Talking Movies

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…

October 22, 2009

Fantastic Mr Fox

Wes Anderson deploys all his cinematic trademarks to bring Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s story to stop-motion animated life and the results are, well, yes, rather fantastic actually…

The film opens with Mr Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and his wife (Meryl Streep) breaking into a farm to steal chickens in a sequence devised as one long tracking shot, scored by the Beach Boys’ Heroes and Villains, and filled with ridiculous acrobatics by the foxes to avoid detection before they fall for the oldest trick in the book. When we fast-forward two human years/twelve fox years Mr Fox is raising a moody cub and is a social columnist for the local newspaper having promised his wife that he is retired from poaching. Yeah, that’ll last. Sure enough Mr Fox has a mid-life crisis and bullies his grouchy attorney Badger (Bill Murray) into securing him a new tree-home with a view – a view of three farms run by the evil farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean.

Clooney’s Fox, not unlike his Danny Ocean, plots an audacious poaching strike on all three farms. Clooney’s always distinctive voice is perfect casting as its mixture of charm and unctuousness captures the arrogance that gets Fox into trouble and the quick-wittedness that gets him out of scrapes. This scrape is though is very tricky as he incurs the wrath of the smartest of the farmers Bean, richly played by Michael Gambon in a vocal performance that occasionally recalls Ben Kingsley’s villain in Sexy Beast, who makes it his mission to kill Fox even if he has to dynamite half the countryside to do so. Indeed requests for dynamite are just one of many requests issued to Bean’s chief henchman Petey, (voiced by Jarvis Cocker who performs a campfire song which is then hilariously critiqued by Bean) the funniest of which involves a plaintive request to fetch a ladder.

Anderson has injected so much of himself into this story that Dahl would probably raise an eyebrow. Some of the greatest comedy moments come from the indie director filming scenes with his too hip whip-pans and artful long takes of deadpan dialogue, then having the be-suited animals suddenly behave like animals, or from adding lines only adults will appreciate like the besieged Fox sighing “Well this is just going to turn out a complete cluster-cuss for all concerned” and filming confrontations in the style of spaghetti westerns. Mostly this Anderson-isation of Dahl works but the lack of explanation of why animals living in 1950s England sound American occasionally grates when we’re given nonsensical moments like Owen Wilson’s cameo as a high-school sports-coach, while Jason Schwartzman’s neurotic shtick as Fox’s moody cub, intensely jealous of the attention his athletic cousin Kristofferson is given by Fox, wears thin very quickly.

Seeing Anderson’s unmistakeable style in stop-motion is endearing but it is the mixing of his studied sensibility with Dahl’s anarchy which raises this far above the rival auto-pilot ‘the moral is always be yourself’ animations of Dreamworks. Recommended viewing.


October 13, 2009

Films of the Decade?

Lists are generally easy when you don’t think about them too much. Easter 1998, lying in the grass on a sunny Kingston Hill, I and my friend John Fahey paused from football and in about 5 minutes picked out the one film that defined its decade, right back to the 1930s.

1990s – Pulp Fiction
1980s –Wall Street
1970s – All the President’s Men
1960s – Goldfinger
1950s – Ben-Hur
1940s – Casablanca
1930s – Gone with the Wind

Looking back at that list over 11 years later it holds up pretty well for what was a pretty facile exercise in that each film can arguably be held to represent a particular cultural zeitgeist in each decade (even if one has to reach to shoe-horn in Ben-Hur) with the arrival of Gone with the Wind just before the world plunges into World War II seeming particularly apt, indeed its still unbeatable box-office success may be because people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling thru it all. Now trying to do an equivalent list of the top 10 films of just this decade seems well nigh impossible… How do you make a list of the best films of the 2000s hereinafter known as the Zeros? I have no idea, well, that’s not true, I have too many ideas, hence the utter agony of trying to construct the list…

Should you simply pick the 10 films that you liked best? (The Dark Knight, The Lord of the Rings) Or should it be 10 films that in some (in)tangible way seemed to sum up the decade? (Fahrenheit 9/11) If you choose the latter route do you pick films that were influential over films that came later that were better but needed the initial film’s breakthrough? (Brokeback Mountain, Milk) Even more importantly do you pick films that you didn’t like or didn’t see just because you know they’re ‘important’? (Crash, Babel) Do you act like a pretentious film critic and load the list with foreign films that only 45 people in the country ever saw because they were at the press screenings too? (Waltz with Bashir) Or is allocating a set number of places for foreign films an unforgivably tokenistic way to get round the problem of popular imagination being largely defined by American releases? (Mesrine: 1& 2)

Does a film need to be set in its own decade to actually define that decade or can it do so by allegory? (Good Night and Good Luck) Do films reflecting the awesome impact of 9/11 and Iraq inherently capture the decade in a way films that blithely ignore those events simply cannot? (War of the Worlds, Land of the Dead) Does torture porn reflect/critique the Abu Ghraib mindset and therefore demand a place on any serious list even if you despised it? (Hostel) Do you just try to be comprehensive by shoe-horning in as many genres as possible into your top 10? (Superbad, The Fog of War) If a genre dominates a decade does it deserve disproportionate weighting, like Spider-Man and The Dark Knight both getting into the Top 10 as opposite ends of the comic-book spectrum?

At the moment I’m thinking that films which have stood the test of time and have matured deserve places most. So, here’s the top 20 films of the decade:


Memento    Almost Famous    Moulin Rouge!    Donnie Darko    The Lord of the Rings    Ocean’s Eleven                                                          


The Rules of Attraction    Master & Commander    Mean Girls    Good Night and Good Luck    Brick    Casino Royale    Stranger than Fiction


Zodiac    Atonement    I’m Not There    Wanted    Caramel    The Dark Knight    Milk                           


As of right now…

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