Talking Movies

May 1, 2018

From the Archives: Meet the Spartans

A deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives turns up a film I honestly don’t remember seeing, so comprehensively did my mind rebel against its attempts at parody; the mind boggles that Robot Chicken was contemporaneously gloriously ripping Star Wars.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that if you pay money to go to see this film then you are directly contributing to the decline and fall of Western Civilisation. Plato and Sophocles, Marcus Aurelius and Virgil, Aquinas and Dante, JS Mill and Dickens, Bertrand Russell and TS Eliot – just consider the long line of great philosophers and artists that ends now, in 2008, with Paris Hilton and Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer.

Hard as it may be to believe these two men are happy to take credit not only for this atrocity but for Date Movie, Epic Movie and Scary Movie, which represent the pickings of puerile trash from this decade’s celluloid garbage can. Following 300’s plot ‘faithfully’, Leonidas, a butch Spartan, assembles an elite 13 warriors headed by Kevin Sorbo (remember Hercules on Sky? Didn’t think so) and marches to war against Xerxes who attacks them with wave after wave of celebrity culture ‘parody’.

Sean Maguire (used to be in Eastenders) badly tries to imitate Gerard Butler’s gruff hero King Leonidas while Carmen Electra (used to be topless) stands around in various states of undress as the Spartan Queen. The problem once again is that this ‘franchise’ parodies a film that was already funny to begin with, and does it armed with an arsenal of no brains and less jokes. Friedberg and Seltzer have decided that the homo-eroticism of 300 is a goldmine for comedy. It might be if this was a 1971 ‘comedy’ and 300 had been remotely serious, but 300 is a riot of a film with more tongue in cheek bombast than Brian Blessed at a Flash Gordon convention. This cost very little to make, Saturday Night Live sketches have a bigger budget, but these films are so bad they don’t even belong on SNL; which would be the obvious home for even one good sketch that cleverly re-staged a single scene of a film. Instead we get 300 with penguins, fart jokes and various horrible things being spat and regurgitated into faces.

There are no jokes in this film. Not one, there are no intentional laughs to be had. The hilarity of this film such as it is comes from the fact that it makes its audience into anthropologists. We are in a strange world trying to recognise when the members of a tribe called ‘actors’ are delivering a ‘punchline’ – a ritual found in members of a sub-culture called ‘comedians’ to indicate that a physical response of joviality has now been earned. Usually there is a minor pause between lines to indicate a real zinger is on its way, this is followed by a longer pause to allow for laughter by the audience, so that ensuing dialogue is not drowned out by the sounds of mirth. Needless to say these pauses are totally unnecessary…

1/5

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October 24, 2013

Ender’s Game

Wolverine director Gavin Hood redeems himself substantially with this sci-fi effort, but Ender’s Game, despite its celebrated source novel, is still some way from being a film that you simply must rush out to see.

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Ender (Asa Butterfield) is a twelve year old at space academy who shows such promise that Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) cuts him from the programme; to provoke a violent attack by a bully. Ender returns home to his empathetic sister (Abigail Breslin) and psychotic brother. However, his vicious response to bullying was what Graff hoped to see and Ender is dispatched to Battle-School to hone his potential to become the next Julius Caesar. There he quickly falls foul of his older classmates because of his superior intelligence. After clashing with his classmates, and commanding officer Bonzo (Moises Arias), Ender is given his own war game team. With new lieutenant Petra (Hailee Stainfeld) by his side he succeeds so well that he is promoted to the fleet’s command school bordering the planet of the Formics. The Formics were defeated decades before only by the sacrifice of legendary hero Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley). But now their military capabilities have become threatening again…

This is a far slicker outing by writer/director Gavin Hood than his 2009 Wolverine muddle. The CGI work is unusually good, being very crisp looking so that the zero gravity war games are totally convincing. The script, however, is problematic. Far too many major characters are deeply unpleasant. There’s brutally abusive bullies at every level of education, an unhinged brother at home, and the voluble approval of ultraviolent tactics by Graff every step of the way. Hugo star Asa Butterfield’s blue eyes are as fetishised as Daniel Craig’s in Layer Cake, but there’s precious little emotion behind those deadened irises. Ender is a hero that it’s very hard to truly care about. True Grit’s Stainfeld is totally wasted (the script doesn’t ever bother introducing a structural romance with Ender), while Ford and Breslin are mere ciphers. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that the finale recalls The Matrix Reloaded in its subversion of action finales, as anything that recalls Reloaded is doomed.

But then Ender’s Game is a veritable echo chamber of influences. Mazer Rackham defeats the arthropod Formics with Independence Day’s finale. Except Orson Scott Card’s source novel predates it… And so it goes. Deja vu, all over again. How much influence did Card have on that other tale of adults forcing children to be violent, The Hunger Games? But then how much influence did Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers have on Card? Did Card influence Verhoeven’s subversive film of Heinlein’s bug-hunting? I spent far too much time trying to puzzle through the politics of the historical analogies employed by the film. The constant valorisation of ultra-violence as a strategy by Ender is quite troubling, and, I thought very Alexandrian, except that after therefore comparing the factions to Greeks and Persians throughout they turned out to be more Romans and Carthaginians. All of which is probably far too complex anyway given that Harrison Ford actually says Napoleon “conquered the known world.” Ahem…

The high concept of Ender’s Game; teenage children commanding an entire star-fleet while successful adult generals stand aside; never succeeds in making much sense, but despite a worryingly nasty streak it’s a solid movie.

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…

May 25, 2011

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

May 30, 2008

How to Watch 300

So you want to watch 300 but you’re put off by the insane pumped up butch machismo you fear is all it has to offer? Fear not gentle reader for you can view it instead through the absurd prism of Michael Fassbender. Who is Fassbender you ask? How can I explain the man, the legend, the fun? Fassbender is the Irish actor who swam to New York to say “Sorry” in that famous Guinness ad. He then popped up in Sky One’s ‘British Buffy’ Hex as the Big Bad, fallen Angel Azazeal, where he enjoyed himself far too much for a man meant to be working for a living. In the trailer for 300 you will notice the inimitable Fassbender delivering the line “Well then, we shall fight in the shade” with the air of a man once again enjoying himself far too much. When 300 wrapped the producer probably came over to Fassbender with his paycheque and was waved away with, “No, really, I couldn’t. It’s just been such a blast. Can I keep the cape?”

You are doubtful. Can one man really have that much fun? Oh yeah. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning… It’s not possible to overstate how gleeful the role of Stelios allows Fassbender to be. Stelios is the Spartan from the trailer that leaps over the Persian soldiers and lands right beside the camera. He jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Our arrows will blot out the sun”. Stelios delivers the famous riposte in a supremely nonchalant manner. Stelios is even one half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and has a slo-mo fight alongside Tom Wisdom’s Astinos where they attack and sever Persian limbs left, right and centre.

Fassbender gets to do one cool thing after another. 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. This is the ultimate glee moment as 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. Who does something awesome in the denouement to allow Leonidas to do something even more awesome? Fassbender. Who holds hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines? Fassbender….If you’ve got into the spirit of things you should shout “I LOVE dying!” at this point. You will have no objective judgement of 300’s quality, but you will have enjoyed watching it far too much…

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