Talking Movies

August 27, 2018

From the Archives: Eden Lake

Another dive into the archives pulls up a Michael Fassbender horror movie that announced a new British director.

Eden Lake may be the first entry in an entirely new sub-genre, the socio-economic horror film, as this film might be more accurately and threateningly re-titled The Chavs

Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly play a polite middle-class London couple who travel to Eden Lake in the depths of the English countryside with the help of their sat-nav. Steve (Fassbender) plans to propose to Jenny (Reilly) over the course of a romantic weekend camping by its idyllic lapping waters. However the surroundings really are a place where every prospect pleases and only man is vile because a group of hoodie wearing teenagers mercilessly harass them for the day, and then the next day steal their jeep. An attempt by Steve and Jenny to get it back sees events very realistically spiral totally out of control.

Eden Lake is relentlessly tense from the first time you hear a voice announcing government proposals to deal with under-age offenders on the car radio as the couple drive out of London. Fassbender (a personal hero of mine) breaks his own rule of always obviously enjoying himself far too much in his work, as, after initially grinning like an idiot, his character Steve is sucked into the nightmare of dealing with this chillingly realised teen gang. Be warned that Eden Lake features a nigh unwatchable scene where, following the accidental killing of a vicious dog belonging to the gang leader Brett (a terrifying Jack O’Connell), Steve is tied up with barb wire and slashed and stabbed by every member of the gang, who of course all have knives like box-cutters, while the sole girl in the gang films the torture on her mobile phone.

Believe it or not things actually get even worse after that; being burnt alive, having a spike driven through your foot and being stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass are horrors still to come for the characters. It’s easy to see why Kelly Reilly was cast as Desdemona in Ewan McGregor’s West End production of Othello last year as her character Jenny is a frustratingly helpless victim until the incredibly bleak final reel.

The writing, directing and acting are as taut as can be and the shlock horror make-up is exemplary. Eden Lake is technically a superb achievement that belies its small budget and announces writer/director James Watkins as a notable talent. I cannot, however, think of a single reason to see this film. It is horror without humour, without the supernatural, without hope or relief. It is horror that could actually happen, and to you. Jack O’Connell’s surly Brett is the worst school bully you ever feared, on crack. Eden Lake would make you feel unsafe walking the streets of England with anything less than a Samurai sword strapped to your waist. Too close to the bone…

3/5

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April 10, 2014

Calvary

John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson follow up The Guard with an episodic metaphysical drama punctuated by blackly comic diversions.

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Fr James (Brendan Gleeson) hears the confession of a parishioner who was sexually abused as a child by a priest. Except this isn’t a confession – the unseen parishioner informs James that he will kill him on their beach in one week: ‘Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.’ James knows the identity of the parishioner, but, despite the flawless logic of his Bishop (David McSavage) that if no confession was made the seal of the confessional lapses, he will not reveal the identity of his designated assassin. Instead he goes about his pastoral duties, attempting to spiritually salve wife-beating butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), cynical atheist doctor Frank (Aidan Gillen), ailing American novelist Gerald (M Emmet Walsh), and jaded ex-financier Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran); none of whom want his counsel. One person who badly needs him though is his visiting suicidal London-Irish daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). James became a priest after his wife’s death, leaving Fiona feeling abandoned…

Calvary is fantastically well acted by a truly impressive Irish ensemble, but is far removed from The Guard. There are dementedly funny scenes, like misfit Milo (Killian Scott) trying to convince James that wanting to kill people really badly would be a plus for being accepted into the army – ‘like an engineering degree’. But there are many more scenes addressing knotty theological concepts of fate, free will, evil, and forgiveness: a prime example being James’ fraught encounter with jailed cannibal serial killer Freddie (Domhnall Gleeson). I haven’t seen so many ideas thrown at the screen since I Heart Huckabees, but I’m unsure what McDonagh’s larger purpose is. Fr James, like Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory whiskey priest, is being shepherded towards his own squalid Calvary. But Greene’s imitation of Christ drew attention to the potential for holiness in a flawed man; James is marked for death because of his virtue – a good man expiating the sins of many.

But… this reading is undermined by a jaw-dropping scene where an irate stranger tars James with the general brush of ‘molesting cleric’, shocking the audience who’ve seen his deep compassion. The assassin’s wish to punish a good priest for the misdeeds of bad priests will be utterly lost, because outside their community everyone will assume James was a bad priest. But this may be deliberate. James seems at times to be an argument for married clergy, witness his comforting of newly-widowed Frenchwoman Teresa (Marie-Josee Croze), but then his daughter insists he put God above family. Refn’s DP Larry Smith captures the Sligo landscape to amazing effect, especially Ben Bulben – almost creating an Eden. But this is Eden where Sin has been banished as a concept. Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) provokes James with her public promiscuity, her lover Simon (Isaach De Bankole) distinguishes between believing in God and acting morally, and James himself tells Fiona too much stress has been laid on sin. James thinks forgiveness need emphasising, but publican Brendan (Pat Shortt), who now espouses Buddhism, beats the bebuddha out of people with a baseball bat – with no guilt; sin is passé, and forgiveness requires sin.

Calvary might deserve four stars. I don’t know. It’s more ambitious than nearly any other Irish film, but it outsmarted me; I feel I need to do extensive reading in Jean Amery and Fyodor Dostoevsky to apprehend McDonagh’s quicksilver.

3.5/5

May 25, 2011

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

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