Talking Movies

March 27, 2012

Improbable Frequency

Rough Magic triumphantly reprise their 2004 musical comedy at the Gaiety, atoning for writer Arthur Riordan and director Lynne Parker’s recent misfiring Peer Gynt.

Tweedy crossword enthusiast Tristram Faraday (Peter Hanly) gets recruited by MI5 as a code-breaker and is dispatched to 1941 Ireland to discover how deranged DJ Micheal O’Dromedary (Rory Nolan) keeps forecasting the weather via song titles. Tristram arrives at a Dublin MI5 station headed by an equally unlikely spy, the portly poet John Betjeman (Nolan again). Tristram’s investigations bring him into contact with drunken satirist Myles na gCopaleen (Darragh Kelly), Myles’ ingénue civil service colleague Philomena (Stephanie McKeon), rival British spy and Tristram’s ex Agent Green (Cathy White), crazed IRA chief Muldoon (Kelly again), and a genius physicist  equally concerned with things of the mind and Philomena’s behind – Erwin Schrodinger (Brian Doherty). As improbable actions turn out to be set-ups for excruciating punch-lines Tristram quickly suspects that Myles and Schrodinger are working together, possibly with someone called ‘Pat’ to develop an atom bomb for Muldoon. The truth is more improbable…

Arthur Riordan’s script is closer to his Slattery’s Sago Saga adaptation than his Peer Gynt, despite the rhyming lyrics and frequently rhyming dialogue, and is consistently hilarious as well as anticipating his later handling of Flann O’Brien in Slattery in the puns Myles makes. A musical lives or dies by the qualities of its numbers and Bell Helicopter (Conor Kelly & Sam Park) provide a lively score with numerous highlights. ‘Be Careful not to Patronise the Irish’ is a wonderful show-opener as the MI5 staff welcome Tristram, while ‘John Betjeman’ is a hoot as the round-bellied but high-steeping poet makes his entrance. Irish nationalist DJ O’Dromedary’s ‘I’m just anti-British, that’s my way’ is equally memorable; not least because O’Dromedary’s hump, wig and Groucho eyeglasses position him halfway between Pat Shortt and Richard O’Brien. There are further Rocky Horror echoes in a spectacular set-change and plot twist in the second act which incorporates flashing house lights into the design. A bolero interrogation and a jig-scored parodic sex scene are trumped by Philomena’s indignant ‘Don’t you wave your particles at me, Mr Schrodinger!’ as the show’s funniest matching of words and music.

It’s shameful to only now be seeing Talking Movies favourite Nolan in his signature role of Betjeman, but he’s an absolute delight as the obese dandy eager to keep Ireland out of the war so that he can remain in his cushy posting. A whimsical highlight is his dancing on the set’s all purpose bar counter singing ‘Me Jaunty Jarvey’ while Tristram tries to solve a code. Tristram bitterly complains to the audience that Betjeman wouldn’t stop singing this damn tune for he doesn’t know how long, and Nolan bursts into ‘a long long long long long long long long long long long la long’ as he dances on. Darragh Kelly Fassbenders as a bloodthirsty Muldoon and an irascible Myles horrified by his own dreadful puns (he notes after throwing German food at her that ‘Philomena was ready for the wurst’), while Doherty’s Colonel is a sardonic delight and his Schrodinger a compendium of oddly accented words. Hanly is only a slightly better singer than Rex Harrison but is a winning comic lead throughout. Cathy White sung stunningly as Aphrodite in Phaedra, but, though she vamps it up in a Cabaret outfit as the femme fatale on ‘Betrayal’, McKeon outshines her vocally in her very promising debut for Rough Magic.

Rough Magic have infuriated for two Theatre Festivals in a row with dramas incorporating music, but any new musical comedy from them would be essential.

3/5

Top 5 Muse Soundtracked Film Scenes

(5) New Moon
‘I Belong to You’ is a great song, and Matt Bellamy even re-worked some elements of it for the purposes of this movie, but of all the films to waste it on… I don’t think I could ever stomach re-watching New Moon; with its endless moping by Kristen Stewart and its failure by Taylor Lautner to make any impression despite an ocean of screen time because his dialogue is so poorly written; even to enjoy hearing it.
 
(4) Eclipse
The throwaway nature of this usage of Muse is rather hilarious and is what makes it noteworthy. Director David Slade (former music videos lenser) puts the soaring track ‘Neutron Star Collision’ on a stereo in the background of a party scene so that Anna Kendrick can excitedly say ‘Oh, I love this song’, before the camera pans away from her to follow other characters away from the music and towards the actual dramatic purpose of the scene. Delightful.
 
(3) Southland Tales
Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales is a fascinating mess but it does have any number of memorable moments, and many of the best involve music: The Rock running scared to the surf version of the Pixies’ ‘Wave of Mutilation’, Justin Timberlake showily performing The Killers’ ‘All These Things That I Have Done’, and Muse’s magisterial ‘Blackout’ providing a suitably odd soundtrack to a scene where The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Mandy Moore clash at an opulent mansion.
 
(2) Twilight
The greatest cinematic game of baseball ever played sees the Cullen family take advantage of an approaching thunderstorm to hide the tremendous cracking sound made when a super-strong vampire batter hits a baseball thrown by a super-strong vampire pitcher. Thirteen director Catherine Hardwicke’s gritty films may make her appear miserable but soundtracking this with Muse’s incredibly funky (and allegedly a parodic attempt at doing a Britney Spears song) ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ shows a well cultivated sense of fun.
 
(1) Switchblade Romance
Alexandre Aja’s French shocker from 2003 has, for me, made the best use of any movie of Muse’s unique sound. Cecile de France, having been scared out of her wits while stealthily hiding from the psychotic trucker who has slain her friend’s family and kidnapped her friend, is reborn as an avenging fury when she roars off after him in a yellow sports car to the sound of ‘Newborn’ by Muse; escalating in as the car-chase proceeds.

March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence is on imperious form as survivalist heroine Katniss Everdeen but she outshines everything else in this frustrating adaptation of the hit novel.
 
The Hunger Games opens in a manner uncannily like her breakthrough movie Winter’s Bone with Lawrence again in the American South mothering a younger sibling owing to an absent father and an incapable mother. Katniss lives in District 12 of a futuristic America known as Panem. This is dirt-poor Appalachian coal-mining territory, and she hunts squirrels and game with a home-made bow and arrow to survive. Every year, as a requirement of the Treaty of the Treason which ended the Civil War 74 years before, each of the 12 Districts sends two ‘tributes’, picked at random from their citizens aged between 12 and 18, to the Capitol to take part in a sadistic reality TV show where they fight to the death until only one ‘victor’ remains. Katniss’ 12 year old sister Prim is picked and Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place and pit herself against the Spartans/psychopaths of Districts 1 and 2 who train only for this purpose.
 
Katniss and her neighbour Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked away to the Capitol by Effie (Elizabeth Banks) for a brief communal training period with the other tributes. They also get a makeover from Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and are advised by gloriously irascible mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former victor, to make themselves as likeable as possible to the television audience to attract sponsors; who can drop vital supplies into the ‘wilderness’ where the games are held. Banks is very funny delivering callous lines but I didn’t recognise her for ages because, like everyone else in the Capitol, she resembles a colour-blind New Romantic who sneezed in the make-up box. Well-to-do weasel Peeta takes Haymitch’s advice and declares his hitherto unsuspected love for Katniss on television to compensate for his lack of survival skills by creating a star-cross’d lovers narrative. Katniss’ reaction should get cheers… A crazily bearded Donald Sutherland is the President of Panem, who rebukes Wes Bentley’s conniving game-maker for allowing Katniss to endanger the purpose of the games with her seditious gestures. The tense games themselves are thrillingly realised, replete with shifting strategic alliances and obliquely brutal murders.
 
Lawrence is, predictably, a great action heroine. Intriguingly she is so in the Cameron maternal action heroine mould. Like Ripley in Aliens she combines a will of steel with being a surrogate mother. Katniss cares for the very young District 11 tribute Rue with such obvious love that she incites a riot in District 11. The flaws in The Hunger Games lie elsewhere. Director Gary Ross consistently shoots with an inexpertly adopted shaky-cam that true shaky-maestros Abrams or Greengrass would disavow as amateurish. Presumably he thinks he needs it to connect to a teenage audience, but it’s quite annoying. Amazingly though his recurring showily out of focus backgrounds and persistent close-in focus on the faces of his actors mirror the problems in the script he wrote with Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins. This film is infuriatingly lacking in scope. When action erupts we have no map of the environment it’s erupting within. When rebellion is whispered about we have almost no information about the history of Panem or what this society is actually like now.
 
This is a good film, but given the reputation of the novel any adaptation that’s less than great sends you scurrying to read the book.
 
3/5

Act of Valour

Weapons technology and American patriotism fetishist Tom Clancy presents a movie from Kurt Johnstad (co-writer of the bombastic 300) starring active duty Navy Seals. Surprisingly, it’s actually pretty damn good.
 
If you watched David Mamet’s The Unit you’ll recognise this world of American Special Forces popping up all over the world to orchestrate mayhem. The film opens with a truly horrific car-bombing in the Philippines, before trotting through retaliatory operations by our heroes in Costa Rica, the Horn of Africa, and Mexico, with a detour for the audience to meet the villains in Ukraine. Directors Scott Waugh (a former stuntman) & Mouse McCoy (a former motorcycle champion) developed the movie from talking to Navy Seals, and then decided to just cast them. So Lieutenant Commander Rorke and his best friend (and deputy) Special Warfare Operator Chief Dave lead Seals Ajay, Ray, Mikey, and Weimy into action. Actual actors opposite them include Roselyn Sanchez (Without a Trace), Nestor Serrano (90210), and intense Broadway star Jason Cottle as Jihadist villain Abul Shabal.
 
If Sam Worthington is the baseline of competency in film acting Rorke and Dave are discernibly just beneath his level, not least because of incredibly thick accents unpolished by acting school. However, bar a couple of awkward emotional scenes, it actually doesn’t matter as they really do bring it as soon as they’re required to banter and blitz. The best actor among the Seals is unsurprisingly Senior Chief Van O (a dead ringer for Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou), the eternally calm centre of this storm. Van O improvised from notes an entire interrogation scene with Alex Veadov’s opportunistic drug-smuggler Christo, thereby adlibbing the movie’s funniest line, “You’ve never seen Star Trek?! Oh, that’s just insane”, as he alternates charm and cruelty. The movie’s impressive action scenes were similarly actually choreographed by the Seals themselves from scripted notes by the directors.
 
The stealth attack on a Mexican village, frontal assault on a Mexican drug cartel stronghold, and a bloody subterranean battle are all incredibly authentic as a result. Canon’s ultra-light 5D digital camera is frequently mounted on helmets to provide a Doom-style immersion, with a Bourne-style fist-fight featuring a disturbing first-person POV as a heroine is thrown through a glass table and kicked in the head. A frenetic car-chase that culminates in a ‘hot extraction’ is this year’s best action sequence to date; the live fire (!) employed making it jaw-dropping. Presumably DP Shane Hurlbut wasn’t freaked because having been the victim of the Bale-out on Terminator: Salvation nothing scares him anymore. Importantly Act of Valour isn’t propaganda. It showcases a stunning act of self-sacrifice, and the presence of a wheelchair, eye-patch and coffin in the closing scenes attest to these missions’ cost.
 
What could have been a mere curiosity is elevated beyond its basic scripting by tactically canny action to become a good movie.
 
3/5

March 9, 2012

Stella Days

Martin Sheen plays a parish priest in 1950s Ireland who defies his Bishop by opening a cinema in this tonally odd film that mixes some charm with considerable menace.
 
Fr Daniel Barry (Sheen) is an Irish priest who studied at Catholic University in Washington DC but has ended up in self-imposed exile in Tipperary after being passed over for promotion in the Vatican archives. 1950s Borrisokane is in the throes of rural electrification, and Stephen Rea’s morose features are put to wonderful use as prospective TD Brendan, the local head of the oddly unnamed ‘Party’, who’s delightfully mocked by Fr Barry at the beginning for offering a Dev launching RTE style equivocation on electricity perhaps being a boon. Fr Barry is in turn mocked for his learning by Bishop Hegarty (Tom Hickey) who instructs him to fundraise to construct a new Church. Barry’s decision to rebel is spurred by the arrival of new schoolteacher Tim (Trystan Gravelle) who lodges with Molly (Marcella Plunkett), whose husband is labouring in London.
 
Stella Days is a tonally odd film. It starts off as a charming recreation of a by-gone era in which a cinephile scholarly priest is inspired by a similarly fish out of water Dublin teacher to defy both his cinema-hating bishop and local penny-pinching worthy Brendan and convert the parish hall into a cinema rather than spending the money on building an unnecessary new church. A curiously underused Amy Huberman is on perma-smile as the local ESB cookery demonstrator explaining the new mod-cons, and there’re delightful touches like an absurdly recurring confession. But then proceedings take a sub-John McGahern turn as Molly’s son Joey (the kid from The Guard) observes without understanding the inevitable attraction between Tim and Molly, which causes local scandal courtesy of a terrifying cameo from Garrett Lombard as her absent husband – an extremely menacing 1950s teddyboy.
 
Sheen is on good form as a priest struggling with his own narcissism in a position he never wanted, as his mother had the vocation for him. Stella Days, like Catholics, is another Sheen film in which faith is always doubtful. Oddly for such a staunch Catholic Worker as Sheen only his role in Entertaining Angels as Dorothy Day’s mentor has really explored the power of faith. Jim Wallis, in God’s Politics, convincingly posited religious fundamentalism as primarily a reaction to fear. Bishop Hegarty is explicitly frightened to death of the world changing. This causes him, just years before TK Whitaker’s famous economic intervention, to think building churches like Cardinal Cullen a century earlier will revive the country. Brendan, another purveyor of stasis, also has complicated motives for his railings; including memorably condemning From Here to Eternity.
 
I have no idea who Stella Days is aimed at as it falls between two stools in its scripting, but Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s direction renders it consistently engaging fare.
 
3/5

Welcome to Greeneland

I wrote some months ago about an impending trip to Graham Greene’s birthplace (Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire) for the Graham Greene Festival 2011, which took place at the start of October. I thought I’d cast a slightly belated eye back over proceedings.

I had won the thriller category of the creative writing awards for my short story ‘Dieu et Mon Droit’ and was lucky enough to collect my prize from festival guest speaker Lee Langley, who adapted Greene’s lost 1940s ‘scriptment’ The Tenth Man into a complex and tense film starring Anthony Hopkins and Kristin Scott Thomas in the late 1980s. Berkhamsted is only a half-hour train ride from London, and the festival is always worth the attention of any Greene fans in the Home Counties. The interesting line up of talks and screenings this year included rising film director and screenwriter Rowan Joffe introducing his Brighton Rock adaptation, and the launch by Dermot Gilvary and Darren Middleton of their edited book of critical essays Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene. I sadly missed a lot of the festival’s events but what I did catch was most impressive. Professor Joyce Stavick gave an interesting account of how American military college students responded surprisingly positively to Greene’s prescient warnings about Vietnam in The Quiet American, Lee Langley gave a very funny account of how she adapted The Tenth Man for the screen only to watch her most prized original dialogue scene that for her summed up the whole film get thrown onto the cutting room floor by the director as pointless padding, and Professor Steven Chibnall (fresh from excavations in the archives) gave an imposingly detailed examination of the two contrasting film adaptations of Brighton Rock.

I must though single out Professor Michael Brennan’s lecture on Greene’s creative use of the Manichean heresy, in Brighton Rock and Stamboul Train among others, was a truly stunning piece of scholarship. I’d have to rank this patient explanation of the bizarre beliefs of the Manicheans and careful analysis of just how Greene used this good/evil, soul/body, man/woman set of dichotomies for his own purposes as one of the very best lectures I’ve ever heard. On the basis of this talk alone I’d recommend Prof. Brennan’s new book on Greene to all Greene scholars and indeed anyone working in the wider field of English Catholic literature. Once all the prizes had been given out and the talks concluded it was time for the Bourget-Greene Gala Dinner in the luxurious surroundings of Berkhamsted’s venerable Public School. Despite my complete unfamiliarity with ‘Ed Reardon’ I greatly enjoyed the BBC Radio 4 comedy character’s short after dinner talk spuriously linking himself to Greene throughout his own fictional life. I also greatly enjoyed talking with a number of other Greene fans including Cathy Hogan, a fellow Irish winner in the writing awards. Andrew Bourget, Greene’s eldest grandson and the new and very gracious patron of the Festival, has launched a website intended as the primary resource on the web for all things Greene related – http://www.greeneland.com. I think it’s a great idea, using a signature concept, and one that deserves all the support that Greene fans can muster.

I think everyone will find that there is one Graham Greene work that speaks to them. For me it’s The Ministry of Fear, for other people I know I could say The End of the Affair or Twenty One Short Stories. Why not find out which one speaks to you?

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