Talking Movies

June 12, 2013

Snyder’s Superman

I’ve written two pieces about Zack Snyder and one about re-booting the Superman franchise, so here’s my clever ploy to avoid repeating myself by this time writing a blog about Zack Snyder’s re-booting of Superman.

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Man of Steel hits cinemas this Friday. The promotional push has come oddly late, here at any rate, with nary a poster or TV spot visible until June 3rd for a movie out June 14th. But Warner Bros has obvious confidence in this project, muttering as they are of their expectations that it will break the $1 billion dollar mark, so it’s obviously a considered choice. But have Zack Snyder’s choices as the rebooting director been equally considered? It’s long been my contention that limits are good, that Tarantino’s CSI: LV special ‘Grave Danger’ is better than Death Proof and Kill Bill: Vols 1 & 2 because he had to creatively respond to artistic limitations rather than engage in his usual self-indulgence. Inglourious Basterds likewise needed to be a hit with some urgency so he had to rein himself in from his original grandiose vision. You could even speculate, as I have, that, given a small budget Richard Kelly’s imagination is focused onto small-scale scenarios which hum with wit and heart, but that given a large budget his vision becomes hopelessly diffuse as it expands over ever more elaborate conspiracies; always involving water, time-travel or aliens. I say this because I think that, unlike the unloved Sucker-Punch which was co-written and directed by Snyder as an R movie and then edited into a PG-13 after the shoot, receiving Goyer’s PG-13 Man of Steel script and bringing his flourishes to bear is the best thing that could happen to him creatively.

Snyder has cast intriguingly and well. Laurence Fishburne has the natural authority you want from a Perry White, Amy Adams has the comic timing and also the abrasiveness to be Lois Lane, and the double-act of Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents looks very promising. Russell Crowe as Jor-El looks like a solid choice, although it depends largely on the levels of pompousness depicted on Krypton – which we’re promised will be a caped society, whatever that means, perhaps Gerard Butler’s Sparta. By far the best choice is Michael Shannon as General Zod, a move every bit as bizarre as Scarecrow and French Connection star Gene Hackman putting aside grittiness and realism to don a comedy wig as Lex Luthor in 1978. Shannon, from the latest trailer, is bringing the baffled questioning tone of his Revolutionary Road madman as well as the customary menacing fury of Boardwalk Empire and The Iceman. Indeed the only obvious dud in the casting is picking Henry Cavill as Superman, so, only mildly important then… Cavill is physically perfect for the part, but being built like Superman is only half the task, you need the comic timing to be Clark too. Brandon Routh had the physique for Superman, but his Clark wasn’t very good, and the film suffered as a result. Cavill abundantly does not have great comic timing, which makes the promises from Snyder and Goyer that this Clark is an interpretation we’ve never seen before a worrying admission/pre-emption of comic timing failure.

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And comedy is the big worry when it comes to Man of Steel. The teaser trailer which made it look like Clark was going to spend the whole film moping around the Pacific Northwest ruing the Discovery Channel’s decision to once again not pick his crew to feature on the next season of Deadliest Catch started the concerns. The next trailer deepened those concern, eschewing as it did super-action and seeming to promise a deeply sombre Superman which would resemble nothing else so much as a dramatisation of Seth Cohen’s essay on the loneliness of being Superman which moved his teacher to tears… Finally we got a trailer that softened the pomposity of grand thematic statements about sacrifice, leadership, moral examples by showing us some super-action, but sadly said super-action looked as if it was directed by Michael Bay in blacks, blues, greys and red with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski on hand with his customary supernova to backlight the action. It also seemed to suggest this interpretation’s Lois might play like the reporter in Mr Deeds Goes to Town, debunking the small-town hero under the guise of romance and then feeling guilty. Except Goyer can’t write Capra. Indeed, under his own steam he’s given us Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Nick Fury: Agent of Shield and Jumper, while the Brothers Nolan, without him, have penned Memento, The Prestige and Inception. You feel sure the Nolans work hard to pen gags, but Superman cinematically needs some good gags or it will implode.

And then there’s the CGI… Brandishing the ‘Produced by Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight trilogy’ on your promotional material only goes so far. Nolan shoots on film, on location and in meticulously dressed sound-stages, and with largely practical effects – oftentimes where anybody else would just use ghastly CGI – rendered with a very precise eye for detail by cinematographer Wally Pfister. Snyder really … doesn’t. Zod’s CGI armour and awful looking spaceship stood out for me like a sore thumb, because, along with the CGI cape for Superman, they’re the sort of bizarre decisions that could really blight a movie. Richard Donner said his Superman aimed at not at reality but at verisimilitude, but it appears Snyder has with customary abandon decided to abandon verisimilitude and go for total fantasy. Partly this is because of the times we live in, but also partly because Snyder is not particularly attached to reality at the best of times. But no matter how sombre the trailers make it look, no matter how emotionally devastating the handling of Clark’s pivotal relationships are, and no matter how thrilling it is too see a Superman Begins in which his morality is in formation – and close to Hancock than himself as a result – the scripting by David S Goyer won’t matter a damn if you just tune out when you notice that, like certain action sequences in the blighted Star Wars prequels, not one thing onscreen is actually real. And Sucker-Punch does not inspire confidence there…

So, there you go. This Man of Steel has a strong chance of crash-landing, but it could soar – let’s hope…

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October 5, 2012

Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor (aka Ted from How I Met Your Mother) writes, directs, and stars in a romantic comedy about a disappointed thirtysomething intoxicated anew by the college lifestyle.

Radnor plays Jesse, working in NYC as a college admissions officer; a deeply unfulfilling job. He jumps at the chance to escape back to his alma mater, a liberal arts college in Ohio, to celebrate the retirement of his mentor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). However, other protégés of Hoberg arrive for the shindig, and their improv drama student daughter Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) makes an immediate impression on Jesse. Not least because her effervescence, thoughtfulness and wit are favourably contrasted with his ice maiden English lecturer Fairfield (Allison Janney). Jesse and Zibby begin to correspond as she shares her intellectual discoveries with him and he begins to wake up from his jobsworth stupor. Jesse returns to Ohio to see Zibby but should Jesse really be looking for a more age appropriate girlfriend, like cute bookseller and Carla Gugino lookalike Ana (Elizabeth Reaser)?

Liberal Arts at times feels like Radnor looked at Manhattan disapprovingly and decided to write a wiser version of the 17 year old Mariel Hemingway character and an ethical version of the 42 year old Woody Allen character. There is a deliriously funny silent scene where the tortured Jesse uses mathematics to convince himself that a relationship with Zibby would be okay. Allen is an obvious reference point; this being the second film in two years that Radnor has written, directed and starred in. This is a cottage industry to get behind though as this is far warmer and wittier than his higher profile HIMYM co-star Jason Segel’s magnum opus Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And that’s despite a fantastically cold supporting turn by Allison Janney; channelling CSI’s Lady Heather as an aloof sexually dominant sage who teaches Jesse some hard lessons.

Radnor fills his film with hilarious sequences. The letters between Jesse and Zibby recall 84 Charing Cross Road and are both charming and very funny; as when Jesse notices that opera does make passersby look prettier. There is a sensational lengthy fight between Jesse and Zibby over a trashy vampire novel that is obviously the Twilight series (Lunar Moon?!), and an unlikely actor makes a simply spectacular cameo as an enigmatic student feeding Jesse Zen wisdom. This is also a film of great heart. Jenkins’ heartfelt regrets at retiring are compassionately treated, and Radnor as well as being a likeable sparring partner for the sparkling Olsen volunteers himself as a mentor for a brilliant but depressed student (John Magaro); during which story thread there is a dismissal of what is surely Infinite Jest that would warm Bret Easton Ellis’ heart.

To Rome with Love confirmed Allen’s rediscovery of his comic talent, but with Liberal Arts Radnor could very well have announced himself as the heir apparent.

4/5

June 27, 2012

Killer Joe

1970s legend William Friedkin teams up with controversial Tony-winning playwright Tracy Letts for a disturbing slice of what might be usefully dubbed Kentucky Fried Noir.

Small-time drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in debt after his estranged mother plunders his cocaine stash. He suggests to his father Anselm (Thomas Haden Church) that they murder her for the insurance money which will be paid to Chris’ sister Dottie (Juno Temple), a plan supported by his father’s new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon). Bent Dallas cop Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) doubles as a hit-man, but with no money for a deposit he agrees to an unusual retainer – Dottie. But as Joe and Dottie grow close the murderous insurance scam unravels nastily and unpredictably…

It’s no exaggeration to dub this McConaughey’s Drive. From the exaggerated sound of his clicking lighter (not unlike Ryan Goslin’s creaking driving gloves), to his toothpick, to his insistence on rules and calm demeanour while making and executing threats of extreme violence, to his growing attachment to a girl softening his cold exterior, to the superhero outfit (here a fetishised hat, gun and badge), Joe has eerie similarities to Driver and McConaughey gives a revelatory performance. Friedkin may borrow from Refn’s bag of tricks but this is not equally virtuoso film-making. If you’ve read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls you won’t lament Friedkin’s precipitous decline after The French Connection and The Exorcist. His episodes of CSI: LV have probably been viewed by more people than most of his movies since 1973, with the possible exception of the tedious Rules of Engagement.

Killer Joe is all over the shop tonally. There is a piece of visual comedy involving a suit which is hilarious, which, like Joe replying “I like Digger” to the question why he doesn’t arrest the gangster Digger, and Chris being beaten up by Digger’s goons who then inform him “He really likes you”, belongs in another film. You don’t care for a second what happens to Hirsch which makes you realise how Joe’s query of Anselm; “Were you aware of this?” “I’m never aware”; exemplifies the unnerving stupidity of the characters. Friedkin also does for unnecessary female nudity here what he did for unnecessary male nudity in To Live and Die in LA. Temple bares all several times for no very clear reason, and Gershon flashes repeatedly, but the fact that Dottie is clearly not the full shilling makes a scene where Joe makes her strip naked incredibly disturbing. And that’s before we get to the unbelievable use of a “K fry C” chicken wing as part of the intensely theatrical climax in which persistent interrogation cuts thru lies – a bravura sequence that almost redeems previous queasy scenes.

This is a tough watch, and it’s debatable whether it’s really worth the struggle, but McConaughey’s performance erases all his disastrous rom-coms. He’s that good.

2/5

November 1, 2011

Any Other Business: Part II

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 second portmanteau post on television of course!

Burning Down the House
I’m waiting with bated breath for the resumption of Hawaii Five-O after Lenkov’s amazing season one finale. If Moffat seemed to burn the house down with the end of his penultimate episode to season 5 of Doctor Who; which he sardonically described as the Doctor imprisoned in the most secure vault in the universe, Amy dead, Rory made of plastic and all the Whovian villains united – no problem; then Peter M Lenkov took off and nuked his O’ahu abode from orbit. Lenkov in his wisdom killed the Governor who was able to sweep all of the team’s legal transgressions under the pardon rug, framed McGarrett for her murder at the hands of the Yakuza supremo, arrested Kono for stealing millions from lock-up, returned Chin to the police force to work against McGarret, and possibly torpedoed Danny’s resurrected marriage by having him rally round McGarrett. No problem?…

Cockney Voices, Still Dialogue
I was unsurprised to learn that Saffron Burrows had been ditched from Finders after a disastrous try out of its team during a truly terrible Bones episode. To term Finders a Bones spin-off is laughable, it’s merely Hart Hanson using his existing show to try and sell a second show by demonstrating to the network how much people love his all-new adorably quirky characters. And my God were they quirky… Hanson granted each of his trio distinctive modes of speech, Michael Clarke Duncan was Dr Gonzo proffering legal advice, the ‘hero’ was verbose and savanty, and Saffron Burrows was….well, not adorable was the short verdict of the American viewing public and so she had to go. The nature of the problem became clear when shortly afterwards I saw Sienna Guillory appear in a season 11 episode of CSI: LV. Guillory spoke in her normal English accent, and everything was fine, because she was just handed regular CSI: LV dialogue and told to use her natural voice. Hanson wrote dialogue that aimed to be ‘Cockney’ in its Artful Dodger choice of words and rhyming slang, and thus London girl Burrows ended up incredibly unconvincing as a Cockney!

RTE’s feeling for insomniacs
What is wrong with RTE? More specifically what is wrong with their schedulers? Why do they insist on buying major American shows, with big budgets and numerous awards, and then burying them in the graveyard shift? Mad Men barely creeps in before midnight, Hawaii Five-O comes on just before midnight, Castle comes in at around half past midnight, Medium anytime after midnight, Mercy around 1am and No Ordinary Family at 2:20am… TV3 have complained that RTE are being a wealthy dog in the manger and simply preventing other networks having these shows. Assuming that’s not true, there’s still something disgraceful about Castle, one of the very best shows around at the moment for charismatic acting, wonderful gags, and unpredictable mysteries, getting no viewers in this country because no one has the cop-on to shove it on TV at say 10:10pm on Tuesday rather than at 12:35am.

Dirty Horatio
I’ve been watching CSI: Miami and noticing with alarm and bemusement that the writers appear to have mixed up David Caruso’s Horatio Caine character with Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan somewhere between seasons 8 and 9. The first time we ever saw Caine in action, in an episode of CSI: LV, he was going off the beaten track during a search and found and comforted a missing child. That is Horatio Caine: great with children and dogged in his pursuit of justice. He takes his sun-glasses on and off a lot, smiles at villains, and delivers ‘cool’ lines to a screaming ‘YEEAAHHH!!!’ soundtrack by The Who. He doesn’t throw perps thru windows for the craic, and continually threaten criminals at gunpoint while snarling menacing dialogue at them. Perhaps Caruso felt that Horatio was disappearing into the background and wanted to stand out from the ensemble again, or maybe the change-over of writers has left few people with the memory of the original creation of Caine around to guide the character on a consistent arc. Either way I want more of the Horatio who tells an armadillo-hunting suspect that discovers his gun is missing, “Maybe the armadillos took it…”

Grissom’s Theory of Everything
I’ve written at great length twice about the Morpheus Problem faced by CSI: LV in trying to replace William Petersen’s Gil Grissom with Laurence Fishburne’s Ray Langston as the leader of the heroic criminalists of the Vegas crime lab. But with the hoopla surrounding the desperate quest to replace Fishburne, who’s gone back to Hollywood to resume his rightful role as a figure of authority by being Clark Kent’s editor among other gigs, a new thought sprung to mind. Instead of begging John Lithgow to join the show and then settling for Ted Danson, and announcing a comedic direction because of his arrival, why not just not replace Grissom? Grissom is irreplaceable. His cameo in season 11 only reminded us of that. So why not just trust the ensemble to carry on without him? Catherine, Nick, Sara, Greg, Hodges, Henry, Archie, Mandy, Dr Robbins and David can carry an episode just fine by themselves. Grissom was sometimes tangential to episodes and they worked just fine. Can we not trust that if the writers simply stopped trying to replace Grissom, and just enjoyed his team in motion around a now absent star, then the audience would too?

June 22, 2011

The Morpheus Solution

I’d been waiting to see the resolution of the cliff-hanger of season 10 of CSI: LV before finishing this piece; only for Deadline.com to announce, on the very day that the first episode of season 11 aired on RTE, that Laurence Fishburne would not be returning for season 12…

This is a pity, because the writers did a creditable job of solving the Morpheus Problem. To recap, CBS undertook research to see why fans weren’t reacting well to Laurence Fishburne replacing William Petersen. The response, “We’d like to see Ray in more of a leadership role”, was code for “We’d like to see Morpheus being Morpheus…” Grissom had passed the torch to criminology professor Dr Ray Langston, but explicitly invited him to apply for the Level 1 CSI vacancy. Catherine Willows became the new supervisor of the night shift while Fishburne waltzed into first billing, but as the new rookie. Ray’s medical background allowed him attend autopsies with coroner Dr Robbins as Grissom did, before the writers outrageously jump-started a new dynamic by having Ray and Doc Robbins go on a road-trip to fight crime – while listening to their beloved blues records. Some Morpheus was added to the mix as a baffling case was solved by Ray’s knowledge of ancient Greek history and philosophy. But the real problem was that Fishburne was too big a screen presence to play the lowest ranked person. I asked if Ray could really take on a leadership role without wreaking chaos on the internal logic of 9 seasons of CSI?

The first episode of season 10 saw the writers use some neat tricks and some wilful blindness to solve this conundrum. A nice gag saw Morpheus Ray kung-fu kicking a man thru a glass window in a bullet-time pan around the entire lab as it was raided by Russian mobsters stealing a corpse from the morgue in the cold open. The episode then played out the events leading up to this daring raid and we learnt in conversation with Ecklie that Ray had taken many classes, “You’ve had quite the busy summer … You’re already two courses over your training allotment for the year”, “I know, and that is why I paid for them, and took my vacation to do them”, and so is promoted to Level 2 CSI in record time. Indeed we actually see Ray at this start of this dialogue training himself to recognise knife-wounds in a remarkably Zen manner, before later selflessly volunteering for a boring assignment when Greg whines about being pulled off a celebrity car-crash.

That incident where Greg pulls rank on Ray on being reassigned before Nick restores order is pivotal. Lauren Lee Smith’s Riley has quit, and Ecklie upbraids Catherine for Greg’s insubordination, “This is a discipline problem. I’m beginning to think that Riley was right about you”, “What is that supposed to mean?”, “You didn’t read her exit interview? I put it on your desk! Just read it!” Riley had scathingly questioned Catherine’s ability to lead, but the returned Sara Sidle suggests that all Catherine lacks is a No 2 as good for her as she was for Grissom, and so Nick is promoted to assistant supervisor. The re-introduction of Sara restores one of the missing trinity that the show had lost in quick succession (Sara/Warrick/Grissom) and her intervention encourages Catherine to let her subordinates have the freedom to improvise, and Ray immediately does just that, cryptically promising his superior, “I’ll tell you if I can prove it”, as he searches for the subcutaneous bruising that proves the celebrity car-crash was a staged murder; by the ever wonderful Garrett Dillahunt’s shady private security operative Tom O’Neill. Ray’s determination solves this case, suggesting that this mental re-shuffle of their characters by the writers has had its desired effect.

The introduction of Dr Jekyll at the end of this episode was a bold move, echoing as it did the only previous season-arc villain (The Miniature Killer in season 7) by giving Langston a villain who was his own particular nemesis. Just as season 7 had seen an increasingly obsessed Grissom build a miniature model of his own office before taking a teaching sabbatical as the case got to him, season 10’s arc storyline became the increasingly obsessive struggle between Dr Langston, the hospital administrator who’d been conned by an Angel of Death surgeon back East, and a demented surgeon given to performing grotesque farces of lethal unnecessary operations, like tying a victim’s organs up in a bow, or giving someone a second appendix. Dr Jekyll is as about as disturbing a killer as you can get on network TV. Actually given that Showtime’s loveably twisted Dexter ran screaming from using the villain Dr Denko from Jeff Lindsay’s second novel Dearly Devoted Dexter for their second season he’s probably about as disturbing a killer as you can get on TV period.

The writers also cleverly introduced another Grissom parallel. Nick tries to talk Langston through guilt about the shoot-out at the end of season 9, “It was killed or be killed Ray, it’s a terrible situation to be in, you can’t let it bother you”, “It hasn’t been bothering me, and that’s what’s been bothering me”. Langston became increasingly haunted by the thought that he shares his father’s genetic predisposition to violence. This fleshing out of his character brought him twice into conflict with unsuspecting and uncomprehending DNA expert Wendy, and paid off wonderfully twice; when it led to a flashpoint with a surgeon in a hospital whose face Ray slammed into a wall after one taunt too many about the superiority of surgeons to administrators, and when it pointed a huge finger of suspicion at Ray in the penultimate episode of the season as possibly having murdered a journalist investigating Dr Jekyll, or even actually being Dr Jekyll himself unawares. All this beautifully invited comparison with Grissom, who was also in denial of his own genetic predisposition – to deafness.

In addition Nick and Ray formed a partnership that effectively resuscitated the old Nick/Warrick dynamic, while also cleverly guaranteeing Ray an ‘in’ to the most interesting cases. The penultimate episode replicated Grissom’s suspension from a high-profile case in the season 1 finale, and then saw Nick break that to run the investigation from Ray’s house, just as Catherine had done with Grissom way back when. Fishburne wasn’t stepping into Gary Dourdan’s shoes though but using his own persona. An early episode in season 10 involving a possible racist white cop killing a black cop saw Ray walk into the CSI lab’s rest-room during a heated discussion. Ray was the only black person in the room but he unexpectedly eased a scene suddenly fraught with racial tension by saying racism didn’t come into play in split-second shootings. He then tried to stop the suicidal white cop killing himself at the end of the episode. It this all-encompassing compassion that more than anything else links Ray to Grissom, so that serial killer Nate Haskell in the finale asked Ray what happened to Grissom, and was convincing when he sagely muttered “You’ve replaced him…”

Fishburne like Petersen is now the quiet heart of the crime-lab, quietly comforting all who need counsel.

April 5, 2011

Politik

“Gil! Learn to be more politic…” – CSI: LV.

The hysteria of the general election caused me to write a few political tweets, satirical and serious, so here’s a brief excursion by the blog proper into the political realm.

The Vision Thing

I said that Fianna Fail had a vision of society, switched it for a vision of an economy, and now were left bereft of any vision at all. DeValera undoubtedly had a vision of the society he wanted to created, and tried to bend the world to fit it, as the presence of a Gaeltacht in Meath will attest. Whether you agreed with that vision or not, you could hardly deny its sincerity, and after all Fine Gael’s precursors had introduced censorship so their vision was hardly dissimilar. Lemass took the bold, almost insane step, of disavowing all he’d worked for over thirty years and starting again by replacing Dev’s vision of an ideal society with a more pragmatic vision of a functioning economy. This vision worked for a while, fell apart because of two oil-crises and the inability of politicians, of all parties, to figure out that spending cannot be infinite, and taxes cannot be raised to 58% on the average punter before he just leaves. Savage treatment got it working again and Fianna Fail took the credit, but after having become the natural party of government because of their economic credentials they then encouraged a bubble whose bursting blew out the tyres on the entire country rather than just the building sector. Having comprehensively set fire to their trump card, they’re now bereft of any vision. What exactly does Fianna Fail stand for? Who knows? Admittedly Fine Gael had the same problem not so long ago but it’s always a more pressing question when in opposition. Vision is a rarity in Irish politics. Fine Gael had a vision in the 1960s (quickly discarded) and in the 1980s (doggedly attempted) but right now their vision is not entirely clear. Fianna Fail are in the same position the Republicans found themselves in from 1932-1952, nobody will put them in charge again. But, unlike the Republicans, they don’t still have muscle at a lower level, they have been obliterated. And unlike the Republicans they don’t have the luxury of a two-party system allowing them the time and space to find some way to rebuild their credibility; as the Republicans decided to invoke socialism at home and communism abroad to paint the Democrats as elitist and unpatriotic before finally in the 1980s speciously managing to regain the mantle of being the economically ‘responsible’ party. Task: Vision, Time: Five Years…

Balanced Government

A man who has three lemons in one pocket and two in the other and throws away one lemon to have two in each pocket is balanced; if asked what he plans to do with all these lemons, he’ll answer ‘lemonade, obviously…’ The idea promulgated by Labour in their absolute panic during the last weeks of the election that one should vote for them in order to ensure a balanced government is much like saying a man with five lemons in one pocket and two oranges in the other should throw away three lemons in order to be balanced; ask him what he plans to do with this odd assortment of fruits, he’ll answer ‘God only knows, but it sure won’t taste nice…’ Incoherence in government is incoherence, not balance, and a government that apparently has no idea exactly what its second Finance minister is actually going to do doesn’t appear to have got off to a particularly cogent start. A Fine Gael majority government supported by the Fianna Fail rump would not only have been a delicious re-run of the Tallaght Strategy with the blame for screwing things up reversed, but might have given us all a chance to finally have a coherent left/right divide in this country. Not that two-party systems are particularly brilliant, but because the lack of first past the post and the inanity of our constituency and voting systems makes anything with a degree of clarity preferable. But then perhaps Irish politicians fear that precisely because then clarity would be demanded of them. HCG Matthew’s reading of Gladstone’s political genius is that he was able to find causes that managed to unite warring Radicals, Peelites, Whigs, and Liberals into something approaching a purposeful Liberal party – which then usually collapsed at the end of its governing term until the next cause was found to pull it together. Can any one party really sum up all the varied attitudes that make up a single individual’s response to the world? No, absolutely not. All parties are a poor substitute for the sort of direct democracy that a combination of Australia’s compulsory voting and direct secure internet referendums could produce. But short of such a space-age Athenian democracy in action it would be nice to have some sort of coherent oppositional ideological divide between two dominant parties rather than have to mumble embarrassedly about a civil war.

Club Med/The Piigs

As with the credit crunch and the housing crash anybody with an eye in their head could have foreseen the current difficulties of the Eurozone. Back in 1999 UCD Economics Professor Rodney Thom was heavily critical of the admission of what were then dubbed the Club Med countries; Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain; into the European Monetary Union. They were countries that had great difficulty in balancing budgets and maintaining fiscal restraint or stable currencies, and guess what, they’re, with the addition of Ireland, the countries now monikered The Piigs. In other words they were pegged as troublemakers before the Euro was even physically introduced and they’ve proven to be troublemakers. The reasons the markets are relentlessly targeting the Piigs is because the markets are working out the inexorable logic of economics not politics. The Piigs should never have been part of the Eurozone in the first place. Gordon Brown created economic tests for joining the Euro which he knew would never be fulfilled but in a very real way all he did was expose the stupidity at the heart of the project; which was privileging political aspirations over economic reality. A common currency area will work if each region’s trade is predominantly with the others involved, and if their economic cycles are synched, otherwise it will be ruinous. It was always obvious that France, Germany and the Benelux countries were admirably suited economically, but that no one else should join for economic reasons; and they didn’t, they joined for political reasons – the insane need to be seen as ‘good Europeans’. Ireland is now ruined largely because it gave away the power to set its own interest rates. The ECB kept interest rates farcically low compared to what a responsible Irish central bank would have hiked them to in order to cripple the housing bubble long before it got to its ultimate supernova status, and in imploding the property sector has taken down everything else. We joined an economic system for political reasons, and were happy to have a round economy ineptly hammered into a square political hole, because we thought it made us look like good troupers in the grand European project. The best thing the Piigs could do now is en masse to impose bank-debt-for-equity-swaps, belatedly leave the ill-suited Eurozone, and loudly point out that economies are too important to be sacrificed to theoretical political models.

September 29, 2010

Buried

Ryan Reynolds acts his heart out alone on-screen for 90 minutes in this real-time thriller but a weak script fails to match his efforts…

Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, a civilian truck-driver in Iraq who wakes up after his convoy is ambushed to find that he’s been buried alive with only 90 minutes of oxygen left. He’s been left a phone with dodgy reception and a fading battery, and he fruitlessly calls his wife’s voicemail, a preposterously annoying neighbour, and various American agencies before the kidnapper rings to instruct Conroy to record and send his own ransom video. Comparisons to Tarantino’s CSI: LV special ‘Grave Danger’, which placed Nick Stokes in a coffin with only 12 hours for Grissom and his team to find him before the oxygen ran out, are inevitable. There are superficial similarities; the presence of a deadly weapon in the coffin, the intrusion of menacing fauna, the desperation that alternates between despair and panic; but also a shameless riff on Tarantino’s wonderful “Are you a terrorist?” “Well I guess that depends. Are you terrified?” But director Rodrigo Cortes is no Tarantino…

Cortes never leaves the coffin for the duration of the movie. This isn’t as Hitchcockian as he’d like because A Single Man cinematographer Eduard Grau’s six-minute takes include a ridiculous tracking shot around the coffin that makes it feel larger than some bed-sits. Reynolds displays considerable dramatic chops along with some nice comedic touches but his performance is better than Chris Sparling’s script. There are high-points in the writing like Stephen Tobolowsky as a HR man using legal chicanery to backslide on an insurance pay-out, while Robert Patterson’s crisp British voice is marvellous casting for Dan Brenner, the SAS type in charge of tracking down Conroy’s location, but mostly by staging conversations in the dark Cortes remove the visual field of reference to such an extent that this becomes a radio-play.

That fact focuses far too much attention onto the script, and it doesn’t take experience in screenwriting to realise just how few routes this story can take. Conroy frustratingly sits on vital information – for no reason, and there is an outrageous Chekhov’s Rifle of a detail that is left hanging before paying off as part of ‘the very oldest trick in the book’ – used in the deeply frustrating ending. Buried wants, structurally, to have its cake and eat it, and this only underscores its lack of profundity. In the end this is just needlessly nasty (Reynolds is forced to cut off his finger, pointlessly), perhaps in the wrong medium, and lacks the emotional power and depth to match Reynolds’ performance.

Reynolds fans will appreciate a fine turn that is a master-class in creating empathy out of thin air, but fans of suspense or drama would do well to avoid a film that can’t deliver on its promises.

2/5

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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