Talking Movies

August 1, 2012

Alfred & Bane: Brothers in Arms

I was picking over the bones of The Dark Knight Rises with Robert O’Hara, when a terrifying spectre arose before us in considering what age Bane is supposed to be when engaged in terrorising Gotham.

Obviously, because Tom Hardy is playing Bane, you just assume that Bane is an alarmingly muscular dude in his early 30s. Well, think about it… Liam Neeson has a cameo as Ras Al’Ghul, but when Ras is glimpsed in flashback he’s played by a different actor. The tangle with the Asian warlord that is depicted occurred therefore at least 20 if not 30 years previously. But when a later flashback shows Bane without the mask as an anonymous inmate of the prison, he’s played by Tom Hardy; that is Bane is young when Ras is young, which means that logic dictates that Bane in The Dark Knight Rises must be somewhere around the age of Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, plus 9 years of story-time…

If we assume that Ras’ child escaped the nightmare prison aged 10, then the child being portrayed as an adult by someone who might be generously held to look 30 would add twenty years to the actor portraying Tom Hardy, who might generously be held to look 25, making Bane 45 in the movie. But that’s being so generous all around, that it’s just absurd. Far more likely is a combination of ages that makes Bane 55 in the movie. But… If we assume that Ras’ child escaped the nightmare prison aged 7, then the child being portrayed as an adult by someone actually aged 37 would add thirty years to Tom Hardy’s actual age of 35, making Bane 65 in the movie quite plausibly.

This raises another disturbing question. Bane’s speaking voice quite often (and I’m thinking particularly of his overly chummy prompting of the scientist in the football stadium here) veers towards the splenetic tones of a British Army Colonel in his club circa 1926 barking about “these bloody socialists! Haven’t an ounce of patriotic feelings in their bodies. Hanging’s too good for them I tell you!” But if Bane’s a 65 year old man who has the erect bearing (especially when wearing that coat) and the booming tones of an ex-army man, but was imprisoned over thirty years earlier while arsing about in Asia while not in the army, is it barely possible that the reason Alfred is so perturbed by the idea of Bruce taking on Bane is that Bruce’s ex-army butler (who’s in his 70s and quit the mercenary lifestyle over thirty years earlier for some sedate buttling) recognises in the CCTV footage from the attack on the Gotham Stock Exchange a younger brother in arms from his Burmese days??

Perhaps an earlier version of the scene read like this:

INT.BAT-CAVE – DAY.

Alfred and Bruce look at footage of Bane breaking into the Gotham Stock Exchange.

ALFRED: My God!

BRUCE: What?

ALFRED: It’s Corporal Baines!

BRUCE: Alfred, the guy in the mask is called Bane.

ALFRED: Well he weren’t always in a mask, once he was called Baines.

BRUCE: Who?

ALFRED: Many years ago, my friends and I were working in Burma.

BRUCE: Alfred, I do not have the patience to hear about any more tangerines.

ALFRED: One of the younger lads with us was a real nasty piece of work, Corporal Baines. I didn’t want him to join us but I was outvoted by the others and so when we were demobbed and started working as mercenaries we brought him with us. Eventually we lost him when he got into trouble with a local warlord and they flung him into a terrifying, inescapable prison; the Black Pit of Calcutta.

BRUCE: Which is in India, but this allegedly happened in Burma…

ALFRED: (Alfred didn’t hear that) Baines was totally unpredictable, that’s why I didn’t want him around. When we burnt the forest down and finally found the bandit, Baines beat him to within an inch of his life for stealing jewels from our employer. But when we were told by the government to escort the bandit to Rangoon so he could be executed, then Baines wept with compassion, and got so upset that he stayed up drinking with the bandit the whole night before his execution. That bandit was so bloody drunk that when they hung him his thing didn’t even–

BRUCE: I think, Alfred, that this Corporal Baines of yours would be a bit long in the tooth to be as buff as the guy in this video.

ALFRED: Well what else is he going to do in the Black Pit of Calcutta but push-ups? How many push-ups did you do a few years ago when you were living in a bloody mansion?

BRUCE: Alfred, I think I can take a pensioner in a fist-fight!

ALFRED: He’s not just any pensioner, Master Wayne. Look at that training, look at that incredible drive. I see belief. You know they said the only way out of that nightmare of a prison was to scale the walls, and then finally make a leap of faith, jump to a step near the top; a tiny step, the size of a–

BRUCE: Tangerine.

ALFRED: (jumps back in shock) How could you possibly know that??

BRUCE: Because I’m Batman.

July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

It turns out that re-watching Batman Begins and reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is actually the perfect way to warm up for Christopher Nolan’s Bat-swansong.

The Dark Knight Rises finds the reclusive Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) unnerving faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine) with his Howard Hughes impersonation. Wayne’s life has been in stasis for eight years after the death of Rachel Dawes, and his psychological damage is equalled by his physical injuries, he needs a walking stick after destroying all the cartilage in his knees. Wayne Enterprises is similarly burdened following an unsuccessful punt on a new type of fusion energy with fellow billionaire Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard). Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is also reaching the end of his tether with valorising Harvey Dent in order to keep the mob foot-soldiers off the streets and in prison. Indeed Mayor Garcia (Nestor Carbonell) plans to forcibly retire Gordon as a relic of a grim time. But, just as Bruce returns to his long-abandoned business and high society circles after a delightful encounter with cat-burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), grim times return to Gotham with the appearance of the masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy). If Kyle, a cat-burglar who occasionally plays nice, puzzles Bruce’s moral compass, the analgesic-guzzling man-mountain Bane provides a true north of depravity. But just what is his plan for reducing Gotham to ashes, and can an out of shape Bruce really don the cowl again and stop him?

This film is a retrograde step away from the realism of The Dark Knight to the mythic elements of Batman Begins. Legends of impossible feats in Oriental prisons loom large, and Ras Al’Ghul’s League of Shadows return to destroy Gotham at the third time of asking. Bane is impressively brutal in his fighting style and his commitment to causing mental anguish but his muffled dialogue is still incomprehensible in places and, though Hardy adds a few sardonic notes, as a villain he doesn’t match the Joker; even his repetitive rhythmic theme fails to match the Joker’s musical motif. We also have to wait for the first appearance of Batman for an extended period of time only for him to be then immediately absented for acres of screen-time as the Nolans and Goyer get fixated on following other characters, especially Gordon’s young detective protégé Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), suffering under Bane’s Reign of Terror. Dickens, though, explicitly wrote for an audience familiar with Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution. Here we’re fast-forwarded thru Bane’s destruction of Gotham with a total lack of detail of how this is really happening. And the references to Dickens aren’t subtle. The arbitrary show-trials that scream Two Cities even feature a character named Stryver, just in case you didn’t get the homage.

The Dark Knight played like a crime thriller, but this film is less interested in nitty-gritty realism, and more with surfing the Occupy zeitgeist and imagining revolution, however ingenuous, in a modern metropolis. There is a lot to like in this film, but it’s a bit of a mess; so busy that it somehow never actually attends to business. Despite featuring some startling Bat-pod chases it lacks a truly jaw-dropping action sequence, even if, like its predecessor, it does have a number of wonderfully cross-cut shocks and some nice plot twists. The Dark Knight Rises falls down badly though where its predecessors excelled, in giving memorable lines and moments to each member of a large ensemble. Juno Temple, Matthew Modine and Nestor Carbonell are particularly ill served, but even Caine and Cotillard feel desperately under-used, while the relationship between Batman and Kyle is undernourished even if their chemistry convinces. I’ve previously speculated about the ending of this film, and the three strands of the ending cover nearly all the story bases; and, yes, one strand is explicitly Dickensian. The finale does satisfy, but the sense of fun that surely must be part of what keeps Bruce Wayne being Batman is almost entirely absent from this movie, and that loss of espirit is most lamentable.

Christopher Nolan’s final Bat-instalment is a good film, but you can’t help feeling that it’s two movies: a Bat-movie, and a fantasia on the collapse of privileged society.

3/5

June 20, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3-D

Wanted director Timur Bekmambetov returns to the fray with Tim Burton producing an adaptation of his Dark Shadows cohort Seth Grahame-Smith’s best-selling novel.

In 1818 the 9 year old Abraham Lincoln tries to stop the whipping of his friend Will Johnson as Will’s family is sundered by slavers led by the evil Jack Barts (LOTR actor Marton Csokas), incurring the wrath of Barts who kills Abe’s mother Nancy. The adult Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) attacks Barts only to discover, in a neat long-take, that shooting him in the head isn’t enough… Lincoln is instructed in the art of slaying by Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), and in 1837 is dispatched to Springfield, Illinois, to rid the city of vampires. He is distracted from his vengeance by meeting Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and, when Will (Anthony Mackie) returns, Lincoln and his employer Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) enter politics to defeat slavery and the Southern vampires, led by Rufus Sewell’s Adam, who depend upon its continuation.

Far from the gleeful nonsense you’d expect, this film takes itself very, very seriously. The vampires are CGI enhanced ‘fangs like sharks’ monsters (think Supernatural) and played for horror as they walk in sunlight and can become invisible. Lincoln narrates that Henry has a few weeks to teach him a lifetime of skills. The same could be said of the jump-cutting script: Sturgess trains Lincoln in a Batman Begins vein before either character has been properly established. This film amazingly is both dragged out (its 105 minutes feel like 135) and rushed – at the same time. It lashes thru training, slaying, politics, and civil war, with infuriating gaps in detail, empathy and logic. Speed seems to know Abe’s secret before he’s told, Sturgess’ secret is obvious from the opening scene, Barts is seemingly killed, and Harriet Tubman appears but nobody mentions it…

There are precious few gags, and only the broadest one works: “We’ll be late for the theatre.” Alan Tudyk is tragically underused as Senator Stephen Douglas, Lincoln’s bête noire, here a romantic rival who becomes a political opponent, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead has her customary ‘MEW kicks ass’ moment, but the set-piece finale on a train exemplifies the film; just a bit stupid rather than OTT fun. Sewell enjoys himself and model Erin Wasson is a striking presence as his sister Vadoma but, like Walker (and indeed everyone bar Cooper who has the most interesting role), they have acres of screen-time and nothing interesting to do. Having read Adam Gopnik’s book which highlights the comic absurdity of Lincoln condemning the Southern code of vengeance and then duelling for Mary’s honour I have to say the real Lincoln is infinitely more complex, compelling, and yes, entertaining a character.

This film takes the most enjoyably absurd high concept imaginable, but instead of being delirious mayhem somehow ends up being just dull.

2/5

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part II

Drive has inspired this provisional attempt at asking what different types of movie violence exist, how they can be categorised, and what meanings each might have.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” – Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s defence of the Aesthetes is never far behind any justification of excessive violence in cinema. As a defence it has only one drawback, it’s not remotely true. Art can be deeply immoral. I direct you to Triumph of the Will. Quite often film historians will rave about the innovation or dazzling techniques employed by its director Leni Riefenstahl, and then snap back into their conscious minds, realise just how far down a  particularly crooked garden path they’ve gone, and hastily backtrack with a “BUT of course it’s a terribly evil film….” Films do not exist in a vacuum. They’re part of our lived experience, and if we have any sense of right and wrong surely films are implicated in it in more than a three-act Hollywood good defeats evil structural sense.

I reviewed Paranoid Park for InDublin and was appalled at the bisection of an innocent security guard by its unlikeable hero that was the pivot of the film. But I was stunned to see one American critic summon the courage to dub that moment deeply immoral. We’ve been inured to think about screen violence only in terms of effect, technique, structure, but there are different types of violence and morality cannot always be parked at the door as Wilde would wish. A man getting his head stomped on by Ryan Gosling till bone-dust floats in front of the lens inhabits a different universe than a lengthy sword-fight between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn ending with Rathbone’s death. Cinematic violence can be divided into a number of types, and the most obvious type is spectacle. A swordfight is violent, a cowboy duel is violent, a shoot-out is violent, a suspenseful Spielberg action sequence is violent, the lobby scene in The Matrix is violent – but it is the violence of spectacle. Hugh Jackman said that his musical theatre training was helpful in preparing for boxing in Real Steel because fight choreography is just choreography. When action is spectacle, what you’re really watching and enjoying is the choreography.

“Art is art because it is not nature” – Oscar Wilde

Can violence that is not seeking to appeal to the audience’s admiration for good choreography ever truly be aesthetic? Drive depicts a woman’s head exploding from a shotgun blast in anatomically accurate detail. Scorsese realistically depicts the explosion of a body dropped from a roof when it hits the ground, spraying Leonardo DiCaprio with blood, in The Departed. Why do film-makers engaged in depicting violence which is not spectacle usually go for such extreme verisimilitude? For every Kill Bill touch of blood spurting 30 feet there’s multiple instances of something like a gangster being bashed in the head by a shovel in Miller’s Crossing or a gangster being bashed in the head by a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Wilde’s dictum, if taken seriously, implies that 1950s cowboys keeling over dead without any blood being spilled after being shot is more artistic than R rated violence, because it is so obviously not nature but rather an artistic convention. Spielberg at least acknowledged that he was going for extreme authenticity in Saving Private Ryan to traumatise the audience rather than for his usual purpose of using violence – scaring/entertaining them, we’ll label all such uses of violence as catharsis to make life easier. Violent film-makers though seem to enjoy rendering violence in extreme detail not for reasons of catharsis but because they just like depicting bloody violence.

Can violence detached from the spectacle of choreography ever be aesthetic and nothing else? I doubt it, given that we seemed to have reached a point in cinema history where violence must be very realistic (whether fully depicted or screened from view) or it defeats the verisimilitude of its context. A more important question is just why is violence so important to cinema? Raymond Chandler quipped that whenever he got stuck he simply wrote a guy with a gun walking into the room. I’ve hammered LOST before for exactly this sort of laziness in which violence is used as a cheat, a jump-leads to make a scene tense and raise the dramatic stakes without bothering to write escalating conflict, character based tension, or biting dialogue. But this idea allows us to provisionally divide violence into four categories: spectacle, catharsis, function, sadism – suffering is the key to noting the last as well as a certain monolithic quality of the film as violent film and nothing else. It is also the only one that raises moral qualms, as opposed to seething dissatisfaction at lazy writing and distaste at a high water-mark of violence becoming the norm for ignoble reasons of sheer functionality. The fight in the subway at the end of The Matrix is all about the spectacle of dazzling wire-assisted choreography. By contrast the fights in Batman Begins are a total blur in which Batman wins, because Nolan very deliberately shoots too close to the action so as to shift the focus away from the spectacle; it doesn’t matter how Batman beats people up, what matters is that he can beat people up – it’s a question of function and character, not of aesthetics and spectacle. Functional violence is now the grease on the wheels of the three-act structure in many instances. At the climaxes of films, as villains get their desserts, it often overlaps with catharsis.

Catharsis is obviously an ancient legitimisation for extreme violence, and indeed Incendies will probably be my film of the year because it used shocking violence to purge the emotions of its audience with pity and fear to such powerful effect that the entire cinema sat in a stunned Aristotelian silence for some minutes at the end of my screening before shuffling out feeling somewhat mind-blown. But there is a fine line between catharsis and sadism, even in the greatest works. Oedipus gouging out his own eyes when he discovers the truth of his actions is not the same as Titus Andronicus informing his enemy exactly what was in the pie she just ate. ‘Shakespeare was really violent too’ is therefore not a carte blanche excuse for grotesque violence, though it’s often used in defence of extreme screen violence. Yes, Shakespeare was a bloody nihilist in King Lear and Titus Andronicus; in performance everything in Lear can seem mere build up to Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, while Titus is simply a catalogue of grand guignol horror from start to finish. But Shakespeare also wrote the frothy feather-light follies Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing where you’ll look in vain for any eye-gouging or cannibalism. Shakespeare had range with a capital R. The problem with Tarantino’s spawn is that they specialise in violence to a worryingly monolithic extent, and their violence often veers towards the Titus approach rather than Lear – audiences do not cry with pity and fear for what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally purged, they moan in revulsion and disgust at what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally contaminated.

“Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie” – Last House on the Left tagline

Sadism – the true differentiator. Violence as spectacle, function or catharsis doesn’t provoke the same shudder. Incendies was deeply shocking in its depiction of violence, but, crucially, it wasn’t shocking because of graphic depictions of that violence, but because of the connections between who was committing the acts and who they were victimising, on both an individual and societal basis. Sadism does not have that concern which elevates catharsis. It is concerned with depicting suffering for its own sake. Hostel auteur Eli Roth wants you to see a man lose two fingers on both hands as he breaks his bonds and then keep going in his quest to escape the deadly hostel, leaving his fingers behind him. I’ve written about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, noting that the theatrical cut showcased all the most obnoxious moments of his director’s cut: Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer. Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off – ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him to die in agony when Alan Moore’s script slashes his throat for an instant death? I said previously that Snyder was adding sadism to an already nasty story, but now I note he’s changing the category of violence – from function to sadism. He wants you to see people suffering, and that is a sensibility I find deeply troubling, not least because it seems to be shared at certain times by celebrated directors like Refn, the Coens, Tarantino, Scorsese, Burton, Haneke and Miike. I won’t say that what these film-makers do with violence at their worst moments is immoral, but it is deeply troubling, and it’s time to stop meekly accepting their cod-Wildean ersatz-Shakesperean defences and ask just why it is that they apparently get off so much on depicting violence in gory detail with an emphasis on suffering.

Drive didn’t perturb me because it was a film purely of sadistic violence; the first outbreaks of bloodletting are all about function and catharsis, while the ominous killing on the beach is violence as both spectacle and catharsis. No, it’s taken me a long time to fathom what lies behind my feeling that Drive really was a film of two parts; the first of which I loved, the second of which I despised. And this is it. A film makes a contract with the audience, and for me Drive broke that contract – I didn’t expect that sort of violence to develop from the first part of the movie, and I don’t appreciate being told I’ve seen equally graphic violence in films that signed a different contract and delivered the goods as agreed. Spielberg and Hitchcock are pranksters, asking you where the line is repeatedly, to establish it in their minds, and then crossing that line for fun. Robert Rodriguez, in Machete or Planet Terror, establishes his ground rules for schlocky violence in the opening minutes. Saying I shouldn’t attack Drive because I enjoyed Wanted ignores the different contracts that they proffered regarding the nature of the screen violence to expect, and is akin to this:

BORIS: A 0-0 draw. Great. What a riveting football match…
JOHNSON: What are you complaining about? Have you forgotten that 0-0 draw last week that had you enthralled?
BORIS: What, the one with the 2 disallowed goals, 3 sendings off, 4 shots off the crossbar, 5 off the post and 60 shots saved?
GODUNOV: The very one.
BORIS: (beat) I think that was a bit different. How many shots were there tonight?
JOHNSON: What, on target?
BORIS: No, at all.
GODUNOV: Um… None. It was 90 minutes of 22 men on their own goal-lines.
BORIS: Yeah, it was 0-0 and so was last week’s match, but this one was excruciating.

As Enda Kenny used to bellow (but not at Nicolas Winding Refn, though he’d stand hearing it) “Sign the Contract!”

June 29, 2011

Michael Caine cock(ney)s up shakespeare

INT.HOLLYWOOD DIOGENES CLUB-DAY
MICHAEL CAINE is sharing a brandy in the sedate library of this fabled haven of civility in an oftentimes torrid city with his agent, the celebrated MONTGOMERY MONCRIEFF MICAWBER-MYCROFT. Micawber-Mycroft though is wary. He knows only too well the fixed eye of the man with a grievance…

CAINE: You’ve been there ’aven’t you?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: What, the rebuilt Globe? Yes, of course I’ve been there. I saw Macbeth there a few years ago, they had posters everywhere proclaiming ‘This is a bloody production of an extremely brutal play’; I had to stop myself from cackling with delight. That should draw in the crowds in Sarf London I thought to myself.
CAINE: And you’ve been around the exhibition part of it as well, yeah?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes, of course I have.
CAINE: So you know the booths where you can listen to all the old geezers speaking Shakespeare?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Um, yes I tried out the sound booths where you can listen to choice speeches, scenes and sonnets being performed by RADA’s finest graduates.
CAINE: And?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: And what?
CAINE: Wha’ did you notice?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Well, I was rather surprised that the earliest recordings, of Edwardian era actors doing Henry V’s big speeches, made Larry Olivier sound like he was being restrained by contrast when he popped up later. In fact he sounded positively subdued, and, whisper it, naturalistic, when we both know he was an enormous ham.
CAINE: No, Mycroft, you’re missing my point. Wha’ did you notice, did you ’ear a lot of regional accents in them booths?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Eh, no.
CAINE: Yeah, Eh, No. And why is tha’, eh? Do all the people in England sound like Laurence bloody Olivier when they open their mouth? Not bloody likely. So why can’t someone who sounds like me be featured in the recordings in them booths?
(Mycroft quickly puzzles out in his head what this meeting is really all about…)
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Do you want me to try and get your voice into those booths?!
CAINE: Yeah!
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: But, you’ve never really done Shakespeare…
CAINE: How bloody ’ard it can be? I’m not going to record a whole bloody play, I’ll just replace the one track they’ve go’ with Olivier doing Othello. Daft bastard shouldn’t be there doing that anyway, it’s an insult. Putting on blackface at age 58, in 1965 for Christ’s sake, what was he thinking? Until Chiwetel Eijofor remembers to record his bloody vocals for that fantastic exit scene he did with Ewan McGregor a few years ago I’ll ’ave a go.
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Oh! That speech? The final soliloquy?
CAINE: Yeah, tha’ one.
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I’m not sure that’s a very good idea, Michael.
CAINE: Why? Wha’? Do you think I can’t measure up to Larry?
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: No, we both know you can, it’s just I have grave fears that that particular speech might sort of, well, send you looping off in another direction, almost against your will, as it were.
CAINE: Nonsense, it’s easy. (not really listening to Micawber-Mycroft anymore….)
MICAWBER-MYCROFT: (shuddering) And then I might have to deal with an angry Nolan again. And I don’t like dealing with Nolan when he’s angry, especially not now when he’s already simmering at mildly furious with me for telling Delaney I fed him a pivotal line of dialogue for Batman Begins.
CAINE: I’ll go in, knock it ou’, and be back in time to film a cameo in a remake of Jaws IV.

INT.ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS, LONDON-DAY
MICHAEL CAINE and BORIS, a sound engineer, stand on either side of the glass in a recording studio. Boris gives Caine the thumbs up thru the glass, and Caine picks up a battered old Penguin Popular Classic copy of Othello from the studio floor, bent open at the right page with a huge amount of annotation of the speech in question. He then proceeds to deliver a performance and a half; he invests the text with sub-text, pathos, nobility, nuance, and even that thing where his voice breaks when he gets very emotional – very emotional, indeed…

CAINE: Soft you; a word or two before you go:
I have done the Sta’e some service, and they know’t:
No more of tha’. I pray you in your le’’ers,
When you shall these unlucky deeds rela’e,
Speak of me, as Oi am. Nuffin’ extenua’e,
Nor se’ down augh’ in malice.
Then you must speak,
Of one that lov’d no’ wisely, but too well:
Of one, no’ easily jealous, but being wrough’,
Perplex’d in the extreme: Of one, ’ose ’and,
Like the base Judean threw a pearl away
(Twitches; self-restraining, then forlornly) The size, of a tangerine…
BORIS: CUT!
(Boris shakes his head, walks to the door, and opens it. Looks pityingly at Michael Caine and quietly says–)
BORIS: Get out.
CAINE: Yeah, alrigh’.

June 15, 2011

Micawber-Mycroft explains nervous action directing

INT.HOLLYWOOD DIOGENES CLUB-DAY

DELANEY, an agent to the stars, uneasily walks into the library of the well-appointed Diogenes Club. Yes, this may be a haven of civility in an oftentimes torrid city, but it is also entirely lacking in potted plants; which he likes to water to put his mind at ease. Thankfully he spots his friend and fellow agent MONTGOMERY MONCRIEFF MICAWBER-MYCROFT across the room and wanders over to where he is seated, only to be shushed into silence as he sits down.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Look at that agent over there! It’s hysterical. He’s been reading the Inception screenplay just like that for the past week and he still hasn’t grasped what it’s all about.

DELANEY: (hurt) Mycroft! You know that I don’t understand what it’s all about either!

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Pshaw my good man! Pshaw! You don’t understand the philosophical ramifications and the apparent inner inconsistencies. He doesn’t understand how two levels of reality being depicted simultaneously can work on film. Someone tried to explain The Matrix to him yesterday and he had to lie down for the entire afternoon to recover…

DELANEY: Oh, wow.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Quite. (beat) Why are you here anyway?

DELANEY: You asked me to meet you here.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Well of course I did dear boy. I couldn’t possibly come to meet you in your office, my only vice is indolence and I’m loathe to move from my regular armchair here. Let me to try to remember which among the many brightly-coloured balls that I must keep juggling in the air in my capacity as an over-worked agent I wanted to warn you about. Ah yes! Bond.

DELANEY: James Bond?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes. The studio has sorted out nightmarish licensing and financial difficulties, the understanding of which defeated even my vast legal expertise, and so is ready to make another Bond movie with Peter Morgan making the gibberish action script legible to thinking humans and Sam Mendes at the helm.

DELANEY: At the helm?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Lensing it, as they say.

DELANEY: As who says? What’s he doing?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: He’s directing it you twit! Really, you must try and keep up with the synonyms this business throws out, no wonder McAvoy and Pellegrino keep moaning…

DELANEY: How did you know about that?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I quite often breach the fourth wall not once but twice before breakfast. Anyway, that’s not important. What matters is that you must at all costs prevent all your stable of actors from taking over-prominent parts in this production.

DELANEY: What?! Why?? Mendes is a good director isn’t he? I thought that people won awards, or at least got nominated for awards when they appeared in his stuff.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes, that’s true.

DELANEY: So wouldn’t my guys win awards or get nominated if they did his new movie?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Not a chance, Bond movies don’t get awards no matter how Casino Royale they are.

DELANEY: Oh, but still, wouldn’t it be a good career move? Mendes directing Bond? He’s a name director after all.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Yes, but, is he an action director? No sir, he is not, he is an actors’ director, and whenever an actors’ director gets thrown onto an action movie their soul frets in the shadow of spectacle.

DELANEY: You mean they don’t know what to do with the CGI?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Pshaw sir! CGI is the least of their worries. Let me conjure up a scene for you…

INT.HOLLYWOOD BACKLOT-DAY

RODRIGO DELL’ARTE, an imaginary art-house director, arrives in thru the studio gate and is immediately pounced on by A GAGGLE of production heads bellowing questions and demands.

BORIS: Where are we going to shoot the car-chase?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT (O/S): Car-what? The man’s barely aware of what a car is, he gets public transport everywhere as a matter of principle. As for car-chases they hold no interest for him whatsoever, what can a car-chase say about the human condition?

(Dell’Arte shrugs his shoulders expressively to Boris)

JOHNSON: Are we going to do all the explosions for real or will we try and skimp by with CGI for some of them to free up their budget for the wire-work in the night-time museum sequence?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT (O/S): He’s heard the letters CGI, but has never had to have an actual conversation about them before. As for wire-work, that sounds more practical but still it scares the life out of him.

(Dell’Arte nods approvingly to Johnson)

GODUNOV: Have you made a final decision on which location you want to film the base-jumping sequence from, Hong Kong or Dubai?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT (O/S): What is this? A movie or a round the world cruise? Previously he’s only ever been offered choices between tiny sound-stages and cramped apartments…

(Dell’Arte throws his hands up in despair, and defers to his SECOND UNIT DIRECTOR)

INT.HOLLYWOOD DIOGENES CLUB-DAY

Micawber-Mycroft leans back in his chair.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: In summary, this is a world they’ll never understand, and you’ll always fear what you don’t understand.

DELANEY: That sounds oddly familiar.

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I may have said it rather loudly when a struggling director was dining here some years back.

DELANEY: So an art-house director on an action movie simply defers to the second unit?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Indeed he does! They have the experience and expertise he does not, he is simply terrorised by their smooth efficiency. He’s made to feel an interloper on his own production. He leaves so much to the blasted second unit that the first time he sees the cast is two months into a six month shoot and they don’t know who he is. This does not gel an ensemble…

DELANEY: So, well then at least the action is perfect, even if he stood back from it?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: No, the action is perfectly fine because it’s being done by professionals without someone standing over them whipping them onwards. Martin Campbell gets all the action in Casino Royale perfectly perfect because he’s an action director merrily urging his second unit on to great heights, but then he also manages to get the actors to reach the same heights in the first unit stuff. Which may have been sheer luck, the great script, or, as I suspect, the ease they felt in knowing that this man was indeed on top of everything in the film.

DELANEY: And you think that a less commercial director will just get into a blind panic over the action, and sit back from it, thinking he can focus on getting the acting scenes top notch, but then the acting doesn’t compensate?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: Of course the acting doesn’t compensate! No one goes to an action film to see people acting! Acting is merely what they do in between explosions, fights, and car-chases to keep the action from getting monotonous.

DELANEY: So you think the next Bond film will be a bit of a mess?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I don’t know what to expect. Mendes has a flair for comedy which is oft forgotten because he makes such downbeat films, so you can expect the next Bond film to be quite funny. And you can guarantee he’ll draw out top-notch performances. But, you cannot put money down on it being a great film without reservations…

DELANEY: How are you such an expert on this?

MICAWBER-MYCROFT: I’m British.

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

November 2, 2010

Enron

Velociraptors in the basement, sex in the boardroom, trading shares to techno music, and wielding light-sabres in the dark; just another day at the office in Lucy Prebble’s demented satire Enron.

Director Rupert Goold picked up his second Olivier award this year for his energetic interpretation of her script which rambunctiously charts the rise and fall of Enron under the stewardship of CEO Jeffrey Skilling. An impressive trading exchange dominates the stage, which runs Enron’s share price across its screen, and onto which TV footage from the era, including Alan Greenspan’s ‘irrational exuberance’ speech, is projected. Much like The Silver Tassie, which it succeeded in the Gaiety, Enron is a play with music rather than a musical. Composer/lyricist Adam Cork only writes three genuine musical numbers, including a jaunty 1920s style routine complete with cane-twirling by cheerleading financial analysts (“He’s our man/If Jeff can’t do it, no one can!”), and a show-stopping hymn to the market when Skilling’s dream of an in-house trading floor becomes a reality with chanted verses of price movements to juddering techno yielding to ambient backed choruses of reverence by the traders for Gold or Aluminium or whatever commodity is going up. Elsewhere Cork’s sound design is high-octane dance music and Guns’n’Roses’ ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ for a slow-motion physical theatre depiction of Skilling’s lethal team-building automotive weekends.

Prebble’s script develops four characters in detail and surrounds them with a circus of caricatures, the most amusing of which include the easily persuaded conjoined twins the Lehman Brothers and the equivocating auditors Arthur Andersen, one man and his truth-telling puppet. Sara Stewart (Batman Begins’ Martha Wayne) is Claudia Roe, the only executive who questions Skilling’s wisdom. Her insistence on building a power plant in India is continuously derided as passé, physically making electricity instead of just trading it, but in the end the plant is the only tangible asset remaining. Clive Francis is wonderfully despicable as Ken Lay, whose avuncular folksiness is only maintained by not asking questions he knows have uncomfortable answers. Paul Chahidi is magnificent as financial wunderkind Andy Fastow whose hero-worship of Skilling extends as far as naming his son Jeffrey. Fastow sees the smartest guy in the room succeeding and to hell with the social niceties he can’t master, but Skilling turns out not to be that clever as (to the bitter end) he cannot see that other people can’t and won’t ‘catch-up’ to his schemes. Corey Johnson (Hellboy’s retiring partner) deserves high praise for making his arrogant protagonist charismatic enough to be sympathetic.

Skilling’s new accounting system logs future revenue as present revenue, but present expenses are actually present, which quickly leaves him in debt. Fastow explains to Skilling with the help of a laser-pen that if his cavernous basement office is the debt that needs to be hidden, selling it to ‘independent’ entities which only need 3% of non-Enron stock to be independent, Fastow can use a tiny amount of Enron stock to create almost infinite layers of shadow entities he calls ‘raptors’ so that “this red dot fills the whole room”. Fastow later finds two hatched eggs, nervously asking “Is there anyone down here?” a velociraptor appears, “Clever girls”, and a blackout leaves only the raptor’s red eye visible – a precursor of the madness of the second act. Lay’s politicking with Dubya destroys energy regulation and a cash-strapped Skilling sends in his traders to profiteer from creating rolling blackouts in California. A darkened stage is lit up by choreographed traders wielding light-sabres as Skilling barks orders before the light-sabres power-off on Skilling’s jibe: “You want to know the difference between California and the Titanic? When the Titanic went down it still had lights on”. But this tactic destroys Enron’s reputation and share-price precipitating the catastrophic end.

An incarcerated Skilling defiantly addresses the audience, his peroration is disturbingly thought-provoking; not just progress but also love and parenting depend on irrational exuberance -“The best things I did in my life I did in a bubble. When there was that atmosphere of total hope, and trust…and stupidity”.

4.5/5

July 19, 2010

Inception

“Have you ever had a dream Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you found yourself unable to awake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the real world and the dream world?” Among the many achievements of Christopher Nolan’s latest film is that it answers Morpheus’ rhetorical question…

I’m not idly linking Inception to The Matrix as Nolan is in dialogue with it as well as his own opus. Following a typically stylish/puzzling opening we follow corporate spies Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they bungle an industrial espionage job in a Japanese mansion highly reminiscent of Ras Al’Ghul’s mountain lair in Batman Begins. They are unexpectedly offered a way out of their predicament from a former mark Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito wants them to reverse their usual modus operandi of ‘extracting’ secrets and instead attempt inception – to plant the seed of a destructive idea in the mind of his business rival (Cillian Murphy) – which Arthur, almost imitating Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects, opines can’t be done. Cobb though takes the job, as Saito offers the bait of freeing himself from outstanding legal troubles which have prevented him returning to his family in America. Nolan’s ‘existential heist movie’ then becomes a joyous globe-trotting exercise in assembling a team for the caper – picking up a forger in Mombasa (Tom Hardy), an architect in Paris (Ellen Page), and a seriously dodgy chemist, before training (in shared dreams) in a warehouse and making contact with the mark, who complicates their plans…

That description should tell you that Nolan has somehow made a ‘realistic’ film about larceny where the scene of the crime is your unconscious mind. This depiction of the unconscious owes nothing to Dali, Freud or Jung. His thieves keep their dreamscapes impeccably realistic to dupe the mark into believing that the dream world is real. Only Ariadne’s initial gleeful construction of architecture free from the laws of physics, and collapsing dreams and malevolent subconscious projections shatter that verisimilitude. Nolan’s interest here is not plot twists or fractured chronology but layering levels of reality. This allows him the blockbuster action tension of the double jeopardy at the end of The Matrix, with Neo fighting Smith while a Squiddie assaults the Nebuchadnezzar, but even more heightened. How exactly these thieves insinuate themselves into their subjects’ dreams and manipulate them though is anything but popcorn as its conceptual simplicity but sheer craziness in execution means you must stay as alert to what is happening at every moment as with Memento. The device which allows the team to synchronise their dreams and instantly fall asleep is similar to its equivalent in The Matrix but (gloriously) its working is never explained scientifically in this ‘sci-fi thriller’, which instead prioritises Edith Piaf and inner ear discomfort in the explanation of the ingenious ‘kicks’ for waking up.

Nolan’s films obsessively follow characters wracked by guilt over the deaths of people close to them who embark on quests for justice or vengeance and Cobb is an interesting variation on this archetype. DiCaprio is strong as a haunted hero running from his guilt, aided by Hans Zimmer’s unsettling reworking of his Two-Face musical theme, and is supported by an impeccable ensemble. Page is terrific as Ariadne. Both the newest member of the team, through whose eyes we come to understand this universe’s rules, and the most grounded, it is she who pushes Cobb towards finally exorcising his demons before they endanger the team. Hardy shows immense range after his bravura turn in Bronson by being wonderfully insouciant as the forger Eames, while Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt is once again effortlessly charismatic as the quick-thinking point-man Arthur. He steals many scenes from DiCaprio and memorably gives an outstandingly delivery of one delightful word.

Inception combines caper movie with sci-fi thriller, underpinned by a meaty character arc about guilt that takes advantage of being able to give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, to dazzle both eyes and mind. Essential viewing.

5/5

March 22, 2010

The Morpheus Problem

Laurence Fishburne will shortly return to our television screens to continue causing all manner of structural problems for CSI: LV. The Morpheus Problem has become so obvious and acute that CBS and CSI producers actually conducted research during the summer break to see just what problem audiences had with Fishburne’s starring role in CSI as Dr Ray Langston and, more to the point, what they could do to fix the snag. The fix was simple and damn near unanimous – “We’d like to see Ray in more of a leadership role”. It was nearly unanimous because what they really meant was – “We’d like to see Morpheus in more of a leadership role, cos, like, he’s Morpheus…”

How did we get here? William Petersen after 8 ½ seasons of playing Dr Gil Grissom, supervisor of the Night Shift in the Las Vegas Crime Lab, could no longer resist the urge to get back to treading the boards of Chicago’s illustrious Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Petersen also produces CSI: LV so this meant finding a suitable replacement before leaving the cast of the TV uber-franchise of the decade. Fellow Steppenwolf alumni Gary Sinise had already been tapped to headline CSI:NY and there were no obvious fallen stars like NYPD Blue’s David Caruso, who had been resurrected with the absurd role of Lt. Horatio Caine in CSI: Miami, so they got ambitious and drafted in Laurence Fishburne. A worthy replacement in star-power for Grissom’s role, except that crippling stupidity then struck the writers’ room…

A two-part episode saw Grissom retire from CSI to join lost true love Sara Sidle doing scientific research in the rainforest. He passed the torch to criminology professor Dr Ray Langston, but explicitly invited Ray to apply for the Level 1 CSI vacancy, not to replace him as supervisor. Catherine Willows therefore became the new supervisor of the night shift and Ray joined the team at the bottom of the food chain as the new rookie Level 1 CSI. Fishburne of course waltzed into first billing above Marg Helgenberger who it appears will be eternally second-billed as Catherine Willows. But first billed was then depicted making an ass of himself as Rookie Ray who spent his first crime scene investigation involved in a life and death struggle with his latex gloves that just did not want to be put on… This is not a good move, especially as the writers had already given Ray two careers. He was a medical doctor who failed to notice a serial killer at work in his hospital, and his book about how he had failed to piece together the clues that came across his administrative desk somehow secured him a professorship of criminology at Western Las Vegas University, which he then quit for CSI – after failing to notice a serial killer at work in his class… This back-story couldn’t have been designed to create a bigger Morpheus problem. But the writers did quickly drop the rookie shtick and try to fix their blunder

Ray’s medical background allowed them belatedly have him literally fill Grissom’s shoes by attending autopsies with coroner Dr Robbins, before outrageously jump-starting a Grissom/Robbins dynamic by having Ray and Robbins turn out to both be blues fans, who then go on a road-trip to fight crime – while listening to the blues. So far so Grissom but then some Morpheus was added to the mix as a baffling case was solved by Ray lecturing the other CSIs on ancient Greek history and philosophy and then using his reading of Aeschylus to solve the ‘murder’ of a self-proclaimed monk. But these attempted fixes all miss the real problem.

Fishburne is too big a screen presence to be the lowest ranked person on the team, beneath even Lauren Lee Smith. It’s not that Smith hasn’t redeemed herself for Mutant X with fine turns in The L Word and The Dead Zone it’s just that she can’t dominate a scene with Fishburne, few can. Is the Morpheus problem soluble? Can Ray really take over a leadership role without wreaking chaos on the internal logic of 9 years of CSI, or can the writers belatedly contrive as clever an implausible jumping of the ranks as Commissioner’s Gordon’s ascension in just two Nolan Bat-films? And how did this problem arise in the first place, did the writers not realise that sometimes one role really can haunt an actor? That, despite a long and varied career from a thug in Death Wish 2 and the youngest member of the crew in Apocalypse Now, thru the abusive Ike Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It? and the noble Shakespearean tragic hero in Othello, to the untrustworthy spy-master in M:I-3, Fishburne’s kung-fu knowing mentor in The Matrix has seared itself indelibly into the popular imagination.

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