Talking Movies

July 7, 2016

The Neon Demon

Nicolas Winding Refn returns with another artful garish provocation that elicited boos at Cannes. He must be doing something right.

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Fresh-faced teenager Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in LA with dreams of modelling. She impresses agency head Roberta (Christina Hendricks), even though her photos do not; so much for would-be boyfriend/photographer Dean (Karl Glusman) hitching his wagon to her rising star. Roberta pushes her towards legendary photographer Jack MacArthur (Des Harrington) who is immediately wowed by her innocent looks and shoots her. His instant interest is shared by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who introduces Jesse to her sharp-tongued model friends Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee). But when Alessandro Nivola’s designer is also entranced, leading to successive humiliations for Gigi and Sarah in favour of Jesse, their claws come out. And Jesse, after a trippy catwalk experience, finds herself isolated when events in the worst motel in Pasadena take a sinister turn courtesy of creepy manager Hank (Keanu Reeves).

Refn got a kicking for Only God Forgives that would’ve broken many directors, but, very impressively, The Neon Demon is made with supreme confidence, and with absolutely no apologies – even signed NWR as a statement of artistic singularity. Whereas Only God Forgives gestured towards total abstraction there is a semblance of story here, but, even though he collaborated with playwrights Mary Laws & Polly Stenham on dialogue, it’s in the ha’penny place to the visuals. And the visuals work because Refn knows Cliff Martinez can provide a synthesiser score of wide range that can interpret images: in particular Jesse’s catwalk encounter with a blue pyramid, water, and a red pyramid, which tips its hat to 2001’s Jupiter sequence, and seems to imply that Jesse has communed with the Platonic Ideal of beauty and is thereafter a different and blessed person.

Martinez’s score is quite haunting and beautiful in its ethereal approximation of the timbres of marimba and celeste, but it also embraces great Vangelis Blade Runner washes of synth, as well as juddering techno, contrapuntal melodies, and, for a climactic syncopated cue, almost wah-wah guitar effects. Reeves plays terrifically against type, and his enjoyment is mirrored by Refn mischievously cutting from his introduction to a huge white space where one character initiates another. The Rover cinematographer Natasha Braier observes the scantily-clad models with Kubrickian detachment, complementing a startling scene where Jesse appears faced with sexual assault but is treated as an objet d’art, not human but a personification of beauty. Early on, regarding lipstick names, Jesse is asked “Are you sex or are you food?” Refn seems to imply Jesse as embodiment of beauty can be anything, except a person.

This is more accessible than Only God Forgives, but there will still be walkouts, because this is unapologetically an NWR film: which means mesmeric pacing, semi-abstracted visuals, a foregrounding of music, and outré violence.

4/5

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January 18, 2016

2016: Fears

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 8:59 pm
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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

January 29th sees the release of a small (a mere $50 million dollar) personal movie by an auteur, truly un film de Michel Bay. Six military contractors (including The Office’s John Krasinski, 24’s James Badge Dale, and The Unit’s Max Martini) make a desperate last stand when a US consulate in Libya is attacked on the anniversary of 9/11. Chuck Hogan (The Town, The Strain), of all people, writes for Bay to direct; with the resulting Bayhem being memorably characterised by The Intercept as Night of the Living Dead meets The Green Berets.

Zoolander 2

February 12th sees the release of the sequel nobody was particularly asking for… It’s been 14 since Zoolander. An eternity in cinematic comedy as the Frat Pack glory days have long since yielded to the School of Apatow; itself fading of late. Seinfeld has refused reunions noting that the concept of his show becomes depressing with aged characters, but Stiller apparently has no such qualms about airhead models Derek (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) being on the catwalk. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kristen Wiig and Penelope Cruz bring new energy, but an air of desperation/cynicism hangs over this project.

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Gods of Egypt

February 26th sees Bek (Brenton Thwaites) forced to align with Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) when the god of darkness Set (Gerard Butler) assumes control of Egypt in a truly stupid blockbuster. But not as stupid as the reception it can look forward to after Deadline’s Ross A. Lincoln wrote “based on the statuary and monuments that have survived, not to mention thousands of years of other cultures commenting on them, they definitely weren’t white people with flowing, curly blond locks, and their gods were definitely not Europeans.” Lincoln’s argument dynamites Idris Elba’s role in Thor, which is not permissible, so logically (sic) it’s now racist to not depict the Egyptian gods as Egyptian, but it’s also racist to depict the Norse gods as Norse. If the gods of Egypt ought to look Egyptian, who, that’s bankable, can play them? Amir Arison, Mozhan Marno, Sarah Shahi, and Cliff Curtis wouldn’t merit a $140 million budget. And casting them because (barring the Maori Curtis) they hail from nearer Egypt than Gerard Butler, but are not actually Egyptian, is itself racist. Does Alex (Dark City) Proyas, who hasn’t directed anything since 2009, really deserve this firestorm for just trying to work?

Hail, Caesar!

The Coens stop writing for money and return to directing on March 4th with a 1950s Hollywood back-lot comedy. A lighter effort than Barton Fink, this follows Josh Brolin’s fixer as he tries to negotiate the return of George Clooney’s kidnapped star from mysterious cabal ‘The Future’ with the help of fellow studio players Channing Tatum, Alden Ehrenreich, and Scarlett Johansson. The relentlessly mean-spirited Inside Llewyn Davis was a surprise aesthetic nadir after True Grit’s ebullience, so we can only hope the return of so many of their repertory players can galvanise the Coens to rediscover some warmth.

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Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

Zack Snyder gave us the neck-snap heard around the world in Man of Steel. On March 25th he continues his visionary misinterpretation of Superman, and can also ruin Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, Alfred Pennyworth, and Doomsday. Ben Affleck and Jeremy Irons entice as Bruce and Alfred, and Affleck has undoubtedly got the script punched up by inserting his Argo scribe Chris Terrio into the mix, but Snyder is still directing. How Snyder ever got the keys to the DC cinematic kingdom is amazing, but when if he blows this he cripples The WB.

The Neon Demon

Keanu Reeves made a comeback in 2015 with John Wick and Knock Knock. But can he impart some of that momentum to Nicolas Winding Refn to help him recover from the unmerciful kicking he got for Only God Forgives? Refn is working on a third of Drive’s budget for this horror tale of Elle Fanning’s wannabe actress who moves to LA, to find her vitality drained by a coven led by Christina Hendricks. Details are very sparse, other than that it’s about ‘vicious beauty,’ but this could be intriguing, blood-spattered, gorgeous, and enigmatic, or a total fiasco…

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The Avengers 3 Captain America: Civil War

Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors who gave you the worst choreographed and edited fight scenes you’d ever seen in Captain America 2, return with …more of the same, because why bother doing it better when you’ll go see it anyway? May 6th sees Mark Millar’s comic-book event become a camouflaged Avengers movie as Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans’ superheroes fall out over the fate of Sebastian Stan’s reformed Bucky. Expect incomprehensible fights, the occasional decent action sequence, wall to wall fake-looking CGI, and more characters than Game of Thrones meets LOST.

Snowden

The master of subtlety returns on May 12th as Oliver Stone continues his quest to make a good movie this century. His latest attempt is a biopic of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose distrust of the American government should be catnip to Stone’s sensibilities. Zachary Quinto is journalist Glenn Greenwald, Shailene Woodley is Snowden’s girlfriend, and supporting players include Timothy Olyphant, Nicolas Cage, and Melissa Leo. Expect a hagiography with stylistic brio, and no qualms about whether the next large building that blows up might be on Snowden for blowing the lid on how terrorists were monitored.

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Oscar Isaac is Apocalypse, the first mutant, worshipped for his godlike powers, who awakes in alt-1980 and turns Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to the dark side as one of his Four Horsemen alongside Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Angel (Ben Hardy). James McAvoy loses his hair from the stress of being upstaged by the powers of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and the ever-increasing star-power of Jennifer Lawrence. Director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-fold in 2014 was a triumph, but rushing this out for May 27th invites disaster; can enough time really have been spent on scripting?

Warcraft

Duncan Jones completes the Christopher Nolan career path by moving from Moon to Source Code to Warcraft. June 10th sees Vikings main-man Travis Fimmel daub on blue face-paint as Anduin Lothar. The battle with the Orcs has an interesting cast including Ben Foster, Toby Kebbell, Paula Patton, Dominic Cooper, and the great character actors Clancy Brown and Callum Keith Rennie. But its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Has there ever been a truly great adaptation of a computer game to a movie? And if Warcraft’s a good movie that’s unfaithful to the game will gamers stay away?

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Finding Dory

June 17th sees another unnecessary unwanted sequel to a beloved early Zeroes film. Why exactly do we need a sequel to Finding Nemo? Besides it being a post-John Carter retreat into an animated safe space for director Andrew Stanton? Marlin (Albert Brooks) sets out to help forgetful Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) find her long-lost parents, who are voiced by Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy. Other voices include Ty Burrell as a beluga whale, Kaitlin Olson as Dory’s whale shark adopted sister, and Ed O’Neill as an ill-tempered octopus. Stanton is writing too, but can aquatic lightning really strike twice?

Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek marks its 50th anniversary with this reboot threequel on July 8th, but the recent trailer didn’t whet any appetites. Despite having Furious maestro Justin Lin in charge and Simon Pegg as the final writer on a script with 5 credited scribes the footage was solely notable for (a) Kirk’s bad hair (b) a vaguely Star Trek: Insurrection with gaudier colours vibe (c) forced attempts at humour. Star Trek Into Darkness was a frustrating exercise in creative cowardice, a flipped photocopy of Star Trek II. Let us hope this time originality has been actively sought out.

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Ghostbusters

July 15th sees… another reboot. Paul Feig couldn’t stow his ego and just direct Dan Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters 3 script, so… “REBOOT!”. Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig are great, but Feig wrote this with Katie Dippold (who penned his execrable ‘comedy’ The Heat) so it won’t be. Feig’s drivel about gender-swapping hides an obvious truth. The Ghostbusters were all male because Akyroyd and Ramis wrote for themselves, SNL pal Murray, and Eddie Murphy; when Murphy dropped out, Zeddmore’s part shrank as his jokes were redistributed. Feig’s Ghostbusters are all female to cynically reposition attacks on his creative bankruptcy as sexism.

Doctor Strange

November 4th sees Benedict Cumberbatch swoosh his cape as Stephen Strange, (That’s Dr. Strange to you!), an arrogant surgeon taught magick by Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. Director Scott Derrickson is perhaps hoping to mash his resume of Sinister and The Day The Earth Stood Still, especially as Sinister co-writer C Robert Cargill has polished this. Mads Mikkelsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Rachel McAdams co-star, but before we get excited, this is Marvel. Marvel took the outré world of comic-books and cinematically rendered it as predictable, conservative, self-aggrandising, boring tosh. How off the leash do you bet Derrickson will get?

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The Death and Life of John F. Donovan

Kit Harington is the titular movie star who is undone when Jessica Chastain’s gossip columnist reveals his correspondence with a young girl, and an unreasoning witch-hunt begins. And it’s the first movie written and directed by Xavier Dolan in English! So, why Fears not Hopes, you ask? Because Dolan in a BBC Radio 4 interview expressed nervousness that he didn’t instinctively understand English’s nuances the way he did with French, and because with big names (Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Michael Gambon) comes pressure to tone down material and make a commercial breakthrough.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Didn’t you always desperately want to know the back story of that throwaway line about how brave rebels died to smuggle out the plans for the Death Star? … Whaddya mean ‘No’?!! Do you have any idea how much money Disney has on the line here?? You damn well better develop an interest by December 16th when Oppenheimer of the Empire Mads Mikkelsen has a crisis of conscience and enlists the help of his smuggler daughter Felicity Jones. Disney paid 4 billion for the rights to Star Wars, they retrospectively own your childhood now.

March 11, 2015

JDIFF: Behind the Scenes

Filed under: Talking Books,Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 3:43 pm
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The Behind The Scenes strand at JDIFF 2015 recognises the importance of the Festival to Irish film-makers with a number of masterclasses, public interviews, panel discussions, conferences, and networking events. This year there is a special emphasis on the making of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, as well as events with casting directors Margery Simkin (Top Gun) and Leo Davis (Layer Cake), and actors Robert Sheehan (Love/Hate) and Aidan Turner (Being Human).

Kubrick on set of Barry Lyndon

 

Talking Kubrick

Marking the 40th anniversary of Barry Lyndon, which receives a gala screening in the Savoy with both star Ryan O’Neal and producer Jan Harlan being interviewed by Lenny Abrahamson, there are three events related to Kubrick’s period epic.

 

Scene on the Square

2.00pm, Saturday 14th March, Wolfe Tone Square

A free event in association with LoveMovies.ie sees a fencing duel being filmed live on the Square. In a unique opportunity to see cinematic magic created up close spectators can watch the video footage live-streamed onto a large screen while the MC explains the various roles of the crew members capturing the action sequence.

 

Kubrick’s Cameras and The Cinematography of Barry Lyndon

10.30am, Saturday 21st March, Light House Cinema

The Irish Society of Cinematographers lends its imprimatur to this unmissable event for both aspiring camera operators and mere enthusiasts of Kubrick’s cinema legacy. Larry Smith, Doug Milsome, Laurie Frost, Joe Dunton, and Luke Quigley; members of the crew from Barry Lyndon one and all; will be discussing the making of the film, the challenge of working with director Stanley Kubrick, and the techniques they used to achieve the unforgettable look of the film, famous for its ultra-low-light candlelit scenes.

 

Producing with Jan Harlan

11.00am, Sunday 22nd March, Light House Cinema

Jan Harlan was executive producer on Stanley Kubrick’s final four films Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut, and assisted on the production of A Clockwork Orange, as well as executive producing AI: Artificial Intelligence, and directing Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. He was also Kubrick’s brother-in-law, which must have made for a complicated dynamics. He will share insights about his career, which has veered towards documentary after Kubrick’s death, and his working relationship with the eccentric self-mythologising director.

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Talking Shop

A series of industry workshops and events features Robert Sheehan, Aidan Turner and Sarah Greene on acting, Reka Lemhenyi on editing, Tomm Moore on animating, Hossein Amini on writing movies, and Leo Davis and Margery Simkin on casting.

 

Broadcasting: A Changing Landscape

12.00pm, Friday 20th March, Wood Quay

The first of the Festival’s Screen Test series, in association with BAI, features guests David Levine (General Manager, Disney Channels UK & Ireland) and Brian Furey (BAI). This event will discuss how new and emerging platforms such as Netflix & VOD are affecting the content being produced for TV & radio. The technological developments of these download services will be explored from the point of view of broadcasters and show-runners.

 

Animators in Conversation

1.30pm, Sunday 22nd March, Light House Cinema

Two-time Oscar nominee writer/director Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea), of Cartoon Saloon, and animation producer Didier Brunner (The Secret of Kells) will discuss developments in animation today, in a must-see for anyone interested in a career in one of Ireland’s fastest growing creative sectors, as well as lovers of animation.

 

The Art of Manipulation: Editing with Reka Lemhenyi

3.00pm, Monday 23rd March, Teachers Club

In the second of the Screen Test series award-winning Hungarian editor Reka Lemhenyi (The Door) discusses editing techniques in depth and her illustrious career, including her work on Jerzy Skolimowksi’s Essential Killing, as well as Free Fall, which is screening as part of this year’s festival.

 

Expressing Emotion: Actors in Conversation

3.00pm, Tuesday 24th March, Teachers Club

As part of the Screen Test strand, young acting talents Robert Sheehan (The Road Within, Love/Hate), Aidan Turner (Being Human, The Hobbit), and Sarah Greene (Noble, My Brothers) discuss their evolving careers, their training as actors, and how they got started in the industry.

 

Write to Live, Live to Write: Managing your Writing Career

3.00pm, Wednesday 25th March, Teachers Club

In association with the Irish Writers Centre in Parnell Square, this event is aimed at screenwriters looking for advice about managing and maintaining their career, and the challenges of the creative process, idea management, and overcoming the dreaded writer’s block. The panel is comprised of script consultant Mary Kate O’Flanagan, story development professional Rachel O’Flanagan, Conor McMahon (From the Dark), and Pierce Ryan (Standby).

 

Conquering the Script (Day 1)

Friday 27th March, Hugh Lane Gallery

The day will take participants on a journey from the early generation of ideas into the development of story through the paradigm of conflict and the crisis screen characters need to undergo in order to render a film powerful and engaging. There will be a story debate with film-makers about their completed films, the development process, and the story choices they made. Panellists and guests on the day will include director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank, Room), as well as development specialists Juanita Wilson (Octagon Films) and Eoin O’Faolain (Samson Films).

 

Conquering the Script (Day 2)

Saturday 28th March, Wood Quay Venue

The second day kicks off with a debate on the current state of story-telling in Irish film and television drama. As the day continues another session is devoted to kitting out the development tool box, more story debate with a feature director, and the closing keynote interview with Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini. Panellists on the day will include Michael Kinirons, Will Collins, Eugene O’Brien, Ian Power and Carol Morely.

 

It Begins with the Script: Casting Event

2.00pm, Saturday 28th March, Teachers Club

2015’s iteration of the popular JDIFF casting events sees Emmy-nominated Leo Davis, who has worked on Layer Cake, The Constant Gardener, The King’s Speech and The Queen, discuss her work in conversation with Margery Simkin, whose own credits include the blockbusters Avatar, Top Gun and Erin Brockovich.

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Talking Ideas

Pulling back from the daily practice of film-making are three events that look at the bigger picture of cultural milieu, how cinema appropriates novels and history for its own purposes and how it then helps shape people’s experiences.

 

Perspectives in Pictures

12.00pm, Sunday 22nd March, National Museum of Ireland Collins Barracks

Collins Barracks is the appropriately historic setting for a discussion on the cinematic depiction of history. Film-makers Mary McGuckian (The Price Of Desire), Se Merry Doyle (Talking To My Father), and Jennifer Goff, curator of the Eileen Gray collection at the National Museum of Ireland, will raise questions such as “do film-makers feel a responsibility to represent historical events accurately?” The answers will be interesting to hear following an Oscars dominated by prestige biopics which made a pigswill of history for the sake of deadening screenwriting clichés, while, as Maureen Dowd acidly noted of Selma’s depiction of LBJ, at the same time clutching their ‘historical authenticity’ tightly to their breasts as a talisman to win Oscars. Do film-makers have an ethical responsibility not to rewrite the past?

 

Seeking the Truth: Mark Cousins in Conversation

12.00pm, Thursday 26th March, Irish Times Building

Northern Irish film-maker, critic, lecturer, sometime Moviedrome presenter, and programmer Mark Cousins (The Story of Film, 6 Desires: DH Lawrence and Sardinia) travels south to engage in a public interview about his life and work. Will he mention Brian De Palma’s absolute refusal to assent to Cousins’ reading of his films?

 

First Rule of Book Club….

2.30pm, Friday 27th March, Pearse Street Library

With the current popularity of adaptations on large and small screen (Gone Girl, Game of Thrones, American Sniper) this discussion focuses on book to film adaptations, and what drives audiences towards one medium or another. Bob Johnston of the Gutter Bookshop and Jason Flood of Dublin City Comics will lead the debate on Hollywood’s hunger for stories. Will the latter cite Alan Moore’s contempt for moving a story designed to work perfectly in one medium into another purely to make more money and not for any creative purpose?

November 13, 2014

The Drop

Bullhead director Michael R Roskam makes his Hollywood debut with a slow-burning crime thriller featuring James Gandolfini’s final film performance.

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Bob (Tom Hardy) is a slow-moving soft-spoken Brooklyn lug who works as a bartender for Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), who is, to people’s permanent surprise, actually Bob’s cousin. But while the sign over the door says ‘Cousin Marv’s’ really the cousins work for the scary Chechen mob brothers Chovka (Michael Aronov) and Andre (Morgan Spector), who use it as a drop for cash from their other operations. When someone is crazy enough to rip off the drop-box Bob and Marv find themselves under pressure from Chovka to recover the stolen money. Complicating matters further for Bob is his finding of an abandoned abused dog, which leads to a tentative romance with Nadia (Noomi Rapace). It also leads to harassment from neighbourhood psycho Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), the suspected killer in a cold case that has Det. Torres (John Ortiz) circling…

Having provided the source material for Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island, novelist Dennis Lehane finally pens his first feature screenplay (after writing episodes of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) expanding his own short story ‘Animal Rescue’. This film has Lehane DNA: a palpable sense of blue-collar community, characters with lives beyond the plot-points; especially Marv’s tetchy house-sharing with his long-suffering sister Dottie (Ann Dowd); a doom-laden sense of horrors to come. But, somewhat inexplicably, it also has large amounts of Dead Man Down and Drive in its make-up. Noomi Rapace once again appears bearing scars of past traumas and manipulates a taciturn anti-hero. Shocking violence in a good cause is subverted in the best Winding Refn manner, and then sort of subverted back… There’s even a regrettable Equilibrium flashback in the instantly humanising effect of a puppy.

Roskam directs all this with some aplomb, with an emphasis on facial close-ups and gritty exteriors. Ortiz and Schoenaerts shine in support as the good and evil stalking around the central trio, with Schoenaerts in particular conveying tremendous menace and instability. An early scene where the Chechens unveil some grisly handiwork as a visual pep-talk serves up the steak that allows the film to largely unnerve on sizzle till its finale, to appropriate Stephen King’s analysis of Psycho, and Roskam lets the tension build slowly as Bob and Marv try and chase up some money only to find that events are spiralling out of control. Lehane holds back mightily on letting us inside Bob’s head, or letting us know what Det. Romsey (Elizabeth Rodriguze) is up to, as if he’s addicted to Shutter Island’s method of revelations through outrageous misdirection.

James Gandolfini’s last performance mixes resignation and frustration, and the film that houses it is a curious mixture of overly familiar elements and escalating suspense anchored by Hardy’s lumbering, kindly, but enigmatically unknowable presence.

3/5

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

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

October 26, 2011

The Ides of March

Director George Clooney returns to the borderlands of American politics and media he mined so well in Good Night and Good Luck but hits an inferior seam.

Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov open up Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North for a taut portrayal of political back-stabbing during the end of campaigning in a crucial Ohio Democratic presidential primary. Ryan Gosling’s hot-shot press secretary is a true believer in his candidate, George Clooney. An attempt by rival campaign manager Paul Giammati to poach Gosling though leads to a clandestine conversation that, parallel to his beginning an affair with Evan Rachel Wood’s intern, may ruin his career as his loyalties are questioned amidst his boss Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tense attempts to get a North Carolina Senator to endorse their candidate. The Ides of March begins in The West Wing mould with Gosling using the LBJ trick of spreading hysterically untrue rumours, “I know he doesn’t own a diamond mine in Liberia, I just want to hear him deny it for the whole day.”

It changes gears quickly, however, as this is an intelligent but very pessimistic film. It plays well as a companion piece to the 1972’s The Candidate, which charted with alarming realism the transformation of Robert Redford’s idealistic rebel into a pragmatic politician indistinguishable from the establishment he loathed. Gosling is disillusioned by the dirty business of how politics operates as he learns just how much integrity his candidate is willing to sacrifice to get the nomination, and how little ‘loyalty’ really means. Clooney’s direction is wonderfully crisp, including a scene where traumatic news is relayed to a character while all we see is a slow push-in on the car where the conversation is taking place. Clooney also excels in his supporting role by investing Governor Morris with infinite shades of grey: articulate, funny, and attempting to be idealistic but perhaps a weasel at heart.

Ryan Gosling is initially charming before switching to distraught and vengeful and, like Drive, walking around menacingly a lot, but thankfully without stomping anyone’s head. Jeffrey Wright is wonderfully oily as the king-making Senator, and Wood’s intern is a nicely played layering of naivety and guile, with her reaction to one shock an amazing piece of acting as her entire seductive facade crumbles. Giamatti’s outburst, “I have seen too many Democrats bite the dust over the last 25 years because they wouldn’t get down in the f****** mud and wrestle the elephants”, bespeaks a frustration that The West Wing chose never to overcome. Clooney disillusions us not just with the process of politics but its possibility to effect any positive change so that, like The Good German, this work oddly contradicts the real Clooney who believes in the efficacy of keeping a satellite over Darfur.

The pure cinema of the closing sequences is emotionally devastating, especially the visual introduction of a new character which implies that the events of this tragedy will repeat themselves again, with the same players in different roles. It is Jan Kott’s Grand Staircase interpretation of Shakespeare’s history plays as a never-ending cycle, the king is killed by an usurping rebel, but that new king is then challenged by an usurping rebel, and so on forever… This, like The Candidate, is an admirable film that’s impossible to truly like.

4/5

September 21, 2011

Drive

Ryan Gosling is an enigmatic part-time getaway driver who falls foul of LA gangsters in this misfiring existential thriller.

Drive is a film of two parts, the first part is rather good, and the second part is quite troubling. We’re introduced to Gosling’s unnamed driver in a great, great opening. Rumbling beats (that Fincher’s probably already bought the rights to) underscore a getaway of sublime skill and suavity. Those beats give way to a synthtastic 1980s homage soundtrack as the film slows to an enigmatic and brilliant crawl as it fleshes out Gosling’s life. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston is Gosling’s mentor, a mechanic and film stunt co-ordinator crippled by men close to Ron Perlman’s savage Jewish mobster Nino, who now dreams of getting his protege to put his driving skills to more public use in stock-car. Albert Brooks is the ‘nice’ mobster who’ll fund their team. This move to normality is mirrored by Gosling’s growing friendship with neighbour Carey Mulligan, as he becomes a surrogate father to her young son.

This humanising of the taciturn Gosling is beautifully photographed and reminiscent of Fish Tank in its finding of pastoral in an urban landscape. Mulligan is an empathetic presence while Brooks excels at using his nice-guy persona to complicate our attitudes to his mobster. The introduction of the plot, rather than turning this film into 1978’s sublime The Driver, merely scuppers things. The Obstacle Carey’s husband returns from jail owing protection money so our hero decides to help him and a cameoing Christina Hendricks out on a low-risk heist, which goes disastrously wrong. Brooks’ in-camera mission statement, “I used to produce movies in the 80s. Action, arty stuff. The critics liked them, called them European. I thought they were shit”, then kicks in. Director Nicolas Winding Refn uses music, a car-crash, and surf rolling into a deserted beach at night to incredibly foreboding effect in staging one murder, but mostly his use of violence is both unnecessary and excessive.

Do you want to see a woman’s head get blown apart by a shotgun blast in slow motion, a man have his hand smashed repeatedly with a hammer, a man have a fork thrust in his eyeball to distract him while his assailant searches for a cleaver to plunge repeatedly into his neck and chest, a man have his arm slit open by a cut-throat razor, or a man have his head kicked in until he’s quite dead and then kicked some more until bone-dust rises up into the camera? Well if you don’t then you should leave half-way thru Drive. Gosling is charismatic in his Eastwoodian role, and you can see why he personally chose Refn as director, but this is less an existentialist thriller and more just humourless grindhouse masquerading as arthouse.

If you loved The Driver, you might like half of Drive

2/5

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