Talking Movies

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.

July 18, 2014

SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

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Mike Myers makes an unexpected directorial debut with an affectionate documentary about the life of Alice Cooper’s manager Shep Gordon.

Shep Gordon moved coasts in the late 1960s to idealistically reform young offenders as a parole officer in California. That didn’t go so well. So instead he became one of them; selling drugs to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and managing Alice Cooper as a front for his sizeable cash-flow. And then he started to care… And, as Michael Douglas would say, he’s never stopped caring since. Gordon cleverly connived Cooper to chart success, did the same for soul singer Teddy Pendergrass, and then as a challenge took on management of wholesome Canadian folk singer Anne Murray to prove he didn’t need sex or violence to make his acts successful. And that’s just the 1970s, in the 1980s and 1990s Gordon branched out in all-new directions; and somehow ended up cooking yak tea for the Dalai Lama in Maui. Yeah!

Myers, as you might expect, intersperses footage of talking heads with dramatic re-enactments played out to maximise the comedy of certain situations. But really when the talking heads include the dry wit of Michael Douglas, the explosive profanity of Tom Arnold, and the riotous anecdotes of Gordon himself, re-enactments are only an icing on the comedic cake. This is a very entertaining documentary because what Gordon got up to is so outrageous, and clever. Cooper’s music wasn’t up to much, but his stage presence was – so Gordon built an audience thru theatre before bothering with trying to make a hit record. And he built the audience thru skilful manipulations of situations (a live chicken, a stalled van, outré LP packaging) to give Cooper a youth audience by making him a bogey of authority figures – even as he exploited those authorities.

What’s most interesting about SuperMensch as a documentary is its unexpected layer of sadness. Sam Waterston’s mensch in Crimes and Misdemeanours is subjected to Job-like misfortune, and Gordon seems to follow that ironic pattern. His black girlfriend of the 1970s leaves him; taking her daughter that he’d treated as his own; and later Gordon looks after the daughter’s children following tragedy as their surrogate Jewish grandfather; while remaining tragically single. He creates the concept of celebrity chef out of friendship with the inventor of nouveau cuisine, because he believes the revered chef is not earning an amount of money commensurate to his talent. He is all things to all clients. But when Gordon has life-threatening surgery with low chances of survival the only person by his bedside when he wakes up is his PA, who is tearful about his isolation.

SuperMensch at times could use a bit more detail on how precisely Gordon moved from field to field within talent management, but overall it’s both an unexpectedly thoughtful and deliriously entertaining debut from Myers.

3.5/5

July 16, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3-D

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Andy Serkis (in motion capture) returns as evolved primate Caesar, but Cloverfield director Matt Reeves cannot rescue this iteration of the franchise from itself.

A chilling prologue shows the lights going out globally as the GenSys-created simian flu decimates humanity. A decade later Caesar (Andy Serkis) is in command of the apes in the Bay Area forest, flanked by scarred warrior Koba (Toby Kebbel), wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and loyal Rocket (Terry Notary). There is tension between Caesar and his petulant son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), and everything falls apart when Rocket’s son Ash (Doc Shaw) is shot by Carver (The Black Donnellys’ Kirk Acevedo). Carver is part of a team led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), which includes Malcolm’s wife Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alexander (Kodi Smith-McPhee). They are trying to restart a dam to provide power to San Francisco’s human colony led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). The dam is Caesar’s, and Dreyfus gives Malcolm three days to negotiate a peaceful solution…

Matt Reeves inserts some visual trademarks; a lengthy tracking shot in which chaos explodes into frame, a fixed-position sequence from a tank turret’s POV, and a nicely vertiginous use of the Golden Gate bridge; but whereas Let Me In’s slow-burning approach achieved agonising levels of suspense, this is just agonising – Reeves takes forever to unfurl a very simple and remarkably boring plot. Technically everything’s competent: Michael Giacchino’s music is effective if uncharacteristic (no sad tinkly piano!), and Michael Seresin’s cinematography approaches that of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and would be commendable if it likewise served a mood – but you can’t help feel it’s hiding creaking CGI. Ah, CGI… This is our defining modern paradox; an air of distancing unreality hangs over everything, but the great technology and preparation that created it is extolled as cutting-edge and therefore preferable to engaging verisimilitude achieved practically. The non-ending is as insulting as that of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and a trend that needs to be denounced: it’s like ending The Two Towers halfway through the battle of Helm’s Deep.

Writing takes effort. 2011’s reboot had a shocking poverty of characterisation but was a roaring success. Writing becomes much easier for Jaffa, Silver, and Bomback if they know the audience doesn’t want characterisation… Blue Eyes is petulant. That’s his one note. Then later he’s cowardly. He’s easily duped, because… and sides with Koba, because… then finds his steel, because… the script said so. Koba recalls Firefly’s “Curse your sudden, but inevitable, betrayal!” He discovers Dreyfus’ preparation for war and returns to warn Caesar, but loses his rag because he sees Caesar helping humans; except Caesar’s not actually helping them when Koba arrives… But hey, in event of plot emergency break glass for jerk, right? Carver’s rejoinder to Ellie’s fact – “The virus was created by scientists I don’t think the apes they were testing it on had much say in it” “Don’t give me that hippie-dippy bullshit” – is comically awful, but it’s easier to have jerks spark plot points rather than have Dreyfus and Malcolm’s reasonable disagreement over how to achieve their aim be teased out; perhaps that’s why Oldman is barely in this movie. By the climactic “What are you doing?” “Saving the human race!” gambit we’ve reached a truly low point where self-sacrifice that doesn’t work (like Alona Tal in Supernatural) isn’t tragic, but a running gag from 21 Jump Street.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is so poor it makes you nostalgic for the awful Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Whither Rod Serling’s scripting intelligence?

1/5

July 10, 2014

Boyhood

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Director Richard Linklater unveils a coming of age film 12 years in the making and the result is a dazzling technical achievement of great heart; whose humour belies its length.

Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) is a normal six year old living in Texas with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and bullying sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). He only sees his divorced dad Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) at weekends, and enjoys escaping from his proper mother’s care to the more freewheeling parenting of his muscle-car driving father. It’s a normal boyhood, and time rolls by… And it really does roll. Mason Sr becomes more responsible, Mason’s mom finds happiness elusive, Samantha becomes an ally not a nemesis, and Mason Jr starts to develop his own personality in response to the various people who surround him and the times he lives in (the transition from Bush to Obama, anger to hope to disillusionment). To reveal more details would deprive you of the pleasure of Linklater’s seamless transition between years, teasing misdirection, and subtle reveals.

Astonishingly Linklater made 10 films while chipping away at this film; yearly vignette by yearly vignette. His absolute faith in child actor Ellar Coltrane, and his own daughter Lorelei, are rewarded by performances that begin in wonderful comedy and grow, through some shocking scenes, to encompass genuine depth of feeling as their characters mature. Lee Daniel and Shane F Kelly meanwhile manage to shoot Texas with such rigorous continuity that at times the joins between years aren’t even noticeable if Mason Jr hasn’t changed hairstyle or grown a few inches. This is a rare occasion when the term novelistic is deserved. Boyhood has the narrow focus on a handful of characters and their interactions of The Art of Fielding, but the longer span of time to probe psychological formation of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’s bilsdungroman; and Linklater’s innovation of charting the passage of time by the actual passage of time is jaw-dropping. Arquette’s entire run on Medium is encompassed (and observable in her varying hairstyles) as her character grows older but more brittle not wiser, and skinny Hawke noticeably physically fills out in a career-best performance of serious comedy. Boyhood is also richly novelistic with interpretation…

Mason Sr at first seems an archetypal deadbeat dad. But over time we see he’s quite wise; his rebelliousness is very much a surface affectation thrown off for mellow acquiescence with the way of the world. Which leaves you wondering, will Mason Jr follow that same arc? Arquette’s mom seems to be the sensible one, but over time we see she’s actually sensible in everything except matters of the heart where she’s quite hopeless. And, in a sly critique of divorce, what Mason Jr would regard as his unique personality; artsy, ditching Facebook to live an authentic life, given to paranoid riffs about the evils of the NSA;  is largely a rebellion against the hypocritical, brutal, ‘Duty, Honour, Country’ Christian authoritarianism foisted on him by stand-in fathers. But the amazing late exchange between father and son – “Yep, I’ve finally become the boring, castrated guy your mom always wanted. And she could have had it too, if she’d just been a bit more patient, and a bit more forgiving.” “And it sure would have saved me a parade of drunken assholes” – obscures the fact that an unexpected gift, not from Mason Sr, is what helped Jr find his metier in life…

Boyhood is probably the film of 2014. See it on the big screen to be wowed by life itself; your own nostalgia mixes with Mason Jr’s impressively realised youth.

5/5

July 3, 2014

Trailer Talk: Part II

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 2:53 pm

In another entry in this occasional series I round up some trailers for films opening in the next few months.

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was extremely successful commercially, but was a curiously mixed bag artistically. Rupert Wyatt’s direction was quite brilliant in some Hitchcockian flourishes and well-staged action sequences. But the script seemed barely written; with James Franco and Frieda Pinto playing ciphers. Andy Serkis (in motion-capture) returns as talking evolved ape leader Caesar. The world’s population having been devastated by the simian flu Caesar faces great hostility from belligerent human leader Gary Oldman, but an ally in Jason Clarke’s family man willing to talk peaceful co-existence. But peaceful co-existence don’t make for a high-stakes apocalyptic blockbuster! The focus of interest must be director Matt Reeves. Cloverfield combined spectacle with devastating emotional impact and his vampire remake Let Me In improved on the Scandinavian original. What will he fashion?

Dutch rock photographer Anton Corbijn’s third film as director seems closer in tone and look to his sophomore effort The American than stark debut Control, as he directs a John Le Carre spy thriller set in Germany. The adaptation of Le Carre’s novel comes from Lantana playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell which is almost as much an enticement as the stellar cast: Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead performance. The second coming of Robin Wright really is a phenomenon as worthy of attention as the McConnaissance, and this looks like another compelling performance. The late Hoffman meanwhile seems on fine form as the German spook harassing McAdams’ attorney: “I’m a lawyer” “You’re a social worker for terrorists”. Hopefully this will be better structured than the cavalier Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Yep, the teaser trailer for what will probably be one of the three biggest films of 2014 manages to not mention Katniss Everdeen, show Jennifer Lawrence’s face, or even acknowledge the existence of the previous two films. Intentionally, of course, as it’s a Capitol propaganda film with Donald Sutherland’s kindly old white-bearded President Snow sitting in a white room, flanked by Josh Hutcherson’s kidnapped Peeta, telling the people of Panem how good the Capitol is to them, and expressing bemusement as to why they would ever rebel against him. Arcade Fire’s chilling Soviet style Panem anthem has more or less for me become Donald Sutherland’s personal theme tune at this point, and it suits these words: “But if you resist the system, you starve yourself. If you fight against it, it is you who will bleed…” #OnePanem

July 1, 2014

Arcade Fire & Pixies at Marlay Park

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Arcade Fire arrived at Marlay Park on the back of triumphantly headlining Glastonbury, with super-support from Pixies touring their first new album in 23 years.

Pixies’ new album Indie Cindy, culled from various EPs over the last while, is very reminiscent of 1990’s Bossanova; with elements of 1991’s Trompe le Monde. Their deafeningly loud 22 song set included new songs ‘Bagboy’, ‘Magdalena 318’, ‘Indie Cindy’, and ‘Greens and Blues’ interspersed with the old classics, and the old songs fitted in perfectly. The latest Kim Deal substitute was adept as a bassist but less so vocally in a Doolittle and Surfer Rosa heavy-set, but Dave Lovering and Joey Santiago were obviously having fun. Lovering in particular hammed up his rendition of ‘La La Love You’, even though the crowd started applauding before he’d actually finished… And therein lay the explanation for Frank Black’s distant mood. This was far from the adulatory reception Pixies received when supporting Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2004. A blisteringly raucous finale saw Pixies run together ‘Rock Music’, ‘Isla de Encanta’, and ‘Tame’, before ‘Debaser’ was abandoned because Black’s guitar had broken and he chose to take it as a sign. Truthfully the sign had come earlier when the moshpit went crazy for ‘Here Comes Your Man’ – this nearly 50 minutes in, and after ‘Wave of Mutilation’, ‘Gouge Away’, ‘Velouria’, and ‘Nimrod’s Son’ had been played without any such reaction. When the crowd at the front then went wild again a few songs later for ‘Where is My Mind?’ you could almost see Fassbender’s despairing lines as cult musician Frank run across Black’s face: “They do not know and love us? They do not know us…” This was a crowd of face-painted teenagers there for Arcade Fire, and all the Pixies they knew was thru Fight Club’s finale and their only song approved for daytime radio. This cast a slight pall over the end of the set, and, almost as if the gods had been angered, the sunny weather was replaced by a cold wind.Win Butler seemed ashamed on his fans’ behalf, and later played the intro of ‘Where is My Mind?’ while stressing the seminal nature of Pixies – ‘you really ought to know who they are’ was the clear subtext…

The stage at Marlay has changed position a lot over the years and now the audience looks past it to the mountains, the perfect backdrop really for a band with a song called ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’. Arcade Fire took to the stage at 8:30 in order to play for over two hours, although they first had to boot off their bobble-head band which had started playing ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’. Impressively the costumes used at Glastonbury were discarded for all new outfits, with Win Butler sporting a white suit with red birds adorning the jacket. After staggeringly tossing aside the totemic ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ as the second song sandwiched between two new tracks, they settled comfortably into The Suburbs; with ‘Rococo’, ‘Month of May’, ‘The Suburbs’, and ‘Ready to Start’ in succession. After some moody Funeral hits the already energised crowd were set dancing with ‘Intervention’, ‘We Exist’, ‘No Cars Go’, ‘Haiti’, ‘Reflektor’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’ one after another. And it was very noticeable just how much dancing there was going on in the crowd. Some of this may be because the gig didn’t sell out (Recession, y’all), so people had space to really go for it; but most of it was surely because of the sheer energy of the small army of musicians bouncing around and effortlessly switching instruments onstage. And offstage, with dancers throwing shapes on a platform in the crowd for ‘We Exist’, and Regine Chassagne being menaced by dancing skeletons for ‘Oh Orpheus’ on the same platform. And then the band left to allow a bobble-head Pope to rip up a photo of Miley Cyrus while standing beside a TV-screen-head man playing Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. Arcade Fire returned, heralded by their mirror-ball man speaking Irish, for an encore of ‘Afterlife’, ‘Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)’, ‘Here Comes the Night Time’, and ‘Wake Up’. And after exploding a vast shower of confetti over the crowd there really could be no second encore after that closer… It was a really good gig, but I wasn’t as blown away by it as other people were because I don’t think Reflektor stands up to their previous work. I’ve been listening to Neon Bible and really enjoying it recently, and it has almost completely fallen out of their set-list. They played 7 songs from Reflektor, and I think by their next tour only ‘Reflektor’, ‘Afterlife’, ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’ will still be played. But that’s three new songs U2 would kill for.

I seem to be cursed to see huge bands when they’re touring weak albums, but this will still surely be a strong contender for feel-good gig of the summer.

4/5

June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

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I come not to praise Seth MacFarlane, nor to bury him, but to consider his failure with a comedy-western alongside Damon Lindelof’s Cowboys & Aliens.

I found A Million Ways to Die in the West to be oddly reminiscent of early Woody Allen films like Bananas; intermittently hilarious, but not really a film. But if Woody pre-Annie Hall was simply stitching together sketches without anything but the most broadly-drawn larger narrative purpose, then it seemed like the reverse was happening to MacFarlane – making ‘a Western, goddamnit!’ sucked the humour out of his comedy-western script. And so to a knotty point – there was a grindingly efficient story structure at work, but the central comic conceit of MacFarlane’s movie was unclear. Critic Joe Griffin pitches the film as – “it’s a normal guy with 21st century sensibilities who lives in the violent frontier of the Old West and is dragged into a typical Western story.” This nails MacFarlane’s interactions with Amanda Seyfried, which come close to replicating the clinical psychoanalysis terms Woody uses with Louise Lasser in Bananas with an almost identical purpose – the comedy of language entirely inappropriate to the situation. But the first genuinely funny moment is MacFarlane’s later riff on the dead mayor, which literally comes out of nowhere. Along with the inevitably blood-soaked county fair, it suggests that the titular conceit of horrible deaths would’ve been a far better source of thematic comedy. Instead MacFarlane decides to mine comedy by working the most exhausted seams of the rom-com with Charlize Theron; even down to the obligatory big lie – she chose not to tell him she’s married to terrifying Liam Neeson. Only very occasionally (to wake the audience) does he sprinkles absurdist comic moments; and meanwhile he’s also trying to touch every Western generic base.

Griffin writes “This, I think, is what happens when someone has had too much control on a project so early in his film career.” MacFarlane is the star, director, co-writer, and producer of A Million Ways; and his co-writers are his Ted and Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. That’s a lot of control. To put it in context, it’s more than M Night Shyamalan ever managed to acquire at the height of his hubris. It’s undeniable that without the success of Ted it’s unthinkable that MacFarlane would have been allowed to cast himself as the physical lead, and it’s probably equally unlikely that Wellesley and Sulkin would alienate their TV day-job boss by proposing a page-one rewrite of his pet film project. I have to agree with Griffin because getting too much control because of success is part and parcel of the disastrous creative bubble I described in 2011 which I predicted would scupper The Dark Knight Rises; Wellesley and Sulkin wouldn’t be silent because they wouldn’t want to rain on MacFarlane’s scripting parade, they’d be silent because they’d be doing the Macarena in the middle of the parade. Because they’d written Ted they’d assume whatever any of them suggested would be equally awesome, and so nobody cries halt until the train has gone far over the horizon. But I want to dissent against myself and speculate that what happened in the Million Ways writers’ room (story structure and Western tropes pushing out badly needed jokes) was the same as the fiasco that occurred not so long ago in another writers’ room not so very far away…

Cowboys and Aliens

 

Remember 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens? No, well, don’t feel bad. Here’s what its co-writer Damon (LOST) Lindelof had to say about it in an extremely interesting 2013 interview: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.” Cowboys & Aliens was supposedly based on a comic-book by Scott Mitchel Rosenberg, which, from the small sample available on Amazon, appears to proudly wear ‘guilt over the treatment of Native Americans in times gone by’ on its sleeve. That suggests that Ace Ventura creator Steve Oedekerk was right to create a fun screen story distinct from the comic-book. And then rewrites began… Of the credited writers a draft was done by Mark Fergus & Howard Ostby (Iron ManChildren of Men), whose credits suggest that a more serious tone had begun to emerge. Which is presumably why Lindelof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, M:I-3, Star Trek) were brought in to do the final draft of the script. Add some humour? Some nonsense? Yeah, well, obviously that didn’t work. But look at what Lindelof characterised as a genre trapping of the Western: Native American allies. What?! That would certainly be news to the Duke…

In 1991 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr took aim at America’s universities in his polemic The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger was extremely alarmed at the mass of evidence that political correctness had triumphed over sanity: “When a student sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual,’ a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: ‘This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.’” (117) In his 1982 novel Before She Met Me Julian Barnes had a history professor baffled by the genuine horror and anger of a student whenever the wrong side triumphed in any given stand-off. Schlesinger Jr was damning of attacks on ‘Eurocentric’ American history, and it was essentially an appeasement of Barnes’ fictional student; by rewriting history. In one district where Native Americans had political clout it was taught that their tribal politics had influenced Thomas Jefferson every bit as much as European Enlightenment. It had not, as Schlesinger Jr flatly stated. And yet… In Sleepy Hollow, co-created by Cowboys & Aliens scribes Kurtzman and Orci, we find Ichabod Crane noting how in his 1770s existence Native American tribal politics had been a pivotal influence on Thomas Jefferson. A throwaway cute line; to anyone who hasn’t read Schlesinger Jr’s book. If you have, you’re stunned that this is not meant as a joke or provocatively revisionist statement; it is simply stated as true when it is not.

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MacFarlane, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof were all born in 1973. This puts them in college at Brown, Wesleyan, UT Austin, and NYU Film School, respectively, during the height of the ‘Death to DWEMs’ tide that Schlesinger Jr was trying to turn back. I honestly think every time somebody sits down to write anything Western-related in Hollywood these days they get some epic pol.sci/film studies college flashback. As a result, in between apologising to Native Americans, rewriting the role of women in the West, inserting grim truths about the lawlessness and brutality of life then, demythologising Wayne and Ford’s back catalogue, and faithfully inserting and then attempting to subvert in the accepted revisionist mode every Western trope they were ever taught, they lose any sense of fun. Lindelof posited “a Western that had aliens as bad guys” as “the cooler movie”, and yet Cowboys & Aliens is entirely lacking any sense of being a cool adventure. It is, indeed, simply unthinkable that anybody could produce a Western right now that is exuberant fun; nobody would give you the finale of Rio Bravo. I think that may be a combination of film school prioritising, nay, canonising, serious Westerns like The Searchers and Red River over entertainments like El Dorado and Gunfight at the OK CorralRio Bravo isn’t a silly movie, but it is unabashed adventure played with great humour. But Lindelof’s description of embracing “the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies” suggests an inability to take the Western genre as it was, not as it ought to have been…

The complete failure of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t stop the even more epic failure of The Lone Ranger following it down the trail two years later. The savage darkness of The Lone Ranger was completely unsuitable for a Disney blockbuster supposedly aimed at kids, but it fitted perfectly the template of the Western produced by people Schlesinger couldn’t save. It’s admirable to insert a Sergio Leone tone into a Western romp for children, only if you also take that bloody-minded approach to your contemporary blockbusters and give us Transformers directed by Ken Loach as the working poor fighting against transforming robots who’re the highest form of capitalism. Really I think the idea of the Western as conceived by the children of 1973 is fundamentally incompatible with exuberance. In the 1970s radical directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill and Michael Cimino couldn’t wait to make a Western. But the revisionist Western wasn’t what audiences wanted. Nicholas Jarecki on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast recently made some interesting points about ‘genre exhaustion’, when an audience has seen every possible permutation arising out of a generic set-up. I don’t believe that’s what happened to the Western in the 1970s. I follow Stephen King in believing that George Lucas took the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the Western and simply, in a belated emulation of JFK’s call for a New Frontier, relocated it in space. And, as Spielberg’s Western framing at the end of The Last Crusade transparently indicates, crying for the death of the Western is like bemoaning the death of the dinosaurs while looking at flying birds: dinosaurs aren’t dead, they evolved.

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If the blockbuster is the repository of the spirit of exuberant fun that lights up Rio Bravo, what does that make the contemporary Western? Well, it’s tempting to twist Lindelof’s words and say merely the outward trappings of the genre, stripped of its soul. Since Heaven’s Gate we’ve had serious Westerns like Dances with WolvesOpen RangeWyatt EarpUnforgivenTombstoneThe Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford3:10 to Yuma, and Seraphim Falls. We’ve had comedy mash-up disasters like Wild Wild WestCowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. And we’ve had nothing like a Rio Bravo… It’s admirable to try and cinematically reinstate the reality of the shameful treatment of the Native Americans in the Old West. But this admirable endeavour may run up against a problem if it’s part of a wider refusal to accept the Western genre for what it was and to believe that it can simply be rewritten to make it what it ought to have been. Such a massive undertaking may be more than the genre can accommodate, in one important respect – it can make for a good film, a good Western, but not a fun film. A Million Ways is not a fun film, even though it’s meant to be a comedy. And I think it’s because MacFarlane tried to hit every base; Native Americans as allies, the brutality and lawlessness of the West, rewriting the role of women (with particular emphasis on the brothels), the exploitation of Chinese labour; because he is one of that generation that can’t see a Western without giving a lecture on its propagandising.

MacFarlane certainly won’t be getting A Million Ways 2 off the ground, and his fiasco has probably scuppered any competent Destry Rides Again for the 2010s that was out there. But, considering Lindelof’s tropes, surely Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino comes closer to the cool movie that Lindelof wanted than Cowboys & Aliens. It shouldn’t be impossible to combine the 1973 generation’s ideal Western with exuberant fun – maybe it just needs Clint back in the saddle…

June 25, 2014

Aristocrats

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Director Patrick Mason returns to the Abbey for a new production of 1979’s Aristocrats, Brian Friel’s Chekhovian study of a Catholic Big House in decline.

The peculiarity of Ballybeg in having a Catholic Big House has attracted Chicagoan academic Tom Hoffnung (Philip Judge). As he researches the history of the well-to-do O’Donnell family since 1829, he is privy to gossip from helpful local fixer Willie Diver (Rory Nolan). Willie is devoted to the eldest daughter Judith (Cathy Belton), whose life is now spent caring for her invalided father (John Kavanagh) and the eccentric Uncle George (Bosco Hogan). Tom’s visit is peculiarly opportune for getting family gossip as youngest daughter Claire (Jane McGrath) is getting married, and so middle daughter Alice (Rebecca O’Mara) and oddball son Casimir (Tadhg Murphy) have returned to the fold. However, while Casimir has left wife Helga in Hamburg, Alice has brought acerbic husband Eamon (Keith McErlean). And Eamon is a truth-teller when it comes to his peasantry and the O’Donnell gentry…

Uncle George who shuffles about silently avoiding people is a character straight out of Chekhov. But Aristocrats, while it has some very funny moments (not least imaginary croquet), is primarily a very sad play. Judith’s speech about how she manages to be ‘almost happy’ within a strict routine of servitude, which she does not want disturbed, is made all the more heart-breaking by the ingratitude of her stroke-stricken father; who continually refers to Judith’s great betrayal, unaware that it is she who tends to him. Casimir’s relating how his father told him his eccentricities could be absorbed in the Big House whereas he would be the village idiot in Ballybeg is equally distressing as it has led him to narrowing his life to avoid pillory. And, in Sinead McKenna’s evocative lighting design, behind everything – Judith’s past role in the Troubles.

Francis O’Connor’s set, a detailed drawing room with abstracted staircases and doors behind it and an imaginary wall to a lawn, strikes a balance between verisimilitude and artifice that my sometime co-writer John Healy pointed out to me was reflected in the acting styles; naturalistic for the ‘native peasantry’ Willie and Eamon, more mannered for the self-conscious gentry in decline – especially Alice’s performative alcoholism and Casimir’s apologetic tics. The set also reflects Friel’s concern with the ghostly technology; absent daughter Anna (Ruth McGill) can record a message, Father’s rantings can be relayed downstairs. Catherine Fay’s 1970s costumes (especially for Alice and Willie) are impeccable, while Mason lives up to Eamon’s programmatic ‘This has always been a house of reticence, of things left unspoken’ by offering muted hints that Eamon fathered Judith’s child, and that Eamon and Alice will be happy.

My fellow academic Graham Price would no doubt note the contrast between McGahern’s vision of the Big House; a place of learning; and Friel’s vision; a place where objects are named after Chesterton, Hopkins and Yeats, but it is severely doubtful that the self-absorbed status-conscious O’Donnells who did so ever emulated their intellectual curiosity.

3.5/5

Aristocrats continues its run at the Abbey until the 2nd of August.

June 20, 2014

3 Days to Kill

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Kevin Costner tries to do a Liam Neeson and escape blockbuster supporting roles by fighting international villains in Paris while looking after an estranged daughter.

CIA asset Vivi (Amber Heard) is dispatched to Eastern Europe to kill The Wolf (Richard Sammel), who will be at a hotel overseeing a transaction by his lieutenant The Albino (Tomas Lemarquis) (yes, the names are absurd; Luc Besson spits on reality). The transaction, a dirty bomb, will be sabotaged by local CIA agent Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), and Vivi is not to interfere. The operation, however, goes gruesomely sideways. Ethan wounds The Albino, but collapses before capturing him. Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Ethan retires and returns to Paris to reconnect with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and daughter Zooey (Hailee Stainfeld); and awkwardly share his CIA hideout with Malian squatters. But Vivi knows Ethan is the only person who can identify The Wolf. She offers an experimental drug to prolong his life in return for some freelancing…

One-man studio Besson produces demented action films: Mark Millar’s bombastic comics moments (Black Widow catching a gun dropped from a chopper above while she’s jumping between buildings in The Ultimates) threaded together with basic plotting. But 3 Days to Kill, from a surprisingly sadistic early killing, isn’t the house style of knowing nonsense and crunching violence. McG fashioned some amusing sequences in This Means War, but, bar some moments in the hotel cold open, his action directing in a washed-out Paris is not very impressive. More worryingly this is an action movie that is seriously lacking in actual action. 3 Days to Kill can come across as an early draft of Taken; written as a serious drama about estranged father-daughter parenting. Except that such ‘serious drama’ includes ludicrous unfunny business with a purple bike, and electrocuting fixers for parenting advice.

All I can think is that Besson and Adi Hasak wrote tongue-in-cheek, but, bar a pointedly directed comedy scene with a ‘real Italian’ accountant for The Albino, that tone just got lost in McG’s shooting; which prevents Mitat (Marc Andreoni) from emulating Inspector Tarconi in The Transporter. Amber Heard tragically disappears for lengthy stretches, but in her occasional appearances Besson seems to be tapping into the hypersexualised persona she’s honed in films like The Rum DiaryThe Informers, and The Joneses. Vivi’s always dressed in some sort of leather and outré hairstyle, attends Crazy Horse cabaret to flirt with naked girls, makes both driving and injecting a cancer drug seem sexual, delivers what may be 2014’s filthiest PG-13 gag, and (in what may or may not be a hallucination by medicated Ethan) does rifle drills under Roger Rabbit red spotlights.

Costner was always a still centre as a leading man rather than a warm presence like Neeson, and his tonally confused Bessoner surely won’t reinvigorate his leading man career.

2/5

June 19, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

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John Green’s best-selling ‘dying teenagers in love’ YA novel gets a cinematic adaptation so perfectly dreadful it will make you question the book’s stellar reputation.

Our heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is dying of cancer. She is dragged by her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) to support meetings in a church basement, presided over by an Evangelical figure of fun who could’ve walked straight out of Fight Club. But one day Isaac (Nat Wolff), a sardonic teenager blinded in one eye by cancer, brings along to group his best friend Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cocky teenager who lost a leg to cancer. There is an instant spark of attraction between Hazel and Augustus, and soon she has him reading her favourite cancer novel An Imperial Affliction. Augustus pesters the exiled author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) until Van Houten’s helpful assistant Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek) invites them both to Amsterdam. But Hazel’s father Michael (Sam Trammell) urges Augustus not to push the physically frail Hazel…

The Fault in Our Stars is most interesting for its part in Shailene Woodley’s sustained campaign to become Jennifer Lawrence. J-Law was unconsciously unguarded in interviews, Woodley makes bizarre pronouncements. J-Law fronted The Hunger Games, Woodley (after consulting J-Law, she let everyone know) fronted Divergent. J-Law won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, Woodley attempts a serious role with an ersatz J-Law performance. Woodley was terrific in The Descendants, but here she seems to vocally channel J-Law in scenes where she’s upset or excited. And then there’s Elgort… Elgort renders Augustus an arrogant water-polo player from The OC. One assumes that Augustus is intended to be more charming, perhaps closer to a Damon Salvatore; but even the swaggering Ian Somerhalder couldn’t rescue Augustus’ excruciatingly stilted dialogue. It genuinely shocks that (500) Days of Summer’s Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber adapted.

From the sub-Mametian insistence of the lovers on calling each other Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, to Hazel Grace’s use of the word hamartia, to Augustus’ involved (and not particularly metaphorical) cigarette metaphor everything in this film feels painfully affected. I haven’t read the book, but I’m not sure these touches could’ve worked even in print; especially the excruciating moment when deeply inappropriate PDA in the Anne Frank House is applauded.Director Josh Boone’s autumnal palette complements the actual and soundalike Coldplay that soundtracks the relentlessly weepy forced march to the movie’s crux: like The Lovely Bones and The Da Vinci Code sex is everything – being in heaven, being God; not as good or important as having had sex. Dafoe’s mercifully abrasive cameo as the novelist telling them home-truths cannot shift these insufferable lovers’ minds onto more transcendent philosophical concerns.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we encourage producers to make dross like this by going to bad movies, knowing they’re bad.

1/5

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