Talking Movies

February 25, 2011

Oscar Schmoscar: Part II

The annual parade of pomposity and razzmatazz known as the Academy Awards lurches around again this Sunday, so here’s a deflating reminder of its awful track record.

The Academy has long shown a baffling inability to tell the difference between a good movie and a hole in the ground, and an artist and a hack. The Academy did not nominate David Fincher for Best Director for Seven, Fight Club, or Zodiac. The Academy did nominate him for Best Director for The Curious Case of Benjamin Boring Button. It has now nominated him again for The Social Network. There are two interpretations. The uncharitable one is that the Academy cannot tell the difference between an inane ‘drama’ and a crackling drama. The other is that they only noticed that Fincher could direct at all when he paid his dues with Benjamin Button by making a movie that ticked all the boxes for the Academy’s consideration, which resulted, by an odd coincidence, in a dire movie…

The Academy Awards have been skewed for seventy years because of their habit of giving the right people the wrong awards. The Academy gave Jimmy Stewart the Best Actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story. Jimmy Stewart didn’t even give the best male acting performance in The Philadelphia Story never mind in all the films made in 1940. They were giving him the award because they felt guilty about not awarding it to him the previous year for Mr Smith goes to Washington. The Oscars have been chasing their tails ever since, just look at Nicole Kidman who really won for her performance in Moulin Rouge! but was given the award for her far less impressive turn in The Hours. Al Pacino, in the most famous of the Academy’s belated accolades, was finally given his Best Actor Oscar for the now forgotten display of scenery chewing that was Scent of a Woman. He was not given the Oscar for his roles in The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, Sea of Love, or Glengarry Glen Ross, all of which would have been more worthy of such recognition.

The Academy has a terrible habit of getting stuck in default-setting for automatic nominations. In the mid-1990s it seemed that every attempt to compile a shortlist of original scripts ended in despairing wails that there were no original ideas in Hollywood anymore, until someone asked if Woody Allen had made a film this year. Another nomination to Woody, and then they only had 4 more scripts to find… Meryl Streep’s ridiculous run of nominations is further proof of this approach. The Academy may like to delude itself that all these nominations prove she’s a throwback to the Golden Age, however, Streep’s painfully mannered accents and overwrought performances made Katherine Hepburn feel impelled to let it be known that Streep was her least favourite modern actress; “Click, click, click” she said, referring to the wheels turning inside Streep’s head.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that The Social Network was a riveting film. We don’t need them patronising Inception by giving it a Best Picture nomination because it was a box-office smash, but not nominating Nolan for Director thereby signalling they’re not taking it seriously because it’s mere entertainment.

In fact, we don’t need them, period.

On Not Live-blogging the Oscars

“If the headline is big enough, then the story is big enough”. Events are only as important as the media deems them to be. Big Brother was a flop when it began on Channel 4 in 2000, not least because the tabloid press sneered constantly at the stupidity of the concept. When they decided to change their tunes and cheerlead for it instead, they created its audience by making it seem that who got evicted when somehow mattered. Big Brother hadn’t become any less inane; the media had merely decided that it was now important. So it was. And this is where the Oscars come in. I was driven to distraction last year by the spectacle of the Irish Times not only wasting space on Saturday simultaneously predicting the winners while sneering at how other contenders were better, but then trumpeting on their front page on the Monday that you could read their blog coverage of who did actually win. The ‘paper of record’ practically apologising for being published too early to be able to list the clowns who won the annual meat-parade infuriated me so much that I wrote a quick snippy demolition of the Oscars after the fact as a tangent to my sequence of articles on media manipulation, critical misperception and popular reception of cinematic successes. I just forgot to actually write that…

I stand by the reasons I gave for not doing a live-blog of the Oscars but I’d like to expand them and properly illuminate the most important one. There is the practical consideration. Why would an Irish media outlet, like Movies.ie who are currently trumpeting theirs, do a live-blog of the Oscars? It does not make sense for the Irish Times as opposed to the Chicago Sun-Times to live-blog the Oscars as most of their readers are asleep rather than watching TV. Automatically the live-blog becomes a stale transcript to be read the next morning. Which leads to my conceptual problem with live-blogging – it is performing live, for a writer. The meaning of performing live, which gives theatre its magic, is in its ephemeral nature. A live episode of ER carried a frisson for the American viewer then, entirely absent for the Irish viewer watching a re-run now, and wondering why people keep forgetting their lines and falling over props. A live-blog, if pure to its own conceptual ideal, would be deleted at the end of its writing. The reference to ER is intentional; it’s a scripted episode, performed live. But a live-blog is an episode improvised as the director shouts plot-points at the actors who try to respond creatively in the moment. I co-directed a comedy script the actors loved to riff on, and twenty minutes of improvisation around a forty minute show produces maybe five moments worthy of being scribbled into the script. Against those odds live-bloggers must write witty insights for post after post, minute after minute, hour after hour. I don’t believe Fry & Laurie writing together could produce something that was good live, and if they did it would be pointless keeping a transcript – writing is considered reflection, not spontaneous rambling, as Lester Bangs infamously discovered when he accepted a challenge to write a gig review live onstage…

Above all my animus towards live-blogging was that it is merely the newest way of giving the oxygen of publicity to an event that desperately needs to be ignored. The coverage by the Irish Times last year explicitly recognised that the actual winners were rarely the best the year in cinema had offered so it is too much to ask that media coverage be dialled down until it reaches the level of saturation the quality of the awards warrants? If the Oscars were a dog show, it would be Crufts. If people wanted to read a live-blog of Crufts that might be their concern, but the BBC pulled coverage of Crufts because of concerns over the cruel breeding that its awarding criteria encouraged, and the Oscars is a Crufts that most years denies entry to the most popular breed of dogs, and encourages only a tiny and unhealthy range of dogs to be bred for competition, while renegade dog-lovers both strive to keep some unfavoured breeds from extinction and supply the other unfavoured breeds beloved of the public. The Academy’s insane predilections have arguably distorted the entire medium of cinema. Walk the Line had trouble securing financing because it was a mid-budget drama. It wasn’t a blockbuster which could be sold to a mass audience, and it wasn’t a low-budget indie drama that could be sold on its Oscar nominations to a small audience, it was merely a cracking film – and that left it nowhere. The Oscars tend to squeeze serious drama into a tiny release window, downgrade the critical esteem afforded to quality mass entertainment, and encourage ‘independent’ movies to adopt a rigid set of clichés (think Sunshine Cleaning) in order to base their marketing campaigns around their Oscar nominations.

Any publicity given to the Oscars only perpetuates this destructive effect and so, as a small individual gesture, until the Oscars recognise quality blockbusters and skilful comedies, and develop a long-term memory greater than three months, this blog will only treat them annually to the healthy dose of derision they deserve. Read some more of the Academy’s greatest mistakes in Oscar Schmoscar Part II.

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

February 8, 2011

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro’s celebrated novel is brought to affecting life by a glittering trio of English stars: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and a villainous Keira Knightley.

Mulligan is Kathy, our narrator, a pupil at isolated English boarding school Hailsham. Her fellow pupils with whom her life will be intertwined both at school and afterwards are Tommy (Garfield) and Ruth (Knightley). The first act sees superbly cast child actors play these three characters on the cusp of adolescence. Life at Hailsham can be idyllic, with its emphasis on artistic and sporting excellence, but Tommy despite being big-hearted is a failure in both these fields and so frequently, despite the best efforts of Kathy, explodes in impotent rages. Ruth meanwhile quietly observes their growing intimacy from a distance, and manipulates events to her own ends. Their existence, however, is more seriously unsettled by a new teacher (Sally Hawkins). Her insinuation that there is something sinister about the isolation of the school is keenly rejected by Charlotte Rampling’s charismatic headmistress…

Alex Garland’s lucid screenplay inevitably loses some of the texture of Ishiguro’s novel but captures the essence of its technique by subordinating the central mystery to the emotional turmoil of the characters. Ruth changes the course of all of their lives by an act which is subject to different interpretations, and so they leave Hailsham for The Cottages where, for the first time, they meet students from rival boarding schools. Domhnall Gleeson and Andrea Riseborough appear as a couple from an Irish school who challenge the Hailsham worldview and in doing so unwittingly break the bonds that have kept Kathy, Tom and Ruth so close… Garfield is endearingly gawky as Tommy while Mulligan is a rock of compassion and Knightley in a bold move chooses the smallest role of the triptych as the villain and excels. Except Ruth’s adolescent action had a different motivation than we thought and years later, in a role-switch from Atonement, she is eager to amend for her romantic meddling and reunite the scattered trio.

But this is not a story of everlasting love for Valentine’s Day. No love is everlasting, adolescent jealousy can leave permanent emotional scars, some sins cannot be atoned for nor their consequences reversed, and no one ever has enough time on this earth. Mark Romanek draws great performances from his cast in a setting of emotional realism but stylistically his direction is self-effacing to the point of anonymity. The novel is obviously truncated with some ideas sadly abandoned, as well as the greatest gag of the novel, which Ishiguro then converted into the most upsetting scene of the novel within paragraphs. I was lamenting the absence of the gag and that scene when Garland inserted it as the final scene, which left me in tears.

On a scale of 1 to Atonement this scores about a 7 for heartbreaking.

4/5

February 2, 2011

The Field

Tony-winning actor Bryan Dennehy trades in Eugene O’Neill and Broadway for John B Keane and the Olympia and the results are impressive.

Keane’s play was held to be the archetypal depiction of the historic Irish hunger for land. The housing bubble demonstrated that the hunger hadn’t disappeared, just morphed into a more genteel but equally insane form. Director Joe Dowling takes new meaning from the tragedy of the Bull McCabe, a man faced with disaster when the precious field he has been renting and carefully cultivating is put up for sale at a reserve price far above his means, but not that beyond that of an outsider. Dowling focuses as much on the conflict between legal rights and natural justice as on the hunger for land. The Bull is not a clear-cut villain. Both he and William Dee, who’s blown-in from Galway via England to bid on the field, have good justifications for their actions; but the Bull has raised his son Tadhg (Garrett Lombard on perma-scowl) in such a way as to make inevitable the excessive violence he uses against Dee in attempting to scare him off. Dennehy’s imposing physique is what makes this Bull McCabe intimidating; he can still physically bully people just by his mere presence. A wonderful tic by Dennehy is to have the Bull repeatedly remove his cap and massage his head when explaining his right to the land as cultivator rather than owner, in seeming despair that other people just don’t get it…

Dennehy’s accent hits American at times of stress in the first act, and occasionally makes inexplicable sorties to Belfast, but for the most part, and crucially during his lengthy scene with Tadhg in the second act, it’s securely stowed in Munster. The omerta which his action imposes on the village fails to be broken by the powerful condemnatory speech by the Bishop. This seems to find expression in the complicated set. A facade lowers down in front of the very solid interior of the pub, which rushes forth to fill the stage after an initial glimpse of the titular field. This shop-front then pulls up as we dive into the machinations occurring in this pub/auctioneers. More than once as characters walk past the shop-front and its unheard conversations it seems that primal familial secrets of the pub can never find expression in the outside world of church and law. Dennehy carries the tragedy while around him the supporting cast Fassbender for all their worth, almost as if the only sane response to the presence of such darkness in a small closed community is black humour.

The comedy of the work is more apparent than usual, witness the magnificent shrug given by publican/auctioneer Mick Flanagan (Bosco Hogan) at one point. Derbhle Crotty (so good in The Silver Tassie) in particular makes the long-suffering Mamie Flanagan more of a jester than normal, satirising the alpha-males around her. All this unexpected levity only counterpoints the Bull’s desperation, and the germ of truth in what he says. As he justifies himself by demagoguery against the priest and garda you can see what enticed Dowling and Dennehy here for this play. Irish people may not live on the land anymore, but many of them do feel that there is one law for the establishment and another for everyone else. In synching in with David McWilliams’ insider/outsider analysis of our current woes Keane’s 1965 play is made startlingly of our times….

4/5

The Field continues its run at the Olympia Theatre until February 13th.

2011: Fears

The franchise is over, please go home
Man of the hour Andrew Garfield is your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man in Spider-Man 4. If ever a franchise needed a reboot less it was Spider-Man. Inexplicably back in high school Spidey will again bond with Martin Sheen’s ill-fated Uncle Ben, perhaps actually have a relationship with Gwen Stacey at the second cinematic attempt, and once again become a masked crime-fighter. Just like he already did in 2002. Are we operating on dog-years now or something that we’re remaking films we’ve just seen? What’s next, a remake of Sin City using new computer technology to make it good? Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides sees Johnny Depp spend the last remnants of his credibility on another instalment in a now thoroughly despised franchise. Pirates 3: At World’s End was a nigh endless joyless bore that sucked all the comedic energy out of the franchise in favour of convoluted plotting and purely green-screen action to the point of insanity. No one liked it. It’s even embarrassed away nearly its whole cast, and Russell Brand passed on appearing, so why make another one? Mission: Impossible 4 meanwhile sees over-rated Ratatouille director Brad Bird attempt to make Tom Cruise a viable star again despite the obvious fact that no one wants to see him top-lining blockbusters anymore. Mission: Impossible 3 was a damn good blockbuster whereas Mission: Impossible 2 was a bloated disaster, yet, despite the effect of 6 years worth of inflation on the box-office figures, M:I-3 made less money than M:I-2. Cruise’s star has dimmed, he just hasn’t accepted it yet.

A sequel? There wasn’t enough to make one good film
Cars 2 – coming soon. Yes, the very worst film Pixar have ever made gets a sequel. Cars followed the underwhelming The Incredibles and enabled a streak of 4 ho-hum films, with the unbearable Ratatouille and the hit-and-miss Wall-E confirming that not only can Pixar do wrong, but they can do wrong spectacularly. Fear this film. The Hangover 2 meanwhile sees Bill Clinton make an acting cameo beside the re-united original cast. The Hangover wasn’t a very good film, for all its baffling success here. It had some very funny moments but overall it was the same crudely moronic shtick we expect from writer/director Todd Philips, the maker of Starsky & Hutch, one of the very worst films of the last or any other decade. Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes a whopping 10 years after Tim Burton’s lamentable re-make of the Charlton Heston classic. We’re promised genetic engineering by James Franco with Tom Felton, intelligent apes, and apocalyptic war to boot, and who cares?? The endless sequels in the 1970s were riffing off a great film. This is a prequel to one of the very worst films of the 2000s.

You screwed up last time
Michael Bay has actually apologised for the unholy mess that was Transformers 2, and that’s quite something given how ludicrously profitable a movie that was. Transformers 3: The Dark of the Moon sees Megan Fox leaving the franchise, but from the trailer it looks like it still has enough racial profiling in its approach to characterisation to keep the California branch of the ACLU tied up for years. Can it really only be 4 years since the original movie was a surprisingly fun blast? The writers’ strike is largely responsible for the disastrous outing last time but can the properly working writers save things now, and perhaps not introduce about 40 new robots this time round? Scream 4 comes out 11 years after the last movie in the series which suffered greatly from creator Kevin Williamson’s abandonment of his franchise to script his TV show Dawson’s Creek. Williamson has been producing supreme dark popcorn of late in the shape of TV series The Vampire Diaries so fingers crossed that his script for this new combination of the original cast with youngsters including Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere lives up to the high standards of its mighty predecessors.

8 Miles High Concept
Cowboys & Aliens may in future years come to be regarded as the moment where the masses totally abandoned cinema in favour of forms of entertainment that were slightly more philosophically challenging, like tiddlywinks. It could be a good film, after all the redoubtable Daniel Craig is starring and Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau is directing, but from just seeing the title and then reading the pitch it seems almost like some drunken executives made a bet as to what the most ludicrous high-concept they could possibly get green-lighted was, and this narrowly beat out Flying Monkeys Vs Crab People in 3-D.

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