Talking Movies

September 18, 2014

Smoke gets in your eyes, Delaney gets under your skin

macbethandthemurderers

INT.EDINBURGH OFFICE-DAY

DELANEY, not Mark Pellegrino’s legendary agent but a minor agent to non-entities in Scotland who by an amazing coincidence shares his name, sits at his desk lovingly dropping feed into a fishbowl while HAMISH McBITPARTH, paces around the office restlessly, waves his arms passionately, and complains volubly…

 

McBITPARTH: I naarrryy part *&**&**& %%%£$ (&*(& aye.

DELANEY: What’s that now?

McBITPARTH: And whutevya &*&( hag? ^*&%()*%^&)% noo?

DELANEY: Hey?

McBITPARTH: Pay you shills &*&( R$$$^ &(*&(* hoor

DELANEY: Come again?

McBITPARTH: Are ye deaf orr *&^*^ %(^(*&*& ^^%%$%$9 mon?

 

Delaney leans back in his chair, baffled and exasperated, looks idly at the fishbowl, looks intently at the fishbowl, and smacks himself in the forehead.

 

McBITPARTH: Now whut &*&* ^*&^(* at all?

DELANEY: Wait! I forgot to put my Babelfish in.

 

Delaney gently scoops the fish out of the bowl and sticks it in his ear. He sits down.

 

DELANEY: Good God, I really had forgotten just how unintelligible you were without it. If I hadn’t taken it as a memento from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy set nine years ago I don’t know how I would ever have managed up here. Honestly, if you people vote next year to the leave the Union… Without any restraining English influence on you the entire country will be incomprehensible within five years.

McBITPARTH: Aw shove it, Delaney. Go back to London then.

DELANEY: London remains a bit dicey. Sam Rockwell still has eyes and ears there…

McBITPARTH: Were you listening to me?

DELANEY: Yes! That is to say, no. That is to say, I was listening but not hearing, or hearing but not listening; whichever of those Sherlock Holmes said and would therefore make me sound witty is what I was doing. But in any case if you were griping, which is what it sounded like, then not to worry. I’ve got you a part.

McBITPARTH: Is it a good part?

DELANEY: It’s a juicy part.

McBITPARTH: That’s what you said about Taggart!

DELANEY: I was being descriptive about the corpse you’d be playing. This time I’m being… expansive, metaphorical.

McBITPARTH: You know that Taggart has ended, nigh on three years ago?

DELANEY: You’re obsessed with Taggart!

McBITPARTH: You’re obsessed with Taggart! After the corpse you got me another part in it, a bigger part you said.

DELANEY: It was a bigger part!

McBITPARTH: I died in flashback and then appeared as a corpse!

DELANEY: That was double the screen-time!

McBITPARTH: And then there was that Macbeth fiasco…

DELANEY: YOU WOULD HAVE TO BRING THAT UP WOULDN’T YOU?!!

McBITPARTH: SOMETIMES I THINK THAT WHEN YOU FLED HERE FROM THE SOUTH ALL YOU KNEW OF SCOTLAND WAS TAGGART AND MACBETH – AND MACBETH WAS WRITTEN BY A SASSENACH!

DELANEY: You wanted to do some good work, I got you a part in a Shakespeare play. And to be hauled over the coals about it year after bloody year. Shakespeare! The Bard of Avon! The poet of the nation.

McBITPARTH: Your nation.

DELANEY: Ohhh!!! (pained pause) Just because you didn’t have any lines.

McBITPARTH: I was playing the FOURTH murderer in a play famous for having a redundant THIRD murderer! I’ve never been so embarrassed…

DELANEY: Still better than just being a corpse.

McBITPARTH: (sighs) So what’s this part you’ve got me?

DELANEY: It’s in some weird film. I couldn’t understand anything they said about it, and they were all English so it’s not a problem with dialect.

McBITPARTH: What’s the part?

DELANEY: You have a sex scene with Scarlett Johansson.

McBITPARTH: **** off.

DELANEY: (massaging his ear) My Babelfish appears to have come loose.

McBITPARTH: No, I was swearing.

DELANEY: How dashed odd! Why did it censor you?

McBITPARTH: You lifted it from the set of a PG-13 movie you dobber.

DELANEY: Ah! But seriously, you have a sex scene with Scarlett Johansson.

McBITPARTH: No.

DELANEY: Yes.

McBITPARTH: No.

DELANEY: Yes.

McBITPARTH: Yes?

DELANEY: Yes.

McBITPARTH: No!

DELANEY: Yes!

McBITPARTH: Yes??

DELANEY: YES!

McBITPARTH: YES!! YES!! Will she be naked?

DELANEY: Yes.

McBITPARTH: YES!! This is why I became an actor!!

 

McBitparth jumps up, does an impromptu dance of joy. Delaney mistakes it for a Highland fling and grimaces at it, an expression of exquisitely Tory contempt.

 

McBITPARTH: Is this a wind-up?

DELANEY: No, it’s totally legitimate.

McBITPARTH: Scar-Jo will be naked in a scene with me?

DELANEY: Yes, but you’ll be wearing a sock.

McBITPARTH: I’ll bloody need to be wearing a sock…

DELANEY: Don’t…

McBITPARTH: Why me? Why did they want me?

DELANEY: Well, a friend of mine in London put them in touch with me.

McBITPARTH: Looking for Scottish actors then?

DELANEY: I think he said they were looking for non-professional actors.

 

They both look at the floor.

 

McBITPARTH: Naked Scar-Jo! YES!!!

DELANEY: That’s all I bloody hear these days…

Noble

NOBLE

Stand-up Deirdre O’Kane tackles a weighty dramatic role as humanitarian Christina Noble in this biopic set in Ireland and Vietnam.

Noble (O’Kane) arrives in Vietnam in 1989, on a mission from God – more or less. She had a dream about Vietnam and travelled there, quickly discovering that her calling is to make a difference in the lives of the buidoi, the despised street children. Flashbacks (with Gloria Cramer Curtis and Sarah Greene as the younger Noble) draw the parallel between her tenement childhood and institutionalised teenage years, and the plight of the Vietnamese children she takes under her wing. In Vietnam she attempts to cajole Irish and English businessmen Gerry Shaw (Brendan Coyle) and David Somers (Mark Huberman) into financing building works at the neglected orphanage run by Madame Linh (Nhu Quynh Nguyen). But as her experience with abusive husband Mario Pistola (David Mumeni) has taught her, charm can hide callous cruelty – and figures of authority everywhere disdain their buidoi.

Cinematographer Trevor Forrest’s location work in Saigon is fantastic, with familiar imagery of vegetation floating downriver right next to the modernising city of the Western businessman. Noble is also lit up by many great performances. Ruth Negga is winning as Joan, the best friend of Greene’s teenage Christine. Greene, a Talking Movies favourite for her great theatre work, has a meaty cinematic part here and renders Christina a punchy survivor. Sadly the great Karl Shiels is wasted in as cipherish a cameo as his Peaky Blinders role. This is doubly disappointing because Coyle and Huberman offer wonderfully nuanced turns, and Liam Cunningham as Christina’s drunken father is gloriously ambiguous. However, Cunningham’s self-mythologising father who veers between love and rage is a figure out of O’Casey; which draws attention to Christina Casali’s 1950s Dublin design seeming more suited to 1920s Dublin.

That design even drags us into Angela’s Ashes territory, because everything that can go wrong for Christina does go wrong. Even though it’s based on a true story you feel like writer/director Stephen Bradley’s script is hewing to established clichés of the misery memoir. And there are other problems: Christina’s constant recourse to charming singing feels forced, the practicalities of her living rough in the Phoenix Park and later gaining access to Vietnam are left unaddressed, and even her impassioned rant to God in a church recalls The West Wing. Quite worryingly, following Philomena’s unlovely lead, Bradley seems to deploy pre-Vatican II religious garb as a simplistic visual signifier of presumptive evil. Eva Birthistle’s nun is to be treated as a boo-hiss pantomime villain from her first appearance in a wimple; a veritable judas-goat for judicial, political and familial villains.

Noble has a number of committed performances, but the script doesn’t do them justice; it is too on the nose when it could have used more subtlety and humour in depicting Noble’s extraordinary efforts.

2.75/5

September 17, 2014

Wish I Was Here

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Zach Braff finally follows up Garden State, but his second film as director suggests he needed Kickstarter money for reasons other than control of casting…

Braff plays Aidan Bloom, an actor who hasn’t worked for quite some time. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) supports his dream financially with her boring job, and his disappointed father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) pays the tuition to send Aidan’s children Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King) to a private school. The catch is it’s a Hebrew private school, leading to a religious divide between the three generations with Aidan and Sarah out in the non-kosher cold. When Gabe’s cancer returns Aidan is forced to attempt to simultaneously home-school his children to save money, reconcile his equally underachieving brother Noah (Josh Gad) with Gabe while there’s time, defend his wife against her sleazy co-worker Jerry (Michael Weston), defeat rival actor Paul (Jim Parsons) for a lucrative role, and deal with the infuriating Rabbis Twersky (Allan Rich) and Rosenberg (Alexander Chaplin)…

It’s been nine and a half years since Garden State was released here, but all those skills are still there. The indie musical cues, the deadpan comedy, the unexpected drama – all stand present and correct, but the novelty and charm are gone. Braff’s script with his brother Adam is terribly muddled. Wish I Was Here, despite an unlikely Othello gag, isn’t very funny, and some sequences (Braff pretending to be an old Hispanic…) are just uncomfortable, because, shockingly, Braff’s not very likeable. There’s a crudity to these Brothers Bloom, and even Noah’s crush Janine (an unrecognisable Ashley Greene), that is quite off-putting; and which makes the sub-plot with Jerry problematic, despite a delightfully unexpected touch, because it needs more context for us to understand why only his ribaldry is unacceptable. In fact everything feels like it needs more context, but the film already feels far longer than its 106 minutes; it is that unenviable paradox – both too short and too long. And it also rehashes scenes we’ve seen done better in Studio 60 (the unexpected positive result of a disinterested mitzvah) and Modern Family (the underprepared casual adult teacher being supplanted at the blackboard by his smarter driven student relative).

Wish I Was Here attempts to deal with heavy themes, but Gabe’s terminal illness is terribly manipulative, to the point that you’d reject Aidan and Noah reconciling with him as a mere plot contrivance, because it doesn’t feel earned. Braff is no Michael Chabon when it comes to scrutinising American Jewish identity. The glibly sarcastic agnosticism of Braff and Hudson’s characters is largely the reason they’re acted off the screen by Patinkin and King. Braff seems unaware that proudly reminiscing to the sincere and kindly Rabbi Rosenberg about how he had a double bacon cheeseburger right after his Bar Miztvah is more likely to make us sympathise with Gabe’s disappointment than cheer on Aidan. Aidan and Sarah admit they have no identity, no advice, no metaphysical certainty; all Tucker has learnt is Aidan’s flip attitude. Gabe has bequeathed Grace the Jewish faith, language, and cultural identity. Aidan belatedly ripostes by reciting ‘Mending Wall’ by Robert Frost and ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by TS Eliot… Joyce wanted applause for his Jewish hero in Ulysses, but his Bloom ate a pork kidney because Joyce, like Braff, lacked the imaginative empathy to create a hero who took his faith seriously.

Garden State was an unexpected gem, but Wish I Was Here suggests that Braff has actually emotionally regressed as a writer since even as his ambition has soared ahead.

2/5

September 12, 2014

Fingal Film Festival 2014

Fingal Film Festival gets underway on the 26th of September with a programme featuring some of the best independent films of 2014 from Ireland and abroad.

Friday afternoon sees a screening of Irish feature documentary One Ocean: No Limits, which follows a young novice Irish rower through the highs and lows of rowing across the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados as part of a crew of six. That evening, the festival will officially open with the Irish premiere of Gia Coppola’s astonishing debut feature Palo Alto, an unflinching portrait of adolescent lust, boredom and self-destruction, starring Emma Roberts and James Franco.

Saturday the 27th’s programme features award-winning Colombian film Jardín de Amapolas, which tells the story of a farmer and his son forced into the dangerous but lucrative world of cultivating poppies following their exile by rebels. Irish docudrama A Terrible Beauty / Áille an Uafáis tells the story of the men and women of the Easter Rising – the ordinary Irish volunteers, British soldiers and innocent civilians caught up in a conflict many did not understand. The Saturday evening feature is coming of age tale Calloused Hands, the tale of talented young baseball player Josh trying to ignore the violence at home and do whatever it takes to rise up out of Miami’s roughest neighbourhood.

Sunday afternoon showcases Iranian drama The Corridor, followed that evening by documentary Dah Zivota, which focuses on twelve babies born to the civil war in Bosnia Herzegovina who were deprived of oxygen due to air and ground blockades. The festival then closes with Blitzfood, a comedy about hate, in which volatile lost soul Perigrin Ship staggers through a nervous maze of self-inflicted disasters.  Could this suffering be transformative??

These features will be accompanied by a programme of short films including animation and Irish language submissions. In addition to screenings, the festival is offering a number of workshops. Award-winning animation company Boulder Media (Randy Cunningham 9th Grade Ninja) will host the Animation Workshop, led by Emmy-nominated Robert Cullen (Friday 26th September). A workshop on Sound Design and Supervision will be lead by Niall Brady of Screen Scene Post Production House, whose recent film credits include Frank, and Steve Fanagan of Ardmore Studios, whose credits include The Guard and Game of Thrones (Saturday 27th September).

Tickets can be purchased here, http://entertainment.ie/festival/Dublin/Fingal-Film-Festival-2014/4928.htm, and the festival website is www.fingalfilmfest.com.

September 11, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

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Philip Seymour Hoffman’s swansong as a leading man sees him play a German spymaster in Anton Corbijn’s low-key intelligence thriller.

Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) is the harassed spymaster of a clandestine unit of German intelligence. Officially Gunther, his loyal lieutenant Irna (Nina Hoss), and Niki (Vicky Krieps) and Maximilian (Daniel Bruhl in a mystifyingly small part); the youngsters who do the physical side of operations; don’t exist, but they keep post 9/11 Hamburg safe from terrorist cells exploiting its port city porosity. Getting in their way is human rights lawyer Annabel (Rachel McAdams), who is attempting to get Chechen illegal immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) the fortune his despised war-lord father left in the hands of discreet banker Brue (Willem Dafoe). Gunther wants to turn Annabel, and so use both his existing mole Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi) and suspected terrorist Issa to snare the respected Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi); who Gunther suspects of covertly using Islamic charities to fund terrorism. Enter the CIA…

Rock photographer Corbijn’s first two films as director, Control and The American, were visually striking, and A Most Wanted Man has equally interesting work right from the opening when the lapping harbour water Issa emerges from becomes shifting whiskey in Gunther’s glass. Corbijn makes great use of shifting focus in a lengthy interrogation, stages a long-take on a ferry very disconcertingly, and hammers home the paranoia of surveillance with Niki and Maximilian’s constant unobtrusive tailing of suspects. The nitty-gritty procedural approach to intelligence work is always absorbing, and Robin Wright’s cameos as inveigling Company woman Martha Sullivan are nicely done. But the extended breaking of Annabel, even though it’s probably quite realistic, sucks all momentum out of proceedings. And then just when things have got properly tense again with Gunther laying a trap, the trademark le Carre letdown is sprung.

An emotionally devastating twist is casually thrown in, but screenwriter Andrew (Lantana) Bovell cannot salvage the unsatisfactory finale which, in typical le Carre style, ends not with a bang but a whimper. le Carre may have had the inside scoop on the Cold War when he started writing, but it’s been fifty years since Kim Philby blew his cover, and it’s hard to think of a profession less likely to spill new trade secrets to former members of the guild, so this can’t be le Carre giving us the real scoop on how post-9/11 intelligence works so much as le Carre giving us his own bleak weltanschauung. It is one he shares with Cormac McCarthy: storytellers who create protagonists and antagonists, place them in peril, but then, because they have no real interest in storytelling, lose interest in their creations.

A Most Wanted Man is a pretty good leading man send-off for Hoffman; particularly the poignant last image in which Hoffman walks out of shot and our lives; but its ending lets it down.

3/5

September 7, 2014

Sky Road TV & Film Festival

Sky-Road

The inaugural Sky Road TV & Film Festival drew to a close today, following a weekend of screenings of Irish TV and film-making talent across features, shorts, documentaries and new media in both English and Irish languages, at The Station House Theatre in Clifden Co. Galway. Highlights on Sunday included a screening of The Field, with special guest Jim Sheridan, 25 years after it was first filmed in the locality and the world premiere of Tommy: To Tell You The Truth with comedian Tommy Tiernan in attendance.

The festival brought unexpected stories to audiences throughout the three days, both entertaining and thought-provoking from a broad range of emerging and established filmmakers, all of whom were in the running for the Festival awards which were announced following the closing film.

“It’s been an exhilarating and exciting first festival” said Eamonn O Cualain, Festival Chairman. “The quality and quantity of submissions for our first programme enabled us to deliver what we hope has been a unique festival experience. The support and positive feedback has been overwhelming from both the film industry and our audiences. The local goodwill and enthusiasm has been particularly reassuring and encouraging.”

There were nine awards in association with industry organisations TG4, RTE, BAI and the Irish Film Board. The judging panel included a range of figures from the Irish film Industry including Jim Sheridan, Bob Quinn, Ross Whitaker, Martha O’Neill, Paddy Hayes, Jill Beardsworth, Barbara McCann, Loretta Ni Ghabhain and film journalists Daniel Anderson, Tara Brady, Gavin Burke, Donald Clarke, Brogen Hayes and Nicola Timmins.

The winners were:

Best Short Film in association with The Irish Film Board 

Winner: The Abandoning

A film about the memory of a house where the past and present are not separate places

Director: Vanessa Gildea. Producer: Se Merry Doyle

 

Best Short Film, First Time Director in association with The Irish Film Board 

Winner: The Swing

A coming of age story about two young brothers who find themselves in a perilous situation that kicks up memories of their past

Director: Damien Dunne. Producer: Nora Windeck

 

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Best Feature Film

Winner: A Nightingale Falling

Set in Ireland during The war of Independence, two sisters’ lives are changed forever as they care for a wounded soldier in their home.

Director: Garret Daly/Martina McGlynn. Producer: Martina McGlynn, Gerry Burke, Garret Daly, PJ Curtis

 

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Best Feature Documentary in association with TG4

Winner: John Sheahan – A Dubliner

A revealing and beautifully made portrait of a man who was an integral part of the national institution that is The Dubliners.

Director: Maurice Sweeney. Producer: Liam McGrath/Ceoladh Sheahan

 

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Best Short Documentary in association with RTE

Winner: Seamus Heaney – Iarscribhinn – Imeall

This special edition of Imeall celebrates the life and poetry of Seamus Heaney as we visit the farmlands of Bellaghy, Co. Derry that inspired so many of his poems.

Director: Paschal Cassidy. Producer: Maggie Breathnach

 

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Best Documentary Series in association with BAI

Winner: Ceolchuairt Iamaice

Belfast troubadour Gearoid Mac Lochlainn embarks on a reggae pilgrimage to Jamaica to see if the message of one love that crossed sectarian boundaries in his teenage years in Belfast is still alive in 
Jamaica.

Director: Paddy Hayes. Producer: Laura Ni­ Cheallaigh

 

Best 3 minute short, New Media, filmed on a mobile or smart device

Winner: Turnaround for Little Terns

A news report for RTE which was filmed on an iphone 5S. Wicklow farmer Michael Keegan is hoping to restore the tractor which helped his grandfather win the 1964 World Ploughing Championship.

Director: Philip Bromwell

 

Best 1 minute short, New Media, filmed on a mobile or smart device

Winner: iday

One minute video concentrating on energy and power

Director/producer: Ivor Carroll

 

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The Spirit of the Festival Award was presented in recognition of a film, television programme or event that encapsulates the spirit of the Sky Road TV & Film Festival each year.

Winner: It Came From Connemara!!

This feature documentary tells the unique story behind Roger Corman’s film factory in Connemara.

Director/Producer: Brian Reddin

 

TG4 Pitch an idea to make a 25 minute documentary worth €25,000

In a unique and exciting opportunity TG4 offered aspiring filmmakers a chance to pitch their ideas to make a 25 minute documentary worth €25,000. Fifteen original pitches were shortlisted from a total of sixty one entries to pitch to commissioning editors on stage at the Festival in either the Irish or English language. Participants travelled from Dublin, Meath, Clare, Cork, Galway and Connemara.

The winner was Barry Ryan, a native of Clifden with ‘Beyond Reach Of Our Pity’. His idea for a short documentary, about a young boy who died in Letterfrack’s industrial school, was inspired by a line of poetry from Paula Meehan.  He will receive an initial €1,000 to develop a detailed written treatment from the synopsis, under the guidance of an experienced TV director. If TG4 considers this treatment of an acceptable standard for production the budget awarded will be €24,000.

 

“The standard was excellent, very clear pitches were delivered with great passion and belief. The range of ideas was truly amazing from highly personal stories to historical concepts to contemporary social commentary, across a broad geographical spread. While we chose ‘Beyond Reach Of Our Pity’ as the pitch winner we will also request a number of participants to submit their ideas for the next TG4 commissioning round on October 6th. All in all a very stimulating and exciting session.”  Proinsias Ni Ghrainne, Commissioning Editor, TG4

September 5, 2014

The Actor’s Lament

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Actor Steven Berkoff returns to writing verse drama for the first time in decades with this entertaining if slight production.

Berkoff is an actor recovering from hostile reviews of his first outing as a playwright. Licking his wounds, he is comforted by the kind words of his playwright friend played by Jay Benedict, who insists he is a fantastic actor and the critics could not forgive his presumption. And the mutual flattery escalates even further when their actress friend played by Andree Bernard arrives, to be told what a great artiste she is; even if she is understudying a soap star on the West End. And then things kick off into not so much a lament as a tirade, at the state of the West End, the cult of theatre directors, the arrogance of playwrights, and, above all, the agony of the actor’s life and the importance of what they do night after night; for themselves and for the audience.

That might sound a bit off-putting, but this splenetic hour is filled with humour and self-awareness. Berkoff knows that an actor turned playwright moaning about revivals in the West End, and how directors like them because they get a cut of the proceeds, will seem dangerously like personal carping by Berkoff himself. And so he turns it up to 11: we get Berkoff moving himself to tears over the West End being a morgue; “Poor Chekhov dragged out again, leave the poor bloody sod alone”; full of clueless screen actors; “If you don’t remember your lines you do it fifty more bloody times. But in theatre there is only one take, and it goes on all night, every night, until you get it right!”; while dedicated actors like Berkoff and Bernard are left on the scrapheap, abandoned even by Benedict.

Berkoff’s use of verse is not like Joss Whedon’s use of rhyme in his musicals. You’re rarely waiting for a pay-off from a Berkoff line, instead it sounds like normal speech with the occasional unexpected rhyme. And, performed on a bare stage, with only an ornate chair for decoration, the focus is on the physical theatre Berkoff perfected after studying at the Lecoq school in Paris; so well displayed in Ballyturk some weeks back by a younger veteran of that school, Mikel Murfi. Imaginary cigarettes are lit with hands where the thumb waggles for the flame of a lighter. Othello, Macbeth, and Lear come to life for a few lines by dint of a change in posture and tone of voice. Berkoff ages himself by stooping and playing deaf. Indeed by the end Berkoff, age 77, was drenched in sweat…

The Actor’s Lament is a late and almost disappointingly short work from a master, but, while his age precludes the full powerhouse style of his youth, his physical theatre is still to be revered.

3/5

The Actor’s Lament continues its run at the Gaiety Theatre until September 6th.

September 4, 2014

The Guest

 

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Dan Stevens cuts loose from Downton Abbey in impressive style as the preposterously charismatic titular stranger who causes well-intentioned chaos.

 

Clean-cut demobilised soldier David (Stevens) visits the Petersons at their rural home. He introduces himself to Laura (Sheila Kelley) as a member of her dead son’s army unit; tasked with delivering a personal message of her son’s love for his family. Laura promptly invites him to stay, against the protests of her husband Spencer (Leland Orser). Spencer, however, is soon won over by the polite veteran, who tackles the bullies tormenting his youngest son Luke (Brendan Meyer), and charms the friends of daughter Anna (Maika Monroe). Anna suspects David is not what he seems, despite her attraction to him after she’s forced by her mother to take him to a party. Following some puzzling incidents with her boyfriend Zeke (Chase Williamson) and friend Craig (Joel David Moore) she contacts David’s old commander Major Carver (Lance Reddick). Not a good idea…

Directed and edited by Adam Wingard from a script by Simon Barrett, your feelings towards their last collaboration You’re Next will likely determine your enjoyment of The Guest. I loved You’re Next and so regard The Guest as a triumph of joyous film-making from David’s opening cross-country running being interrupted by comically ominous music and title card font. Wingard loves editing scenes with an almost audible whoop; lingering moments with romantic music that should play on are unceremoniously cut short. As regards music, DP Robby Baumgartner makes the film look far glossier than its budget should allow, but Stephen Moore’s music is exceptional. His synth score wondrously combines genuine feeling with total parody, without losing impact, and Wingard even sets up two delightful moments of endogenous music. Sure, you’ve seen this type of story before, but not quite like this.

Wingard and Barrett seem to be riffing on Domink Moll’s Harry, He’s here to help every bit as much as American high-school horror archetypes from Stephen King. David’s solution to problems usually involves ultra-violence, but it’s played with such glorious deadpan that it becomes deliriously enjoyable, and Stevens gets priceless moments throughout. Bret Easton Ellis criticised You’re Next for its twist, and the twist here is a bit silly; but then it’s more or less reneged on, on grounds of illogic, so it doesn’t matter. And the end of this Hallowe’en sort of horror story is perfectly set up: a big showdown in a great location, with our heroine Anna (Monroe coming across as Gwen Stefani via Leelee Sobieksi) coming into her archetypal own as she tries to stay one step ahead of David and Major Carver’s escalating homicidal duel.

The Guest is a high-risk gamble that would fail spectacularly if its leading man was not on fire. Luckily for us all Stevens burns the screen with a Tom Hiddleston as Loki level performance.

4/5

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

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