Talking Movies

September 10, 2018

The Lighthouse Presents Alfred Hitchcock

The Lighthouse is putting the Master of Suspense back on the big screen in September and October with a major retrospective comprising ten films from nearly two decades of work. A new restoration of Strangers on a Train is a highlight of a season showcasing icy blondes, blackly comic moments, pure cinema suspense sequences, and the greatest of director cameos.

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

From 13th September

People who’ve never seen the film know what is meant by uttering the title.  Robert Walker’s psychotic socialite Bruno propounds to Farley Granger’s pro tennis star Guy, who he’s just met on a train, a very plausible theory on how two complete strangers could both get away with murder. By swapping murders the complete absence of motive would stump detection. And Bruno means to prove it… Patricia Highsmith’s first novel epitomised her creeping unease and smiling sociopaths, and Hitchcock embellished it with visual flourishes (reflections of murder in a glass, one sports spectator remaining aloof) and nail-biting suspense.

ROPE

From 14th September

Farley Granger and John Dall are the two young men, clearly modelled on the infamous real-life killers Leopold and Loeb, who strangle a classmate they have decided is inferior in their Nietzschean scheme of things. Displaying a sadistic sense of humour they hide his body in their apartment, invite his friends and family to a dinner party, and serve the food over his dead body. Can their mentor Jimmy Stewart rumble the perfect crime? This was shot by Hitchcock in ostentatiously long 10 minute takes that cut together by means of ‘jacket-wipes’ to give the impression of one unbroken real-time visualisation.

MARNIE

From 19th September

Tippi Hedren’s second film for Hitchcock cast her as the titular compulsive thief, troubled by the colour red, and the touch of any man, even Sean Connery at the height of Bond fame. Bernard Herrmann’s final Hitchcock score (though his rejected Torn Curtain music appeared in Scorsese’s Cape Fear) buoys some dime store pop psychology as Hitchcock displays a less than sure touch in navigating the line between twisted romance and twisted obsession. There is an infamous scene between Connery and Hedren that is arguably the beginning of the decline towards ever more showy cinematic conceits housed in increasingly mediocre films.

VERTIGO

From 20th September

Hitchcock’s 1958 magnum opus recently toppled Citizen Kane from its perch as the ‘greatest film ever made.’ Hitchcock burned money perfecting the dolly-in zoom-out effect so crucial for depicting Jimmy Stewart’s titular condition; and Spielberg cheekily appropriated it for one show-off shot in Jaws. The twisted plot from the French novelists behind Les Diaboliques is played brilliantly by the increasingly unhinged Stewart, Kim Novak as the anguished blonde he becomes obsessed with, and a young Barbara Bel Geddes as the friend who tries to keep him grounded. Visually gorgeous, lushly scored, and dripping pure cinema sequences without any dialogue – see this.

SPELLBOUND

From 22nd September

Ingrid Bergman’s psychiatrist protects her new boss (Gregory Peck) who turns out to be an amnesia victim accused of murder. On the run she attempts to recover his memory, while her old boss Leo G Carroll insists that Peck is a dangerous killer. Salvador Dali famously designed the dream sequence to explain Peck’s trauma, but producer David O Selznick cut it to ribbons. He had insisted Hitchcock make this picture anyway to fulfil his contract because Selznick had had a wonderful time in therapy. Hitchcock had a less wonderful time, even Miklos Rozsa’s score introducing the brand new theremin irked him.

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY

From 23rd September

The trouble with Harry is a bit of a curate’s egg. Foreign Correspondent’s hit-man Edmund Gwenn returns to the Hitchcock fold, and Shirley MacLaine makes her very winning film debut, but this is a black comedy that ends up more of a droll half-romantic drama. Four people in a Vermont village, led by his estranged wife, spend a Fall day running around with Harry’s dead body; one step ahead of the authorities, and each convinced twas they that did him in. After from MacLaine’s debut one must point out that from this unremarkable beginning grew the Hitchcock/Herrmann partnership.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

From 26th September

Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman abandoned a fruitless novel adaptation for a scenario dazzlingly showcasing scenes Hitchcock had always longed to film; a murder at the United Nations, a man attacked by a crop-duster in an empty landscape. Cary Grant’s MadMan (cough) Roger O Thornhill; a man as hollow as  his affected middle initial; blunders into spymaster Leo G Carroll’s elaborate ruse and is ruthlessly and lethally pursued across America by the sinister James Mason and his clinging henchman Martin Landau, all the while dallying with their dangerous associate Eva  Marie Saint. Hitchcock’s preoccupations were never explored more enjoyably…

THE BIRDS

From 30th September

Hitchcock spun out Daphne Du Maurier’s short story which had been inspired by her simple thought when watching a flock wheel towards her over a field, “What if they  attacked?,” into  an unsettling and bloody film. Socialite Tippi Hedren’s pursuit of the judgemental lawyer Rod Taylor to his idyllic small town on the bay seems to cause the local birds to turn homicidal, but don’t look for explanations – just enjoy the slow-burn to the bravura attacks. Watch out for Alien’s Veronica Cartwright as Taylor’s young sister, and a bar stool philosophiser allegedly modelled on Hitchcock’s bruising encounters with Sean O’Casey…

DIAL M FOR MURDER 3-D

From 3rd October

Warner Bros. insisted that Hitchcock join the 3-D craze, so he perversely adapted a play without changing it much, something that had bedevilled cinema during the transition to sound. Hitchcock has immense fun layering the furniture of Grace Kelly’s flat, but after the interval (sic) largely loses interest in 3-D and focuses on Frederick Knott’s, ahem, knotty plot in which tennis pro Ray Milland blackmails Anthony Dawson into bumping off rich wife Grace Kelly. John Williams, who also appears in To Catch a Thief, is in fine form as the detective trying to puzzle out the crime.

PSYCHO

From 10th October

Hitchcock’s low budget 1960 classic boasted one of the drollest trailers imaginable  and his direction is equally parodic in the first act, with its sinister traffic-cop pursuit and endless misdirection, because Hitchcock relished investing the audience  in a shaggy-dog story which sets up a number of prolonged blackly comic sequences as well as some  chilling suspense. Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates emerges as a terrific resonant villain, especially in the chilling final scene scored by Bernard Herrmann with full-on Schoenbergian atonal serialism. The shower scene with Janet Leigh being slashed to Herrmann’s bravura stabbing strings orchestration remains an iconic ‘pure cinema’ scare.

Tickets can be booked at the Lighthouse’s website  (www.lighthousecinema.ie).

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August 5, 2014

God’s Pocket

John Slattery, aka Mad Men’s existentialist hero Roger Sterling, makes his directorial debut with an only intermittently successful black comedy.

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God’s Pocket, New York City is a close-knit working-class community where everyone is one step away from a mobster, even the elderly florist. Blow-in Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) helps out fellow butcher Arthur ‘Bird’ Capezio (John Turturro) in stealing some frozen meat to help pay off Bird’s 20k debt to local kingpin Sal Cappi (Domenick Lombardozzi). However, marriage to the lovely Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) comes at the price of Mickey being lumbered with her crazy son Leon (Caleb Landry-Jones). When Leon dies in a ‘workplace accident’, Jeanie insists that Mickey investigate who killed him, undertaker Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan) refuses to bury him unless he gets 5k in cash up-front, and a bad decision on horse-racing with the money from a whip-around puts Mickey on thin ice when celebrated newspaper columnist Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) starts courting Jeanie.

God’s Pocket is a period film that doesn’t bother to tell you that it’s a period film. Apparently it’s set in 1978. The only way you’d know that it’s not set right now is that everyone physically reads and reveres newspaper columnist Shelburn. But even in 1978 it plays as pure fantasy that Sophia Takal’s attractive college journalism major would sleep with Shelburn so that she could watch as he writes his column. Director Slattery co-wrote this adaptation of Pete (The Paperboy) Dexter’s novel, but its tone is deeply uncertain. There is an eye-gouging of Mountain & Viper calibre, and yet it leads directly to a scene of deliriously deadpan black comedy; whose laughs feel gimmicky because this film is not light enough on its feet or dry enough to truly be a black comedy. Instead it’s half a drama.

The best example of how black comedy is deflated by a striving for bogus dramatic weightiness is a scene where Leon’s dead body is accidentally hijacked. Slattery emulates Spielberg’s wildly misguided Munich finale, with a juxtaposition of Mickey being cuckolded and Mickey falling and failing in his attempt to redeem himself. My interest turned to how Slattery had thrown a dragnet over TV bit-players for his casting (the guy who shot Bell in Elementary, the psychiatrist from Bionic Woman, the S&M cop from Bored to Death). And it has to be regretfully noted that Landry-Jones follows his awful, mannered turn in Byzantium with a performance so deranged that you can’t believe Leon would ever be hired anywhere for the simplest job; he is simply the character from an Agatha Christie novel who repulses and alienates everyone before getting bumped off.

God’s Pocket sees Hoffman and Turturro do their best with a confused script, but it’s hard to know what exactly Slattery was trying to do – make a rambunctious black comedy or a gritty drama?

2.5/5

November 29, 2013

Digital Biscuit 2014

The Screen Directors Guild of Ireland (SDGI) officially launched Digital Biscuit 2014 at their Annual Meeting for Irish Directors in Dublin on November 21st last.

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The inaugural Digital Biscuit 2013 proved a resounding success with both the industry and the public with over 4,000 attendees over the 3 day period. Digital Biscuit 2014 places creatives at its core while also serving as a digital expo for new technologies. The 2014 event promises a varied and packed programme: amidst cutting-edge presentations and product unveilings, representatives from the creative industries will deliver talks, discussions and seminars on matters that are crucial to production today, with an aim to not only inspire but also enable and spur on productivity. Digital Biscuit takes place at the Science Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin from January 22nd to 24th 2014 with tickets now available on www.digitalbiscuit.ie. Those in attendance at the AGM of SDGI last week included Irish directors Conor Horgan, Maurice Sweeney, Paddy Breathnach, Steve Woods and Brian Kirk. Irish Film Board representatives were also present and special guest, acclaimed French director, Arnaud Desplechin – fresh from a retrospective of films at the IFI’s French Film Festival.

“The aim is to make directors and people generally aware of the most up to date digital technologies in film making and indeed TV production” says Ciaran Donnelly, Chairman of SDGI and director of The Tudors and Vikings. “The aim of Digital Biscuit is to improve the production capabilities of our most talented creators from the simplest ideas to the highest budgets”. At Digital Biscuit 2014 The Paccar Theatre in the Science Gallery will host screenings, presentations, and panel discussions. This ticket-only area will host talks from exciting global talent and creatives including: Carlos Velasco (CEO, Neurosketch), Christian Fonnesbech (Director, Cloud Chamber), Jack Reynor (Actor, What Richard Did, Delivery Man and Transformers: Age of Extinction), Nick Meaney (CEO, Epagogix), Philip Einstein Lipski (Lars Von Trier Collaborator for Nymphomaniac). The Secret of Kells director, Tom Moore, will be giving the audience an exclusive sneak peek into the making of his upcoming feature Song of The Sea.

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This year’s Honorary Guest Director is Alan Taylor, who has clocked up credits on Mad Men, and then Game of Thrones, and most recently turned to cinematic fantasy with the massive hit Thor: The Dark World. As Honorary Guest Director, Taylor will engage in an informal conversation about his work and career. Meanwhile directors, writers, photographers, producers, editors, directors of photography, students and members of the public once again will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the bustling displays and demonstrations of new technologies in the KinoPlay Area, which is aimed at enhancing the production process and market for their creators. “We look forward to Digital Biscuit being once again a dynamic hub of national and global industry leaders, concentrated on enabling creativity by focusing on Ireland’s capabilities as a creative and technological leader in innovative film and television production” commented Birch Hamilton, Digital Biscuit’s Executive Director.

Tickets are on sale now on www.digitalbiscuit.ie. Workshop access requires registration on www.digitalbiscuit.ie with a registration fee of five euro, guaranteeing pass holders a place. The printable pass ticket pass is required on the day and will be the only way to gain entry to the workshops. Non ticket/pass holders can still enjoy the KinoPlay area and atmosphere of Digital Biscuit. All information on Digital Biscuit 2014, including information on partners, speakers, and the schedule will be available on www.digitalbiscuit.ie.

April 12, 2013

Red Dawn Remake Reignites Korean War

Red Dawn sat on the shelf for three years as the studio worried that its replacing of the original Soviet villains with Chinese villains would hurt it in the Chinese market. Little did they suspect their ingenious post-production fix would reignite the Korean War writes B. Bradley Bradlee from Pyongyang.

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This horse is confirmed by three deep background sources to have worked on The Hobbit films as a saboteur for North Korean intelligence.

The evil empire of Soviet Russia never once held the same importance as somewhat Communist China does now when it comes to overseas box-office receipts for the American film industry. So it was that the studio behind the remake of Red Dawn, regularly cited as one of the top 5 films of the 1980s alongside Raging Bull, decided to use extensive CGI to convert the film’s invading Chinese army into an invading North Korean army. Sources refused to comment on whether the marketing department planned to use even more extensive CGI to convince Chinese cinemagoers this CGI villain-swap-out never happened.

But now that Red Dawn (2013) has finally been released in overseas territories around the world it has had the unexpected effect of reigniting the Korean War. Since M*A*S*H ended its run in 1983 the conflict has been justly dubbed the forgotten war, and, bar a flurry of interest around the time of the season one finale of Mad Men, has not troubled the public imagination until the recent reminder that the War never officially ended – an armistice had just put it on permanent suspension; not unlike the dormant 2012 Campaign of Rick Santorum for the Republican Nomination for President.

Little is known for sure about Kim Jong-Un’s character or his foreign policy intentions, but a number of recent off the record comments from former classmates at his elite Swiss school suggest an ironic love of bombastic action movies. This must make us fear the worst according to a senior analyst at the FBI who specialises in cinematic cliché. Clearly Kim Jong-Un has seen the remake of Red Dawn, and, inspired by the film’s first act depiction of an invasion so successful that Washington DC cedes Washington State to North Korea, has ramped up the rhetoric on the international stage.

He does so with an ace up his sleeve, derived from his father’s complete collection of David Mamet-scripted films. Kim, inspired by 1998’s satire Wag the Dog, obviously intends to convince his people that they have successfully attacked mainland America by screening selected scenes from Red Dawn on state television as news footage of their invasion. Recurring Hawaii Five-O guest star Will Yun Lee will be hailed as a great hero of the North Korean people. There can be no doubt that Kim is counting on his people’s ignorance of Chris Hemsworth’s career. He did not suppress Thor for nothing…

B. Bradley Bradlee is the fictional editor of The New York Times. This article was first published in the weekly German magazine Die Emmerich Uhr.

November 25, 2011

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part II

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.

Deja Vu
I’m finding it impossible to work up any enthusiasm either to read Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help or to see its very successful film adaptation. The reason is that The Help is what I like to call a ‘self-evident proposition’ work.

JEFFERSON: Isn’t liberty a great thing?
ADAMS: Um, yes. Were you expecting a different response to that question?
JEFFERSON: No, I just wanted to check that it was indeed a self-evident truth.

Having seen trailers, clips and interviews I feel like I’ve already seen the movie and read the book.

THE HELP: Wasn’t racism in the Deep South in the 1960s awful?
AUDIENCE: Um, yes… obviously – got anything else to add?
THE HELP: Isn’t inter-racial class-divide-crossing female empowerment just swell?
AUDIENCE: Get out…

I praised Emma Stone when I reviewed Superbad for InDublin in 2007 but I’m not about to watch predictable platitudes just to boost her to a well-deserved A-list status. Especially not when the platitudes are wrapped in another faux 1960s package, hot on the heels of Mad Men, Pan Am and X-Men: First Class. I’m a bit of sick of people caricaturing a decade they weren’t around for to make themselves feel enlightened.

The Horns of Desolation
I had the misfortune to stumble across the final scenes of Troy some weeks ago. My Delaney sketches can be traced back to one colour piece in the 2004 Christmas issue of the University Observer where I poured as much scorn as 908 words could hold on Troy. A poorly scripted mess that is stunningly disrespectful of one of the founding texts of Western literature and brought to botched life by a mixture of hammy or simply ill-judged performances Troy is a film that few people will ever watch again willingly. Which leads to the intriguing idea that any work wasted on it could be salvaged for use elsewhere. James Horner scores the fall of Troy with blaring horns and trumpets that bespeak desolation and the fall of an ancient civilisation, and I knew the melody they were playing very well. But I hadn’t seen Troy since 2004 so I couldn’t know the music from Troy itself. I seemed to associate the music with another film entirely but oddly also particularly with just such a scene of a culture being traumatically destroyed. And then it hit me, it’s the music from Avatar! The assault on Hometree and then the final battle – it’s the same horns of desolation. Horner, by association of ideas genuinely composed the same melody and orchestration again, or, (as I hope) directly lifted music he’d composed and foolishly thrown away on a much loathed film and re-used it on a much loved film.

November 1, 2011

Any Other Business: Part II

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a second portmanteau post on television of course!

Burning Down the House
I’m waiting with bated breath for the resumption of Hawaii Five-O after Lenkov’s amazing season one finale. If Moffat seemed to burn the house down with the end of his penultimate episode to season 5 of Doctor Who; which he sardonically described as the Doctor imprisoned in the most secure vault in the universe, Amy dead, Rory made of plastic and all the Whovian villains united – no problem; then Peter M Lenkov took off and nuked his O’ahu abode from orbit. Lenkov in his wisdom killed the Governor who was able to sweep all of the team’s legal transgressions under the pardon rug, framed McGarrett for her murder at the hands of the Yakuza supremo, arrested Kono for stealing millions from lock-up, returned Chin to the police force to work against McGarret, and possibly torpedoed Danny’s resurrected marriage by having him rally round McGarrett. No problem?…

Cockney Voices, Still Dialogue
I was unsurprised to learn that Saffron Burrows had been ditched from Finders after a disastrous try out of its team during a truly terrible Bones episode. To term Finders a Bones spin-off is laughable, it’s merely Hart Hanson using his existing show to try and sell a second show by demonstrating to the network how much people love his all-new adorably quirky characters. And my God were they quirky… Hanson granted each of his trio distinctive modes of speech, Michael Clarke Duncan was Dr Gonzo proffering legal advice, the ‘hero’ was verbose and savanty, and Saffron Burrows was….well, not adorable was the short verdict of the American viewing public and so she had to go. The nature of the problem became clear when shortly afterwards I saw Sienna Guillory appear in a season 11 episode of CSI: LV. Guillory spoke in her normal English accent, and everything was fine, because she was just handed regular CSI: LV dialogue and told to use her natural voice. Hanson wrote dialogue that aimed to be ‘Cockney’ in its Artful Dodger choice of words and rhyming slang, and thus London girl Burrows ended up incredibly unconvincing as a Cockney!

RTE’s feeling for insomniacs
What is wrong with RTE? More specifically what is wrong with their schedulers? Why do they insist on buying major American shows, with big budgets and numerous awards, and then burying them in the graveyard shift? Mad Men barely creeps in before midnight, Hawaii Five-O comes on just before midnight, Castle comes in at around half past midnight, Medium anytime after midnight, Mercy around 1am and No Ordinary Family at 2:20am… TV3 have complained that RTE are being a wealthy dog in the manger and simply preventing other networks having these shows. Assuming that’s not true, there’s still something disgraceful about Castle, one of the very best shows around at the moment for charismatic acting, wonderful gags, and unpredictable mysteries, getting no viewers in this country because no one has the cop-on to shove it on TV at say 10:10pm on Tuesday rather than at 12:35am.

Dirty Horatio
I’ve been watching CSI: Miami and noticing with alarm and bemusement that the writers appear to have mixed up David Caruso’s Horatio Caine character with Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan somewhere between seasons 8 and 9. The first time we ever saw Caine in action, in an episode of CSI: LV, he was going off the beaten track during a search and found and comforted a missing child. That is Horatio Caine: great with children and dogged in his pursuit of justice. He takes his sun-glasses on and off a lot, smiles at villains, and delivers ‘cool’ lines to a screaming ‘YEEAAHHH!!!’ soundtrack by The Who. He doesn’t throw perps thru windows for the craic, and continually threaten criminals at gunpoint while snarling menacing dialogue at them. Perhaps Caruso felt that Horatio was disappearing into the background and wanted to stand out from the ensemble again, or maybe the change-over of writers has left few people with the memory of the original creation of Caine around to guide the character on a consistent arc. Either way I want more of the Horatio who tells an armadillo-hunting suspect that discovers his gun is missing, “Maybe the armadillos took it…”

Grissom’s Theory of Everything
I’ve written at great length twice about the Morpheus Problem faced by CSI: LV in trying to replace William Petersen’s Gil Grissom with Laurence Fishburne’s Ray Langston as the leader of the heroic criminalists of the Vegas crime lab. But with the hoopla surrounding the desperate quest to replace Fishburne, who’s gone back to Hollywood to resume his rightful role as a figure of authority by being Clark Kent’s editor among other gigs, a new thought sprung to mind. Instead of begging John Lithgow to join the show and then settling for Ted Danson, and announcing a comedic direction because of his arrival, why not just not replace Grissom? Grissom is irreplaceable. His cameo in season 11 only reminded us of that. So why not just trust the ensemble to carry on without him? Catherine, Nick, Sara, Greg, Hodges, Henry, Archie, Mandy, Dr Robbins and David can carry an episode just fine by themselves. Grissom was sometimes tangential to episodes and they worked just fine. Can we not trust that if the writers simply stopped trying to replace Grissom, and just enjoyed his team in motion around a now absent star, then the audience would too?

September 21, 2011

Drive

Ryan Gosling is an enigmatic part-time getaway driver who falls foul of LA gangsters in this misfiring existential thriller.

Drive is a film of two parts, the first part is rather good, and the second part is quite troubling. We’re introduced to Gosling’s unnamed driver in a great, great opening. Rumbling beats (that Fincher’s probably already bought the rights to) underscore a getaway of sublime skill and suavity. Those beats give way to a synthtastic 1980s homage soundtrack as the film slows to an enigmatic and brilliant crawl as it fleshes out Gosling’s life. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston is Gosling’s mentor, a mechanic and film stunt co-ordinator crippled by men close to Ron Perlman’s savage Jewish mobster Nino, who now dreams of getting his protege to put his driving skills to more public use in stock-car. Albert Brooks is the ‘nice’ mobster who’ll fund their team. This move to normality is mirrored by Gosling’s growing friendship with neighbour Carey Mulligan, as he becomes a surrogate father to her young son.

This humanising of the taciturn Gosling is beautifully photographed and reminiscent of Fish Tank in its finding of pastoral in an urban landscape. Mulligan is an empathetic presence while Brooks excels at using his nice-guy persona to complicate our attitudes to his mobster. The introduction of the plot, rather than turning this film into 1978’s sublime The Driver, merely scuppers things. The Obstacle Carey’s husband returns from jail owing protection money so our hero decides to help him and a cameoing Christina Hendricks out on a low-risk heist, which goes disastrously wrong. Brooks’ in-camera mission statement, “I used to produce movies in the 80s. Action, arty stuff. The critics liked them, called them European. I thought they were shit”, then kicks in. Director Nicolas Winding Refn uses music, a car-crash, and surf rolling into a deserted beach at night to incredibly foreboding effect in staging one murder, but mostly his use of violence is both unnecessary and excessive.

Do you want to see a woman’s head get blown apart by a shotgun blast in slow motion, a man have his hand smashed repeatedly with a hammer, a man have a fork thrust in his eyeball to distract him while his assailant searches for a cleaver to plunge repeatedly into his neck and chest, a man have his arm slit open by a cut-throat razor, or a man have his head kicked in until he’s quite dead and then kicked some more until bone-dust rises up into the camera? Well if you don’t then you should leave half-way thru Drive. Gosling is charismatic in his Eastwoodian role, and you can see why he personally chose Refn as director, but this is less an existentialist thriller and more just humourless grindhouse masquerading as arthouse.

If you loved The Driver, you might like half of Drive

2/5

June 10, 2011

On Fassbendering

“To Fassbender: To very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work”. That’s the Urban Dictionary definition at any rate. But, like the residents of Madison Avenue advertising firms in the 1960s being termed Mad Men, I defined it myself…

So, where on earth did I get the concept of Fassbendering from? Well, I first really noticed Michael Fassbender when he played Azazeal in Hex, and my reaction to the show was pretty much “meh, pale Buffy rip-off, but serious kudos to that guy who’s really enjoying himself far too much as the Big Bad”. Later on I realised that he was the actor from Guinness ad 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. The fact that Fassbender had ended that ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again, suggested a trend – this was a guy who just couldn’t stop grinning mischievously because he was always enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender fell off my radar for a while so I only belatedly noticed that he grinned with some malevolence in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, as he got to be both an impeccably impassive servant and a sadistic serial killer; who, several years before Heath Ledger’s Joker, took a distinct pleasure in being tortured by Holmes. I also later caught up with ITV’s Poirot and discovered that Fassbender had smoked, drank, drawled and grinned his way thru After the Funeral.

But his ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where I really started to take this nonsense seriously, if you will. I have found among my circle that whoever watched 300 as a serious action drama thought it was unbearably bad, but whoever watched it thru the absurd prism of Fassbender (on my prompting) thought it was a deliriously great black comedy. Watching the film with Fassbender as your focus you realise just how much fun he’s obviously having. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning… Later he jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Well then, we shall fight in the shade”, with the air of a man once again enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender gets to be half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and, in his definitive moment of gleefulness, when the Persian mystics are throwing bombs Fassbender runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. In the darkness lit only by bomb blasts we can’t see Fassbender’s face underneath his helmet until we see his teeth, as he grins. Fassbender does something awesome in the denouement to allow Leonidas to do something even more awesome, before holding hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines; where even dying becomes a blast…

But, daft as it sounds, it was Fassbender’s subsequent role in Hunger that led me to go online and define Fassbendering, because, when announcing the casting news from Cannes the Irish Times, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to accompany the story that Fassbender was taking on this big serious role in what one would expect to be a grim sombre film, with a photo of Fassbender cracking up on set – as if there was nothing on this planet, not decency, not logic, that could prevent Fassbender from enjoying himself too much… And indeed Hunger did provide one moment which I deemed Fassbendering above and beyond the call of duty. In the midst of a serious performance in a serious film he still managed to sneak in a scene where, after being beaten up and then dropped naked and bloodied on the floor of his cell, his Bobby Sands rolls over, blood streaming from his mouth, and slowly grins at the camera… On retrospect this is obviously the moment where Sands realises he can defeat his captors by doing this to himself by going on hunger strike, but would anyone but Fassbender dare to do communicate this by a grin, that also serves to indicate that he knows he is doing a great job with this role and still can’t quite believe his luck.

Fassbender had a straight man role in Inglourious Basterds opposite Mike Myers’ absurdist British officer, and then in one of the tensest sequences in the film, but I argue that he was able to play things straight because he didn’t need to Fassbender, he’d already infected the entire ensemble. Christoph Waltz’s ecstatic glee at his role is pure Fassbendering, especially his appreciation of the musical qualities of Italian names and Diane Kruger’s explanation of her leg injury, during which he has to go off to one side to laugh himself sick. The trailer for Jonah Hex left me in tears of laughter as Fassbender’s first appearance as henchman Burke saw him grinning manically while dressed as a droog and setting fire to a barn with someone trapped in it. You can only hope that one day Fassbender gets to truly cut loose with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films.

So what is Fassbendering? I used 300 for the definition because it’s the supreme example of a man just obviously enjoying himself far too much for something that’s meant to be paid work, hence my quip – “On being handed the cheque he probably said ‘No, really I couldn’t. It’s just been such a blast. Can I keep the cape?” Now, Fassbendering is not unique to Fassbender, but only in one sense as I will argue in a minute. I would argue that the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be audibly heard Fassbendering their way thru BloodSugarSexMagik because when you listen to it you feel that they would do this for free, they are so obviously deriving too much enjoyment from their paid work. But Fassbendering always has a positive undertone, what is enjoyable for the performer is enjoyable for the audience too, unlike fiascos like Ocean’s 12 where a group of actors obviously having a ball does not translate into the warm hug of the audience that the same actors having a ball provides in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13. Fassbendering therefore is high praise when I use it for another actor, as I have occasionally done (Iron Man, Speed Racer, The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell, Death of A Salesman, 7 Reasons to Love Scott Pilgrim, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pygmalion, X-Men: First Class).

The part of Erik Lensherr is dark and vengeful, but there is some Fassbendering. The most obvious moments come in the recruitment and training montages where Erik suddenly reveals a hitherto unsuspected sardonic side. These are where any actor would grin widely at how much fun they’re having, even if Fassbender grins wider than most. The true moment that defines Fassbendering as something that only Michael Fassbender truly personifies comes in the extremely tense sequence in the Argentinian German Bar. Fassbender smiling widely drops loaded hints to the ex-Nazis, “They had no name. It was taken from them, by pig-farmers, and tailors”, his smile confusing the hell out of them, even as he slowly drains his drink, still looking affable, but perhaps to be feared. Fassbender is obviously enjoying himself far too much in this scene, but what’s more, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, he’s conveying an inner thought process of his character that other actors would not attempt – Erik really is obviously enjoying this Nazi-hunting business far too much…

June 2, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Matthew Vaughn finally gets to direct an X-Men movie, and the result is the best instalment of the X-franchise to date…

Beginning (as X-Men did) with Erik Lensherr traumatically discovering his powers of magnetism in Poland in 1944, the pre-credits sequence contrasts the parallel childhood experiences of Charles Xavier in upstate New York, where he welcomes in the young and terrified Mystique to his luxurious home, with that of Erik in a Nazi concentration camp, where Dr Schmidt sadistically hones Erik’s powers. Vaughn’s film pivots around the subsequent emotional and political developments, during the Cuban Missiles Crisis in 1962, of the events of this cold-open. Rose Byrne’s CIA agent Moira McTaggart endures Mad Men-style sexism while investigating the shady activities of the Hellfire Club. In a Mark Millar touch Vaughn and co-writers integrate Cuba into the story wonderfully, not by rewriting history but by suggesting that history as we know it is a carefully constructed cover-story to hide mutant involvement. Legendary comics villains the Hellfire Club, led by Sebastian Shaw (a nicely malevolent Kevin Bacon) and Emma Frost (an appropriately icy and under-dressed January Jones), appear to be manipulating both sides to ignite the Cold War. Moira needs help against mutants and so recruits Xavier, and subsequently Erik.

James McAvoy is yet again upstaged by someone lower-billed, because while McAvoy is very funny as a young Xavier using genetics as a chat-up routine, it pales next to the dark charisma of Michael Fassbender’s globe-trotting Nazi-hunter Erik. On seeing Xavier’s mansion Erik sardonically asks, “Charles, how did you ever survive such hardship?” The clash in philosophy between Erik and Xavier is finally given the substance it lacked in the original trilogy, and is personalised by Mystique (an affecting Jennifer Lawrence) being drawn to Erik over Xavier. Erik’s driven life is killing Nazis to avenge his race, while Xavier’s life has always been one of privilege. ‘Mutant and proud’ is a chat-up line for Xavier but, as Erik affectionately teaches her to embrace her appearance rather than hide it as Xavier wishes, it becomes Mystique’s self-definition. Erik’s quest to murder Shaw is a fulfilment of his tutelage by Schmidt, Xavier’s determination to prevent Erik the fulfilment of his compassion. Mystique must choose one philosophy…

Vaughn balances this tragedy with montages, of Erik and Xavier recruiting mutants for the CIA and training mutants at Xavier’s mansion, which are heavy on the Fassbendering. There are delightful cameos by a couple of cast members from the original trilogy as well as superb gags based on our knowledge of these characters’ futures. The action is also very well-handled with Erik’s single-handed attack on a Russian military base utterly thrilling, while an assault by the Hellfire Club on the CIA is notable for Vaughn showing real terror on the face of Xavier’s unprepared recruits, especially Mystique. The only gripe is that the second act can at times feel like two screenplays are being audibly bolted together. But these are mere quibbles when Vaughan can casually toss in an enormous shock in the finale, and then have a final scene that complicates comic-book morality as much as Kick-Ass.

There was a danger with this film’s title that critics would immediately call it second-rate at the slightest provocation; instead, it really is X-Men: First Class in every sense.

4.5/5

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