Talking Movies

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: The Cottage

A dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals a gruesome little attempt at a black comedy with Andy Serkis still struggling to get good roles in his own physical right.

Andy Serkis’ starring role in The Cottage confirms his status as one of the most under-appreciated actors of our time. He’s been disguised by motion capture in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong and, apart from a hypnotic cameo as Moors Murderer Ian Brady in Channel 4’s award-winning Longford, his appearances in his own physical right have been restricted to truly terrible British films like Deathwatch. Well guess what? Playing a similar role to his gruff psycho in Deathwatch Serkis’ talent is once again wasted on a diabolical British script. This horror-comedy is literally a film of two halves. It starts off wanting to be a Joe Orton play, realises it has no jokes and then becomes an incredibly gruesome shlock-horror with no soul.

Writer/director Paul Andrew Williams made a big splash critically with his acclaimed thriller London to Brighton. His follow-up should, if patriotic reviewing for once takes a second place to honesty among the hacks of Fleet Street, be a career ender. I really did try to give this film every possible chance. It begins very much as a poor man’s Joe Orton scenario with two exhausted men, one a criminal (Serkis) and the other his mild-mannered brother (Reece Shearsmith), arriving with their hostage (Jennifer Ellison) at a decrepit cottage in rural England. Shearsmith’s hen-pecked character has agreed to help in this insane scheme of kidnapping the daughter of not just any crime boss but the crime boss Serkis character works for (!) in order to get his sibling to sign over half of their mother’s house to him. Lad’s mag favourite Jennifer Ellison has been cast apparently purely for the dimensions of her chest which is lovingly lingered over by the camera on more than one occasion. Her character is meant to be the foul-mouthed wise-cracking British equivalent of a Ripley or Buffy. The difference between that obvious intention and the awful reality of her performance is the scariest thing in the film.

Joe Orton’s pitch-black comedies like Loot usually included some jokes. There are no jokes in this film. It feels like having failed on that front Williams just threw his hands up in despair half way through and changed to a gross out horror film. Watching Reece Shearsmith have half his foot cut off by an expertly wielded shovel and then hobble through the rest of the film with an exceedingly bloody stump is just one of the most repulsive sights that cinema will offend with this year. There is nothing in this ‘horribly scarred farmer goes mad and becomes a cannibal preying on strangers in rural England’ set up that hasn’t been done and parodied a million times before. This is lazy, unfunny, sexist, grotesque rubbish and to be avoided if for no other reason than to save Williams from himself…

1/5

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August 24, 2017

The Pillowman

Decadent Theatre Company again took over the Gaiety stage with Martin McDonagh’s trademark blend of macabre madness, but set in Mitteleurope rather than the Wesht.

 

Katurian (Diarmuid Noyes) is in deep trouble. Somebody in this unnamed (and semi-mythical) totalitarian state has been acting out particularly horrible short stories by a writer, and he’s the writer so he’s the prime suspect. Abrasive policeman Tupolski (Peter Gowen) and his thuggish underling Ariel (Gary Lydon) have Katurian prisoner in their Spartan barracks. And by Lenin if they have to beat the eyes out of his head and unsettle him with asinine nonsense they are going to make him confess. Unless of course he didn’t do it, but if not him then who; could his brain-damaged brother Michael (Owen Sharpe) really have done such horrible things? Would Tupolski really torture innocent Michael just to make Katurian confess? Why does Katurian write such horrible stories in the first place? And what does horrible parenting have to do with it all?

Owen MacCarthaigh’s deceptively simple set; almost a bare stage with desk, seats, cabinet, and furnace in a circle; spectacularly splits to reveal a house or woodland behind, dependent on which of Katurian’s tales is being silently played out (very broadly) by Jarlath Tivnan, Kate Murray, Peter Shine, Tara Finn, and Rose Makela. Ciaran Bagnall’s lights and Carl Kennedy’s sounds combine to create tableau during the most disturbing of these glimpses into Katurian’s dark imagination, the origin of his creativity. I saw The Pillowman in UCD Dramsoc in 2006 as a spare four-hander, so director Andrew Flynn’s visual extravagance here took me aback. It amuses and horrifies effectively, but also leaves the audience with less work to do. Sharpe’s sometimes camp mannerisms were also in stark contrast to Michael’s defeated stillness back in 2006, akin to Marty Rea’s recent Aston.

Pinter is a strong presence in this play. The first act is comedy of menace as Katurian is bewildered and intimidated by Tupolski’s odd interrogation. The second act is arguably McDonagh’s most soulful material ever, as the two brothers share a cell. The dark and comic invention of Katurian’s reimagining of fairy tales throughout remains astonishing, a highlight being the Pied Piper of Hamlein. And then there’s the third act where McDonagh seems to mash together Pinter and Orton; “I’m sick of everyone blaming their behaviour on someone else. My father was a violent alcoholic. Am I a violent alcoholic? Yes. … But that was entirely my choice”; but then deliver a tour-de-force entirely his own, Tupolski’s short story – which I still remembered chunks of 11 years later. It is outrageously offensive, and sadly it was clear the audience in the Gaiety was self-censoring itself, whereas in Dramsoc we had recognised it was of a part with Tupolski’s character and, having made that recognition, thereafter stopped tut-tutting and let out ears back to fully enjoy the verbal marvel McDonagh was constructing. Cruelty and callousness are part of comedy, perhaps inextricably so; it’s hard to imagine Swift or Waugh without them.

I still prefer some of the notes struck by Andrew Nolan’s Tupolski in 2006, but Noyes’ sincerity, Gowen’s swagger, and Lydon’s hidden decency make for an impressive central trio.

4.5/5

December 4, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

Martin McDonagh suffers from difficult second film syndrome as his unfocused follow-up to In Bruges falls between the stools of straightforward black comedy and meta-meditation.

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Marty (Colin Farrell) is a drunken Irish screenwriter living in Los Angeles and wrestling with his high-concept film about the nature of love and evil, Seven Psychopaths. His long-suffering girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) is reaching the end of her tether putting up with Marty, not helped by constant visits from his deranged friend Billy (Sam Rockwell); an actor with a penchant for blowing auditions by punching people and ‘helping’ Marty with research on psychopaths. Billy also has a sideline of kidnapping purebred dogs and letting his dog-loving friend Hans Kieslowksi (Christopher Walken) look after them and then return them and collect the reward which they split. But when Billy makes the mistake of kidnapping a dog belonging to mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson) all hell breaks loose. Charlie quickly identifies the dognappers, and so Marty, Billy, and Hans run for the hills.

It’s tempting to say that the best scene in this movie is the opening scene, because it’s such pure undiluted McDonagh. Michael Pitt and fellow Boardwalk Empire star Michael Stuhlbarg are jumpy hit-men waiting for their target who get into a furious and dementedly logical argument about the marksmanship that killed Dillinger. Tempting, but there are scenes of that calibre scattered throughout the movie. A Gandhi aphorism is dismantled for being illogical, Billy imitates Marty’s Irish accent with truly atrocious results, Marty freaks out when his drinking is condemned as problematic by a character high on peyote, and there is a sublime moment of paralysis involving the great Zeljko Ivanek (rocking a truly terrible moustache as Charlie’s mob lieutenant) when someone refuses to put up their hands because they don’t want to; leaving Ivanek holding a gun and feeling foolish.

But this is a scattershot movie. Marty’s screenplay keeps the film shooting off on tangents, about Quaker stalkers and homicidal Buddhists, which add little. Tom Waits, as a Dexter of the 1960s adds an amazingly gruesome thread of sadistic violence, even by Dexter standards. Abbie Cornish is pointlessly underused, as are Olga Kurylenko and Gabourey Sidibe; something referenced in criticism of Marty’s inability to write decent female characters. But surely writing a complex heroine, which McDonagh has done in his plays, would be a better tactic? McDonagh as playwright can generate unease like Pinter, comedy like Orton, and heightened language like Synge. But, bar a fraught scene with Charlie in a hospital waiting for Hans, this script fails to generate suspense. The desert finale is visually interesting, but the self-referential scripting can’t escape structural convention.

McDonagh has some interesting ideas, and even self-critique, in this script; but as a movie it wants to have its cake and eat it too, and so it never hits the heights it could.

3/5

October 11, 2011

A Film with me in it

A Film with me in it has finally been released on DVD, three years after its limited cinema release, so allow me to both praise it to the skies and urge you to buy it.

A Film with me in it is quite simply one of the best Irish films ever made. It’s a jet-black comedy which sees two fine stand-up comedians blunder their way thru a scenario of escalating disastrousness that could have been written by Joe Orton and which makes you laugh at really horrible things. Set in a crumbling Georgian building which has been appallingly converted into the very worst flat in Dublin it follows the misadventures of the morose Mark Doherty (estranged from his live-in girlfriend Amy Huberman and caring for his recently disabled brother David O’Doherty) and his friend Dylan Moran (a scriptwriter who hasn’t written anything but IOUs for quite some time) as they battle their shiftless landlord Keith Allen and try to cope with a series of disastrous but inescapably funny lethal accidents.

Dylan Moran’s sardonic comedy persona finds a perfect leading film role outlet in the part of heroically self-deluding alcoholic writer/director/waiter Pierce. His ramble around the word ‘alcoholic’ at an AA meeting, “My name is Pierce and I am a …. writer/director, and waiter”, is only one of many priceless moments. Moran also gives a fantastic reaction to a bloody accident, “Did, did, did you do a murder?”, devises a series of increasingly ludicrous attempts to avoid a charge of murder, “I have another plan, it involves beards and Morocco”, and powers an amazing cameo where an unexpected actor appears and has his preciousness completely exploded by dint of merciless mockery from Moran. Co-writer Mark Doherty’s blank deadpan opposite all of this mugging from Moran is Leslie Nielsen-esque in its ability to keep the nonsense grounded.

Compiling my top films of the year in 2008 for my own private film awards, as I’ve done annually since 2003, I placed A Film with me in it just outside the Top 10. But coming 11th only confirmed what an extraordinary year it had been for Irish cinema. Declan Kiberd’s Irish Classics noted that Daniel Corkery had propounded a ridiculously purist doctrine. ‘The English language, great as it is, can no more throw up an Irish Literature than it can an Indian literature’, opined Corkery who went further and put forward an influential and rigid formula Kiberd summarises thus, to qualify as Irish, “literature must treat of three themes: religion, nation, and land. Joyce had fled those nets as tyrannies, yet by treating them in his books, he did at least concede their importance”.

2008 saw Irish cinema break free of that transmogrified Corkery/Joyce need to make every film a pompous state of the nation sermon on Dev’s Ireland, the IRA or the land hunger, and/or a box-ticking journey through a number of expected clichés in order to appeal to Irish-American audience expectations, and instead just make films. The result saw entertaining, magical, demented, and insightful films (In Bruges, A Film with me in it, Hunger, Kisses) take 2 of the top 3 places and 4 of the top 12 in my awards. Now you can judge for yourself.

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