Talking Movies

March 26, 2019

At least we still have… : Part VII

The seventh entry in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

It’s a Mads Mads Mads Mads World

The ‘not that firm, never floppy’ handshake quip of Mads Mikkelsen had become an in-joke between me and my Dad, so he was overjoyed to see more nonsense from Denmark incarnate hanging out with a Great Dane, and drinking unfiltered beer in the woods where he seemed in the shortened TV version to have been found after a two-week bender.

Harvey Harvey Harvey…

Harvey Keitel co-produced Reservoir Dogs to get it off the ground and make Tarantino’s name. And what thanks does he get? Nothing compared to the thanks QT lavishes on Samuel L Jackson. Instead Harvey has got his revenge with his delirious series of ads for Direct Line Insurance playing his Pulp Fiction character Mr Wolf, a man who literally knows every barista in Scotland by name, and they know him. Naturally.

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April 18, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XV

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 fifteenth portmanteau post on television of course!

His Faults Are Legion

Decorum is important. So is the stylistic and aesthetic goal of urbanity. One might go so far as to call it an ethical goal too. But then Legion season 2 hoves into view… I had never seen any of Noah Hawley’s Fargo TV show, but I tuned into season 1 of Legion because it starred Dan Stevens and Aubrey Plaza, who have featured prominently hereabouts in best acting nods. 3 episodes in, my notes were: “great verve with music, offbeat as hell, style to burn – literally nothing has happened”. That was a fair judgement. Because, despite highlights such as Plaza shouting “Unhand the reptile, space captain!”, this is an FX show where the only FX are the cable logo. It’s like all the money for action was spent on the pilot, and Hawley was left wondering how to hide its absence for the remainder of the episodes. His solution? Take Wes Anderson’s X-Men to heart, apparently. Almost zero content was hidden with funky stylistic affectations, endlessly repeated scenes, and an industrial quantity of psychobabble. When you see as many analysis and interrogation scenes as in this you can be sure something has gone badly wrong in the writers’ room. This is a show pretending to be deep and smart that is in fact entirely empty, and incredibly slow-moving and boring. Even Dan Stevens’ charisma wilts under the strain, Plaza alone remaining undimmed by the tedium to the end. And then there’s the pretension to high art and social conscience with the ‘treatment of mental illness’. … The only reason this show exists is because he does have superpowers. Pretending that it’s a serious treatment of schizophrenic delusions is tacky and almost irresponsible. I will not be watching season 2 because I have rarely seen a show disappear up its own arse so quickly. Sherlock at least took three seasons. Apologies for failures in decorum and urbanity.

 

Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC

“I could wear a hat!”

Among the many pleasures of Blindspot is Ennis Esmer’s recurring character of Rich Dotcom, hacker supervillain turned hacker supervillain on a tight leash. Rich has managed in season 3 to pull off to a degree what he proposed in season 2 when he memorably pitched the set-up of The Blacklist to the Blindspot characters, with himself in the Red Reddington role of supervillain CI; hence his desperate final gambit as he was led back to prison – “I could wear a hat!” Rich’s misadventures this season have included getting sidetracked from stopping an arms deal by live-snarking Boston’s new boyfriend, outwitting Reade’s insistence he not go to a hacker party by insisting a secret meet with an unwitting criminal happen at said party making it a work event, where there just happen to be high quality pharmaceuticals on tap, but he’s sniffing because the carpet is activating his allergies. This is the kind of stress for which you might put in a request for a therapy llama, to say nothing of the fear that leads you to keep a bag of clean urine strapped to your leg at all times. When you have as lunatic a character as Martin Gero has created, “You’re using JFK against me?! He was way sluttier than I am!!” it is wise to use him sparingly; as that kind of lunacy at the centre of a show would turn the whole show as mad as if Brian Finch on NZT was-

 

Brian Finch on NZT maketh a show as mad as he

It Never Got Weird Enough For Limitless

I caught the The Bruntouchables episode of Limitless on RTE 2 last night, not long after star Jake McDorman was interviewed eating al fresco in Cork by an RTE presenter apparently unaware this charming American was an actor. The sheer barrage of whimsy, madness, and fun that is Limitless made me recall what in retrospect seems a huge blunder that at the time was not obvious at all. On its initial run on Sky the episode with Pulp Fiction style chapters following different characters ended on Hill Harper’s Boyle, and with minimal dialogue in these scenes we were instead given an Emma Thompson-Stranger Than Fiction-style voiceover about his activities. Unusual, but hardly crazier than most of the show’s conceits; after all shortly after my sketch about its creator Sweeny and Elementary show-runner Robert Doherty surreptitiously ghost-writing the end of Game of Thrones by recording a drunk George RR Martin, Limitless travelled to Russia and a key plot point was getting George RR Martin on the phone to narrate the end of Game of Thrones. It was only later that I suddenly wondered, what if there wasn’t supposed to be an Emma Thompson-Stranger Than Fiction-style voiceover for that final chapter? What if someone had accidentally turned on audio description while flicking switches to go to ad break? Stranger things have happened… But it says something for Limitless that something so bonkers could seem unremarkable.

August 27, 2017

The Dumb Waiter

Artistic director Michael Colgan bade a sentimental (and almost self-parodic) farewell to the Gate Theatre with a festival of Beckett, Friel, and Pinter one-act plays.

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Gus (Garrett Lombard) and Ben (Lorcan Cranitch) are waiting to go to work. Mind you, the nature of that work is not exactly specified. But Gus, the young partner, is impatient, and critical of falling standards in their accommodation for such waiting gigs. Ben, the older partner, is tired of his job, and possibly of Gus. So he tries to ignore Gus’ gripes about being stuck in a basement in Birmingham with tea bags but no gas to light up to boil water. But his attempts to read the newspaper are foiled by arguments about whether Aston Villa are playing at home, whether everyone is always playing away no matter where they get sent, and who really killed a cat in the news. And that’s before the antique dumb waiter in the basement starts acting up, leading to more aggro…

I’ve haven’t seen The Dumb Waiter since the UCD Dramsoc production directed by my friend Priscilla Ni Cheallaigh in 2000, starring Patrick Fitzgerald. Pinter done at anything but the right pace can drag to deathliness, even the Gate’s 2015 The Caretaker wobbled, but director Joe Dowling gets the pace here spot on; drawing out comedy. Cranitch’s raised eyebrows and shuffling newspaper at Lombard’s antics, including business with spare matches and shoes, bring out a level of slapstick that is amped up further when he starts howling “The larder is bare!” at the dumb waiter after they’ve loaded it with odds and ends of food. Oddly enough Cranitch and Lombard’s mania at satiating the unknown operator above actually reminded me of John Olohan and Eamon Morrissey’s ludicrous struggles with a mysterious telephone call in Druid’s 2010 production of The Silver Tassie.

Dowling and set designer Francis O’Connor utilise the full space of the Gate to create as much distance as possible between Gus and Ben, and make the stage very spare; almost a visual equivalent of how silence lingers between them, pregnant with tension and absurdity dependent on how Pinter’s dots on the page work. And Lombard continues to show a real flair for delivering Pinter’s absurdist speeches. Joan O’Clery’s costumes look down-at-heel until they’ve properly dressed; but even still these two are more Harry Palmer than James Bond. For the first time, instead of thinking of these characters as hit-men out of Pulp Fiction, as was inevitable back in 2000, I wondered – what if they’re cleaners? What if they’re plugging MI5 leaks MI5 with extreme prejudice, taking out the Burgesses and Macleans of the world; morose from that squalid task.

Lombard and Cranitch make a formidable double act, bringing Pinter’s early classic to humorous and doom-laden life. Oh, to see them as Mugsy and Stephen in Dealer’s Choice here.

4/5

January 8, 2016

Bret Easton Ellis: Page to Screen

Bret Easton Ellis has written seven books, four have been filmed, and two of those have been set in Los Angeles. And yet they are by far the weakest of the Ellis adaptations… Here’s a teaser of my piece for HeadStuff on those adaptations.

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“I stand back from the unfinished canvas. I realise that I would rather spend my money on drugs than on art supplies” – The Rules of Attraction (novel)

While Hollywood was premiering his debut, mangled to appeal to perceived Reaganised teenagers, Ellis published his sophomore novel The Rules of Attraction, in which the influence of Reaganism is present in the Freshmen wanting a weight room and vetoing Louis Farrakhan as a speaker. Camden College life in the 1985 Fall term is narrated in short vignettes by Sean Bateman, Paul Denton, Lauren Hynde, and some secondary characters. An unreliable picture emerges from their overlapping experiences at parties, cafeteria lunches, hook-ups, classes, and trips to town. Denton narrates a secret affair with Bateman, Bateman narrates a minor friendship with Denton, Bateman and Lauren hook up for a disastrous relationship which both record very differently, and Bateman’s secret admirer (who he thought was Lauren) kills herself when he sleeps with Lauren. STDs and abortions are the frequent price of the casual sex merry-go-round of Camden’s never-ending party, and Lauren pays in full. Ellis’ dialogue is a marvel, with one-liners aplenty in concisely captured conversations, while the trademark pop culture references (everybody is listening to Little Creatures) are married to more nuanced narration. Denton, the most self-aware and self-critical character, eschews auditioning for the Shepard play because his life already is one. Spielberg is memorably critiqued for being secular humanism not rigorous modernism, but mostly these intelligent characters play dumb because excess is what’s expected.

“What does that mean? Know me? Know me? Nobody knows anyone else. Ever. You will never, ever know me” – The Rules of Attraction (film)

Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary adapted and directed the novel, and Ellis dubbed the 2002 film “the one movie that captured my sensibility in a visual and cinematic language.” The rise of independent cinema meant Avary could cast James Van Der Beek as Bateman without bowdlerising the novel. The film is alternately shocking (it opens with the rape of Shannyn Sossamon’s Lauren), hilarious (Denton [Ian Somerhalder] and Dick [Russell Sams] perform an entirely improvised dance to ‘Faith’ in their underwear), and romantic (an extended split-screen sequence shows Bateman and Lauren finally meeting at their Saturday morning tutorial). Avary stylishly plays out the climactic ‘End of the World’ party from three viewpoints before winding back to the start of term, and situates Camden in a temporal twilight zone; with broadband internet but a 1980s soundtrack of The Cure and Erasure. Avary radically changes Lauren’s character, by throwing many of her traits onto loose roommate Lara (Jessica Biel). Lauren is now a virgin, waiting for Victor to return from Europe, whereas in the book she waited on Victor while sleeping with Franklyn. From being a mirror of Bateman, who sleeps with her friend while being in love with Lauren, she becomes a Madonna. There’s no longer an alienated road-trip with Sean ending with an abortion, just as Sean’s affair with Denton is reduced to one split-screen scene implicitly showing Denton’s fantasy. Avary’s changes make more violent and consequential Bateman’s successive breaks with Lauren and Denton, when she tells Bateman he will never know her, and he repeats her lines to Denton. Denton and Lauren’s snowy encounter after the ‘End of the World’ party, scored by Tomandandy with electronic eeriness, becomes a haunting summation: “Doesn’t matter anyway. Not to people like him. Not to people like us.” Lauren’s momentary self-condemnatory thought, unsaid in the novel, is spoken and brings things close to Gatsby’s “careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money.”

Click here to read the full piece on HeadStuff.org.

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

December 22, 2009

(Public) Enemies Foreign and Domestic

Well, it’s not every year Hollywood and France go head to head – in this case with big brassily confident biopics of real-life criminals adulated by the media who specialised in audacious bank-heists – only for everyone to conclude that Hollywood’s version lacked the infectious sense of fun that marked the French take…

Michael Mann isn’t noted for his sense of humour but humour isn’t necessary if you’re presenting compelling drama, however if people are bored they’ll always astringently note, ‘this is a humourless bore’. Mesrine is far funnier than Public Enemies and crucially Mesrine obviously enjoys robbing banks, there is an utter fecklessness to the Quebec double hold-up when, having gone to great lengths to establish that they have 30 seconds before they get shot dead by the police, his Quebecois partner suggests hitting the bank across the street and Mesrine agrees. By contrast Dillinger’s bank-raids are presented as an efficient piece of craftwork…

This sense of efficiency bedevils Mann’s film – everything you expect from a gangster film is present and correct but there is little attempt to delve beneath the surface. Public Enemies lacks context. The great unaddressed topic of the film is the FBI, the scene with Hoover being grilled in a Senate hearing promised much as an intriguing sub-plot about the legal and political machinations involved in the rise of the Bureau but that storyline is never developed beyond the fascinating reaction of the Mob to the implications of the federal legal response to Dillinger’s cross-state crime-sprees for their own continental business. Mann’s epic drops us into Dillinger’s career just months from its end whereas two films take us through Mesrine’s entire life giving us clear motivation where Mann only half-suggests that, like the anti-heroes in Breach or Jesse James, Dillinger yearns to be punished. The concluding text suggests a Ford/James bond between Melvin Purvis and Dillinger but Christian Bale is not given the screen-time necessary to register this and in any case Bale and Depp are both woefully blank for the majority of their performances, only occasionally emoting ‘driven’ and ‘roguish’ respectively.

Public Enemies also suffers from a deeply cavalier approach to fleshing out supporting characters. If you knew who David Wenham was for certain in less than an hour then you’re a better man than me Gunga Din. Mesrine is of course more sexual than Public Enemies but that shouldn’t necessarily be so given that Dillinger’s moll is French star Marion Cotillard, however, she is rendered as anaemic as a long line of French actresses have been by Hollywood. It’s at this point that you note that Mesrine has its cake and eats it with its introduction of Cecile de France’s Jeanne Schneider as the Bonnie to Mesrine’s Clyde being reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and superbly subversive of the type of hyper-sexual introduction we expect, which Ludivine Sagnier’s moll Sylvie then receives…

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is dizzying geographically as it takes us from France to Quebec via Algeria and Spain in a series of acutely observed vignettes. This is mirrored in Mesrine’s interior journey from reluctant soldier encouraged to torture and kill by his superiors in the battle against Algeria’s independence movement, to demobbed man who dabbles in crime, before we see him morph convincingly and touchingly to family man who gets an honest job and obviously enjoys his work before being laid off and so turning inexorably to a life of crime. It is this sense that Mesrine was forced by circumstance, including government sanctioned brutality, to criminality that makes him a much more empathetic character than Dillinger. The lack of true motivation for Dillinger is a problem made worse by Depp’s mixture of boredom and insouciance in the heists which defeats the intended reading that Dillinger robs for kicks. Crime becomes a dangerous drug for Mesrine as it feeds his ego and his recklessness which become more monstrous until he simply burns through criminal partners and women who tire of his machismo. Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 does very well what only a few scenes in Public Enemies hint at – the growing distance between Robin Hood and bank-robber, even as their need to justify their crimes as revolutionary anti-capitalism or the common man striking back becomes more obsessive.

Mann’s new digital shooting style deglamorises by removing the sheen we expect from film. Mesrine by contrast opts for a very filmic sheen and, as well as 1970s split-screens, a number of dazzlingly ornate camera movements such as the spinning away sequence in solitary confinement in Quebec and the extravagant car-mounted camera for the spectacular car-crash shot in Paris. Mann’s down and dirty digital style renders the savage gun-battles with thundering immediacy, and impressively makes them feel totally different to his own previous personal best Heat’s epic shoot-out on the streets of LA, but ‘authenticity’ is not always desirable – too often it feels like it was shot in Mann’s back-yard with a camcorder while Mesrine was shot on soundstages and locations with heinously expensive equipment.

Mesrine is almost a Hollywood production filtered through a French sensibility, full of bravura film-making. Public Enemies in its more suspenseful sequences of surveillance and engagement matches it, but Mann’s emphasis on gritty 1930s visuals rather than his characters or his history mean that while both films are flawed Mesrine’s melding of influences is more interesting and successful, and in the end it is just more fun…and that was unexpected.

October 13, 2009

Films of the Decade?

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

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

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

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

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

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

2000-2002

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

2003-2006

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

2007-2009

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

 

As of right now…

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