Talking Movies

March 4, 2018

Why shouldn’t Fast & Furious 8 win the Best Picture Oscar?

The obvious answer is because it wasn’t nominated, but there’s an awful lot to be said about that obvious fact.

George Bernard Shaw once complained, after hearing one too many twits at dinner parties dismissing Wilde as facile, that he seemed to be the only man in London who could not sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. Fast & Furious 8 would, Vin Diesel promised, star Dame Helen Mirren and win the Oscar for Best Picture. It achieved one of those impossible missions. And probably the one more worth achieving. Can one say that Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture because it was facile? Surely not, because, like Wilde, if it was really that easy then every studio would be able to make their own Fast & Furious at will, and they cannot. This film saga has liberated itself from realism, probability, physics, logic, and continuity in a manner that defines gleefulness. The only people who can save the world are petrol-heads, people escaping explosions or jumping off bridges or falling cars can always land just where someone is driving to pick them, cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, and again cars can fly between and through and then between skyscrapers, the State is welcomed into the family after murdering one of the family because of insinuations that he has a forgiveness-worthy back story. This is glee incarnate.

And glee does not win Oscars.  Fast & Furious 8 was not nominated for Best Picture for the same reason that The Dark Knight was nominated on the understanding that nobody was to actually vote for it. One of my regular theatre cohorts dropped the Freudian slip/zinger “The Dark Knight is great but obviously it wouldn’t the Oscar” when discussing Fast 8 and the Oscars. Think about that, a film is great, but obviously it can’t win the Oscar. Why? Well, because it’s just, um, too popular… A mantra here at Talking Movies is that is what good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good. That would ring alien to Oscar voters, and that’s not my opinion, it’s an empirically observable trend.

Consider the 1980s. Here are the films that topped the North American Box Office and the films that were awarded Best Picture year by year:

1980 The Empire Strikes Back

1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark

1982 E.T.

1983 Return of the Jedi

1984 Beverly Hills Cop

1985 Back to the Future

1986 Top Gun

1987 Three Men and a Baby

1988 Rain Man

1989 Batman

 

1980 Ordinary People

1981 Chariots of Fire

1982 Gandhi

1983 Terms of Endearment

1984 Amadeus

1985 Out of Africa

1986 Platoon

1987 The Last Emperor

1988 Rain Man

1989 Driving Miss Daisy

Only Rain Man won both the commercial and Oscar stakes, but some of the others were damn close. Ordinary People was 11th, Chariots of Fire 7th, Gandhi 12th, Terms of Endearment 2nd, Amadeus 12th, Out of Africa 5th, Platoon 3rd, The Last Emperor 25th, and Driving Miss Daisy 8th at the North American box office in their year of release.

Consider the 1990s, when two films topped the North American box office and were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour.

1990 Home Alone

1991 Terminator 2

1992 Aladdin

1993 Jurassic Park

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Toy Story

1996 Independence Day

1997 Titanic

1998 Saving Private Ryan

1999 The Phantom Menace

 

1990 Dances with Wolves

1991 The Silence of the Lambs

1992 Unforgiven

1993 Schindler’s List

1994 Forrest Gump

1995 Braveheart

1996 The English Patient

1997 Titanic

1998 Shakespeare in Love

1999 American Beauty

Oscars were still going to reasonably popular films. Dances with Wolves was 3rd, The Silence of the Lambs 4th, Unforgiven 11th, Schindler’s List 11th, Braveheart 18th, The English Patient 19th, Shakespeare in Love 18th, and American Beauty 13th at the North American box office in their year of release. But the Weinstein campaign that successfully prevented the seminal, serious, and popular Saving Private Ryan from taking the Oscar in favour of their slight but aggressively campaigned for confection bode ill.

Consider the 2000s, and you’ll see the people’s choices at the North American box office getting worryingly and increasingly ever further from the Oscar’s choices.

2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas

2001 Harry Potter 1

2002 Spider-Man

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Shrek 2

2005 Revenge of the Sith

2006 Pirates of the Caribbean 2

2007 Spider-Man 3

2008 The Dark Knight

2009 Avatar

 

2000 Gladiator

2001 A Beautiful Mind

2002 Chicago

2003 The Return of the King

2004 Million Dollar Baby

2005 Crash

2006 The Departed

2007 No Country for Old Men

2008 Slumdog Millionaire

2009 The Hurt Locker

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The Oscars now start to veer sharply away from reality… Gladiator was 4th, A Beautiful Mind 11th, Chicago 10th, Million Dollar Baby 24th, Crash 49th, The Departed 15th, No Country for Old Men 36th, Slumdog Millionaire 16th, and The Hurt Locker 116th at the North American box office in their year of release. Where The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier in the 1980s when all other 9 films placed 12 or higher, now we find Million Dollar Baby at 24, and then beyond it Crash, No Country for Old Men, and The Hurt Locker. Where in the 1990s only 4 films placed lower than 12, now only 4 films placed 12 or higher – something is definitely up.

Consider the 2010s, a decade in which the Oscars have for eight years ostentatiously disdained the North American box office.

2010 Toy Story 3

2011 Harry Potter 7

2012 The Avengers

2013 Catching Fire

2014 American Sniper

2015 The Force Awakens

2016 Rogue One

2017 The Last Jedi

 

2010 The King’s Speech

2011 The Artist

2012 Argo

2013 12 Years a Slave

2014 Birdman

2015 Spotlight

2016 Moonlight

2017 The Shape of Water (?)

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Oh dear… The King’s Speech was 18th, The Artist 71st, Argo 22nd, 12 Years a Slave 62nd, Birdman 78th, Spotlight 62nd, Moonlight 92nd, and (sic) The Shape of Water 46th at the North American box office in their year of release. Remember the good old days in the 1980s when The Last Emperor at 25 had been an outlier as all the other films were placed 12 or higher? Remember the 1990s when only 4 films placed lower than 12? Or the 2000s when 4 films placed 12 or higher? Now only 1 film out of 8 has even broken into the top 20, and 5 films out of 8 couldn’t even crack the top 50.

What is good ought be popular, and what is popular ought be good, clearly has no currency as a mantra for the Oscar voters.

Bret Easton Ellis on his Podcast has persuasively trashed the Oscars from their inception as a ruse to pretend that the Hollywood studios were interested in art not money by parading a social conscience and worthy/boring movies for public notice. Talking Movies some years ago argued the Oscars were out of step, with many awards effectively do-overs, such as James Stewart winning Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story not Mr Smith Goes to Washington. But the Ellis verdict doesn’t sit with the notion in this piece that films which top the North American box office were crowned with a Best Picture Oscar on their lap of honour. Boxofficemojo.com only has detailed figures going back to 1980, the less documented Filmsite.org has errors that render it unreliable, so we’re forced to Wikipedia to allow us tentatively examine if there is a basis for saying that the biggest film of a year once customarily won the biggest Oscar prize, not just occasionally.

1930 Tom Sawyer

1931 Frankenstein

1932 Shanghai Express

1933 Cavalcade

1934 Viva Villa!

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 Modern Times

1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

1938 Alexander’s Ragtime Band

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

1930 All Quiet on the Western Front

1931 Cimarron

1932 Grand Hotel

1933 Cavalcade

1934 It Happened One Night

1935 Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 The Great Ziegfeld

1937 The Life of Emile Zola

1938 You Can’t Take It with You

1939 Gone with the Wind

 

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 Sergeant York

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 For Whom the Bell Tolls

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Bells of St Mary’s

1946 Song of the South

1947 Unconquered

1948 The Red Shoes

1949 Samson and Delilah

 

1940 Rebecca

1941 How Green Was My Valley

1942 Mrs Miniver

1943 Casablanca

1944 Going My Way

1945 The Lost Weekend

1946 The Best Years of Our Lives

1947 Gentlemen’s Agreement

1948 Hamlet

1949 All the King’s Men

 

1950 King Solomon’s Mines

1951 Quo Vadis

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 The Robe

1954 Rear Window

1955 Cinerama Holiday

1956 The Ten Commandments

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 South Pacific

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1950 All About Eve

1951 An American in Paris

1952 The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 From Here to Eternity

1954 On the Waterfront

1955 Marty

1956 Around the World in 80 Days

1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai

1958 Gigi

1959 Ben-Hur

 

1960 Spartacus

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Cleopatra

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 The Bible

1967 The Graduate

1968 2001: Space Odyssey

1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

 

1960 The Apartment

1961 West Side Story

1962 Lawrence of Arabia

1963 Tom Jones

1964 My Fair Lady

1965 The Sound of Music

1966 A Man for All Seasons

1967 In the Heat of the Night

1968 Oliver!

1969 Midnight Cowboy

1970 Love Story

1971 Fiddler on the Roof

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 Blazing Saddles

1975 Jaws

1976 Rocky

1977 Star Wars

1978 Grease

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

 

1970 Patton

1971 The French Connection

1972 The Godfather

1973 The Sting

1974 The Godfather: Part II

1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1976 Rocky

1977 Annie Hall

1978 The Deer Hunter

1979 Kramer vs. Kramer

Now then, while there are a lot of boring/worthy films crowding out crowd-pleasers in those years, my impression wasn’t entirely unfounded. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s the Best Picture Oscar went to the North American box office champion a regulation 3 times per decade. In the 1960s and 1970s that rose to a regulation 4 times per decade. And then from 1980 to 2018 reverse all engines: instead of 4 times per decade, it has happened 4 times in 4 decades. Something has changed… The Dark Knight would probably have picked up the Best Picture Oscar had it been a film of the 1960s or 1970s, been as great as it was, and been as popular as it was. Unfortunately it arrived a truly obscurantist time for the Oscars, as the very next year the Oscars suckered viewers by nominating Avatar, a genuinely phenomenally popular film, and then awarding the Oscar to The Hurt Locker, which set a new record for unpopularity; being the 116th most popular film at the North American box office in the year of its release. You have to go to the second page of the 2009 statistics on Boxofficemojo.com to find it.

What seemed a deliberate slap in the face to the audience set up this current decade’s obstinate obscurantism and has reaped the appropriate result, fewer and fewer people watching. Now, one shouldn’t automatically equate popularity with artistic merit, but I can’t see that Fast & Furious 8’s glee is completely alien to 1963’s Oscar-winner Tom Jones, nor can I see that its crowd-pleasing is markedly different to 1976’s Oscar-winner Rocky. If it is well-crafted and pleases so many people globally why is it treated like the damn plague? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to announce that the winner at the North American box office would automatically be given the Best Picture Oscar? Or that the nominees for Best Picture would simply be the top 10 films at the box office? Instead the Oscars wring their hands: Why is nobody watching? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters not young and hip enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the presenters too young and hip? (Nobody saw the movies) Were the nominations not diverse enough? (Nobody saw the movies) Yes! We must make the voters more diverse to produce more diverse nominations, that will make people watch, yes? (No, nobody saw the movies)

The Oscars have tied themselves into knots responding to vitriolic campaigns about their supposed racism lest, in the pompous Guardian terminology, they become increasingly insular and irrelevant if they ignore these sorts of institutional biases. And yet, even just going with the rigorously documented last 4 decades, the Oscars have already demonstrably become insular and irrelevant over these recent decades by becoming like a snooty waiter who when asked what’s good on the menu, laughs and says “Well, we have some fine fare for ourselves in the kitchen, but that’s not for the likes of you, eat the slop you’re given”, and clearly have no intention doing anything about that. It’s almost comical after the viewing figures turn out poorly every year to see them scrabble for any and all solutions except the actual, obvious one: nominate popular films, and not just for show, to win, like in the 1970s.

It might concentrate a few minds in Hollywood to automatically give the Oscar to the box office winners, because if you don’t value your stock in trade, and thereby show your contempt for your audience, how exactly do you expect the audience to feel about that – it’s pretty remarkable to expect them to tune in in their billions to watch you slap yourself on the back for movies nobody saw because in large part nobody wanted or would want to see them. It might also make global blockbusters a bit better to have people not simply start shooting with a shoddy script because they know all they need is CGI visuals when this is going to sell mostly in foreign language markets. The decline of the North American box office in its importance to Hollywood is fodder for a whole series of posts, but re-attaching the Oscars to domestic popularity might work on ego if pride is not enough to get people to stand over their work for the masses.

Fast & Furious 9 needs to win the Best Picture Oscar as a grand apology for the ridiculous conduct of the Oscars for many, many years. Make it happen, Hollywood.

September 18, 2015

A View from the Bridge

Joe Dowling returns to Dublin from Minneapolis to direct another of Arthur Miller’s signature tragedies, following his acclaimed 2003 Abbey version of All My Sons.

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Our tragic hero Eddie Carbone (Scott Aiello) works on the docks in 1950s Brooklyn; still an Italian stronghold as our narrator, and local lawyer, Alfieri (Bosco Hogan) informs us. But more important it’s still a Sicilian stronghold, and, as Alfieri warns us, the descendants of the Greeks at Syracuse are about to enact another tragedy. Eddie’s long-suffering wife Beatrice (Niamh McCann) raises Eddie’s niece Catherine (Lauren Coe) almost as her own daughter, but everything is about to change for the Carbones as she prepares to shelter her cousins Marco (Peter Coonan) and Rodolpho (Joey Phillips), fresh off a boat from Sicily and very illegal in their immigration status. But Eddie is aggrieved when Rodolpho takes a liking to Catherine, and so picks fault with Rodolpho’s extroversion that Marco has to protectively step in. But Eddie’s true motivation is even darker…

Set designer Beowulf Boritt places dockyard gantries funnelling the audience’s gaze in an odd trick of perspective towards a huge backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge. These gantries then close in to create, with the addition of a dropped-down light-shade, the Carbones’ apartment. Dowling dispenses with the elaborately shifting sets of his 2011 version of The Field, instead seamlessly changing location for scenes via Malcolm Rippeth’s expressive lighting design. He also makes notable use of Denis Clohessy’s sound design to inject a literal note of menace at the curtain when Marco effortlessly lifts a chair by one leg to issue an unspoken threat to Eddie to leave Rodolpho alone. Coonan’s physicality is brilliantly used to make Marco a man of few words, gentle, unless you cross him, and then implacably set on hurting enemies in the approved pre-Socratic Greek moral code.

Aiello is fantastic as a decent man destroying himself, at times even echoing The Crucible’s John Proctor’s concern for his good name. Aiello keeps audience sympathy as Eddie’s mind unravels because of an incestuous desire he can’t even acknowledge to himself without tearing up (though he does this maybe once too often). His attempt to convince Alfieri (a very empathetic Hogan) that Rodolpho’s ‘not right’ is played for laughs as Alfieri simply does not get what Eddie is trying to nudge, nudge about. Rodolpho is clearly not ‘not right’, but Eddie does seem to have half a point, in that Rodolpho decided (rather too quickly) to marry literally the first eligible American citizen he set eyes on. But then Alfieri’s warning that God can give someone an excessive amount of love is evidenced in a shocking scene of aggressive sexuality.

Freud notwithstanding human incest in Greek tragedies was unwitting. Miller deliberately shocks with the intentionality here, even as the vice inexorably closes for Eddie in this riveting, disturbing production.

4/5

A View from the Bridge continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 24th of October.

October 6, 2014

Our Few and Evil Days

Ciaran Hinds and Sinead Cusack, so successful in Juno and the Paycock back in 2011, reunite as a more contemporary but equally troubled married couple; whose headstrong daughter brings home an equally superficially attractive paramour.

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Michael (Hinds) and Margaret (Cusack) are a loving couple in a Dublin suburb who no longer share a bedroom. The wordless opening of both acts sees Michael come downstairs to wake her up, and then put away mattress and pillows and switch the pull-out bed back to a sofa while she dresses upstairs. Yet their obvious devotion to each other is noticed and commented on by unexpected visitor Dennis (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), who has been placed in the awkward position of meeting the parents solo by Adele (Charlie Murphy) running off to help her friend Belinda thru yet another crisis. Dennis inevitably makes a faux pas, about Adele’s absent brother, Jonathan; something teased out, along with Belinda’s crises, when Adele arrives for a very late dinner. But when Adele leaves again Dennis is convinced to stay over by Michael, and so when Dennis gets up for a drink of water he falls over Margaret; and their conversation about Jonathan becomes… disturbing.

Our Few and Evil Days is hard to review without ruining the effect of Mark O’Rowe’s mischievous structure. My lead-in was mischievous in mentioning O’Casey, because this is clearly in the vein of two other playwrights. The interrupting and sharply back and forth dialogue owes a debt to David Mamet, and the stellar cast, once they’ve warmed up to it (almost), embrace its rhythms with gusto. Meanwhile Harold Pinter’s comedy of menace rumbles under the attempts of naively nice guy Dennis to make a good impression. As director O’Rowe is also mischievous, casting Ian-Lloyd Anderson against type as Belinda’s abusive boyfriend Gary, by muting the physical menace he displayed in Major Barbara and instead playing up epic self-pity. This is a solidly middle-class setting courtesy of Paul Wills’ fully functioning set; with stairs behind the glass doors from the sitting room to the hall, a laundry area behind the kitchen, and a working sink (the final pre-Irish Water set design?).

Unfortunately such an impressive deeply layered set necessitates the removal of the first four rows of seats, so row E gets pasted up against the stage; and during Dennis and Margaret’s pivotal scene sitting at the kitchen table you are listening to a table emote because you can’t see Margaret’s face at all… O’Rowe’s play comprises three scenes either side of the interval; but where uncomfortable comedy dominates the first act, Freudian nightmares, shouting matches, and pop-analysis dominate the second. This gives the impression by the end that some characters have merely acted as plot devices to push the most important characters into dramatic screaming matches, and that much of the comedy has been a red herring. This doesn’t really matter though when actors of the calibre of Hinds, Cusack, Murphy and Vaughan-Lawlor are giving it their all. Vaughan-Lawlor clearly relishes playing against ‘Nidge’, Cusack is endearingly earthy, Hinds is sympathetically conflicted, and Murphy impressively alternates between wounded and wounding.

O’Rowe’s script has a fearful symmetry, great comedy, and touches on true darkness, but is perhaps a bit too full of misdirection. It’s possible to see future productions simply fall apart with lesser actors.

4/5

Our Few and Evil Days continues its run at the Abbey until the 25th of October.

August 23, 2014

Heartbreak House

If it’s summer it must be Shaw at the Abbey. Annabelle Comyn, who helmed Pygmalion and Major Barbara, is replaced by Roisin McBrinn, but Nick Dunning returns for more Fassbendering.

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Ellie Dunn (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) has been invited to the Shotover residence by Hesione (Kathy Kiera Clarke), who then neglects her entirely. The irascible Captain Shotover (Mark Lambert) entertains Hesione’s guest, while disparaging to Ellie his other daughter Lady Ariadne Utterword (Aislin McGuckin), who thus arrives home after 20 years’ absence to a cold welcome. Receiving a baffling welcome is Ellie’s father, Mazzini Dunn (Chris McHallem), who Captain Shotover insists is an old shipmate who stole from him, but let bygones be bygones. Mazzini is attempting to marry Ellie off to his benefactor, vulgar capitalist Alfred ‘Boss’ Mangan (Don Wycherley), but Hesione is determined to marry Ellie off to her true love; except that unfortunately he turns out to be Hesione’s own husband Hector Hushabye (Nick Dunning). Add in Ariadne’s smitten brother-in-law Randall Utterword (Marcus Lamb) for universal delirious heartbreak.

At the interval I thought that Clarke was over-playing the eccentricity of Hesione, and that Wycherley was engaged in some oblique Python tribute with Mangan’s belly as bloated as M. Creosote and his delivery as hoarse and mentally exhausted as a Gumby. But after the interval I realised they were merely the advance troops for Shaw’s assault on realism. Heartbreak House positions Shaw far closer to Coward than I’d ever previously guessed. The spoilt aristocrats who ignore their guests, who get nervous, and then get some gumption, while romantic dalliances switch between partners with dizzying speed, must have been an influence on Hay Fever. But after the interval, as Lady Ariadne comes into her own, Shaw toys with Freudian complexes and zinging one-liners in a comedy increasingly far removed from any emotional verisimilitude and on its way to pure absurdism.

McBrinn, like Comyn before her, finds unexpected modernity in a 1920 script. The nautical-styled house by McBrinn’s Perve cohort Alyson Cummins is a wonderful creation, with a sliding floor effect startlingly used for a hypnosis sequence. That hypnosis leads to wonderful slapstick, but a sinister undercurrent finds release in the impressive bombing finale conjured by Paul Keogan’s flashing lights and Philip Stewart’s pyrotechnic sounds. My fellow academic Graham Price is not a fan of Shaw solving the world’s problems in four Acts, and did not appreciate that late lurch into political satire of the ruling class. But while Mangan’s entrepreneurship may be suspect, it cannot detract from the hilarity of sequences like catching an irksome burglar. McHallem’s performance is a nice complement to his Major Barbara turn, Lambert and Dunning Fassbender madly, and Hogg and McGuckin’s characters become impressively commanding.

Heartbreak House’s final lines and visual effect are chilling in this centenary summer and they startle by resembling something Joan Littlewood could have devised.

3/5

Heartbreak House continues its run at the Abbey until the 13th of September.

April 23, 2014

5 Reasons to love Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan’s Quebec-set thriller Tom at the Farm only played for a week at the IFI but it deserves to be seen by large audiences.

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L’Ambiguitie

Dolan’s film, adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard’s play, maintains ambiguity masterfully. Tom (Dolan) is bullied by his dead lover’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), into keeping Guillaume’s sexuality hidden from his mother Agathe (Lise Roy), but Guillaume’s elision of Francis’ existence, and the true nature of Francis’ need for Tom to stay at the farm, remain murky: when Francis menaces two men who insult him, we assume a motive which is later expertly cast into doubt. Nothing is obvious here.

 

Two to Tango

The moment when Francis takes Tom to a shed in the family farm that is revealed to be a nearly professional standard dance-floor is a startling character revelation. But when Francis then shows Tom how he used to practice as a teenager with his deceased brother Guillaume, by whirling Tom around to music memorably used in a Nip/Tuck finale, and Tom responds by assuming his dead lover Guillame’s place and tangoing perfectly makes this scene deliriously transgressive.

 

Bright lights, Dark story

When Tom goes for a drink, to kill time while waiting for a bus to roll in, it’s hard not to be struck by the lurid colour scheme his very green jacket makes against the very yellow bar he sits at. As the barman starts to tell him exactly what Francis did to be so shunned by the local community, the lurid colours seem ever brighter as an almost Hitchcockian contrast against to the ever-darkening monologue.

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Letterbox ex machina

At first I thought I’d been half-asleep and had somehow missed the entire film being in letter-box format when the screen seemed to close in as Francis choked Tom in the cornfield after Tom’s early futile escape attempt. Then the film reverted to normal ratio… And, sure enough, now on the lookout for it I noticed the boldly expressionist format shift happen twice more: when Tom chokes Francis later, and when Francis makes another bolt for freedom.

 

Freudian Slips and Chokeholds

Freud you imagine would have a field-day with this movie… The macho swaggering farmer Francis seems to represent the powerful eruption of the suppressed sexual instincts. Except Francis also seems to equally represent a powerful rage against just those instincts, while Tom in his relationship with Francis veers somewhere beyond Stockholm Syndrome and the embodiment of Freud’s death-drive thanatos being intimately related to the sex-drive libido in his acceptance of beatings and positive pleasure in choking.

February 19, 2014

The Vortex

Director Annabelle Comyn forsakes the Abbey and Shaw for the Gate and Coward in this cutting 1920s comedy with an unexpectedly serious and intimate finale.

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The Vortex opens with the sensible Helen (Fiona Bell) and acerbic Pawnie (Mark O’Regan), waiting in an opulent drawing room for vain and apparently ageless socialite Florence (Susannah Harker). Coward follows Chekhov’s lead in having a whirl of characters pass thru one location as we meet unsmiling servant Preston (Andrea Kelly), fatuous singer Clara (Rebecca O’Mara), and, after Florence’s belated arrival, her devoted young lover Tom (Ian Toner), her defeated aged husband David (Simon Coury), her histrionic coke-stoked pianist son Nicky (Rory Fleck Byrne), and Nicky’s calculating flapper fiancé Bunty (Katie Kirby)… A Freudian frisson instantly shivers between Florence and Bunty over Nicky’s undivided love, and when it transpires Bunty and Tom knew each other intimately years before the scene is set for emotional carnage when all concerned up sticks to Florence’s country house for a Charleston-and-cocktails fuelled weekend party.

Comyn’s regular designer Paul O’Mahony provides an elegant crescent of mirrors and walls which slide along to reveal a staircase for the second act in the country, which begins with a literal bang as Chahine Yavroyan’s dramatically surging lighting design provides the effect of old flashbulbs for keepsake pictures of the couples dancing. Comyn showed in The House her skill at blocking large chaotic ensembles, and 8 people bounce around the stage to the over-pumped gramophone recording of the Charleston in Philip Connaughton’s choreographed party, during which Nicky’s coke addiction becomes evident to Helen. Byrne is marvellous as the highly-strung Nicky, trying to overcome his terrible upbringing, while his self-absorbed mother makes a fool of herself as Tom and Bunty move closer together. Toner is impressive as the slowly awakening Tom, while Kirby makes Bunty somehow both cold and right.

O’Regan Fassbenders delightfully as Pawnie, aided by hoovering up the play’s best lines. It’s tempting to link Coward to Waugh and say the trick of 1920s dialogue is the casual use of ridiculously hyperbolic words. Bright Young Things only ever dub things, no matter how trivial, as ‘ghastly, gruesome, sick-making, beastly, horrid, deathly’ or ‘heavenly, divine, sublime’. Well-spoken but OTT-phrased bad behaviour became Coward’s trade-in-stock but, while the curtain anticipates Hay Fever’s flight of guests, this is a more serious work. The third act focuses on Nicky’s insistence, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, that Florence abandons her obsession with her continuing youth and instead acknowledges her blame in his failings as a person. But this once controversial scene echoes Hamlet and Gertrude’s bedroom contretemps, and leaves us hungry for an aftermath that is never analysed – to dissatisfying effect.

The Vortex may have been the ‘theatrical shocker of the Jazz Age’, but what shocks now is not its sex and drugs but its cavalier dismissal of its ensemble.

3/5

The Vortex continues its run at the Gate until the 17th of March.

February 8, 2012

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg and a stellar cast tackle a clash between two heavyweights of 20th Century intellectual history, but this film punches just below its fighting weight.

Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their shared patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the disagreement between the two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. Atonement scriptwriter Christopher Hampton adapts his own play which begins with Sabina’s arrival at the Swiss clinic where Jung works. This allows him put Freud’s untested theory of the ‘talking cure’ into practice, leading to a meeting with Freud that sees the two men become friends and colleagues. Freud, however, sends a deranged colleague Otto Gross (played by an unruly Vincent Cassell) to Jung for treatment, and after their bruising debating sessions Jung succumbs to his darkest desires with Sabina, who is on her way to becoming an analyst herself; and a disciple of Freud…

Knightley, sporting an impressive Russian accent, gives a startlingly alien performance as the hysterical girl who slowly transforms herself into Jung’s intellectual equal. Her attacks of hysteria include a disturbing jutting of her jaw that conveys a body almost breaking in trying not to scream. Sabina’s recovery allows Knightley to play a nuanced fragility. Fassbender (looking oddly like James Joyce) is assured as a clever, kindly man corrupted by his own darkest desires. Viggo has a determinedly supporting role as Freud, but is droll in delivering put-downs, and wordlessly noting the class and religious divide between himself and Jung; which are slightly overplayed. He also excels at making Freud charismatic but ambiguous; did he send Gross to corrupt Jung because Jung threatened to undermine Freud’s sexualised theorising?

There is minor body horror in Sabina’s account of a waking hallucination of a mollusc attaching itself to her spine, but the real Cronenberg touch is the S&M between her and Jung. Cronenberg’s triumph is using deep focus in the therapy sessions so that we can observe the faces of both Jung and Sabina, and in foregrounding consistently compelling verbal fencing between characters who professionally dissect language for its nuances. Emotions trump ideas though… Freud’s insistence on total obedience or excommunication, his dogmatic atheism, his refusal to abrogate sexual interpretations to anything, and Jung’s counterpointing of a spiritual instinct and metaphoric rather than literal readings of Oedipus complexes are never adequately explored. Jung’s empirical discovery of the complexes is glancingly depicted, but his theory of synchronicity (a psychic echo of physical events) is rendered as stark gibberish, while Freud’s concept of the death drive and Jung’s anima/animus theory become Sabina’s ideas…

This is an excellently played drama that is always absorbing, but more detail about the ideas of the characters rather than just their emotions would have made it truly great.

4/5

January 9, 2012

2012: Hopes

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:03 pm
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Shame
Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen’s second film as director sees him again collaborating with his Hunger leading man Michael Fassbender. If Hunger was an installation about bodies in decay this is a study of bodies in motion, as this stark drama sees Fassbender play a successful businessman in NYC who has carefully constructed his life around his secret sex addiction. His routine falls apart and his life disintegrates under the pressure of his compulsions when his wayward sister (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives to stay in his apartment. It may just be that one of the first releases of 2012 sets a high-water mark for excellence that no other will reach.

 

The War Horse
JG Ballard dubbed Steven Spielberg’s works ‘Cathedrals of Emotion’ and even the trailer for this is upsetting, so God knows how tear-jerking the whole movie will be. Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s beloved children’s book, which is currently wowing the West End in a puppet-heavy interpretation, follows a teenage boy’s journey into the hell of World War I in an attempt to rescue his beloved horse. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are the upper-class officers while Jeremy Irvine plays the young farmer who swaps rural England for the hell of a traumatically recreated Battle of the Somme after his prized horse is summarily requisitioned for the front.

 

J. Edgar
Clint Eastwood, who by virtue of his physical and artistic longevity is old enough to both actually remember Hoover in his prime and to still creatively interpret it, directs Leonardo DiCaprio in a biopic of the once feared and now derided founder of the FBI. Ordinarily this is the kind of Oscar-bait that I despise more than anything else, however, all evidence is that this is not the usual inane drama with a platitudinous message and showy Act-ing. Instead Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black employs constant flashbacks, with undercutting switches of perspective between DiCaprio and Armie Hammer as Hoover’s FBI Agent lover, to explain the neuroses that drove Hoover.

 

A Dangerous Method
David Cronenberg directs Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of his own play about a pivotal 20th century clash. Michael Fassbender is Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen is Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley is their patient (and alleged muse) Sabina Spielrein in a riveting drama about the conflict between two great founding fathers of psychoanalysis that split the medical movement at its founding. The S&M is what will get talked about most, as the obvious starting point for locating this in the Cronenberg canon, but attention should focus on Fassbender’s assured turn as Jung and Knightley’s startlingly alien performance as the hysterical Russian who slowly transforms herself into an equal to Jung.

 

 

The Hunger Games
Jennifer Lawrence headlines as heroine Katniss Everdeen in what’s being touted as the new Twilight, and is, according to Google, the most anticipated movie of 2012. Adapted from the wildly popular trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins, an apocalypse has left a new country called Panem ruling North America, and every year as punishment for a quelled rebellion against its authority the new government in the Capitol chooses one teenage boy or girl from each of its 12 districts to fight to the death against each other in the televised Hunger Games – in the end only one survives. As an unusually vicious YA media satire this sounds promising.

 

Anna Karenina
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Joe Wright and Keira Knightley reunite for an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic 1870s tale of infidelity in snowiest Russia which William Faulkner once described as the perfect novel. Knightley is never better as an actress than when under Wright’s confident direction, and this is a welcome return to his period-setting comfort zone after the misfiring disaster that was his existential action movie Hanna. Other returning Wright regulars Saoirse Ronan and Matthew Macfadyen form part of a strong ensemble led by Aaron Johnson as Anna’s lover Count Vronsky and Jude Law as her cuckolded husband.

 

The Amazing Spider-Man
I mocked this last year, but once I saw the trailer in a cinema I started to reconsider my stance. The colour-scheme alone indicates a move away from the day-glo japery of Raimi to the moodiness of Nolan. Prince of Hurt Andrew Garfield is an emotionally raw Peter Parker opposite Martin Sheen’s ill-fated Uncle Ben and Emma Stone’s scientist Gwen Stacey. Raimi’s gleefulness was increasingly sabotaged by his crippling affinity for angst. Director Marc Webb, who helmed the glorious (500) Days of Summer, can hopefully replace pre-packaged moping with genuine vulnerability, while stunt guru Vic Armstrong’s practical magic makes this Spidey’s heroics viscerally real rather than wall-to-wall CGI.

 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
HAHA! Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sees the lunatics behind the Crank films finally properly get their hands on a blockbuster after their script for Jonah Hex was rewritten to make it vaguely ‘normal’. The plot is, well, immaterial really when it comes to these guys. The prospect of Nicolas Cage, whose brush with Werner Herzog proved he’s still got some game, being encouraged to again find his inner madman while the two writer/directors shoot action sequences from roller-skates besides his flaming bike is indeed an awesome one. We must all pray that some stuffed-shirt empty-suit in the studio doesn’t freak out and bowdlerise this insanity.

 

 

Dr Seuss’ The Lorax
The impossibility of making a decent live-action Dr Seuss adaptation finally hit Hollywood on the head with an anvil after The Cat in the Hat and so we got former live-action Grinch Jim Carrey lending his voice to the sublime Horton Hears a Who. Its screenwriters have now tackled The Lorax and, it appears from the trailer, again succeeded in taking the canny route of expanding Seuss’ slight tales to feature length with delightful visual comedy while retaining the hilarious rhyming dialogue and narration that make Seuss’ work so unique and loveable. Danny DeVito is the voice of the slightly irritating guardian of the woods the Lorax.

 

Prometheus
Ridley Scott’s long-awaited Alien prequel has finally been written by LOST show-runner Damon Lindelof, and original Xenomorph conceptual artist HR Giger has even returned to the fold to whip up some creepy designs. It seems safe to say this will therefore probably be very entertaining, genuinely scary, and then completely disintegrate in the third act when the audience realises that Lindelof really has no idea where he’s going with this. Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace star, which is itself a promising start for a blockbuster that Scott could badly do with being a hit; just to remind him what it feels like after his unwisely extended co-dependency with Russell Crowe.

 

Seven Psychopaths
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Martin McDonagh, the celebrated playwright and writer/director of In Bruges, returns to cinema screens with another unpredictable dark comedy starring Colin Farrell. Farrell this time is a struggling Hollywood screenwriter bedevilled by writer’s block who has the misfortune to fall in with the real devils of the titular seven hoodlums in the course of some ill-advised research for his gangster script. Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell, who starred in McDonagh’s between-film-projects play A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway, are also in the cast; something which speaks volumes about how much actors relish the chance to deliver McDonagh’s caustic, profane and theatrical dialogue.

 

 

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
I have high hopes for this absurdist comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt, not least because Blunt is always a superb comedienne and McGregor did a very good baffled straight man in similar territory with The Men Who Stare at Goats. This is of course an adaptation of Paul Torday’s acclaimed (indeed Wodehouse Prize-winning) 2007 comic novel about a Sheikh’s improbable dream of introducing salmon fishing to, well, the Yemen, and the poor sap of a British expert hired to pull off this ludicrous proposition. The only problem is that the reliably dreadful Lasse Hallstrom is directing it; can script and actors overcome his dullness?

 

Skyfall
The studio has finally sorted out nightmarish legalistic-financial difficulties and so the awesome Daniel Craig returns for his third mission as 007. But Paul Haggis’ delightful rewrites are no more! Frost/Nixon scribe Peter Morgan now has the job of making Purvis & Wade’s gibberish action script legible to thinking humans before Sam Mendes directs it. Mendes has a flair for comedy, oft forgotten because his films have been so consistently and inexplicably miserabilist in subject matter, and he’ll draw top-notch performances from his stellar cast which includes Javier Bardem as the villain, Ben Whishaw as Q, Judi Dench as M, and Naoime Harris as Moneypenny. This might just be wonderful…

 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Peter Jackson, having been kicked like a dog with mange for The Lovely Bones, returns to Tolkien. Martin Freeman brings his trademark assets of comic timing and understated decency to the titular role of Bilbo Baggins. Returning from LOTR are Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, and a presumably very grateful Orlando Bloom; he didn’t make any blockbusters between Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and The Three Musketeers. You should worry about Del Toro’s nonsense infecting the screenplay, and the opportunistic decision to make two films, but then hope that returning to his meisterwerk will rekindle the combination of flair and heart that Jackson’s lacked since.

July 19, 2010

Inception

“Have you ever had a dream Neo, that you were so sure was real. What if you found yourself unable to awake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the real world and the dream world?” Among the many achievements of Christopher Nolan’s latest film is that it answers Morpheus’ rhetorical question…

I’m not idly linking Inception to The Matrix as Nolan is in dialogue with it as well as his own opus. Following a typically stylish/puzzling opening we follow corporate spies Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as they bungle an industrial espionage job in a Japanese mansion highly reminiscent of Ras Al’Ghul’s mountain lair in Batman Begins. They are unexpectedly offered a way out of their predicament from a former mark Saito (Ken Watanabe). Saito wants them to reverse their usual modus operandi of ‘extracting’ secrets and instead attempt inception – to plant the seed of a destructive idea in the mind of his business rival (Cillian Murphy) – which Arthur, almost imitating Gabriel Byrne in The Usual Suspects, opines can’t be done. Cobb though takes the job, as Saito offers the bait of freeing himself from outstanding legal troubles which have prevented him returning to his family in America. Nolan’s ‘existential heist movie’ then becomes a joyous globe-trotting exercise in assembling a team for the caper – picking up a forger in Mombasa (Tom Hardy), an architect in Paris (Ellen Page), and a seriously dodgy chemist, before training (in shared dreams) in a warehouse and making contact with the mark, who complicates their plans…

That description should tell you that Nolan has somehow made a ‘realistic’ film about larceny where the scene of the crime is your unconscious mind. This depiction of the unconscious owes nothing to Dali, Freud or Jung. His thieves keep their dreamscapes impeccably realistic to dupe the mark into believing that the dream world is real. Only Ariadne’s initial gleeful construction of architecture free from the laws of physics, and collapsing dreams and malevolent subconscious projections shatter that verisimilitude. Nolan’s interest here is not plot twists or fractured chronology but layering levels of reality. This allows him the blockbuster action tension of the double jeopardy at the end of The Matrix, with Neo fighting Smith while a Squiddie assaults the Nebuchadnezzar, but even more heightened. How exactly these thieves insinuate themselves into their subjects’ dreams and manipulate them though is anything but popcorn as its conceptual simplicity but sheer craziness in execution means you must stay as alert to what is happening at every moment as with Memento. The device which allows the team to synchronise their dreams and instantly fall asleep is similar to its equivalent in The Matrix but (gloriously) its working is never explained scientifically in this ‘sci-fi thriller’, which instead prioritises Edith Piaf and inner ear discomfort in the explanation of the ingenious ‘kicks’ for waking up.

Nolan’s films obsessively follow characters wracked by guilt over the deaths of people close to them who embark on quests for justice or vengeance and Cobb is an interesting variation on this archetype. DiCaprio is strong as a haunted hero running from his guilt, aided by Hans Zimmer’s unsettling reworking of his Two-Face musical theme, and is supported by an impeccable ensemble. Page is terrific as Ariadne. Both the newest member of the team, through whose eyes we come to understand this universe’s rules, and the most grounded, it is she who pushes Cobb towards finally exorcising his demons before they endanger the team. Hardy shows immense range after his bravura turn in Bronson by being wonderfully insouciant as the forger Eames, while Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt is once again effortlessly charismatic as the quick-thinking point-man Arthur. He steals many scenes from DiCaprio and memorably gives an outstandingly delivery of one delightful word.

Inception combines caper movie with sci-fi thriller, underpinned by a meaty character arc about guilt that takes advantage of being able to give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, to dazzle both eyes and mind. Essential viewing.

5/5

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