Talking Movies

April 10, 2012

On Saying What You Mean: Part I

I’ve been infuriated lately by language getting trapped in some Orwellian nightmare so here’s the first of three blogs that will dissect evasions and contradictions…

Trevor Johnston is something of a cult hero of Paul Fennessy and mine for his delirious ability to find some reason to watch even the most drivelling of films when he’s writing programme notes for them. But his take on Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters in the IFI programme this month infuriated me because of its internal contradiction, which seems to me to exemplify an entire system of thinking that is lazy and inherently ridiculous.

Aksel Hennie’s roguish, Steve Buscemi-like protagonist is about to have his life turned into a Coens-style ultra-black comedy, as confident director Morten Tyldum piles on the eye-watering moments. Head-spinning plot twists are not in short supply, yet we never lose sight of the story’s basis in male emotional fragility. A Hollywood studio has optioned it, but their version won’t be anywhere near as dark and sinewy as this.” (My italics)

Um, mightn’t it? Suppose the evil Hollywood studio were to persuade actual Steve Buscemi and the actual Coens to actually make this film that so resembles their shtick? Would that film not be equally as dark and sinewy? Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after all improves on the Swedish version by using his substantial clout to introduce more texture and a slower pace so that you watch a mystery with compelling characters rather than sketched-in characters dashing thru a thriller plot. Furthermore I’ve written extensively about how Let Me In improved on Let the Right One In by making it bleaker and removing the disingenuous happy ending and manipulative bogus ambiguity of the original film. The idea that Hollywood is one vast undifferentiated garbage machine has to be got rid of, as does the notion that anything filmed in a foreign language is instantly intelligent and brilliant. It’s a lazy generalisation, akin to the hilarious motto ‘Anything said in Latin sounds profound.’ But more than that a whole mind-shift needs to happen, because it’s ridiculous to speak in tongues and dream in Hollywood when it comes to discussing cinema. The shorthand that we use to discuss cinema comes mostly from Hollywood and the movies that people love for the most part come from Hollywood; and I mean this globally, not just in Anglo-American land, look at DVD stores’ catalogues in South East Asia. Johnston uses Hollywood movie-making as reassuring reference points for a good foreign movie; before slamming Hollywood’s tackiness. It makes no sense…

Some weeks ago Anonymous attacked the Vatican’s website and left a very confused message about their motives. I’ve been hunting about for a version of that statement that didn’t look like it was either written in Italian or translated into English by someone who was illiterate in two languages because I want to give Anonymous the benefit of the doubt. I finally pinned down a reasonably coherent diatribe purporting to be from Anonymous on the International Business Times website’s report on the incident. The Vatican was attacked for preaching absurd and archaic doctrines, they said, in a rant that covered everything and anything; “You have burned books of immense historical and literary value, you barbarously executed your fiercest detractors and critics over the centuries, have denied universally deemed valid or plausible theories, have led the unwary to pay to get access to paradise with the sale of indulgences”, and so on; before ending on the muted note that the attack was “not intended to target the true Christian religion and the faithful around the world” but was aimed at the “corrupt Roman Apostolic Church and all its emanations”. Hmmm. Well, no, that doesn’t really make sense. The Church is not a different entity to the Faithful, indeed the Church Militant on earth is only part of a wider church incorporating the faithful departed who make up the Church Triumphant. So, to attack the doctrines defined by the Vatican is to attack 1 billion Catholics as being utter idiots. Which is exactly what Anonymous meant to do, only it seems that having written the bolshy part someone thought better of calling over 1 billion people utter idiots, and put in a weak semi-retraction. But this is the conduct of a weasel…. If you have the courage of your convictions then say what you mean. If you want to say that Catholics are stupid beyond belief for what they believe then say it. Don’t savour hurting Catholics by ridiculing everything that they believe, and then weasel out of responsibility for the pain you gleefully inflicted by saying that technically your words didn’t apply to Catholics just the Church. If you want the benefit of hurtful words, admit that you used them hurtfully. I had no firm opinion on whether the cyber criminals were courageous crusaders or not before this attack, but now I think they must be classified as cowardly creeps.

April 5, 2012

Alice in Funderland

The Abbey stages its first musical in 20 years, but if decades long moratoriums are the cost of keeping atrocities like this off the stage then it’s a price well worth paying…

Thisispopbaby bring their Project work-shopped contemporary musical take on Alice in Wonderland to the stage with Talking Movies favourite Sarah Greene in the title role. Her Alice is a hopelessly depressed Corkonian whose unfaithful boyfriend recently died from eating a peanut. Upset by the demand of her materialistic sister (a catty Susannah de Wrixon) that she be her bridesmaid, Alice has a bad reaction to a wedding rehearsal curried prawn and dreams herself stranded in a queered Dublin. As she stumbles across the city in search of Warren (Ian Lloyd Anderson) she encounters Carroll characters. The Caterpillar is a Dublin taxi-driver obsessed with British oppression, the Cheshire Cat is a corrupt politician, Tweedledee and Tweedledum are drug dealers, and… I don’t know what the Duchess is supposed to be. “I’d rather take advice from a f****** caterpillar sitting on a mushroom” is the level these references operate at; crude, unfunny.

Composer Raymond Scannell pens some memorable melodies. ‘We’re all going to Hartstown’ is nicely jaunty, the Duchess’ entry has nice shuddery techno under Carroll’s actual verse, and there’s a wonderfully poignant duet between Alice and The Gay (Paul Reid). But the fact that a character is actually called ‘The Gay’(!!) clues you that it’s not the music that’s the problem here. The first act’s wearying campiness is actually self-defeating. The Cheshire Cat as crooked politician sets up a rousing James Brown style number for the grinning Mark O’Regan about playing monopoly with the country’s future, but what could have been great satire can’t soar in this context and the attempt is quickly abandoned. Instead satire is directed at brave, original targets: The Pope, Blaithnaid Ni Chofaigh, Mary Harney. Satire punctures the pomposity of the powerful. Does a religious figure unlikely to be defended by the audience, a presenter who hasn’t been on air for over a year, and a retired politician strike you as powerful? Swift would guffaw derisively at attacking Harney not Phil Hogan, or singling out Blathnaid as the most scandalous element of RTE’s recent troubles. Attacking those targets is just pathetically easy, and that’s easily just pathetic.*

Philip McMahon’s book also irritatingly nods to the presence of the audience frequently for, again, no particular reason. Fourth wall breaches should be used sparingly (Tom Jones) or to the point of meta-textual madness (Slattery’s Sago Saga), but such pointlessness is hardly surprising as Alice runs for nearly 3 hours (including the interval) yet Sarah Greene is hopelessly upstaged by Kathy Rose O’Brien and Aoibhinn McGinnity because the script gives her nothing to do. McGinnity’s madly enthusiastic Chloe is one of the second act’s few saving graces, while O’Brien is hilarious impersonating Blathnaid and Fassbenders the Bob Fosse homage second act curtain-raiser number which is the closest this production ever feels to an actual musical…

The second act is unbearable. All the previously baffling campiness builds towards Tony Flynn’s domineering presence as Dolores, the Red Queen of Hartstown. I’ve seen the Rocky Horror Show. It’s joyous, and 90 minutes. I’ve seen Cabaret, working off Sam Mendes’ queered revival. It’s devastating, and 2 hours. Alice in Funderland fails by its own yardsticks… It’s 3 hours that degenerates into endless unfunny drag queen humour; line after line of witless comedy, whose staggering coarseness becomes incredibly tedious. The late appearance of the ‘Scissors Sisters’ is an amazing low point. I actually considered walking out, but figured such diva behaviour would only encourage the performers. The repeated chorus “We’re all torsos in the banal” is the most tasteless thing I’ve ever sat thru. It’s embarrassing to watch this on the stage of the national theatre in the same way that it’s embarrassing to see Mrs Brown’s Boys on primetime BBC. You urgently want to buttonhole the rest of the world and assure them, “All this…it’s not us. Underneath, we are more…”

If you see Alice, and don’t, feel free to leave at the interval if you’ve disliked the first act; the second act is ‘wretched beyond belief’… As I’ve tweeted, #Thisiscrapbaby.


Alice in Funderland continues its run at the Abbey until May 12th.

*If you think I’m bluffing about attacking the powerful then tune in next week when I stick it to hackers extraordinaire Anonymous who can break my poor blog like a twig.

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