Talking Movies

June 29, 2019

On Rewatching Movies

The Atlantic recently showcased some findings from behavioural economists suggesting that we overvalue novelty and undervalue repetition, and it made me think about how I’ve been watching movies of late.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Do I anticipate Trump? Very well then I anticipate Trump.

I have been finding it hard, looking back to 2010 in the last few weeks, to get a handle on the contours of this decade, cinematically speaking. And I think some of that difficulty is owing to my not having rewatched as many movies as I would have done during the previous decade. This was a deliberate decision to use my time to add as many new titles to my ken as possible rather than simply rewatching what I had already seen. And that decision has been quite rewarding: I have seen more Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, and Mia Hansen-Love films than I would’ve had I not sought them out. But it seems there is an opportunity cost: if you focus on expanding your knowledge, it comes at the cost of deepening existing knowledge.

There is a lot to be said for repetition to really soak in a film. After all a vital check on whether a film really stands up is whether it can be rewatched with profit. I saw Birdman and High-Rise twice within days and loved them both times. In the case of High-Rise I had a totally different viewing experience each time: a crowded screening in IFI 2, where Stephen Errity and I managed to miss the opening scene, brought out the comedy of the film, whereas a deserted screening in IFI 1 with Paul Fennessy brought out the visual grandeur of the film. John Healy opines that repetition, like constantly catching snippets or indeed all of Jaws on heavy rotation on a movie channel, allows you enjoy lots of little details you’d otherwise miss without seeing it so often.

Little details can create what I’ve previously dubbed ‘mental architecture’. Watching The Matrix again and again and again you find yourself responding to someone asking your name with ‘Yeah, that’s me’ and only later realise you were quoting Keanu Reeves. Clambering off the floor with a somewhat awkward grace you realise later you were approximating how Keanu Reeves got up off his knees at the end of Constantine. In neither instance were these conscious emulations, simply physical or verbal replications of an oft-seen physical action or verbal response. The joy of repetition is that which comes from knowing a movie inside out: like watching a James Bond movie with my Dad, hooting at in-jokes about Ken Adam’s inability to stop blowing the budget on working monorails, or quoting along to The Matrix Reloaded line after line en masse with friends.

Whooping up Back to the Future Day on ITV 2 with my Dad back in 2015 wouldn’t have been half as awesome if we hadn’t watched each film repeatedly together over three decades. When Dad couldn’t countenance a full film I would summon from the DVR just the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, Donald Sutherland’s JFK monologue, the Joker’s attack on the van in The Dark Knight:

At the far left of the shelf of DVDs was a single unlabelled videocassette. Schwartz slid it out with a finger and popped it into the ancient VCR.

“What’s this?” Henry asked.

“You’ll see.”

Schwartz watched this tape alone sometimes, late at night, the way he reread certain passages of Aurelius. It restored some nameless element of his personality that threatened to slip away if he didn’t stay vigilant. (The Art of Fielding)

Repetition can allow us grasp a film from different angles, enjoy the red herrings we missed before, create personal in-jokes, and provide us with an idiosyncratic frame of reference. But it can also utterly surprise. I was experiencing the rare joy of sharing a friend’s first encounter with a classic in 2017 when I nearly gasped at Citizen Kane on the big screen. Donald Trump’s threat to Hillary Clinton during their debates that he would, if elected, appoint a special prosecutor to look into her situation, now found an incredible anticipation in Charles Foster Kane’s threat during his speech that his “first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W Gettys”. There was now a new meaning in an old text.

In the case of Citizen Kane and American politics life was imitating art, as Oscar Wilde opined happened more often than vice versa, and a piece of art that had seemed to have a stable meaning had had that meaning upended. Repetition is not old hat in a world of novelty and completist instincts. It is both a time machine, that can enable us remember the way we enjoyed a movie the first time we saw it and remember ourselves and the milieu of that experience, and a transmogrifier that reworks old movies into something we never suspected our contemporary.

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April 14, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XI

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

The means defeat the ends: Part III

Bob Iger has declared a hiatus because of Star Wars fatigue. People he thinks can have too much of a good thing. Well, certainly people have can too much of a good thing. But that is not the problem with Star Wars. People are clamouring for more Fast & Furious movies and Mission: Impossible at a faster rate until Tom Cruise’s body gives out. But Disney has managed the incredible feat of draining the Star Wars cash cow dry in just 4 movies. The decision to make three Star Wars movies between 2015 and 2019 was always rather suspect, because it would inevitably lead to what indeed happened – not a singular creative force like George Lucas or Christopher Nolan or Christopher McQuarrie driving decisions, but instead development and execution by committee. And it is not for nothing that they say a camel is a horse designed by a committee. I bought some Star Wars socks just before Christmas in Marks & Spencer and they amusingly summed up what went so catastrophically wrong for Disney. The packaging was festooned with images of Rey, Finn, and Poe, who we are all meant to find enthralling beyond belief. And yet the socks themselves featured stitched in renditions of R2-D2, Darth Vader, Boba Fett, a stormtrooper, and the Star Wars logo. Because they knew that nobody would buy the socks if they featured Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo, and Rose. And so the socks themselves were entirely OT, and you could throw the packaging away with a maniacal laugh. Much like the end of the new Star Wars trailer.

Seraphim Falls Revisited

I recently watched Seraphim Falls for the first time since I saw it in the cinema in 2007 as it popped up on TV in an eerie coincidence. From a distance of twelve years I was surprised by how much I remembered of the physical details of the chase, even as I’d forgotten the particulars of the revenge, how the trippy ending took up less screentime than it did in my remembering, and also how it seems to inhabit a grittier version of the same fantasy Old West populated by Irishmen as Michael Fassbender’s Slow West. This is the film in which John Healy first pointed out to me what I later referred to in my review of The Revenant as “Pierce Brosnan’s grunting and moaning in pain school of physical acting”. It’s especially interesting watching Liam Neeson play a man out for revenge the year before Taken, when he was still riding high off playing two bearded mentors in 2005’s Batman Begins and Kingdom of Heaven.

January 27, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part X

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting. What a week it’s been in the continuing cultural meltdown two tribes go to war turn it off and on again freakout of Trump’s America…

Playing a Trump Cad

I have recently fallen into the seductive but dangerous trap of watching the movies I recommend as TV choice for the week on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle. And so yet more of my free time enjoyably disappeared re-watching Speed for the first time in a while. As I mightily enjoyed Dennis Hopper’s villainy; whooping it up as he snarled Joss Whedon’s quotable dialogue at Keanu Reeves; and sat thru numerous TV spots for Christian Bale in Vice, I had a light-bulb moment. The perfect actor to play Donald Trump is the late, great Dennis Hopper. His performance in Speed, notably the comic timing, the sneering and taunting, along with notes from his sinister turn as the unpredictable, childishly explosive, sexually aggressive Frank in Blue Velvet, would provide an admirable palette for portraying President Trump in the Oval Office. Were it not for the fact that we are talking about the late, great Dennis Hopper. I’ve previously sighed over Michael Shannon’s comments about his aggressive lack of interest in playing Trump, even as he is happy to portray Guillermo Del Toro’s latest one-dimensional villain. Trump’s speeches are rarely played uninterrupted on Sky News for as long as Obama’s were, but one of the rare occasions they gave him some airtime I was taken aback at what it reminded me of – for all the world he was performing the opening monologue on a late night talk-show. His satirical invective was aimed at very different targets, but the madly free-wheeling style following the ebbs and flows of audience feedback was like an improv comedian ditching his script to go after the trending topics on Twitter. The ad hominem attacks of Trump aren’t so dissimilar to Colbert mocking Trump’s Yeti pubes or Meyers mocking a Trump’s aide receding hair. That bullying joy in cruelty, aligned with the obvious insecurities that drive Trump, seems like fertile ground for any actor. But especially for an actor who used his magic box of memories for any number of undesirables; determined to find motivations that made monsters someone whose skin he could inhabit.

 

The means defeat the ends: Part II

Back in September I pointed out the commercial shortfall of the Hobbit trilogy owing to the artistic shortcomings justified in the name of making it … commercial. It turns out that I took my eye off the ball since then and have only just noticed another example. Back in 2011 the studio was volubly unhappy with David Fincher spending an unconscionable 90 million dollars on making The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They felt that for what it was, an R-rated thriller, it could have cost a lot less. An awful lot less, especially if directed by somebody else who wouldn’t shoot every scene about 60 damn times. So Fincher was thrown overboard, and with him Rooney Mara and Steve Zaillian (and possibly the non-committal Daniel Craig), and Fede Alvarez came onboard, but not, as initially assumed, Jane Levy. Instead Claire Foy took over as Lisbeth Salander, and, with the budget being watched like a hawk, the movie came in at only 43 million dollars. See, Fincher?! SEE??!! That’s what line-producing looks like. And then The Girl in the Spider’s Web only made 35.1 million dollars worldwide. As opposed to Fincher’s effort netting 232.6 million worldwide… Oops. So that’s a profit (sic) of 142.6 million dollars being replaced by a loss (sic) of 7.9 million dollars in the quest for greater profit. Once again the studio confused shaking the cash tree with cutting down the cash tree. As my sometime co-writer John Healy noted he wouldn’t have even have watched the first one if Fincher hadn’t been involved. The ends (making mucho money) justified the means (firing Fincher, Mara, Zaillian, and trimming runtime and budget). And, the ends, of making mucho money, were defeated by the means employed.

June 27, 2016

5 Dispatches from Independence Day: Resurgence

Independence Day has been all over our TV screens, and the sequel, while entertaining enough, is never going to trouble it in popular esteem or take pride of patriotic bombast place in Roland Emmerich’s oeuvre. Here are observations on it.

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1. Hansoloitis

“It doesn’t need matter that you come back, just how you come back” proclaimed Longmire’s gruff season 4 tag-line; and Independence Day: Resurgence bungles beloved characters as badly as The Force Awakens. It’s always great to see Judd Hirsch, but that doesn’t mean he can literally just drive around in a parallel universe to the forward drive of the plot without seeming superfluous. Vivica A Fox’s return is on every level as baffling as Bill Pullman being given a kind of rousing speech to kind of deliver to Jeff Goldblum with kind of the intention of being overheard by pilots, but only kind of, to the point where even the orchestra string section doesn’t know whether to swell or not. And then there’s the great dilemma: is it okay to kill fan favourites just to ‘raise the stakes’?

2. Turn on the bright lights

If The Bling Ring is the most over-lit film of our times, I have rarely wanted to scream ‘Turn on a bloody light!’ as much as for Independence Day: Resurgence. Markus Forderer aggressively discards the lighting schema established in 1996 by Karl Walter Lindelaub. This is possibly Emmerich’s murkiest film since Ueli Steiger hid Godzilla in night, rain, and shadow, and for no very clear reason. It hides scale in the African scenes, muddies action within the alien mothership, and gives the impression that commands are issuing from a bunker with a half-capacity generator.

3. Practical Magic

It is startling to see the practical VFX in the original Independence Day. Aliens that are CGI creations in Independence Day: Resurgence are costumes and puppets in the original. It’s odd to think that Independence Day by dint of being released in 1996 still had regard for tangible reality in blockbuster visuals; models of the White House et al blowing up mingled with real people and cars being yanked about on wires. And now, no, now we mostly get the same ‘awe-inspiring’ CGI as X-Men: Apocalypse. It is of course probably impossible to depict a city being ripped into the air by the gravity of a passing spaceship using models. But even trying and failing to get it all would sure have more impact than watching actors do their ‘amazed at the storyboard for the shot’ expression.

4. ‘Baby’

Bret Easton Ellis lamented that the growing importance of Chinese cinema audiences was leading to a quiet purging of gay characters from blockbusters. He feared supporting characters, like Harvey Fierstein in Independence Day, would be edited out by notes with an eye on the Chinese market, and gay characters, while happily surfing the zeitgeist in television, would disappear from American blockbusters. But Roland Emmerich, while pushing Chinese products and heroic Chinese characters, also reveals that Brent Spiner and John Storey’ Drs Okun and Isaacs are a gay couple. Almost entirely via body language and the word ‘baby’, as if chuckling that he might hoodwink the Chinese censor by insisting they’re just work colleagues, the censor has imagined something that’s not there in translation.

5. Funny haha

Aside from the unintentional hilarity, pointed out to me by John Healy, of cold fusion weapons, this isn’t very funny. Goldblum’s nods to Emmerich trademarks lack pizzaz, and new characters make little impression without memorable zingers. Emmerich co-wrote with trusted collaborators Dean Devlin and James Vanderbilt, and James A. Woods and Nicolas Wright (who starred in White House Down, in which everything paid off). How did writers so attuned to blockbuster structure under-nourish humour and over-complicate plot?

October 28, 2015

Spectre

Daniel Craig reunites with his Skyfall director Sam Mendes for a bloated follow-up that seems more interested in rushing the exit than whooping things up.

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James Bond (Craig) is in Mexico City for the Day of the Dead, so more people join the ranks of the dead; to the displeasure of M (Ralph Fiennes). M is under pressure from C (Andrew Scott), a connected bureaucrat merging the intelligence services into CNS; a nightmare of Orwellian surveillance. C wants to replace the erratic 00s with drones, and M’s case is not helped by Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) enabling Bond every step of the way as he causes chaos in Rome and Austria. Bond murdered Mr Sciarra at the posthumous behest of M (Judi Dench), and, via Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), becomes entangled in the tentacles of an organisation run by ‘dead’ foster-brother Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Bond’s only lead is old adversary Mr White (Jesper Christensen), and White’s daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux)…

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s opening gambit looked foolhardy in throwing away the film’s best sequence, until you reached the opera assassination, but Spectre’s cold open is its best sequence. Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema produce a Wellesian flourish with a mind-blowing long-take following Bond down a street, into a hotel, out the window, and across rooftops for a hit. After that, beginning with the execrable Sam Smith song over misjudged titles, proceedings are less surefooted. Spectre is looong. 2 ½ hours that pull off the paradox of not doing enough. Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and his MI6 crew recall Henry IV: Part Two; all the collegial bonhomie and agency freedom achieved by Skyfall is vanished, and they get little of consequence to do. It is a full 65 minutes before Swann (please let that not be a Proust reference) appears, and her delayed entrance is not for effect like Skyfall’s Silva, but a consequence of Spectre’s deliberately slow pace. The grand summit of Spectre, with Oberhauser creating a frisson of fear from his shadowy chair, is less impressive than Silva’s soliloquising entrance, and this stately subtlety is thrown away anyway with the excessive grand guignol introduction of Hinx (Dave Bautista).

Hinx has a terrific fight scene with Bond, think Robert Shaw’s dust-up in From Russia with Love, which may end with the most oblique Jaws reference imaginable; as pointed out to me by my sometime co-writer John Healy. But it’s preceded by Swann and Bond dining on a train, which constant reminders of dead characters cue us to read like Bond and Vesper’s first meeting. Only one thing is missing: Paul Haggis. Seydoux doesn’t have the material to convince us of her importance to Bond that Eva Green had, and a literal jump-cut to romance is an admission of defeat. Haggis’ Quantum; a network of ex-spooks, shady businessmen, and politicians; was more plausible and scary than de-contextualised Spectre. Waltz’s misfiring Blofeld has a desert lair and a fluffy white cat, what he doesn’t have to go with his premature recourse to torture is psychological depth or cartoonish fun, while Bond’s outrageous marksmanship against incompetent goons is the Austin Powers fodder from which Haggis rescued the franchise. The underwhelming finale poorly replays Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to end with a visual choice between two lives which is absurdly literal. Spectre loses what momentum it had on hitting Morocco, and never recovers.

Spectre has more good elements than bad, but it’s hard not to be disappointed that, having placed all the pieces on the board, Mendes and Craig belatedly remembered they didn’t like chess, and sought a graceful way to bolt.

2.75/5

February 12, 2015

Ennio Morricone: My Life in Music

Film composer Ennio Morricone belied his 86 years for a sprightly concert conducting some of his most beloved scores in a sold-out Point last Saturday.

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Morricone was conducting the full Czech National Symphony Orchestra, some 86 musicians, backed by the 76 singers of the Kodaly Choir of Debrecen in Hungary. He began with the piano-led title theme from The Untouchables with its unusual wailing brass, before segueing into a suite of rich string-led themes from his last collaboration with director Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time in America, and then his lengthy theme for frequent collaborator Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900, which combined lush orchestration with surprising diversions into cabaret and blues to musically recreate the feel of years going by on a cruise ship. Morricone’s fondness for bundling so many themes into one set caused more than a few disruptive moments where the audience determinedly applauded, drowning out the start of the next tune, leading my sometime co-writer John Healy to suspect rhythmic holding patterns in later segues…

Morricone has scored an unreasonable amount of films and TV miniseries, most of them Italian, so he showcased his less familiar work with a selection from the late 60s and early 70s, including H2S and Metti, una sera a cena. Two themes from Love Circle had an unfortunate tendency to lapse into 70s romance pastiche, but Maddalena and The Sicilian Clan were unfamiliar works which stood out; utilising electric guitar and drums gave a rockier feel akin to Lalo Schifrin’s Dirty Harry score, and Sicilian Clan in particular managed to combine romance and menace simultaneously. Morricone’s final pre-interval set showcased his career-defining work with Leone with the slowly building choral and orchestral splendour and jagged guitars of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dynamite, and ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’.

After the interval Morricone unveiled three more sets of themes. Collaborations with directors Tornatore, Brian De Palma, and Gillo Pontecorvo were highlighted in the choice of themes from Cinema Paradiso, Malena, Casualties of War, The Battle of Algiers, and Burn! all. While those scores for Tornatore and De Palma are all about tugging at the heart-strings thru lush strings, the edgier music for Pontecorvo is all about percussion – indeed the ironically joyous ‘Abolisson’ from Burn! was performed with no fewer than five percussionists. Morricone also conducted more scores from obscure Italian films, with the jokey percussion instrumentation and mock-suspense melody of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and the distorted keyboard and jaunty melody of La classes operaia va in paradise particularly noteworthy. Morricone’s final set was inevitably The Mission: ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, ‘Falls’, ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’.

The maestro spoke only thru his music, but his three encores; ‘Here’s to You’, ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’, ‘On Earth as It Is in Heaven’; said it all. Morricone is one of that select band of composers whose music has escaped the films they were meant to complement to take on a life of their own. Whether it’s the inimitable whistling of Leone’s Wild West or the quasi-sacramental effect of his famous oboe solo Morricone has transcended the medium.

4/5

June 25, 2014

Aristocrats

Director Patrick Mason returns to the Abbey for a new production of 1979’s Aristocrats, Brian Friel’s Chekhovian study of a Catholic Big House in decline.

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The peculiarity of Ballybeg in having a Catholic Big House has attracted Chicagoan academic Tom Hoffnung (Philip Judge). As he researches the history of the well-to-do O’Donnell family since 1829, he is privy to gossip from helpful local fixer Willie Diver (Rory Nolan). Willie is devoted to the eldest daughter Judith (Cathy Belton), whose life is now spent caring for her invalided father (John Kavanagh) and the eccentric Uncle George (Bosco Hogan). Tom’s visit is peculiarly opportune for getting family gossip as youngest daughter Claire (Jane McGrath) is getting married, and so middle daughter Alice (Rebecca O’Mara) and oddball son Casimir (Tadhg Murphy) have returned to the fold. However, while Casimir has left wife Helga in Hamburg, Alice has brought acerbic husband Eamon (Keith McErlean). And Eamon is a truth-teller when it comes to his peasantry and the O’Donnell gentry…

Uncle George who shuffles about silently avoiding people is a character straight out of Chekhov. But Aristocrats, while it has some very funny moments (not least imaginary croquet), is primarily a very sad play. Judith’s speech about how she manages to be ‘almost happy’ within a strict routine of servitude, which she does not want disturbed, is made all the more heart-breaking by the ingratitude of her stroke-stricken father; who continually refers to Judith’s great betrayal, unaware that it is she who tends to him. Casimir’s relating how his father told him his eccentricities could be absorbed in the Big House whereas he would be the village idiot in Ballybeg is equally distressing as it has led him to narrowing his life to avoid pillory. And, in Sinead McKenna’s evocative lighting design, behind everything – Judith’s past role in the Troubles.

Francis O’Connor’s set, a detailed drawing room with abstracted staircases and doors behind it and an imaginary wall to a lawn, strikes a balance between verisimilitude and artifice that my sometime co-writer John Healy pointed out to me was reflected in the acting styles; naturalistic for the ‘native peasantry’ Willie and Eamon, more mannered for the self-conscious gentry in decline – especially Alice’s performative alcoholism and Casimir’s apologetic tics. The set also reflects Friel’s concern with the ghostly technology; absent daughter Anna (Ruth McGill) can record a message, Father’s rantings can be relayed downstairs. Catherine Fay’s 1970s costumes (especially for Alice and Willie) are impeccable, while Mason lives up to Eamon’s programmatic ‘This has always been a house of reticence, of things left unspoken’ by offering muted hints that Eamon fathered Judith’s child, and that Eamon and Alice will be happy.

My fellow academic Graham Price would no doubt note the contrast between McGahern’s vision of the Big House; a place of learning; and Friel’s vision; a place where objects are named after Chesterton, Hopkins and Yeats, but it is severely doubtful that the self-absorbed status-conscious O’Donnells who did so ever emulated their intellectual curiosity.

3.5/5

Aristocrats continues its run at the Abbey until the 2nd of August.

May 31, 2013

Populaire

Competitive speed-typing is the unlikely subject of this French mash-up of a sports flick and a rom-com set in 1959.

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Rose (Deborah Francois) is a shopkeeper’s daughter eager to escape the ennui of her provincial existence. She applies for a job as a secretary in Lisieux, a position that attracts a large number of conspicuously attractive applicants who dismiss her chances. Rose indeed makes a mess of her interview, but her formidable typing skills gain her a reprieve. Her boss, insurance agent Louis (Romain Duris), sees potential for her to win the regional speed-typing contest, even if this means enduring her disastrous performance in handling paperwork. In a nod to Pygmalion he even bets his American friend Bob (Shaun Benson) that he can train this girl to become the French national typing champion, a wager strongly disapproved of by Bob’s wife, Marie (Berenice Bejo); who was once almost married to Louis. But can Louis and Rose’s relationship remain strictly sporting?

So, how do you make speed-typing exciting? Well, the answer is to shoot the contests in what is probably the closest we’ll ever get to John Healy and I’s dream of ‘Un Film de Michel Bay’. ‘Un Film de Michel Bay’ should be thought of as an archetypal black and white Eric Rohmer film like Ma Nuit Chez Maud in which very serious and literate discussions of Pascal’s philosophy are organically interrupted by explosions of vehicular mayhem and spectacular pyrotechnics. The national championship in Paris is shot in just this fashion, with fast tracking back and forth between typewriters followed by bombastically heroic panning in a circle around the two typists. Director Regis Roinsard even inserts a proper Rocky training montage into proceedings just to demonstrate that speed-typing really is a sport; a point struck home to a snooty journalist.

But that nice visual gag and the elan of the typing sequences cannot disguise that this is merely an insubstantial rom-com mashed up with a sports movie set-up that is lacking in either good gags or character insight. The mind wanders so much that in a pivotal scene you tut-tut that Berenice Bejo is once again appearing in a film that explicitly steals from Vertigo, and then, as that scene changes completely in nature, you realise the appropriate 1958 movie to reference is in fact Les Amants. Far too explicit for its 12 rating, and falling between several stools in its attempt to address the legacy of the Resistance and the American liberation, feminism and sexual exploitation, you will be immensely frustrated when Populaire fails to stop at its natural ending, but persists on for an unconvincing parade of cliché.

Populaire is a feather-weight confection that could be commended as amusing were it 25 minutes shorter, but the fatal mistake of running thru a contrived finale renders it dull as it outstays its welcome.

2/5

February 14, 2013

King Lear

The Abbey amazingly hasn’t staged King  Lear since the early 1930s. Director Selina Cartmell thus has no  legendary productions of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy to outshine.

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All dark, and comfortless

The aged Lear (Owen Roe) has decided to split his kingdom between his three  daughters. But, while the scheming diabolical siblings Regan (Caoilfhionn Dunne)  and Goneril (Tina Kellegher) flatter him to get their rightful shares, Lear’s  only good-hearted daughter Cordelia (Beth Cooke) refuses to lie or exaggerate,  enraging the vain Lear; and her share is thus split between her sisters’ husbands Cornwall (Phelim Drew) and Albany (John Kavanagh). Cordelia leaves  without a dowry to become the Queen of France and the noble courtier Kent (Sean  Campion) is banished for taking her part in the quarrel. He disguises himself to  serve Lear, but the scheming bastard Edmund (Ciaran Mcmenamin) uses the fraught  situation to eliminate his legitimate brother Edgar (Aaron Monaghan) from the  line of succession to Gloucester (Lorcan Cranitch); exploiting the political  chaos that Lear’s wise Fool (Hugh O’Connor) foresaw…

I found myself comparing Cartmell’s interpretation of the text to Sarah Finlay’s 2010 production  starring Ger Adlum because Gaby Rooney’s costume design replicated its  colour-coded royal houses, both productions being indebted to Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. But instead of Finlay’s icily  austere minimalism Cartmell offered rich medieval costuming, wolfhounds lurching  around between scenes, and a second storey built onto the Abbey stage to add a  period gallery to the drunken carousing in castles below. Garance Marnuer’s  layered set design sends a triangle into the audience for characters to deliver  their monologues, so that in the front rows the eye is caught by actors on three  levels; and that’s before the triangle spectacularly rises for the heath scene.  Given such impressive staging the climactic fight with long-staffs between  Edmund and Edgar surprises with its sheer inertness and lack of ambition in  clashing choreography…

Cartmell’s commitment to visual  medievalism though clashes with her highlighting of the paganism in  Shakespeare’s most nihilistic play. ‘Nothing comes from nothing’ proclaims Lear  in a famously pre-Christian thought, and the illuminated paganism is truly  chilling in one scene in which Lear, holding an antler skull to channel power,  calls down a curse on the heavily pregnant Goneril to make her miscarry for her  ill treatment of him. But… there are constant references to Greek philosophers  and Roman gods, and why would they be invoked if you believed in animist gods or  pantheism? Especially as Gloucester’s “As flies are to wanton boys so are we to  the gods/They kill us for their sport” screams of the capricious Greek  divinities. And that’s before you wonder what historical neverland Cartmell has  situated her post-Roman but pre-Christian nations of France and England in…

Cartmell coaxes many strong  performances. Roe is appropriately magisterial as Lear, while Monaghan is  fiercely committed as Edgar’s alter-ego Poor Tom (even if John Healy was not the  only one coughing Gollum), and Cooke’s Cordelia shedding a tear when Lear  finally recognises her in his madness is extremely affecting. Dunne makes  Regan’s villainy a progressive revelation, while Drew gives some richness to the  oft one-note psychotic Cornwall, and Ronan Leahy stands out from the ensemble  with empathetic nuance as he counsels Gloucester and Cordelia. Kellegher’s  Goneril though lacks subtlety, and Mcmenamin’s Edmund, emphasising his  discordant Northern accent and swanking around in black, at times appears to be  in an entirely different play. Cranitch’s straightforward Gloucester meanwhile  failed to match Keith Thompson’s 2010 camp lecherous interpretation, making his  eye-gouging less traumatic despite some truly horrific gouged eye-socket makeup.  He certainly wasn’t helped though by both beard and gouged-eye makeup peeling  off on the night I went…

This is a good production that has a  number of great performances, but some disappointing turns and an  inconsistency in tackling the text hold it back from true greatness.

3/5

King Lear continues its run at the Abbey  until the 23rd of March.

January 30, 2013

Bullet to the Head

I am not a Walter Hill fan… I venerate The Driver, but was nonplussed by The Warriors, and a recent viewing of the execrable Streets of Fire left me too enraged to review this film reasonably so my sometime co-scriptwriter John Healy, a man who actually likes The Warriors, writes:

Walter Hill fans can rejoice at a return to form, while Stallone fans continue to enjoy the veteran action star’s Indian summer, in this entertaining variation on the buddy-cop formula.

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Jimmy Bobo (Stallone) is a hitman whose latest employer considers him a loose end and tries to have him killed. Taylor Kwan (Sung Kang, Fast Five) plays a New York cop after the man who had his corrupt former partner executed. Thrown together, they tear around New Orleans, chasing down powerful criminals (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and the evergreen Christian Slater) who are protected by a team of elite mercenaries headed up by the apparently unstoppable Keegan (Jason Momoa, Game of Thrones). They agree on the target, but not on the tactics.

Fans of Hill’s work will recognise all the old familiar pieces: the unconventional pairing of cop and criminal (48 Hours), the cop in an unfamiliar city (Red Heat), the exploding cabin in the bayou (Southern Comfort), the standoff with unconventional weapons (Streets of Fire), and the man with an unconventional moral code (pretty much everything he’s ever made). Yes, he’s repeating himself, but Hill is at his best working on variations of his favourite themes, and this is no exception. The references don’t stop there either – anyone who’s seen Once Upon a Time in the West can’t help but see something familiar in the relationship between Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s crippled, money-obsessed kingpin and Momoa’s muscle who cares more about honour. The familiarity is forgiven, however, as the plot ticks along nicely from each well-choreographed action set piece to the next. I’ve never seen New Orleans look better on film. Lloyd Ahern, Hill’s cinematographer of choice for the past 20 years, delivers a crisp, slick look – this is a modern action movie, not a relic of the 1980s. Stallone is comfortable in a role that wouldn’t fit a younger man, and the supporting cast are uniformly good; particularly Momoa, who shows some variation from the near-mute brutes he has made his name playing.

We move then to the negatives. Perhaps the film suffers from one villain too many; as good as Slater is, I’m not sure his character was necessary. Sarah Shahi’s role as Bobo’s daughter is transparently there for three things: romance with Kwan leading to tension between him and Bobo, a late kidnapping to up the stakes, and eye candy for the audience. Each element is executed well, but I resented being introduced to a character whose entire role was so predictable. The violence is a little excessive; not quite to the degree that Tarantino indulges himself, but certainly enough to be distracting at times. To say the dialogue can be expository is to downplay the fact that Kwan’s phone is literally used as an expository device. And, while we’re on dialogue, Bobo’s racist banter with Kwan never comes off quite as well as the same trick did in 48 Hours. I’m not sure if it’s used more, or the delivery just isn’t as good, but it feels a little off at times.

On the whole this is a perfectly good dumb action movie, a notch above most of the dreck dumped in the post-Oscar slots, which can be recommended as a solid 90 minutes’ entertainment. Three stars, with bonus half stars for fans of action movies, Stallone and Hill.

3/5

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