Talking Movies

July 18, 2016

Re-Elect Calvin Coolidge as President

Rumours had been rife that an attempt would be made at the Republican National Convention to sideline Donald Trump in favour of an alternative Presidential nominee. Little did anyone suspect the man chosen would be the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, writes B. Bradley Bradlee from Cleveland.

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Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan is shamelessly lifted from The Gipper, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that his enemies in the GOP establishment have reached even further back to the precedent of Eisenhower and Goldwater. After all, elephants can remember. What does surprise is their decision to leave drafting an alternative candidate to thwart Trump so very late. Their choice of former President Coolidge as a unity candidate is proving controversial in the media at this particular moment of national tension for two reasons: because of his hard-line actions during the Boston Police Strike, and him being dead.

Kentucky Trump delegate Tom O’Shanter was outraged, “It’s a crying shame that a man who won so many votes in primaries can be thrown over for a multicultural advocatist like Coolidge.” On being pressed O’Shanter elaborated, “Coolidge signed that Act giving Injuns the rights to practice their culture. I mean, give me a break! This is ’Murica. You adopt the culture that’s already here!!” Asked whether Coolidge’s track record on tax cuts might sway his vote O’Shanter’s opposition faltered, “Well, I’ll allow he did cut taxes in ’24, ’26, and ’28. He’s got a track record, even if he’s dead.”

Stockton Crouse, a strategist for Jeb Bush’s failed primary campaign, was as surprised as anyone, “I know we were short on choice when it came to one-term Presidents, I myself ruled out drafting George HW, but Coolidge…” Crouse was in two minds on Coolidge’s platform, “On the one hand, I like that he tried to improve our strained relations with Mexico, that’s important after Trump’s rhetoric. On the other hand, signing the Immigration Act is just too like a 1920s piece of Trump demagoguery for my taste. And that’s to say nothing of his being dead, what about the debates?”

But according to Coolidge’s communications director, Broder Mackin, Crouse’s concerns are overplayed. “Don’t listen to his sour grapes. I think we’re all familiar with that Dorothy Parker quote, B. Bradley, Calvin is going to do just fine in the debates.” Pressed on how active a President Coolidge could reasonably be Mackin was firm, “The people have had enough of executive over-reach, B. Bradley. What they want is to be left alone. And Calvin will do that. First, he has form in this; this is a man who said National Education Week did not need his imprimatur. And second, he’s dead.”

B. Bradley Bradlee is fictional editor emeritus of The New York Times. He is currently covering the Republican Convention for the German weekly Die Emmerich-Zeitung.

July 9, 2016

Tender Napalm

Good Buzz fill the Boys School of Smock Alley with clay for an energetic performance of Philip Ridley’s acclaimed two-hander.

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A red line separates the audience from the players, nestled on an artificial grassy mound rising out of real clay. A man (Stephen Tadgh) and a woman (Ashleigh Dorrell), his attempts at tenderness shook off as irritants. And then the play begins with speculations of imaginative acts of violence as poetry. Tension between the couple is obvious, her attempts at a romantic flashback to her preparations for a party are scuppered by his flights of fancy about ruling a desert island. She joins his desert island fantasy to undercut his bagatelles and claim it for herself. And then as their monologues continue it becomes clear that the party both are preparing for in their flashbacks is where they first met, and began down the slippery slope of love that has led them to their current impasse of resentment and boredom.

Tender Napalm is a hard old slog. Director Sarah Finlay stages the material well with nice use of lighting to pinpoint emotion within these conjured mindscapes, and Tadgh is boundlessly energetic and winning in his portrayal of the optimistic romantic man, but Philip Ridley’s script is a 45 minute lunchtime show unfeasibly elongated to 85 minutes. The revelatory end is obvious from a mile, there is even a hint of (500) Days of Summer about how it informs the desert island, and the originality of the game of loving descriptions of violence disappears once you realise it was contemporaneously used in Sarah Polley’s film Take This Waltz. Exactly how Ridley’s script came to be held up as a masterpiece of new British writing about passionate love is a puzzle given its clumsy handling of a couple grieving their young daughter.

Boys School in Smock Alley is an infuriating theatrical space, permitting no entrances or exits with any subtlety unless one builds a staircase as part of the set. Such claustrophobia focuses attention on the script to an unhealthy degree. And it became noticeable, as an overwhelmingly female crowd whooped up everything the woman said, that Ridley attempts to create a ‘female voice’ in his play by indulging in unapologetic misandry. The man’s descriptions of imaginary violence all end in ecstatic death, whereas the woman explicitly talks of horrifically maiming him, and leaving him alive, blinded and castrated. The man is bombastic and friendly, the woman is, at their first meeting, bossy, and in the present accusatory and petulant. That a female audience lapped this up without thinking it at all problematic was more interesting and revealing than anything Ridley wrote.

Tender Napalm features good performances and assured sound and lighting design, but its script is flabby, lacking in real insight, and, ultimately, disturbingly sexist.

2.5/5

Tender Napalm continues its run at Smock Alley Theatre until the 9th of July.

July 7, 2016

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn returns with another artful garish provocation that elicited boos at Cannes. He must be doing something right.

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Fresh-faced teenager Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in LA with dreams of modelling. She impresses agency head Roberta (Christina Hendricks), even though her photos do not; so much for would-be boyfriend/photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) hitching his wagon to her rising star. Roberta pushes her towards legendary photographer Jack MacArthur (Des Harrington) who is immediately wowed by her innocent looks and shoots her. His instant interest is shared by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces Jesse to her sharp-tongued model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). But when Alessandro Nivola’s designer is also entranced, leading to successive humiliations for Gigi and Sarah in favour of Jesse, their claws come out. And Jesse, after a trippy catwalk experience, finds herself isolated when events in the worst motel in Pasadena take a sinister turn courtesy of creepy manager Hank (Keanu Reeves).

Refn got a kicking for Only God Forgives that would’ve broken many directors, but, very impressively, The Neon Demon is made with supreme confidence, and with absolutely no apologies – even signed NWR as a statement of artistic singularity. Whereas Only God Forgives gestured towards total abstraction there is a semblance of story here, but, even though he collaborated with playwrights Mary Laws & Polly Stenham on dialogue, it’s in the ha’penny place to the visuals. And the visuals work because Refn knows Cliff Martinez can provide a synthesiser score of wide range that can interpret images: in particular Jesse’s catwalk encounter with a blue pyramid, water, and a red pyramid, which tips its hat to 2001’s Jupiter sequence, and seems to imply that Jesse has communed with the Platonic Ideal of beauty and is thereafter a different and blessed person.

Martinez’s score is quite haunting and beautiful in its ethereal approximation of the timbres of marimba and celeste, but it also embraces great Vangelis Blade Runner washes of synth, as well as juddering techno, contrapuntal melodies, and, for a climactic syncopated cue, almost wah-wah guitar effects. Reeves plays terrifically against type, and his enjoyment is mirrored by Refn mischievously cutting from his introduction to a huge white space where one character initiates another. The Rover cinematographer Natasha Braier observes the scantily-clad models with Kubrickian detachment, complementing a startling scene where Jesse appears faced with sexual assault but is treated as an objet d’art, not human but a personification of beauty. Early on, regarding lipstick names, Jesse is asked “Are you sex or are you food?” Refn seems to imply Jesse as embodiment of beauty can be anything, except a person.

This is more accessible than Only God Forgives, but there will still be walkouts, because this is unapologetically an NWR film: which means mesmeric pacing, semi-abstracted visuals, a foregrounding of music, and outré violence.

4/5

June 30, 2016

The Wake

Director Annabelle Comyn revives another late Tom Murphy play at the Abbey, but unlike The House in 2012 this chaotic script proves impossible to tame.

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Vera (Aisling O’Sullivan) returns unbidden to her home in the West for an auction of the hotel she has inherited. But a conversation with neighbour Mrs. Conneeley (Ruth McCabe) about the true circumstances of a death in the family leads her to decide on an unusual course of action. She falls back into the bed of disreputable ex-boyfriend Finbar (Brian Doherty), scandalising her siblings Mary Jane (Kelly Campbell), Tom (Lorcan Cranitch), and Marcia (Tina Kellegher). Their attempts at coming to a compromise are scuppered by Marcia’s husband Henry (Frank McCusker) appointing himself emissary, and making such a good job of his negotiations on behalf of the siblings that he ends up occupying the hotel with Finbar and Vera, and conducting a three day bacchanalia with all lights on and curtains open in the hotel located in the town’s main square.

The Wake is a marvel of clever staging, as a backdrop of stars at night becomes a map of Tuam, while a very narrow playing space progressively deepens, until eventually the fateful hotel itself rises out of the Abbey’s trapdoors. All typical of Comyn and her set designer Paul O’Mahony, but what’s atypical is this Murphy script; which is undoubtedly the least controlled and most chaotic of the six Murphy plays I’ve seen performed. Mary Jane and Tom never convince for a second as real characters, while Finbar and Henry, though both played with considerable charm, often lapse into (respectively) D’Unbelievables homage and speeches that sound like debating positions rather than The Gigli Concert’s character-driven philosophical musings. At times it appears Murphy is in some demented fashion mashing up Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession with his own Conversations on a Homecoming.

This feels like a rough draft rather than a completed piece. The depression afflicting Tom’s heavily medicated wife Caitriona (Nichola MacEvilly) is, barring one sinister moment, played for laughs. The priest Fr Billy (Pat Nolan) is an ineffectual hail-fellow-well-met eejit, a cleric currying favour with the bourgeoisie; sketched in by Tom and Mary Jane in the most primary colours imaginable. Vera’s American inflexions and catchphrases rehearse supporting character Goldfish’s confused cultural identity in Murphy’s subsequent play The House but are far less effective. And O’Sullivan is further ill-served by the woeful misjudgement of Vera repeatedly flashing the audience. The wake’s songs and recimitations are authentic but feel interminable as they drag out the running time, an insult made injurious when they don’t build to anything because Murphy flounces out of the promised destructive climax necessary to impose some dramatic purpose.

There are some fine performances in The Wake, and much good dramatic content, but it drowns beneath the state of the nation speechifying and dramatic flab of ramshackle scripting.

2.75/5

The Wake continues its run at the Abbey until the 30th of July.

June 29, 2016

IFI Open Day 2016

The IFI is holding its annual Open Day on Saturday July 2nd with an expanded line-up of free movies running from 1pm to near 1am. As well as free movies, and the customary barbecue in the courtyard and special discount on annual IFI membership, there are a number of tours.

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In addition to the previews, old favourites, and sheer oddities, there are chances to lift the curtain and see the wizard, with talks from the IFI Archive staff and tours of the Projection Booth. The ‘Ask an Archivist’ desk in the foyer will give visitors the opportunity to learn about different film stocks, and even view and handle film yourself. The Tiernan McBride library will host members of the Archive team charged with preserving Ireland’s cinematic heritage giving talks about some of the projects they’re currently working on. Projection tours can be booked in advance to go behind the little window of flickering light, and check out the busy working of the specialised department; handling anything from digital, to 16mm and 35mm, up to 70mm – the IFI being the only cinema in the country that can run 70mm reels. The tours at 14.00, 15.00, 16.30, and 17.00 have limited places, which can be booked at scorrigan@irishfilm.ie. Give yourself an unfair advantage in the ‘Fiver a Foot’ competition in which you can win Premiere Friend membership for a year by correctly guessing the length of film in a film can. And as always IFI Membership will be available at a discounted rate for the Open Day and there’s a BBQ on the terrace from 16.00 onwards.

But what are the free movies? Well, here is your guide to the 14 films being shown in Temple Bar.

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Film 1

White Heat (13.00)

“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!!”, and all that… Gangster No 1 James Cagney is Cody Jarrett, a deranged mobster who’s unnervingly close to his mother. Directed by Raoul Walsh, who previously worked with Cagney on The Roaring Twenties, this is a B-movie classic. Walsh mashes up prison breaks, gangster power struggles, and film noir blurring of lines as an undercover agent befriends the unwitting Jarrett.

Amateur (13.30)

Indie auteur Hal Hartley’s 1994 effort follows ex-nun Isabelle, taking time out from her disreputable profession to help amnesiac Thomas piece together his forgotten life. Hartley wrote the role for Isabelle Huppert after she sent a letter begging for a part in his next film. His regular leading man Martin Donovan plays the nice guy whose head injury, we gradually realise, may have been a most happy accident.

Play On! (14.00)

The Open Day proclaimeth Shakespeare Lives! In 1899 an upcoming production of King John filmed scenes to produce the first Shakespearean film, and arguably the film world’s first trailer; before there were even proper film features to trail. Early silent film-makers pillaged the Bard for prestige purposes, so here are 24 scenes of silent Shakespeare scenarios, including a 1924 Romeo & Juliet featuring John Gielgud’s screen debut.

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Film 2

Sweet Smell of Success (15.30)

“The cat’s in the bag, and the bag is in the river.” Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s quotable and seedy screenplay finds malicious gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) finally pushing fawning press man Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to his moral breaking point. Despite James Wong Howe’s innovative cinematography and Elmer Bernstein’s downbeat jazz, its disastrous 1957 reception effectively forced director Alexander Mackendrick into academia.

Disco Pigs (15.45)

Kirsten Sheridan made her feature debut in 2001 with the first of only two Enda Walsh plays to make it to the big screen. Cillian Murphy originated the part of Pig in 1996 and reprises it alongside Elaine Cassidy as Runt. Inseparable friends with their own private language, much compared to Anthony Burgess’ nadsat, their innocence is threatened by Pig’s growing appetite for destruction and sexual pleasures.

El Clan (16.00)

White Elephant director Palbo Trapero returns with a thriller based on improbable true events. The Galtieri regime has been swept aside in 1980s Argentina, and spook Arquimedes Puccio (The Secret in their Eyes’ Guillermo Francella) develops a new line of work with the help of his son Alejandro (Peter Lanzani): kidnapping. This tale of a low-key but distinctly psychopathic crime family won the Silver Lion at Venice.

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Film 3

King Kong (17.45)

Merian C Cooper’s beloved pulp classic from the pen of Edgar Wallace is showing on 35mm. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) joins a film-making expedition to Skull Island in search of a mythical beast, and Skull Island does not disappoint. Peter Jackson uncharitably re-used some clunky dialogue in his remake, but the stop-motion special effects still thrill and it all builds to one of cinema’s most memorable finales.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (18.00)

Writer/director Taika Waititi (2014 Kiwi vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows) adapts Barry Crump’s novel. Surly teenager Ricky (Julian Dennison) is dispatched from the city to the depths of the countryside to live with foster father Hec (Sam Neill). When he runs away, pursued by Hec, the police misread the situation and begin a manhunt. Funny, touching, and, yes, Rhys Darby shows up.

The Virgin Spring (18.20)

Director Ingmar Bergman won his first Foreign Film Oscar for arguably the most uncharacteristic film he ever made, as this was loosely and bloodily reworked 12 years later as The Last House on the Left by Wes Craven. Ulla Isaksson based her script on a medieval source, examining Max von Sydow’s moral deterioration as he methodically violently attacks the men who raped and murdered his daughter.

 

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Film 4

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (20.25)

The audience choice is regrettably Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s tale of the romantic friendship between Greg (Thomas Mann) and terminally ill Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Imagine The Fault in Our Stars meets Be Kind Rewind as directed by Wes Anderson; with cinephiles so infuriating it bears out Bret Easton Ellis’ fear of film-makers who make films based only on other films, not on lived reality.

The Neon Demon (20.40)

There may be walkouts… The inimitable Nicolas Winding Refn returns, sans Ryan Gosling, but, though there may be more dialogue than Only God Forgives, that doesn’t mean he’s changed his ways. Elle Fanning is a model arrived in LA’s fashion world whose fresh innocent beauty becomes the object of envy and desire for Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, and Jena Malone. Cue Cliff Martinez synths and weirdness.

Phantom of the Paradise (20.50)

Director Brian De Palma took elements from The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Faust, and combined them with an Oscar-nominated soundtrack for this 1974 oddity which is being reappraised. Winslow, a young musician is betrayed and has his life destroyed by unscrupulous producer Swan. When Phoenix, a beautiful new talent, arrives it spurs Winslow on to seek revenge on Swan.

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Film 5

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (22.30)

Writer/director Stephan Elliot has never managed to equal the impact of his 1994 comedy-drama. Drag queens Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce journey across the Australian Outback in a bus called ‘Priscilla’ for a show at a desert resort. Weaving brings grieving transsexual Terence Stamp too as a kind deed, and so begins much bickering and some unexpected bonding with the locals.

Repo Man (22.45)

Scottish writer/director Alex Cox provided the archetypal cult classic in 1984 with his quotable and offbeat feature debut. Emilio Estevez’s bored punk Otto works with Harry Dean Stanton’s equally jaded Bud repossessing cars. But when one car has a $20,000 bounty added life suddenly gets interesting for Otto and Bud in the way that only feuding punks, scientists, aliens, government agents, and a televangelist can make it.

So, those are the films, but that’s only the beginning… For the second year in a row there are five sets of films instead of the traditional four. Trying to do four films was an endurance marathon at the best of times, but to get into five films is surely beyond anyone, and yet undoubtedly somebody will try… But they’ll have to sort out their strategy with someone else, and now for two reasons. Strategy was always important because you can, obviously, only watch one of the three films running at any given time, but also the film you choose from each set determines what films are open to you later on. Choose Play On! from the first set of films, and you make it damn near impossible to see Sweet Smell of Success from the second set of films.

And if you’re confident you can make a quick-change from The Virgin Spring to The Neon Demon just remember that you’ll have to leave one screen and join a queue for another, that nothing in Dublin has ever started on time, and that one speaker will always get carried away with their enthusiasm when lengthily introducing a film. If you’re confident you can carve a sensible cinematic path through the day, remember that some films will be unexpectedly in demand and some films will unexpectedly languish, and it is impossible to predict which category your picks will fall into. If finally, shaken by my scepticism, you retreat to a Hindenburg line that you’re confident you can guess which films will be on which screens, remember that audience choice winners Good Vibrations and Short Term 12 did not make it to Screen 1, but Submarine did. And if you will not be moved from your foolhardy confidence, remember that you may need plans B thru D cognisant of run-times and queuing.

And then there’s the second and new reason that you need to sort your strategy with a partner if you want to get into multiple films. Tickets used to be allocated, to a maximum of 4 per person, on a first come first served basis 11am on Saturday which always led to a queue forming from 9.30am onwards and snaking around on to Dame Street. Those days are over, and everyone will miss the buzz of the Open Day morning. This year for a number of reasons the ticketing system is undergoing a dramatic shake-up. Queues will now form inside the IFI itself, at a desk for each specific movie, an hour before the movie is screened – with a limit of 2 tickets per person. Obviously this makes life hard for the multiple movie devotees, because they’d have to not be watching a movie in order to queue to get a ticket to watch the next movie. The best I can think of is some sort of demented Game Theory equilibrium whereby people trade off movies they don’t mind missing to queue for someone else, in order to get tickets for something they do want in return. (If that even works outside of my fevered economics imagination) Apart from melting the minds of delusional economists who think they can outwit it, the new ticketing system should ensure that all tickets distributed will be used, with fatigue ceasing to be an issue for the early morning diehards stranded in town for the day. It will also make Open Day a bit less about crowd control and a bit more interactive, allowing the IFI to enagage with first-time visitors and regular patrons about what the IFI does in terms of festivals and programming and what the Irish Film Archive is all about.

June 28, 2016

Ice Age: Collision Course

Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano), Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo), and Diego the sabre-tooth tiger (Denis Leary), are enlisted by weasel Buck (Simon Pegg) to face down an apocalyptic asteroid.

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Scrat the sabre-tooth squirrel, engaged in monomaniacal pursuit of an acorn as ever, is now mucking about in outer space; ruining Mars and producing some choice deus ex machina moments on earth, while making nonsense of logic and physics in the best Roadrunner and Wily Coyote manner. Meanwhile on Earth, Manny and Ellie (Queen Latifah) are fretting over daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) leaving home as soon as she marries idiotically enthusiastic Julian (Adam Devine, channelling his Modern Family role), wedding planner Sid is pining for a mate of his own, and Diego and Shira (Jennifer Lopez) are worrying whether they’d be good parents. These troubles become moot when a meteor shower heralds an extinction level asteroid, but not to fear – deranged swashbuckling weasel Buck has an improbable plan! If only he could keep some vengeful dino-birds off his back…

Buck is introduced anew with possibly the most unlikely musical number imaginable, new lyrics to the tune of ‘Figaro’s Aria’ from Rossini’s Barber of Seville; which turn it almost into a Gilbert & Sullivan jape. Nick Offerman drolly voices the dino-bird patriarch disapproving of his weakling son Max Greenfield, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson enjoys himself as the snooty Shangri Llama. There’s an amusing cameo from Neil deGrasse Tyson as a voice in Buck’s mind, but overall there’s not quite as many laughs as you’d like. Having said which the central arc of parental disapproval is infinitely preferable to Ice Age: Continental Drift’s incredibly unsubtle and irritating arc involving Peaches and the too cool for school mammoths she desperately wants to befriend. Whereas the dialogue and voicing of those scenes was excruciating, nothing in Ice Age: Collision Course is ever obnoxious.

It is curious to have arrived at Ice Age 5 14 years after the original. 5 year olds who enjoyed the first movie are now 19 year olds, think about that. Michael J Wilson, who wrote the 2002 story, returns for the first time to script with Michael Berg and Yoni Brenner. Brenner previously wrote on the dinosaur instalment, while Berg is institutional memory having only missed writing the second movie. Perhaps this writers’ reunion explains why the tasteless mining of Granny sloth’s Alzheimer’s for comedy has been quietly forgotten, but also why fantastic wordplay has largely disappeared; a situation not helped by ‘Son of a Birch Tree!’, featured in TV spots, being cut. But such are the necessary compromises, after all Jessie J voices a female sloth almost purely to allow her belt out a song in the finale.

Ice Age 5 is a moderately amusing kid’s film which includes just enough for parents, including a blink and you miss it POTA gag.

3/5

June 27, 2016

5 Dispatches from Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day has been all over our TV screens, and the sequel, while entertaining enough, is never going to trouble it in popular esteem or take pride of patriotic bombast place in Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre. Here are observations on it.

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1. Hansoloitis

“It doesn’t need matter that you come back, just how you come back” proclaimed Longmire’s gruff season 4 tag-line; and Independence Day: Resurgence bungles beloved characters as badly as The Force Awakens. It’s always great to see Judd Hirsch, but that doesn’t mean he can literally just drive around in a parallel universe to the forward drive of the plot without seeming superfluous. Vivica A Fox’s return is on every level as baffling as Bill Pullman being given a kind of rousing speech to kind of deliver to Jeff Goldblum with kind of the intention of being overheard by pilots, but only kind of, to the point where even the orchestra string section doesn’t know whether to swell or not. And then there’s the great dilemma: is it okay to kill fan favourites just to ‘raise the stakes’?

2. Turn on the bright lights

If The Bling Ring is the most over-lit film of our times, I have rarely wanted to scream ‘Turn on a bloody light!’ as much as for Independence Day: Resurgence. Markus Forderer aggressively discards the lighting schema established in 1996 by Karl Walter Lindelaub. This is possibly Emmerich’s murkiest film since Ueli Steiger hid Godzilla in night, rain, and shadow, and for no very clear reason. It hides scale in the African scenes, muddies action within the alien mothership, and gives the impression that commands are issuing from a bunker with a half-capacity generator.

3. Practical Magic

It is startling to see the practical VFX in the original Independence Day. Aliens that are CGI creations in Independence Day: Resurgence are costumes and puppets in the original. It’s odd to think that Independence Day by dint of being released in 1996 still had regard for tangible reality in blockbuster visuals; models of the White House et al blowing up mingled with real people and cars being yanked about on wires. And now, no, now we mostly get the same ‘awe-inspiring’ CGI as X-Men: Apocalypse. It is of course probably impossible to depict a city being ripped into the air by the gravity of a passing spaceship using models. But even trying and failing to get it all would sure have more impact than watching actors do their ‘amazed at the storyboard for the shot’ expression.

4. ‘Baby’

Bret Easton Ellis lamented that the growing importance of Chinese cinema audiences was leading to a quiet purging of gay characters from blockbusters. He feared supporting characters, like Harvey Fierstein in Independence Day, would be edited out by notes with an eye on the Chinese market, and gay characters, while happily surfing the zeitgeist in television, would disappear from American blockbusters. But Roland Emmerich, while pushing Chinese products and heroic Chinese characters, also reveals that Brent Spiner and John Storey’ Drs Okun and Isaacs are a gay couple. Almost entirely via body language and the word ‘baby’, as if chuckling that he might hoodwink the Chinese censor by insisting they’re just work colleagues, the censor has imagined something that’s not there in translation.

5. Funny haha

Aside from the unintentional hilarity, pointed out to me by John Healy, of cold fusion weapons, this isn’t very funny. Goldblum’s nods to Emmerich trademarks lack pizzaz, and new characters make little impression without memorable zingers. Emmerich co-wrote with trusted collaborators Dean Devlin and James Vanderbilt, and James A. Woods and Nicolas Wright (who starred in White House Down, in which everything paid off). How did writers so attuned to blockbuster structure under-nourish humour and over-complicate plot?

June 20, 2016

The Saddest Writing in the World

What is the saddest writing in the world? I think there are two answers to that question. The first consists of just three words -‘in happier days’. That phrase as caption pushes the photo below towards farce in the best Marxian sense of tragedy recurrent. But in this age of constant, nay obsessive photography there are surely vast digital archives, never printed out and never properly examined, which, when the selfie-stick snappers wade thru them some rainy Sunday afternoon in the future, will cause many a wince when the omnipresent applicability of ‘in happier days’ becomes apparent.

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Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, in happier days

Few photos will rebound as viciously as Rummy and Saddam’s handshake, but ordinary life has its fair share of unexpected transformations of friends into enemies over the long run. What when perusing old photos and running into any number of problems (graduation photos uncomfortably shared with colleagues who later attempted to plagiarise your work, wedding photos uncomfortably showcasing a guest who later became a reactionary lunatic, fun holiday snaps uncomfortably co-starring someone who cut you out of their life with surgical precision and zero explanation) is one to do exactly? The wonders of digital photography makes it ever easier to take the Stalinist approach, cropping in tight to cut people out of the past without any messy cutting up of physical pictures, hiding someone in a deep shadow without having to use Stalin’s patented airbrushing. Sadder still, especially if delving into pre-digital archives, are the snapshots of people who have simply done an unbidden Stalin purge and disappeared from your life. Each of those polaroids screams out to have ‘in happier days’ scrawled on the back.

The second answer to the question what is the saddest writing in the world isn’t a maxim, but a wide category – inscriptions in books in second-hand bookshops. It is remarkably depressing to pick up a book you’d like to buy and while checking the price scratched in pencil inside notice a careful, loving inscription by one person to another, and realise that the person receiving this gift obviously didn’t feel the same way or the book wouldn’t currently be residing in the suddenly melancholy hands of a perfect stranger. Buying a book and inscribing it bespeaks a volume of thought completely absent from sending someone a Kindle read, or a voucher. A voucher declares ‘I have no idea what you like, but would like you to have something that you like’. A specific gift declares ‘I have a very good idea what you like, know what you have, and think this is right up your alley; you just haven’t reached it yet so let me bring it to you’. And an inscription further nails that certainty by making it impossible to exchange the defaced book. But it also adds a personal note for posterity. If the discovery of writing enabled people to live on and impart their wisdom beyond the end of their own lives, then an inscription allows a friend to provide a reminder of their love even after they’re no longer physically present, whether by distance or death. You can trace a friendship by comparing the inscriptions on various books, and noting changes in tone, and even the calibre of book. You can shelve together entire mini-collections provided by one person for another. And you can notice how suddenly one inscriber can disappear forever and shed a tear at a friendship sundered.

And so to throw away a book with an inscription seems an act of unconscious callousness on the part of a relative getting rid of an unwieldy estate bit by bit, or an act of deliberate rejection by the inscriptee of all the inscripter’s aims: their certainty of familiarity, of second-guessing taste, and, most importantly, of reciprocal esteem and love. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee” and all that…

 

June 15, 2016

The Trial

Disorientation seems to be an aim of No Drama’s production of Kafka’s The Trial. And from the issuing of pencils and paper on arrival for your first plea, to the actors running offstage eschewing a bow, disorientation is certainly achieved.

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Somebody must have been telling lies about Josef K (Daniel O’Brien), for he wakes up one morning in his boarding house to find instead of breakfast a brace of mysterious warders (Elaine Fahey, Amélie Laguillon) searching his room. Their senior supervisor (Greg Freegrove) tells K he’s been arrested, but this shouldn’t interfere with K’s work as a senior clerk at the bank; so long as he can make time on Sundays and evenings for interrogation. The charge…? Well, the supervisor’s not authorised to discuss such matters; best take that up with the judge. So begins K’s nightmarish journey thru the gallery of grotesques that surround the Law. ‘Helped’ by the enfeebled Advocate Huld (Louise Dunne), her degraded client eternal client Block and sultry nurse Leni (Sarah Maloney), and the court portrait artist Titorelli (Nikhil Dubey), it is little wonder he despairs.

There are memorable sequences; K’s decision to fire Huld being celebrated by means of a mid-90s rock-out, the actors pairing off and walking back and forth in a muted dance while narration and light jumps between actors. And some fine performances. O’Brien is initially over-indignant, but reins it in for an engagingly desperate K. Dunne eschews the usual hypochondriac bombast Huld, giving us genuine infirmity with a rasping whisper and outraged anger. Freegrove amusingly channels Berkoff as the menacing supervisor, Maloney vamps it up as Leni, and Siobhan Hickey is vivacious and knowing as K’s crush. But No Drama’s production runs for 2 hours 45 minutes with a 10 minute interval, as compared to the Young Vic’s 2015 The Trial which clocked in at 2 hours without an interval. This is absurdly long, and the good performances and sequences get lost in an increasing muddle.

Directors Noel Cahill and David Breen have crafted a very loud interpretation. Eardrums will be ringing from 10 people consistently shouting by the time the court chaplain climactically bawls at the audience mere inches away. The most effective moments are actually the quietest; Huld’s monologues, K’s isolation, or the chorus’ whispered “Josef K”; and starting out turned up to 11 leaves the show nowhere to go. The trip-hop musical introduction outstays its welcome, and a bit of business with everyone hanging on K’s words is protracted beyond the point of comedy – both emblematic of pacing problems that cannot all be blamed on the script. As for the script… The legendary travelator of Richard Jones’ Young Vic staging is obviously beyond the budget of an amateur company, but if the essential elements of Berkoff’s minimalist script (screens, costumes, and all actors save K to have their faces painted) are abandoned, is it really still Berkoff’s adaptation?

There is an astonishingly literal interpretation of K stumbling on pornographic pictures in the court which is far from the mime Berkoff intended. Reducing your staging to a rope, glasses, and one costumed actor in such a difficult space as the Boys School is self-defeating. An ecstatic Dramsoc production of East from Anna Simpson with future Fast Intent founder Nessa Matthews relied on basic props and costumes before launching into outré physicality. Far too often here attempting Berkoff’s physicality after abandoning his supports results in endless busyness of unclear meaning – shouting “I’m a train” may be funny but sadly it’s not redundant when the specified identifiers for it have been discarded. And can Kafka be Kafka if it’s not (to misapply Peter O’Toole’s Ruling Class descriptor) ‘black comedy with tragic relief’? All the elements of Kafka and Berkoff are present, but they do not cohere: we end up with neither paranoid hilarity nor expressionist vim.

The ensemble display admirable commitment and energy, but having set aside so much of Berkoff’s blueprint this production’s continued insistence on presenting a version of his physical theatre almost always gets in the way of this being good theatre.

2/5

The Trial continues its run at Smock Alley until the 18th of June.

June 11, 2016

Othello

The Abbey joins in the Shakespeare 400 celebrations with its first ever production of Othello and it’s a vibrant cracker

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Beware my lord of jealousy, it is the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feed on

Respected soldier Othello (Peter Macon) has secretly married Desdemona (Rebecca O’Mara), to the dismay and fury of her father Brabantio (Peter Gowen) when he is roused with the news by failed suitor Rodrigo (Gavin Fullam). But the support Brabantio initially receives from his peers on the Council; Lodovico (Barry Barnes), Gratiano (Michael James Ford), and the Duke (Malcolm Douglas); evaporates when they realise his righteous indignation is directed at Othello, for the Ottomans are moving against Cyprus, and Othello is Venice’s indispensable man. Little does Othello realise that Cyprus will turn out to be a psy-ops front rather than a naval engagement. For despite being governed by his friend Montano (Des Cave) Cyprus will prove no home as his ensign Iago (Marty Rea) whispers poison in his ear in an attempt to usurp Cassio (John Barry O’Connor) as Othello’s lieutenant.

Director Joe Dowling seems to dispense with Coleridge’s celebrated ‘motiveless malignity’ of Iago for a fascinating interpretation; that Iago himself is acting throughout under the spell of the same species of madness he casts over Othello. While he is resentful of being passed over for promotion, his true anger seems to circle around his wife Emilia (Karen Ardiff) having betrayed him with the Moor. Iago’s cold treatment of Emilia thus seems a parallel to Othello’s rough abuse of Desdemona – having been turned against her. And his wail at the result of his handiwork adds to this impression; a man suddenly waking from a fugue state horrified at what he’s done. Macon’s performance is extremely impressive, and surprising. Instead of ‘the noble Moor’, dignifying every syllable, he gives us a soldier whose early scenes of camaraderie are rambunctious bordering on rowdy, and whose descent into madness involves howling, screaming, and an epileptic fit. Othello’s modesty about his linguistic skills can seem farcical given his poetic eloquence, but here it signals insecurity because English is his second language, as the American Macon delivers Shakespearean verse with some acutely noted notes and flourishes of sub-Saharan African speech. Rea, in a rare occurrence, is asked to act in his own Northern Irish accent, and this also strips away posturing. Instead of grandstanding in his own villainy in RP, Iago is a street-corner slouch of bored contempt and hidden spite; in which each soliloquy seems to expose a man trapped in his own world of hatred – given memorable visual expression by Sinead McKenna’s lights spotlighting a wordless conversation between Cassio and Desdemona while Iago creeps closer to them, railing at them, lost in solipsistic hate.

Desdemona’s passivity works best as a sheltered girl’s naivety about the world, but O’Mara is too old for the role. Desdemona is thus infuriatingly clueless, but O’Mara does gives full impact to James Cosgrove’s fight direction by selling one of the most shocking stage-punches I’ve seen. Ardiff is a highlight in support making Emilia a beacon of common sense and proto-feminist, but rendering Bianca (Liz Fitzgibbon) as an O’Casey streetwalker is a cheap and mean gag. Dowling’s staging is less naturalistic than previous returns from Minneapolis like 2003’s All My Sons or 2011’s The Field. Indeed Act 3’s celebrated temptation scene takes place against what becomes a blood-red backdrop of ocean upon which vast shadows are cast as Iago corrupts Othello. Before that Venice has been represented by a massive suspended plaque, and as Othello descends into psychosis the walls almost literally close in on him, as the ocean backdrop is truncated by successively closing over more and more of the wooden panelling of Riccardo Hernandez’s set which is identical to the Abbey’s off-stage decor.

It remains bizarre to have chosen this play because of one line, which elicited sustained tittering heedless of the dead and maimed littering the stage during its delivery, but Dowling affords the Bard’s tragedy of jealousy a bold debut.

4/5

Othello continues its run at the Abbey Theatre until the 11th of June.

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