Talking Movies

January 20, 2016

2016: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 3:38 pm
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Midnight Special

Mud writer/director Jeff Nichols makes his studio debut on April 15th with this tale he places roughly in the territory of John Carpenter’s Starman and De Palma’s The Fury. Nichols regular Michael Shannon plays a father forced to go on the run with his son after discovering the kid has special powers, and the FBI is interested in them… Sam Shepard also recurs, as does cinematographer Adam Stone, while Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, and Joel Edgerton join the Nichols stable. It’s hard to imagine a genre tale from Nichols, but perhaps an unusually heart-felt Stephen King captures it.

Everybody Wants Some

April 15th sees Richard Linklater release a ‘spiritual sequel’ to both Dazed and Confused and Boyhood. Little is known for sure about Everybody Wants Some, other than it’s a comedy-drama about college baseball players during the 1980s, that follows a boy entering college, meeting a girl, and a new band of male friends. The cast features Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, and Zoey Deutch, so in retrospect may be as star-studded as his 1993 exploration of the end of high school. Hopefully it’s as archetypal and poignant as that as regards the college experience.

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Love & Friendship

On April 27th almost exactly four years since Damsels in Distress the urbane Whit Stillman returns with another tale of female friendship, with a little help in the scripting department from Jane Austen. His Last Days of Disco stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny reunite for this adaptation of Austen’s ‘Lady Susan’ novella shot in Ireland. Stephen Fry, Jemma Redgrave, and Xavier Samuel are the supporting players as Beckinsale tries to marry off her daughter (Morfydd Clark) but the real attraction is Stillman, poet of dry wit and elite social rituals, adapting an author with similar preoccupations.

The Nice Guys

Shane Black’s third directorial effort, out on May 20th, sees him back on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang territory. Get ready for Ryan Gosling to Bogart his way thru the seedy side of the City of Angels as Holland March, PI. March partners up with a rookie cop (Matt Bomer) to investigate the apparent suicide of a porn star. But standing in his way is an LA Confidential reunion: Kim Basinger as femme fatale, Russell Crowe as Det. Jackson Healy. It’s hard not to be excited at the prospect of terrific dialogue carrying some hysterically self-aware genre deconstruction.

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Queen of Earth

We can expect writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s latest movie to hit Irish cinemas sometime in June. Listen Up Philip star Elisabeth Moss takes centre-stage here alongside Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston as two old friends who retreat to a lake house only to discover that they have grown very far apart with the passage of time. Keegan DeWitt scores his second movie for ARP not with jazz but a dissonance appropriate to the unusual close-ups, that have invited comparison with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, as a spiky Waterston hurts an emotionally wounded Moss in all the old familiar places.

Independence Day: Resurgence

Roland Emmerich, the maestro of bombastic action that is actually mocking its audience, returns on June 24th (for some reason) with a belated sequel in which the aliens come back. Jeff Goldblum has led a 20 year scramble to harness alien tech to strengthen earth’s defences but will those efforts (and Liam Hemsworth’s mad piloting skills) be enough against an even more imposing armada? Sela Ward is the POTUS, Bill Pullman’s POTUS has grown a beard, his daughter has morphed from Mae Whitman into Maika Monroe, and the indefatigable Judd Hirsch returns to snark about these changes.

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La La Land

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling team up again on July 15th for an original musical from Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle. Gosling is a jazz musician in LA who falls in love with Stone’s aspiring actress, and that’s all you need for plot. Stone did an acclaimed turn as Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway, but whether Gosling or JK Simmons (!!) can hold a tune is unknown. The real question is will it be half-embarrassed to be a musical (Chicago), attempt unwise grittiness (New York, New York), or be as mental as aMoulin Rouge! with original songs?

Suicide Squad

And on August 5th we finally get to see what Fury auteur David Ayer has done with Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery. The latest trailer has amped up the nonsense quotient considerably, and this now looks like The Dirty Dozen scripted by Grant Morrison. Joel Kinnaman’s long-suffering Rick Flagg has to lead into combat the assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), angry mercenary Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), witch Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), half-man half-crocodile Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the psycho in psychotherapy, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). All eyes are on Robbie’s take on Harley, well until Jared Leto’s Mistah J turns up…

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Sausage Party

August 12th sees the release of probably the most ridiculous film you will see all year, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have scripted an adult animation about a sausage in a grocery store on a quest to discover the truth of his existence. Apart from Jay Baruchel, all the voices you’d expect are present and correct: James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, David Krumholtz, as well as Kristen Wiig, Edward Norton, and Salma Hayek. But given how Green Hornet failed can R-rated semi-improvised comedy and animation go hand in hand?

War on Everyone

The Guard in New Mexico! Okay, maybe not quite, but in that wheelhouse. In late August John Michael McDonagh makes his American bow with a blackly comic thriller about two renegade cops (Alexander Skarsgaard and Michael Pena) who have devoted themselves to blackmailing and framing every criminal who crosses their path. And then they come across that somebody they shouldn’t have messed with… McDonagh’s two previous outings as writer/director have been very distinctive, visually, philosophically, and verbally, but you wonder if he’ll have to endlessly self-censor his take no prisoners comedy for ‘liberal’ American sensibilities. Hopefully not.

American actor Matt Damon attends a press conference for his new movie "The Great Wall" in Beijing, China on July 2, 2015. Pictured: Matt Damon Ref: SPL1069228 020715 Picture by: Imaginechina / Splash News Splash News and Pictures Los Angeles:310-821-2666 New York:212-619-2666 London:870-934-2666 photodesk@splashnews.com

The Girl on the Train

Following Gone Girl another book of the moment thriller gets rapidly filmed on October 7th when Emily Blunt becomes the titular voyeur. From her commuter train seat she witnesses the interactions of perfect couple Haley Bennett and Luke Evans as she slows down at a station on the way to London. Then one day she sees something she shouldn’t have, and decides to investigate… The impressive supporting cast includes Rebecca Ferguson, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, and Justin Theroux, but it’s not clear if Secretary screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson has relocated the action to New York.

The Great Wall

November 23rd sees Chinese director Zhang Yimou embrace Hollywood, with an English-language story about the construction of the Great Wall of China scripted by Max Brooks and Tony Gilroy. Zhang has assembled an impressive international cast including Matt Damon, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe, Jing Tian, Zhang Hanyu, and Mackenzie Foy for this sci-fi fantasy of the Wall’s completion. Little is known about the actual plot, but Zhang’s recent movies about the Cultural Revolution have been a drastic change of pace from the highly stylised colourful martial arts epics of Imperial China he’s known for in the West.

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The Founder

Michael Keaton cements his leading man comeback on November 25th with a blackly comic biopic of Ray Kroc. Who is Ray Kroc you ask? The Founder of … McDonald’s. Yes the McDonald brothers did own a hamburger store, but it wasn’t them that expanded into a national and then global, brand. That was all Kroc, who bought them out, and then forgot to pay them royalties; one of several incidents of what people might call either unethical behaviour or recurrent amnesia. Supporting players include Nick Offerman, Laura Dern, and Patrick Wilson, so this tale might be quite tasty.

Story of Your Life

Denis Villeneuve gears up for directing Blade Runner 2 with an original sci-fi movie that should arrive late in 2016. A first contact story, adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story, it follows Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics expert recruited by the U.S. military. Her job is to decipher an alien race’s communications, but her close encounter with ET causes vivid flashbacks to events from her life. Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg are physicists and spooks trying to figure out what her unnerving experiences mean for rest of the humanity.

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Passengers

Stomping on Rogue One with a December 21st release date is the dream team of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Poor Keanu Reeves spent years trying to make this sci-fi rom-com happen but as soon as these two expressed interest Jon Spaihts’ long-circling script got permission to land. Pratt wakes from cryo-sleep 90 years too early, so wakes up another passenger to relieve his loneliness on the somnambulant spaceship. Michael Sheen is a robot, but the potential for delight is offset by worthy director Morten Tyldum and the high probability of the contrivance of every other rom-com being used.

Assassin’s Creed

‘One for the studio, One for ourselves’. As it were. December 21st sees the acclaimed Macbeth trio of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and director Justin Kurzel reunite for a blockbuster based on the all-conquering game. Ubisoft Motion Pictures (yes, that’s really a thing now) and New Regency have opted not to adapt the story of Desmond Miles, or Ezio Auditore; perhaps in case this bombs. Fassbender plays original character Callum Lynch who can commune with his ancestor Aguilar, also played by Fassbender; presumably with a devilish grin as he battles the Spanish Inquisition. Fingers crossed that this works.

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April 9, 2015

The Man in Two Pieces

Stephen Brennan and Gerard Adlum weave a web of fraudulent magic in 1920s rural Ireland in Theatre Upstairs’ new work The Man in Two Pieces.

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Vivid red curtains with an occasionally projected moon above them are the backdrop for this glimpse behind the scenes at Kerrigan’s Vaudeville Troupe. Kerrigan (Stephen Brennan) has been touring the Irish countryside for thirty years; arriving without notice, disappearing without trace, in such unlikely venues as “Gorman’s fourth field”. He keeps the same names and patter for the acts, even as he changes the artistes: his new Italian Adonis is from Sligo, and hypnotist the Great Gustavo is not really from the Black Forest, as his real name, Gordon McAleer, might give away. But just as The Boy runs away with the troupe, entranced by their magical show, the realities of the Anglo-Irish War are about to trump magic as Kerrigan insists on playing Middleton, against warnings both from his artistes and from a menacing local IRA man in Cork…

“We deal in magic” says Kerrigan, and half the trick of his trade is the audience’s desire to believe. Ironically it is just such desire, a wilful self-delusion; that politics can be ignored; which lays Kerrigan low. Brennan is on fine form as Kerrigan, a composite of canny entrepreneur, talented song and dance man, and self-mocking ringmaster who has lied so well, so often, that now all lies sound equally truthful to his ears. He may have come to Ireland from London in pursuit of a Galway girl with a beautiful voice who he made his first vaudeville attraction. He may be from Golden, Tipperary; where he expects a hero’s welcome. There are echoes of Faith Healer in Kerrigan’s contradictory narratives and this impulse to destruction; returning, like Frank Hardy’s Ballybeg, to a place where he must demonstrate his magic.

Playwright Gerard Adlum is the narrator as The Boy, who charmingly remains mute but physically expressive in his scenes with Kerrigan, and also plays the Adonis and Gustavo. He renders one with a cap and a Sligo accent, the other with a Northern accent and, in ‘character’, a German accent akin to Cabaret’s MC but with a notable punctiliousness of gait and business. Such quick changes of character are expertly accomplished through accents, physicality, props, rolling up and down of shirtsleeves, and elegant, fluid blocking by director Sarah Finlay. Finlay seems to enlarge the small playing space of Theatre Upstairs, with Kerrigan’s leaps off the stage for exits and entrances, and the constant feeling that Rebekka Duffy’s colourful and cluttered set of suitcases, brushes, and weights is only part of a wider backstage world that extends off-stage in either direction.

The Man in Two Pieces, even down to Adlum and Nessa Matthews’ two songs, is an affecting and sad play concerned with those left behind, uncomprehending, by political sea-change.

3.5/5

The Man in Two Pieces continues its run in Theatre Upstairs until the 18th of April.

February 1, 2013

Top Performances of 2012

As the traditional complement to last week’s Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2012. The Golden Globes categories obviously inspired the absurdist split into drama and comedy of Best Supporting Actor. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actor (Drama)

John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) His cult leader is as scary and charismatic as his Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, you believe this man could hold Martha in his thrall even as initial love-bombing degenerates into sexual abuse and criminal adventures.

Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method, On the Road) His droll Freud is charismatic and delivers great put-downs but is deeply ambiguous; did he deliberately corrupt Jung? As genteel junky William Burroughs he was unexpectedly warm and sane.

Runners Up:

Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe, Magic Mike) Wonderfully sleazy as Cabaret’s MC (sic), he erased his rom-coms with a revelatory Joe; icily calm, thawed by love, and psychotic.

Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, Haywire) His very precise turn as the dishonest android enlivened Prometheus, while his Haywire killer was very dashing.

Also Placed:

Sam Neill (The Hunter) Neill’s gravitas and underplayed emotional torment gave a weight to his dialogue scenes with Dafoe that underpinned Dafoe in the wilderness.

Trystan Gravelle (Stella Days) His teacher inspired Martin Sheen’s priest to defiance, but he also played the attraction to his landlady with great subtlety.

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Best Supporting Actor (Comedy)

Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Miller, as flamboyant senior Patrick, displays startling range in portraying charismatic rebel after his troubled loner in We Need to Talk About Kevin. His turn is an exuberant joy that tramples clichés of gay characters in high-school movies.

Bradley Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods) Whitford as a military-industrial office drone organised absurd office gambling pools, snarled obscenities at video monitors, indulged in an unbelievably funny speakerphone prank, and rampaged hilariously thru great dialogue.

Runners Up:

Adam Brody (Damsels in Distress) His musings on decadence’s decline would get this nod, but Brody also makes his character a good soul given to self-aggrandising deception.

Liev Schreiber (Goon) He makes us care for his lousy hockey player who dutifully serves his team, and establishes a convincing bond with his challenger Scott.

James Ransone (Sinister) His Deputy, embarrassingly eager to assist the hero’s research and so get a book acknowledgment, single-handedly lightens a tense film.

Richard Ayoade (The Watch) His deadpan delivery of utter nonsense and total logic is hysterical, as he synchs with the filthy absurdity purveyed by Hill and Rogen.

Also Placed:

Alec Baldwin (To Rome with Love) Baldwin’s reality-bending interfering commentary on Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page’s burgeoning romance is Annie Hall-esque.

Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom) The Greatest Actor of His Generation (TM) is actually wonderful here as the kindly earnest scoutmaster unable to control his troops.

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Best Supporting Actress

Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) She excellently layered Lucy’s relief at getting her missing sister Martha back, with guilt at perhaps having driven her away originally, and a mingled desperation and despair over the prospects of healing her psychic scars.

Sophie Nelisse (Monsieur Lazhar) As Alice, the traumatised but kind girl who most appreciates what M. Lazhar is trying to do for the class, this Quebecois Dakota Fanning gives a stunningly mature performance based on unspoken grief.

Shaleine Woodley (The Descendants) She displayed considerable spark as the troubled 17 year old banished to boarding school, who’s surprisingly effective at buttressing her father’s parenting of her younger sister even as she tells him home truths.

Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) Hathaway essayed a great languorous voice, a wonderful slinky physicality, and a good chemistry with Batman, as well equal viciousness with quips and kicks, but her delightful presence was sorely underused.

Runners Up:

Helene Florent (Cafe de Flore) Her abandoned wife sinking into depression at the loss of her life-long partner gives the film its emotional weight.

Ellen Page (To Rome with Love) Page’s madly attractive actress gets a huge build-up from Greta Gerwig and lives up to it with gloriously shallow sophistication.

Megalyn Echikunwoke (Damsels in Distress) Echikunwoke madly milks her recurring line about ‘playboy operators’ and has an amazing character moment.

Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games) Banks is very funny delivering callous lines as talent scout Effie.

Also Placed:

Roisin Barron (Stitches) Barron’s verbally abrasive and physically abusive mean girl reminded me of Keira Knightley’s early swagger.

Kristin Scott Thomas (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) Her terrifying Press Secretary; reshuffling the P.M.’s Cabinet for him, verbally abusing her own children; stole the film.

Mae Whitman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Whitman is hilariously narcissistic and garrulous as she dominates her unfortunate boyfriend.

Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus) A 75 year old assaults Jimmy Nesbitt and you feel concerned for him – Redgrave oft conjures up that ferocity as Fiennes’ mother.

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Best Actress

Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Liberal Arts) Olsen’s debut as cult member Martha was startlingly assured – naive victim and spiteful malefactor – and her thoughtful and witty Zibby was a comedic turn of great charm and depth.

Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook) Imperious as Katniss: a great action heroine who combined a will of steel with being a surrogate mother. Her depressed Tiffany was quicksilver magic, flirty to angry in mere seconds.

Runners Up:

Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method, Anna Karenina) Knightley excelled at Anna’s early empathy, but she was startlingly alien as the hysteric Sabina who recovers to a nuanced fragility.

Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Watson is luminous as the sardonic senior who makes it her project to transform an isolated freshman into a fellow Rocky Horror  performer.

Also Placed:

Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) Stone’s witty and very determined Gwen Stacy makes you realise how poorly used Dallas Bryce Howard was and how flat out poor Kirsten Dunst was.

Deborah Mailman (The Sapphires) Gail, the sister with an inflated opinion of herself and a sharp mouth, is a meaty part with a lot of zinging put-downs.

Lola Creton (Goodbye First Love) Creton’s arc from teenage suicidal despair to apparent and actual contentment was utterly convincing, especially in her unease around her lost love.

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Best Actor

Michael Fassbender (Shame) His remarkably raw performance made us sympathise with a sex-addict scared of being rumbled at work, but that panicked despair on his face had a flipside, the predatory smile when picking up women. Balancing both was sublime.

Runners Up:

Woody Harrelson (Rampart) This tour-de-force made us care for a repellent character. Yes, he was a jerk and a dirty cop, but desired to do the right thing as he saw it.

Willem Dafoe (The Hunter) Dafoe’s physical presence as he stalked the Tasmanian bush was equalled by his emotional integration into the family he lodged with.

Mohamed Said Fellag (Monsiuer Lazhar) Fellag’s strict but loving teacher knows how to help the class recover from trauma and, driven by his loss, defies orders not to.

Also Placed:

Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires) His drunken Irish soul man lifts the movie to comic heights it wouldn’t have hit, especially in his fractious relationship with Gail.

Muhammet Uzuner (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) Dr Cemal was a creation of immense humanity, his Stoic voiceover while the camera observed waving grass at night mesmerising.

Taner Birsel (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) Prosecutor Nusret was splendidly subtle, a man of equal empathy and diplomacy who slowly crumbles when deconstructed by Dr Cemal.

Honourable Mention:

Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus) Fiennes was fierce as a man of exceptional courage and nobility who will not humble himself for ‘appearances’.

Christoph Waltz (Carnage) His compulsive starting of fires, followed by excusing himself to shout “Hello, Walter!” into his phone, was joyous.

July 11, 2012

Magic Mike

Steven Sodebergh surely claims the crown of hardest working man in Hollywood by directing an odd and moody movie about male strippers, his third film in 10 months…

Channing Tatum’s Mike styles himself an entrepreneur because of his auto detailing and custom furniture businesses. He encounters Adam (Alex Pettyfer) at yet another job, construction, where he has to teach the young slacker how to tile rooves, before running into him again at a nightclub. He uses Adam as a wingman as he entices girls back to Xquisite where, as ‘Magic Mike’, he actually makes his living as lead stripper. When one of the strippers passes out, from taking too much of the refined GHB they use to maintain their energy, Adam is quickly pressed into action and impresses both Mike and his boss Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) is less than impressed that her younger brother, who blew a football scholarship, is now stripping as ‘The Kid’ and Mike starts a charm campaign to win her over even as he mentors Adam in the business.

Tatum is a fine actor when called on, witness Stop Loss, and indeed one of his Stop Loss producers Reid Carolin scripted this version of Tatum’s own chequered past for Nicolas Winding Refn to direct. Tatum’s charismatic as Mike and delivers a tremendous put-down to a banker who refuses him a loan despite all the cash he earns from ‘event management’: “I read the papers. The only ones who are in distress are y’all.” McConaughey is wonderfully sleazy as a riff on Cabaret’s MC, and at one point puts Mike in his place under some harsh lighting which makes you think – as he gets older the menace of that Texan drawl will surely see him create an iconic villain this decade. Sadly Pettfyer fails to make you remotely care about Adam’s fate, suggesting that loathsome villains like his In Time turn are a far better use of his talents than flawed heroes. Cody Horn is far more engaging, her unimpressed visage continually and wordlessly disapproving of Adam and Mike’s antics.

There are odd moments when actors stumble over lines and performances start to fray at the edges towards the end of long takes, which might be attributable to Soderbergh’s new ‘3 takes’ rule, but this film is undone by the writing not the directing. There are some nicely choreographed sequences like the first “It’s Raining Men” dance, but this is an oddly coy film about male stripping, indeed there’s arguably more female nudity, so is this about the degradation of stripping? Brooke hates Adam stripping, but understands the adulation Mike receives is a powerful drug, while still disapproving of his job. Mike is involved with a psychologist (a typically abrasive Olivia Munn) studying the strippers who, especially Matt Bomer (White Collar) and Adam Rodriguez (CSI: Miami), are terrifyingly uncharacterised – a gesture to implicate the cinema audience as only interested in their physique, like the Xquisite audience? At times this feels like a male version of Showgirls or All About Eve. Mostly Showgirls. But mostly this feels like a blank record of excess. Its drug-addled decadence in yellow-filter Tampa rehashes scenes and arcs seen far too often before and is ultimately pointless.

Tatum is very likeable, and the relationship between Mike and Brooke convinces, but once the sense of drift sets in after the entertaining opening it becomes a riptide that strands Magic Mike drowning in inconsequence.

2.5/5

April 5, 2012

Alice in Funderland

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

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

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

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

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

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

1/5

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

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

Stage v Page

I’ve noted that I tied myself up in absolute knots over the distinction between plays that really have to be seen rather than read, and plays that really have to be seen because they are the best that have ever been written. Here are some musings on it.

Anyone who’s done English at college or been involved in amateur dramatics will have read an awful lot of plays, far more than anyone outside of those little bubbles. But reading a play is not the same thing as experiencing a play. The script is the blueprint, and in most cases the reason a play works, but it needs the efforts of the actors and the crew to come alive and realise its potential. I’ve tried here to isolate three key areas where plays need to be seen on stage rather than just read: ambiguity, physicality, and, um, physicality (meant slightly differently). I’ve been trying to get to Chekhov plays whenever there’s a good production on because in performance the layers of his work are truly amazing. Chekhov thought he was writing uproarious comedy, Stanislavsky thought he was writing heartbreaking tragedy, and it’s a joy to see those two interpretations vie for control of the text. Many great plays can be enjoyed as reads, but in performance are additionally ambiguous. Patrick Marber’s production of Pinter’s The Caretaker received dazzling reviews for bringing out the black comedy of the material to a hilarious degree, while Hamlet can be played almost any way you want by judicious pruning of the unwieldy text. Then there’re the texts that are just deeply unstable. Kander & Ebbs’ Cabaret has had so many songs cut and pasted back and forth with equivalent scenes from Isherwood over the years that a stable version is impossible. The text is so fluid you never know what to expect. Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life deliberately locks in such fluidity by ensuring no two productions will be the same thru ultra-vague directions.

I’ve seen Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound twice, and both times the script’s brilliance and precision defeated its own realisation. I saw a cast corpse repeatedly towards the end, having performed After Magritte perfectly, as the jokes just became too funny for them. I then saw a director construct a minimalist set that bore no resemblance to Stoppard’s mirrored theatre and instead appeared to be a small cafe shut for the night with its chairs upside down on top of its tables. The overlapping and interrupting language deployed by Mamet is often impossible to really grasp on the page, so that I didn’t like Speed the Plow when I read it but found it hysterically funny when I saw it performed some years later, while for physicality Jez Butterworth’s live horse on stage in Jerusalem takes some beating. Some plays have to be seen because reading the stage directions alone can’t convey the experience they conjure. How can you properly imagine the farcical chaos of Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, in which people act normally in the dark, and then grope around the stage blindly when the lights are turned on? How funny in performance is the notorious stage direction in The Winter’s Tale, “Exit, pursued by a bear?” What precisely do harassed directors do when they stumble upon Peter Shaffer’s simple yet infuriating stage direction in The Royal Hunt of the Sun, “They cross the Andes”? How can you really feel the true Brechtian alienation reading thru The Life of Galileo when you don’t have the disconcerting physical presence of the director in the corner of the stage turning the pages of the script as the actors rattle thru their lines? How can you grasp the mischievous power of Anthony Shaffer’s 1975 play Murderer unless you actually see on stage the paragraph of stage directions which precede the dialogue on the opening page; a paragraph which we’re told takes 20 minutes of playing time as it describes protagonist Norman Bartholomew dismembering his lover’s naked body beside a window before the local police sergeant arrives following a neighbour’s complaint…

You can be familiar with a play from reading it, but you don’t really know it until you’ve seen it in performance.

March 27, 2012

Improbable Frequency

Rough Magic triumphantly reprise their 2004 musical comedy at the Gaiety, atoning for writer Arthur Riordan and director Lynne Parker’s recent misfiring Peer Gynt.

Tweedy crossword enthusiast Tristram Faraday (Peter Hanly) gets recruited by MI5 as a code-breaker and is dispatched to 1941 Ireland to discover how deranged DJ Micheal O’Dromedary (Rory Nolan) keeps forecasting the weather via song titles. Tristram arrives at a Dublin MI5 station headed by an equally unlikely spy, the portly poet John Betjeman (Nolan again). Tristram’s investigations bring him into contact with drunken satirist Myles na gCopaleen (Darragh Kelly), Myles’ ingénue civil service colleague Philomena (Stephanie McKeon), rival British spy and Tristram’s ex Agent Green (Cathy White), crazed IRA chief Muldoon (Kelly again), and a genius physicist  equally concerned with things of the mind and Philomena’s behind – Erwin Schrodinger (Brian Doherty). As improbable actions turn out to be set-ups for excruciating punch-lines Tristram quickly suspects that Myles and Schrodinger are working together, possibly with someone called ‘Pat’ to develop an atom bomb for Muldoon. The truth is more improbable…

Arthur Riordan’s script is closer to his Slattery’s Sago Saga adaptation than his Peer Gynt, despite the rhyming lyrics and frequently rhyming dialogue, and is consistently hilarious as well as anticipating his later handling of Flann O’Brien in Slattery in the puns Myles makes. A musical lives or dies by the qualities of its numbers and Bell Helicopter (Conor Kelly & Sam Park) provide a lively score with numerous highlights. ‘Be Careful not to Patronise the Irish’ is a wonderful show-opener as the MI5 staff welcome Tristram, while ‘John Betjeman’ is a hoot as the round-bellied but high-steeping poet makes his entrance. Irish nationalist DJ O’Dromedary’s ‘I’m just anti-British, that’s my way’ is equally memorable; not least because O’Dromedary’s hump, wig and Groucho eyeglasses position him halfway between Pat Shortt and Richard O’Brien. There are further Rocky Horror echoes in a spectacular set-change and plot twist in the second act which incorporates flashing house lights into the design. A bolero interrogation and a jig-scored parodic sex scene are trumped by Philomena’s indignant ‘Don’t you wave your particles at me, Mr Schrodinger!’ as the show’s funniest matching of words and music.

It’s shameful to only now be seeing Talking Movies favourite Nolan in his signature role of Betjeman, but he’s an absolute delight as the obese dandy eager to keep Ireland out of the war so that he can remain in his cushy posting. A whimsical highlight is his dancing on the set’s all purpose bar counter singing ‘Me Jaunty Jarvey’ while Tristram tries to solve a code. Tristram bitterly complains to the audience that Betjeman wouldn’t stop singing this damn tune for he doesn’t know how long, and Nolan bursts into ‘a long long long long long long long long long long long la long’ as he dances on. Darragh Kelly Fassbenders as a bloodthirsty Muldoon and an irascible Myles horrified by his own dreadful puns (he notes after throwing German food at her that ‘Philomena was ready for the wurst’), while Doherty’s Colonel is a sardonic delight and his Schrodinger a compendium of oddly accented words. Hanly is only a slightly better singer than Rex Harrison but is a winning comic lead throughout. Cathy White sung stunningly as Aphrodite in Phaedra, but, though she vamps it up in a Cabaret outfit as the femme fatale on ‘Betrayal’, McKeon outshines her vocally in her very promising debut for Rough Magic.

Rough Magic have infuriated for two Theatre Festivals in a row with dramas incorporating music, but any new musical comedy from them would be essential.

3/5

September 8, 2010

The Runaways

Twilight co-stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart re-unite for a biopic of 1970s all-girl rawkers The Runaways featuring a number of classic songs, by other bands…

Writer/director Floria Sigismondi’s opening image of a drop of menstrual blood falling on the ground, as an unprepared Cherie Currie (Fanning) dashes to a toilet during her first period, promises an innovative feminist rock flick. Instead we cruise along the boulevard of rock cliché as singer Cherie finds booze and pills the only way to handle the sudden transition from miming Bowie at school talent shows to rocking Japan after she joins Joan Jett (Stewart) in The Runaways. Jett is the feminist, refusing her patronising teacher’s insistence that she remain unplugged and learn ‘On Top of Old Smoky’, “I know you play ‘Smoke on the Water’. Teach me that one!”, but both girls are barely characterised beyond facile pop-psychology about flakey fathers driving them to rock.

Fanning and Stewart wring substantial emotion from the weak material but against these blankly inarticulate girls, Whip It! star Alia Shawkat is literally silent as ‘the bassist’ for legal reasons, Michael Shannon has little trouble in stealing the film as their mentoring (and deranged) producer Kim Fowley. He even articulates the trangressiveness of Fanning’s performance by exclaiming “Jail-f******-bait, Jack-f******-pot!” on learning Cherie is 15. Just in case you didn’t get the in-camera apology Jett later complains that Cherie will ruin them on their Japanese tour by performing in a Cabaret style suspenders and corset outfit. Sigismondi frustratingly alternates between such sledgehammer subtlety and elliptical dreaminess. Lines like “Girls don’t play electric guitar” herald ‘This is a Man’s World’ on the soundtrack, while she hilariously literalises endless critical ramblings about the homoerotic attraction between singers and guitarists by having a dreamy love scene between Cherie and Jett soundtracked by The Stooges’ ‘I wanna be your Dog’. This incident is then never mentioned again as Cherie goes back to sleeping with their roadie.

Such inconsequential vagueness afflicts everything. The impression that Cherie quit mid-way through recording their debut album and that 8 months later the band imploded having only had fleeting success in Japan is totally wrong, but this is a film where you never see The Runaways hang out with The Sex Pistols at CBGB’s, you just see Joan spray-painting Sex Pistols on her t-shirt while their music plays. Sigismondi’s biggest problem is that while The Runaways paved the way for The Bangles and L7 their music has been justifiably forgotten. ‘Cherry-bomb’ is the only song they perform here which rises above being merely efficiently crunching mid-1970s hard rock and Jett plucking out the riff of her solo hit ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ only emphasises that. There is a trio of fine performances at the heart of this film but like the band this film may be classified ‘important’ rather than good.

2.5/5

NSFW Theatre

There’s a certain bizarre, maybe even troubling, trend at both of this year’s theatre festivals which nobody seems to be willing to talk about.

NotYetRated_Poster

The press release for the international festival trumpeted the multi-cultural wonder of three Polish plays arriving to our shores, but the programme implies that Polish theatre is largely concerned with nudity and sex scenes to the exclusion of all else. There is of course a difficulty in discussing nudity in theatre as, with boring predictability, even noting it let alone questioning it will lead to shouts of prudery – as if that somehow constituted an argument let alone a discussion ending point. Do you remember the disastrous fiasco that was the Barbaric Comedies at the Abbey some years back? It was dripping with sex and nudity and to be sure audience members walked out, but many left not out of outrage but of sheer boredom, choosing the second interval in its interminable running time to execute a quick dash for the streets. There’s a certain element of that impression of nudity being a crude device to wake up the back-row of reluctant people who were dragged to a unfocused play in Factory 2 where you feel sure that the nudity in its 7 ½ hour running time will lead to nudges in the ribs to wake up the audience’s sleeping members.

Nudity in theatre is qualitatively different from nudity in film. Angelina Jolie is not actually present in a film, it’s her image from a shoot in a closed set the previous year, and the chances of you ever actually running into her to personally feel awkward are zero. In theatre the person appearing nude is very much present, and as for the chances of actually running into them later, the much vaunted Trilogy  (NSFW) features 50 local women dancing naked at the end of the play. Indeed the fringe this year seems obsessed with being racy. The Project has a dance production (NSFW) which uses as its webpage image a picture that to my mind has little relevance to the description of the show beside it and which makes booking a ticket for the show from that website an NSFW exercise that would get you blacklisted from most net-cafes and libraries. I’m deeply unsure where feminism is meant to stand on this.

Is it prudishness, or ‘just not getting it’ to suggest that these vanguard of feminism productions are missing something? If the meaning of a theatre performance is uniquely found, at least in part, through the audience’s reaction to it, then doesn’t that mean that the intentions of the performers can be reversed by an audience with the opposite motivations? The Gaiety staged Cabaret last year, working from the blueprint of Sam Mendes’ revival which made the play triumphantly queerer and more sexual, and featured nudity of a totally different order. At the end of both acts a group of naked actors stood with their backs to the audience and created first a Nazi image of glorious Aryans, and then, to end the play, the victims of the concentration camp showers. The effect of this nudity was incredibly chilling and its meaning could not possibly be altered. But, unless the organisers intend distributing questionnaires to ensure only those who know their Kate Millet will be admitted, couldn’t the meaning of the festival pieces be altered if unreconstructed chauvinists chose to treat them as mere pieces of titillation rather than the liberating feminist art intended.

Granted that one important intangible element of theatre isn’t this theatrical use, and especially promotional trumpeting, of nudity something we should be talking about?

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