Talking Movies

February 11, 2016

ADIFF: Behind the Scenes

Audi Dublin International Film Festival’s “Behind The Scenes” strand will consist of Industry Panels, Seminars and Master Classes. Thi­­s strand enjoys a broad focus, whether you are a filmmaker, film student or film enthusiast, touching on subjects from film programming, screenwriting and cinematography to history on film, emerging technologies, classification and music composition. Notable guests are Oscar-nominated screenwriter and celebrated playwright David Hare, Oscar-winning composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek and double Oscar-winning cinematographer Chris Menges.

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History on Film is a key theme throughout the programme and will be the subject of a panel discussion hosted by Pearse St. Library. Seen, but Unnoticed is a reunion event for those who took part in the production of Michael Collins, reuniting 20 years on to share memories and anecdotes from their time on set. 1916 At The Pictures will see City Hall turned into a cinema for a triple bill of Charlie Chaplin films that were screening in one of the many cinemas on O’Connell St at the outbreak of the Rising.

This year ADIFF is presenting not one, but two exhibitions of photography. Patrick Redmond, 25 Years will celebrate the work of the Festival Photographer and his extensive catalogue of wonderful guest portraits dating back to the early 1990s. The second photography exhibition #Setlife aims to highlight and celebrate skilled and hardworking crews working on location and on set for very long hours through key moments snapped to allow audiences a view of life in production.

 

MASTER CLASSES in association with Screen Training Ireland

David Hare: “Telling Details” – A Writer’s Master Class

Saturday 20th February at 11:00am

The Teachers’ Club, Parnell Square West, Dublin 1

Tickets: €25 apply via Industry@diff.ie

Host: Malcolm Campbell

A unique opportunity to hear directly from one of Britain’s most prolific writers for both stage and screen. This is a fantastic opportunity for writers both of original screenplays and anyone seeking to adapt works for the screen. As part of this Master Class the components of plot, character and structure will be dissected and explored. This Master Class will focus on approaches to screenwriting and delve deeply into the various elements that are integral to the delivery of a quality screenplay.

 

Chris Menges: “Scenes Being Believed” – A Cinematographer’s Master Class

Sunday 21st February at 12:00pm

The Lir Academy, Pearse St, Dublin 2

Tickets: €25 apply via Industry@diff.ie

Host: Irish Society of Cinematographers

This Master Class will draw on Chris Menge’s vast experience working across different genres, formats, locations and environments (including The Mission and The Killing Fields). The aim is to bring this knowledge to bear in a context that will teach the participants about collaborative dynamics between a director and their cinematographer. It will also aspire to touch on a cinematographer’s tools of the trade, traditional methodologies and how story and character should influence the look of the piece as opposed to format or the latest technological toys.

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SCREENTEST in association with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI)

Rebellion: From Script to Screen

Monday 22nd February at 13:30

The Teachers’ Club, 36 Parnell Street West, Dublin 1

Tickets: €7 / Book Online at diff.ie

The divisive television production Rebellion marked the beginning of RTE’s 1916 centenary programming. Boasting a starry cast led by Charlie Murphy and Sarah Greene it focused on various female protagonists from different backgrounds, loyalties and ideals, in the days surrounding the Rising, occasionally weaving in the actual heroes of 1916 amidst locations such as Dublin Castle, the G.P.O. and Collins Barracks. Writer Colin Teevan, Producer Catherine Magee, Costume Designer Alison Byrne, as well as some of the key crew, look back on the shoot and discuss the various production stages beginning with script, casting and scheduling right through to principal photography and post-delivery, including location shooting during the summer in Dublin’s city centre.

 

BYOD: BRING YOUR OWN DEVICE

Wednesday 24th February at 13:30

The Teachers’ Club, 36 Parnell Street West, Dublin 1

Tickets: €7 / Book Online at diff.ie

It has been said that constant mobile device usage is isolating and restricts human contact. But, like it or not, mobile devices are now an integral part of daily life. While some people simply long for a time when phones simply made and received calls, the reality is fast moving toward the virtual, or even the augmented. Google Cardboard, vlogging, 360° video, mojo journalism, even the film industry itself with films like Tangerine, are all now extending the use of mobile devices and pushing boundaries daily. Hell, you can even buy a camera drone for £50 and give your short film aerial photography now. A panel of experts will discuss how new cutting edge apps will rapidly become the thing you cannot live without.

 

Explicit Content

Friday 26th February at 13:30

The Teachers’ Club, 36 Parnell Street West, Dublin 1

Tickets: €7 / Book Online at diff.ie

With the landscape of broadcast and cinema constantly changing, approaches to classification and content regulation require constant appraisal. This panel discussion aims to take an in-depth look at the various factors that must be applied to both film classification and content regulation for broadcast. Issues like classifications on youth targeted films, depictions of violence on television, or codes of fairness will be explored in a unique opportunity to see how and why decisions are reached. Experts from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, the Irish Film Classification Office and the media will discuss the various aspects of managing complaints, adhering to regulations for youth audiences and freedom of expression. Just don’t expect a serious discussion of why Rebellion opted for a hard R-rating thus invalidating its use as an educational tool unlike either HBO’s John Adams or BBC’s 37 Days.

 

SPECIAL EVENTS

Cinema Snapshots / With Sunday Miscellany & Dublin City Libraries

Sunday 7th February at 09:10, radio broadcast and online podcast on RTE.ie

Going to the cinema is a unique and sometimes magical experience. It can transport you out of your seat; at Q&As your mind can be opened up to the worlds of the director, the actor, the screenwriter. Writers and poets involved with Dublin City Libraries writing groups shared their experiences of cinema in Dublin. Sunday Miscellany on Sunday the 7th February at 9.10am is a special edition that will hear the winning submission from those Library groups and also feature well-known Irish filmmakers, lecturers, presenters and writers (including John Connolly, Ciaran Carton and Ruth Barton) providing their own perspectives on what the cinema and film in Dublin means to them.

 

#SetLife / Photography Exhibition

Thursday 18th – Sunday 28th February

Lighthouse Cinema

#SetLife is an exhibition of photography from behind the scenes of various Irish film and television productions. Presented in association with Lovemovies.ie on behalf of the Industry Trust for IP Awareness, this exhibition will run in the Lighthouse and will display a selection of photographs taken on Irish sets by various cast and crew members of day-to-day life on set. #SetLife aims to capture the scale of work that goes into bringing something from script to screen, and the army of people across various departments who work tirelessly to make it all happen.

 

Dublin Here, Dublin There

Saturday 20th February in Dublin Public Library, Dublin Texas

Friday 26th February in Dublin Arts Centre, Dublin Ohio & Pulaski County Library System, Dublin Virginia

ADIFF has a strong history of successful outreach programmes and has a fantastic reputation of working with festivals around the world. In 2016 ADIFF has allied with the communities of Dublin in Ohio, Texas and Virginia – who have each offered their knowledge, resources and venues to help share a programme of the best Irish shorts with audiences in the US. The project aims to strengthen Dublin’s connection with these communities to bring awareness, as well as Ireland’s love of cinema, to the greater worldwide diaspora.

 

Programming for Programmers

Friday 19th February at 14:00

The Teachers’ Club, 36 Parnell Street West, Dublin 1

Tickets: €7 / Book online at diff.ie

Chaired by Hugh Murray (Pavilion Theatre).

Mark Adams (Artistic Director, Edinburgh Film Festival), Nashen Moodley (Festival Director, Sydney Film Festival), Gregg M. Schwenk (CEO and Executive Director Newport Beach Film Festival) and Ania Trzebiatowska (Artistic Director PKO Off Camera & Manager of Acquisitions for Visit Films) will provide insight into the world of programming as an international Artistic Directors. From the moving puzzle of international distribution to inviting guests and the challenges of the red carpet, these experts will discuss the subtlety of programming. This event is a networking opportunity for new and advanced programmers to meet each other and to gain perspective from top festival professionals.

 

Pat Redmond, 25 Years / A Celebration

Tuesday 16th February – Wednesday 16th March

The Georgian Society, 58 South William Street, Dublin 2 and The Powerscourt Centre, 59 South William Street, Dublin 2

In a world increasingly dominated by the snap, selfie and speed shot, this exhibition will celebrate the work of a true master of the art of film portrait photography, who has provided Dublin’s film festival, in its numerous guises over the past quarter century, with an indelible photographic record of the eclectic array of filmmakers who have graced the festival.

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HISTORY ON FILM

 

Seen But Unnoticed / A Reunion of the Background Artists and Extras of Michael Collins

Saturday 20th February at 12:00

The Teachers’ Club, 36 Parnell Street West, Dublin 1

Tickets: Free event / Please email industry@diff.ie to register your interest

They came by the busload, graciously offering time for free (in a move that saw Hugh Leonard award Neil Jordan his ‘Cute Hoor of the Year’ Award) and supplementing the period costumes with clothes they brought themselves in order to participate in one of the most ambitious undertakings of Irish Cinema history, Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of this remarkable production ADIFF invites those who took part in the production to join a special reunion and retrospective of the amazing shoot.

 

History on Film / Film on History

Tuesday 23rd February at 17:00

Pearse Street Library, 144 Pearse Street, Dublin 2

Tickets: Free event, book online at diff.ie

In this year of anniversary and commemoration a panel of filmmakers, academics and journalists will discuss the relationship between cinema and history. A full list of films included in the ‘History on Film’ strand will be accompanied by talks and discussions. The nettle that might not be grasped is the baneful effect of films like Zero Dark Thirty on popular understanding of historical events even as they attempt to win Oscars by virtue of their historical cachet.

 

1916 At The Pictures

Wednesday 24th February at 14:00 (81 minutes)

City Hall, Dame Street, Dublin 2

Tickets: Email info@diff.ie for ticketing information

ADIFF will recreate the cinema of 1916 as it was, by representing the films which would have been shown in the cinemas of Dublin on that fateful Easter week. Archive research has uncovered cinema listings from April 1916, including screenings at old venues on O’Connell Street such as the Picture Pillar House. From within the list of archive titles a restoration of some classic Charlie Chaplin films from his early career shows the beginnings of some of his most beloved and remembered characters including the Tramp.

The Bank: Charlie the janitor loves Edna, the pretty bank secretary, but her sweetheart is another Charles, the cashier.

The Champion: This comedy has Charlie finding employment as a sparring partner who fights in the prize ring and wins the championship match, with the help of his pet bulldog.

The Tramp: Charlie saves a farmer’s daughter from some thieving toughs and subsequently stops their attempt to rob the farm.

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PUBLIC INTERVIEWS

 

Interview with David Hare and ‘The Hours’ screening

Saturday 20th February

15:00 Interview (60 minutes)

16:30 The Hours (114 minutes)

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Tickets: €9 each or €15 for both events. Tickets also available from IFI Box Office, www.ifi.ie

Host: Sean Rocks

David Hare is well known for his work in theatre, having written more than thirty plays including PlentyPravdaSkylight, The Judas Kiss, snd a version of Ibsen’s The Master Builder currently running in the Old Vic. He has also been widely honoured for his long list of credits for the screen. He has written more than twenty screenplays for film and television including PlentyParis by NightWeatherby and Damage. As a screenwriter he has twice been nominated for Oscars for his adapted screenplays on The Hours and The Reader, each of which also earned him nominations for a Golden Globe.  His haunting drama Weatherby won him a Golden Berlin Bear in 1985 and he has directed many actors to win awards for their work across his formidable back catalogue. ADIFF will present a screening of his adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours, where he will participate in a pre-screening interview with Sean Rocks of RTE Radio 1’s Arena.

 

Jan A.P. Kaczmarek / Composing For Film Seminar

Saturday 27th February

Royal Irish Academy of Music

Tickets: €15 Book Online at diff.ie

Host: Bill Whelan

Jan A. P. Kaczmarek is a composer with a tremendous international reputation that continues to grow. His first success in the United States came in theatre. After composing striking scores for productions at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum, he won an Obie and a Drama Desk Award for his music for the New York Shakespeare Festival’s 1992 production of John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore, starring Val Kilmer and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Having composed music for films in Poland, he achieved recognition with scores to Total EclipseBlissWashington SquareAimée & JaguarThe Third MiracleLost SoulsEdges of the LordQuo Vadis and Unfaithful. In 2005 he won a Best Original Score Oscar for Finding Neverland.

 

 

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January 14, 2016

The Revenant

Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu goes into the wild with Leonardo DiCaprio for a survival story in the Old West.

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DiCaprio is Glass, a scout for an expedition led by Domhnall Gleeson’s Captain Henry, hunting for animal pelts along the Missouri River. But this puts them into dangerous proximity to ‘the Ree’ aka the Iroquois Nation. After a surprise attack by the Iroquois, who transpire to be on a Searchers mission for their chief’s kidnapped daughter, the pelt party has to literally abandon ship and head into the snowy mountains. Unfortunately that’s when Glass has an intimate encounter with an irate bear. And when the antagonistic Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is left in charge of his care, while the rest of the party trek on, you get the feeling this won’t end well. Sure enough Fitzgerald ditches a not quite dead Glass in a shallow grave. Glass though claws his way out, and clings to life for the sake of revenge…

Not that this is a revenge movie. There’s about 20 minutes of revenge at the end. Prior to that you are watching a survival movie which quite often feels like a feature ‘Old West’ special of Bear Grylls: Born Survivor aka Man Vs Wild. Glass utilises a number of Bear’s tricks: he rearranges stones in a river to catch fish, scoops the guts out of a horse to hide inside its carcass to avoid a storm, uses a flint to light a fire, and even manages to break his fall off a cliff by using a tree. The one unconscionable thing he does is eat snow, which Bear has repeatedly warned against; but as Glass had lost his canteen at that point he probably gets a Mulligan. DiCaprio gives a committed performance, proudly displaying a kinship with Pierce Brosnan when it comes to the grunting and moaning in pain school of physical acting, while Hardy is a good antagonist; his naked self-interest quite probably as correct as Peter Weller’s misgivings in Star Trek Into Darkness.

Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski shot only in natural light in what seems little more than creating unnecessary difficulties in order to prove their worth as artistes. It doesn’t add much to the cinematic experience, these landscapes speak for themselves; indeed it grates when you’re asked to marvel at CGI animals when you’ve seen the real bison and wolves in The Hunt on the BBC. The Iroquois attack is spectacular because of the shooting style, but thereafter the in-DiCapario’s-face affectation becomes annoying. You wish the camera would back up about four feet and jack up another five so you could have some sense of location and action. There is a scene where gravely injured Glass gets down from a cliff in one startling jump-cut, the total lack of establishing shots makes you wonder if he just rolled over the edge…

The Revenant is 2 hours 36 minutes but it flies by. An engaging how-to manual for surviving the Old West ought not be confused with high cinematic art though just because its makers made its shoot a living hell.

3/5

June 26, 2014

A Million Ways to Screw up a Western

I come not to praise Seth MacFarlane, nor to bury him, but to consider his failure with a comedy-western alongside Damon Lindelof’s Cowboys & Aliens.

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I found A Million Ways to Die in the West to be oddly reminiscent of early Woody Allen films like Bananas; intermittently hilarious, but not really a film. But if Woody pre-Annie Hall was simply stitching together sketches without anything but the most broadly-drawn larger narrative purpose, then it seemed like the reverse was happening to MacFarlane – making ‘a Western, goddamnit!’ sucked the humour out of his comedy-western script. And so to a knotty point – there was a grindingly efficient story structure at work, but the central comic conceit of MacFarlane’s movie was unclear. Critic Joe Griffin pitches the film as – “it’s a normal guy with 21st century sensibilities who lives in the violent frontier of the Old West and is dragged into a typical Western story.” This nails MacFarlane’s interactions with Amanda Seyfried, which come close to replicating the clinical psychoanalysis terms Woody uses with Louise Lasser in Bananas with an almost identical purpose – the comedy of language entirely inappropriate to the situation. But the first genuinely funny moment is MacFarlane’s later riff on the dead mayor, which literally comes out of nowhere. Along with the inevitably blood-soaked county fair, it suggests that the titular conceit of horrible deaths would’ve been a far better source of thematic comedy. Instead MacFarlane decides to mine comedy by working the most exhausted seams of the rom-com with Charlize Theron; even down to the obligatory big lie – she chose not to tell him she’s married to terrifying Liam Neeson. Only very occasionally (to wake the audience) does he sprinkles absurdist comic moments; and meanwhile he’s also trying to touch every Western generic base.

Griffin writes “This, I think, is what happens when someone has had too much control on a project so early in his film career.” MacFarlane is the star, director, co-writer, and producer of A Million Ways; and his co-writers are his Ted and Family Guy cohorts Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild. That’s a lot of control. To put it in context, it’s more than M Night Shyamalan ever managed to acquire at the height of his hubris. It’s undeniable that without the success of Ted it’s unthinkable that MacFarlane would have been allowed to cast himself as the physical lead, and it’s probably equally unlikely that Wellesley and Sulkin would alienate their TV day-job boss by proposing a page-one rewrite of his pet film project. I have to agree with Griffin because getting too much control because of success is part and parcel of the disastrous creative bubble I described in 2011 which I predicted would scupper The Dark Knight Rises; Wellesley and Sulkin wouldn’t be silent because they wouldn’t want to rain on MacFarlane’s scripting parade, they’d be silent because they’d be doing the Macarena in the middle of the parade. Because they’d written Ted they’d assume whatever any of them suggested would be equally awesome, and so nobody cries halt until the train has gone far over the horizon. But I want to dissent against myself and speculate that what happened in the Million Ways writers’ room (story structure and Western tropes pushing out badly needed jokes) was the same as the fiasco that occurred not so long ago in another writers’ room not so very far away…

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Remember 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens? No, well, don’t feel bad. Here’s what its co-writer Damon (LOST) Lindelof had to say about it in an extremely interesting 2013 interview: “I think the instinct there was that all parties agreed that of the two roads to go down—a sci-fi film set in the Old West or a Western that had aliens as bad guys, two distinct genres—the latter felt like the cooler movie. Once we embraced the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies—the tone naturally got more serious along the way. Maybe too serious for a movie called Cowboys & Aliens.” Cowboys & Aliens was supposedly based on a comic-book by Scott Mitchel Rosenberg, which, from the small sample available on Amazon, appears to proudly wear ‘guilt over the treatment of Native Americans in times gone by’ on its sleeve. That suggests that Ace Ventura creator Steve Oedekerk was right to create a fun screen story distinct from the comic-book. And then rewrites began… Of the credited writers a draft was done by Mark Fergus & Howard Ostby (Iron ManChildren of Men), whose credits suggest that a more serious tone had begun to emerge. Which is presumably why Lindelof and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, M:I-3, Star Trek) were brought in to do the final draft of the script. Add some humour? Some nonsense? Yeah, well, obviously that didn’t work. But look at what Lindelof characterised as a genre trapping of the Western: Native American allies. What?! That would certainly be news to the Duke…

In 1991 historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr took aim at America’s universities in his polemic The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger was extremely alarmed at the mass of evidence that political correctness had triumphed over sanity: “When a student sent a memorandum to the ‘diversity education committee’ at the University of Pennsylvania mentioning her ‘deep regard for the individual,’ a college administrator returned the paper with the word individual underlined: ‘This is a red flag phrase today, which is considered by many to be racist. Arguments that champion the individual over the group ultimately privileges (sic) the ‘individuals’ belonging to the largest or dominant group.’” (117) In his 1982 novel Before She Met Me Julian Barnes had a history professor baffled by the genuine horror and anger of a student whenever the wrong side triumphed in any given stand-off. Schlesinger Jr was damning of attacks on ‘Eurocentric’ American history, and it was essentially an appeasement of Barnes’ fictional student; by rewriting history. In one district where Native Americans had political clout it was taught that their tribal politics had influenced Thomas Jefferson every bit as much as European Enlightenment. It had not, as Schlesinger Jr flatly stated. And yet… In Sleepy Hollow, co-created by Cowboys & Aliens scribes Kurtzman and Orci, we find Ichabod Crane noting how in his 1770s existence Native American tribal politics had been a pivotal influence on Thomas Jefferson. A throwaway cute line; to anyone who hasn’t read Schlesinger Jr’s book. If you have, you’re stunned that this is not meant as a joke or provocatively revisionist statement; it is simply stated as true when it is not.

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MacFarlane, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof were all born in 1973. This puts them in college at Brown, Wesleyan, UT Austin, and NYU Film School, respectively, during the height of the ‘Death to DWEMs’ tide that Schlesinger Jr was trying to turn back. I honestly think every time somebody sits down to write anything Western-related in Hollywood these days they get some epic pol.sci/film studies college flashback. As a result, in between apologising to Native Americans, rewriting the role of women in the West, inserting grim truths about the lawlessness and brutality of life then, demythologising Wayne and Ford’s back catalogue, and faithfully inserting and then attempting to subvert in the accepted revisionist mode every Western trope they were ever taught, they lose any sense of fun. Lindelof posited “a Western that had aliens as bad guys” as “the cooler movie”, and yet Cowboys & Aliens is entirely lacking any sense of being a cool adventure. It is, indeed, simply unthinkable that anybody could produce a Western right now that is exuberant fun; nobody would give you the finale of Rio Bravo. I think that may be a combination of film school prioritising, nay, canonising, serious Westerns like The Searchers and Red River over entertainments like El Dorado and Gunfight at the OK CorralRio Bravo isn’t a silly movie, but it is unabashed adventure played with great humour. But Lindelof’s description of embracing “the Western and all its trappings—the hero requiring redemption, the jailbreak action sequence, the Native Americans as allies” suggests an inability to take the Western genre as it was, not as it ought to have been…

The complete failure of Cowboys & Aliens didn’t stop the even more epic failure of The Lone Ranger following it down the trail two years later. The savage darkness of The Lone Ranger was completely unsuitable for a Disney blockbuster supposedly aimed at kids, but it fitted perfectly the template of the Western produced by people Schlesinger couldn’t save. It’s admirable to insert a Sergio Leone tone into a Western romp for children, only if you also take that bloody-minded approach to your contemporary blockbusters and give us Transformers directed by Ken Loach as the working poor fighting against transforming robots who’re the highest form of capitalism. Really I think the idea of the Western as conceived by the children of 1973 is fundamentally incompatible with exuberance. In the 1970s radical directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Walter Hill and Michael Cimino couldn’t wait to make a Western. But the revisionist Western wasn’t what audiences wanted. Nicholas Jarecki on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast recently made some interesting points about ‘genre exhaustion’, when an audience has seen every possible permutation arising out of a generic set-up. I don’t believe that’s what happened to the Western in the 1970s. I follow Stephen King in believing that George Lucas took the ‘pioneer spirit’ of the Western and simply, in a belated emulation of JFK’s call for a New Frontier, relocated it in space. And, as Spielberg’s Western framing at the end of The Last Crusade transparently indicates, crying for the death of the Western is like bemoaning the death of the dinosaurs while looking at flying birds: dinosaurs aren’t dead, they evolved.

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If the blockbuster is the repository of the spirit of exuberant fun that lights up Rio Bravo, what does that make the contemporary Western? Well, it’s tempting to twist Lindelof’s words and say merely the outward trappings of the genre, stripped of its soul. Since Heaven’s Gate we’ve had serious Westerns like Dances with WolvesOpen RangeWyatt EarpUnforgivenTombstoneThe Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford3:10 to Yuma, and Seraphim Falls. We’ve had comedy mash-up disasters like Wild Wild WestCowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. And we’ve had nothing like a Rio Bravo… It’s admirable to try and cinematically reinstate the reality of the shameful treatment of the Native Americans in the Old West. But this admirable endeavour may run up against a problem if it’s part of a wider refusal to accept the Western genre for what it was and to believe that it can simply be rewritten to make it what it ought to have been. Such a massive undertaking may be more than the genre can accommodate, in one important respect – it can make for a good film, a good Western, but not a fun film. A Million Ways is not a fun film, even though it’s meant to be a comedy. And I think it’s because MacFarlane tried to hit every base; Native Americans as allies, the brutality and lawlessness of the West, rewriting the role of women (with particular emphasis on the brothels), the exploitation of Chinese labour; because he is one of that generation that can’t see a Western without giving a lecture on its propagandising.

MacFarlane certainly won’t be getting A Million Ways 2 off the ground, and his fiasco has probably scuppered any competent Destry Rides Again for the 2010s that was out there. But, considering Lindelof’s tropes, surely Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino comes closer to the cool movie that Lindelof wanted than Cowboys & Aliens. It shouldn’t be impossible to combine the 1973 generation’s ideal Western with exuberant fun – maybe it just needs Clint back in the saddle…

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 6, 2010

Dramatis Personae: Annie & Zooey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul recommends She & Him. Seconded.

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