Talking Movies

March 21, 2019

A Perfect Circle

Disney should not own everything. This is not apparently a thought that has occurred to the compliant regulatory authorities in America who have allowed the House of Mouse to just swallow 20th Century Fox. But Disney should not own everything. And it would be rather nice if the American online media could also start repeating this proposition, instead of propagating the opposite. Every time I see Sony being lambasted for having the audacity to own Spider-Man rights, or Universal for having Hulk interests, or, previously, Fox for having the bad taste to continue to make X-Men movies, I wince.

Disney now owns the rights to the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Alien, Die Hard, Avatar, Planet of the Apes, Ice Age, Home Alone, Predator, Kingsman, Goosebumps, having already scooped up Marvel and Pixar’s rosters. Who’s next? Sony?

Ahab has not any peace while Naboth has his vineyard…

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September 10, 2018

The Lighthouse Presents Alfred Hitchcock

The Lighthouse is putting the Master of Suspense back on the big screen in September and October with a major retrospective comprising ten films from nearly two decades of work. A new restoration of Strangers on a Train is a highlight of a season showcasing icy blondes, blackly comic moments, pure cinema suspense sequences, and the greatest of director cameos.

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

From 13th September

People who’ve never seen the film know what is meant by uttering the title.  Robert Walker’s psychotic socialite Bruno propounds to Farley Granger’s pro tennis star Guy, who he’s just met on a train, a very plausible theory on how two complete strangers could both get away with murder. By swapping murders the complete absence of motive would stump detection. And Bruno means to prove it… Patricia Highsmith’s first novel epitomised her creeping unease and smiling sociopaths, and Hitchcock embellished it with visual flourishes (reflections of murder in a glass, one sports spectator remaining aloof) and nail-biting suspense.

ROPE

From 14th September

Farley Granger and John Dall are the two young men, clearly modelled on the infamous real-life killers Leopold and Loeb, who strangle a classmate they have decided is inferior in their Nietzschean scheme of things. Displaying a sadistic sense of humour they hide his body in their apartment, invite his friends and family to a dinner party, and serve the food over his dead body. Can their mentor Jimmy Stewart rumble the perfect crime? This was shot by Hitchcock in ostentatiously long 10 minute takes that cut together by means of ‘jacket-wipes’ to give the impression of one unbroken real-time visualisation.

MARNIE

From 19th September

Tippi Hedren’s second film for Hitchcock cast her as the titular compulsive thief, troubled by the colour red, and the touch of any man, even Sean Connery at the height of Bond fame. Bernard Herrmann’s final Hitchcock score (though his rejected Torn Curtain music appeared in Scorsese’s Cape Fear) buoys some dime store pop psychology as Hitchcock displays a less than sure touch in navigating the line between twisted romance and twisted obsession. There is an infamous scene between Connery and Hedren that is arguably the beginning of the decline towards ever more showy cinematic conceits housed in increasingly mediocre films.

VERTIGO

From 20th September

Hitchcock’s 1958 magnum opus recently toppled Citizen Kane from its perch as the ‘greatest film ever made.’ Hitchcock burned money perfecting the dolly-in zoom-out effect so crucial for depicting Jimmy Stewart’s titular condition; and Spielberg cheekily appropriated it for one show-off shot in Jaws. The twisted plot from the French novelists behind Les Diaboliques is played brilliantly by the increasingly unhinged Stewart, Kim Novak as the anguished blonde he becomes obsessed with, and a young Barbara Bel Geddes as the friend who tries to keep him grounded. Visually gorgeous, lushly scored, and dripping pure cinema sequences without any dialogue – see this.

SPELLBOUND

From 22nd September

Ingrid Bergman’s psychiatrist protects her new boss (Gregory Peck) who turns out to be an amnesia victim accused of murder. On the run she attempts to recover his memory, while her old boss Leo G Carroll insists that Peck is a dangerous killer. Salvador Dali famously designed the dream sequence to explain Peck’s trauma, but producer David O Selznick cut it to ribbons. He had insisted Hitchcock make this picture anyway to fulfil his contract because Selznick had had a wonderful time in therapy. Hitchcock had a less wonderful time, even Miklos Rozsa’s score introducing the brand new theremin irked him.

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY

From 23rd September

The trouble with Harry is a bit of a curate’s egg. Foreign Correspondent’s hit-man Edmund Gwenn returns to the Hitchcock fold, and Shirley MacLaine makes her very winning film debut, but this is a black comedy that ends up more of a droll half-romantic drama. Four people in a Vermont village, led by his estranged wife, spend a Fall day running around with Harry’s dead body; one step ahead of the authorities, and each convinced twas they that did him in. After from MacLaine’s debut one must point out that from this unremarkable beginning grew the Hitchcock/Herrmann partnership.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

From 26th September

Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman abandoned a fruitless novel adaptation for a scenario dazzlingly showcasing scenes Hitchcock had always longed to film; a murder at the United Nations, a man attacked by a crop-duster in an empty landscape. Cary Grant’s MadMan (cough) Roger O Thornhill; a man as hollow as  his affected middle initial; blunders into spymaster Leo G Carroll’s elaborate ruse and is ruthlessly and lethally pursued across America by the sinister James Mason and his clinging henchman Martin Landau, all the while dallying with their dangerous associate Eva  Marie Saint. Hitchcock’s preoccupations were never explored more enjoyably…

THE BIRDS

From 30th September

Hitchcock spun out Daphne Du Maurier’s short story which had been inspired by her simple thought when watching a flock wheel towards her over a field, “What if they  attacked?,” into  an unsettling and bloody film. Socialite Tippi Hedren’s pursuit of the judgemental lawyer Rod Taylor to his idyllic small town on the bay seems to cause the local birds to turn homicidal, but don’t look for explanations – just enjoy the slow-burn to the bravura attacks. Watch out for Alien’s Veronica Cartwright as Taylor’s young sister, and a bar stool philosophiser allegedly modelled on Hitchcock’s bruising encounters with Sean O’Casey…

DIAL M FOR MURDER 3-D

From 3rd October

Warner Bros. insisted that Hitchcock join the 3-D craze, so he perversely adapted a play without changing it much, something that had bedevilled cinema during the transition to sound. Hitchcock has immense fun layering the furniture of Grace Kelly’s flat, but after the interval (sic) largely loses interest in 3-D and focuses on Frederick Knott’s, ahem, knotty plot in which tennis pro Ray Milland blackmails Anthony Dawson into bumping off rich wife Grace Kelly. John Williams, who also appears in To Catch a Thief, is in fine form as the detective trying to puzzle out the crime.

PSYCHO

From 10th October

Hitchcock’s low budget 1960 classic boasted one of the drollest trailers imaginable  and his direction is equally parodic in the first act, with its sinister traffic-cop pursuit and endless misdirection, because Hitchcock relished investing the audience  in a shaggy-dog story which sets up a number of prolonged blackly comic sequences as well as some  chilling suspense. Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates emerges as a terrific resonant villain, especially in the chilling final scene scored by Bernard Herrmann with full-on Schoenbergian atonal serialism. The shower scene with Janet Leigh being slashed to Herrmann’s bravura stabbing strings orchestration remains an iconic ‘pure cinema’ scare.

Tickets can be booked at the Lighthouse’s website  (www.lighthousecinema.ie).

January 31, 2018

He Got Melody or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Love John Williams Again

It was while I was watching this John Williams BBC Prom at the end of last summer that I realised I had done him wrong.

John Williams gets stick in austere musicological circles for his tendency to write theme after theme with the same rhythm. And it’s certainly true that Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and E.T. all pomp along on more or less similar rhythmic lines. Well, so what? Danny Elfman writes interesting, varied, and energetic rhythms, and has barely written one melody in his entire career. What is his Spider-Man theme? Can you hum his Batman theme beyond the first five notes where the rhythmic variations kick in? You can’t really hum a rhythm without a melody, but, be the rhythms e’er so simple, everybody can hum any number of different Williams melodies. It was happenstance that I watched the John Williams Proms shortly after watching Neil Brand’s BBC documentary on the evolution of film music. As he got to the present day, let’s call it the Age of Zimmer, the all-pervading influence of modern synthesiser and digital programming and recording revealed the paucity of actual music written for actual instruments, as opposed to programming in a swathe of sound; a trick that works well for strings, brass, and percussion, hence the now trademark Hans Zimmer sound, but works less well when applied to woodwind instruments. Either you write a melody for the clarinets or you don’t, but you surely don’t need to throw 40 clarinets at a purely rhythmic ostinato developed from Zimmer at keyboard. And noticeable from early on in the John Williams Proms was woodwind instrument solos, everywhere.

I mentioned austere musicological circles, and I had in mind a particular academic faculty; but also a broader critical tendency. Discovering the Minimalists Glass, Reich, and Adams on BBC Radio 3 in the last five and a half years has been a joy, but has also left me retrospectively incredulous that my music theory education ignored them. I was taught that melody was debunked, Cage and Stockhausen were the heirs to Schoenberg, any other approach was Canute in staves, and that was that. Well, not quite, as it turns out. That tendency, to regard melody as an affront to modernity, is particularised in distaste for Williams’ scores. Jerry Goldsmith gets more love in such circles because he subscribed to their agenda of atonal experimental serialist dissonance. To a point, that is. And the point is interesting. Goldsmith wrote the immensely hummable themes for The Man from UNCLE and Star Trek: The Next Generation (first used for 1979’s The Motion Picture). He wrote a sinuous oboe for Basic Instinct, overpowering choral harmonies for The Omen, and a rambunctious march for Gremlins. But it is because he so often chose to write mood music not hummable melodies; prioritising dissonance over harmony, atmosphere over leitmotifs, and prepared percussion over woodwind solos; that he is esteemed a better composer. One might nearly say a more virtuous composer, because the valorisation is almost more ideological than it is aesthetic. And the result can be seen in a quick, easy, and telling contrast with John Williams.

Let us take some sci-fi classics. Goldsmith scored Planet of the Apes and Alien. Williams scored Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Having heard Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind suite in the National Concert Hall I can attest it is largely dissonant mood music that isn’t particularly rewarding detached from the accompanying Spielbergian imagery. It is therefore probably the closest Williams in large scale came to the more critically valued Goldsmith model. And yet it contains a five note melody that is hummable seconds after you first hear it. If I show you a still of Francois Truffaut at Table Mountain regarding the gargantuan UFO mothership and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, hum those five notes. If I show you a still of Mark Hamill regarding the twin sunsets of Tatooine and ask what music you associate with it, you should instantly, without thinking, start humming a swelling string melody. But if I show you a still of Charlton Heston regarding the Statue of Liberty on a beach and ask what music you associate with it, you should hum and haw, and mutter there was some business with horns and drums earlier in the chase sequence. If I show you a still of John Hurt regarding his Chinese dinner with unusual indigestion and ask what music you associate with it, you should be stumped, and mutter there was something slow, eerie, and atonal in space at the beginning.

Goldsmith’s opening titles for Alien are strongly influenced by a piece of music by, I think, Bartok or Shostakovich (I have aggravatingly misplaced my scribbled note). But the ur-text for Williams, especially for Spielbergian japery, is, I would argue, the 4th movement of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. And that is crucial. As a child Shostakovich was forbidding and austere to me, whereas Prokofiev was the beloved creator of Peter and the Wolf. (Shostakovich indeed has only truly come to life for me in the last five years.) And while Bartok and Shostakovich have the spiky rhythms and dissonant harmonies that make one modern, Prokofiev, like Gershwin, was held in less regard because of his continued devotion to melody; a mere melodist, not a serious composer. But that is why Peter and the Wolf works, because Prokofiev is effortlessly able to create memorable, instantly hummable melodies for each of the characters in his story. Leitmotifs – much like Williams’ old-fashioned approach to scoring character in action. When you hear Prokofiev’s music you can see in your mind’s eye the action the narrator interjects. And those melodies take on a life of their own beyond the production, in the same way that Williams’ melodies take on a life of their own beyond the cinema screen; appearing as ringtones, programming in classical concert halls, and literally hummed by people to one another at appropriate moments – much as people do their best screeching Psycho strings whenever a situation parodically calls for Bernard Herrmann’s equally screen-transcending moment.

As Neil Brand’s sweeping outline of the evolution of film music had it, everything begins with Korngold; bringing to Hollywood the leitmotifs of Wagnerian opera with an extra lush string-laded Romanticism. Bernard Herrmann introduced serialism, dissonance, and experimentation, but could equally effortlessly pen the frenetic and melodic North by Northwest title music. Jazz and atonal dissonance broadened the spectrum of sonic colours available; together in the case of David Shire’s music for The Taking of Pelham 123 in which the inimitable great rolling funk bass and percussion provided the mother of all propulsive and hummable hooks over which jazz trumpets blared in serialist sequence. And then the synthesiser began to take hold and film music became technological and thoroughly modern. … Until the biggest film of the decade, Star Wars, abjured all this for a return to Korngold. John Williams, then, was a titan, who forcefully and singlehandedly redirected film music back to the melodic orchestral track. A brief side-note: having previously thrown around the word ideological in the placing of Goldsmith over Williams it is meet to note here that Stockhausen himself was a man of self-regarding dogmatism, to the extent that a Hungarian composer stormed out of one of his fabled workshops volubly cursing that Stockhausen’s insistence that any return to melody and harmony was … counter-revolutionary … sounded all too unpleasantly familiar to someone who had lately run from Soviet tanks. But Williams’ counter-revolution would never have succeeded had he not had so many damn good melodies.

John Williams is 85, and still scoring the occasional movie for Spielberg or Lucas (sic). It is important that we treasure him while we can.

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

June 1, 2012

Prometheus

Director Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise that made his name back in 1979, but sadly this semi-prequel fails to match his own classic…

Archaeologists Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green discover cave-paintings in Scotland in 2089 that appear to clinch their theory that a race of intelligent aliens that they’ve dubbed The Engineers appeared to humanity thousands of years earlier and initiated civilisations from Hawaii to Babylonia. Four years later they awake from cryo-sleep on the good ship Prometheus of the sinister Weyland Corporation to explore the distant planet that could possibly be the home of the Engineers, according to the star map they left behind. Aloof mission commander Vickers (Charlize Theron) is bitingly sceptical of the value of their quest for humanity’s origin while hard-bitten captain Vanek (Idris Elba) is happy to let the scientists poke around futilely so long as he gets to drink and play Stephen Stills’ accordion. Things of course go horribly wrong, as they always do in Alien movies…

It’s notable that Scott was praised in 1979 for dirtying up sci-fi by presenting a vision of the future which was already old yet Michael Fassbender’s android picks up a speck of grit off the gleaming floor of Prometheus as if it was an aberration. Scott’s vision of the future this time round is positively gleaming, and rather too full of CGI hologram technology. One suspects Fassbender’s android would have malfunctioned at the first sight of the Nostromo, a spaceship held together by duct tape if there ever was one. A very measured and precise Fassbender has some fun as the android styling his hair in imitation of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and not being entirely honest with the crew, but while this film shares the slow first hour of Alien, it never really finds a higher gear.

The crew of underdeveloped characters played by colourful British actors like Benedict Wong, Rafe Spall and Emun Elliott are picked off by creatures that are more chimera than xenomorph; and perhaps there’s a nod to the scientific principle that you can never observe a phenomenon without changing its nature, but what of it? There’s no real gear-shift into suspense horror or even action. Noomi Rapace is, with apologies to Stieg Larsson and Patricia Highsmith, The Girl Who Followed Ripley, yet her role is, bar one outstandingly nasty suspense sequence, largely a cipher for ‘Faith’ and her wobbly English accent constantly distracts. The Darkest Hour scribe Jon Spaihts and LOST main-man Damon Lindelof provide the screenplay which feels all too often like a bad mythology episode of LOST. There’s a plot revelation towards the end that should surprise absolutely no one who read the credits at the start, the ‘big idea’ of the movie feels derivative, and the questions of faith and ultimate purpose and meaning that are raised are dealt with facilely. And that’s to say nothing of the conclusion, twenty minutes in which the search for an end leads to the beginning of the sequel.

Prometheus is always watchable, largely due to the stellar cast, but doesn’t even equal Benedict Wong’s other faith in space movie Sunshine. A missed opportunity…

2.5/5

October 26, 2011

Top 10 Scary Movies

Hallowe’en is almost upon us! This weekend Contagion, Demons Never Die, Paranormal Activity 3, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and others will all contend for the horror audience at the multiplexes, while the Screen’s Monster Mash and especially the IFI’s Horrorthon with special guest (and cult hero) Michael Biehn (Aliens, Planet Terror) will cater for the hardcore ghouls. But if you’re staying in for TV or DVD scares instead here’re quality shockers to get you thru the horrid holiday.

(10) Psycho
Hitchcock’s 1960 low budget classic influenced all the other films on this list as it dealt a tremendous hammer blow to restrictions on cinematic violence. Hitchcock’s direction is almost parodically showy as the first act of the film is essentially an enormous shaggy-dog story, setting up a number of prolonged blackly comic sequences. Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates is a terrific resonant villain, especially in the chilling final scene scored by Bernard Hermann with full-on Schoenbergian atonal serialism, while the shower scene with Janet Leigh being slashed to Hermann’s bravura stabbing violins orchestration remains an iconic ‘pure cinema’ scare.

(9) The Host
You may not have heard of this one before but this recent Korean effort is already well on its way to classic status. A hilariously dysfunctional Korean family try to save their abducted youngest member from a mutated monster created by American polluters. Brilliant special effects create scares aplenty while the script is both scathing of American power politics and sublimely absurdist. This pre-dates Rodriguez’s Planet Terror in collecting misfit characters with useless skills, like a hesitant Olympic archer and a Molotov cocktail flinging former student radical, and paying off those set-ups in hilarious and unexpected ways.

(8) Halloween
John Carpenter was probably gazumped by Black Christmas to creating the slasher flick but he certainly codified the conventions of the genre with this 1978 movie. I’ve long thought Carpenter a deeply over-rated director but this film, powered by his deceptively simple yet still creepy music, features numerous sequences of nerve-rending suspense as Jamie Lee Curtis’s baby-sitter is stalked by the homicidal madman Mike Myers in his William Shatner mask. Treasure Donald Pleasance as the psychiatrist Loomis as he dead pans his reply to Curtis’ question “Was that the boogieman?” – “Yes, as a matter of fact it was”.

(7) Night of the Living Dead
George Romero usually gets far too much credit for what is tangential social satire in his Dead films, but there’s no doubt that he invented the modern zombie genre with this piece. By not cutting away when the undead started munching human flesh, and concentrating the action in a claustrophobic setting where the mismatched survivors turn on each other under the constant strain of both repelling the zombies and dealing with the ticking time-bomb of their infected, he gave us the still resonant archetypal zombie set-up. The ending is as chilling as in 1968.

(6) The Exorcist
This 1973 shocker, scored by Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and directed by William Friedkin at the short-lived height of his powers, remains one of the highest grossing movies ever made. Stephen King thought its secret was that it struck a nerve with parents concerned that they had somehow lost their children to the dark side of the 1960s, while simultaneously attracting those self-same kids eager for transgressive thrills. It’s equally likely that such frighteningly realised demonic possession just freaks people out, especially when Max Von Sydow’s stalwart priest realises he’s once again facing the originating villain, Lucifer.

(5) The Evil Dead
The Evil Dead is not a comedy-horror classic like its acclaimed sequel Evil Dead 2, but an extremely gruelling gore-fest that bookends the extreme horror tendencies of the 1970s. Director Sam Raimi made his name directing his school friend and subsequent cult legend Bruce Campbell as plucky college student Ash, fighting off evil spirits inadvertently summoned by his friends by reading an arcane tome at a remote cabin in a forest where even the trees turn out to be evil, damn evil, and prone to doing things that are still controversial. Prepare to lose your lunch.

(4) 28 Days Later
Alex Garland’s first original screenplay was blatantly a zombie reworking of The Day of the Triffids, but there are worse templates than John Wyndham’s particular variety of realistic sci-fi. The post-apocalyptic concerns of that classic became horror gold through Danny Boyle’s customarily frenetic direction of the terrifyingly energetic Infected pursuing Cillian Murphy thru an eerily deserted London. The obligatory survivors turning on each other motif is enlivened by the quality of rhetoric given to Christopher Eccleston’s barking mad soldier, while the climactic eye gouging is perhaps the most horrific act ever committed by any screen hero.

(3) Don’t Look Now
1973 classic Don’t Look Now is on the surface an art-house study, rendered in editor turned director Nicolas Roeg’s typically disjunctive style, of a couple consumed with grief over the death of their daughter trying to forget their loss and begin again by travelling to Venice. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland though begin seeing a red coated little girl tailing them at a distance thru the streets, and become convinced that it may be their dead daughter, leading to an ending so genuinely nightmarish that it will freak you out even if you’ve seen it before.

(2) Alien
Alien is a great horror film which skilfully masquerades as sci-fi, including the score from Jerry Goldsmith at his most dissonant. Ridley Scott firmly establishes the characters before bumping them off in his Gothic space-ship full of dark shadows and dripping roofs. Stephen King has noted that the absence of almost any action for the first hour leaves the audience extremely nervy for when events finally occur. The alien attacks are superbly orchestrated and you’d need nerves of steel not to do a sitting high jump at least twice in the final 20 minutes. Don’t watch while eating…

(1) Scream
Neve Campbell confidently carries this 1996 classic directed by rejuvenated horror maestro Wes Craven from Kevin Williamson’s razor sharp script. Scream is a blackly hilarious self-aware dissection of the clichés of slasher movies which is also simultaneously a genuinely brilliant slasher flick filled with gory attacks and jump out of your seat moments. Williamson’s delicious dialogue is brought to memorable life by an ensemble cast on truly top form, including star-making turns from Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Rose McGowan and Skeet Ulrich. Enjoy, oh, and please do remember, “Movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative…”

May 25, 2011

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

I realise with a shock that I’ve been neglecting Michael Fassbender in this blog, so it’s only right to devote my 100th blog post to the man from Kerry.

Fassbender has risen in just seven years from playing the villain in a Sky One show to playing the nascent super-villain in a keenly anticipated summer blockbuster. Next week will see a piece focusing on my concept of Fassbendering, but this week let’s focus on how he made this journey. Fassbender had appeared in Band of Brothers but arguably first truly came to public consciousness as the actor in that famous Guinness ad at the end of 2003 who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. Characteristically Fassbender ended the ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again. He then played the resident Big Bad in Sky One’s Buffy homage/rip-off Hex. As fallen angel Azazeal he impressed with dark charisma, cut-glass English accent, and the distinct vibe that he was enjoying this part far too much.

2004 also saw him star in Canadian TV movie A Bear Called Winnie where, as a compassionate vet in the Canadian Army who rescued an orphaned bear cub en route to Britain for WWI, he showed an admirable ability to goof around with the adorable pet bear that would be immortalised as Winnie the Pooh. He then played the first of his continuing series of historical figures in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot as Guy Fawkes, and ended 2004 in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, displaying his fine ability to be ambiguous as the murder suspect that Holmes insists is a killer despite all evidence clearing him. He then had a showy turn as he smoked and drank his way thru After the Funeral in 2006 as a dissolute possible murderer in ITV’s Poirot, before making the jump from TV movie to actual movie, and London to Hollywood; notably later than his contemporaries Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy.

Fassbender’s ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where things really caught fire. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning, perhaps because he’s realised just how flashy this supporting role is… Stelios is the Spartan who jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Our arrows will blot out the sun”. Fassbender delivers the famous riposte in a supremely nonchalant manner, and later forms one half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and has a slo-mo fight alongside Astinos where they attack and sever Persian limbs left, right and centre. When the Persian mystics are throwing bombs it is Fassbender who runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. Who does something awesome in the denouement to enable Leonidas be even more awesome? Fassbender, of course. Who holds hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines? Fassbender. This is the kind of thing that gets you noticed when your film is an unexpected massive hit.

2008 saw him tackle two more historical figures and also contribute an upsetting turn to stark English horror Eden Lake. I reviewed that film and argued for it as a socio-economic horror as Fassbender and Kelly Reilly’s polite middle-class London couple travel to an idyllic camping spot only to be mercilessly harassed by hoodie-wearing teenagers who steal their jeep, leading to a nigh unwatchable scene where Fassbender’s innocent victim comes up against the gang’s barbed wire and box-cutters. If Fassbender had undercut his 300 image by playing sacrificial lamb to Kelly Reilly’s survivor type he made up for in Channel 4’s Civil War mini-series The Devil’s Whore where he scooped the most dashing role, coveted by Dominic West, as the Levellers’ leader Thomas Rainsborough. He made Rainsborough so charismatic that you could understand why people ignored the contradiction of an aristocrat leading a prototypical socialist movement. The series itself lost momentum after Rainsborough’s tragic demise, which not only underscored Fassbender’s outshining of West and John Simm as leading man, but ironically hammered home the loss to history of the progressive ideas of the Levellers; stifled by Cromwell only to return as demands by the Chartists in the 1840s and actions by Clement Attlee in the 1940s.

Fassbender combined elements of those roles as sacrificial lamb and charismatic leader for his tour de force performance as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s debut film Hunger. I regard Hunger as a biopic so utterly oblique as to de-politicise its subject; indeed in its shocking single depiction of just what it is the IRA does it invalidates all accusations that McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh are somehow ‘fellow travellers’. Turner Prize-winner McQueen reinvented the possibilities of cinema with a film that could almost be a video installation on how the human body slowly declines into death, and how beauty can be found in the mundane. Fassbender was luminous in his one lengthy scene with dialogue, where he argues with Liam Cunningham’s priest, forcing you to appreciate both his point of view and why men would follow this man out on hunger strike and die for him. Fassbender also emulated his acting hero Daniel Day-Lewis as he lost 14 kilos while playing the part and weighed just 59 kilos by the end of shooting. Writing about it at the time I praised Fassbender’s “awesome commitment to the part in the third act as he just wastes away in front of your eyes. This is a mesmerising performance of insane dedication that should see Fassbender go on to even juicier roles.”

And go on to juicier roles he did, as 2009 saw Fassbender work with two auteurs, and also Joel Schumacher. Tarantino’s riotous rewriting of history, Inglourious Basterds, oddly enough saw Fassbender being one of the few people playing things straight in his supporting role as Lt. Archie Hicox. As a former film critic dispatched behind enemy lines, most of his lines were delivered (allegedly in a Kerry accent initially) in his second language, German, bar glorious exceptions like “There’s a special place reserved in Hell for people who waste good scotch”. He then starred as Connor opposite newcomer Kate Jarvis as Mia in Andrea Arnold’s kitchen sink drama Fish Tank. A bracingly abrasive picture of life on an Essex council estate punctuated by moments of amazing lyrical beauty, Fassbender’s character opens up possibilities for his girlfriend’s two daughters in a stunning pastoral sequence where he gives them the attention and affection their mother denies them, and encourages Mia to channel her simmering rage at her life into focused attempts to escape it thru professional dancing. Arnold has made the most layered use of the possibilities of Fassbender’s ready smile, as his grinning Connor appears at first as the perfect surrogate father before she traumatically reverses that winning charm. This disquieting role emphasised Fassbender’s freedom from leading men’s crippling need to be loved in every role. Schumacher’s Blood Creek meanwhile may well be remembered eventually as the film where Superman and Magneto clash, but that would require that someone in the world sees it first.

In 2010 he reunited with both Dominic West and Liam Cunningham for Neil Marshall’s nonsensical historical British action film Centurion, which all concerned presumably filed under ‘guilty pleasure’. He ended the year in a nonsensical historical American action film as henchman Burke in Jonah Hex. His first appearance in the trailer saw him grinning manically while setting fire to a barn with someone in it, but sadly the film was shredded from its initial intentions. One hopes that Fassbender may eventually get to properly work with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films. And that leads us to right now, one week before the release of X-Men: First Class

So, why is Fassbender a personal hero? Obviously some of it has to do with Fassbendering, but it’s also because Fassbender is a genuinely talented actor with an immense range as well as a charming whimsicality. He can play comedy and tragedy, heroes and villains, equally well, and move from blockbuster to art-house, whimsy to avant-garde, with ease. His part as the younger version of Ian McKellen’s Magneto, as he begins the slow and half-justified decent into super-villainy, is one of the performances I’m anticipating most this year. X-Men: First Class, and Soderbergh’s Haywire in August, as well as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Promotheus next year, should catapult Fassbender into the genuine leading man status that Colin Farrell so narrowly missed out on through choosing big-name directors working on vanity projects rather than good scripts. Fassbender in addition appears to be about to make the leap without sacrificing his ability to take on interesting roles in smaller films; with roles as Carl Jung (his latest historical figure) in Cronenberg’s drama A Dangerous Method, Rochester in a pared down Jane Eyre, and the lead in a new Steve McQueen film Shame, all of which are due to be released in the same period as the Vaughn, Soderbergh and Scott blockbusters mentioned above.

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

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