Talking Movies

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

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 thirty-third portmanteau post on matters of course!

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

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April 30, 2018

On Urbanity

Prefacing my attack on Legion last month I noted decorum was important, and that urbanity was important as a stylistic and aesthetic goal, and noted one could stretch to call it an ethical goal too.

What then is urbanity? When I was writing for the University Observer I used to think our house style was aiming for the droll elegance of the New Yorker.  I’m not sure anybody else did. I’m not sure I would even have been able to pin down where I got that notion of the New Yorker from, possibly a refracted Dorothy Parker vibe from the Gilmore Girls. Having recently, deliriously enjoyed James Thurber’s The Years with Ross I think that I wasn’t far off in my peculiar sense of the magazine’s house style. Although it may have been just Thurber himself rather than the New Yorker writers en masse in possession of that style. Certainly the current New Yorker writers are en masse in possession of a house style, and the deployment of it by Gladwell, Gopnik & Co can be maddening in its repetition.

The New Yorker film reviews these days mostly overshoot urbanity and instead sound jaded, and snobbish. Richard Brody’s review of Ready Player One is a recent particular lowlight. Brody seems to have the shakiest of grasps on the commercial realities of movie-making, and indeed how movies are remembered by non-critics. His notion that a blockbuster themed around 1980s nostalgia should chuck The Shining for Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre is tragicomic; once you stop laughing in astonishment, you realise he’s serious, and then need to lie down. But how should one write film reviews? I went from writing a movie column for the University Observer titled ‘Fergal’s Guide to Misanthropy’ to reviewing for InDublin. In thrall at the time to Hunter S Thompson I wrote reviews in a style that I would now never countenance. Hunter S Thompson is a great stylist, but he is not urbane.

It doesn’t matter that Hunter S Thompson is not urbane, because he is Hunter S Thompson. But it matters a great deal when people who are not Hunter S Thompson are neither urbane nor Thompsonian despite their best efforts. And those best efforts usually betray fierce labour as they attempt to do the Gonzo style without being the man who was Gonzo. As I wrote more and more film reviews for InDublin I began to appreciate that reinventing the wheel with snark and wildness each time was not sustainable. So, as I have recounted before, I turned to an earlier mentor, Michael Dwyer. I pored over his 300 review in an effort to understand how it worked, and especially how he could write so many reviews with such apparent ease; given their clarity and simplicity. I adopted my interpretation of his technique as my model.

Initially though the interpolated technique was all structural. It was only over time and ever more reviews for Dublinks.com and Talking Movies that the mature style revealed itself; borrowing a structure from Michael Dwyer had seamlessly led to an Augustan style. Films were reviewed without hyperbole over their strengths or hysteria over their weaknesses. As a result they could be reviewed with astonishing speed; my review of Prometheus took 26 minutes from first keystroke to published post. It wasn’t vitriolic, like so many reviews, it maintained an even keel. But it had taken 5 years to get to the point where that review could be penned in 26 minutes. What one looks for in urbanity is the appearance of effortlessness concealing much effort; the sprezzatura of Castiglione so promulgated by WB Yeats as the ideal of lyric poetry. Which brings us back to James Thurber…

Thurber’s droll story ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ concerns a bear that gets too fond of honey mead at the local bar:

He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

But our hero sees the error of his ways. He becomes a teetotaller, and a physical fitness freak, and boastful of how the two are connected:

To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

The simplicity of the gag makes you feel like you always knew it just after you first read it, and of course belies what must have been careful paring and paring by Thurber to get it just right. That is the key. It appears effortless; elegant, graceful, simple; and it took much effort to make it appear so. Thurber was in a contract with himself as much as the reader not to let go of the piece until he’d finely chiselled it to perfection and then polished it to remove all trace of the chisel marks. And it’s that determination to do oneself and others justice that I argue can move urbanity from aesthetics to ethics. To write urbanely is to do more, to be beneficent.

PG Wodehouse once wrote “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well”. One might advance a similar notion when it comes to urbanity. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s painfully laboured non-apology apology for the Cambridge Analytica flap:

“I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it”

A billionaire, surrounded by expensive lawyers and media consultants, who can take five days (which I like to imagine were spent brainstorming on a luxury houseboat moored in the dead centre of Lake Tahoe), to write and/or approve something as inelegant as that italicised sentence… Well, I opine, in identical manner to the man who cheats at golf, a man capable of writing like that is capable of anything.

John McGahern is the endpoint of the notion of urbanity as an ethical goal. His description of fictional Leitrim farmer (and, as Graham Price persuasively has it, dandy) Jamesie sitting in Ruttledge’s passenger seat on their way to the market I have characterised in my Irish University Review article ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ as a Stoic benediction: “He praised where he could, but most people were allowed their space without praise or blame in a gesture of hands that assigned his life and theirs to their own parts in this inexhaustible journey”. That may be the ideal of urbanity I wish for in journalism. How it got muddled together with Thurber’s New Yorker drollness in my head is a puzzler, but there it is. Socrates said that nobody would willingly commit evil. An evil-doer is in possession of imperfect information. Nobody sets out to write badly, paint badly, compose badly, or to direct a bad film. In reviewing one should try to nudge where possible, and always offer solutions when identifying problems. One should only eviscerate if something is positively harmful, and even then try to do it with a light touch. A bad review done with urbanity is a judo flip. Identify what is obnoxious, and, if possible; and it is surprisingly often possible; see how the work can be read against itself, so that it is condemned out of its own mouth.

September 30, 2015

The Martian 3-D

Director Ridley Scott tacks away from the Erich von Daniken-inspired marvel of nonsense that is the Prometheusverse for a cracking foray into hard science sci-fi.

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Ares III astronauts carry out their varied tasks on the surface of Mars, until a storm unexpectedly lethally strengthens. Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leads her crew; Martinez (Michael Pena), Johanssen (Kate Mara), Beck (Sebastian Stan), Vogel (Aksel Hennie); from their quarters, the Hab, through the blinding sandstorm to their ship, which blasts off just before it would’ve tipped fatally off-balance. But Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind, killed by flying debris. NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) leads mourning for Watney, but when Mars maven Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) convinces him to pinpoint Watney’s corpse via satellite, Sat Operator Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) discovers Watney’s still alive. Teddy, Vincent, PR director Montrose (Kristen Wiig), and Ares director Mitch (Sean Bean), agonise over the ethical and logistical quandaries of a rescue mission, while Mark uses his wits to colonise Mars.

It’s a bold move to start with the evacuation: imagine Zemeckis cutting the lead-in to the plane crash in Cast Away. But it works because it so quickly funnels us to NASA, and the personalities who will decide Mark’s long-term future as he ensures his short-term survival. This is probably the most consistently funny film Scott’s ever directed, courtesy of Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. Goddard knowingly pushes ratings boundaries with Mark’s cursing, and renders Mark’s never-ending vlog a series of riffs and one-liners. But it’s not a one-man show. Prometheus’ Benedict Wong is wonderful as Bruce, the Jet Propulsion Lab director given impossible deadlines and tasks, Davis breaks out from indies (What If, Bad Turn Worse) to share archly comic moments with Ejiofor, Pena delivers another assured turn, while Daniels and Bean duel with gravitas and humour.

Sunshine showed one mistake creating dilemma after dilemma. The Martian shows a series of problems to be solved with a can-do spirit, and it’s nice to see characters mentally calculating trajectories, accelerations, and chemistry problems. Arguably this actually realises Tomorrowland’s stated intention to restore technological optimism to the popular imagination. Although the valorisation of science is complicated when you realise Mark only survives because his potatoes were not genetically modified to be barren… The sacrifice on the altar of Blake Snyder’s beats annoys, but Mark’s slight hubris and its inexplicable random flashing ‘Malfunction’ sign mitigate. It also makes the finale very tense because statistically something ought to go badly wrong after that long in space. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, a regular Scott collaborator, renders Earth in blue tones, Mars in red, and the Ares III in white; emphasising the different environments.

Ridley Scott has become a seriously prolific director this century, and on the evidence of this triumph he ought to sign Drew Goddard to write all his future films.

5/5

November 14, 2013

The Counsellor

Ridley Scott reunites with his Prometheus scene-stealer Michael Fassbender for a brutal tale of drug trafficking; written directly for the screen by novelist Cormac McCarthy.

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Fassbender is ‘the counsellor’, the exact nature of whose practice is left as vague as his name. He buys a diamond in Amsterdam (from a cameoing Bruno Ganz) to propose to his naive girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). The money to finance this lavish lifestyle will come from going into business with his client Reiner (Javier Bardem), a cheetah-owning drug dealer with pretensions to being a nightclub impresario, and sagacious middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). Hovering around the edges of this one-time business arrangement though is Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who unnerves everyone. Unsurprisingly everything quickly goes sideways, and, with 20 million dollars worth of blow in the wind, scary people from Ciudad Juarez who don’t mess around are soon skipping over the border to El Paso to kill all concerned – this being McCarthy’s patented sprung-trap approach to the drugs trade…

The Counsellor’s dialogue is pure McCarthy in the way 2007’s Sleuth is pure Pinter. Sub-Hemingway shtick like the early “Are you really that cold?” “The truth has no temperature”, vies with unconscious quotations of Keats, and, in a lengthy scene with Ruben Blades’s Mexican drug-lord Jefe, a reworking of a Matrix Reloaded speech by The Oracle. McCarthy’s foreshadowing is hysterically blunt. When the hideous mechanical device the bolito is described, or a snuff movie involving necrophilia, the characters ought to lean in and say ‘It could happen to you! It probably will, in about 40 minutes…’ McCarthy’s interest, par No Country for Old Men, is apparently solely in the operation of the mechanical vice of the drugs trade that slaughters all involved for any misstep. Characters are introduced, and then slaughtered by new characters that we never learn anything about.

The Counsellor works best in its wordless sequences. People at work displaying their murderous tradecraft are absorbing, brutal, and vivid; an assault on a drugs truck and an intricately planned garrotting being the standout set-pieces. One could forgive McCarthy’s unrealistic dialogue in what purports to be an unflinchingly realistic observation of the mechanics of drug trafficking were it not for his troubling characterisation. Beginning with the uncomfortable cold open McCarthy displays a very bizarre interest in hyper-sexualised female characters. Diaz’s goofy grin is rendered pleasingly cruel, but her Malkina displays a very Puritan prurience in Catholics confessing about sexual sins, and that’s before we get to what, following Reiner’s lead, we will call ‘the catfish scene’ – which is WEIRD beyond belief. McCarthy’s lack of interest in his leads is exemplified by Fassbender’s titular lawyer being utterly irrelevant by the finale.

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s bizarre co-dependency ruined them both during the 2000s, we can only hope Fassbender is not about to be snared in the same glossy trap.

2.5/5

February 1, 2013

Top Performances of 2012

As the traditional complement to last week’s Top 10 Films, here are the Top Performances of 2012. The Golden Globes categories obviously inspired the absurdist split into drama and comedy of Best Supporting Actor. The refusal to isolate single winners is deliberate; regard the highlighted names as the top of the class, and the runners up being right behind them, and the also placed just behind them. They’re all superb performances.

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Best Supporting Actor (Drama)

John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) His cult leader is as scary and charismatic as his Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, you believe this man could hold Martha in his thrall even as initial love-bombing degenerates into sexual abuse and criminal adventures.

Viggo Mortensen (A Dangerous Method, On the Road) His droll Freud is charismatic and delivers great put-downs but is deeply ambiguous; did he deliberately corrupt Jung? As genteel junky William Burroughs he was unexpectedly warm and sane.

Runners Up:

Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe, Magic Mike) Wonderfully sleazy as Cabaret’s MC (sic), he erased his rom-coms with a revelatory Joe; icily calm, thawed by love, and psychotic.

Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, Haywire) His very precise turn as the dishonest android enlivened Prometheus, while his Haywire killer was very dashing.

Also Placed:

Sam Neill (The Hunter) Neill’s gravitas and underplayed emotional torment gave a weight to his dialogue scenes with Dafoe that underpinned Dafoe in the wilderness.

Trystan Gravelle (Stella Days) His teacher inspired Martin Sheen’s priest to defiance, but he also played the attraction to his landlady with great subtlety.

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Best Supporting Actor (Comedy)

Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Miller, as flamboyant senior Patrick, displays startling range in portraying charismatic rebel after his troubled loner in We Need to Talk About Kevin. His turn is an exuberant joy that tramples clichés of gay characters in high-school movies.

Bradley Whitford (The Cabin in the Woods) Whitford as a military-industrial office drone organised absurd office gambling pools, snarled obscenities at video monitors, indulged in an unbelievably funny speakerphone prank, and rampaged hilariously thru great dialogue.

Runners Up:

Adam Brody (Damsels in Distress) His musings on decadence’s decline would get this nod, but Brody also makes his character a good soul given to self-aggrandising deception.

Liev Schreiber (Goon) He makes us care for his lousy hockey player who dutifully serves his team, and establishes a convincing bond with his challenger Scott.

James Ransone (Sinister) His Deputy, embarrassingly eager to assist the hero’s research and so get a book acknowledgment, single-handedly lightens a tense film.

Richard Ayoade (The Watch) His deadpan delivery of utter nonsense and total logic is hysterical, as he synchs with the filthy absurdity purveyed by Hill and Rogen.

Also Placed:

Alec Baldwin (To Rome with Love) Baldwin’s reality-bending interfering commentary on Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page’s burgeoning romance is Annie Hall-esque.

Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom) The Greatest Actor of His Generation (TM) is actually wonderful here as the kindly earnest scoutmaster unable to control his troops.

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Best Supporting Actress

Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) She excellently layered Lucy’s relief at getting her missing sister Martha back, with guilt at perhaps having driven her away originally, and a mingled desperation and despair over the prospects of healing her psychic scars.

Sophie Nelisse (Monsieur Lazhar) As Alice, the traumatised but kind girl who most appreciates what M. Lazhar is trying to do for the class, this Quebecois Dakota Fanning gives a stunningly mature performance based on unspoken grief.

Shaleine Woodley (The Descendants) She displayed considerable spark as the troubled 17 year old banished to boarding school, who’s surprisingly effective at buttressing her father’s parenting of her younger sister even as she tells him home truths.

Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) Hathaway essayed a great languorous voice, a wonderful slinky physicality, and a good chemistry with Batman, as well equal viciousness with quips and kicks, but her delightful presence was sorely underused.

Runners Up:

Helene Florent (Cafe de Flore) Her abandoned wife sinking into depression at the loss of her life-long partner gives the film its emotional weight.

Ellen Page (To Rome with Love) Page’s madly attractive actress gets a huge build-up from Greta Gerwig and lives up to it with gloriously shallow sophistication.

Megalyn Echikunwoke (Damsels in Distress) Echikunwoke madly milks her recurring line about ‘playboy operators’ and has an amazing character moment.

Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games) Banks is very funny delivering callous lines as talent scout Effie.

Also Placed:

Roisin Barron (Stitches) Barron’s verbally abrasive and physically abusive mean girl reminded me of Keira Knightley’s early swagger.

Kristin Scott Thomas (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) Her terrifying Press Secretary; reshuffling the P.M.’s Cabinet for him, verbally abusing her own children; stole the film.

Mae Whitman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Whitman is hilariously narcissistic and garrulous as she dominates her unfortunate boyfriend.

Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus) A 75 year old assaults Jimmy Nesbitt and you feel concerned for him – Redgrave oft conjures up that ferocity as Fiennes’ mother.

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Best Actress

Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Liberal Arts) Olsen’s debut as cult member Martha was startlingly assured – naive victim and spiteful malefactor – and her thoughtful and witty Zibby was a comedic turn of great charm and depth.

Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook) Imperious as Katniss: a great action heroine who combined a will of steel with being a surrogate mother. Her depressed Tiffany was quicksilver magic, flirty to angry in mere seconds.

Runners Up:

Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method, Anna Karenina) Knightley excelled at Anna’s early empathy, but she was startlingly alien as the hysteric Sabina who recovers to a nuanced fragility.

Emma Watson (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) Watson is luminous as the sardonic senior who makes it her project to transform an isolated freshman into a fellow Rocky Horror  performer.

Also Placed:

Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) Stone’s witty and very determined Gwen Stacy makes you realise how poorly used Dallas Bryce Howard was and how flat out poor Kirsten Dunst was.

Deborah Mailman (The Sapphires) Gail, the sister with an inflated opinion of herself and a sharp mouth, is a meaty part with a lot of zinging put-downs.

Lola Creton (Goodbye First Love) Creton’s arc from teenage suicidal despair to apparent and actual contentment was utterly convincing, especially in her unease around her lost love.

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Best Actor

Michael Fassbender (Shame) His remarkably raw performance made us sympathise with a sex-addict scared of being rumbled at work, but that panicked despair on his face had a flipside, the predatory smile when picking up women. Balancing both was sublime.

Runners Up:

Woody Harrelson (Rampart) This tour-de-force made us care for a repellent character. Yes, he was a jerk and a dirty cop, but desired to do the right thing as he saw it.

Willem Dafoe (The Hunter) Dafoe’s physical presence as he stalked the Tasmanian bush was equalled by his emotional integration into the family he lodged with.

Mohamed Said Fellag (Monsiuer Lazhar) Fellag’s strict but loving teacher knows how to help the class recover from trauma and, driven by his loss, defies orders not to.

Also Placed:

Chris O’Dowd (The Sapphires) His drunken Irish soul man lifts the movie to comic heights it wouldn’t have hit, especially in his fractious relationship with Gail.

Muhammet Uzuner (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) Dr Cemal was a creation of immense humanity, his Stoic voiceover while the camera observed waving grass at night mesmerising.

Taner Birsel (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) Prosecutor Nusret was splendidly subtle, a man of equal empathy and diplomacy who slowly crumbles when deconstructed by Dr Cemal.

Honourable Mention:

Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus) Fiennes was fierce as a man of exceptional courage and nobility who will not humble himself for ‘appearances’.

Christoph Waltz (Carnage) His compulsive starting of fires, followed by excusing himself to shout “Hello, Walter!” into his phone, was joyous.

June 14, 2012

Red Lights

Buried director Rodrigo Cortes is in more expansive form with this supernatural thriller in which a quest to debunk a fake psychic leads to unnerving discoveries.

Cillian Murphy stars as Tom Buckley, a physicist working as an assistant to Sigourney Weaver’s medium-busting professor Margaret Matheson in Columbus, Ohio. Armed with an array of scientific measuring equipment and a healthy scepticism about the supernatural they expose fake haunting and teach a college course on parapsychology. The loving bond between Buckley and Matheson, which sees him almost standing in for her comatose son, is the best thing about this film and once the film focuses on Buckley ignoring her advice and going out on his own it loses a good deal of its humanity. The object of Buckley’s solo run is the world’s most famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), returning to the fray after 30 years in retirement following the death of his greatest doubter at a performance. Buckley becomes consumed with refuting Silver’s apparently real powers.

Red Lights regrettably takes its place alongside Prometheus in what appears to be a regular parade of films all taking a bite at the poisoned apple of the relationship between faith and science. A poisoned apple because these films bring clichés and handwringing to the party and dump them there undeveloped and then expect a round of applause for tackling the topic. Buckley and Matheson represent empirical logic and cold disbelief, Silver and Matheson’s department rival Dr. Shackleton (Toby Jones) represent the uncanny and the will to believe, while Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen) is the student who, like Fox Mulder, wants to believe but falls in love with Buckley and so becomes his apprentice in the dark arts of detecting the hocus pocus of charlatan psychics. Olsen, so magnificent in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is tragically underused in this cipher role.

Cortes, shooting in Barcelona and Toronto, creates an impressively subdued winter atmosphere. The first confrontation between Buckley and Silver in which Buckley is scared out of his mind by Silver’s apparent telekinesis is very impressively staged, as are a number of very tense sequences of apparent menacing by Silver, while Murphy delivers the line “Ignore that, it’s just a dead bird” with wonderful aplomb as his character acclimatises to the uncanny hindering his debunking of Silver’s acing of Shackleton’s scientific tests of ESP abilities. Red Lights is a film with two intercut endings, one of which is delightful and clever, and one of which is truly terrible and inane. Cortes is a consummate actor’s director, and, unlike the immensely frustrating Buried, he also wrote this script but it fails when it prioritises paranormal pyrotechnics over compelling character development.

Red Lights is engaging for most of its running time, but it disintegrates utterly when it starts teeing up a revelatory conclusion even M Night Shyamalan would disavow.

2/5

June 6, 2012

From the Director Of…

Few things are more amusing than the vicious kick in the ego routinely delivered to big-shot directors by their lowly marketing underlings in poster campaigns.

Prometheus’ poster heralds it as a new movie from the director of Alien and Gladiator. Usually this is the funniest thing about posters, when marketers have to scramble into decades past to find a hit (from back when the director actually had hits) to shove on the poster. Alien is legitimately mentioned to clue people in to the fact that this is an Alien movie, and semi-prequel status be damned. The mention of Gladiator though is properly amusing because it demonstrates the second funniest thing about posters. Gladiator is apparently regarded by the marketers as the last movie Scott made that people actually have any affection for. Scott has made 8 movies since Gladiator. Ouch… Scott may have sweated blood over Hannibal, Black Hawk Down, Matchstick Men, Kingdom of Heaven, A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies and Robin Hood, but they are unceremoniously swept into the dustbin by the marketers’ realism that those movies might as well have never happened… The Great Scott isn’t the only heavyweight director to suffer this sort of indignity. One can imagine Fincher wailing sequentially “That was 7/12/14/15 years ago! I’ve made other films since then!” as Seven continued to pop up on his posters like a bad penny. “Yeah, you’ve made other films, but no one liked them….” the marketers would reply as they gleefully jettisoned The Game, Panic Room, Zodiac and Benjamin Button from his resume as not being worth a damn. How Fincher must thank Sorkin that he can now plaster The Social Network on his posters instead of Seven.

This albatross of a mid 1990s landmark movie hanging around his posters also afflicts Roland Emmerich. No matter what he does, he seems destined to be forever trumpeted as the director of Independence Day; and latterly The Day After Tomorrow. If he makes another movie with Day in the title that’ll probably get on to his posters too. The marketers aren’t screwing with these directors for the sheer joy of it; they’re trying to entice cinemagoers. Critical acclaim counts for naught when it comes to posters, all that matters is your back catalogue’s box office receipts. That’s why Peter Berg’s Battleship is from the director of Hancock, not from the director of Friday Night Lights or The Kingdom. It doesn’t matter that Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom are far better films than Hancock. Hancock did the biggest box office of the three. Battleship is a big summer blockbuster, and the posters need to emphasise that the man behind the lens has delivered that before with Hancock, rather than emphasising the critical acclaim he won with Friday Night Lights, which is defiantly not a big summer blockbuster. But there’s a further complication in the box office stakes which is what makes many posters an incidental satirical commentary: box office success without residual affection. This is where things just get hilarious; when a director makes a lot of money with a film that everyone hates, and mysteriously its name gets dropped from his subsequent posters in favour of films that people universally adore rather than bear grudges against. 2012 made a lot of money, not least because Emmerich always keeps his budget down, but its apocalypse extravaganza was just too much for most people compared to the measured apocalypses of his Day hits, and so it gets chucked from Anonymous posters.

Poster watchers observe these shifting sands of popular taste; probably determined by a combination of careful casting of the runes from focus groups and perusal of final box office takings that never lies. Sorry, Ridley…

June 1, 2012

Prometheus

Director Ridley Scott returns to the Alien franchise that made his name back in 1979, but sadly this semi-prequel fails to match his own classic…

Archaeologists Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green discover cave-paintings in Scotland in 2089 that appear to clinch their theory that a race of intelligent aliens that they’ve dubbed The Engineers appeared to humanity thousands of years earlier and initiated civilisations from Hawaii to Babylonia. Four years later they awake from cryo-sleep on the good ship Prometheus of the sinister Weyland Corporation to explore the distant planet that could possibly be the home of the Engineers, according to the star map they left behind. Aloof mission commander Vickers (Charlize Theron) is bitingly sceptical of the value of their quest for humanity’s origin while hard-bitten captain Vanek (Idris Elba) is happy to let the scientists poke around futilely so long as he gets to drink and play Stephen Stills’ accordion. Things of course go horribly wrong, as they always do in Alien movies…

It’s notable that Scott was praised in 1979 for dirtying up sci-fi by presenting a vision of the future which was already old yet Michael Fassbender’s android picks up a speck of grit off the gleaming floor of Prometheus as if it was an aberration. Scott’s vision of the future this time round is positively gleaming, and rather too full of CGI hologram technology. One suspects Fassbender’s android would have malfunctioned at the first sight of the Nostromo, a spaceship held together by duct tape if there ever was one. A very measured and precise Fassbender has some fun as the android styling his hair in imitation of Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and not being entirely honest with the crew, but while this film shares the slow first hour of Alien, it never really finds a higher gear.

The crew of underdeveloped characters played by colourful British actors like Benedict Wong, Rafe Spall and Emun Elliott are picked off by creatures that are more chimera than xenomorph; and perhaps there’s a nod to the scientific principle that you can never observe a phenomenon without changing its nature, but what of it? There’s no real gear-shift into suspense horror or even action. Noomi Rapace is, with apologies to Stieg Larsson and Patricia Highsmith, The Girl Who Followed Ripley, yet her role is, bar one outstandingly nasty suspense sequence, largely a cipher for ‘Faith’ and her wobbly English accent constantly distracts. The Darkest Hour scribe Jon Spaihts and LOST main-man Damon Lindelof provide the screenplay which feels all too often like a bad mythology episode of LOST. There’s a plot revelation towards the end that should surprise absolutely no one who read the credits at the start, the ‘big idea’ of the movie feels derivative, and the questions of faith and ultimate purpose and meaning that are raised are dealt with facilely. And that’s to say nothing of the conclusion, twenty minutes in which the search for an end leads to the beginning of the sequel.

Prometheus is always watchable, largely due to the stellar cast, but doesn’t even equal Benedict Wong’s other faith in space movie Sunshine. A missed opportunity…

2.5/5

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…

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