Talking Movies

July 28, 2017

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan follows his longest film with his shortest since his 1998 debut Following, with which it shares a tricky approach to time and story.

France is sucker-punched and on its way to falling. The British Expeditionary Force is leaving it to its fate and retreating through the only open port, Dunkirk, that England might still have an army with which to fight on. On the Mole Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) spend a week organising the evacuation of soldiers, with the difficulty of a shallow beach and one quay making a perfect target for Stuka dive-bombers. On a Little Ship Dawson (Mark Rylance) pilots his way across the Channel over a long day, with son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and stowaway George (Barry Keoghan). On a ticking clock of one hour’s fuel RAF aces Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) attempt to fend off some of the Lutwaffe’s endless attacks on the beach and convoys. Their stories intersect tensely, complexly.

Nolan hasn’t made as abstract a film as this since Following. To a large degree the presence of some Nolan repertory and a host of familiar faces lends a degree of depth to the characterisation not perhaps there simply in the spare scripting. And it is spare. The majority of screen time belongs to Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), who meet on the desolate beach, and try to stay alive thru repeated attacks, and the dubious comradeship of Alex (Harry Styles). And for the majority of their screen time, they are silent. But the film is not. Viewed in IMAX this is absolutely deafening, with Hans Zimmer’s score interrogating the line with sound design as it throws anachronistic synth blasts amidst the ticking pocket-watch effect, and, startlingly, quotes Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ Variation at high points of tension and release.

On his second collaboration with Hoyte Van Hoytema it’s still unclear whether he and Nolan are less interested in the shadows and earth tones of Wally Pfister’s palate or simply have lucked into two stories that required large swathes of white and blue. One thing that looks unique is the aerial dogfights, IMAX cameras attached to Spitfires these have a dizzying sense of reality: this is a pilot’s eye-view of combat and it’s madly disorienting. And, as the inevitability of Hardy’s choice to not return from France approaches, symptomatic of this film’s remarkable sense of dread. You can no more criticise Nolan for not following the Blake Snyder beats than you could attack Jackson Pollock for failing at figurative art. He can do that supremely well, he’s choosing not to. And making you look, follow, and feel without using words.

And, without using any words, Nolan plays a game with time that makes Dunkirk a film that will amply repay repeat viewings. As the timelines intersect you realise that events that looked simple are a lot more complicated, sometimes even the reverse of what you thought you’d understood. And the same is true for characterisation. At times it feels like Nolan is answering the tiresome critics who attacked Inception and Interstellar for having too much exposition, even as they complained they couldn’t understand them – for all the explanations. And, if those critics insist on taking the ridiculous Billington on Stoppard line of Nolan being all head and no heart, he has the ultimate conjuring trick; Nolan makes us care, with our guts in knots, for people whose names we’re not even sure about, let alone their back-story and motivations.

Nolan has taken a touchstone of British culture and produced a film with a lean running time but a Lean epic quality by viewing the world-changing through the personal.

5/5

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September 1, 2015

Six Years, what a surprise

Filed under: Talking Movies,Talking Nonsense,Talking Television,Talking Theatre — Fergal Casey @ 10:06 pm
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Previous milestones on this blog have been marked by features on Michael Fassbender and a vainglorious, if requested, list (plays to see before you die). But as today marks exactly six years since Talking Movies kicked off in earnest on Tuesday September 1st 2009 with a review of (500) Days of Summer I’ve rummaged thru the archives for some lists covering the various aspects of the blog’s expanded cultural brief.

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Top 6 Films

There’s been a lot of films given a write-up and a star rating hereabouts. So many films. Some fell in my estimation on re-watching, others steadily increased in my esteem, and many stayed exactly as they were.

 

Here are my favourites of the films I’ve reviewed over the past six years:

 

Inception

X-Men: First Class

Shame

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Skyfall

Mud

 

And that’s a selection from this list…

Iron Man, Indiana Jones 4, Wolverine, (500) Days of Summer, Creation, Pandorum, Love Happens, The Goods, Fantastic Mr Fox, Jennifer’s Body, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Bright Star, Glorious 39, The Box, Youth in Revolt, A Single Man, Whip It!, The Bad Lieutenant, Eclipse, Inception, The Runaways, The Hole 3-D, Buried, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Let Me In, The Way Back, Never Let Me Go, Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D, Win Win, X-Men: First Class, The Beaver, A Better Life, Project Nim, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie, The Art of Getting By, Troll Hunter, Drive, Demons Never Die, The Ides of March, In Time, Justice, Breaking Dawn: Part I, The Big Year, Shame, The Darkest Hour 3-D, The Descendants, Man on a Ledge, Martha Marcy May Marlene, A Dangerous Method, The Woman in Black, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 3-D, Margaret, This Means War, Stella Days, Act of Valour, The Hunger Games, Titanic 3-D, The Cabin in the Woods, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Lockout, Albert Nobbs, Damsels in Distress, Prometheus, Red Tails, Red Lights, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 3-D, Ice Age 4, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 2, My Brothers, The Watch, Lawless, The Sweeney, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Liberal Arts, Sinister, Hit and Run, Ruby Sparks, On the Road, Stitches, Skyfall, The Sapphires, Gambit, Seven Psychopaths, Lincoln, Men at Lunch – Lon sa Speir, Warm Bodies, A Good Day to Die Hard, Safe Haven, Arbitrage, Stoker, Robot and Frank, Parker, Side Effects, Iron Man 3, 21 and Over, Dead Man Down, Mud, The Moth Diaries, Populaire, Behind the Candelabra, Man of Steel 3-D, The East, The Internship, The Frozen Ground, The Wolverine, The Heat, RED 2, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Diana, Blue Jasmine, How I Live Now, Thanks for Sharing, Escape Plan, Like Father, Like Son, Ender’s Game, Philomena, The Counsellor, Catching Fire, Black Nativity, Delivery Man, 12 Years a Slave, Devil’s Due, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mr Peabody & Sherman 3-D, Dallas Buyers Club, The Monuments Men, Bastards, The Stag, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Calvary, Magic Magic, Tracks, Hill Street, X-Men: Days of Future Past 3-D, Benny & Jolene, The Fault in Our Stars, 3 Days to Kill, Boyhood, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 3-D, SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, God’s Pocket, Hector and the Search for Happiness, The Expendables 3, What If, Sin City 2, Let’s Be Cops, The Guest, A Most Wanted Man, Wish I Was Here, Noble, Maps to the Stars, Life After Beth, Gone Girl, Northern Soul, The Babadook, Interstellar, The Drop, Mockingjay – Part I, Electricity, Birdman, Taken 3, Wild, Testament of Youth, A Most Violent Year, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Son of a Gun, Patrick’s Day, Selma, It Follows, Paper Souls, Home 3-D, While We’re Young, John Wick, A Little Chaos, The Good Lie, Let Us Prey, The Legend of Barney Thomson, Hitman: Agent 47.

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Top 6 Film Features

There’s been a lot of film features, from me obsessing over ignored inflation at the box-office and omnipresent CGI on the screen to the twaddle of Oscar ceremonies and thoroughly bogus critical narratives of New Hollywood.

 

Here are my favourite film features from the last six years:

 

A Proof – Keanu Can Act

Snyder’s Sensibility

What the Hell is … Method Acting?

Terrence Malick’s Upas Tree

5 Reasons to love Tom at the Farm

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

 

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Top 6 TV Features

There’s been quite a bit of musing about TV here, usually in short-form howls about The Blacklist or other such popcorn irritants, but sometimes in longer format, like two disquisitions on Laurence Fishburne’s stint in CSI.

 

Here are my favourite TV features from the last six years:

 

TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimensions In Smartness

Double Exposure: Cutter’s Way/House M.D.

Medium’s Realism    

2ThirteenB Baker Street, Princeton

Funny Bones

An Arrow of a different colour

 

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Top 6 Plays

Since I decided to start reviewing plays in summer 2010 there’s been a steady stream of reviews from the Dublin Theatre Festival and regular productions at the Gate, the Abbey, the Olympia, the Gaiety, and Smock Alley.

 

Here are my favourites of the plays I’ve reviewed over the last six years:

 

John Gabriel Borkman

The Silver Tassie

Pygmalion

Juno and the Paycock

The Select: The Sun Also Rises

A Whistle in the Dark

 

And that’s a selection from this list:

Death of a Salesman, Arcadia, Phaedra, John Gabriel Borkman, Enron, The Silver Tassie, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Attempts on Her Life, Pygmalion, Translations, Hay Fever, Juno and the Paycock, Peer Gynt, Slattery’s Sago Saga, Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, Big Maggie, Hamlet, Improbable Frequency, Alice in Funderland, Glengarry Glen Ross, Travesties, The House, The Plough and the Stars, The Lark, Dubliners, The Select: The Sun Also Rises, A Whistle in the Dark, Conversations on a Homecoming, The Talk of the Town, King Lear, Major Barbara, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, The Critic, Desire Under the Elms, Neutral Hero, Macbeth, A Skull in Connemara, The Vortex, An Ideal Husband, Twelfth Night, Aristocrats, Ballyturk, Heartbreak House, The Actor’s Lament, Our Few and Evil Days, Bailegangaire, Spinning, She Stoops to Conquer, The Walworth Farce, The Caretaker, The Man in Two Pieces, Hedda Gabler, The Gigli Concert, A Month in the Country, The Shadow of a Gunman, The Importance of Being Earnest, Bob & Judy, By the Bog of Cats.

 

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Top 6 Colour Pieces

It must be admitted that I’ve written fewer colour pieces for the blog than I would have liked, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the occasional adventures of Hollywood insider Micawber-Mycroft; a homage to PG Wodehouse’s Mr Mulliner.

 

Here are my favourite colour pieces from the last six years:

 

How to Watch 300

Mark Pellegrino gets ambitious

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: Apocalypse Now

Micawber-Mycroft explains nervous action directing

Alfred & Bane: Brothers in Arms

Kristen Bell, Book and Candle

 

Six years, my brain hurts a lot…

November 10, 2014

Interstellar

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Christopher Nolan redeems himself after the patchy The Dark Knight Rises with a hard tack into heavy-duty theoretical sci-fi in a mind-bending, oddly abstract blockbuster.

The McConaissance continues as Matthew McConaughey takes on the role of Cooper, a Texan engineer and pilot turned farmer in the near future. Cooper’s is a self-professed caretaker generation, trying to eke a subsistence living from a devastated planet with a collapsed population. Indeed Cooper’s daughter Murph is subjected to some Orwellian education about the futility of technological civilisation. But among the cornfields stalked by blight and storming dust-clouds there are still some people who dream big: NASA in hiding. Michael Caine’s wise professor and his icy daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway) convince Cooper to pilot their last ditch Lazarus mission, to travel through a wormhole next to Saturn in an attempt to find a new home for humanity. But as Cooper leaves an inconsolable Murph behind him, and joins fellow astronauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), he finds that the search for humanity’s salvation seems oddly underpinned by losing all traces of humanity…

Interstellar is a bold change of pace for the Brothers Nolan. The script, written by Jonathan Nolan and then reworked by Christopher, sketches in this future world in the manner of a John Wyndham novel; taking for granted that we know about the macro which we actually only learn about when it impacts the micro world of Cooper and Murph. This leads to some double-take moments, such as Bill Irwin’s comic relief, which are amplified by Nolan’s insistence on secrecy. Some familiar faces appear to shocking effect, which would be dissipated by mentioning them; but among them is a cheerful cameo from William Devane aka 24’s President Heller. Interstellar could best be described as a version of Sunshine written not by Alex Garland, but instead boasting a screenplay by Rod Serling based on a story outline by Carl Sagan. Hard science of a theoretical bent mixes with a soured vision of humanity’s worst tendencies being dominant.

Interstellar is unlikely to get as fond a welcome as previous Nolan movies, but it does have much in common with them; from the Twilight Zone finale like The Prestige, to simultaneous set-pieces as adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Cooper wrestle with similar dilemmas like Inception. Hans Zimmer’s score avoids nearing Richard Strauss’ template by borrowing Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible organ and plugging it into a million IMAX amplifiers; achieving solemnity (without melody) by dint of volume. The replacement of Wally Pfister as DP by Hoyte van Hoytema doesn’t jar, but the changeover is aided by the fact that a very different cinematic world is being captured than that of the Nolan/Pfister paradigm. Nolan wrings good performances from his large cast, with Mackenzie Foy blowing Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of the indomitable Murph, and McConaughey counteracting the heartless science of the Brand family with the emotional sensitivity of the Coopers.

Interstellar walks a tricky high-wire, attempting to create a heart-rending family saga dependent for its emotion on theoretical physics being literalised in a way that defeats traditional blockbuster visuals.

4/5

August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

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A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

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Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

February 17, 2014

Top 5 Ellen Page Films

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(5) Inception

Christopher Nolan’s mind heist thriller builds to a tremendous redemptive emotional kick, when you read the film superficially as too neat structurally for its own good, but … see a loose thread and pull and the garment doesn’t unravel, it changes pattern. ‘Ariadne is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with Cobb is because she’s a therapist surreptitiously hired by Arthur to banish Mal from Cobb’s mind… Page’s performance works equally well as the most grounded member of the team pushing Cobb to exorcise his demons because of her compassion.

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(4) The East

Brit Marling’s script is as building-block developed as most of Johnny Depp’s recent roles (Fight Club + Point Break + Revenge = The East), but Page makes the most of her juicy part as Izzy, the fearsome lieutenant to Alexander Skarsgaard’s ecological Tyler Durden. Her voiceover for the opening montage of The East destroying an oil executive’s home with horror imagery of seeping oil is extremely menacing. Page is so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, and by the end the strength of her convictions and ruthless actions render her almost a Fury of Greek myth.

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(3) Whip It!

Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Page carries the film with ease, handling the demanding physicality of the bone-crunching roller-derby scenes with the same aplomb as the comedy and drama of the off-rink scenes of high-school and family life. Filled with sparkling turns from a female ensemble including Kristen Wiig, the creaking of the plot mechanics becomes a bit audible in the second act, only for Barrymore’s final act to be pleasingly subversive on two counts.

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(2) Juno

Juno is a damn good film with a great central performance rather than a truly great film, even though Diablo Cody’s script is refreshingly unpredictable in its tale of a sarcastic teenager giving her unplanned baby up for adoption to yuppies Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in charm, from the soundtrack to the colourful supporting turns by Olivia Thirlby and Michael Cera. Page, at just 20 years of age, mordantly carried the entire film as the prematurely jaded Juno McGuff, equally adept at biting put-downs and explosive moral outrage.

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(1) Hard Candy

Page was just 17 when she filmed this two-hander with Patrick Wilson and burned a hole in the screen with her white-hot performance. It’s a simple premise. Teenage girl and older man meet on internet, go to a cafe, go back to his place, have some drinks, take some photos … and then he wakes up tied to his kitchen table with her reading a text-book covering castration. David Slade’s directorial debut was gruelling, tense, horrific, and blackly comic, and utterly dependent on the teenage Page’s incendiary performance effortlessly swinging between precocious, mischievous, sadistic, indignant and psychotic.

January 9, 2014

12 Years a Slave

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Steve McQueen directs his first feature without Michael Fassbender in the lead, and the result is a more straightforward but very powerful film depicting slavery.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a prosperous man in upstate New York, much in demand at local dances for his skills as a violinist. He is also a free black man in the politically divided America of 1841, but after a trip to Washington DC providing music for a circus-owner (Scoot McNairy) he wakes up to find himself in chains about to be transported to New Orleans to be sold to whatever Louisiana plantation owner buys him. Viciously whipped for protesting his free status he is further brutalised by slave-trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) for not adopting his slave name of Platt, but he is bought by humane plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who recognises his intelligence. However, conflict with vicious overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) leads to Solomon being handed over to drunken and maniacal plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), where Solomon finds himself embroiled in the struggle between Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) and Epps’ slave mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)…

12 Years a Slave is a remarkable film in which McQueen brings his distinctive visual aesthetic to bear on Three Kings scribe John Ridley’s adaptation of Northup’s shocking memoirs. The casual brutality of the slavers towards their victims is shocking, and McQueen’s camera is as unflinching as always in observing it, from the fixed-position long-take that observes Solomon’s first beating, to the already infamous and almost unbearable climactic long-take with a camera roving around Epps, Solomon and Patsey during a prolonged vindictive whipping. If Hunger was almost an installation about bodies in decay, andShame about bodies in motion, this is about bodies in torment. A decanter of whiskey is casually thrown into a slave’s face, a wound is ripped open with a scratch of nails, runaways are lynched besides Solomon, and Solomon himself is left hanging from a tight noose for hours while most of his fellow slaves strategically ignore his plight. This lacks a sequence where the mundane becomes transcendent, probably because of the subject; the closest we get is fire dying away at night with Solomon’s hopes.

The way McQueen’s camera silently observes the slaves being treated like livestock is more condemnatory than any polemical dialogue. Ridley’s script inserts a subtext into certain scenes about the insecurities and fears of the slave-owners, hidden behind their racist bluster, which makes even Fassbender’s vicious bible-thumping alcoholic more complicated than he first appears. Teabits sings about killing runaways to the new slaves, but is terrified of being shown up as an engineer by a slave. Epps’ wife is horrified at being replaced sexually by a slave, while Freeman breaks up a family because the daughter’s father was a master and this white blood increases her sexual desirability and price. Garret Dillahunt’s fallen overseer notes that masters must convince themselves the slaves are not human or repress their guilt. Ford tries to be good in this system, while Epps exploits it mercilessly and perhaps self-destructively. Regrettably amidst this intellectual subtlety Hans Zimmer’s key motif is instantly recognisable from his Inception score…

Steve McQueen is due a disaster, but so far he is proving to be something very rare –a film director who only makes masterpieces.                                               

5/5

June 12, 2013

Snyder’s Superman

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 26, 2012

Skyfall

Director Sam Mendes nostalgically marks James Bond’s 50th anniversary with a typically measured piece of work that is very enjoyable  but which never quite matches the heights of Casino Royale.

The thrilling opening sequence in  Turkey sees Daniel Craig’s 007 implacably pursue a man who has stolen a  hard-drive containing the identities of NATO agents undercover in terrorist  organisations. Unfortunately the pursuit ends disastrously courtesy of the  bungled intervention of his back-up agent Eve (Naomie Harris), carrying out M’s  ruthless orders. Judi’s Dench M is being threatened with retirement by new  Security Chairman Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) over this blunder but Bond, now a  broken man (he has a beard…) and champion of a Turkish drinking game involving  scorpions, only returns when MI6 HQ explodes. Bond returns to a rattled agency,  hiding in Churchill’s old war bunker, and with a ridiculously young new  Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw), who trades barbed insults with Bond and then equips  him with the needful to get back out into the field, where there’s always  terrible wear and tear. Bond’s search for the stolen list of agents leads him to  the sultry Severine (Berenice Lim Marlohe) and her sinister employer,  super-hacker Silva (Javier Bardem)…

When reviewing the pointlessly maligned Quantum of Solace I held out the hope that the  ideas surrounding Quantum might lead to a Bond 2.0 film even better than Casino Royale. Well, sadly Quantum and Felix Leiter  are absent from this movie, but one idea from Quantum, that M and Bond have almost a fraught  mother/son bond, has been amplified and given a dramatic counterpoint to power  this film’s twisting plot. Oddly this feels at times like a Nolan Bond not a  Mendes Bond. Mendes has drafted in some regulars: Thomas Newman replaces David  Arnold but fails to make much impact; indeed dramatic strings during the Tube  sequence are uncannily like Arnold’s motif for similar sequences on Sherlock. Roger Deakins though gives the  mirrors motif of the title credits dazzling life in the Shanghai sequence which  is all reflective glass, and blue and green neon, while the night-time Macau  sequence is just gorgeously staged in warm oranges. But the crumbling city where  Silva has his lair screams Inception, a  plot twist is a familiar gambit from The Dark  Knight, and Rises echoes in the  constant references to Bond being a physical wreck, and the persistent  questioning of why this rich orphan continues to risk his life.

The deliberately measured pace of the movie is pure Mendes and he even  produces a trademark move with Silva’s entrance, a slow push-in while Silva  walks towards the camera from a distance. For the most part this approach works,  the first act feels like one of Fleming’s short stories, and the belated  entrance of Silva pays off in some wonderfully discomforting dialogue scenes and  a huge shock. Even Silva as cyber-supervillain works, mostly due to Q’s rivalry  with Silva. But then along comes the third act… Mendes throws everything at  the screen; the full Bond guitar riff, Aston Martins, references to and  borrowings from Goldfinger, Apocalypse Now, and From Russia with Love. But while it’s fascinating in  exploring Bond’s past, and ends fittingly with some in-joke references, the  climactic action just lacks the forcefulness or epic scale of Casino Royale and even Quantum.

Skyfall is a good film, which runs  out of steam somewhat, but it does seem to prove that action directors handling  sharp scripts make for the best Bond films.

3.5/5

September 18, 2012

Any Other Business: Part V

What is one to do with  thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a  proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into  a fifth  portmanteau post on television of course!

RTE  Heart Hans  Zimmer

Have you noticed a  tendency for everything to be drowned in Hans Zimmer music lately? I think it was when I  was watching a serious and rather good RTE documentary on the bank guarantee in  2008 that I  first got annoyed at the tendency to plaster Hans Zimmer scores over everything.  I don’t need the Joker’s musical theme shimmering over tales  of dodgy American sub-prime mortgages and CFD problems in Anglo-Irish Bank to know  that someone is engaged in villainous double-dealing. I don’t need to have the  pulsasting  Batman goes to war music playing over accounts of frantic meetings late at night  to know that action was being taken to avert a crisis. There has to come a point  where talking heads in a documentary are allowed to speak and the audience is  treated as intelligent enough to grasp the implications of what they’re saying without needing a musical cue  of the most bombastic sort. And that’s the other problem. Does everything need to  have The  Dark Knight  or Inception backing  it?These are  very recognisable and quite well-known soundtracks whose constant intrusion into  a serious documentary can pull you right out, as you think about the  Nolan movie instead of what you’re watching. The one free pass I’ll  give anyone regarding use of Hans Zimmer is TG4 booming Inception music for their rugby  coverage  because at least it’s a change from Kasabian (see below…). It’s time to stop  spoon-feeding the audience, and subsidising Mr  Zimmer.

Kasabian:  Born to Rock/Soundtrack Sport

Kasabian are one of  those bands who appear to have the stars aligned in their favour. I went to see  their show in Marlay Park a few weeks ago, only knowing the The West Rider Pauper Lunatic Asylum, and was taken aback at  just how many of their songs I actually knew. There is a story told that Richard  Linklater wanted to use ‘Immigrant Song’ for a scene in his 2004 film School  of Rock and  was taken aback to be asked for 10 times as much money as he’d had to fork over  to use Led Zeppelin for his 1993 film Dazed  and Confused; indeed the amount  asked for ‘Immigrant Song’ equalled the budget for his entire 1993 movie, and  only after much begging was he able to get the price down to a reasonable  level.  Kasabian emerged at a moment when industrial illegal downloading had so  decimated traditional revenue streams that licensing music for TV and cinema was  becoming not just a clever way of getting exposure (a la Moby with Play) but damn near the only  way you could be guaranteed getting paid when people listened  to your  music. Enter Kasabian, whose breakthrough single ‘Clubfoot’ was used on TV spots  for Smallville and 24 and damn  near every action film for a year. Since then they’ve carved out an incredible  niche. I  don’t know how they do it but damn near every song Kasabian release as a single  seems to have the potential to become the  soundtrack to TV sports. ‘Underdog’, ‘Vlad the Impaler’, ‘Fire’, ‘Days Are  Forgotten’, ‘Velociraptor’, and others have all popped up. They provide the  title music for rugby on RTE, the theme tune of football on Sky, and the  background music for fixture lists and league tables while pundits converse at  half-time on several channels. Kasabian have established their music as the  default setting for TV editors. This is both remarkable and financially  lucrative – how do they do it?

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’…

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