Talking Movies

September 13, 2017

IFI Open Day 2017

The IFI is holding its annual Open Day on Saturday September 16th with a line-up of free movies running from 1pm to 11pm. As well as free movies, the customary barbecue in the courtyard and special discount on annual IFI membership, there are a number of tours and a jazz brunch in the cafe bar.

 

In addition to the one preview, handful of old favourites, and several sheer oddities, there are chances to lift the curtain and see the wizard; with talks from the IFI Archive staff and tours of the Projection Booth. The ‘Ask an Archivist’ desk in the foyer will give visitors the opportunity to learn about different film stocks, preservation, restoration, digitisation, and even view and handle film. But projection tours to go behind the little window of flickering light, and check out the busy working of the specialised department; handling anything from digital, to 16mm and 35mm, up to 70mm – the IFI being the only cinema in the country that can run 70mm reels; are sadly sold out. As always IFI Membership will be available at a discounted rate for the Open Day and there’s a BBQ on the terrace from 16.00 onwards. And this year Air France are running a competition for a pair of return flights to Paris so that one might finally fulfil that nagging desire to run thru the Louvre as if in a nouvelle vague picture.

But what are the free movies? Well, here is a guide to the 12 films being shown in Temple Bar.

Film 1

The Mighty Ducks (13.00)
It’s 25 years since the IFI opened its door in Temple Bar, and there is one notable film also turning 25 this year that has been much discussed this summer. But enough about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me… Emilio Estevez is Gordon Bombay, a cut-throat lawyer sentenced to community service after a DUI, who coaches an unruly youth ice-hockey team with ruthlessness to earn redemption.

The Big Sleep (13.15)
A high water-mark of film noir, The Big Sleep was adapted by William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett from the first of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled novels about PI, and all-round shop-soiled Galahad, Philip Marlowe. The great Howard Hawks directs Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in a murky tangle of shady LA characters, innuendo laden dialogue, literate zingers, and baffling plotting. Just don’t ask who killed the chauffeur.

Speedy (13.30)
Harold Lloyd’s final silent film from 1928 sees his customary ‘glasses’ character this time appearing as a baseball-obsessed New Yorker determined to save the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar, just as another expression of a fine, noble, and disinterested nature, and also to impress the girl whose grandfather owns it. 86 minutes of rapid-fire sight gags and elaborate comedy set-ups ensue, and a cameo from Babe Ruth to boot.

Film 2

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (15.10)

Robert Wise, director of The Sound of Music, was the unlikely figure picked to lead the crew of the starship Enterprise into the new frontier of cinema. 132 minutes, a regrettable portion of which is lovingly sustained shots of the post-Star Wars VFX accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s new Trek theme, sees Kirk, Spock, Bones, et al investigate a mysterious alien entity posing a threat.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (15.30)
Steve Martin continued his fruitful collaboration with director Carl Reiner after The Jerk with this homage to 1940s film noir. While Woody Allen was busy inserting Len Zelig into world events, Reiner and Martin wrote a zany plot and built a farcical amount of sets in order to have Martin interact with old footage of Humphrey Bogart, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, and many more.

Intermission (15.40)
Cillian Murphy woos Kelly MacDonald, Colin Farrell is obsessed with woks, bus-driver Brían F. O’Byrne is aggrieved at a kid, David Wilmot is being unnerved by Deirdre O’Kane’s lust, and vainglorious Garda Colm Meaney is being filmed by documentarians. The blackly comic intersections of Mark O’Rowe’s screenplay no longer seem as impressive as they initially did back in 2003 when everyone was talking about brown sauce in tea.

MILLER’S CROSSING, Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, 1990. TM and Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.

Film 3

Sorcerer (17.30)
William Friedkin decided, for reasons passing understanding, to use his post-French Connection and Exorcist clout to remake Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 suspense classic The Wages of Fear. Roy Scheider stars in a tale of men driving trucks with highly unstable nitroglycerine over rickety bridges on a mission to extinguish an oil well blaze. This is remembered now for Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ account of its disastrous production and reception.

Miller’s Crossing (18.00)
The Coen Brothers stepped up their ambitions from indie noir and screwball comedy with this expansive Prohibition-era gangster film. Gabriel Byrne is right-hand man to Albert Finney’s mob boss. When Byrne is banished, over John Turturro’s bookie and Marcia Gay Harden’s moll, it begins a deadly game of cat and mouse between rival gangs; featuring much double-crossing, hard-boiled badinage, and a spectacularly OTT use of ‘Danny Boy’.

Delicatessen (18.10)
Amelie creator Jean-Pierre Jeunet and his one-time directing partner Marc Caro’s 1991 debut is a queasily slapstick spin on Sweeney Todd. Clapet is a landlord in an apartment building in post-apocalyptic France, who controls his tenants’ food supply via his butcher’s shop; prime cuts from the men he hires. Louison (Dominique Pinon) fills the regular vacancy, but his love for Clapet’s daughter complicates matters in this queasy comedy.

Film 4

Weirdos (20.00)

In 1976 Nova Scotia fifteen-year-old Kit and his girlfriend Alice run away from home in order to reunite with his estranged mother (Molly Parker), while the USA bombastically celebrates its bicentennial. Accompanied by Kit’s imaginary version of Andy Warhol, the two undertake a road trip during which they confront the difficulties they face in their teenage romance. Quirky and comedic, Bruce McDonald’s film features beautifully photographed Canadian landscapes.

??? (20.20)

The audience choice is yet to be announced but voting for the shortlist of 10 drawn up by IFI staff has closed. Here’s hoping for Hunt for the Wilderpeople! Although as that screened in preview at last year’s Open Day having it again as a returning favourite might be pushing it. Past winners include SubmarineGood Vibrations, Short Term 12, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

The Cohens and Kellys (20.30)

A genuine oddity is a silent movie in prime time on Open Day… Accordionist Dermot Dunne and saxophonist Nick Roth, Artistic Director of the Yurodny Ensemble, will provide a live musical accompaniment, drawing heavily on Irish and Jewish folk music. The 1926 film is an ethnic comedy of the broadest of stock characters in 1920s NYC: Irish cop, Jewish storekeeper, cheerful Irish wife, Jewish mother.

 

So, those are the films, but that’s only planning’s first step… Sadly after two years of running five sets of films; which saw movies begin near 11pm and end near 1am; things are back to the traditional four in this 25th anniversary year. Trying to do four films was always an endurance marathon, but to get into five films was surely beyond mere mortals, and yet undoubtedly somebody did try in those two years… But even to do four movies one must sort out strategy, for two sets of reasons.

One can, obviously, only watch one of the three films running, but the film chosen from each set determines what films are available in subsequent sets. Choose The Big Sleep from the first set of films, and it becomes damn near impossible to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture from the second set of films. To make a quick-change from Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Sorcerer involves having to leave one screen and join a queue for another screen, with neither film starting on time, especially as some introductory speaker always overdoes curating their favourite film. The unexpected can derail well-laid plans as some films will be unexpectedly in demand whilst others unexpectedly languish, and it is impossible to predict which. Might one casually pick up a ticket for Miller’s Crossing a minute before it starts as Talking Movies’ occasional guest writer Elliot Harris once memorably did for The Purple Rose of Cairo? And how can popularity be predicted in the absence of announced screens? After all amongst past audience choice winners Good Vibrations and Short Term 12 did not make Screen 1, yet Submarine did. One needs a good mental map of run-times and queue-times for improvised plans.

And then there’s the second, newer reason to sort strategy if attempting multiple films. Tickets were allocated, 4 per person, first come first served, at 11am; which saw a queue forming from 9.30am, snaking to Dame Street. The days of that Open Day morning buzz are gone. For the second year in a row queues will form inside the IFI, a desk for each movie, an hour before screenings –2 tickets per person. Multiple movie devotees must work together, because they’d have to not be watching a movie in order to queue for tickets for the next movie; reducing them to a mere 2 movies! Expect the queue to form 30 minutes before tickets will be disbursed. Don’t expect pseudo-economists trading off queuing during films they don’t mind missing in order to get extra tickets for a film they do want to see, in order to get someone to queue for them for a later film they want to see.

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August 15, 2017

100 Best Films of the Century (sic)

Poring over Barry Norman’s ‘100 Best Films of the Century’ list last month set off musings on what a personal version of such a list would be. All such lists are entirely personal, and deeply speculative, but it’s time to be more ambitious/foolhardy than heretofore and nail this blog’s colours to the mast. Norman unapologetically focused on Old Hollywood, but Talking Movies has more regard than he for the 1980s and 1990s. The years to 1939 are allocated 10 films, and each decade thereafter gets 10 films, with an additional 10 films chosen to make up any egregious omissions. What is an egregious omission, or addition for that matter, is naturally a matter of opinion. Like the truest lists this was written quickly with little revision. If you don’t trust your own instincts why would you ever trust anyone else’s?

Gone with the wind

 

The first day to 1939

Nosferatu

The Lodger

M

King Kong

It Happened One Night

The 39 Steps

A Night at the Opera

Top Hat, Secret Agent

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Gone with the Wind

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1940 to 1949

His Girl Friday

Rebecca

Citizen Kane

The Maltese Falcon

Casablanca

Shadow of a Doubt

The Big Sleep

The Stranger

Rope

The Third Man

1950 to 1959

Strangers on a Train

The Lavender Hill Mob

Singin’ in the Rain

Them!

Rear Window

High Society

Moby Dick

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Rio Bravo

1960 to 1969

Last Year in Marienbad

The Manchurian Candidate

The Birds

The Great Escape

Billy Liar

Dr. Strangelove

Goldfinger

Dr. Zhivago

The Sound of Music

The Good The Bad And The Ugly

Once Upon a Time in the West

Ma Nuit Chez Maud

The Italian Job

 

 

1970 to 1979

Kelly’s Heroes

Aguirre the wrath of God

The Godfather

Dog Day Afternoon

Jaws

All the President’s Men

Annie Hall

Star Wars

Superman

Apocalypse Now

1980 to 1989

The Blues Brothers

Chariots of Fire

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Blade Runner

Ghostbusters

Back to the Future

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Aliens

Blue Velvet

Wall Street

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Die Hard

1990 to 1999

JFK

My Own Private Idaho

The Silence of the Lambs

Terminator 2

The Age of Innocence

Jurassic Park

Pulp Fiction

Speed

The Usual Suspects

Scream

The Matrix

Fight Club

 

2000 to 2009

Memento

Almost Famous

Moulin Rouge!

Ocean’s Eleven

Donnie Darko

The Rules of Attraction

The Lord of the Rings

Team America

Brick

Casino Royale

Atonement

The Dark Knight

2010 to the present day

Inception

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World

Incendies

Skyfall

Mud

This is the End

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Birdman

High-Rise

20th Century Women

August 24, 2012

Film Noir @ the Lighthouse

The Lighthouse presents your favourite monochrome cops, gangsters and femmes fatale in a season of classic film noirs showcasing deadly dames Gloria Grahame, Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, and Gene Tierney; smouldering 20 foot tall on the silver screen!

The Big Heat

Sunday 26th
“A hard cop and soft dame”
Fritz Lang made a number of hard-boiled movies in the 1950s, including the diabolical Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, but this is the pick of the bunch; a vicious and unrelenting film noir stars Glenn Ford as a cop on the trail of a violent gang led by the terrifying Lee Marvin. The luminous Gloria Grahame plays the ultimate tragic gangster’s moll who learns the hard way about betraying Lee Marvin’s trust. Beautifully shot and full of surprises, and featuring a notorious use of hot coffee, this dark, sexy noir is a perfect example of the genre.

 

The Big Sleep

Wednesday 29th & Sunday 2nd
“The type of man she hated . . . was the type she wanted!”
Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and a lot of sassy dialogue from the pen of Raymond Chandler under the direction of Howard Hawks – what more could you want in a classic noir? Private detective Philip Marlowe, the original shop-soiled Galahad, is hired by a rich family to investigate a case of blackmail. Before the complex case is over, he’s seen murder, blackmail, and what might be love; but not who killed the chauffeur, one of cinema’s enduring mysteries… Don’t miss Bogey and Bacall smouldering on the big screen in glorious 35mm!

 

Mildred Pierce

Wednesday 12th September & Sunday 16th September
“Please don’t tell anyone what Mildred Pierce did!”
You’ve seen Todd Haynes’ recent leisurely HBO adaptation with the extremely weird original ending so now remind yourself of how the 1940s writers got around novelist James M Cain’s un-filmable pay-off in this sophisticated film noir which forgoes gangsters and dirty cops in favour of a complex look at the relationship between a mother (Joan Crawford) and her spoiled daughter Veda. There is also, of course, a dead man in the kitchen and a smoking gun. Crawford won a well-deserved Oscar for her role as the intelligent, determined woman with one weakness…her daughter.

 

Laura

“A police detective falls in love with the woman whose murder he’s
investigating.”

Celebrated Austrian director Otto Preminger anticipated certain elements of Vertigo with this superbly crafted film noir about three men in love with the same woman…a dead woman. But who could blame them for their nascent necrophilia when the woman in question is the stunning Gene Tierney? Co-starring Clifton Webb and Vincent Price as her lovers, and future Fritz Lang regular Dana Andrews as the investigating detective, these three men trying to solve the mystery of who put a bullet in the beautiful face of Laura.

thebigsleep-011.jpg

Tickets for individual films in the season are €9.00 but a season pass for all five films will set you back a mere €30. The season pass, however, can only be booked by calling into the cinema or phoning 01-8728006.

December 3, 2011

The Movies Aren’t Dead, they just smell funny: Part II

Several months ago I criticised the opening of Mark Harris’ GQ article ‘The Day the Movies Died’. In this piece I praise his argument regarding branding, but contradict his valorisation of female cinema-goers by reference to his own telling conclusion.


Harris is brilliant in his analysis of how marketers have steered film-making away from the perils of originality. There never was any point in making a good film that no one would want to go see (Rabbit Hole) but the marketers we have today do seem to be exceptionally lazy in being unwilling to sell a good film unless it’s a brand i.e. someone else has already done all the hard work of creating and marketing something. Harris says no one would green-light an Inception but everyone would green-light an Inception 2, because that would be a brand. Intriguingly Mark Kermode has raised the idea that every blockbuster will eventually make a profit these days, no matter how catastrophic the reception of the film at the box-office, via DVD, games, merchandise and TV rights. Marketers can’t secure a film favourable reviews, but they can turn up the white noise to such an unbearable extent that you see the film just to get the unpleasant task over with it, and, more than likely, so that you can join ‘The Conversation’ criticising it. Mission Accomplished: you’ve just green-lit a sequel to a film you didn’t like, which you knew you wouldn’t like it, but paid into anyway.

I’m sick and tired of the condemnation teenage males receive for ‘destroying cinema’. Apparently they lack “taste and discernment”, which all women possess; which is what makes women such an exhausting proposition to sell to, although Harris puts his case in more grossly anatomical terms. A good exercise with statements like this is to reverse the gender and see if it then strikes you as sexist. It does. The assumption is not that a female audience offers a complementary or an equivalent but neglected taste, but a superior taste. (This also applies to every article claiming that women bankers would have avoided the credit crunch) This reverse sexism is absurd, because of Harris’ own telling conclusion – audiences get what they deserve. Female audiences are not composed entirely of Chekhovians interested only in human stories told well. Men don’t willingly shell out cash to see every bloody Jennifer Aniston or Sarah Jessica Parker atrocity film; they’re dragged to them by their girlfriends… Writing a screenplay, no matter how formulaic takes time and isn’t easy; it’s bloody hard work, even if like John Sayles you’ve got it down to relentlessly cranking out 10 pages a day of a pass when you’re working on formulaic mainstream rubbish for gas money. I think that an awful lot of what comes out in Hollywood these days in particular genres, especially romantic comedy, really is first draft material. Not the real first draft obviously, but the first draft you let people see, where the structure is sound as a bell but it’s lacking a bit of polish in the dialogue, a bit of pizzazz in the action. It’s solid, but you wouldn’t want to start shooting it. But here’s the thing, adding polish and pizzazz will take even more time and effort, and if it’s not necessary why bother? If the audience can’t tell the difference between His Girl Friday and The Bounty Hunter, then there’s no reason to go to the extra effort of writing His Girl Friday for them. Harris dismisses young men as, in studio thinking, idiots, who’ll watch “anything that’s put in front of them as long as it’s spiked with the proper set of stimulants.” Well that statement is equally devastating when applied to a female audience willing to watch romantic comedies that are neither romantic nor comedic nor original. Female audiences get the films they deserve – badly written formulaic crap.

Chick-flicks don’t have to be bad. Romantic comedy as a genre can boast some of the all-time classics, including a large chunk of Frank Capra’s back catalogue, as well as laugh-fests by Howard Hawks, and Woody Allen and Rob Reiner at their very best. But the logic of Harris’ conclusion is impeccable. As President Bartlett put it, “Decisions are made by those who show up”, and if you are happy to see The Accidental Husband or PS I Love You then there’s no point in going to the extra effort of writing Definitely Maybe or The Jane Austen Book Club for you. The problem here is one of writing-by-numbers. If the marketers see all the ingredients attached to a movie then they can sell it in their accustomed manner. It really doesn’t matter to them whether the combination of ingredients is producing on this occasion a cordon bleu or a takeaway meal. In this light the increasingly formulaic nature of Hollywood is easily explained but it’s becoming a terrible burden on audiences. At the moment we’re all like jaded restaurant critics reviewing the same bloody dish over and over again; the only things that spark our interest are new ingredients (wonderful supporting performances in a rom-com, two original touches in a comic-book movie), or a perfect rendition of the dish (so that you forget The Dark Knight has a solid three-act structure). Steve McQueen showed with Hunger that a loose sense of beginning, middle and end is really all you need to inject dramatic momentum into incredibly oblique material. Tarantino has repeatedly shown that ‘a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order’, works fine with mainstream audiences. So why does every Hollywood film lately feel like it’s been written by a super-computer programmed with the Three-Act structure and every cliché in the book for bringing it to life, and with a default setting of regarding all cinemagoers as dribbling troglodytes? Every super-hero movie is an origin story. Did Philip Marlowe need an origin story for Bogie to play him in The Big Sleep? Harris asks what we can do about this when we’re to blame by watching films on DVDs rather than putting up with anti-social jerks by watching them in cinemas? Well, the answer is go see the movies that you actually want to see – a new movie by a writer or director whose work you like, a concept that sounds clever, a performance that looks good. Avoid everything that looks like reheated boil in the bag clichés, and never accept that you have to pay into an obnoxious film to somehow ‘earn’ the right to dismiss it. The dream factory can only make the product you want if you tell it exactly what you want…

Every time the lights go down in Savoy screen 1 and the curtains part, I think ‘Entertain me’. My fervent wish of late is that Hollywood would live up to my new request, ‘Surprise me’…

June 22, 2011

Top 5 Cinematic Big Sisters

I recently saw Donnie Darko at the IFI Open Day and the brilliance of the double-act by the Gyllenhaal siblings made me think about compiling a shortlist, not of the best sisters in cinema because that’s a very long and different list, but of the best big sisters in film.

(5) Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep)
It may seem odd to isolate this iconic film noir femme fatale role for this one particular quality but a huge part of Vivian Sternwood’s motive for keeping tabs on the investigation of Philip Marlowe is to protect her crazy little sister Carmen, and she’s prepared to do a lot to keep her safe…

(4) Anna Kendrick (Scott Pilgrim)
Anna Kendrick’s character is perhaps the best example of the hilariously unappreciated big sister. She’s perpetually put-upon by her younger brother’s best friend, who is constantly stealing her boyfriends, but continues to risk it, and hilariously continually suffers, for her loving compulsion to be forever doling out good advice to her irresponsible and inattentive sibling.

(3) Jennifer Grey (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Ferris’s big sister is eternally infuriated by his popularity, but, after a day where his shenanigans once again drive her up the walls, an encounter with a drug-addled Charlie Sheen (how little things change in 25 years) leads her to loosen up and finally stick up for her conniving but loveable younger sibling.

(2) Maggie Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko)
Always keeping an eye out for Donnie; quizzically observing his antics at their party; but never doing so without a good deal of snarkiness; the opening dinner scene; Elizabeth is probably the most convincingly nuanced big sister in recent memory, undoubtedly helped by the fact that this exuberant double-act is an actual brother-sister acting team.

(1) Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous)
“Listen to Tommy with one candle lighted and you will see your entire future”. Zooey’s break-out role was the impossibly idealised cool older sister who defies their mother on her younger brother’s behalf, before setting him on the path to his eventual career by bequeathing her awesome record collection to him; with handwritten cryptic instructions…

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

December 6, 2010

Dramatis Personae: Annie & Zooey

This meditation on personae and typecasting began as a proposed comment on Paul Fennessy’s piece on She & Him’s Volume II, but soon developed a life of its own…

While reading his blog I thought of the episode of Elvis Costello’s music show in which both She & Him and Jenny Lewis performed new material. She & Him’s music seemed inconsequential beside Jenny Lewis, perhaps because she had the achievements of Rilo Kiley behind her, but perhaps also because Zooey’s presence visually indicated this was merely quirky fluff and not to be taken seriously. But listen to it on the radio without any visuals and it stands up beside Jenny Lewis’ solo output. Which begs the question has Zooey become almost as much a victim of her screen persona as the Annie of my title, Angelina Jolie?

When I first sat thru the trailer for Salt and saw a blonde Jolie wearing smart work-clothes, who goes on the run by dyeing her hair black and dressing in leather, I asked out loud in disbelief – “Wait, so her disguise is to turn into Angelina Jolie?!” The persona that Jolie has created is something I’ve discussed in reviews of A Mighty Heart and Wanted which remains fascinating. Many stars have eschewed acting in favour of creating a persona which they impose on every role. The Duke took years to create the persona that he was able to live off for four decades. He was able to play against it in The Searchers, and toy with its comedic potential in The Quiet Man, but mostly he just imposed it on every script. Hence John Ford’s apocryphal outburst on seeing Red River, “I never knew the son of a bitch could act!” Jolie though is burdened not with a cinematic persona created thru a decade of hard-graft in B-movies, but with a purely public persona created thru a decade of tabloid headlines. This cannot be captured on celluloid, except parodically. Her sole smash hits in the last decade were Mr & Mrs Smith and Wanted. Mr & Mrs Smith centred on her tempestuous relationship with Brad Pitt’s character, and at times it played merely as a cinematic objective-correlative of the preposterous comic-book which is her life, as depicted by the tabloids. Wanted seemed to say that her persona of voluptuous sexuality, sly humour and dark allure couldn’t be taken seriously, but could be perfect casting for an assassin of few words called…Fox.

This glorious playing up to her ridiculous persona followed her failure to win an Oscar for A Mighty Heart. It certainly wasn’t for want of trying. The curled hair, darkened pigmentation, French accent, and despairing shouting did everything short of run ‘For Your Consideration’ subtitles across the bottom of cinema screens. Yet the baggage of her all too public life sank what would have been a great role for a lower profile actress. All her best moments were in quiet unshowy scenes when she stopped giving ‘a performance’, but that’s increasingly hard to do, as Changeling also saw her fail to convincingly morph into an everywoman character. Jolie seems painfully aware that this outlandish persona is destroying her, hence her uber-grim directorial debut and those attempts with A Mighty Heart and Changeling to return to serious drama. Salt’s more serious return to Mr & Mrs Smith action-land seems to reflect distinct unease with comedically approaching the persona and perpetuating it as Membektov did with such visual panache in Wanted. Salt suggests a plan to alternate money-making dutiful nods to her persona (The Tourist) with focused attempts to overcome it.

Deschanel’s persona is a horse of a different colour. The apocryphal anecdote of Emily returning from auditioning to fume to her kid sister that they were looking for ‘a Zooey Deschanel type’ emphasises how quickly her deadpan quirkiness, showcased to perfection as the cool older sister in Almost Famous, became a persona. The point of a persona of course is that it’s a heightened construct. Jolie has trouble finding a cinematic home for her tabloid-created persona whereas Zooey’s persona, being in the classic Wayne mould, is infinitely more useful. She’s been able to use it both in supporting roles as the idiosyncratic best friend in Failure to Launch, The Good Girl, and Showtime’s Weeds, and as the dead-pan romantic heroine in Elf, Yes Man and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Hitchhiker’s in particular saw her breathe some badly needed life and depth into the character of Trillian. The adorable Zooey from Almost Famous and Elf was reinforced with some emotional weight to become the definitive Trillian. In doing so much with a historically underwritten role she proved that she had considerable dramatic ability behind the persona. Indeed the delightful absurdist black comedy Eulogy boasts an enviable ensemble but it’s hard to think that its whimsical madness could be held together by anyone else but her.

Conversely with The Happening it is hard not to think any other actress would have been better, as M Night Shymalan in his current state of disrepair obviously had no earthly notion how to use either her persona or her deeper skills. That is obviously the low-light of her career but by simultaneously branching into a music career, retiring her old L.A. based cabaret duo in order to form the far higher-profile country-pop duo She & Him, the perception that she had become trapped by her persona was bound to gain currency. Perhaps this was the motive behind her turn in (500) Days of Summer. This was extremely courageous as a career move because it deconstructed her persona as the uncommunicative but adorably quirky girl by showing just how capricious and cruel that free-spirit shtick could become in real life. She was luminous when she needed to be but Deschanel also didn’t hold back on cruelty, and, while the combination of charm and emotional realism divided people hilariously when it came to judging Summer, this made her performance a career highlight. Sadly Gigantic and her guest appearance in Bones seem to indicate she’s being offered, indeed being custom-written, only roles that require her to dial in her persona. She & Him seem to be slowly gaining some level of popularity, but whether their particular brand of pop reinforces her quirky persona is debatable. In any case her ‘escape’ from her persona handsomely beats Jolie’s.

Personae can be problematic because of the fine line between typecasting and playing to your strengths. Being offered similar roles is a vote of confidence that you will do a good job with this material, but after a while it also trades on the perception audiences will have of you from previous performances, the persona you may have created. Type-casting has its own reward, being able to play against type; Fred MacMurray in The Apartment, Robin Williams in Insomnia. But its danger is that, like Eugene O’Neill Senior as The Count of Monte Cristo, not only can audiences only accept you in one type of role, but your range contracts so that you can only actually play one role. Zooey Deschanel’s persona is her own creation, not that of the tabloids. Her quirky persona may cause difficulties of reception on live music shows, but it is her screen profile and not their meagre sales that gets She & Him onto those shows in the first place. Indeed, as their elegant summery pop reflects in her song-writing the creative energies that created her persona originally, in a way, the persona will remain an ever-present even if She & Him get the popular success they deserve to the extent that Deschanel gives up acting.

Paul recommends She & Him. Seconded.

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