Talking Movies

September 8, 2015

El Dschihad

My sometime co-scriptwriter Emmet Ryan has, in an unusual move, taken time out from reviewing beer and customised burgers to catch a play in Berlin. From Ballhaus Naunynstrasse he sends this review of El Dschihad:

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German-Iraqi actress/writer/director Claudia Basrawi takes 70 minutes of her audience’s lives and throws them into a story built around facts but delivered with aggressive and compelling storytelling. The story of El Dschihad is built around interviews Basrawi conducted to get an understanding of Germany’s historical role in the current problems in the Middle East. Basrawi, whose youth brought her to Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, tells the story of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s efforts to get Muslim subjects of the British Empire to rise up against their colonial masters during the First World War. Germany’s ill-fated plan was to use an insurrection in Arab states to divide the attention of British forces.

The piece jumps between discussions of contemporary efforts to battle terrorism and the historical follies of the Kaiser. Despite its documentary format this is very much a drama, albeit a deliberately disjointed one. Despite being the effective lead, Basrawi deliberately takes a back seat instead essentially letting her cast, playing a multitude of roles, take their lead from her cues.

No-one makes greater use of this than Rahel Savoldelli, who is brutally intimidating in multiple formats. Savoldelli’s appearances in the multimedia elements of the performance are nothing less than an attack on the audience. Opening with her interview as a psychiatric patient of Mario Mentrup, acted live in a corner off-stage but broadcast on a larger screen, Savoldelli is aggressive in her deliberate attempts to confuse Mentrup’s supposed straight man. Mentrup does an excellent job in playing the foils to those opposite him, most notably in his primary role as Mr S, a composite character of multiple interviewees of Basrawi, where his character is more direct with his emotions in order to make the cold reality of Elmira Bahrami’s Ms K stand out.

One isn’t meant to like Ms K; she’s got too many right answers, and most of them are ugly; but her calm delivery is arguably as tough on the senses as the intensity of Savoldelli’s pre-recorded piece, reading notes on the plan to convert British POWs into agents of insurgence against the Crown. In this brief but effective monologue, Savoldelli’s head appears like Big Brother albeit with the odd harsh cut to rouse the audience as she details the plans to use Mohammedans against the British Empire.

The mixture of multimedia elements, including an opening that shows contemporary damage to an unnamed city in the Middle East, forces the audience to shift focus but not at the expense of the message. Basrawi is trying to comment on a complex issue from afar, but one that is close to her heart, and does so in a way that doesn’t play as excessively preachy. It’s a tough balance but one delivered well.

4/5

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May 25, 2011

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

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.

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