Talking Movies

August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

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A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

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Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

August 26, 2014

Let’s Be Cops

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Two struggling friends from Ohio pretend to be LAPD cops, and are played by two TV actors pretending to be film stars. Is that meta?

Justin Miller (Damon Wayans Jr) is a struggling video-game designer. He has a pitch for a tense realistic video game called Patrolman, but his boss Todd (Jonathan Lajoie) would rather check his phone than listen to it. Justin’s roommate Ryan O’Malley (Jake Johnson) lives off the proceeds of an unfortunate advertisement and ‘coaches’ local youngsters, including Little Joey (Joshua Ormond), as a way to relive his glory days as a college football quarterback. After being humiliated by Russian mobster Mossi Kevic (James D’Arcy), and being shunned by their old college buddies when they misinterpret masquerade ball for costume party, they discover their costumes hold the secret to self-esteem and pretend to be cops. Soon Justin is wooing waitress/make-up designer Josie (Nina Dobrev), and Ryan is helping Officer Segars (Rob Riggle) take down Mossi; which turns fun make-believe into dangerous reality.

Let’s Be Cops isn’t very funny. Some sequences (especially Justin’s second presentation) telegraph their punchlines, while others; the unfortunate name-tag of Chang on Justin’s uniform, invading the flat of nymphomaniac Annie (Natasha Leggero) to do a stakeout, impersonating a Dominican gangster Pupa (Keegan-Michael Key); just lead to quite uncomfortable routines. Perhaps it’s asking too much from director Luke Greenfield (The Girl Next Door, Role Models) and his co-screenwriter Nicholas Thomas (a former Playboy Entertainment executive), but haven’t we already seen a movie featuring the demented antics of cops trying to be cool? Wasn’t it called Superbad? And wasn’t everything that Seth Rogen and Bill Hader did in it far funnier than anything Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr do in this movie? The most interesting performance here is Riggle’s swivel on a nickel between boisterous bonhomie and wounded professional outrage.

Vampire Diaries star Dobrev is wasted as the token love interest, even though this will probably do more for her post-TV career than her far more interesting but smaller part in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. D’Arcy and Andy Garcia are victims of this movie’s thriller structure sucking out what little comedy oxygen there was.  I don’t watch Johnson’s shtick for free on New Girl so I can’t recommend paying to see it in a cinema. Wayans Jr’s shtick is far more interesting because it’s so puzzling. He prances around, flaps his hands, whinnies, and screams – what precisely am I supposed to be laughing at?  That, as Josie states, he’s a straight man who employs gay mannerisms? Is that funny? Am I misinterpreting in seeing here a coy way to laugh at gay people without laughing directly at them?

Let’s Be Cops isn’t a very memorable comedy, but neither is it truly obnoxious. It’s just well-staged mediocrity whose American success confirms a growing transatlantic chasm of comedic tastes.

2/5

August 23, 2014

Heartbreak House

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If it’s summer it must be Shaw at the Abbey. Annabelle Comyn, who helmed Pygmalion and Major Barbara, is replaced by Roisin McBrinn, but Nick Dunning returns for more Fassbendering.

Ellie Dunn (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) has been invited to the Shotover residence by Hesione (Kathy Kiera Clarke), who then neglects her entirely. The irascible Captain Shotover (Mark Lambert) entertains Hesione’s guest, while disparaging to Ellie his other daughter Lady Ariadne Utterword (Aislin McGuckin), who thus arrives home after 20 years’ absence to a cold welcome. Receiving a baffling welcome is Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn (Chris McHallem), who Captain Shotover insists is an old shipmate who stole from him, but let bygones be bygones. Mazzini is attempting to marry Ellie off to his benefactor, vulgar capitalist Alfred ‘Boss’ Mangan (Don Wycherley), but Hesione is determined to marry Ellie off to her true love; except that unfortunately he turns out to be Hesione’s own husband Hector Hushabye (Nick Dunning). Add in Ariadne’s smitten brother-in-law Randall Utterword (Marcus Lamb) for universal delirious heartbreak.

At the interval I thought that Clarke was over-playing the eccentricity of Hesione, and that Wycherley was engaged in some oblique Python tribute with Mangan’s belly as bloated as M. Creosote and his delivery as hoarse and mentally exhausted as a Gumby. But after the interval I realised they were merely the advance troops for Shaw’s assault on realism. Heartbreak House positions Shaw far closer to Coward than I’d ever previously guessed. The spoilt aristocrats who ignore their guests, who get nervous, and then get some gumption, while romantic dalliances switch between partners with dizzying speed, must have been an influence on Hay Fever. But after the interval, as Lady Ariadne comes into her own, Shaw toys with Freudian complexes and zinging one-liners in a comedy increasingly far removed from any emotional verisimilitude and on its way to pure absurdism.

McBrinn, like Comyn before her, finds unexpected modernity in a 1920 script. The nautical-styled house by McBrinn’s Perve cohort Alyson Cummins is a wonderful creation, with a sliding floor effect startlingly used for a hypnosis sequence. That hypnosis leads to wonderful slapstick, but a sinister undercurrent finds release in the impressive bombing finale conjured by Paul Keogan’s flashing lights and Philip Stewart’s pyrotechnic sounds. My fellow academic Graham Price is not a fan of Shaw solving the world’s problems in four Acts, and did not appreciate that late lurch into political satire of the ruling class. But while Mangan’s entrepreneurship may be suspect, it cannot detract from the hilarity of sequences like catching an irksome burglar. McHallem’s performance is a nice complement to his Major Barbara turn, Lambert and Dunning Fassbender madly, and Hogg and McGuckin’s characters become impressively commanding.

Heartbreak House’s final lines and visual effect are chilling in this centenary summer and they startle by resembling something Joan Littlewood could have devised.

3/5

Heartbreak House continues its run at the Abbey until the 13th of September.

August 22, 2014

Sin City 2

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Comic-book writer and artist Frank Miller returns with a sequel nobody particularly wanted, except presumably himself and co-director Robert Rodriguez.

Hard-drinking hard-bitten hard man Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes up surrounded by dead bodies, so, just another Saturday night in Sin City… Supernaturally lucky gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arrives in town to take down unfriendly neighbourhood super-villain Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) at his infamous poker game, assisted by lucky charm/hooker Marcie (Julia Garner). That doesn’t work out too well… Elsewhere Dwight (Josh Brolin, not Clive Owen), gets entangled with his seductive ex Ava (Eva Green) and her man-mountain muscle Manute (Dennis Haysbert, not Michael Clarke Duncan), and then another ex, Gail (Rosario Dawson), and her petite but equally terrifying muscle Miho (Jamie Chung, not Devon Aoki)… (Sheesh! Recasting is confusing!). And, in the final thread, stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) prepares to shoot Roark as revenge for the suicide of her protector Hartigan (Bruce Willis); who now observes proceedings as a ghost.

I dismissed 2005’s Sin City as grotesque, witless garbage that was not so much pseudo-noir as porno-noir. And, hilariously, the sequel isn’t nearly as bad largely because of its abandonment of grotesquerie for the proud adoption of my latter tag. There still is nasty business; involving fingers, eyeballs, and bone splinting with Christopher Lloyd (who, joy!, insists a character call him Doctor); but there’s less of an emphasis on sadistic cruelty. Instead the emphasis is on lingering on Eva Green’s tits long enough so that (to paraphrase David Mamet) half America could draw them from memory. Green should watch Angel Face to see an actual noir version of her character, because her constant nudity is at first unusual, then laughably stupid, before it becomes a game of stop-watch to see if she’s topless for more than 50% of her screen-time.

Miller has written two new stories for this film, ill-serving JGL whose character really has no plan, and whose entire storyline is basically pointless. And ‘new’ is a strong term, because, like the original, this is incredibly repetitive stuff. Chandler used to have Marlowe get worked over real good once a book, Miller seems to have his characters get worked over good once a chapter. The violence is rendered more abstract this time round by greater recourse to white silhouettes, but Miller’s addiction to ultra-violence as the solution to all of life’s problems remains intact. Boothe is terribly one-note as Roark, but he has nothing to work with – Chandler or Paretsky can be opened on any page to find a zinger, Miller’s dialogue is unremittingly clunky. Sin City was an event, but the visuals don’t dazzle, they just highlight the poverty of writing behind them.

Sin City 2 is a less sadistically violent but more gratuitously sexualised (Juno Temple I’m looking at you…) reprise of its predecessor. It passes the time, but caveat emptor.

2/5

August 20, 2014

What If

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Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan star in a rom-com in which their characters shy away from being more than friends.

Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party thrown by his old college roommate Allan (Adam Driver). They spark off each other, and Chantry turns out to be Allan’s cousin, and to have a boyfriend… Wallace promptly ‘loses’ her number, but when they run into each other again because their shared interests are farcically obvious he decides to endure copyright lawyer Ben (Rafe Spall) for the sake of Chantry; and an email correspondence begins with discussing Elvis’ fatal cuisine. Wallace lives with his sister Ellie (Jemima Rooper), after a scarring break-up with an uncredited Sarah Gadon; which led to him dropping out of med school. When Allan moves to Dublin for a conference on international copyright, working alongside the attractive Julianne (Oona Chaplin), Allan and his new girlfriend (Mackenzie Davis) decide to make Wallace stop asking ‘What if?’

I enjoyed What If but quite often its ribald dialogue seemed to me to be trying too hard. Now that may sound odd after recent encomiums on Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, but their ribaldry cannot be detached from the warm-heartedness of their absurdist riffs; it’s intrinsic to their comedy. The salty dialogue of What If feels extrinsic to the comedy because of its superfluity, which is odd because director Michael Dowse worked with Evan Goldberg and Jay Baruchel on Goon, so perhaps it’s TJ Dawe and Michael Rinaldi’s play that’s to blame. Having said which it is that almost mythical creature – the romantic comedy that’s actually funny, a speech on Bruce Willis’ manliness is peerless. It’s also very interesting. The hero who’s crippled romantically by his traumatised desire to act ethically gives a lot of substance to the comedy.

Daniel Radcliffe is sensational. A Young Doctor’s Notebook served notice of his comedy chops, but this is one of 2014’s best performances, combining uncomprehending deadpan and dramatic sharpness. Driver and Davis, despite lifting a Seth Rogen/Michelle Williams routine from Take This Waltz, are highly amusing in their matchmaking antics. Davis’ wild child is oddly reminiscent of Katy Perry, and strikingly different from her bookworm in We Gotta Get Out Of This Place. There’s also the joy of seeing Irish financing cause proceedings to up sticks from a major North American city (see if you can guess which one before the postcard scene) for a sequence in the tiny Irish metropolis. Tiny. A city, extending from Mick Wallace’s Italian Quarter, over the bridge, thru Temple Bar, and up to College Green; which somehow houses Ballsbridge residences. And so to Zoe Kazan…

Kazan does nothing to win me over after Ruby Sparks and Orson Welles & Me. Chantry’s willingness to string Wallace along isn’t loveable, but What If is a strong enough movie to carry her.

4/5

August 14, 2014

Ballyturk

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Cillian Murphy and playwright Enda Walsh reunite for their second collaboration in two years, following Misterman’s success, and Ballyturk is another extravaganza of physical theatre.

Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi are trapped in a massive room, which, courtesy of designer Jamie Vartan, fills every inch of the stage, with a fold-down bed, a shower, a kitchen-space, and endless closets. The play begins with Murphy in a hurling helmet screaming his head off about the inhabitants of Ballyturk. Murfi, however, is not dressed yet – and so ABC’s ‘The Look of Love’ soundtracks their ritualised manic getting-dressed routine. It will be the first of many 1980s pop songs that they dance to amongst other performances. They listen to mysterious voices from next door, are terrified of a cuckoo clock, and, when their alarm clock rings, throw darts at a wall of sketches and then enact the interactions of the pinpointed inhabitants of Ballyturk. And writer/director Enda Walsh relishes the physical theatre of their recreations of Ballyturk’s denizens.

Murphy leaps around the stage, even nearing its roof as he perches on a ledge to portray the town’s waspish storekeeper, embittered by her loss at bingo to her hated rival Mrs Reynolds. He has frequent fits, which Murfi holds him during, and becomes despairing at the presence of a fly which makes their routines less satisfactory so that he bangs his head against a wall till he bleeds. Murfi joins Murphy in destroying their LP collection, and cycles manically through Ballyturk’s rogue’s gallery, but his calmer character is defined by his elaborate stacking of biscuits. Stephen Rea’s startling arrival into this closed space is an equally startling change of pace, as he engages in a lengthy monologue about ageing, parenthood, and both the necessity and purpose of death in creating meaning by bringing lives, and stories, to an end.

But what’s it all about? Are they brothers? Is Rea their father? Perhaps. Murfi protects Murphy, and says he as the eldest should be first to go when Rea threatens one must die. But Teho Teardo’s foreboding music, and a chilling final minute, suggest a different interpretation – perhaps this is a more manic and surreal Room-like depiction of abduction? Rea’s musical number, in which a mic is lowered down from above certainly suggests effortless control. Or maybe it’s Plato’s allegory of the cave? Rea offers a glimpse of the world outside, but are its flowers that bloom from nothing in minutes more real than the rich Ballyturk created by the neon sign over the gallery of sketches, and could Murphy and Murfi ever accept a world outside their own mental projections as being as satisfyingly real as their imaginative creations?

It could be a poetic vision of mental illness. Ultimately I have no idea what this play is about and I rather like that. It’s simply barmy and brilliant.

4/5

Ballyturk continues its run at the Olympia Theatre until the 23rd of August.

August 13, 2014

The Expendables 3

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Sylvester Stallone and his band of arthritic action heroes return for a surprisingly decent third instalment in this underwhelming franchise.

Barney Ross (Stallone) and his mercenary crew; Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews; use a helicopter to rescue long-imprisoned Expendable Doc (Wesley Snipes) from a prison train. Their CIA contact Drummer (Harrison Ford) then dispatches the team to Somalia to capture an arms-dealer, but faulty intelligence fails to identify the target as another former Expendable: the extremely dangerous Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). A broken Stallone recruits a new, much younger team – a tech specialist; Thorn (Glen Powell); some muscle; Mars (Victor Ortiz), Luna (Ronda Rousey); and a tactician Smilee (Kellan Lutz). They go up against Stonebanks in Eastern Europe with a foolproof plan. And then a shattered Stallone recruits demented Spaniard Galgo (Antonio Banderas) for another go round at Stonebanks… At this rate he may well need Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Yin (Jet Li) to selflessly help him out.

The Expendables franchise isn’t nearly as funny and knowing as it thinks it is. Its idea of meta-comedy is for actors to make obvious references to their lives and quote past roles without any jokes attached. Indeed its funniest meta-moments are unintentional, the obvious cutaways and wide-angles disguising creaking bones in fight scenes. As a PG-13 movie the CGI blood that bedevilled the last movie is mercifully absent, but instead we have the hilarity of people not being bisected by a steel wire on a fast-moving train in the opening sequence; whose cartoonish climax flags a problem for the whole film – outrageously bad CGI. If, per Nolan and Pfister, cinema is about capturing live-action on film, it makes no sense at all for an action film to stage an elaborate live-action build-up only for the pay-off to be a screensaver.

The outsize cast barely fits on the poster, so predictably most make no impression whatsoever; except MMA fighter Ronda Rousey whose face registers amusement or annoyance – and nothing else… Stallone’s screenplay has been worked over by Olympus Has Fallen scribes Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, but they only manage to make Banderas a live-action Puss in Boots while failing to deliver any good quips. Kelsey Grammer as a fixer gives the impression of ad-libbing the funniest moments of his ‘putting the heist together’ scenes, as does Gibson whose charisma veritably leaps off the screen in this company. There is a quantum leap in directorial competence as Patrick Hughes (the brutal and atmospheric Red Hill) showily stages the extraction at an art gallery with some panache, but even he can’t save the over-extended warzone finale and its ludicrously motivated boss fight.

The Expendables 3 isn’t a genuinely good movie, but as the best instalment so far it legitimately makes this question seriously tantalising – what could this franchise be with Robert Rodriguez or Roland Emmerich onboard?

2.5/5

August 12, 2014

Hector and the Search for Happiness

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Simon Pegg is Hector, a psychiatrist who travels the world researching happiness in this comedy-drama adaptation of a French novel.

Hector lives a very orderly life in London. He treats patients with absurdly first-world problems, and lives with Clara (Rosamund Pike); who creates enticing names for pharmaceutical products. But is it all too orderly? Hector decides to go on a journey of enlightenment; partying with wealthy businessman Edward (Stellan Skarsgard) in Shanghai, praying with a wise monk (Togo Igawa) in Tibet, working with old medical school friend Michael (Barry Atsma) and clashing with Columbian drug-lord Diego (Jean Reno) in central Africa, before finally arriving in California to talk with the pioneering Professor Coreman (Christopher Plummer). And with Coreman’s research assistant Agnes (Toni Collette) aka The One Who Got Away… Clara is rightly suspicious that Hector’s entire trip is an excuse to reconnect with Agnes, but the trip itself actually does teach Hector some hard lessons about life and, yes, happiness.

Director Peter Chelsom has had an odd career (Funny Bones and Serendipity?), and this is another curious entry. Hector and the Search for Happinessbears all the marks of a Europudding; a fantastic amount of international producers, a multinational cast, a screenplay by Swede Maria von Heland, rewritten by Chelsom himself with Tinker Lindsay, all adapted from Francois Lelord’s novel; and yet it actually almost works. Hector’s journey is very naive. The comedy of Hector’s clumsiness is quite forced, and yet there is a very nice trick with a running gag which I won’t spoil. But, though it works, it’s almost a synecdoche for the film: Hector works best when it is serious, but most of the time it’s whimsical. Hector’s infatuation with Shanghai student Ying Li (Ming Zhao) is nicely undercut, but whimsy keeps intruding and preventing true substance.

Sure, there’s some quite amusing Wes Andersonish FX fun with a decrepit plane but the film’s standout sequence is when Hector tends to an ill woman on his flight to LA, because Pegg gets to play quiet empathy. Collette is fantastically cast as the woman worth waiting for, and her harshness is perfectly judged. As her mentor Plummer rightly remarks Hector is not responding to stimuli like a grown man, so how can he ever expect to be happy? The film itself, however, when it comes to articulate its grown-up wisdom promotes a facile viewpoint: change, for its own sake, guarantees happiness. Why is a comfortable routine ispo facto bad though? Do people really like constant change? As a rigid guiding principle it seems to say ‘That was great, we really enjoyed it, now let’s not never do that again.’

Hector and the Search for Happiness is a curious film. It doesn’t quite work as a comedy-drama, but it is consistently engaging throughout (not least because of its colourful cast) with some memorable moments.

2.5/5

August 5, 2014

God’s Pocket

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John Slattery, aka Mad Men’s existentialist hero Roger Sterling, makes his directorial debut with an only intermittently successful black comedy.

God’s Pocket, New York City is a close-knit working-class community where everyone is one step away from a mobster, even the elderly florist. Blow-in Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) helps out fellow butcher Arthur ‘Bird’ Capezio (John Turturro) in stealing some frozen meat to help pay off Bird’s 20k debt to local kingpin Sal Cappi (Domenick Lombardozzi). However, marriage to the lovely Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) comes at the price of Mickey being lumbered with her crazy son Leon (Caleb Landry-Jones). When Leon dies in a ‘workplace accident’, Jeanie insists that Mickey investigate who killed him, undertaker Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan) refuses to bury him unless he gets 5k in cash up-front, and a bad decision on horse-racing with the money from a whip-around puts Mickey on thin ice when celebrated newspaper columnist Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) starts courting Jeanie.

God’s Pocket is a period film that doesn’t bother to tell you that it’s a period film. Apparently it’s set in 1978. The only way you’d know that it’s not set right now is that everyone physically reads and reveres newspaper columnist Shelburn. But even in 1978 it plays as pure fantasy that Sophia Takal’s attractive college journalism major would sleep with Shelburn so that she could watch as he writes his column. Director Slattery co-wrote this adaptation of Pete (The Paperboy) Dexter’s novel, but its tone is deeply uncertain. There is an eye-gouging of Mountain & Viper calibre, and yet it leads directly to a scene of deliriously deadpan black comedy; whose laughs feel gimmicky because this film is not light enough on its feet or dry enough to truly be a black comedy. Instead it’s half a drama.

The best example of how black comedy is deflated by a striving for bogus dramatic weightiness is a scene where Leon’s dead body is accidentally hijacked. Slattery emulates Spielberg’s wildly misguided Munich finale, with a juxtaposition of Mickey being cuckolded and Mickey falling and failing in his attempt to redeem himself. My interest turned to how Slattery had thrown a dragnet over TV bit-players for his casting (the guy who shot Bell in Elementary, the psychiatrist from Bionic Woman, the S&M cop from Bored to Death). And it has to be regretfully noted that Landry-Jones follows his awful, mannered turn in Byzantium with a performance so deranged that you can’t believe Leon would ever be hired anywhere for the simplest job; he is simply the character from an Agatha Christie novel who repulses and alienates everyone before getting bumped off.

God’s Pocket sees Hoffman and Turturro do their best with a confused script, but it’s hard to know what exactly Slattery was trying to do – make a rambunctious black comedy or a gritty drama?

2.5/5

July 22, 2014

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Filed under: Talking Theatre — Fergal Casey @ 12:18 pm

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Hamlet 25th – 27th September Grand Canal Theatre

You haven’t appreciated Shakespeare until you’ve heard him in the original German. Ahem. Berlin’s Schaubuhne theatre troupe returns under the direction of Thomas Ostermeier for an acclaimed production of the Bard’s magnum opus. 6 actors play 20 roles in a production characterised by a spectacular stage covered in loose earth, turning to mud as actors hose it, and film each other for projection.

 

Zoo 25th – 28th September Smock Alley

Teatro de Chile present a one-hour lecture, of sorts. Two scientists inform you of their astonishing discovery, the last two Tzoolkman people; and then bend their brains trying to figure out how to preserve a culture whose central feature is imitation. So far, so Monty Python, but this is intended to be a serious problematisation of the idea of academic ‘performance’ in serious lecturing.

 

The Mariner 25th September – October 11th Gate

Hugo Hamilton appears to be the Gate’s go-to guy for the theatre festival. Following an adaptation of his Speckled People memoir he unveils an original script about an Irish sailor traumatised by the Battle of Jutland whose mute state inspires very different reactions from his wife and his mother. Patrick Mason directs, but how much insight can novelist Hamilton deliver in 90 minutes?

 

After Sarah Miles 26th September – October 11th Axis/Civic/Pavilion/Draiocht

Don Wycherley’s received nothing but rave reviews for his solo performance as fisherman Bobeen in Michael Hilliard Mulcahy’s new play about a fisherman remembering his life from teenage days in 1969 to the present. As the touring element of this festival Wycherley will appear in four venues as the fisherman who worked as an extra on the filming of epic Ryan’s Daughter.

 

Our Few and Evil Days 26th September – October 11th Abbey

Mark O’Rowe takes on directing duties for his first original play in some years and he has assembled a stunning cast for it: Charlie Murphy, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Sinead Cusack, and Ian Lloyd Anderson. We’re promised that a devoted daughter will find out a shocking secret about her parents from a menacing stranger. Violence and poetically abrasive language ensues…

 

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich 1st – 4th October Belvedere

The most ambitious of the three Australian plays at the festival sees the Hindu God Ganesh embark on a journey to reclaim the Swastika from the Nazis, only for things to lurch away from fantastical epic into behind the scenes bickering; as an overbearing director fights with his cast over their right to use the most sacred elements of other cultures.

 

DruidMurphy 1st – 5th October Olympia

DruidMurphy’s trilogy of plays was a highlight of the 2012 Festival, and Garry Hynes returns for a second helping with Marie Mullen and Marty Rea still in tow. Not only will Tom Murphy’s 1985 classic of a dying matriarch, Bailegangaire, be revived, but Murphy has also written a new play Brigit which acts as a prequel by filling in the back-story of matriarch Mommo’s husband.

 

Spinning 1st – 12th October Smock Alley

Fishamble presents the great Karl Shiels in a new play by Halcyon Days playwright Deirdre Kinihan. He plays a man trying to hold onto a life coming apart at the seams, who unexpectedly meets a woman coming to terms with the senseless murder of her daughter. With a cast that includes Caitriona Ennis and Janet Moran this looks set to be an absorbing production.

 

Jack Charles V The Crown 8th – 12th October Samuel Beckett

I can’t help but think of this Australian one-man show as being an eccentric kin to Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. Jack Charles was part of the Stolen Generation, and then became part of Koori theatre in the 1970s and a film actor; having been a cat-burglar, heroin addict, and convict in the meantime. He performs his life-story with unrepentant brio.

 

Book Burning 8th – 11th October Project

Belgium story-teller Pieter De Buysser tells the story of Sebastian, a man he met at an Occupy demonstration. Sebastian had become embroiled in a WikiLeaks scandal; and from there De Buysser, and his visual artist Hans Op De Beeck, spin out the implications of one man’s struggles to make Sebastian’s story a synecdoche for a new mode of being in the impersonal globalised world.

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