Talking Movies

July 19, 2015

Once

John Carney’s indie film that could returns home as an unusual musical with a book by playwright Enda Walsh and originating director John Tiffany helming. Here’s a teaser of my review for HeadStuff.org.

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Here’s a teaser.

Tiffany is responsible for the highly disconcerting set-up in which the audience can clamber onstage and buy a drink while the ensemble plays a number of Irish and Czech folksongs, so that the actual busking opening of the play emerges seamlessly out of a session. As our hero (Tony Parsons) finishes busking, he is accosted by a go-getting Czech musician (Megan Riordan) who insists he must (a) not give up on music, and (b) fix her vacuum cleaner. For he and Da (Billy Murphy) live above their hoover-repair shop in the North Strand, a life straitened by death and desertion. Her life is fuller. She lives with her mother Baruska (Sandra Callaghan), and three Czech flatmates; death metal drummer Svec (Rickie O’Neill), ambitious ‘burger-boy’ Andrej (Dylan Reid), and skimpily-clad man-eater Reza (Ruth Westley). With this injection of energy a burnt-out busker may stand a chance of recording a successful demo…

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

November 10, 2014

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan redeems himself after the patchy The Dark Knight Rises with a hard tack into heavy-duty theoretical sci-fi in a mind-bending, oddly abstract blockbuster.

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The McConaissance continues as Matthew McConaughey takes on the role of Cooper, a Texan engineer and pilot turned farmer in the near future. Cooper’s is a self-professed caretaker generation, trying to eke a subsistence living from a devastated planet with a collapsed population. Indeed Cooper’s daughter Murph is subjected to some Orwellian education about the futility of technological civilisation. But among the cornfields stalked by blight and storming dust-clouds there are still some people who dream big: NASA in hiding. Michael Caine’s wise professor and his icy daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway) convince Cooper to pilot their last ditch Lazarus mission, to travel through a wormhole next to Saturn in an attempt to find a new home for humanity. But as Cooper leaves an inconsolable Murph behind him, and joins fellow astronauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), he finds that the search for humanity’s salvation seems oddly underpinned by losing all traces of humanity…

Interstellar is a bold change of pace for the Brothers Nolan. The script, written by Jonathan Nolan and then reworked by Christopher, sketches in this future world in the manner of a John Wyndham novel; taking for granted that we know about the macro which we actually only learn about when it impacts the micro world of Cooper and Murph. This leads to some double-take moments, such as Bill Irwin’s comic relief, which are amplified by Nolan’s insistence on secrecy. Some familiar faces appear to shocking effect, which would be dissipated by mentioning them; but among them is a cheerful cameo from William Devane aka 24’s President Heller. Interstellar could best be described as a version of Sunshine written not by Alex Garland, but instead boasting a screenplay by Rod Serling based on a story outline by Carl Sagan. Hard science of a theoretical bent mixes with a soured vision of humanity’s worst tendencies being dominant.

Interstellar is unlikely to get as fond a welcome as previous Nolan movies, but it does have much in common with them; from the Twilight Zone finale like The Prestige, to simultaneous set-pieces as adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Cooper wrestle with similar dilemmas like Inception. Hans Zimmer’s score avoids nearing Richard Strauss’ template by borrowing Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible organ and plugging it into a million IMAX amplifiers; achieving solemnity (without melody) by dint of volume. The replacement of Wally Pfister as DP by Hoyte van Hoytema doesn’t jar, but the changeover is aided by the fact that a very different cinematic world is being captured than that of the Nolan/Pfister paradigm. Nolan wrings good performances from his large cast, with Mackenzie Foy blowing Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of the indomitable Murph, and McConaughey counteracting the heartless science of the Brand family with the emotional sensitivity of the Coopers.

Interstellar walks a tricky high-wire, attempting to create a heart-rending family saga dependent for its emotion on theoretical physics being literalised in a way that defeats traditional blockbuster visuals.

4/5

July 3, 2014

Trailer Talk: Part II

In another entry in this occasional series I round up some trailers for films opening in the next few months.

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was extremely successful commercially, but was a curiously mixed bag artistically. Rupert Wyatt’s direction was quite brilliant in some Hitchcockian flourishes and well-staged action sequences. But the script seemed barely written; with James Franco and Frieda Pinto playing ciphers. Andy Serkis (in motion-capture) returns as talking evolved ape leader Caesar. The world’s population having been devastated by the simian flu Caesar faces great hostility from belligerent human leader Gary Oldman, but an ally in Jason Clarke’s family man willing to talk peaceful co-existence. But peaceful co-existence don’t make for a high-stakes apocalyptic blockbuster! The focus of interest must be director Matt Reeves. Cloverfield combined spectacle with devastating emotional impact and his vampire remake Let Me In improved on the Scandinavian original. What will he fashion?

Dutch rock photographer Anton Corbijn’s third film as director seems closer in tone and look to his sophomore effort The American than stark debut Control, as he directs a John Le Carre spy thriller set in Germany. The adaptation of Le Carre’s novel comes from Lantana playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell which is almost as much an enticement as the stellar cast: Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead performance. The second coming of Robin Wright really is a phenomenon as worthy of attention as the McConnaissance, and this looks like another compelling performance. The late Hoffman meanwhile seems on fine form as the German spook harassing McAdams’ attorney: “I’m a lawyer” “You’re a social worker for terrorists”. Hopefully this will be better structured than the cavalier Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Yep, the teaser trailer for what will probably be one of the three biggest films of 2014 manages to not mention Katniss Everdeen, show Jennifer Lawrence’s face, or even acknowledge the existence of the previous two films. Intentionally, of course, as it’s a Capitol propaganda film with Donald Sutherland’s kindly old white-bearded President Snow sitting in a white room, flanked by Josh Hutcherson’s kidnapped Peeta, telling the people of Panem how good the Capitol is to them, and expressing bemusement as to why they would ever rebel against him. Arcade Fire’s chilling Soviet style Panem anthem has more or less for me become Donald Sutherland’s personal theme tune at this point, and it suits these words: “But if you resist the system, you starve yourself. If you fight against it, it is you who will bleed…” #OnePanem

July 1, 2014

Arcade Fire & Pixies at Marlay Park

Arcade Fire arrived at Marlay Park on the back of triumphantly headlining Glastonbury, with super-support from Pixies touring their first new album in 23 years.

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Pixies’ new album Indie Cindy, culled from various EPs over the last while, is very reminiscent of 1990’s Bossanova; with elements of 1991’s Trompe le Monde. Their deafeningly loud 22 song set included new songs ‘Bagboy’, ‘Magdalena 318’, ‘Indie Cindy’, and ‘Greens and Blues’ interspersed with the old classics, and the old songs fitted in perfectly. The latest Kim Deal substitute was adept as a bassist but less so vocally in a Doolittle and Surfer Rosa heavy-set, but Dave Lovering and Joey Santiago were obviously having fun. Lovering in particular hammed up his rendition of ‘La La Love You’, even though the crowd started applauding before he’d actually finished… And therein lay the explanation for Frank Black’s distant mood. This was far from the adulatory reception Pixies received when supporting Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2004. A blisteringly raucous finale saw Pixies run together ‘Rock Music’, ‘Isla de Encanta’, and ‘Tame’, before ‘Debaser’ was abandoned because Black’s guitar had broken and he chose to take it as a sign. Truthfully the sign had come earlier when the moshpit went crazy for ‘Here Comes Your Man’ – this nearly 50 minutes in, and after ‘Wave of Mutilation’, ‘Gouge Away’, ‘Velouria’, and ‘Nimrod’s Son’ had been played without any such reaction. When the crowd at the front then went wild again a few songs later for ‘Where is My Mind?’ you could almost see Fassbender’s despairing lines as cult musician Frank run across Black’s face: “They do not know and love us? They do not know us…” This was a crowd of face-painted teenagers there for Arcade Fire, and all the Pixies they knew was thru Fight Club’s finale and their only song approved for daytime radio. This cast a slight pall over the end of the set, and, almost as if the gods had been angered, the sunny weather was replaced by a cold wind.Win Butler seemed ashamed on his fans’ behalf, and later played the intro of ‘Where is My Mind?’ while stressing the seminal nature of Pixies – ‘you really ought to know who they are’ was the clear subtext…

The stage at Marlay has changed position a lot over the years and now the audience looks past it to the mountains, the perfect backdrop really for a band with a song called ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’. Arcade Fire took to the stage at 8:30 in order to play for over two hours, although they first had to boot off their bobble-head band which had started playing ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’. Impressively the costumes used at Glastonbury were discarded for all new outfits, with Win Butler sporting a white suit with red birds adorning the jacket. After staggeringly tossing aside the totemic ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ as the second song sandwiched between two new tracks, they settled comfortably into The Suburbs; with ‘Rococo’, ‘Month of May’, ‘The Suburbs’, and ‘Ready to Start’ in succession. After some moody Funeral hits the already energised crowd were set dancing with ‘Intervention’, ‘We Exist’, ‘No Cars Go’, ‘Haiti’, ‘Reflektor’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’ one after another. And it was very noticeable just how much dancing there was going on in the crowd. Some of this may be because the gig didn’t sell out (Recession, y’all), so people had space to really go for it; but most of it was surely because of the sheer energy of the small army of musicians bouncing around and effortlessly switching instruments onstage. And offstage, with dancers throwing shapes on a platform in the crowd for ‘We Exist’, and Regine Chassagne being menaced by dancing skeletons for ‘Oh Orpheus’ on the same platform. And then the band left to allow a bobble-head Pope to rip up a photo of Miley Cyrus while standing beside a TV-screen-head man playing Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. Arcade Fire returned, heralded by their mirror-ball man speaking Irish, for an encore of ‘Afterlife’, ‘Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)’, ‘Here Comes the Night Time’, and ‘Wake Up’. And after exploding a vast shower of confetti over the crowd there really could be no second encore after that closer… It was a really good gig, but I wasn’t as blown away by it as other people were because I don’t think Reflektor stands up to their previous work. I’ve been listening to Neon Bible and really enjoying it recently, and it has almost completely fallen out of their set-list. They played 7 songs from Reflektor, and I think by their next tour only ‘Reflektor’, ‘Afterlife’, ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’ will still be played. But that’s three new songs U2 would kill for.

I seem to be cursed to see huge bands when they’re touring weak albums, but this will still surely be a strong contender for feel-good gig of the summer.

4/5

March 30, 2014

Phantom RIP

It’s been a strange experience listening to ‘105.2 FM’ for the past two weeks. It’s the strange afterlife of Phantom, before TX FM starts tomorrow…

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“They’ve closed the chapel at Brideshead … the priest came in … and took out the altar stone … then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy-water stoop and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary, and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday … I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room. I can’t tell you what it felt like.” – Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

There is, you see, an appropriate Brideshead quote for almost any occasion. It was a very odd feeling listening to the last hours of Phantom on Sunday the 16th of March, before this strange automated playlist ghost of a station took over, calling itself ‘105.2 FM’ not ‘Phantom 105.2’, and playing more Smiths and Pumpkins and Jeff Buckley in the daytime than we’ve been accustomed to. Having talked about the latest disastrous move by management as being ‘Phantom’s death rattle’ for years, it was unexpectedly moving to hear the actual death rattle as favourite DJs like Richie Ryan and Jack Hyland disappeared one by one. You see I’ve complained about it like nobody’s business over the last few years. I moaned about Michelle Doherty being moved off Finest Worksongs, I griped about John Caddell moving from Key Cuts to Finest Worksongs, I tiraded whenever they changed anything about Cinerama (and especially when they cancelled it), I mocked the decision to hire Vogue off of Fade Street as a DJ, I was outraged by the firing of founder Simon Maher, and, well, Joe & Keith, well, ’nuff said surely. But I was complaining because I was still listening – to the end.

I have spent hours sitting at my desk writing to the sound of Phantom blaring out of a farcically aged clock radio for many years. And I mean many years. I first discovered it as a pirate around this time of year in the months of frantic revision leading up to the Leaving Cert, and their later jingle ‘we’re the reason you own a radio’ rang quite true. I discovered Garbage and The Jam purely from listening to Phantom as a pirate. And when it was on legal hiatus the only shows worth listening to on official radio tended to be those presented by Phantom alumni (Jenny Huston, Dan Hegarty), because, well, what else was there to listen to out there? Especially in the desert of daytime radio… Phantom is the reason I listen to Metric and Death Cab for Cutie. It’s what finally made me appreciate LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire after years of resistance. TX FM’s playlist tomorrow may be similar but the gutting of Phantom removes my abiding affection and loyalty and makes tuning in a questionable decision. John Caddell said Phantom had made mistakes as a commercial station. Sure, but I thought of another quote:

“McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.

Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be President?” – Hunter S Thompson, Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72

Phantom RIP.

November 21, 2013

Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence teams up with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), and the result is a more thoughtful yet more expansive sequel to The Hunger Games.

rs_560x415-131115151540-1024.Donald-Sutherland-Jennifer-Lawrence.jl.111513_copyCatching Fire opens in a bleak Appalachian winter, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and coal-mining boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hunting turkey in the woods of District 12 of the dystopian post-USA nation Panem. But after The Hunger Games you can never really go home… as is insisted upon by various characters. Katniss and her little sister Prim are now living with their mother in The Victors’ Village, a mere 25 yards and a wall of emotional ice away from the boy she pretended to love in order to survive the Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) just down the street. President Snow (Donald Sutherland in a greatly expanded role) threatens Everdeen to convince him, and thereby the outlying Districts, that her ‘suicidal love’ for Peeta was genuine and not an act of defiance against the Capitol; and so remove herself as a symbol of hope for an insurrectionist Mocking Jay movement fomenting rebellion against Snow’s rule…

Lawrence nuances her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of slain District 11 tribute Rue, who she tried to save in the Games, damns her further with Snow; who is advised by caustic veteran Games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to pitch Katniss back into battle in a Quarter Quell to destroy her status as rebel icon before killing her. And so Katniss and Peeta return to the Capitol as tributes, with mentors Haymitch and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, mining a new vein of comedy in her character’s transition from callousness to chumminess). Peeta once again manipulates TV host Caesar (Stanley Tucci) for public sympathy, and manages to parlay Katniss’ lethal practice display of archery into alliances with narcissistic combat expert Finnick (Sam Claflin),  and the tech wizards unkindly dubbed Nuts (Amanda Plummer) & Volts (Jeffrey Wright) by axe-wielding troublemaker Johanna (Jena Malone, channelling The L Word’s Katherine Moennig). Facing off against the Career Victors inside a jungle arena, they need all their collective skills to survive Plutarch’s constant spit-balls.

Simon Beaufoy and a pseudonymous Michael Arndt (both of whom I’ve ripped previously for cliché) provide a screenplay that beautifully kicks its characters into the second act and then has them desperately try to claw their way back to the first act. Catching Fire follows the broad outline of its predecessor – establish the universe, and then let the battle begin – but this is a more fully rounded universe which dexterously details the battle of wills between Katniss and Snow in the world’s deadliest PR campaign. Kudos must be given to director Francis Lawrence who tosses aside originating director Gary Ross’ inexpert shaky-cam and instead deploys his own preference for held shots and action tracks. A CGI heavy sequence with killer baboons genuinely unnerves, while the geography of the action is always legible; even though much of it occurs at night, as Lawrence strays into James Cameron Blue (TM) territory. Lawrence’s villains, as ever, are complex creations, who will repay repeat viewings, and Katniss’ rebellion viscerally threatens them. James Newton Howard admits defeat in creating an iconic theme though, instead utilising Arcade Fire’s chilling Panem Anthem…

Catching Fire unfurls at a measured pace because it is made with unmistakeable confidence, and its abrupt ending whets the appetite for the sequels.

4/5

October 11, 2013

Neutral Hero

The New York City Players present Richard Maxwell’s lauded meditation on the mundane as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

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That sentence is perfectly neutral. I’ve given you the facts and nothing more. Why? Did you want more? A joke, some sort of a pithy judgement? Neutral Hero is not the kind of play that lends itself to reviewing in that style. So here are some more facts. Twelve empty chairs line the back of the stage, and are gradually occupied by the actors, who emerge first singly, then in pairs, then severally. The first five actors to appear each deliver a monologue. They describe in fastidious detail a small Mid-Western town. But don’t think because of that you can expect Our Town for the 2010s to begin with the first scene. The first scene isn’t a scene in any naturalistic sense, and the actors don’t play it with any emotion in their delivery, or their expressions. Just strictly neutral.

There are twelve actors. These are their names. Janet Coleman, Keith Connolly, Alex Delinois, Bob Feldman, Jean Ann Garish, Rosie Goldensohn, Paige Martin, James Moore, Philip Moore, Andie Springer, Andres Weisell. Listing them alphabetically avoids creating artificial ranks of distinction within the troupe. They perform the piece. Oddly I found myself thinking only of Bret Easton Ellis’ affectless prose with endless sentences describing in detail physical objects and leaving emotions beyond its ken. Is this Brechtian? Yes, but what’s the point? This is a play with much music. The effect of the vocal interpretation of neutrality is to replicate Nico’s stilted singing with the Velvet Underground, but with more Americana instrumentation; being banjos and mandolin beside piano and drums. If Bret Easton Ellis and Arcade Fire collaborated would they produce Neutral Hero? No. Because they’d do something; shocking or anthemic.

It’s interesting to see what experimental theatre groups are doing in New York City. But neutrality onstage can only go so far, at some point it runs into the audience, who have react to it. Otherwise it’s not theatre. And I was bemused. The New York Times said that Maxwell “makes the soaringly heroic feel like the natural and inevitable subtext of the numbingly quotidian”. Now if the New York Times told me to go jump off a cliff I wouldn’t do it, not least because I’d probably fall asleep while Thomas Friedman got sidetracked with an anecdote about a man called Hector, who lives in Winesburg, Ohio, who he once told to jump off a cliff. Actors walking from one side of the stage to the other, and then back, isn’t really choreography. And this isn’t really “a story of epic ordinariness concerning a young man searching for his father in the wide open landscape of the American Midwest”. Telling, isn’t it, that a story was promised in publicity?

Neutral Hero sticks to its principled guns, even to the point of refusing to take a bow at the show’s end, but this theatrical Van Burenism ultimately becomes self-defeating.

2/5

Neutral Hero continues its run at the Project Arts Centre until October 12th.

December 1, 2009

The Box

Donnie Darko writer/director Richard Kelly ends his rollercoaster decade with an attempt to edge back towards the mainstream by aping I Am Legend and releasing a Christmas horror based on a Richard Matheson story. Kelly succeeds, to an extent, as his third film as director is closer in feel to his sublime Donnie Darko than to his vey muddled sophomore effort Southland Tales which was delayed for years before being given a notional distribution. But getting more coherent doesn’t mean getting better…

The Box opens promisingly, speedily establishing the lives of happily married couple James Marsden and Cameron Diaz and their twelve year old son living in Washington DC in an acutely observed 1976. The Viking exploration of Mars dominates the TV news, and this family, as Marsden’s NASA scientist and aspiring astronaut designed its camera system. A series of unfortunate events (including an incredibly odd scene featuring a creepy pupil disrupting teacher Diaz’s class) serve notice that this is one of those many, many films in which things will not go well for James Marsden. And sure enough into their money worries comes a mysterious box with a button under a glass dome, left on their doorstep with a card from Arlington Steward. Frank Langella is wonderfully sinister as Steward who visits them to explain the function of the button: if pressed two things will happen, someone they do not know will die instantly, and he will pay them 1 million dollars…

Langella is a fine actor yet Kelly does a very unsettling Two-Face style CGI make-up job on him to communicate otherness, though it is so effective it makes the plonky 1950s B-movie music that accompanies him seem scary. The 1950s B movie vibe ramps up as paranoia sets in that Mr Steward wants more from the couple than just a simple decision on whether or not to push the button and that he might not be working alone. Coincidences, a baby-sitter with a secret, an inexplicable killing by another NASA employee and a punch up at a wedding rehearsal dinner all broaden the terror of the story efficiently but then Invasion of the Bodysnatchers intrudes too obviously and our heroes start reading books explaining the plot. You are now leaving Darkoland, welcome to Southland. Cue embarrassingly bad special effects involving water, mutterings of conspiracies and aliens and alien conspiracies, and half-explained sub-plots involving time-travel, moral tests and free will.

Marsden is nicely sympathetic as the hero, infinitely more effective than Diaz whose now fading looks highlight her feeble acting skills, but the script’s convolutions defeat his best efforts while Langella’s villain is over-explained out of existence. There is much to like here but Kelly’s persistent concern with elaborate conspiracies suggests only low budgets which restrain his imagination can inspire him to succinct brilliance. Paradoxically, avoiding The Box could improve his work.

2/5

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