Talking Movies

December 9, 2018

From the Archives: W

A penultimate dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up Oliver Stone’s forgotten and rather pointless George Bush Jr takedown.

gwb080901_560

This George W Bush biopic reunites Oliver Stone with his Wall Street co-writer. It is thus very disappointing that there is no trace of that film’s searing indictment of American greed, but perhaps even more amazingly the man who directed JFK has lost his visual flair.

W is a very odd film, it’s not satire and it’s not a factual drama. It attempts to straddle, and falls short of, both genres. 13 Days made the Cuban Missile Crisis gripping simply by showing how Kennedy dealt with it blow by blow. Channel 4’s The Deal made the trade between Brown and Blair fascinating, even if it was largely speculative. BBC 4’s The Alan Clark Diaries made real politics hilarious. W hopelessly tries to combine all three approaches. We follow the run-up to and fall-out from the Iraq War, while flashing back to the pivotal moments in W’s life that led him to the White House. Stone though has nothing to say about these moments except that Bush has ‘daddy issues’, and that’s why he went to war. This insight isn’t profound or original but could have been heard in bars, on both the sides of the Atlantic, after too many drinks, for the last five years.

James Cromwell alone among the cast does not try to imitate his character and so nicely counterpoints Brolin’s Jr. Cromwell’s George Sr (or Poppy) appears cold and disapproving but we realise that his shepherding of his son Jeb rather than W towards the Presidency is because he wishes to shelter W from the strain of a job that does not suit his temperament. Josh Brolin is extraordinary as W. He perfectly captures the voice and mannerism of Bush Jr but also makes us care deeply for this uncomplicated jock. When W loses a 1980 run for Congress and storms into his backyard exclaiming “I’ll never be out-Texased or out-Christianed again!” we feel his pain more than the obvious satirical anticipation of his 2000 run for Presidency that Stone intends. W’s born-again Christianity is handled with surprising (and welcome) warmth, but while personally Bush saw the light, politically it led him to some dark places. However to expect that sort of complexity is to want a different, less obvious, film.

And Stone does get very obvious… Jeffrey Wright plays Saint Colin Powell while Richard Dreyfuss needs a moustache to twirl villainously as Dick Cheney. Characters say in private their most infamous public gaffes while Condoleeza Rice is written out of history, perhaps because Thandie Newton’s forced attempts to get Rice’s voice right make her screen presence too painful to dwell on. George Bush is not a bad man, he’s just a very bad president, the worst since Herbert Hoover, who also made way for a charismatic Democrat offering change, FDR. But, Oliver, we already knew that…

2/5

Advertisements

September 24, 2018

From the Archives: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Another expedition into the pre-Talking Movies archives returns carrying an unloved comedy.

Simon Pegg attempts to break America by air-brushing everything that made him loveable in the first place and headlining an unfunny, utterly bland rom-com. Wait, did I type that or just think that?

Ah, meta-textual humour. Such honesty is after all the main reason for the social and professional failures of Pegg’s character Sidney Young. This is based on the book by one time Vanity Fair writer Toby Young who made a spectacular ass of himself during a brief sojourn with that esteemed publication. His screen equivalent writes snippy pieces about celebrities for his own magazine The Postmodern Review before getting the call to head to NYC. These opening 10 minutes set in Britain are the most charming of the film and they’re not even especially funny. It is merely comforting to see Pegg among familiar faces like The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd and Katherine Perkins before he jets off to NYC to work for Jeff Bridge’s monstrous editor Clayton Harding. It oddly parallels Pegg’s own journey from Channel 4’s sublime sitcom Spaced to this anaemic Hollywood film.

Pegg writes comedy for a living. He must know this film doesn’t work because it simply isn’t funny. This film feels like it was hit by the writers’ strike and they had to begin production with the version of the script that the script doctor hadn’t added the jokes to yet… Even worse it’s not even his type of humour, the pop reference laden whimsical absurdity of Spaced and Hot Fuzz is replaced with a string of embarrassing encounters that one would think more obviously suited to Ricky Gervais’s style. Pegg does his best with the material he’s given but far too many scenes fall flat.

The supporting cast assembled is mightily impressive except that they have nothing to work with. Scene-stealer extraordinaire Danny Huston does his best as Sidney’s overbearing section editor and Gillian Anderson is nicely glacial as a publicist but Bridges looks all at sea as the one time rebel now conformist editor. Megan Fox does her best breathy Marilyn Monroe take off but no comedic gold is mined, a la Tropic Thunder’s fake trailers, from the truly preposterous romantic flick involving a young Mother Theresa that is generating Oscar buzz for her character. Fox is only there to be, well…a fox, so it’s amazing that it is Kirsten Dunst’s long-suffering writer who steals both the audience’s hearts and the film, and I say this as someone who took most of 2007 to get over Sam Raimi re-shooting the end of Spider-Man 3 to leave Dunst’s infuriating MJ alive.

There is only one reason to see this film – watched after a double bill of Ugly Betty and Dirty Sexy Money it will convince you that 1/4 of NYC’s hottest ladies used to be guys. Think on that in the two hours of your life I’ve stopped you squandering.

1/5

July 20, 2018

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part VIII

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Did you just ask me who I am?…

Humphrey Who?

Patrick Doyle asked an unnerving question on his Sunday Breakfast show a couple of weeks ago. How many people know who Grace Kelly is anymore? … How could people not know who Grace Kelly is?! Then I started to worry… I am interested in history in general, and this extends into burrowing with curiosity and sympathy into the back catalogue of cinema. But I have to admit that for many people, probably I fear the vast majority, they frankly couldn’t give a damn. (And would only have the faintest idea that that was a reference to the most popular film ever made) A particularly dispiriting display of wilful ignorance of the past came at the Lighthouse Hallowe’en screening of Halloween back in 2016. The very young, very very drunk audience, mostly in party later on fancy dress costume, was hooting in derision from the get-go. At anything and everything, any detail of dialogue or costume or reality (like a 70s car) that revealed the movie as having been made in 1978. I couldn’t understand this attitude of unbridled contempt then, and still struggle with it now. Do they not think people as yet unborn will hoot in self-same derision in 2046 at the films they hold precious now? For heaven’s sake most of these people were sporting the Snowflake hair-do whose sheer omnipresence and ostentation means, as I wrote some months back, that it will be as embarrassing on Jan 1st 2020 as bell-bottomed jeans were on Jan 1st 1980.

Censor and be damned!

Channel 4 has got my goat recently by showing films too early for its own purposes. Dante’s Peak saw a trio of deaths removed, presumably for fear of upsetting younger viewers. But then why show it in early afternoon?! Instead we got the build-up to the trio of grisly deaths, and the emotional fall-outs of the other characters reacting to the grisly deaths, and but no actual deaths so people seemed to be reacting to nothing. It’s all too reminiscent of the time that RTE decided to cut Raiders of the Lost Ark, and left out Indy getting shot, but kept in Indy in great pain attempting to bandage the bloody wound that he’d acquired mysteriously while driving without incident. Channel 4 also decided to censor Romancing the Stone. They snipped the full bloody detail of the animatronic alligator pulling off the villain’s hand, but then kept in his sustained agonised screams and fumbled frantic one-handed bandaging of the bloody stump where his left hand used to be. I don’t know whether it could be said to be more disturbing to show consequences after eliding the actions, but it is frustrating. Channel 4 should take a page from the book of the censor in Malaysia; who banned a film altogether after he’d had to make so many cuts it was left an incoherent mess that did nobody any favours. Show these films later in the day or just don’t show them!

Any Other Business: Part XVII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a seventeenth portmanteau post on television of course!

 

Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Facebook

I had been thinking about commenting on Facebook’s current TV spots on British television, and then Channel 4’s Dispatches came along and disquietingly lifted the lid on the people who work for Facebook but don’t work for Facebook in Dublin. Ah, the joy of outsourcing. It’s always someone else’s fault that the high standards Facebook expects are not being upheld. Not that we’re ever told what those high standards are precisely. And nothing bad that happens is ever wrong, certainly never criminal, it’s always, well, let’s listen to the TV spot Facebook is using in Britain to try and reassure people that Brexit may have been the result of Facebook but not to worry, soon your newsfeed will be full of only cute kittens again – take it away maestro, “We didn’t come here for click-bait, spam, fake news, and data misuse. That’s not okay.” Well, that is profound. I guess if Mark Zuckerberg, whose non-apology apology to Congress came in for some stick hereabouts previously, can go so far as to admit that enabling Brexit and Trump was ‘not okay’ then we can all meet him half-way and forgive him for letting it happen, and evading responsibility. The best way to protect your privacy is not to change settings on Facebook it’s to not use social media at all. And if Facebook is really intended just to ‘connect people’ rather than say data-mine the f*** out of the world’s population for psychometrics in the service of personalised advertising then there’s one really simple way to prove it. Change it to Facebook.org

xkcd by Randall Munroe, where would our collective sanity be without it?

 

I can’t believe it’s not The Unit

I can’t remember the last time I had such a double-take reaction to a TV show as watching SEAL Team. The adventures of a band of brothers in the American military who fly about the world causing mayhem, when not dealing with domestic dramas at home. This simply was a remake of David Mamet’s The Unit, they even hired Mr Grey (Michael Irby) from The Unit to play their ‘been there done that’ character putting the hopefuls thru their paces before they can ascend to the godlike status of a Tier 1 Operator. There were touches that distinguished it from Mamet’s creation to be sure, but mostly that was a layer of SJW-babble; centred around the character of Alona Tal’s English PhD student and would-be girlfriend of would-be Tier 1 Operator Max Thieriot; and it was never entirely clear whether this was being satirical of SJW-babble or just thinking it needed to be there to represent America as it is right now. But mostly this was The Unit, with different actors, led by David Boreanaz taking over the Dennis Haysbert role. And then creator Benjamin Cavell, late of Justified, threw the mother of all structural spit-balls at the viewer. The characters just upped and left to Afghanistan for deployment, a regular occurrence, but one brought forward on this occasion because of the complete destruction of their predecessors Seal Team Echo. All the domestic dramas at home gone, apart from two Skype scenes in six episodes so far of this investigative arc into who ordered the hit on Echo which has replaced the mission by mission of the earlier standalone American episodes whose only arc was Thieriot’s training to join the team. I’m not sure I was prepared for such formalist experimentation on CBS.

“That’s some editing”

Editing the punch-lines out of jokes first annoyed me a few years ago when Willem Dafoe was voicing the Birdseye Bear. A peerless advert saw him set the scene for a romantic dinner for his hapless owner, only to be told to hop it as the no longer frozen food arrived at the impeccably mood-music’d and mood-light’d table. The bear turned straight to camera to register his astonishment, and was then found sitting outside the house muttering “There’s gratitude for ya!” But then the advert started to get edited more and more severely, and the punch-line was thrown out. Who does that? What buffoon makes these decisions? Let’s edit for time, and throw away the jokes that are the point of the seconds we’ve kept that are now pointless. James Corden’s current advert has been cut to the point of sheer gibberish. The three encounters with three fly-by-night mechanic brothers, who bore a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, and left Corden sad and depressed entering Vegas with bugger all money after their antics and then elated when he left with loadsamoney have been reduced to a decontextualised idiotic mishmash. What exactly was the purpose of this editing?

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: The Cottage

A dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals a gruesome little attempt at a black comedy with Andy Serkis still struggling to get good roles in his own physical right.

Andy Serkis’ starring role in The Cottage confirms his status as one of the most under-appreciated actors of our time. He’s been disguised by motion capture in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong and, apart from a hypnotic cameo as Moors Murderer Ian Brady in Channel 4’s award-winning Longford, his appearances in his own physical right have been restricted to truly terrible British films like Deathwatch. Well guess what? Playing a similar role to his gruff psycho in Deathwatch Serkis’ talent is once again wasted on a diabolical British script. This horror-comedy is literally a film of two halves. It starts off wanting to be a Joe Orton play, realises it has no jokes and then becomes an incredibly gruesome shlock-horror with no soul.

Writer/director Paul Andrew Williams made a big splash critically with his acclaimed thriller London to Brighton. His follow-up should, if patriotic reviewing for once takes a second place to honesty among the hacks of Fleet Street, be a career ender. I really did try to give this film every possible chance. It begins very much as a poor man’s Joe Orton scenario with two exhausted men, one a criminal (Serkis) and the other his mild-mannered brother (Reece Shearsmith), arriving with their hostage (Jennifer Ellison) at a decrepit cottage in rural England. Shearsmith’s hen-pecked character has agreed to help in this insane scheme of kidnapping the daughter of not just any crime boss but the crime boss Serkis character works for (!) in order to get his sibling to sign over half of their mother’s house to him. Lad’s mag favourite Jennifer Ellison has been cast apparently purely for the dimensions of her chest which is lovingly lingered over by the camera on more than one occasion. Her character is meant to be the foul-mouthed wise-cracking British equivalent of a Ripley or Buffy. The difference between that obvious intention and the awful reality of her performance is the scariest thing in the film.

Joe Orton’s pitch-black comedies like Loot usually included some jokes. There are no jokes in this film. It feels like having failed on that front Williams just threw his hands up in despair half way through and changed to a gross out horror film. Watching Reece Shearsmith have half his foot cut off by an expertly wielded shovel and then hobble through the rest of the film with an exceedingly bloody stump is just one of the most repulsive sights that cinema will offend with this year. There is nothing in this ‘horribly scarred farmer goes mad and becomes a cannibal preying on strangers in rural England’ set up that hasn’t been done and parodied a million times before. This is lazy, unfunny, sexist, grotesque rubbish and to be avoided if for no other reason than to save Williams from himself…

1/5

December 20, 2011

The Rises and Falls of Michael Moore

Michael Moore is still making entertaining documentaries using the same methods he’s employed for the past 20 years, so why does no one care anymore?

I had this thought when I heard that Moore was in town doing a show in the Grand Canal Theatre to promote his new book, and realised that, no matter how good this new book was, only a fraction of the number of people who proudly displayed Stupid White Men on their book-shelves as a symbol of right-on resistance to George Bush Jr would bother to buy this one. It’s not like Moore’s writing has suffered an obvious fall-off and that’s the reason that people are eschewing it. Stupid White Men is very funny but also very sketchy at times in its logic and arguments, while Dude, Where’s my Country? is filled with excruciatingly childish sneering at conservatives. But both sold phenomenally well. No, whatever the quality of this book its reception will be muted because Moore’s time as de riguer reading has simply passed.

Moore’s time was quite short, lasting only around 4 years or so, but of course it wasn’t his first coming. Roger & Me launched Moore to fame in America in 1989, and set the tone for his whole career with its partisan satirical railing against corporate greed in the traditionally more neutral documentary genre. I fondly remember Moore’s TV show appearing on Channel 4 in the mid-1990s where he door-stepped businessmen and generally afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. He faded out of view for quite some time and then, almost out of nowhere, Bowling for Columbine and Stupid White Men gave him a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic. I welcomed him back as an old friend while watching Bowling for Columbine but it was clear that attacking capitalist excesses wasn’t enough anymore. He aimed higher, and ironically brought himself down.

Fahrenheit 9/11 went after George Bush Jr on a petty if entertaining level but was undone by its own indiscipline. Despite the opprobrium heaped upon it, it is a very good polemic – either side of a truly terrible half-hour about Iraq and vague conspiracy theories. More people saw this any of Moore’s other films and that’s why it was dangerously ill-judged. Fahrenheit 9/11 was designed to topple Bush from power but instead he was re-elected with a thumping majority. I think ordinary cinema-goers were inclined to view Moore’s film as a failure in propagandising, both because of its practical lack of success and its aesthetic clumsiness, and the more political among them were inclined to blame him for Bush’s victory by his populist rabble-rousing spurring the GOP into more effective voter-turnout drives. But if this was when Moore’s stock fell other circumstances wiped it out.

The tide turned quickly for a President who had boasted of spending his huge political capital, and after Hurricane Katrina, and with increasing popular discontent with the fiscal and emotional cost of the never-ending occupation of Iraq (especially its maiming of a generation of volunteer soldiers), Bush was as toxic electorally as Moore had wished to make him. Sicko thus appeared when it was already clear that Bush’s neo-conservatism was out of favour, and Capitalism: A Love Story was released at a time of utter irrelevance for any American elections. The replacement of Bush with Obama was, for the rest of the world, akin to Hunter S Thompson’s characterisation of the political demise of Lyndon B Johnson – an evil king had been overthrown, and now we all could stop worrying about over-reaching American politics. And that meant not caring about American healthcare or capitalism either…

Which is a pity because Capitalism is a fascinating watch, filled with archival gold and provocative arguments, while Sicko’s polemic for a better healthcare system is quite devastating, and might have aided Obama’s strenuous and half-successful efforts at reform – except of course that no American conservative would watch it, never mind a Tea Party member. Americans seem to have turned away from Moore as being either counter-productive or treasonous, while the rest of the world apparently has turned away from his work because it’s simply become bored with an America that patently has lost the ability to project its power as it once did, either economically or politically, and is so dogged by polarised partisan infighting as to arguably be on the verge of a constitutional crisis; because if the legislature refuses to engage with the executive but merely engages in monolithic opposition deadlock ensues.

I strongly believe that within the next thirty years we will all have absorbed, by a process of osmosis, a basic knowledge of Chinese history and culture merely as necessary background noise to understanding what will then be the world’s pre-eminent country. We will know exactly what Confucius said, and be able to talk about the origin myth of modern China in the Opium Wars with the British, and know when the various dynasties ruled as readily as we roughly know when various houses of monarchy were on the throne in England. Part of that realpolitik adjustment might already have begun in an abjuration of interest in American politics as it can now be regarded as purely a domestic American concern with greatly decreased international impact. Moore’s future success might then be dependent on American domestic politics again forcefully impacting the rest of the world.

Can Michael Moore stage another comeback? The odds are stacked against him, but who knows, the Tea Party may yet do the unthinkable for them and make him fashionable again.

June 22, 2011

One Day (like this a year will see me right)

Regular readers will know that I appeared on Dublin South FM’s The First Saturday Book Club a couple of weeks ago, discussing David Nicholls’ 2009 novel One Day with Sorcha Nic Mhathuna, Eoghan Rice, and host Eve Rowan. Click here to listen to a podcast of that show.

Book Summary
Working-class Emma Morley and rich-kid Dexter Mayhew meet for the first time on the night of their graduation in 1988. They bungle becoming a couple, but an intense bond develops through Emma’s long letters to Dexter as he travels the globe. Dexter becomes a famous TV presenter given to patronising Emma, who is reduced to waitressing, but when she becomes a teacher her relationship with the increasingly arrogant Dexter falters. Dexter’s career implodes due to his alcoholism, while Emma becomes a successful children’s author, but Dexter’s shot-gun marriage foils their coming together. Will Dexter and Emma ever both be in the right place at the right time? And do they deserve a happy ending?

Structures & Pitfalls
BBC scriptwriter David Nicholls previously wrote Starter for Ten, and this starts off as another class conscious romantic comedy before it develops into something a good deal more ambitious; almost a history of social change in Britain between 1988 and 2007. The gimmick blazoned on the book cover, ‘Twenty Years. Two People. One Day’; referring to Nicholls’ audacious decision to only cover in detail the lives of this odd couple for the 15th of July each year; serves two purposes. The first of these is to allow him to gallop over a vast span of time and draw out the pop culture of each year. The second is to allow him to surprise the reader with sudden shifts between chapters. The latter is a trick well-worn by Patrick O’Brian in the Master & Commander novels, where cliff-hangers chapter endings routinely lead into chapters set months later that make no reference to how the cliff-hanger was resolved till half-way thru. Here it allows Nicholls to present conversations where you’re unsure if Dexter is addressing Emma or yet another bimbo girlfriend, and where characters change jobs and locations radically in a page.

The first purpose becomes an increasing problem as the novel progresses as there are too many attempts to cram every possible event in recent British history into the narrative. Dexter presents a show that is basically The Word, and then Channel 4’s failed rival to Later with Jools Holland, before ending up in the impeccably trendy organic food business. Emma bounces around from waitressing to teaching to becoming sort of JK Rowling. Emma’s disastrous meeting with a publisher is the nadir of this technique as it sees her standing on the South Bank afterwards recalling how jubilant she was the last time she was there, celebrating Blair’s 1997 landslide; of course Emma was there celebrating Blair’s victory you groan, Nicholls just had to tick that box… The gimmick works well for the first sections of the novel, as this is a day that the characters would consciously mark, and it becomes that again in the closing section, but during the middle sections of the book (as Dexter becomes ever more obnoxious) it feels very contrived.

Em & Dex: Rom-Com or Hardy-Com?
The character of Dexter is a problem. Emma is loveable and believable from start to finish as she manages to slowly sort her life out, but the privileged Dexter who is initially charming becomes increasingly irritating as he diligently works his way thru every cliché of Britpop excess. By contrast Nicholls’ protean minor characters are brilliantly drawn, from Dexter’s co-presenter Suki Meadows, whose bubbly personality is imagined as liable to start a letter of condolence with the word ‘Wahey!’, to his elegant bohemian mother Alison, who likes Emma precisely for the moment which embarrassed both Emma and Dexter; when Emma called Dexter’s father a bourgeois fascist for his views on Nicaragua, Alison saw a girl with some spine who would stand up to Dexter as he would desperately need his partner to. Alison sees the chemistry between Emma and Dexter that sustains the novel, until its circular ending which reveals more of their magical first day together, despite the truth of Emma’s unfunny stand-up boyfriend Ian’s observation that Dexter takes Emma for granted.

The ending suggests that Nicholls is so in thrall to his beloved Thomas Hardy that he chooses this particular ending merely to cast a backward profundity over what has gone before. The tragedy is that Nicholls does not need do this. Sure, there are moments that are reminiscent of other works. Dexter’s meeting with his agent is straight out of Extras, Emma’s feeble attempts at writing strongly suggest Spaced, and a disastrous sequence involving Dexter is practically lifted from Meet the Parents. But Nicholls has an undeniable skill at summarising cultural shifts in gags; in the 1980s of The Clash and Billy Bragg all the boys wanted to be Che Guevara, thinks Emma, in the Loaded and FHM zeitgeist of Britpop all the boys now want to be Hugh Hefner; and his greatest ability is not this sort of cultural commentary, but what seems to embarrass him.

Dexter’s long letter asking Emma to join him in India features the most memorable romantic comedy gesture I’ve read recently. Dexter tells her to stand in the centre of the Taj Mahal at noon wearing a red rose and holding a copy of Nicholas Nickleby, and he will find her; he will be wearing a white rose and holding the copy she gave him of Howards End. But Dexter forgets to post this letter; which will have you screaming, ‘No! Dexter!!’, at your book. An author capable of conjuring that level of emotional involvement with his characters and such deliriously heightened moments shouldn’t apologise for being a cracking rom-com writer, not Hardy…

Read the book, don’t wait for the movie. Any production which casts Anne Hathaway as Emma rather than Spaced‘s Jessica Stevenson obviously hasn’t a clue.

May 25, 2011

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

I realise with a shock that I’ve been neglecting Michael Fassbender in this blog, so it’s only right to devote my 100th blog post to the man from Kerry.

Fassbender has risen in just seven years from playing the villain in a Sky One show to playing the nascent super-villain in a keenly anticipated summer blockbuster. Next week will see a piece focusing on my concept of Fassbendering, but this week let’s focus on how he made this journey. Fassbender had appeared in Band of Brothers but arguably first truly came to public consciousness as the actor in that famous Guinness ad at the end of 2003 who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. Characteristically Fassbender ended the ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again. He then played the resident Big Bad in Sky One’s Buffy homage/rip-off Hex. As fallen angel Azazeal he impressed with dark charisma, cut-glass English accent, and the distinct vibe that he was enjoying this part far too much.

2004 also saw him star in Canadian TV movie A Bear Called Winnie where, as a compassionate vet in the Canadian Army who rescued an orphaned bear cub en route to Britain for WWI, he showed an admirable ability to goof around with the adorable pet bear that would be immortalised as Winnie the Pooh. He then played the first of his continuing series of historical figures in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot as Guy Fawkes, and ended 2004 in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, displaying his fine ability to be ambiguous as the murder suspect that Holmes insists is a killer despite all evidence clearing him. He then had a showy turn as he smoked and drank his way thru After the Funeral in 2006 as a dissolute possible murderer in ITV’s Poirot, before making the jump from TV movie to actual movie, and London to Hollywood; notably later than his contemporaries Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy.

Fassbender’s ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where things really caught fire. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning, perhaps because he’s realised just how flashy this supporting role is… Stelios is the Spartan who jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Our arrows will blot out the sun”. Fassbender delivers the famous riposte in a supremely nonchalant manner, and later forms one half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and has a slo-mo fight alongside Astinos where they attack and sever Persian limbs left, right and centre. When the Persian mystics are throwing bombs it is Fassbender who runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. Who does something awesome in the denouement to enable Leonidas be even more awesome? Fassbender, of course. Who holds hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines? Fassbender. This is the kind of thing that gets you noticed when your film is an unexpected massive hit.

2008 saw him tackle two more historical figures and also contribute an upsetting turn to stark English horror Eden Lake. I reviewed that film and argued for it as a socio-economic horror as Fassbender and Kelly Reilly’s polite middle-class London couple travel to an idyllic camping spot only to be mercilessly harassed by hoodie-wearing teenagers who steal their jeep, leading to a nigh unwatchable scene where Fassbender’s innocent victim comes up against the gang’s barbed wire and box-cutters. If Fassbender had undercut his 300 image by playing sacrificial lamb to Kelly Reilly’s survivor type he made up for in Channel 4’s Civil War mini-series The Devil’s Whore where he scooped the most dashing role, coveted by Dominic West, as the Levellers’ leader Thomas Rainsborough. He made Rainsborough so charismatic that you could understand why people ignored the contradiction of an aristocrat leading a prototypical socialist movement. The series itself lost momentum after Rainsborough’s tragic demise, which not only underscored Fassbender’s outshining of West and John Simm as leading man, but ironically hammered home the loss to history of the progressive ideas of the Levellers; stifled by Cromwell only to return as demands by the Chartists in the 1840s and actions by Clement Attlee in the 1940s.

Fassbender combined elements of those roles as sacrificial lamb and charismatic leader for his tour de force performance as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s debut film Hunger. I regard Hunger as a biopic so utterly oblique as to de-politicise its subject; indeed in its shocking single depiction of just what it is the IRA does it invalidates all accusations that McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh are somehow ‘fellow travellers’. Turner Prize-winner McQueen reinvented the possibilities of cinema with a film that could almost be a video installation on how the human body slowly declines into death, and how beauty can be found in the mundane. Fassbender was luminous in his one lengthy scene with dialogue, where he argues with Liam Cunningham’s priest, forcing you to appreciate both his point of view and why men would follow this man out on hunger strike and die for him. Fassbender also emulated his acting hero Daniel Day-Lewis as he lost 14 kilos while playing the part and weighed just 59 kilos by the end of shooting. Writing about it at the time I praised Fassbender’s “awesome commitment to the part in the third act as he just wastes away in front of your eyes. This is a mesmerising performance of insane dedication that should see Fassbender go on to even juicier roles.”

And go on to juicier roles he did, as 2009 saw Fassbender work with two auteurs, and also Joel Schumacher. Tarantino’s riotous rewriting of history, Inglourious Basterds, oddly enough saw Fassbender being one of the few people playing things straight in his supporting role as Lt. Archie Hicox. As a former film critic dispatched behind enemy lines, most of his lines were delivered (allegedly in a Kerry accent initially) in his second language, German, bar glorious exceptions like “There’s a special place reserved in Hell for people who waste good scotch”. He then starred as Connor opposite newcomer Kate Jarvis as Mia in Andrea Arnold’s kitchen sink drama Fish Tank. A bracingly abrasive picture of life on an Essex council estate punctuated by moments of amazing lyrical beauty, Fassbender’s character opens up possibilities for his girlfriend’s two daughters in a stunning pastoral sequence where he gives them the attention and affection their mother denies them, and encourages Mia to channel her simmering rage at her life into focused attempts to escape it thru professional dancing. Arnold has made the most layered use of the possibilities of Fassbender’s ready smile, as his grinning Connor appears at first as the perfect surrogate father before she traumatically reverses that winning charm. This disquieting role emphasised Fassbender’s freedom from leading men’s crippling need to be loved in every role. Schumacher’s Blood Creek meanwhile may well be remembered eventually as the film where Superman and Magneto clash, but that would require that someone in the world sees it first.

In 2010 he reunited with both Dominic West and Liam Cunningham for Neil Marshall’s nonsensical historical British action film Centurion, which all concerned presumably filed under ‘guilty pleasure’. He ended the year in a nonsensical historical American action film as henchman Burke in Jonah Hex. His first appearance in the trailer saw him grinning manically while setting fire to a barn with someone in it, but sadly the film was shredded from its initial intentions. One hopes that Fassbender may eventually get to properly work with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films. And that leads us to right now, one week before the release of X-Men: First Class

So, why is Fassbender a personal hero? Obviously some of it has to do with Fassbendering, but it’s also because Fassbender is a genuinely talented actor with an immense range as well as a charming whimsicality. He can play comedy and tragedy, heroes and villains, equally well, and move from blockbuster to art-house, whimsy to avant-garde, with ease. His part as the younger version of Ian McKellen’s Magneto, as he begins the slow and half-justified decent into super-villainy, is one of the performances I’m anticipating most this year. X-Men: First Class, and Soderbergh’s Haywire in August, as well as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Promotheus next year, should catapult Fassbender into the genuine leading man status that Colin Farrell so narrowly missed out on through choosing big-name directors working on vanity projects rather than good scripts. Fassbender in addition appears to be about to make the leap without sacrificing his ability to take on interesting roles in smaller films; with roles as Carl Jung (his latest historical figure) in Cronenberg’s drama A Dangerous Method, Rochester in a pared down Jane Eyre, and the lead in a new Steve McQueen film Shame, all of which are due to be released in the same period as the Vaughn, Soderbergh and Scott blockbusters mentioned above.

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

March 29, 2011

Team CoCo

Writing about comedy is guaranteed to be unfunny, so there’s a good reason for this post not appearing on April Fool’s Day.

I’ve been watching Conan O’Brien’s new talk-show on 3e since before Christmas when Channel 4 were conducting late-night reruns of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60. Since 2007 I’ve taken a show from auditions to performance in just over a week in UCD’s Dramsoc, which led to the shock realisation on revisiting Studio 60 that the not-SNL sketch-show Sorkin depicted was essentially a theatrical production. People tear thru various props and costumes and try to remember their lines after minimal scripting and rehearsing, while behind the scenes sets are desperately wheeled around, struck, and positioned for cameras. If a sketch works it plays brilliantly and if it doesn’t the performers and writers get to hear what 300 people not laughing sounds like… Why would a comedian like Conan O’Brien, who wrote the only episodes of The Simpsons I haven’t found unbearably smug, give that up by trading being a writer on Saturday Night Live for hosting a talk-show?

It took an embarrassingly long time for me to realise the answer. Conan stretches his opening monologue to as much as 15 minutes some nights with sketches. This means he can perform as much as 75 minutes of stand-up a week; effectively a new stand-up show’s worth of material every week rather than every year; and have it laughed at by a good audience in-house, but also be seen by millions across America – even if the TBS channel on basic cable reaches fewer people than NBC’s The Tonight Show. It also allows him to indulge his spectacular physicality. Conan can use his flailing body and dances to deflect from gags falling flat, and frequently does by acting out what he’s just said, to garner a laugh from bad material; but his elastic body and mobile face also sets him apart from every other talk-show host. You can’t see Jay Leno letting himself get rocketed across the stage, or be attacked with a real and very sharp samurai sword by a blindfolded stuntman going far too fast thru a barely rehearsed fight choreography. Conan is the only talk-show host in America who could sit next to an owl and make the same expressions, to the point where the staring spectacled owl whirled round to check, rightly suspecting that it was being mocked.

Conan is not to everyone’s taste. Last summer, alongside an unforgettable drawing (possibly nodding to Snoopy) of Conan standing to salute while crashing in a flaming Sopwith Camel, Wired memorably described Conan’s comedy as Cubist Absurdism which was being replaced by what they termed the sure-thing comediocrity of Jay Leno. And if cubist absurdism is the right term for Andy Richter and Conan playing a real-life Angry Birds with cut-outs of the cast of Jersey Shore, before Conan kills off a Snookie balloon with a blow-dart, then I guess I like cubist absurdism. Here’s why. Jay Leno may hit the laugh-mark more often but it’s most always a moderate laugh. Conan has a lot more dud jokes than Leno, but when he hits the mark, you will laugh more than you will at the best Leno jokes because Conan’s are so….you guessed….absurd.

(I would at this point attempt a serious comparison between Conan and the philosophy of Albert Camus but that would be an April 1st type piece.)

Conan airs weekdays at midnight on 3e.

February 25, 2011

On Not Live-blogging the Oscars

“If the headline is big enough, then the story is big enough”. Events are only as important as the media deems them to be. Big Brother was a flop when it began on Channel 4 in 2000, not least because the tabloid press sneered constantly at the stupidity of the concept. When they decided to change their tunes and cheerlead for it instead, they created its audience by making it seem that who got evicted when somehow mattered. Big Brother hadn’t become any less inane; the media had merely decided that it was now important. So it was. And this is where the Oscars come in. I was driven to distraction last year by the spectacle of the Irish Times not only wasting space on Saturday simultaneously predicting the winners while sneering at how other contenders were better, but then trumpeting on their front page on the Monday that you could read their blog coverage of who did actually win. The ‘paper of record’ practically apologising for being published too early to be able to list the clowns who won the annual meat-parade infuriated me so much that I wrote a quick snippy demolition of the Oscars after the fact as a tangent to my sequence of articles on media manipulation, critical misperception and popular reception of cinematic successes. I just forgot to actually write that…

I stand by the reasons I gave for not doing a live-blog of the Oscars but I’d like to expand them and properly illuminate the most important one. There is the practical consideration. Why would an Irish media outlet, like Movies.ie who are currently trumpeting theirs, do a live-blog of the Oscars? It does not make sense for the Irish Times as opposed to the Chicago Sun-Times to live-blog the Oscars as most of their readers are asleep rather than watching TV. Automatically the live-blog becomes a stale transcript to be read the next morning. Which leads to my conceptual problem with live-blogging – it is performing live, for a writer. The meaning of performing live, which gives theatre its magic, is in its ephemeral nature. A live episode of ER carried a frisson for the American viewer then, entirely absent for the Irish viewer watching a re-run now, and wondering why people keep forgetting their lines and falling over props. A live-blog, if pure to its own conceptual ideal, would be deleted at the end of its writing. The reference to ER is intentional; it’s a scripted episode, performed live. But a live-blog is an episode improvised as the director shouts plot-points at the actors who try to respond creatively in the moment. I co-directed a comedy script the actors loved to riff on, and twenty minutes of improvisation around a forty minute show produces maybe five moments worthy of being scribbled into the script. Against those odds live-bloggers must write witty insights for post after post, minute after minute, hour after hour. I don’t believe Fry & Laurie writing together could produce something that was good live, and if they did it would be pointless keeping a transcript – writing is considered reflection, not spontaneous rambling, as Lester Bangs infamously discovered when he accepted a challenge to write a gig review live onstage…

Above all my animus towards live-blogging was that it is merely the newest way of giving the oxygen of publicity to an event that desperately needs to be ignored. The coverage by the Irish Times last year explicitly recognised that the actual winners were rarely the best the year in cinema had offered so it is too much to ask that media coverage be dialled down until it reaches the level of saturation the quality of the awards warrants? If the Oscars were a dog show, it would be Crufts. If people wanted to read a live-blog of Crufts that might be their concern, but the BBC pulled coverage of Crufts because of concerns over the cruel breeding that its awarding criteria encouraged, and the Oscars is a Crufts that most years denies entry to the most popular breed of dogs, and encourages only a tiny and unhealthy range of dogs to be bred for competition, while renegade dog-lovers both strive to keep some unfavoured breeds from extinction and supply the other unfavoured breeds beloved of the public. The Academy’s insane predilections have arguably distorted the entire medium of cinema. Walk the Line had trouble securing financing because it was a mid-budget drama. It wasn’t a blockbuster which could be sold to a mass audience, and it wasn’t a low-budget indie drama that could be sold on its Oscar nominations to a small audience, it was merely a cracking film – and that left it nowhere. The Oscars tend to squeeze serious drama into a tiny release window, downgrade the critical esteem afforded to quality mass entertainment, and encourage ‘independent’ movies to adopt a rigid set of clichés (think Sunshine Cleaning) in order to base their marketing campaigns around their Oscar nominations.

Any publicity given to the Oscars only perpetuates this destructive effect and so, as a small individual gesture, until the Oscars recognise quality blockbusters and skilful comedies, and develop a long-term memory greater than three months, this blog will only treat them annually to the healthy dose of derision they deserve. Read some more of the Academy’s greatest mistakes in Oscar Schmoscar Part II.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.