Talking Movies

November 18, 2015

Mockingjay: Part 2

The Hunger Games saga comes to a conclusion with a hugely enjoyable film that unleashes some surprises before it succumbs to Peterjacksonitis in actually ending.

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Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is recovering from a brutal attack by her brainwashed beau Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). As the medics of District 13 try to deprogramme him from the sadistic conditioning inflicted by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss is frustrated in her quest for vengeance by rebel President Coin (Julianne Moore); who insists on keeping her off the front lines. But when Katniss goes AWOL it’s not very AWOL as Coin and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) form a propaganda core around her including Peeta, childhood friend Gayle (Liam Hemsworth), film-maker Cressida (Natalie Dormer), and fellow Victor Finnick (Sam Claflin). But their mission to make propaganda just behind the frontlines and Katniss’ wish to assassinate Snow personally soon lead to chaos and tragedy.

Mockingjay: Part 2 is tonally quite different to last year’s Mockingjay. Director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems shoot it with huge assurance, but it never really establishes what kind of new iteration of Hunger Games movie it wants to be. Instead it feels like the propaganda war of the last one, mashed together with a ‘guys on a mission’ movie to give more action beats to the story. And that’s before we get to how it really falls prey to the Lord of the Rings curse of not knowing how to get off the stage. But that’s not to say there is not much to love here. The location shooting in Paris and Berlin is terrific, rendering the deserted Capitol a fitting venue for the ’76th annual Hunger Games’ as Finnick dryly dubs Snow’s desperate gambit to booby-trap his own city.

Ocean’s 11 production design Philip Messina has worked on all the Hunger Games movies, and his work here completes the fleshing out of the Panem universe that began with the bigger budget of Catching Fire. Francis Lawrence showcases some agonisingly suspenseful directing in a sequence where the suicide squad (sic) are attacked by Capitol mutts in the sewers. It is a marvel from start to finish, with the claustrophobic tunnels lit minimally while the tension builds reminiscent of Alien, while the action makes you think this was what Alien Resurrection might have been aiming for in its trademark episode. Lawrence’s love of complicated villains also continues with Donald Sutherland working wonders with his six scenes as he sows doubts in Katniss’ mind, and the film embraces a deeply cynical view of messianic leadership.

Mockingjay: Part 2 could have been leaner, but it could scarcely have been meaner, and it comes out fighting for most of its running time.

3.5/5

February 12, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney’s last directorial outing, The Ides of March, was compelling if histrionic, but his return to the director’s chair is a sadly muddled affair.

the-monuments-men-matt-damon-george-clooneyFrank Stokes (George Clooney) approaches President Roosevelt in 1944 to plead with him not to destroy Europe’s priceless heritage in the act of liberating it. Roosevelt agrees, and so Stokes is tasked with finding some other art historians, sculptors and curators to enlist in a highly specialised unit – The Monuments Men. Stokes rounds up Chicago architect Campbell (Bill Murray), Campbell’s friend Preston (Bob Balaban), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), drunken Brit Donald (Hugh Bonneville), and Met curator James Granger (Matt Damon). A French mechanic and curator Clermont (Jean Dujardin), and Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a New Jersey private from Germany, are added to the roster in Europe. But not only must they work with icy Parisian Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to find priceless works of art, they must outwit determined Russian and German counterparts tasked with, respectively, stealing and burning it…

I wrote that last sentence to imply tension, because there ought to be a lot of it, given both Hitler’s Nero decree, ordering the destruction of everything in the event of his death, and the startling opening credits image of Italians desperately shoring up a bomb-damaged wall which is revealed to have Da Vinci’s Last Supper on it. Instead Clooney and his eternal co-writer Grant Heslov only inject urgency for the finale as frantic deductions lead Stokes’ men to a cache of stolen art just as Zahary Baharov’s Russian art-thief Commander Elya is closing in on it. Frankenheimer’s The Train is the touchstone for this movie, but Clooney introduces two successive Nazi villains Stahl (Justus von Dohnanyi) and Col. Wegner (Holger Handtke), neither of whom equal Paul Scofield’s avaricious Von Waldheim; even though Wegner is given a juicily suspenseful sequence.

There were 400 Monuments Men, not 7, so inventing a strong villain wouldn’t be outré. It’s a symptom of a wider lack of purpose. Blanchett and Damon’s characters are largely redundant, and Andre Desplat, in their clumsy seduction scene and his constant insertion of jaunty comic cues, scores an entirely different film. Clooney’s vignettes range from the amusing (Damon’s appalling ‘fluent’ French) to the shocking (a startling sequence in a wood clearing) and the hackneyed (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ being sung over the Battle of the Bulge), but they never cohere into a story, owing to bewildering tonal inconsistency, and he fails to flesh out just 7 characters compared to the Ocean’s characterised ensemble. The importance of saving art is reduced to an argument winnable by a single word from a cameoing Nick Clooney, but there’s no compensatory joyous ‘greatest art heist’ ever…

This approaches The Internship for uncomfortable parallels. Stokes is too old to fight, so he assembles aged men to embark on a loftier mission than the young grunts, just as Clooney retreats from blockbusters to prestige films. Monuments Men is always watchable but falls badly between crowd-pleasing and cerebral-pleasing.

2.75/5

January 28, 2014

2014: Hopes

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The Monuments Men

George Clooney stars, co-writes with Grant Heslov again, and directs what seems like a promising mash-up of The Train and Ocean’s 11, arriving sometime in February. Somewhat based on fact, a crack team of art experts and soldiers are assembled in the dying months of WWII to try and rescue priceless works of art from wanton destruction at the hands of nihilistic Nazis. The team includes regular Clooney cohort Matt Damon and the great Cate Blanchett, alongside the undoubtedly scene-stealing comedic duo of Bill Murray and John Goodman, and oddly Jean Dujardin. Can Clooney pull off a more serious art heist from Nazis caper? Fingers crossed he can.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson returns in March, apparently in thrall to Lubitsch and Lang. Edward Norton did so well in Moonrise Kingdom that he’s invited back alongside Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, and Owen Wilson. Newcomers are Ralph Fiennes, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric, and F Murray Abraham. Fiennes is the legendary concierge of the titular hotel in inter-war Europe, where any gathering storms are ignored in favour of absurd murder plots, art thefts and family squabbles gone mad, as Fiennes gives his lobby-boy protégé an education in dealing with the upper classes which he’ll never forget; if they escape a sticky end long enough to remember.

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Veronica Mars

AW YEAH!! It was cancelled in 2007 but Kristen Bell’s iconic teen detective snoops again as creator Rob Thomas sends NYC legal eagle Veronica back to sunny Neptune to attend her high school reunion. Present and correct are friends Mac (Tina Majorino) and Wallace (Percy Daggs III), nemesis Madison (Amanda Noret), and frenemy Dick (Ryan Hansen). Dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) remains a sage, warning against the obvious peril of insipid boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) being replaced in her affections by roguish ex Logan (Jason Dohring), who is once again accused of murder and asking for V’s help. Please let the sparks of ‘epic love’ spanning ‘decades and continents’ rekindle!

Frank

Lenny Abrahamson is the opposite of a Talking Movies favourite, but he’s teamed up with the favourite di tutti favourites Michael Fassbender. Thankfully Abrahamson’s miserabilist tendencies and agonising inertness have been put to one side for this rock-star comedy co-written by journalist Jon Ronson, a man with a verified eye for the absurd having written The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. The original script loosely based on a cult English comic musician follows wannabe musician Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins a pop band led by the enigmatic Frank (Fassbender) and his scary girlfriend Maggie Gyllenhaal.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Literally everything I loved most about the original disappeared with the time-jump. So the major attraction of April’s sequel isn’t Robert Redford as a shady new SHIELD director, but Revenge’s icy heroine Emily VanCamp as the mysterious Agent 13. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow regrettably take the place of Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell in support, but Anthony Mackie as sidekick Falcon is a major boon. The real worry is that directors Joe and Anthony Russo (You, Me and Dupree, yes, that’s right, that’s their resume) will be intimidated by their budget into endless CGI action and precious little else.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I’m excited and nostalgic, because May 23rd sees the arrival of the X-3 we deserved, but never got. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he launched for one of Claremont/Byrne’s most famous storylines. In a dystopian future, where mutantkind has been decimated by the Sentinels of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage),Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman – this is a movie, not a comic, it’s all got to be about Wolverine!) is sent back into the past by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) to alter history by rapprochement of their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence co-stars, with every X-Men actor!

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22 Jump Street
A proper summer blockbuster release date of June 13th for this sequel recognises the hilarious success of the absurd original. Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) (or was it the other way round?) go undercover in college to crack another drug ring, and once again their fantastic bromance starts to crack under the strain. The original’s unwieldy team of writers and directors are back, as are Ice Cube, Nick Offerman, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco. Amber Stevens and Wyatt Russell are the college kids, but sadly Brie Larson is absent. Jonah Hill appears in full goth gear, which seems to suggest that the absurdity levels remain healthy.

The Trip to Italy

It’s not clear yet if we’ll get this as an abridged film or just be treated to the full version as 6 episodes on BBC 2. In either case Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reunite to play heightened versions of themselves as they bicker their way around restaurants in Italy for the purposes of writing magazine reviews. 2010’s endearing roving sitcom The Trip, with its competitive Michael Caine impersonations was a joy, and director Michael Winterbottom takes the show on tour here. And no better man for the job, as this originated with their duelling Al Pacinos at the end of his A Cock and Bull Story.

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Magic in the Moonlight
Woody Allen’s latest should hit our screens around September. This time round the cottage industry is giving us a period romantic comedy, set in the south of France, which takes place in the 1920s and 1930s. The cast is as usual intimidating: Emma Stone, Colin Firth, Marcia Gay Harden, the imperious Eileen Atkins (one of the few actresses capable of domineering over Judi Dench), and Jacki Weaver. Will F Scott and his ilk make an appearance? Who knows! There are no details, just stills of open-top cars, drop waists, and cloche hats so this could be a close cousin of Sweet & Lowdown or Midnight in Paris.

Gone Girl

The start of October sees the great David Fincher return, with his first film in three years, and it’s another adaptation of a wildly successful crime novel. Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) are seemingly the perfect couple, but when she disappears suddenly on their 5th wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect as he discovers his wife told friends she was scared of him. Could he have killed her? Or is the truth far more twisted? Gillian Flynn has adapted her own work, and, incredibly, penned an entirely new third act to keep everyone guessing. The unusually colourful supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris and Patrick Fugit.

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The Interview
The pitch is that an attractive talk show host and his producer unwittingly get caught up in an international assassination plot. So far so blah, if that was say Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson directed by Shawn Levy, except that the host is actually James Franco, the producer is Seth Rogen, the interview is in North Korea, and the awesome Lizzy Caplan is the rogue femme fatale CIA agent who drags them into all sorts of mischief. And it’s written and directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg who distinguished themselves with 2013’s best comedy This is The End. This is very likely to mop up the non-Gone Girl audience.

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan tries to redeem himself after TDKR with a small personal project, taking the same release date as The Prestige did. Well, small, in that the WB needed Paramount to stump up some cash for it, and personal, in that Spielberg spent years developing it; albeit with the assistance of Jonathan Nolan. Scientists attempt to observe a wormhole into another dimension, and that’s about all we know, other than vague speculations about ecological crises. Matthew McConaughey 2.0 stars alongside Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, John Lithgow, Jessica Chastain, and, yes, Michael Caine – who is now as essential a part of the signature as Bill Murray for Wes Anderson.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I

Jennifer Lawrence goes for third biggest hit at the North American box office for the third year in a row with her latest turn as rebel heroine Katniss Everdeen on November 21st. Having survived the Quarter Quell and the destruction of her District, she discovers President Snow has Peeta hostage, and that the rebellion has a leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore), ready to embark on a full-scale bloody war of rebellion against the Capitol. Recount writer (and Buffy shmuck) Danny Strong is the new screenwriter, and Elementary star Natalie Dormer joins the cast, but director Francis Lawrence remains in situ, with his considered visual style.

January 9, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2013

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(10) Fast and Furious 6

This falls short of its illustrious immediate predecessor, but director Justin Lin’s sign-off to the Vin Diesel franchise he invigorated retained its Ocean’s 11 with petrol-heads vibe. A spectacular action sequence with a tank on a freeway, a charismatic villain with an outrageously designed car, and an over-busy finale as outsize as the runway it took place on were all elevated by a pervasive air of sadness. Poor Han…

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(9) Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence nuanced her formidable Hunger Games heroine with PTSD as she fought a deadly PR battle with President Donald Sutherland and his lieutenant Philip Seymour Hoffman. Confidence oozed from this movie, a quality noticeable in its expanded ensemble. Director Francis Lawrence’s trademark held shots and action tracks created a more rounded universe with complex villains as well as tense CGI suspense sequences in which the geography of the action was always nicely legible.

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 (8) Short Term 12

Newcomer Destin Cretton helmed his own prize-winning script about twenty-something counsellors at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers to beautiful effect. Brie Larson is outstanding as the enigmatic lead counsellor Grace, but nuanced turns from Kaitlyn Dever as possible abuse victim Jayden, Keith Stanfield as suicidal rapper Marcus, and John Gallagher Jr as Grace’s long-suffering boyfriend all draw us into an unfamiliar world detailed with insight, humour, and a tempered optimism.

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(7) White House Down

Roland Emmerich’s nonsensical Die Hard movie joyously proclaimed its debt (the villain ‘discovered’ a connection between the hero and a female hostage), paid off every plant in sight from President Obama Jamie Foxx’s Lincoln fandom to what Channing Tatum’s daughter’s six weeks honing a skill for her talent show, featured an aggressive right-wing news anchor who wouldn’t stop crying, and forced a miscast Maggie Gyllenhaal to commit so ferociously she grounded the whole thing.

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(6) Now You See Me

This Ocean’s 11 with magicians romp was gloriously insouciant crowd-pleasing fun that never flagged, and flirted with cliché but avoided its embrace. Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco breezed thru flashily staged sequences of magical revenge against the 1% as their ‘Four Horsemen’ magicians caused chaos across America while being hunted by Mark Ruffalo (FBI/Scully) and Melanie Laurent (Interpol/Mulder) who began to wonder – can these be real magicks?

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(5) Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach combined as writers to potent effect for a film in thrall to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Its monochrome NYC looked incredible, the comedy was superb and clever, it used pop music to amazingly emotional effect, and it was based around an outstanding performance from Gerwig in a richly written part. From her money worries and anxieties at meeting richer people and more successful contemporaries, to her exaggerations about her success to hide embarrassment at her failures, to plain loopy decisions, this was a piercing, realistic insight into failure.

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(4) Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen mined a tragic vein as Cate Blanchett’s humbled socialite Jasmine stayed in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine tried to replace Ginger’s boyfriend Bobby Cannavale with Louis CK, and to replace her own dead tycoon husband (Alec Baldwin) with a widowed diplomat (Peter Sarsgaard). Two women’s romances and mental disintegration recalled Vicky Cristina Barcelona but this was far superior. Fantastic comedy from unsubtle suitors and Blanchett’s waspish tongue was combined with her extraordinary expressive portrayal of schizophrenic breaks from reality as she talked intimately to thin air, seeing people.

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(3) This is The End

Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg’s directorial debut in which Seth, James Franco, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride attempted to wait out the apocalypse in a Hollywood mansion stuffed with drugs and no food was a largely unstructured ramble from one absurd set-up to the next profane bout of self-indulgence, and it was fantastic. Emma Watson’s extended axe-wielding cameo was spectacular, the theology of how to survive the end of days was ludicrous, and the use of music reduced me to helpless tears of laughter; especially the final two songs.

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(2) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Writer/director David Lowery’s stunning tale of young criminals in love in 1970s Texas played out like Badlands re-imagined by Jeff Nichols. Rigorously under-lit by Bradford Young its glorious darkness created a moody, romantic atmosphere in which the abiding passion of parted lovers Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Casey Affleck) assumed mythic proportions. Keith Carradine as Bob’s mentor and Ben Foster as the lawman Ruth once shot grounded this world, and Lowery built tension expertly around Bob’s escape from jail to Ruth to a suspenseful finale which ended with an image of savage grace.

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(1) Mud

Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols returned with an Arkansan tale indebted to Mark Twain as a modern Huck and Tom helped Matthew McConaughey’s titular fugitive. Teenager Tye Sheridan gave a subtle turn as Ellis, who reacted to his parents’ disintegrating marriage by bonding with Mud and his unquenchable belief in true love, despite mysterious neighbour Sam Shepard’s warning that Mud was a fool in waiting for unreliable Reese Witherspoon. DP Adam Stone imbued the Arkansan locations with a heavenly sheen, and, while Mud hiding out a river island living in a boat in a tree observing local superstitions gave rise to great comedy, there was also Twain’s darkness in blood feuds. Nichols’ third film was rich, absorbing, cautiously optimistic, and lit by a deep affection for his characters.

March 7, 2013

Parker

Jason Statham stretches his acting muscles again, but unlike last year’s  underwhelming Safe, Parker comes with a writer and director of  pretty high calibre attached.

Parker

Statham is (you’ve guessed it) Parker, who we first meet disguised as a  priest to execute a heist at the Ohio State Fair. The disguise, amusingly  enough, isn’t entirely outrageous – as Parker reveals his inviolable ethical  code: “I only steal from those who can afford it, and I only hurt people who  deserve it.” Unfortunately his father-in-law Hurley (Nick Nolte) has lumbered  him with some unethical thieves (Michael Chiklis, Clifford Collins Jr, Wendell  Pierce) who leave Parker for dead on a roadside. Parker survives and tracks them  to Florida, where he uses struggling realtor Leslie (Jennifer Lopez) to pinpoint  their location, and, in an unlikely alliance, identify their next heist. But can  Parker focus on stealing the haul and killing his betrayers when Chicago mob  boss Danziger has unleashed an assassin to eliminate both Parker and his wife  (Emma Booth)?

This is based on the Parker novel Flash Fire by Richard Stark aka Donald  Westlake, which makes you wonder (given Point  Blank) if he only had one plot:  Parker, left for dead, survives, seeks revenge. It’s a good plot, and Black Swan and Carnivale scribe John McLaughlin renders it  the kind of entertaining crime popcorn Hollywood’s fallen out of doing. Unlike  the last Stark flick Payback the  plentiful violence here isn’t sadistic; indeed the scene you’ll wincingly  remember is stunningly masochistic. The State is notably endearing as he beats  people up, is nice to dogs, and delivers the immortal threat of an agonising  death by crushing a man’s trachea with a chair with the kicker – “Plus there’s  the posthumous humiliation of having been killed by a chair.” Indeed, like Ocean’s 11, when J-Lo makes her belated  entrance it’s slightly unnecessary.

Not to imply that J-Lo’s role,  comic relief with realistic tragic undertones, is redundant; but by that point  it is extra icing on the cake director Taylor Hackford has made. Hackford uses  Palm Beach locations wonderfully as Parker realises crime cannot flourish on an  island with drawbridges, and he stages a recriminating conversation between  Parker and Hurley as dramatically as the beach argument in Rampart. The many fights are brutal enough to  keep State fans happy, and the increasing paranoia of Chiklis’ gang-leader  Melander is well justified as Parker infiltrates his preparations for a massive  diamond heist. The ice is to be fenced by Danziger’s moronic nephew Hardwicke  (Micah Hauptman, who memorably cameoed as ‘Kripke’ in Ben Edlund’s meta-madness Supernatural episode), which is why a  terrifying assassin (Matrix Reloaded  Agent Daniel Bernhardt) is hunting Parker with brutally violent grim  efficiency.

Is Parker an avenging Angel of the Lord as suggested? He certainly seems  indestructible, albeit far from invulnerable, and Parker is another fun Statham franchise that  deserves further outings.

3/5

February 1, 2012

Man on a Ledge

Asger Leth makes the jump from directing documentaries to directing features with a caper movie, which sees a potential jumper provide distraction for an audacious heist.

Sam Worthington is the mysterious suited man who checks into the Hotel Roosevelt as the splendidly implausibly named Jay Walker, and promptly steps onto a 21st floor ledge bringing traffic to a standstill in Midtown. Cops surround 45th and Madison predicting that if he jumps he’s going to make quite a mess, as well as ruin the reception honouring Dave Englander, Ed Harris’ reptilian corporate monster. Leth neatly flashbacks to Worthington in prison as we discover he’s actually Nick Cassidy, a disgraced ex-cop who stole a fabled diamond from Englander. Nick then delightfully explodes a cinematic cliché while staging a jailbreak at his father’s funeral. Leth quickly reveals that Nick’s ledge stunt is cover for his brother (Jamie Bell) to steal the diamond again to prove Englander’s fraud, and playfully teases us with the possibility that Nick’s ex-partner Mike (Anthony Mackie) is aiding him too.

The situation escalates as Nick’s specially requested NYPD negotiator Lydia (Elizabeth Banks) arrives even as Kyra Sedgewick’s TV news reporter stirs up the crowd; who are equal parts clumsy Dog Day Afternoon homage and Occupy Wall Street reference. The execution of the heist is good fun, but not as slick as the Soderbergh Ocean’s gold standard, and the final act is pure implausible Violence as Function with characters shooting everything in sight in the hope a resolution might emerge from the gunsmoke. Oddly enough the performances are what remain in the memory afterwards. Banks is part of an unusual cabal (Emily Blunt, Judy Greer, Sarah Paulson) of wonderful comedic actresses who are equally effective in dramatic parts. Her introduction as the burnt-out Lydia is pure low-comedy but she thereafter powers the drama.

Worthington continues to be an adequate leading man, but not much more; with his ever wavering American accent a constant distraction. Jamie Bell displayed signs of impressive acting maturity in last year’s Jane Eyre but he fares less well here, shackled as he is to a comedy double act with the deeply unimpressive soap star Genesis Rodriguez. It’s hard to know if Rodriguez was cast purely for her physique, showcased in one sequence, or whether she’s being let down terribly by the scripting of her part. Her character feels as tonally wrong as Ugly Betty’s Hilda Suarez being dropped into the screenplay for Inside Man. Mackie and Harris are sadly underused, but Harris Fassbenders immensely because Englander is the sins of the 1% made flesh. Titus Welliver is equally joyful as Nathan Marcus, head negotiator who’s overly deferential to Englander’s power.

Man on a Ledge isn’t a dazzling film by any means, but it is solidly entertaining for its 102 minute running time and ends pleasantly with one last feel-good twist.

3/5

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…

April 13, 2011

Salvage Operation: Ocean’s Thirteen

2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen got lumped in with that summer’s plague of under-performing threequels but, while it is not as masterful as 2001’s joyous franchise-originator, not only does it atone for Ocean’s Twelve it also contains, amid the stylish shots and great music, one genuinely great sub-plot which should be salvaged for posterity.

Casey Affleck is dispatched to Mexico to infiltrate the factory which makes the die for villain Al Pacino’s casino and introduce a new polymer into the mix so that the elaborate con can be pulled off by flipping the loaded die in the finale. However he’s no sooner there, ‘blending in’ with his hilarious/racist moustache, than he starts complaining about the lack of air-conditioning in the factory. However another worker tells him to stop complaining and put his mask back on before he gets them all fired, the evil factory owners are watching them… Later we see Affleck in el local taverna complaining about el conditiones bestiale; delightfully these sequences barely need to be subtitled, so perfectly chosen are the Spanish words to be half-comprehensible. Affleck ends by gazing at a poster of Zapata on the wall and muttering revolutionary sentiments. Guess what happens next… Back in the main plot George Clooney and Brad Pitt hear that the factory is offline. Why, they ask puzzledly? Cut to Affleck leading the chants of the workers separated from their factory by a wire fence.

Affleck’s screen brother Scott Caan is dispatched to sort this nonsense out and get the factory back online so that the loaded die will arrive in time for the third act. A short while later Clooney and Pitt ring him for an update, which he delivers with his phone in one hand while lighting and then hurling a Molotov cocktail over the wire fence at the guards with the other – “It’ll be fine, we just have to break the bosses”. Finally the demand comes thru and Clooney does a quick mental calculation: 36,000 dollars, by 220 workers, equals 7 million. No, he’s told, 36,000 dollars in total, not per worker… “We’ll send them a cheque” he replies. “He had them out for 3.50 dollars more a week?” another con-man asks indignantly. “Hey, that’s a 5% pay-rise for them” says Bernie Mac. Cue Affleck and Caan leading the charge of triumphant workers back to the factory, and then they drive off in the truck with their loaded die, to rejoin the main plot by harassing an unfortunate hotel inspector and causing earthquakes.

And so Ocean’s Thirteen may be the closest that mainstream Hollywood will ever get to satirically critiquing the progress of globalisation thru zero-sum game outsourcing aka the race to the bottom. Who’d a thunk it?

April 5, 2011

Any Other Business

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 portmanteau blog post on television of course!

Johnny Whitworth Abu!
I was delighted to see Johnny Whitworth pop up in a supporting role pushing mind-opening drugs to Bradley Cooper’s protagonist in Limitless. Whitworth had a recurring role a while ago on CSI: Miami as Calleigh’s ex-boyfriend, a roguish narcotics officer deep undercover in a criminal gang, who later got back onto regular duty after more than a few questions about which side of the law his blurred loyalties now belonged to. He was always effortlessly charismatic in this part, aided by an awesome Southern burr which enlivened Brandoesque mumbling, so it’s nice to see his profile rising.

Meta-Textual Moira?
Moira Kirland may have necessitated a new technical term with a deranged reference in Castle season 2 episode ‘Tick, Tick, Tick…’ The brilliant unpredictability of Castle’s mysteries is in no small part down to the presence of Kirland and Rene Echevarria as writer/producers, as both of them were very important presences in the equally twisty Medium. In this particular Castle episode Dana Delaney appears as an FBI agent venerated by Castle. She mentions one of her past cases as being the Recapitator in Phoenix, Arizona. Kirland wrote some of the three-part Medium season 3 finale featuring extremely twisted serial killer the Recapitator, who left his first victim’s head on his second victim’s body, and his second victim’s head on his third victim’s body, and so on… But Medium is a CBS show while Castle is on ABC, and Medium’s supernatural premise inhabits a different type of fictional universe than Castle’s comic verisimilitude. The reference would clue-in Medium fans like me that darkness was imminent and indeed Kirland ended the episode with an almighty shock. But self-referential, inter-textual, non-own network promotional, in-jokey, audience-alerting touches like that surely need to have a term all their own. What’s a good one?

A Lenkov Touch
A post is imminent about his writing for CSI: NY but here let me note that the first pure Lenkov touch has been noticed in Hawaii Five-O. Peter M Lenkov left CSI: NY to run Hawaii Five-O for busy writer/producers JR Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and, with the help of fellow CSI scribe Sarah Goldfinger, he’s exceeded expectations with entertaining high-stakes mysteries. But a prolonged conversation between McGarrett and Dano about the respective tourist attractions of Hawaii and New Jersey was so spectacularly irrelevant to the plot that it could only have come from the absurdist Lenkov.

“I’m never leaving! You hear? Never!”
Talking of Hawaii Five-O let’s all loudly cheer Daniel Dae Kim’s awesomeness. The reboot of Hawaii Five-O has been used as a life-raft by Alex O’Loughlin (Moonlight was prematurely cancelled), Grace Park (BSG finally ran its course), and Scott Caan (Ocean’s 14 is never happening), but Daniel Dae Kim’s snagging of the role of Chin is the most impressive of them all. Not only does Kim get to use his actual accent speaking English, which I haven’t heard since his glory days as Agent Baker in Day 3 of 24, but he has contrived after 6 years on LOST to instantly jump straight into another show being shot on the same Hawaiian island of O’ahu. The chances of being able to make such a jump must be somewhere around the chances of being able to see Halley’s Comet pass earth and yet, and this is where things get delicious, if Hawaii Five-O runs for as long as its original incarnation (and it’s solidly entertaining popcorn TV in a beautiful setting so it has a reasonable chance of doing so) Kim will have managed to contrive no fewer than 18 years of filming in Hawaii…

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