fairly incidental and the weekly bad guys relatively disposable.

All of that changes, immediately, with The Box. The first genuine two-part story in Alias’ lifespan, labelled indeed as such, it delivers on the high concept idea with the pitch: ‘What if terrorists seize control of SD-6?’. Alias does Die Hard, basically, and without a shred of embarrassment. Writers John Eisendrath and Jesse Alexander immediately understand their reference point and the fact they are riffing, broadly, off one of the greatest examples of a high concept in Hollywood history. It only adds to the joy of The Box which exemplifies the remarkable level of confidence Alias had in its storytelling from the very beginning. Many other series wouldn’t have the balls to make The Box until maybe its third, even fourth, seasons. Alias gets it out the way as a midpoint to its debut year.