Talking Movies

March 13, 2020

Any Other Business: Part XLV

As the title suggests, so forth.

If we just hold our position here, fellas, a plot might stumble across us

The Winds of the Pacific War

Having staggered to the end of HBO’s incredibly underwhelming miniseries The Pacific I found myself growing irate at the closing credits which revealed the fates of a number of the characters who were real. The sense of camaraderie and regret among these men over the decades following the war only highlighted the failure of the series to depict any of this camaraderie. This stands in stark contrast to the C Company in-jokes and friendships that made its predecessor Band of Brothers so compelling. Characters the show lost interest in, that I had given up for dead, turned out to have survived and the band of brothers all re-united Stateside after VJ Day. What a colossal waste of resources it was to take these ten scripts and give them the big bow wow HBO treatment. I can’t help but feel that in the golden age of miniseries in the late 1970s and early 1980s if someone had brought these ten scripts to a network executive two things would have happened. First, he would have beaten senseless the writers room who had confused the mores of New Hollywood with network television. Second, he would have patiently explained that the ten episodes proposed lacked any sense of focus or direction or indeed point. Band of Brothers was based on one book about one company on their journey from training to D-Day thru the Battle of the Bulge to Germany. The Pacific by contrast tried to pull together three books about disparate bands of brothers on different missions and failed miserably. Ditching John Basilone entirely to focus on Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie would be the most obvious fix for some of the problems, but even then… Shortly before watching this series I had seen The Pacific War in Colour, which covers the same battles with the same soldier-memoirists using their actual words as voiceover. And maps and diagrams that gave the geography as well as the stakes of the engagements. How is it possible to have got more of a sense of the battles from CGI maps plus vague colour war footage and voiceover than from a big budget show depicting the authors of those voiceovers literally in the trenches fighting? Did The Pacific need to introduce officer characters as an excuse for some big maps on big boards in war rooms, as well as dialogue to explain how the strategy of the theatre informs the tactics that Sledge and Leckie must execute? That sort of clarity, along with putting far more effort into fleshing out the friendships of these men, should surely have been the first order of business in the outlining stage of the writing, and would have made The Pacific feel less disjointed and prone to wandering off on aimless tangents to the point where you perversely doff your cap in astonished disbelief that anybody could take the Greatest Generation’s own accounts of their Hell in the Pacific and make it so goddamn boring.

I know, Holden. Charles Manson… Even thinking about the guy makes me start to yawn.

Where is my Mind(hunter)?

I admit defeat. My temporary Netflix subscription has expired and I still had the final 4 episodes left to watch of Mindhunter season 2. I just couldn’t motivate myself to do it. I stuck in there for as a long as I could. I managed to hold on for longer than my sometime co-writer the Engineer did, making it thru the horrors of Anna Torv’s newly yellow appearance all the way to Justified star Damon Herriman’s fantastic turn as Charles Manson. And yet, for all that Herriman gave that long-anticipated sequence all he could, it was let down by, of all things, a seeming lack of confidence by the writers of Mindhunter that the audience would be interested in Holden Ford and Bill Tench interviewing Charles Freaking Manson without that Tench be given some thoroughly bogus (and oh so very painfully and slowly manufactured) ‘personal’ stake in the Manson case via his son being dragged into a macabre crime by youths. It’s Charles Manson. If you’re watching Mindhunter, you’ll be interested.

One Nation, Indivisible?

There is a keen if not sickening irony in Leo Varadkar calling for national unity at this time of global coronavirus crisis. As a minister and as Taoiseach he has presided directly and indirectly for nearly a decade over a number of campaigns designed specifically to set citizen against citizen. Public money was spent on cinema advertisements to propagandise to students that their teachers were wrong to resist Ruari Quinn’s debasement of the Junior Cert. Varadkar himself beamed broadly shortly before he became Taoiseach as he held a placard to launch his ‘Welfare cheats cheat us all’ campaign – his sole achievement as Minister for Social Protection. He was deeply involved in gay marriage and abortion referendum campaigns that were deliberately run in as bitter a fashion as possible. And his government continues advertisements lecturing us about sexual harassment on television, teaching us to always assume the worst of each other. And now, after Fine Gael losing a second election in a row, but showing even less inclination than last time to leave government, he has the audacity to turn around and lecture us all on the need for national unity – having just rejected the national unity of a national government to deal with this coronavirus crisis; because it seems fully 1/4 of the voters he wants to unify behind his continued unelected (and indeed actually rejected) leadership would fit neatly into his own personal basket of deplorables. To mash together the 1940 sentiments of David Lloyd George and Leo Amery – There is nothing which can contribute more to unity in this time than that he should sacrifice the seals of office. In the name of God, GO!

The Fall of New Seattle

And as I continue catching up iZombie the feeling of disappointment only grows stronger. The idea of making Ravi a part-time zombie for the lolz seems a Scrappy-Doo like innovation to the format, the depiction of the walled city of New Seattle never satisfies in the way that Dark Angel‘s technologically crippled Seattle did, and the season arc of Liv becoming the new Renegade opposed to Chase Graves’ Robespierrean rule rings hollow because it ignores the fact that Chase’s behaviour is motivated not by outright psychopathy but a food supply that cannot support the zombie hordes already in existence. The feelgood riff on Buffy being elected Class Protector at her Prom doesn’t feel remotely earned as a finale, and frankly I am not sure I want to watch another 13 episodes of iZombie if it’s going to keep declining this precipitously.

85,000 dead, Leo?

I’m curious as to the provenance of this figure of coronavirus potentially killing 85,000 people in Ireland. My back of the envelope calculations last week put it at potentially 39,000 dead in the Republic, and that was working from an American estimate that 39% of the population would be infected. Either Leo is assuming that closer to 80% of the population is going to be infected, or he’s assuming the coronavirus is twice as lethal as the given figure. Either of which is a startling change of parameter that I’d like to hear more about. In any case 39,000 dead from the coronavirus here would sit on top of around 30,000 deaths a year in Ireland. Which is equivalent to doubling the amount of funerals you attended last year. A nasty jolt to the national psyche. After all only 20,000 people were reported to have died here from the Spanish Flu in 1918 and 1919.

November 21, 2018

Notes on Overlord

Julius Avery’s WWII horror follow-up to Son of a Gun was the catch-up film of the week on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle last Sunday.

Watching Overlord is a time-travelling experience, and not because this WWII guys on a mission movie mash-up with a gory zombie horror begins with Ike’s reading of his celebrated D-Day missive to the troops about to undertake the deliverance of Europe from the Nazis with the logistical marvel of Operation Overlord. This feels like a film from the mid-Zeroes. Hostel is in its DNA, as is the second episode of Band of Brothers, and, via Doom, the aesthetics of a shoot ’em up video game. In a film about hideous Nazi ‘medical’ experiments on civilians, that is seemingly oblivious of the existence of Dr Josef Mengele, proceedings end with a zombie boss fight – because that’s the logic at work. Wyatt Russell is the gruff ‘the mission is all that matters’ paratrooper who takes command of the decimated forces including Jovan Adepo, John Magaro, and Iain De Caestecker. Their mission: destroy a radio tower. Their distractions: a pretty French girl (Mathilde Ollivier), an SS Captain (Pilou Asbaek), and a dark secret lurking inside the base.

If it wasn’t bad enough to be oblivious of Mengele and have a zombie boss fight in a WWII movie about Nazi experimentations, there is also, regrettably, the trope that infuriates like few others in modern Hollywood – of one life being prioritised to the point of insanity. cf Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix Reloaded, The Cabin in the Woods. Is it worth leaving Europe under Nazi occupation and letting the Holocaust continue on for the sake of saving one random French kid that the soldiers have just met? That is the choice that Jovan Adepo’s character forces on the others. Wyatt Russell’s disbelieving explosive expert tries to remind his men that they are supposed to blow up the radio tower so that D-Day can succeed, does that not strike them as slightly more important than Adepo trying to impress a girl by saving her brother? Guess what they decide…

July 16, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3-D

Andy Serkis (in motion capture) returns as evolved primate Caesar, but Cloverfield director Matt Reeves cannot rescue this iteration of the franchise from itself.

dawn-planet-apes

A chilling prologue shows the lights going out globally as the GenSys-created simian flu decimates humanity. A decade later Caesar (Andy Serkis) is in command of the apes in the Bay Area forest, flanked by scarred warrior Koba (Toby Kebbel), wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), and loyal Rocket (Terry Notary). There is tension between Caesar and his petulant son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), and everything falls apart when Rocket’s son Ash (Doc Shaw) is shot by Carver (The Black Donnellys’ Kirk Acevedo). Carver is part of a team led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), which includes Malcolm’s wife Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alexander (Kodi Smith-McPhee). They are trying to restart a dam to provide power to San Francisco’s human colony led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). The dam is Caesar’s, and Dreyfus gives Malcolm three days to negotiate a peaceful solution…

Matt Reeves inserts some visual trademarks; a lengthy tracking shot in which chaos explodes into frame, a fixed-position sequence from a tank turret’s POV, and a nicely vertiginous use of the Golden Gate bridge; but whereas Let Me In’s slow-burning approach achieved agonising levels of suspense, this is just agonising – Reeves takes forever to unfurl a very simple and remarkably boring plot. Technically everything’s competent: Michael Giacchino’s music is effective if uncharacteristic (no sad tinkly piano!), and Michael Seresin’s cinematography approaches that of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and would be commendable if it likewise served a mood – but you can’t help feel it’s hiding creaking CGI. Ah, CGI… This is our defining modern paradox; an air of distancing unreality hangs over everything, but the great technology and preparation that created it is extolled as cutting-edge and therefore preferable to engaging verisimilitude achieved practically. The non-ending is as insulting as that of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and a trend that needs to be denounced: it’s like ending The Two Towers halfway through the battle of Helm’s Deep.

Writing takes effort. 2011’s reboot had a shocking poverty of characterisation but was a roaring success. Writing becomes much easier for Jaffa, Silver, and Bomback if they know the audience doesn’t want characterisation… Blue Eyes is petulant. That’s his one note. Then later he’s cowardly. He’s easily duped, because… and sides with Koba, because… then finds his steel, because… the script said so. Koba recalls Firefly’s “Curse your sudden, but inevitable, betrayal!” He discovers Dreyfus’ preparation for war and returns to warn Caesar, but loses his rag because he sees Caesar helping humans; except Caesar’s not actually helping them when Koba arrives… But hey, in event of plot emergency break glass for jerk, right? Carver’s rejoinder to Ellie’s fact – “The virus was created by scientists I don’t think the apes they were testing it on had much say in it” “Don’t give me that hippie-dippy bullshit” – is comically awful, but it’s easier to have jerks spark plot points rather than have Dreyfus and Malcolm’s reasonable disagreement over how to achieve their aim be teased out; perhaps that’s why Oldman is barely in this movie. By the climactic “What are you doing?” “Saving the human race!” gambit we’ve reached a truly low point where self-sacrifice that doesn’t work (like Alona Tal in Supernatural) isn’t tragic, but a running gag from 21 Jump Street.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is so poor it makes you nostalgic for the awful Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Whither Rod Serling’s scripting intelligence?

1/5

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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