Talking Movies

June 29, 2019

On Rewatching Movies

The Atlantic recently showcased some findings from behavioural economists suggesting that we overvalue novelty and undervalue repetition, and it made me think about how I’ve been watching movies of late.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Do I anticipate Trump? Very well then I anticipate Trump.

I have been finding it hard, looking back to 2010 in the last few weeks, to get a handle on the contours of this decade, cinematically speaking. And I think some of that difficulty is owing to my not having rewatched as many movies as I would have done during the previous decade. This was a deliberate decision to use my time to add as many new titles to my ken as possible rather than simply rewatching what I had already seen. And that decision has been quite rewarding: I have seen more Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, and Mia Hansen-Love films than I would’ve had I not sought them out. But it seems there is an opportunity cost: if you focus on expanding your knowledge, it comes at the cost of deepening existing knowledge.

There is a lot to be said for repetition to really soak in a film. After all a vital check on whether a film really stands up is whether it can be rewatched with profit. I saw Birdman and High-Rise twice within days and loved them both times. In the case of High-Rise I had a totally different viewing experience each time: a crowded screening in IFI 2, where Stephen Errity and I managed to miss the opening scene, brought out the comedy of the film, whereas a deserted screening in IFI 1 with Paul Fennessy brought out the visual grandeur of the film. John Healy opines that repetition, like constantly catching snippets or indeed all of Jaws on heavy rotation on a movie channel, allows you enjoy lots of little details you’d otherwise miss without seeing it so often.

Little details can create what I’ve previously dubbed ‘mental architecture’. Watching The Matrix again and again and again you find yourself responding to someone asking your name with ‘Yeah, that’s me’ and only later realise you were quoting Keanu Reeves. Clambering off the floor with a somewhat awkward grace you realise later you were approximating how Keanu Reeves got up off his knees at the end of Constantine. In neither instance were these conscious emulations, simply physical or verbal replications of an oft-seen physical action or verbal response. The joy of repetition is that which comes from knowing a movie inside out: like watching a James Bond movie with my Dad, hooting at in-jokes about Ken Adam’s inability to stop blowing the budget on working monorails, or quoting along to The Matrix Reloaded line after line en masse with friends.

Whooping up Back to the Future Day on ITV 2 with my Dad back in 2015 wouldn’t have been half as awesome if we hadn’t watched each film repeatedly together over three decades. When Dad couldn’t countenance a full film I would summon from the DVR just the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, Donald Sutherland’s JFK monologue, the Joker’s attack on the van in The Dark Knight:

At the far left of the shelf of DVDs was a single unlabelled videocassette. Schwartz slid it out with a finger and popped it into the ancient VCR.

“What’s this?” Henry asked.

“You’ll see.”

Schwartz watched this tape alone sometimes, late at night, the way he reread certain passages of Aurelius. It restored some nameless element of his personality that threatened to slip away if he didn’t stay vigilant. (The Art of Fielding)

Repetition can allow us grasp a film from different angles, enjoy the red herrings we missed before, create personal in-jokes, and provide us with an idiosyncratic frame of reference. But it can also utterly surprise. I was experiencing the rare joy of sharing a friend’s first encounter with a classic in 2017 when I nearly gasped at Citizen Kane on the big screen. Donald Trump’s threat to Hillary Clinton during their debates that he would, if elected, appoint a special prosecutor to look into her situation, now found an incredible anticipation in Charles Foster Kane’s threat during his speech that his “first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W Gettys”. There was now a new meaning in an old text.

In the case of Citizen Kane and American politics life was imitating art, as Oscar Wilde opined happened more often than vice versa, and a piece of art that had seemed to have a stable meaning had had that meaning upended. Repetition is not old hat in a world of novelty and completist instincts. It is both a time machine, that can enable us remember the way we enjoyed a movie the first time we saw it and remember ourselves and the milieu of that experience, and a transmogrifier that reworks old movies into something we never suspected our contemporary.

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April 28, 2019

Keanu Reeves at the Lighthouse

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 1:44 pm
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The Lighthouse cinema is gearing up for something called Keanurama, a whole season of films starring the inimitable Keanu Reeves. Talking Movies‘ reaction to this news could only be captured by one word – whoa.

There is a veritable feast of Keanu Reeves on offer here, from his team-ups with Winona Ryder in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, A Scanner Darkly and Destination Wedding to his 1990s-defining action movies Point Break and Speed, from his indie classics River’s Edge and My Own Private Idaho to his mainstream hits Parenthood and Devil’s Advocate, from his original breakthrough Bill & Ted movies to his recent John Wick comeback trilogy.

John Wick & John Wick: Chapter 2 DOUBLE BILL

May 10th

Keanu had three movies (Henry’s Crime, Generation Um…, Man of Tai Chi) that didn’t make Irish cinemas but made one hell of a comeback as the principled hit-man universally beloved in the hit-community, the larger underworld, and the small town he retired to. Keanu’s stunt-work was an endearing mix of fluency and occasional rustiness, and he made us love Wick as he rampaged after the mobsters who killed his puppy. The flabby sequel expanded the Man from UNCLE-like Continental universe too much, but featured some memorable fights; especially the Wellesian throwdown with Ruby Rose.

Destination Wedding

May 10th

Fellows 1990s icon and latterly cinematic exile Winona Ryder made her great comeback in Stranger Things in 2016 so it was only fitting that she would reunite for a third time with Keanu in this 2018 rom-com by Mad About You writer /director Victor Levin about two misanthropes travelling to a hopelessly pretentious destination wedding and being lumbered with each other there. In a curious twist it seems that this film, just like 2017’s similarly themed rom-com Table 19 about the people you invite to weddings and seat far away to avoid them, hides some very formalist experimentation behind innocuous trappings.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

May 10th

Keanu and Winona’s first film together saw them gamely battle with cut-glass English accents as married couple Jonathan and Mina Harker for Francis Ford Coppola’s curate’s egg of a horror movie, that aspires to great fidelity to its source text even as screenwriter James V Hart makes sweeping inventions about reincarnated immortal beloveds so that Gary Oldman’s rejuvenating Count can lust over Winona. Roman Coppola rummages thru the Old Hollywood playbook for practical magic, and Sadie Frost and Monica Bellucci go all out for eroticism, but despite an impressive ensemble (including Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing) this never catches fire.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

May 15th

Legendary hit-man and lover of dogs John Wick is excommunicado, having conducted business on Continental property. Now Ian McShane has given Keanu one hour’s grace in which he must fight his way out of New York with a $14 million contract on his life and every assassin in the Five Boroughs eager to collect. The production photo of a besuited Keanu riding a horse thru NYC has already taken on a life of its own, and we’re promised an equally tantalising samurai sword fight on motorbikes, as well as a detour to Africa with ally Halle Berry.

Speed 35mm

May 25th

Die Hard cinematographer Jan De Bont made an auspicious directorial debut with this high-concept action blockbuster about a mad bomber targeting an LA bus that has to stay above 50mph in a city known for its congestion. The leads Keanu and Sandra Bullock strike sparks, Jeff Daniels and Joe Morton are terrific in support, and Dennis Hopper chews the scenery as the crazed bomber – sorry, he’s not crazy, “poor people are crazy, Jack, I’m eccentric” – delivering witticisms from the pen of Joss Whedon. Mark Mancina’s score is a triumph of urgency and elation as Keanu attempts to save the day.

A Scanner Darkly 35mm

June 1st

Richard Linklater adapted Philip K Dick’s hallucinogenic novel using his favoured animation technique, rotoscoping, to create a uniquely hellish new world in which an undercover cop in a not-too-distant future becomes involved with a dangerous new drug and begins to lose his own identity as a result. Keanu is said cop, and he’s romancing Winona Ryder in their second film together. But she, and indeed everyone else, may not be what they seem as the drugs start to take hold. A pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr is very, very funny in his role as a rambling, voluble, paranoid junkie.

Parenthood

June 5th

Director Ron Howard bade farewell to the 1980s with this ensemble comedy led by Steve Martin dealing with his ever-expanding Midwestern American family. The impressive cast includes Dianne Wiest, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Joaquin Phoenix, and Rick Moranis. Keanu stretches his comedic muscles as Tod, the not too bright but thoroughly amiable boyfriend to Martin’s fiery oldest daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton), a small but memorable turn. It’s tempting to draw a direct line from Keanu’s performance here to that of Reid Ewing as Dylan, the nice but dim boyfriend to the eldest Dunphy daughter in this current decade’s defining sitcom Modern Family.

River’s Edge

June 7th

Keanu and Dennis Hopper co-star again in a far more sombre movie than Speed. A group of high school friends including Keanu, Ione Skye, Crispin Glover, and Roxana Zal must come to terms with the fact that one of their gang, Daniel Roebuck, has unapologetically killed his girlfriend. This look at the private lives of teenagers; their misdemeanours, code of honour, betrayals; consciously courted controversy by basing the grim tale on a real-life occurrence in California. This is one of Keanu’s earliest roles, agonised and soulful, in a haunting and pitch-black 80s teen drama that almost seems to have invited Heathers.

The Devil’s Advocate

June 14th

Keanu’s up and coming Florida lawyer Kevin Lomax accepts a high-powered position at a New York law firm headed by legal shark John Milton (Al Pacino). Meanwhile, Keanu’s wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron in her first Hollywood iteration) begins to have frightening hallucinations warping her sense of reality. Kevin quickly learns that his mentor’s life isn’t about simply winning court cases without scruples. Pacino and Connie Nielsen have something far darker in mind. Pacino literally being the Devil in this gaudy thriller featuring creatures by the legendary Rick Baker; he of the lycanthropic transformations in An American Werewolf in London.

My Own Private Idaho

June 18th

Writer/director Gus Van Sant followed up his hit Drugstore Cowboy with a far looser movie featuring one of Keanu’s most nuanced performances and an affecting turn by River Phoenix. This key work of the New Queer Cinema follows two street hustlers, Phoenix’s Mike and Keanu’s Scott, as they embark on a road-trip from Portland, Oregon to Mike’s hometown in Idaho, and then eventually to Rome in search of Mike’s mother.  All the while Scott Favor has no intention of leading this street life forever. Van Sant incorporates Henry IV better than you’d believe possible with Keanu as bisexual Hal.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

June 21st

Bill S Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu) are in danger of failing their history final most heinously. This will result in Ted’s disciplinarian cop father sending him to military school. And that would be the end of Wyld Stallyns, the band the pair are trying to make into an MTV sensation despite a total lack of musical ability. It turns out, as Rufus (George Carlin), a dude from the future tells them, it would be the end of the world too. And so comedic time-travelling and borrowing historical figures ensues to ace the history final!

 

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

June 22nd

Keanu’s major sequel problem (John Wick: Chapter 2, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, and being blacklisted by 20th Century Fox for passing on Speed 2) began with this bogus journey. William Sadler is sublime as the Grim Reaper, straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and crummy at Battleship. There is some wonderful set design, but, despite multiple robot versions of our heroes and more time-travelling and time-travel fuzzy logic than you can shake a stick at, this just isn’t as much goofy good-natured fun as its underdog predecessor. Third time’s the charm next year dude?

So first you watch one film with us, and then you watch another film with us, right after?

Bill & Ted DOUBLE BILL

June 23rd

WHOA! Two heads are better than one dude!

“Will you be at this party?” “Definitely.”

Point Break 4th July Party

July 6th

“Vaya Con Dios…”

Point Break

July 11th

Keanu leads this hybrid undercover cop in too deep/surfing/action heist/bromance Point Break with alternately lyrical and muscular direction from Kathryn Bigelow and a script polish by James Cameron. A string of bank robberies in Southern California where the villains disguise themselves as former US presidents sees hot-shot FBI agent and former college football star Johnny Utah (Keanu) assigned the dead-end case and Gary Busey’s gruff veteran. Keanu and Busey realise their crazy theory is correct – these bank-robbers are surfers! Keanu goes undercover, and romances Lori Petty’s surfer while growing closer to the gang’s leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). Will he arrest him?

And coming directly after all that is the 20th anniversary re-release of … The Matrix.

June 10, 2018

They’re young, they’re in love, and they kill people

The IFI presents a Killer Couples season for the month of June. Extremely notable by its absence is Bonnie & Clyde, which one would have thought essential. In its place there is a grab-bag of noirs, B-movies, black comedies, latter-day B-movies, and art-house drama, ranging from the 1940s to the 1990s, and Hollywood to New Zealand via the Nouvelle Vague.

Double Indemnity

Wednesday 6th June 18:20

Neil Brand claims for Miklos Rozsa’s opening chords the origin of the classic uneasy dissonance of high film noir music. One might note that the writing credits are equally seminal: the knowing dialogue of Raymond Chandler, the cynical plotting of James M Cain, and the chilly irony of director Billy Wilder. Nice guy Fred MacMurray is cast wonderfully against type as an insurance salesman who begins an affair with the wife of a client, Barbara Stanwyck’s definitive femme fatale.

Compulsion

Sunday 10th June 15:45

Orson Welles cameos as a thinly disguised Clarence Darrow pleading, at some length, for mercy for the upstanding rich young psychopaths he’s defending (Braford Dillman and Dean Stockwell). Based on the same infamous Leopold & Loeb murder case of 1924 that inspired Hitchcock’s Rope, director Richard Fleischer, in less fantastical territory than usual for him, chillingly depicts the students outwitting their elders with Nietzschean aphorisms before their abrogation of morality comes a cropper over a (providentially?) misplaced pair of glasses.

The Getaway

Wednesday 13th June 18:20

Cool character Steve McQueen is a hardened criminal in hard-man director Sam Peckinpah’s tough-minded version of hard-boiled novelist Jim Thompson’s brutal pulp novel, adapted by the thinking man’s hard man auteur Walter Hill. Yeah, there was a lot of competing machismo on the development and production of this 1972 movie. Poor Love Story star Ali McGraw got dog’s abuse for her poor acting from a perpetually drunk Peckinpah even as smitten co-star McQueen began a scandalous affair with her.

 

Ascenseur pour l’echafaud

Sunday 17th June 15:30

Louis Malle somehow convinced jazz great Miles Davis to simply improvise a score while watching footage of his 1957 directorial debut. Not technically a Nouvelle Vague film but it seems churlish to deny Malle’s kinship with them on account of two years’ chronology. Jeanne Moreau enigmatically wanders the streets of Paris at night waiting for her lover (Maurice Ronet), after their perfect murder of her husband goes predictably sideways, while a sub-plot sees two younger lovers cause chaos.

 

Pretty Poison

Wednesday 20th June 18:30

Psycho star Anthony Perkins is released from a mental institution under strict conditions but immediately runs into the murderous arms of manipulative teenager Tuesday Weld in this bizarre black comedy. A haze of insane conspiracies, mayhem, and bloodshed ensue, with an RD Laing zeitgeist-surfing vibe that the sane people are the ones in the asylum – the truly crazy people are the ones running around outside in the dramatically disintegrating America of 1968. Who wouldn’t prefer being safely locked up?

 

The Honeymoon Killers

Saturday 23rd June 15:30

French Connection and Jesus of Nazareth actor Tony Lo Bianco stars in Leonard Kastle’s blackly comic thriller as a con man who offers love and marriage to lonely women via lonely hearts newspaper classifieds but has something very different in mind, aided and abetted by his partner Shirley Stoler. A few scenes directed by Martin Scorsese still remain in the picture; astonishingly the exuberant motor-mouth was fired after 4 days because he was working too … slowly. Yep.

 

Natural Born Killers

Sunday 24th June 15:30

I think the IFI rather enjoys showing Oliver Stone’s 1994 throw-every-film-format-and-editing-style-there-is-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks media satire/fiasco just to remind everyone how they were prevented from doing so by the boo-hiss censor back in 1994. Now showing in 35mm, this may be your last chance to enjoy this as an original piece of madness before Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind is finally released (soon, allegedly) and we can see the footage that Stone was shown privately pre-JFK and NBK

Gun Crazy

Thursday 28th June 18:30

Rope star John Dall is a naive young man who meets and marries (unhinged) carnival sharpshooter Annie Laurie Starr (Irish actress Peggy Cummins) only to fall into a world of trouble due to her criminal proclivities. Dalton Trumbo co-wrote this while blacklisted, and there is some showy single-take and fixed-position direction by Joseph Lewis. Recent contributor hereabouts Friedrich Bagel somehow fell asleep during a screen 2 showing of this B-movie classic in the IFI some years ago, for shame!

Heavenly Creatures

Saturday 30th June 18:20

Before the unexpected transition to epic fantasy with The Lord of the Rings and after Meet the Freebles was Peter Jackson’s equally unexpected gothic drama based on a real life cause celebre in 1950s New Zealand. Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey both made their impressive screen debuts as the teenagers whose obsessive bond and shared fantasy world led to a very savage murder in the here and now. Legendary Weta was formed by Jackson to create that fantasy world.

May 31, 2018

Re-appraisers of the Lost Archives

It has been an odd experience this past six weeks trawling through the pre-Talking Movies archives, finding reviews of films I haven’t seen or even thought about in a decade.

It’s startling that of the 17 films I’ve re-posted the now deleted Dublinks.com reviews to Talking Movies, I’ve only watched 2 of them again since the press screening. And one of them was 10,000 BC. Which was kind of research for my 2010 Dramsoc one-act play Roland Emmerich Movie, but mostly just to share its delirious nonsensicality with friends. A DVD extra that nearly killed us all revealed Erich von Daniken as an official consultant. Erich von Daniken, who a court-appointed psychologist decades ago concluded ‘a pathological liar’ whose book Chariots of the Gods was ‘a marvel of nonsense’, was telling Roland Emmerich what was what on science and history. The other film was a recent re-watch – again in the cinema! There Will Be Blood appealed to me more second time round, and on a battered 35mm print it seemed far older than its actual vintage, which perhaps added to its mood. But, while I found more nuance in Day-Lewis’ turn this time round, I still don’t think the film deserves nearly as much adulation it receives. The only thing I would change about my sceptical review is noting how Greenwood’s score echoes the frenzied 2nd movement of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony; which allegedly represents the demonic energy of Stalin – not a bad counterpoint when you realise Plainview is Capitalism made flesh. And 10,000 BC, likewise, I wouldn’t change a thing. I would now claim that, like the first Velvet Underground album, it was seen by few people, but everybody who did see it went on to write a trashy screenplay in Starbucks. Per my own words; “It’s less a film and more of an illustrated guide on how to write a really cheesy, dumb blockbuster. This is a very bad film indeed but it’s gloriously ludicrous. I haven’t enjoyed myself this much watching rubbish in quite some time”; I certainly set to screenwriting after it.

There are several reasons I haven’t re-watched 15 of these films. I saw so very many films for reviewing purposes in 2007 and 2008 that I had little desire to revisit any of them, indeed I had a strong desire to explore older, foreign films as an antidote to the industrial parade of clichés emanating from the Hollywood dream factory. I then took a break from cinema for most of 2009, to the displeasure of one, which left me hungry to discover as many new films as possible rather than obsessively re-watch familiar ones. It was the same spirit that simultaneously motivated me to read The Crack-Up, This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night in quick succession rather than simply continuing to re-read an almost memorised Gatsby. I then moved on to wanting to round out certain directorial oeuvres. This impulse reached its zenith in 2012 when I substantially completed Woody Allen and made decent progress on Welles and Malle. Life then got in the way of such plans. That’s the macro perspective, but on a micro level I would only have wanted to revisit Stop Loss, Street Kings, Son of Rambow, Juno, and maybe Be Kind Rewind. Keanu’s disappearance from multiplexes put Street Kings out of my mind, Stop Loss disappeared from public view after the cinema, Son of Rambow was charming but I remembered the jokes too well, Juno suffered my increasing disenchantment with Jason Reitman, and Be Kind Rewind I remembered as being just about good – and it should never be a priority to knowingly watch bad movies when you could watch good movies. Talking of which… 27 Dresses, The Accidental Husband, and Fool’s Gold are high in the rogue’s gallery of why I hate rom-coms, Meet the Spartans is only of interest (and barely at that) as a time-capsule of internet memes c.2007, Sweeney Todd and The Cottage were unpleasant agonies to watch even once, Shine A Light verily bored me into a condition of coma, and Speed Racer, Jumper, and The Edge of Love were hard slogs by dint of dullness. Who would willingly re-watch any of them?

August 15, 2017

100 Best Films of the Century (sic)

Poring over Barry Norman’s ‘100 Best Films of the Century’ list last month set off musings on what a personal version of such a list would be. All such lists are entirely personal, and deeply speculative, but it’s time to be more ambitious/foolhardy than heretofore and nail this blog’s colours to the mast. Norman unapologetically focused on Old Hollywood, but Talking Movies has more regard than he for the 1980s and 1990s. The years to 1939 are allocated 10 films, and each decade thereafter gets 10 films, with an additional 10 films chosen to make up any egregious omissions. What is an egregious omission, or addition for that matter, is naturally a matter of opinion. Like the truest lists this was written quickly with little revision. If you don’t trust your own instincts why would you ever trust anyone else’s?

Gone with the wind

The first day to 1939

Nosferatu

The Lodger

M

King Kong

It Happened One Night

The 39 Steps

A Night at the Opera

Top Hat

Secret Agent

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Gone with the Wind

TheBigSleep-011

1940 to 1949

His Girl Friday

Rebecca

Citizen Kane

The Maltese Falcon

Casablanca

Shadow of a Doubt

The Big Sleep

The Stranger

Rope

The Third Man

1950 to 1959

Strangers on a Train

The Lavender Hill Mob

Singin’ in the Rain

Them!

Rear Window

High Society

Moby Dick

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Rio Bravo

1960 to 1969

Last Year in Marienbad

The Manchurian Candidate

The Birds

The Great Escape

Billy Liar

Dr. Strangelove

Goldfinger

Dr. Zhivago

The Sound of Music

The Good The Bad And The Ugly

Once Upon a Time in the West

Ma Nuit Chez Maud

The Italian Job

1970 to 1979

Kelly’s Heroes

Aguirre the wrath of God

The Godfather

Dog Day Afternoon

Jaws

All the President’s Men

Annie Hall

Star Wars

Superman

Apocalypse Now

1980 to 1989

The Blues Brothers

Chariots of Fire

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Blade Runner

Ghostbusters

Back to the Future

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Aliens

Blue Velvet

Wall Street

Au Revoir Les Enfants

Die Hard

1990 to 1999

JFK

My Own Private Idaho

The Silence of the Lambs

Terminator 2

The Age of Innocence

Jurassic Park

Pulp Fiction

Speed

The Usual Suspects

Scream

The Matrix

Fight Club

2000 to 2009

Memento

Almost Famous

Moulin Rouge!

Ocean’s Eleven

Donnie Darko

The Rules of Attraction

The Lord of the Rings

Team America

Brick

Casino Royale

Atonement

The Dark Knight

2010 to the present day

Inception

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World

Incendies

Skyfall

Mud

This is the End

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Birdman

High-Rise

20th Century Women

September 2, 2016

It’s just me and my drone

While watching three different BBC documentaries recently I was struck by the unusually expansive quality of their aerial photography; and then realised they were all using drones.

drone-filming-other-drones-for-bbc-simon-reeve

The first documentary was Simon Reeve’s travelogue in Greece, in which elaborate pull-out shots of mountainous Greek landscapes seemed to come from nowhere; starting too close to Reeve to be a zoom from a helicopter, but ending up too far away to be a crane shot. They were of course drones, and Reeve even made the drone the centre of attention when he and its operator jumped out of a van in a salubrious part of Athens and surreptitiously sent their drone straight up to see how many of the local worthies were cheating the government of tax by pretending they didn’t have a swimming pool when there were clearly nearly twenty in the drone’s frame. Such guerilla tactics would make Werner Herzog proud, and of course Herzog has employed drones himself; nearly making everyone sick in Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D by flying from a vineyard up to the titular site. But drone technology has developed since Herzog’s 2010 shoot.

Brian Cox’s recent Forces of Nature loved nothing better than tracking Cox from a hundred feet above as he walked along English beaches or Icelandic glaciers, and the images were startlingly good. Whereas Herzog’s drone imagery was disjunctive, Cox’s drone imagery was notable only for the style it employed, not for any difference in quality to more traditionally mounted cameras. One of those signature styles was a reprise of the Reeve special, narrating to the camera which suddenly tumbles back in space and reveals itself to now be airborne and the narrator standing near the edge of a Greek valley or the white cliffs of Dover. Peter Barton’s The Somme From Both Sides deployed its drone in a related manner to great effect. At a fraction of the hassle of using a crane camera Barton delivered his narration to a drone which then swooped upwards to reveal the landscape beyond him, so that we went from a trench’s view of the battlefield to an aerial vantage point in seconds. This was tremendously effective in conveying why the Germans made the Somme so bloody for the British; from the trenches you miss the obvious differences in height over the wider landscape which the Germans consistently put to work in their defensive strategy.

But can advances in drone technology and falling drone prices make for a new cinematic aesthetic? David Fincher in Side by Side notes that he was able to place a camera in a boat for a sequence in The Social Network because of how lightweight a digital camera could now be. If a drone camera needing only one operator can achieve a shot that would have taken Orson Welles days to prepare for with the technology of his time then could we be in for a new avalanche of style in indie movies? If someone wants to achieve the isolating effect of the pull-out from Gary Powers in the dock in Bridge of Spies they don’t need the resources of a Spielberg, they could just hover their drone and then fly it away and make their low-budget drama suddenly seem incredibly slick. Forget filming your movie on your iPhone like Tangerine, imagine sitting in the IFI’s smallest screen watching a low-budget film in which unknown actors look out a window when the camera suddenly pulls away from them and keeps on retreating, observe them fading away into irrelevance as just some of the people with stories in this city.

The Drone Aesthetic.

June 15, 2016

The Trial

Disorientation seems to be an aim of No Drama’s production of Kafka’s The Trial. And from the issuing of pencils and paper on arrival for your first plea, to the actors running offstage eschewing a bow, disorientation is certainly achieved.

Kafka's The Trial Banner Image

Somebody must have been telling lies about Josef K (Daniel O’Brien), for he wakes up one morning in his boarding house to find instead of breakfast a brace of mysterious warders (Elaine Fahey, Amélie Laguillon) searching his room. Their senior supervisor (Greg Freegrove) tells K he’s been arrested, but this shouldn’t interfere with K’s work as a senior clerk at the bank; so long as he can make time on Sundays and evenings for interrogation. The charge…? Well, the supervisor’s not authorised to discuss such matters; best take that up with the judge. So begins K’s nightmarish journey thru the gallery of grotesques that surround the Law. ‘Helped’ by the enfeebled Advocate Huld (Louise Dunne), her degraded client eternal client Block and sultry nurse Leni (Sarah Maloney), and the court portrait artist Titorelli (Nikhil Dubey), it is little wonder he despairs.

There are memorable sequences; K’s decision to fire Huld being celebrated by means of a mid-90s rock-out, the actors pairing off and walking back and forth in a muted dance while narration and light jumps between actors. And some fine performances. O’Brien is initially over-indignant, but reins it in for an engagingly desperate K. Dunne eschews the usual hypochondriac bombast Huld, giving us genuine infirmity with a rasping whisper and outraged anger. Freegrove amusingly channels Berkoff as the menacing supervisor, Maloney vamps it up as Leni, and Siobhan Hickey is vivacious and knowing as K’s crush. But No Drama’s production runs for 2 hours 45 minutes with a 10 minute interval, as compared to the Young Vic’s 2015 The Trial which clocked in at 2 hours without an interval. This is absurdly long, and the good performances and sequences get lost in an increasing muddle.

Directors Noel Cahill and David Breen have crafted a very loud interpretation. Eardrums will be ringing from 10 people consistently shouting by the time the court chaplain climactically bawls at the audience mere inches away. The most effective moments are actually the quietest; Huld’s monologues, K’s isolation, or the chorus’ whispered “Josef K”; and starting out turned up to 11 leaves the show nowhere to go. The trip-hop musical introduction outstays its welcome, and a bit of business with everyone hanging on K’s words is protracted beyond the point of comedy – both emblematic of pacing problems that cannot all be blamed on the script. As for the script… The legendary travelator of Richard Jones’ Young Vic staging is obviously beyond the budget of an amateur company, but if the essential elements of Berkoff’s minimalist script (screens, costumes, and all actors save K to have their faces painted) are abandoned, is it really still Berkoff’s adaptation?

There is an astonishingly literal interpretation of K stumbling on pornographic pictures in the court which is far from the mime Berkoff intended. Reducing your staging to a rope, glasses, and one costumed actor in such a difficult space as the Boys School is self-defeating. An ecstatic Dramsoc production of East from Anna Simpson with future Fast Intent founder Nessa Matthews relied on basic props and costumes before launching into outré physicality. Far too often here attempting Berkoff’s physicality after abandoning his supports results in endless busyness of unclear meaning – shouting “I’m a train” may be funny but sadly it’s not redundant when the specified identifiers for it have been discarded. And can Kafka be Kafka if it’s not (to misapply Peter O’Toole’s Ruling Class descriptor) ‘black comedy with tragic relief’? All the elements of Kafka and Berkoff are present, but they do not cohere: we end up with neither paranoid hilarity nor expressionist vim.

The ensemble display admirable commitment and energy, but having set aside so much of Berkoff’s blueprint this production’s continued insistence on presenting a version of his physical theatre almost always gets in the way of this being good theatre.

2/5

The Trial continues its run at Smock Alley until the 18th of June.

October 28, 2015

Spectre

Daniel Craig reunites with his Skyfall director Sam Mendes for a bloated follow-up that seems more interested in rushing the exit than whooping things up.

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James Bond (Craig) is in Mexico City for the Day of the Dead, so more people join the ranks of the dead; to the displeasure of M (Ralph Fiennes). M is under pressure from C (Andrew Scott), a connected bureaucrat merging the intelligence services into CNS; a nightmare of Orwellian surveillance. C wants to replace the erratic 00s with drones, and M’s case is not helped by Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) enabling Bond every step of the way as he causes chaos in Rome and Austria. Bond murdered Mr Sciarra at the posthumous behest of M (Judi Dench), and, via Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), becomes entangled in the tentacles of an organisation run by ‘dead’ foster-brother Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Bond’s only lead is old adversary Mr White (Jesper Christensen), and White’s daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux)…

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s opening gambit looked foolhardy in throwing away the film’s best sequence, until you reached the opera assassination, but Spectre’s cold open is its best sequence. Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema produce a Wellesian flourish with a mind-blowing long-take following Bond down a street, into a hotel, out the window, and across rooftops for a hit. After that, beginning with the execrable Sam Smith song over misjudged titles, proceedings are less surefooted. Spectre is looong. 2 ½ hours that pull off the paradox of not doing enough. Tanner (Rory Kinnear) and his MI6 crew recall Henry IV: Part Two; all the collegial bonhomie and agency freedom achieved by Skyfall is vanished, and they get little of consequence to do. It is a full 65 minutes before Swann (please let that not be a Proust reference) appears, and her delayed entrance is not for effect like Skyfall’s Silva, but a consequence of Spectre’s deliberately slow pace. The grand summit of Spectre, with Oberhauser creating a frisson of fear from his shadowy chair, is less impressive than Silva’s soliloquising entrance, and this stately subtlety is thrown away anyway with the excessive grand guignol introduction of Hinx (Dave Bautista).

Hinx has a terrific fight scene with Bond, think Robert Shaw’s dust-up in From Russia with Love, which may end with the most oblique Jaws reference imaginable; as pointed out to me by my sometime co-writer John Healy. But it’s preceded by Swann and Bond dining on a train, which constant reminders of dead characters cue us to read like Bond and Vesper’s first meeting. Only one thing is missing: Paul Haggis. Seydoux doesn’t have the material to convince us of her importance to Bond that Eva Green had, and a literal jump-cut to romance is an admission of defeat. Haggis’ Quantum; a network of ex-spooks, shady businessmen, and politicians; was more plausible and scary than de-contextualised Spectre. Waltz’s misfiring Blofeld has a desert lair and a fluffy white cat, what he doesn’t have to go with his premature recourse to torture is psychological depth or cartoonish fun, while Bond’s outrageous marksmanship against incompetent goons is the Austin Powers fodder from which Haggis rescued the franchise. The underwhelming finale poorly replays Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation to end with a visual choice between two lives which is absurdly literal. Spectre loses what momentum it had on hitting Morocco, and never recovers.

Spectre has more good elements than bad, but it’s hard not to be disappointed that, having placed all the pieces on the board, Mendes and Craig belatedly remembered they didn’t like chess, and sought a graceful way to bolt.

2.75/5

October 4, 2015

Macbeth

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are Scotland’s most terrifying power couple in director Justin Kurzel’s impressively realised version of The Scottish Play.

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Civil War rages in Scotland. King Duncan (David Thewlis) is kept on the throne by the bloodthirsty valour of the Thane of Glamis, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender). But when three witches prophesy that Macbeth shall be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland hereafter fatal ambition seizes the mind of both his wife (Marion Cotillard) and he. Obstacles in his path are Duncan, and his son Malcolm (Jack Reynor); and obstacles to security as King are friend Banquo (Paddy Considine), and his son Fleance. And with a mind full of scorpions, morality and sanity soon go by the wayside for Macbeth…

Kurzel cuts the comic relief Porter scene. This is not that kind of Macbeth. This is a grimy, gory, brutal production of Shakespeare’s text. Kurzel’s film goes out of its way to make what Shakespeare had made difficult to watch (the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her household) almost unbearable. No Orson Welles castle for Macbeth here, home consists of simple wooden houses, tents, and combinations of both. Rain, mud, and blood are everywhere; men are scarred from battle, women are scarred from losing child after child. It’s a theatrical vision which becomes hallucinatory and cinematic by its fiery finale.

This was always going to be an interesting film, but the combination of Fassbender, Cotillard, and Kurzel is probably the finest screen Macbeth yet.

5/5

June 23, 2015

Orson Welles: Posing as Polymath, Playing the Fool

Orson Welles is being feted anew for the centenary of his birth, and he even projected his personality from beyond the grave with the 2013 publication of My Lunches with Orson. Peter Biskind edited long-neglected tapes of Welles’ weekly LA lunches with fellow director Henry Jaglom to produce a book of rip-roaring table talk. But having Welles captured on tape gives rise to an unsettling thought about his late career… Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on Welles.

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Some academics are now stressing the performative aspect of interviews. When writers give interviews, what they say in them can’t be neatly filed with what they write in letters or diaries, because an interview is a public dialogue not a private monologue, and two self-conscious performances are colliding for the sake of publicity. Indeed Welles requested that Jaglom tape their conversations for posterity, so there is undoubtedly an added dimension of self-conscious showing off on his part. There is also the further understanding that a good raconteur is not hobbled unnecessarily by facts or consistency. So Humphrey Bogart is a coward who only starts fights in places where he knows the waiters will intervene in one story, and a man of true courage and admirable integrity in another story – for the sake of the story.

Click here to read the full article on how Welles’ areas of expertise multiply, how he indisputably talks nonsense about Verdi, and how this need to be feted as a renaissance man may have scuppered his chances of a HBO show.

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