Talking Movies

June 12, 2013

Snyder’s Superman

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.


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…


June 10, 2011

On Fassbendering

“To Fassbender: To very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work”. That’s the Urban Dictionary definition at any rate. But, like the residents of Madison Avenue advertising firms in the 1960s being termed Mad Men, I defined it myself…

So, where on earth did I get the concept of Fassbendering from? Well, I first really noticed Michael Fassbender when he played Azazeal in Hex, and my reaction to the show was pretty much “meh, pale Buffy rip-off, but serious kudos to that guy who’s really enjoying himself far too much as the Big Bad”. Later on I realised that he was the actor from Guinness ad who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. The fact that Fassbender had ended that ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again, suggested a trend – this was a guy who just couldn’t stop grinning mischievously because he was always enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender fell off my radar for a while so I only belatedly noticed that he grinned with some malevolence in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, as he got to be both an impeccably impassive servant and a sadistic serial killer; who, several years before Heath Ledger’s Joker, took a distinct pleasure in being tortured by Holmes. I also later caught up with ITV’s Poirot and discovered that Fassbender had smoked, drank, drawled and grinned his way thru After the Funeral.

But his ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where I really started to take this nonsense seriously, if you will. I have found among my circle that whoever watched 300 as a serious action drama thought it was unbearably bad, but whoever watched it thru the absurd prism of Fassbender (on my prompting) thought it was a deliriously great black comedy. Watching the film with Fassbender as your focus you realise just how much fun he’s obviously having. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning… Later he jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Well then, we shall fight in the shade”, with the air of a man once again enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender gets to be half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and, in his definitive moment of gleefulness, when the Persian mystics are throwing bombs Fassbender runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. In the darkness lit only by bomb blasts we can’t see Fassbender’s face underneath his helmet until we see his teeth, as he grins. Fassbender does something awesome in the denouement to allow Leonidas to do something even more awesome, before holding hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines; where even dying becomes a blast…

But, daft as it sounds, it was Fassbender’s subsequent role in Hunger that led me to go online and define Fassbendering, because, when announcing the casting news from Cannes the Irish Times, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to accompany the story that Fassbender was taking on this big serious role in what one would expect to be a grim sombre film, with a photo of Fassbender cracking up on set – as if there was nothing on this planet, not decency, not logic, that could prevent Fassbender from enjoying himself too much… And indeed Hunger did provide one moment which I deemed Fassbendering above and beyond the call of duty. In the midst of a serious performance in a serious film he still managed to sneak in a scene where, after being beaten up and then dropped naked and bloodied on the floor of his cell, his Bobby Sands rolls over, blood streaming from his mouth, and slowly grins at the camera… On retrospect this is obviously the moment where Sands realises he can defeat his captors by doing this to himself by going on hunger strike, but would anyone but Fassbender dare to do communicate this by a grin, that also serves to indicate that he knows he is doing a great job with this role and still can’t quite believe his luck.

Fassbender had a straight man role in Inglourious Basterds opposite Mike Myers’ absurdist British officer, and then in one of the tensest sequences in the film, but I argue that he was able to play things straight because he didn’t need to Fassbender, he’d already infected the entire ensemble. Christoph Waltz’s ecstatic glee at his role is pure Fassbendering, especially his appreciation of the musical qualities of Italian names and Diane Kruger’s explanation of her leg injury, during which he has to go off to one side to laugh himself sick. The trailer for Jonah Hex left me in tears of laughter as Fassbender’s first appearance as henchman Burke saw him grinning manically while dressed as a droog and setting fire to a barn with someone trapped in it. You can only hope that one day Fassbender gets to truly cut loose with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films.

So what is Fassbendering? I used 300 for the definition because it’s the supreme example of a man just obviously enjoying himself far too much for something that’s meant to be paid work, hence my quip – “On being handed the cheque he probably said ‘No, really I couldn’t. It’s just been such a blast. Can I keep the cape?” Now, Fassbendering is not unique to Fassbender, but only in one sense as I will argue in a minute. I would argue that the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be audibly heard Fassbendering their way thru BloodSugarSexMagik because when you listen to it you feel that they would do this for free, they are so obviously deriving too much enjoyment from their paid work. But Fassbendering always has a positive undertone, what is enjoyable for the performer is enjoyable for the audience too, unlike fiascos like Ocean’s 12 where a group of actors obviously having a ball does not translate into the warm hug of the audience that the same actors having a ball provides in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13. Fassbendering therefore is high praise when I use it for another actor, as I have occasionally done (Iron Man, Speed Racer, The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell, Death of A Salesman, 7 Reasons to Love Scott Pilgrim, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pygmalion, X-Men: First Class).

The part of Erik Lensherr is dark and vengeful, but there is some Fassbendering. The most obvious moments come in the recruitment and training montages where Erik suddenly reveals a hitherto unsuspected sardonic side. These are where any actor would grin widely at how much fun they’re having, even if Fassbender grins wider than most. The true moment that defines Fassbendering as something that only Michael Fassbender truly personifies comes in the extremely tense sequence in the Argentinian German Bar. Fassbender smiling widely drops loaded hints to the ex-Nazis, “They had no name. It was taken from them, by pig-farmers, and tailors”, his smile confusing the hell out of them, even as he slowly drains his drink, still looking affable, but perhaps to be feared. Fassbender is obviously enjoying himself far too much in this scene, but what’s more, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, he’s conveying an inner thought process of his character that other actors would not attempt – Erik really is obviously enjoying this Nazi-hunting business far too much…

June 7, 2011

James McAvoy needs a new agent

DELANEY, agent to a galaxy of stars, well, James McAvoy and Mark Pellegrino, sits at his desk lovingly watering his potted plant while JAMES MCAVOY, paces around the office restlessly, waves his arms passionately, and complains volubly…

MCAVOY: It’s happened again! Again!
DELANEY: What? That I got you the lead role in a great film, yeah, you’re welcome.
MCAVOY: Pshaw! I’ve been upstaged as the lead in a great film, again, you mean!
DELANEY: What do you mean ‘again’?
MCAVOY: This is continually happening to me. Take The Last King of Scotland.
DELANEY: I did, you wanted that! You’re Scottish.
MCAVOY: Yes, I wanted it but look what happened. Forest Whitaker won the bloody Oscar for his supporting role. Best Actor for a supporting role! And I didn’t even get nominated!
DELANEY: Yeah, but then I got you Atonement.
MCAVOY: Where I was upstaged by a 12 year old girl! Who also got nominated! When I didn’t. Again!
DELANEY: She’s a very good actress.
MCAVOY: I’ll grant you that. (beat) Perhaps no one could have seen that one coming. But, Wanted, there’s no excuse for that.
DELANEY: You loved Wanted! When I told you I had the lead role in a Mark Millar action-movie, Mark Millar, Scottish comics genius, you nearly we-
MCAVOY: Yes! Yes, that’s true. But… if you’d told me Angelina Jolie was going to be playing Fox I would have thought twice about it, because she upstaged me! And she was always bound to upstage me from that role.
DELANEY: And your gripe with X-Men: First Class is what exactly?
MCAVOY: What do you think, Delaney? Fassbender upstaged me!
DELANEY: Well, couldn’t you have tried harder?
MCAVOY: Tried harder! Tried harder? He clearly had the better part!
DELANEY: What? That’s insane. Your name comes first on the cast-list. I checked before I told them you’d consider it. Only the best for my MacAvoy!
MCAVOY: Answer me this. What do I do in the movie that’s cool?
DELANEY: You drink from that silly long tubey glass, and hit on girls, oh, and read people’s minds, oh, oh, and make them do stuff they don’t want to.
MCAVOY: No, that’s funny, that’s what I do that’s funny, what do I do that’s cool?
MCAVOY: Nothing that’s what! Professor X wanders around like a spoilt rich kid, ignoring the fact that Mystique is plainly in love with him, and that the world does not want to sit down by a campfire and sing Cumbaya with the mutants. Meanwhile freaking Fassbender is…is… just…
DELANEY: Fassbendering?
MCAVOY: YES! He’s off in Argentina killing Nazis like he’s wandered in from some sort of deleted storyline from Inglourious Basterds while I’m doing my best to be as sleazy as Patrick Stewart’s proposed take on Professor X in Extras!
DELANEY: So, what’ s your point?
MCAVOY: My point, and I want you to pay very close attention to this because I’ve been talking to Pellegrino and so have a very realistic appreciation of the chances of you actually grasping this, is that – just because a name comes first in the list of characters or in the cast-list doesn’t mean that it’s the best part in the movie.
DELANEY: Wh-what?
MCAVOY: Sometimes, and I’m sorry for this because I know this will wound you deeply, it is actually necessary to read the script first and not just the list of characters before deciding what part is the best part.
DELANEY: Read…. Read…. (Delaney starts to hyperventilate)
(McAvoy walks over and places a finger to Delaney’s forehead)
MCAVOY: Just breathe. Calm your mind. Be Calm.
DELANEY: (Delaney’s equilibrium is magically restored) Read… the script?!
MCAVOY: Yes, or which would be better, just get Janine to read the script for you.
DELANEY: But what would she know about something like that? I’m the agent, I’m the litmus test of dramatic quality around here. She’s just the secretary.
(McAvoy hits speakerphone switch.)
MCAVOY: Janine, did you by any chance read the script for X-Men: First Class when it was lying around the office a while back?
JANINE (O/S): Yes.
MCAVOY: Now, Janine, don’t think about this, just answer instantly, which is the better part in your opinion in that script, Xavier or Erik?
JANINE (O/S): Oh, Erik of course. Erik is just a more complex and challenging role. He’s got such a compelling and justifiable motivation for his actions that it just completely skews all traditional comic-book morality. It’s probably Vaughn’s touch after co-writing Kick-Ass, but it’s hard not to think that he’s portraying Erik much like Big Daddy, as a dark superhero rather than as a super-villain.
MCAVOY: Thank you, Janine. (He clicks off speakerphone switch) You see?
DELANEY: X-traordinary. I’ve never seen anything like this before…
(McAvoy groans and slumps in chair.)

June 2, 2011

Conspiracy Cinema at the IFI

The IFI is presenting a season of films this June playfully titled High Anxiety. As ‘filmnoia’ these are meant to encapsulate the post-Vietnam post-Watergate zeitgeist of chastened 1970s America. Invariably there is much idolatry of the faultless New Hollywood that was tragically killed off by Star Wars in this positioning, which regular readers of this blog will know I have little truck with. The truth is there are some great films here, some over-rated but good films, and by far the best film is the most defiantly Old Hollywood: The Manchurian Candidate, which is oblique in its violence, sexually charged without being sexual, and whip-smart and heart-breaking in its scripting; the kind of thing that Hitchcock might have directed on one of his darker days at the office. Let’s briefly trot thru the line-up of films in the season.

The Manchurian Candidate June 1st & 2nd @ 6:25pm

The pick of the bunch is the first out of the blocks. Catch this tonight if you can. A superb Laurence Harvey stars as Raymond Shaw, an unpopular soldier who unexpectedly returns as a war hero from the Korean War to the political machinations of his terrifying mother Angela Lansbury, a witch-hunting Senator’s wife. Frank Sinatra is his old army c/o trying to work out the mystery of just what happened in Korea that fills his men’s nightmares, and director John Frankenheimer ratchets up the tension as George Axelrod’s script satirically skewers McCarthyism while breaking your heart along the way.

Klute June 4th & 5th @ 4.50pm

Sex, lies, and audiotape. Widely regarded as the film that legitimised profanity as a hallmark of serious movies Alan J Pakula’s 1971 exercise in paranoia sees Donald Sutherland’s enigmatic small-town PI John Klute travel to the big city to investigate the possible involvement of his friend with Jane Fonda’s nervous call-girl, and her possible involvement in his mysterious disappearance. The sound design is extraordinary as ambient noise swamps the possibilities of recording the truth, and this arguably established the house-rules for all subsequent 1970s filmnoias. Keep an eye out for Roy Scheider’s ridiculous outfit in his cameo as a pimp.

The Parallax View June 6th @ 3.00pm & 7.05pm

Alan J Pakula again, this time Warren Beatty is the lead in a 1974 thriller about a journalist investigating the possibility that the powerful corporation the Parallax Organisation has been behind not only a political assassination allegedly carried out by a conveniently dead lone gunman, but the clean-up murders of all the witnesses of the assassination. The dazzling and famous highlight comes when Beatty is subjected to a test to see whether he fits the criteria for maladjusted misfit that Parallax likes to use for its lone gunmen. You know, people like say Lee Harvey Oswald, or James Earl Ray…

Chinatown June 8th @ 2.10pm & 6.30pm

If Roman Polanski’s film was just a little less self-regarding it would be a far better film noir. Jack Nicholson gives a terrific performance as the cock-sure PI suddenly out of his depth against Faye Dunaway’s ambiguous femme fatale and John Huston’s monstrous patriarch, and there are wonderful moments and lines throughout. The enormous self-importance of Robert Towne’s screenplay sinks the film from its potential heights but is unsurprising given that he reputedly told anyone who would listen that the success of the 3 hrs plus The Godfather was entirely attributable to his dialogue polish on one 3 minute scene…

The Conversation June 9th @ 6.45pm

Francis Ford Coppola’s small personal movie between The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II stars Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert who finds a simple job developing into something much more disturbing, which eventually pushes him to the very limits of his sanity. Walter Murch’s sound design is extraordinary and best appreciated on a big screen, but I’ve never thought that Coppola’s script was good at making us care about the possible murder plot Hackman stumbles upon; the physical distance his camera maintains from the camera being sadly replicated as an emotional distance maintained by the audience from the characters.

Night Moves June 12th @ 5.00pm

A staple of late-night TV schedules (TV programmers can be very easily amused sometimes) this 1975 movie sees Arthur Penn and Gene Hackman reunite for a more subdued outing than their 1967 collaboration Bonnie & Clyde. Hackman is a defeated PI who discovers his wife in adultery, but is unable to satisfactorily resolve that situation or any other case he is working on. Perhaps a lament for the lost idealism of the New Frontier in the age of Watergate, or perhaps just another deconstruction of American myths by Penn that has aged far less well than his Bonnie & Clyde.

Rollover June 18th @ 3.15pm

Yes, Alan J Pakula for a third time. He never stopped making paranoia movies, and this 1981 effort may have had the amazing good fortune to become relevant thirty years after being dismissed as pessimistic and incomprehensible, because of the second defining event of the last decade, the credit crunch. Jane Fonda stars as a company director’s widow who romances Kris Kristofferson’s financial trouble-shooter, brought in to steady the corporation, who ends up involved in an extremely risky deal with Saudi Arabia that goes belly-up in such spectacular fashion that it leads to the meltdown of the entire Western economy.

Winter Kills June 25th & 26th @2.00p

Adapted from another book by Manchurian Candidate novelist Richard Condon, this thriller stars John Huston as Not Joe Kennedy, who after 19 years is told by his son Jeff Bridges that he finally has a good lead on who really assassinated Huston’s other son, the President Not John F Kennedy. Winter Kills had an extremely troubled production, with director William Richert having one of his producers murdered, so this is a welcome chance to belatedly see Huston chewing scenery in such a ripe scenario of what could be classified alongside Inglourious Basterds as the genre of fantasy historical revenge movies.

Missing June 25th & 26th @2.50pm

Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek star as the father and wife of an American missing in Chile, in acclaimed Greek director Costa-Gavras’ first American film. An attack on Henry Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik, here masked by hypocritical mutterings about truth, justice, and the American Way, this vividly recreates the feel of Pinochet’s Chile; a regime enabled by CIA connivance in the overthrow of Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. There is a sense of kicking a dead donkey about this as Nixon was already out of power, but Costa-Gavras at least clothes his political points in empathetic flesh and blood characters.

X-Men: First Class

Matthew Vaughn finally gets to direct an X-Men movie, and the result is the best instalment of the X-franchise to date…

Beginning (as X-Men did) with Erik Lensherr traumatically discovering his powers of magnetism in Poland in 1944, the pre-credits sequence contrasts the parallel childhood experiences of Charles Xavier in upstate New York, where he welcomes in the young and terrified Mystique to his luxurious home, with that of Erik in a Nazi concentration camp, where Dr Schmidt sadistically hones Erik’s powers. Vaughn’s film pivots around the subsequent emotional and political developments, during the Cuban Missiles Crisis in 1962, of the events of this cold-open. Rose Byrne’s CIA agent Moira McTaggart endures Mad Men-style sexism while investigating the shady activities of the Hellfire Club. In a Mark Millar touch Vaughn and co-writers integrate Cuba into the story wonderfully, not by rewriting history but by suggesting that history as we know it is a carefully constructed cover-story to hide mutant involvement. Legendary comics villains the Hellfire Club, led by Sebastian Shaw (a nicely malevolent Kevin Bacon) and Emma Frost (an appropriately icy and under-dressed January Jones), appear to be manipulating both sides to ignite the Cold War. Moira needs help against mutants and so recruits Xavier, and subsequently Erik.

James McAvoy is yet again upstaged by someone lower-billed, because while McAvoy is very funny as a young Xavier using genetics as a chat-up routine, it pales next to the dark charisma of Michael Fassbender’s globe-trotting Nazi-hunter Erik. On seeing Xavier’s mansion Erik sardonically asks, “Charles, how did you ever survive such hardship?” The clash in philosophy between Erik and Xavier is finally given the substance it lacked in the original trilogy, and is personalised by Mystique (an affecting Jennifer Lawrence) being drawn to Erik over Xavier. Erik’s driven life is killing Nazis to avenge his race, while Xavier’s life has always been one of privilege. ‘Mutant and proud’ is a chat-up line for Xavier but, as Erik affectionately teaches her to embrace her appearance rather than hide it as Xavier wishes, it becomes Mystique’s self-definition. Erik’s quest to murder Shaw is a fulfilment of his tutelage by Schmidt, Xavier’s determination to prevent Erik the fulfilment of his compassion. Mystique must choose one philosophy…

Vaughn balances this tragedy with montages, of Erik and Xavier recruiting mutants for the CIA and training mutants at Xavier’s mansion, which are heavy on the Fassbendering. There are delightful cameos by a couple of cast members from the original trilogy as well as superb gags based on our knowledge of these characters’ futures. The action is also very well-handled with Erik’s single-handed attack on a Russian military base utterly thrilling, while an assault by the Hellfire Club on the CIA is notable for Vaughn showing real terror on the face of Xavier’s unprepared recruits, especially Mystique. The only gripe is that the second act can at times feel like two screenplays are being audibly bolted together. But these are mere quibbles when Vaughan can casually toss in an enormous shock in the finale, and then have a final scene that complicates comic-book morality as much as Kick-Ass.

There was a danger with this film’s title that critics would immediately call it second-rate at the slightest provocation; instead, it really is X-Men: First Class in every sense.


May 25, 2011

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

March 15, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

There’s been an odd prevalence of live blogs surrounding this year’s “goddamn meat-parade” – as George C Scott so memorably described the Oscars. This blog did not do a live commentary on the Oscars for three reasons. Firstly, I rather like sleeping at night and think that many other people share this strange attitude. Secondly, I don’t believe that even Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie writing together could possibly write anything funny or insightful enough LIVE! to justify a live blog. Thirdly, the Oscars are (whisper it) (no in fact bellow it!) POINTLESS!

There are 5,777 voting members of the Academy. These individuals do not have a better idea of what makes a great film than any other 5,777 random individuals around the world. There was a reason that JFK told Ben Bradlee what he’d learned from the Bay of Pigs was this – “Don’t assume that because a man is in the army that he necessarily knows best about military strategy”. If you doubt that consider these three facts.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Alfred Hitchcock, director of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, was not truly exceptional enough in his field to win a Best Director Oscar.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, was.

The Academy nominated both Apocalypse Now and Kramer Vs Kramer for Best Picture of 1979 and thought that the film which would have most impact on popular culture, which pushed the boundaries of film-making, and which would endure and be fondly remembered was…Kramer Vs Kramer. I love the smell of dumbness in the Kodak.

According to the Academy the best 10 films of the Zeros were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker.

Not Memento, Moulin Rouge!, The Two Towers, Master & Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Good Night and Good Luck, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

Or Amores Perros, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rules of Attraction, X-2, Mean Girls, Brick, The Prestige, Zodiac, Hunger and Up in the Air.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that Christoph Waltz gave a great performance in Inglourious Basterds. We don’t need the Academy’s nominations to help us tell the difference between a good blockbuster with commercial clichés and a bad Oscar-baiter with its own set of equally rigid (but more idiotic because they’re ‘edgy’) clichés (Little Miss Sunshine, I’m looking at you). Maggie Mayhem tells Bliss in Whip It “Be your own hero”. Follow her advice, trust your own instincts…

January 22, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

(10) Crank 2 Jason Statham rampages thru the streets fighting mobsters, electrocuting himself, humiliating Amy Smart and generally incarnating lunacy in celluloid form. I saw it in a ‘private screening’ in Tallaght UCI and my brain is still slowly recovering.

(9) Star Trek I still have issues with the intellectual con-job involved in its in-camera ret-conning plot, and its poor villain, but this was a truly exuberant romp that rejuvenated the Trek franchise with great joy and reverence, down to the old familiar alarm siren, even if Spock (both versions) did act new Kirk off the screen. Here’s to the sequels.

(8) Mesrine 1 & 2 A brassy, bold piece of film-making, this French two-parter about the life of infamous bank-robber Jacques Mesrine saw Vincent Cassell in sensational form aided by a supporting cast of current Gallic cinematic royalty. Sure, this was too long and had flaws, but it had twice the spark of its efficient but autopiloted cousin Public Enemies.

(7) Moon Playing like a faithful adaptation of an Isaac Asimov tale this low-budget sci-fi proved that a clever concept and good execution will always win out over empty special effects and bombast as this tale of a badly injured worker having an identity crisis in a deserted moon-base was both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

(5) (500) Days of Summer It’s not a riotous comedy, but it is always charming, it is tough emotionally when it needs to be and its systematic deconstruction of the rom-com is of great importance, as, bar The Devil Wears Prada, Definitely Maybe and The Jane Austen Book Club, that genre produces only bad films and is moribund, hypocritical and, yes, damaging.

(5) Frost/Nixon It was hard to shake the wish that you had seen the crackling tension of the stage production but this is still wonderfully satisfying drama. Sheen and Langella are both on top form in their real-life roles, backed by a solid supporting cast, and the probing of the psyches of both men, especially their midnight phone call, was impeccable.

(3) Inglourious Basterds Tarantino roars back with his best script since 1994. Historical inaccuracy has never been so joyfully euphoric in granting Jewish revenge on the Nazis, QT’s theatrical propensities have never been better than the first extended scene with the Jew-hunter and the French farmer, the flair for language is once again devoted to uproarious comedy, and the ability to create minor characters of great brilliance has returned.

(3) The Private Lives of Pippa Lee An intimate female-centred film this was a refreshing joy to stumble on during the summer and, powered by great turns from Robin Wright and Blake Lively, this was an always absorbing tale of a woman looking back at a life lived in an extremely bizarre fashion. Rebecca Miller inserted a great message of hope for the possibility of renewing yourself if you could only endure in an ending that averted sentimentality.

(2) Milk For my money a far more important landmark than Brokeback Mountain as Gus Van Sant, directing with more focus and great verve than he has shown for years, melded a convincing portrait of gay relationships with an enthralling and inspirational account of the politics of equal rights advocator and ‘Mayor of Castro’, the slain Harvey Milk.

(1) Encounters at the End of the World After a slow start Werner Herzog’s stunning documentary melds breathtaking landscape and underwater photography and a warning on the dangers of global warming with a typically Herzogian journey into madness whether it be an insane penguin or the eccentric oddballs and scientists who live in Antarctica’s bases.

November 27, 2009

Glorious 39

I’m in something of a quandary about Glorious 39, a rare cinema outing by acclaimed writer/director Stephen Poliakoff who specialises in making literate thoughtful dramas for the BBC. When I interviewed Bill Nighy in February he was bubbling with enthusiasm for working with Poliakoff again, having won a Golden Globe for his lead role in the sublime 2005 TV film Gideon’s Daughter. Sadly Glorious 39 has all the recognisable Poliakoff concerns but inexplicably falls apart in exploring them.

In the present day the elderly Walter (Christopher Lee) narrates to his young cousin the events of the glorious summer of 1939 when the world stood on the brink of war – a prospect with which the private dramas of the Keyes family, in which Walter played a minor part, seemed intertwined. Romola Garai, who sparkled in the lead role in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, stars as Anna the eldest but adopted daughter of Bill Nighy’s aristocratic Tory MP Sir Alexander Keyes. Nighy is rather good as a compassionate man whose experiences in WWI have so unfitted him for dealing with another war that he tries to retreat into the private realm to dote on his children. Jeremy Northam is startlingly good as the sinister MI5 agent who dogs this retreat from Westminster while David Tennant has a nice cameo as a Scottish MP who makes a passionate attack on the policy of appeasement at a Keyes garden party. Anna (Garai) has little time for all this, being more concerned with her budding film career and boyfriend in the Foreign Office (Charlie Cox). However she discovers recordings of secret meetings revealing an MI5 plot to murderously suppress any opposition to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement and is thrown into a dangerous world of espionage and intimate betrayal.

Glorious 39 starts as a thoughtful drama but unexpectedly develops Hitchockian paranoia. Poliakoff’s trademark concerns with memory, family, the moving image, and the impact of the past on the present are all present and correct and Glorious 39 is wonderfully atmospheric. All the performances are very good enabling Poliakoff to deliver some shocks with devastating emotional impact amidst a string of unsettling suspense set-pieces including a kidnapped child. Ultimately though the film degenerates into sub-Hitchockian pastiche, undermined by the knowledge that whatever action Anna takes is irrelevant to war being declared or Churchill becoming PM, as this film will not have a Tarantinoesque disregard for historical fact. Poliakoff thus switches genres to introduce a Victorian madwoman in the attic horror story before contriving a deeply odd ‘meaningful’ ending.

A character study that made us empathise with decent individuals promoting Appeasement for good reasons, even though they are on the wrong side of history, by re-inscribing their uncertainty about what the future held would be prime Poliakoff. Sadly Poliakoff eschews this route meaning that this misfiring thriller should have stayed on the small-screen.


November 2, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

George Clooney’s writing partner Grant Heslov directs his collaborator in an adaptation of British journalist Jon Ronson’s book, which, while consistently amusing, never becomes the laugh-riot we had hoped for concerning American military attempts to weaponise (non-existent) psychic powers.

Goats does though at times recall the Peter Cook sketch involving Lord Streebling who had been training ravens to fly underwater for decades but when asked by Dudley Moore’s reporter how many ravens he had actually successfully taught to fly underwater sheepishly replied ‘Ah, none’. Clooney as Lyn Cassady in 2003 Iraq endlessly talks up his awesome psychic powers to Ewan McGregor’s credulous newspaperman Bob Wilton then does something brutally violent before explaining how he just achieved his objective predominantly by mental means.

In flashbacks it’s another story entirely, as Wilton isn’t around to fact-check… These flashbacks to the 1970s and 1980s contain by far the funniest sequences in the film as Cassady’s mentor Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) bruised by his experiences in Vietnam, and a baffling near-death vision, investigates various New Age movements as a research mission and then tries to train an army unit to use their gentleness as a weapon – it’s like watching The Dude taking over David Mamet’s The Unit… Cassady joins Django’s unit and learns to dance, which (naturally) leads on to finding kidnap victims using remote viewing as his mind soars over the planet to the strains of Boston’s More Than a Feeling.

There are good gags dotted throughout the film like Wilton’s annoyed response to some training by Cassady: “‘Attack’ me” “What’s with the air-quotes, like you think I’m only capable of ‘ironic’ attack?” What’s most interesting though is that Heslov and Clooney have used Ronson’s book to make a film which is really about the American/capitalist tendency to militarise and/or crassly commercialise everything so that even positive discoveries invariably turn sinister or inauthentic. Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper represents this dark side of the force as an ambitious recruit to the unit who aspires to lead a full on psychic warrior division. Cassady, under pressure from Hooper, does in fact kill a goat by staring at it till he makes its heart stop but in doing so the Jedi Warriors (as the New Earth battalion are known – have a good laugh at McGregor being an ex-Jedi, now stop) turn to the dark side, and they are cursed from that moment on for having misused their powers.

The film’s insane finale in a secret army base in Iraq would feel at home in both MASH and Inglorious Basterds as it outrageously rewrites recent history with a more positive version of American liberty. It’s while watching this final sequence that it hits you Heslov’s point is really just Hunter S Thompson’s 1971 musing on “what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon”. Amen to that.


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