Talking Movies

October 6, 2015

The Last Hotel

Playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh adds another string to his bow with his first libretto, the opera being scored by his Misterman collaborator Donnacha Dennehy.

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Mikel Murfi’s silent hotel porter cares for a ramshackle two-star hotel. At least it’s ramshackle from what we see in Jamie Vartan’s set, which impressively fills the Belvedere College stage; a canted platform surrounded by the detritus of hotel cleaning and catering, with a series of ad hoc handholds to one side for Murfi to shin up the back wall to his tiny bedroom above the stage. From that perch he notices with horror a bloodstain on the platform and descends to clean it up. This cleaning their room is what holds up the opera’s characters: Soprano Claudia Boyle’s Irishwoman who cheerfully greets an English couple; baritone Robin Adams and his sullen wife, soprano Katherine Manley. Adams helped Boyle at an event; she’d underestimated the amount of wine that would be drunk; so she’s turned to him for darker help…

Walsh’s libretto isn’t quite as outré as his plays, but it’s still recognisably his world. Adams and Manley have been hired to murder Boyle with a gas canister, a plastic bag, and some rope to make it fast. Manley is reluctant, and sings sadly of her husband’s emotional distance from her. Adams, however, extols the joys of hotel food; “People tend to pile the plate, but not me, I respect the buffet”; exults in the extension Boyle’s blood money will finance; “A kitchen of substantial size”; and scolds Murfi over his lack of hygiene in preparing mashed potatoes. Boyle seems to be suicidal because her teenage daughter is moody, or because everyone’s always looking to her for leadership; pretty flimsy reasons for checking out. But in this strangely haunted last hotel, as Manley chillingly predicts, no one can ever leave.

Walsh also directs, which means not only showcasing Murfi’s physical acting and creating an elevator from spotlighting a square light and having Crash Ensemble play muzak, but also, after recent bafflingly squib-free stabbings in A View from the Bridge and By the Bog of Cats, that blood is properly spilt when Adams and Murfi have an altercation. It’s harder to judge Dennehy’s contribution. Nobody’s going to mistake this for a Verdi score, and yet, while plenty atonal, it’s not Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire either. The most unsettling moments, especially the climax, are driven by jagged, frenzied strings that almost combine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Herrmann’s Psycho. The prominent use of piano, flute, and xylophone gives an unusual texture to the music, while there are definite touches of Philip Glass in the minimalist repetition that Dennehy often uses to underpin arias.

The Last Hotel is a qualified success. It’s certainly an interesting meeting of minds between Enda Walsh and Landmark Productions and the other cultural world of Wide Open Opera.

3/5

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April 17, 2015

The Salvation

Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen faces off against Jeffrey Dean Morgan in a Western that might well have been pitched as Seraphim Falls meets Valhalla Rising. Here’s a teaser of my review for HeadStuff.org.

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Jon (Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) were soldiers in the 1864 Dano-Prussian War, and, following Denmark’s catastrophic defeat, they fled to a life of farming in the Wild West. After seven years Jon’s wife Marie (Nanna Oland Fabricius) and son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke) finally arrive to reunite the family. But they have the misfortune to share a stagecoach with thugs Paul (Michael Raymond-James) and Lester (Sean Cameron Michael). Jon and Peter decide to head further West after this incident, but have not reckoned on the cowardice of their local sheriff/pastor Mallick (Douglas Henshall) and mayor Keane (Jonathan Pryce). They are eager to hand the brothers over to placate the enraged Col. Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), leader of a gang that includes the Corsican (Eric Cantona) and the mute Madelaine (Eva Green). But Delarue finds himself at war…

Click here to read the full review on HeadStuff.org with Thomas Hobbes, Hannah Arendt, and Nicolas Winding Refn in the mix.

March 11, 2010

Not Adjusted for Avatar

Following on from the last entry on the malign influence of the sensational reporting of box-office returns not adjusted for inflation, we look at Avatar – its slow-burn success, broad brushstrokes approach in the history of cinema, and its possible heralding of the future.

Avatar has done one unquestionably positive thing – it has firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends. It started slow, not breaking any records as is now obligatory, and was about to be dismissed as a failure for that, when its takings didn’t fall off a cliff after the opening weekend but instead remained constant and then kept making money at the same level week after week. It has since made money for longer than nearly any other film in recent memory. However you can rest assured that this will not be enough to change the ways of the media, which have been reporting Shutter Island as the most successful opening weekend of Scorsese’s career, and then also trumpeted Tim Burton’s Alice fiasco as the biggest opening ever for a 3-D film… Deep sigh.

Marketing can generate enough buzz to generate the opening box-office needed for a lazy headline. Conversely Avatar did not make enough money on opening for a lazy headline and so the focus was, pleasingly, thrown on to its craftsmanship – or lack of it. Perhaps because he was painfully aware of how much money he’d been given for his dream project Cameron opted for the broadest brush-strokes possible to generate maximum return, and it worked so he’s a genius to Hollywood, whereas if it hadn’t worked they’d be more exercised about the lazy derivativeness of his story even if his basic skills at manipulating emotions work. But then isn’t emotional manipulation the core of cinema? Graham Greene said that cinema was a series of images arranged in a certain order to generate a particular emotional effect, Stephen King wrote that American cinema was idiotic as far as communicating ideas went but that for sheer emotional impact its use of imagery was masterful, and Hitchcock’s explanation of the power of cross-cutting in ‘pure cinema’ explicitly prioritises using images to manipulate an audience’s response on an emotional level. I think there’s more to be said about Avatar and so, once I finally figure out what my point is, I’ll be returning to it again in coming weeks. But here, let’s note that its broad brushstrokes approach has a precedent in past stellar successes.

Peter Biskind’s grand narrative (mentioned last time) which prioritised the licentious New Hollywood of the 1970s over the Golden Age of Hollywood seems to assume that there is something fundamentally compromising about reaching a large audience. One would think that an artist would want to reach as large an audience as possible but Biskind’s ideology insists that an artist loses their integrity if they make a film suitable for all rather than narrowing the size of their audience, so that, for instance, Christopher Nolan jettisoning sex and language to get a PG-13 for The Dark Knight compared to an R for Insomnia represents self-censorship and a cheapening of his talent. I would argue that helming a blockbuster in such a way as to make it distinctively a Nolan film is more challenging and it is precisely the ingenuity exercised in the over-coming of arbitrarily imposed limitations that makes it a greater artistic success than the rather ordinary thriller for adults with which he paid his studio dues. It could be argued that the same difficulty involved in working with the Hays Code was responsible for the Golden Age, and it ties in with Stravinsky’s dictum that true artistic creativity needs rules and restrictions, which he frequently imposed on himself arbitrarily to replace the lost discipline of classical tonality, not total freedom. There will be another article in the coming weeks about the most successful films of all time (adjusted for inflation) but it is dominated by films everyone could enjoy. It’s easy to make your friends laugh, it’s harder to make strangers laugh, and Biskind’s idols largely fall into the first category of connecting with a small audience – and then sneering at more popular works as being artistically compromised.

Avatar aims at the widest possible audience but its archetypal story-structure is the zenith of a recent trend towards deeply predictable films – even a charmer like Whip It! has audibly whirring plot mechanics in its second act before unexpectedly subverting expectations. That refreshing unpredictability is unnecessary if people can write each scene in a three-act structure with a spark so that you’re too captivated by the content to notice the scaffolding but of late, especially in rom-coms, films seem less to be written than generated by software programs. Arguably cinema attendances are at historic lows because of boredom at this formulaic approach. Hollywood thinks the solution to declining interest in cinema is to trumpet 3-D technology and increase ticket prices but wouldn’t the sensible solution be to make better films? When I saw the trailer for Alice in Wonderland I thought “That looks pretty stupid”, but when I saw the trailer in 3-D I thought “That looks really stupid”. We need to ruthlessly insist that the box-office gross of Avatar be discounted for inflation and its 3-D mark-up because chances are it’s not even dented the All Time Top 10 (adjusted realistically). And if that’s the case then we need to ask hard questions about what Hollywood is doing so wrong at this present moment to have led to such a historic disconnect with audiences, and the answers will not be stories we could write ourselves from seeing the trailers, presented in gimmicky 3-D.

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