Talking Movies

June 19, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

John Green’s best-selling ‘dying teenagers in love’ YA novel gets a cinematic adaptation so perfectly dreadful it will make you question the book’s stellar reputation.

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Our heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is dying of cancer. She is dragged by her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) to support meetings in a church basement, presided over by an Evangelical figure of fun who could’ve walked straight out of Fight Club. But one day Isaac (Nat Wolff), a sardonic teenager blinded in one eye by cancer, brings along to group his best friend Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cocky teenager who lost a leg to cancer. There is an instant spark of attraction between Hazel and Augustus, and soon she has him reading her favourite cancer novel An Imperial Affliction. Augustus pesters the exiled author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) until Van Houten’s helpful assistant Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek) invites them both to Amsterdam. But Hazel’s father Michael (Sam Trammell) urges Augustus not to push the physically frail Hazel…

The Fault in Our Stars is most interesting for its part in Shailene Woodley’s sustained campaign to become Jennifer Lawrence. J-Law was unconsciously unguarded in interviews, Woodley makes bizarre pronouncements. J-Law fronted The Hunger Games, Woodley (after consulting J-Law, she let everyone know) fronted Divergent. J-Law won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, Woodley attempts a serious role with an ersatz J-Law performance. Woodley was terrific in The Descendants, but here she seems to vocally channel J-Law in scenes where she’s upset or excited. And then there’s Elgort… Elgort renders Augustus an arrogant water-polo player from The OC. One assumes that Augustus is intended to be more charming, perhaps closer to a Damon Salvatore; but even the swaggering Ian Somerhalder couldn’t rescue Augustus’ excruciatingly stilted dialogue. It genuinely shocks that (500) Days of Summer’s Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber adapted.

From the sub-Mametian insistence of the lovers on calling each other Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, to Hazel Grace’s use of the word hamartia, to Augustus’ involved (and not particularly metaphorical) cigarette metaphor everything in this film feels painfully affected. I haven’t read the book, but I’m not sure these touches could’ve worked even in print; especially the excruciating moment when deeply inappropriate PDA in the Anne Frank House is applauded. Director Josh Boone’s autumnal palette complements the actual and soundalike Coldplay that soundtracks the relentlessly weepy forced march to the movie’s crux: like The Lovely Bones and The Da Vinci Code sex is everything – being in heaven, being God; not as good or important as having had sex. Dafoe’s mercifully abrasive cameo as the novelist telling them home-truths cannot shift these insufferable lovers’ minds onto more transcendent philosophical concerns.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we encourage producers to make dross like this by going to bad movies, knowing they’re bad.

1/5

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October 24, 2013

Ender’s Game

Wolverine director Gavin Hood redeems himself substantially with this sci-fi effort, but Ender’s Game, despite its celebrated source novel, is still some way from being a film that you simply must rush out to see.

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Ender (Asa Butterfield) is a twelve year old at space academy who shows such promise that Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) cuts him from the programme; to provoke a violent attack by a bully. Ender returns home to his empathetic sister (Abigail Breslin) and psychotic brother. However, his vicious response to bullying was what Graff hoped to see and Ender is dispatched to Battle-School to hone his potential to become the next Julius Caesar. There he quickly falls foul of his older classmates because of his superior intelligence. After clashing with his classmates, and commanding officer Bonzo (Moises Arias), Ender is given his own war game team. With new lieutenant Petra (Hailee Steinfeld) by his side he succeeds so well that he is promoted to the fleet’s command school bordering the planet of the Formics. The Formics were defeated decades before only by the sacrifice of legendary hero Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley). But now their military capabilities have become threatening again…

This is a far slicker outing by writer/director Gavin Hood than his 2009 Wolverine muddle. The CGI work is unusually good, being very crisp looking so that the zero gravity war games are totally convincing. The script, however, is problematic. Far too many major characters are deeply unpleasant. There’s brutally abusive bullies at every level of education, an unhinged brother at home, and the voluble approval of ultraviolent tactics by Graff every step of the way. Hugo star Asa Butterfield’s blue eyes are as fetishised as Daniel Craig’s in Layer Cake, but there’s precious little emotion behind those deadened irises. Ender is a hero that it’s very hard to truly care about. True Grit’s Steinfeld is totally wasted (the script doesn’t ever bother introducing a structural romance with Ender), while Ford and Breslin are mere ciphers. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that the finale recalls The Matrix Reloaded in its subversion of action finales, as anything that recalls Reloaded is doomed.

But then Ender’s Game is a veritable echo chamber of influences. Mazer Rackham defeats the arthropod Formics with Independence Day’s finale. Except Orson Scott Card’s source novel predates it… And so it goes. Deja vu, all over again. How much influence did Card have on that other tale of adults forcing children to be violent, The Hunger Games? But then how much influence did Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers have on Card? Did Card influence Verhoeven’s subversive film of Heinlein’s bug-hunting? I spent far too much time trying to puzzle through the politics of the historical analogies employed by the film. The constant valorisation of ultra-violence as a strategy by Ender is quite troubling, and, I thought very Alexandrian, except that after therefore comparing the factions to Greeks and Persians throughout they turned out to be more Romans and Carthaginians. All of which is probably far too complex anyway given that Harrison Ford actually says Napoleon “conquered the known world.” Ahem…

The high concept of Ender’s Game; teenage children commanding an entire star-fleet while successful adult generals stand aside; never succeeds in making much sense, but despite a worryingly nasty streak it’s a solid movie.

3/5

June 11, 2010

The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell

The advertising campaign flooded radio-waves with trumpeting worthy of an A-list movie star. “Stockard Channing, the star of Grease and (copy-writer thinks hard, skips 30 years) The West Wing, Oscar-nominated for (copy-writer checks IMDb quickly, hoping she was indeed nominated once) Six Degrees of Separation, is starring as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Gaiety, for a limited run only”. The more subdued poster campaign promised Earnest ‘With Stockard Channing’, though she was still the only actor on the poster…

The truth is that Lady Bracknell just isn’t that big a role. Is she structurally important for the tightly-wound farce? Absolutely. Does she have a plethora of disgustingly good lines? Undoubtedly. Is she on-stage for more than three scenes? Nope. Basing your advertising around the actress playing Lady Bracknell is like playing up who’s doing Caesar in Julius Caesar… You can be damn sure that Anthony Asquith when directing the definitive 1952 screen Earnest secured Michael Redgrave for the lead role before he went looking for Dame Edith Evans to do an ‘And Dame Edith Evans’ exercise in scenery-chewing as Lady Bracknell. It’s a part that grand dames of theatre from Margaret Rutherford to Judi Dench could do in their sleep, but wake up for because it’s so much fun. But it’s a fun supporting role.

Marketing the play around Channing, inevitable because of the coup of securing star-power standard in the West End, is an adoption by theatre of the bait and switch marketing trick so sadly prevalent in cinema. But theatregoers tend to be better informed, if for no other reason than the price differential and the smaller capacity venues mean more thought and planning goes into attending a play than the aimless drifting into a multiplex screen when your preferred option is sold out that is so much cinema-going. Channing will sell more tickets for Rough Magic, who wouldn’t have stepped up to a venue the size of the Gaiety otherwise, but most people attending will know she’s not going to be the leading attraction, and those who don’t may well experience the sort of annoyance at being misled that destroyed Sweeney Todd when, after a spectacularly deceitful trailer, Americans audiences discovered to their horror that it was actually a musical.

Personally I’m bemused by the hype, as even within the cast of The West Wing, while I would run to the theatre to see Martin Sheen, Bradley Whitford or Allison Janney, I would never have been that pushed about Channing. I’m also annoyed that the hype surrounding Channing distracts from the home-grown talent on show. I am perhaps biased (he was my committee liaison when I directed my first show in UCD’s Dramsoc in 2001) but it irks me that Rory Nolan, who was superb as Jack Absolute in Brinsley Sheridan’s equally ridiculous classic The Rivals in the Abbey last summer and will undoubtedly Fassbender across the Gaiety stage with Algernon’s splendid paeans to Bunburying, will receive little attention because of the media circus surrounding Channing. Yes, it is nice to see Hollywood movie-stars doing theatre here occasionally but it’s nicer to see Irish theatre actors doing theatre here every week.

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