Talking Movies

November 28, 2015

Being AP

Tony McCoy was Champion Jockey for 20 consecutive seasons, a dominance of his field that few sportsmen achieve, and this film records his final season. Here’s a teaser of my review for HeadStuff.org.

AP-movie

Beginning in 2014 McCoy is looking to retain his position as Champion Jockey in the upcoming season, but has also another target in mind. Buoyed by passing the 4,000 mark for career winners, he is set on setting a new unbeatable record: riding 400 winners in a single season. The key to this is McCoy’s phenomenal work-rate. As director Anthony Wonke trails him the length and breadth of Britain we see a man jumping into helicopters to fly from racecourse to racecourse to make tight schedules to ride another horse on a long summer’s day. McCoy’s willingness to drive hundreds of miles to ride a horse and then return home the same distance enables him to outpace his rivals for the title. But his driven nature is his own worst enemy, because when things fall apart he falls apart too…

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.org.

November 25, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Steven Spielberg returns with a true Cold War spy story that’s thankfully imbued with far more energy and clarity of purpose than his meandering Lincoln.

ST. JAMES PLACE

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a deep cover Soviet spy apprehended in Brooklyn in 1957, who is assigned as his counsel insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks); after some arm-twisting by Donovan’s boss Thomas Watters Jr (Alan Alda). Watters, and Donovan’s wife Mary (Amy Ryan) are soon surprised by the bond that develops between wry Abel and the stolid Donovan, and Donovan’s dogged determination to demand the rights promised by the Constitution be granted to an illegal alien from an enemy power. The Donovan children Peggy (Jillian Lebling), Roger (Noah Schnapp), and Carol (Eve Hewson) are as uncomprehending as Joe Public of their father’s actions. But when U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in May 1960 Company man Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) brings Donovan to Allen Foster Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to be entrusted with a secret mission.

First off, history… English playwright Matt Charman’s screenplay was polished by the Coens, but in a BBC Radio 4 interview Charman didn’t mention Giles Whittell’s 2010 book Bridge of Spies. Perhaps it’d raise uncomfortable questions; like why Hoffman and Dulles tell Donovan their intelligence suggests the GDR is about to wall off East Berlin when the CIA, despite Berlin crawling with so many spies Willy Brandt derided it as grown-ups playing Cowboys and Indians, had no idea till secretly stockpiled barbed wire went up overnight. Also master spy Abel (Willie Fisher during his British adolescence) perfected his Brooklyn cover, as a retiree taking up painting, at the expense of actually spying. Despite prosecutorial fulminations he wasn’t charged with acts of espionage, because there was no evidence of any. And the arrest of Yale doctoral student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is total melodramatic fiction; the Stasi were simultaneously extremely sinister and blackly hilarious. Their ineffectual interrogations of Pryor were True Kafka.

There are three moments in this tale spun from historical elements; a polite mugging, a pompous phone call, and a fake family; that are pure Coens, but this is Spielberg’s show. His visual storytelling is concise and expressive; especially the opening FBI pursuit of Abel, where we recognise Agents by glances, and Powers’ dismayed expression at his Moscow show trial, where a craning pull-out emphasises his isolation. Janusz Kaminski mostly reins in his diffuse supernova lighting to showcase Adam Stockhausen’s decrepit design, while Thomas Newman stands in for John Williams with orchestral flavours akin to Williams’ JFK score. Donovan’s line, “It doesn’t matter what other people think, you know what you did,” is the moral of the film, emphasised visually twice over. And his bloody-minded defence of the 4th amendment seems extremely pertinent when the 1st amendment is equally beleaguered.

Twitter lynch-mobs wouldn’t appreciate the nuance Donovan tries to impart to Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) but Spielberg’s film is a call for decency over outrage that is alarmingly timely.

3.5/5

November 23, 2015

The Gigli Concert

I enjoyed The Gigli Concert at the Gate in the summer, but wasn’t as wowed by it as some people were. Obviously many more people were in the wowed camp than not though as it returned for a sell-out reprise, as my regular theatre and conference cohort Graham Price writes:

DG the gigli concert

Last summer saw one of the most critically acclaimed productions to appear on an Irish stage in recent years: Tom Murphy’s seminal The Gigli Concert directed by David Grindley at the Gate. Such was the level of almost universal praise heaped on this drama that the Gate Theatre brought it back for a limited run this November. The story centres on JPW King, an English “Dynamatologist” (something approaching a quack psychologist and a faith healer) who has been sent to minister to the sick and disillusioned in Ireland, and his Irish “client” (just referred to in the script as “The Irish Man”) who wishes to sing like the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. The play is primarily concerned with their “therapy” sessions together and how they bond over their mutual problem; how on earth are they going to get through each day?

Such a summary does not really do justice to the magisterial power of the play or the amazing performances of the three actors who occupy the stage for the work’s three hours plus duration; Declan Conlon (King), Denis Conway (Irish Man), and Dawn Bradfield who plays King’s mistress Mona. Declan Conlon does an amazing job of conveying both the outward calm and the repressed torment of King, and Conway keeps the audience on the edge of their seats by playing The Irish Man like a coiled spring of rage and frustration that is always threatening to explode and overwhelm both himself and those around him. In a role oft criticised for being underwritten and largely superfluous, Bradfield is very powerful and moving as the woman whose secret traumas eventually inspire King to undertake the titular event. Anyone familiar with Murphy’s work will recognise Mona as a kind of dress rehearsal for the monumental and tragic women in Bailegangaire, the drama Murphy wrote immediately after The Gigli Concert which is as female-centred as Gigli is male-centred.

Gigli’s climax is one of the most challenging moments in the Irish canon in terms of what is demanded of both the director and the actor who must realise this scene onstage. Fintan O’Toole (in one of the few single-authored books on Murphy) has described this crescendo as “a daring moment in which the impossible becomes possible, not as an idea, but as an action on the stage.” As O’Toole asserts, this scene stands or falls depending on how well it is created as a theatrical occurrence, and Conlon’s acting and Grindley’s directing combine to create dramatic gold from a very slight stage direction: “he sings the aria to its conclusion—Gigli’s voice”. The physical and dramaturgical pyrotechnics on display in the concluding minutes of this production will not soon be forgotten by those lucky enough to see them. The tone created by Conlon and Grindley’s three minute scene-collaboration is one simultaneously of hope and painful sorrow that is captivating.

The Gigli Concert is rightly considered one of the most important Irish plays of the last thirty years and the Gate has done a fantastic job of translating Murphy’s script to stage in such a way as to honour this demanding, complex text. Provided its epic running time does not deter a playgoer, it is worth every second of its three hours. Ignore anyone who says Gigli is only relevant to the contemporary Irish moment because a main character is a corrupt developer; its focus on profoundly human concerns make it a work for our time and all time.

5/5

November 18, 2015

Mockingjay: Part 2

The Hunger Games saga comes to a conclusion with a hugely enjoyable film that unleashes some surprises before it succumbs to Peterjacksonitis in actually ending.

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Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is recovering from a brutal attack by her brainwashed beau Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). As the medics of District 13 try to deprogramme him from the sadistic conditioning inflicted by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss is frustrated in her quest for vengeance by rebel President Coin (Julianne Moore); who insists on keeping her off the front lines. But when Katniss goes AWOL it’s not very AWOL as Coin and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) form a propaganda core around her including Peeta, childhood friend Gayle (Liam Hemsworth), film-maker Cressida (Natalie Dormer), and fellow Victor Finnick (Sam Claflin). But their mission to make propaganda just behind the frontlines and Katniss’ wish to assassinate Snow personally soon lead to chaos and tragedy.

Mockingjay: Part 2 is tonally quite different to last year’s Mockingjay. Director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems shoot it with huge assurance, but it never really establishes what kind of new iteration of Hunger Games movie it wants to be. Instead it feels like the propaganda war of the last one, mashed together with a ‘guys on a mission’ movie to give more action beats to the story. And that’s before we get to how it really falls prey to the Lord of the Rings curse of not knowing how to get off the stage. But that’s not to say there is not much to love here. The location shooting in Paris and Berlin is terrific, rendering the deserted Capitol a fitting venue for the ’76th annual Hunger Games’ as Finnick dryly dubs Snow’s desperate gambit to booby-trap his own city.

Ocean’s 11 production design Philip Messina has worked on all the Hunger Games movies, and his work here completes the fleshing out of the Panem universe that began with the bigger budget of Catching Fire. Francis Lawrence showcases some agonisingly suspenseful directing in a sequence where the suicide squad (sic) are attacked by Capitol mutts in the sewers. It is a marvel from start to finish, with the claustrophobic tunnels lit minimally while the tension builds reminiscent of Alien, while the action makes you think this was what Alien Resurrection might have been aiming for in its trademark episode. Lawrence’s love of complicated villains also continues with Donald Sutherland working wonders with his six scenes as he sows doubts in Katniss’ mind, and the film embraces a deeply cynical view of messianic leadership.

Mockingjay: Part 2 could have been leaner, but it could scarcely have been meaner, and it comes out fighting for most of its running time.

3.5/5

November 17, 2015

Through A Glass Darkly

The Corn Exchange takes on an Ingmar Bergman film in Jenny Worton’s stage adaptation of a woman’s struggle against madness.

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Karin (Beth Cooke) has recently been released from a mental hospital after a breakdown. Her prognosis is grim, she can only look forward to lucid intervals during a downward spiral, but her doctor husband Martin (Peter Gaynor) has kept her in the dark. He believes there may still be hope. What she needs is rest, and a holiday with her novelist father David (Peter Gowen) and her teenage brother Minus (Colin Campbell) on their idyllic island summer home is the key to curing her psychosis. The self-involved David, however, is struggling to finish a novel, and almost instantly announces his intention to travel to Croatia to lecture on his works for a term. Meanwhile Minus is having a total hormonal meltdown: alternating between frenzied creativity, desperate masturbation, and raging about his father’s emotional distance. And then Karin discovers her prognosis…

Director Annie Ryan relies heavily on Denis Clohessy’s immersive sound design to conjure up Bergman’s deceptively attractive Swedish pastoral; a deluge in particular is emotionally as well as aurally devastating. Sarah Bacon’s set design of tables, chairs, and a bed, with screens shifting along furrows on the stage, creates the pared back world of this psychodrama. But, for all the actors moving screens and props about to create fluid scene changes, the 90 minutes without an interval of Through A Glass Darkly pass with you always keenly aware that you are watching a stage version of a film rather than a play proper. You worry about what visual metaphors might be missing which Bergman used to convey Karina’s delusions about a room of souls waiting for God, just behind the wall. You even worry if Bergman’s landscape shots were important.

Such concern with the filmic origins is because as a play there is something lacking about Bergman’s script, short scenes fail to acquire dramatic flesh. Gaynor’s hapless husband is sympathetically played as a kindly man out of his depth. Gowen follows his overbearing patriarch in By the Bog of Cats this summer with a nuanced portrayal of a father running away from all family problems; whether they be wife, daughter, or son; excusing himself by devotion to his art, even though he is horrified at finding the splinter of ice in his heart when observing his daughter’s disintegration. Newcomer Campbell acquits himself well in perhaps the most challenging role, as the petulant and easily manipulated teenager. Cooke’s accent strikes Nordic notes, accentuating Karin’s increasing distance from her family, and her initial playfulness makes her later hysteria all the more disturbing.

Through A Glass Darkly is affecting and well performed but where Corn Exchange’s Man of Valour brought computer game and comic-book fantasies to vivid theatrical life this remains in thrall to its cinematic source.

3/5

Through A Glass Darkly continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until the 5th of December.

November 13, 2015

Steve Jobs

The Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin returns to the well of abrasive tech innovators for an unconventional biopic of Apple main-man Steve Jobs.

Steve-Jobs

We first encounter Jobs (Michael Fassbender) backstage at the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, pushing Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to do the impossible: fix a glitch within 40 minutes so that during the demo Jobs can make the computer say a cheerful ‘Hello’ to accentuate its friendly design. Meanwhile marketing maven Joanna Hoffmann (Kate Winslet) is trying to contain another potential PR disaster, as backstage also lurks Jobs’ ex-girlfriend Chrisanne Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and their daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss); who Jobs refuses to acknowledge despite all evidence to the contrary. Throw in Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) also jumping into the fray to beg Jobs to acknowledge the work of the Apple 2 team and it’s little wonder Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) feels the need to descend from Olympus to make sure that Jobs is calm enough to wow the audience. And that’s just the first of three product launches…

The unusual structure of Sorkin’s adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs works tremendously well, even if its central conceit is mischievously acknowledged in-camera on the third go-round, “It’s like 5 minutes before every product launch everyone gets drunk in a bar and decides to tell me how they really feel about me.” We watch the same characters recur, arguing about the same things in different guises, and the cumulative effect is akin to a super-sizing of Sorkin’s most theatrical television episodes; like The Newsroom season 3 episode about ethics. Danny Boyle has spoken of not wanting to get in the way of Sorkin’s script, but his shooting in different formats for each act emphasises the passage of time and really makes us feel, as much as Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, that we are watching a life unfold.

Watching a life unfold entails a great deal of sadness, a feeling of squandered potential and missed opportunities hangs over the third act as much as triumphant themes of resurrection and redemption. (Which also features an amazing unintentional [?] meta-moment where Fassbender critiques 39 images of a shark, as if searching for a secret self-portrait.) Boyle and Sorkin mesh in a way that makes them a more obvious fit than Sorkin and Fincher. There is a fundamental optimism to both as artists that when combined with Fassbender’s irrepressible warmth makes Jobs very different to Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg. Jobs says horrible things, but the Woz will always have a free pass, and Sorkin’s Zuckerberg would never proffer the quasi-apology quasi-motivator “I’m poorly made.” Steve Jobs, despite being filled with cruel zingers, is ultimately summed up by Daniel Pemberton score: rudimentary digital beats that evolve into something rousing and deeply human.

Startling footage from the late 1960s shows Arthur C Clarke describing the world we live in today. Sorkin puts both sides of the case regarding Jobs’ importance in achieving that vision, but Boyle and Sorkin have achieved something great themselves.

5/5

November 10, 2015

An Alternative Abbey 2016 Programme

I’d been waiting for the Abbey’s new season, and was disappointed by it. I didn’t think much of their commission choices, and felt their other selections betrayed a peculiarly apologetic and almost self-loathing attitude towards a celebration of our independence. So I thought about what I might have programmed instead…

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Here are the essentials of the Abbey’s 2016 programme to September:

 

*Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland

(dir: Vicky Featherstone)

The Plough and the Stars by Sean O’Casey

(dir: Sean Holmes)

*New Middle East by Mutaz Abu Saleh

(dir: Bashar Murkus)

*Tina’s Idea of Fun by Sean P Summers

(dir: Gerry Stembridge)

Othello by William Shakespeare

(dir: Joe Dowling)

*Town is Dead by Philip McMahon & Ray Scannell

(dir: TBC)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness

(dir: Jeremy Herrin)

 

Here are the essentials of my alternative Abbey 2016 programme:

 

*Commissioned Work by Mark O’Rowe

(dir: Mark O’Rowe)

John Bull’s Other Island by George Bernard Shaw

(dir: Roisin McBrinn)

*Not I by Samuel Beckett, Play by Samuel Beckett, On Baile’s Strand by WB Yeats, Riders to the Sea by JM Synge

(dir: Annie Ryan)

*Delirium by Enda Walsh

(dir: Conall Morrison)

Making History by Brian Friel

(dir: Patrick Mason)

*The Effect by Lucy Prebble

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

Commissioned Work by Marina Carr

(dir: Selina Cartmell)

The Wake by Tom Murphy

(dir: Annabelle Comyn)

 

*Plays marked with an asterisk are on the Peacock stage.

This alternative programme is of course a fantasy, because it takes no account of the availability of directors and playwrights, but it does utilise people who have done fine work at the Abbey in recent years. It commissions new plays from two of our finest playwrights, Mark O’Rowe and Marina Carr, and gives Enda Walsh’s exuberant Dostoevsky adaptation from 2008 the chance of a subtler interpretation. The Shavian elephant in the room is finally tackled, and what better time for Shaw’s exuberant interrogation of our capacity for self-government? The late Brian Friel is honoured with a timely production of his exploration of exile and myth-making in Irish history, while Tom Murphy’s more recent dissection of exile and return ends the summer season. The Abbey’s fullest spectrum is utilised: Revival classics are paired with two of Beckett’s trickiest works, and Comyn returns to her beginnings in directing a contemporary English play.

The Abbey perhaps stands at an odd angle to 1916. It is after all a national theatre older than its politically constituted nation, led in its early days by Anglo-Irish writers with a gift for enraging their Irish audience, and its seminal engagement with the decade of revolution was by a writer whose corrosive scepticism spared no institution. The Plough and the Stars is the obvious choice for marking the Rising, perhaps too obvious a choice. It has been staged too frequently to too little effect in the last decade to be wheeled out once again to throw cold water over Pearse’s dream. Not least when Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is deliberately programmed against it, as if we’re apologising to Unionists for rebelling when we could have been nobly dying for the British Empire instead. As for Othello, one quote deployed by Haughey does not a state of the nation play make. Serious engagement with Shakespeare’s quatercentenary would be a post-colonial take on The Tempest.

1916 is to be celebrated like 1776 or 1789, not apologised for, agonised over, or disparaged. The only way to discuss a programme of plays is to parse it qualitatively play by play, because that’s how people choose to go to the theatre: play by play, depending on their particular artistic cost-benefit analysis of the actors, the playwright, the director, and the subject matter. I’ve felt compelled in disliking so many of the Abbey’s individual picks to present an alternative programme of plays. Consonant with my banishing O’Casey I say there’s little use tearing down everything and building up nothing.

November 4, 2015

Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan’s shy emigrant makes a new life for herself in 1950s Brooklyn before being tempted by new opportunities suddenly presenting themselves in hometown Enniscorthy.

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Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is a part-time shop-girl for snobbish Miss Kelly (Brid Brennan). That’s the only job in town, so she emigrates; leaving behind beloved sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and best friend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins). On the boat to NYC she gets a crash-course in confidence from Americanised Georgina (Eva Birthistle). But her confidence doesn’t stand up to her demanding new boss Miss Fortini (Jessica Pare), homesickness, and the snide lodgers at the boarding-house of Mrs Kehoe (Julie Walters) – Patty (Emily Bett Rickards), Diana (Eve Macklin), and Sheila (Nora-Jane Noone). Fr Flood (Jim Broadbent) pays for Eilis to study accountancy at night-school, like Rose did, and soon a rejuvenated Eilis has fallen for Italian-American plumber Tony (Emory Cohen). But a return to Enniscorthy presents her with a new suitor, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), and a plum job opportunity…

Brooklyn looks amazing. Dallas Buyers Club cinematographer Yves Belanger, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, and production designer Francois Seguin combine to startling effect. It doesn’t surprise to see a sun-drenched 1950s Brooklyn, but to see endlessly maligned 1950s Ireland explode with sumptuous clothes in many vivid colours does. John Crowley directs at a measured pace, and Nick Hornby’s screenplay wrings great comedy from the nightly dinner-table feuds at Mrs Kehoe’s, the man-hungry new Cavan lodger Dolores (Jenn Murray), and Tony’s loudmouth younger brother Frankie (James DiGiacomo). But Brooklyn is a fundamentally dishonest film. This is a fantasy of emigration. Emory Cohen’s performance is halfway between young Marlon Brando and young Bruce Willis. Tony’s courtship of Eilis consistently rings psychologically untrue, and her return to Enniscorthy as (secretly) Mrs Fiorello makes her romance with Jim a trite rom-com set up and unbelievable.

A cousin of mine read Colm Toibin’s short novel on publication and dismissed it as only being praised because it was by Toibin. This film is so handsomely mounted it takes a while to realise how shallow and vacuous it is. Jim Farrell broke off an engagement because he thought his fiancé wasn’t serious about him. The subtext she was just serious about his money; Jim being one of the rugby set the poorer Eilis disdains. We are never offered the slightest insight into the moral gymnastics Eilis Fiorello, raised in mid-century Ireland, has in mind to allow her forget her consummated marriage so as to fall into Jim’s arms. And the contrived happy ending leaves one instead wondering about Jim. After being led on so cruelly by Mrs Fiorello what romantic future can he have? A grim, embittered bachelorhood?

We just lost 250,000 people in 4 years during the crash. That’s worse than Brooklyn’s mid-1950s, but it cheerleads emigration as being some sort of demented self-reliant individualist self-actualisation.

2.5/5

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