Talking Movies

May 31, 2018

Re-appraisers of the Lost Archives

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

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

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

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From the Archives: Speed Racer

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives brings up a justly forgotten disaster from the Brothers Wachowski, hammering home the lightning in a bottle good fortune of The Matrix.

Speed Racer is meant to be a family friendly CGI heavy summer blockbuster. It is however incredibly bizarre, and also camp, if we use feminist critic Susan Sontag’s definition that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”. There are scenes in Speed Racer that will make you want to bound out of the cinema as characters dressed in day-glo colours stand around beside hideously fake CGI backgrounds before getting into garish CGI cars. Kym Barrett, costume designer for Baz Luhrmann’s camp classics, designed the clothes but the Wachowskis don’t seem to have realised that they’ve ordered up the décor for a different film than the one they think they’re making.

The young (and implausibly named) Speed Racer idolises his dead racing driver brother Rex and grows up to emulate him as the flashback heavy opening action sequence pithily explains. Into the Wild star Emile Hirsch plays the adult Speed, who must be one of the blandest heroes to grace the screen this decade. Indie queen Christina Ricci’s presence in the film as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie is equally baffling. Sure she eventually gets to drive, pilot a helicopter and do kung-fu but it’s not like this script could have been confused with Bound when it arrived in her post-box. The Wachowskis are trying so hard here to make a kid’s film (Look at the monkey! Look at the silly little monkey!) that they seem to forget where their own strengths actually lie, while one must question the grotesque scene involving fingers being eaten by piranhas as being radically unacceptable for a kid’s film.

The film comes alive only in a very silly Matrix parody kung-fu fight. It is a merciful respite from the choppily edited incoherent CGI action which quickly becomes quite gruelling, you realise with horror halfway through the endless desert rally that this is only the second act and that there’s still a third act epic Grand Prix to go. Surprisingly (I say this as someone who always rooted for Locke against Jack) LOST star Matthew Fox is the best thing about Speed Racer. Fox is really enjoying playing the menacing, mysterious and masked Racer X. He is operating at a very high level of fun indeed for it to be obvious in such a taciturn role that he is Fassbendering his way through the movie. Yes, that’s a word, now. To Fassbender: to very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work. See Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who spends the entirety of 300 grinning like an idiot.

Why the Wachowskis chose to bother with live action rather than a purely animated adaptation of the 1960s Japanese TV cartoon will forever puzzle. They will never lose one element of their craft though as Speed Racer has 2008’s most insanely euphoric finale.

2/5

June 10, 2011

On Fassbendering

“To Fassbender: To very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work”. That’s the Urban Dictionary definition at any rate. But, like the residents of Madison Avenue advertising firms in the 1960s being termed Mad Men, I defined it myself…

So, where on earth did I get the concept of Fassbendering from? Well, I first really noticed Michael Fassbender when he played Azazeal in Hex, and my reaction to the show was pretty much “meh, pale Buffy rip-off, but serious kudos to that guy who’s really enjoying himself far too much as the Big Bad”. Later on I realised that he was the actor from Guinness ad who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. The fact that Fassbender had ended that ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again, suggested a trend – this was a guy who just couldn’t stop grinning mischievously because he was always enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender fell off my radar for a while so I only belatedly noticed that he grinned with some malevolence in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, as he got to be both an impeccably impassive servant and a sadistic serial killer; who, several years before Heath Ledger’s Joker, took a distinct pleasure in being tortured by Holmes. I also later caught up with ITV’s Poirot and discovered that Fassbender had smoked, drank, drawled and grinned his way thru After the Funeral.

But his ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where I really started to take this nonsense seriously, if you will. I have found among my circle that whoever watched 300 as a serious action drama thought it was unbearably bad, but whoever watched it thru the absurd prism of Fassbender (on my prompting) thought it was a deliriously great black comedy. Watching the film with Fassbender as your focus you realise just how much fun he’s obviously having. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning… Later he jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Well then, we shall fight in the shade”, with the air of a man once again enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender gets to be half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and, in his definitive moment of gleefulness, when the Persian mystics are throwing bombs Fassbender runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. In the darkness lit only by bomb blasts we can’t see Fassbender’s face underneath his helmet until we see his teeth, as he grins. Fassbender does something awesome in the denouement to allow Leonidas to do something even more awesome, before holding hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines; where even dying becomes a blast…

But, daft as it sounds, it was Fassbender’s subsequent role in Hunger that led me to go online and define Fassbendering, because, when announcing the casting news from Cannes the Irish Times, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to accompany the story that Fassbender was taking on this big serious role in what one would expect to be a grim sombre film, with a photo of Fassbender cracking up on set – as if there was nothing on this planet, not decency, not logic, that could prevent Fassbender from enjoying himself too much… And indeed Hunger did provide one moment which I deemed Fassbendering above and beyond the call of duty. In the midst of a serious performance in a serious film he still managed to sneak in a scene where, after being beaten up and then dropped naked and bloodied on the floor of his cell, his Bobby Sands rolls over, blood streaming from his mouth, and slowly grins at the camera… On retrospect this is obviously the moment where Sands realises he can defeat his captors by doing this to himself by going on hunger strike, but would anyone but Fassbender dare to do communicate this by a grin, that also serves to indicate that he knows he is doing a great job with this role and still can’t quite believe his luck.

Fassbender had a straight man role in Inglourious Basterds opposite Mike Myers’ absurdist British officer, and then in one of the tensest sequences in the film, but I argue that he was able to play things straight because he didn’t need to Fassbender, he’d already infected the entire ensemble. Christoph Waltz’s ecstatic glee at his role is pure Fassbendering, especially his appreciation of the musical qualities of Italian names and Diane Kruger’s explanation of her leg injury, during which he has to go off to one side to laugh himself sick. The trailer for Jonah Hex left me in tears of laughter as Fassbender’s first appearance as henchman Burke saw him grinning manically while dressed as a droog and setting fire to a barn with someone trapped in it. You can only hope that one day Fassbender gets to truly cut loose with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films.

So what is Fassbendering? I used 300 for the definition because it’s the supreme example of a man just obviously enjoying himself far too much for something that’s meant to be paid work, hence my quip – “On being handed the cheque he probably said ‘No, really I couldn’t. It’s just been such a blast. Can I keep the cape?” Now, Fassbendering is not unique to Fassbender, but only in one sense as I will argue in a minute. I would argue that the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be audibly heard Fassbendering their way thru BloodSugarSexMagik because when you listen to it you feel that they would do this for free, they are so obviously deriving too much enjoyment from their paid work. But Fassbendering always has a positive undertone, what is enjoyable for the performer is enjoyable for the audience too, unlike fiascos like Ocean’s 12 where a group of actors obviously having a ball does not translate into the warm hug of the audience that the same actors having a ball provides in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13. Fassbendering therefore is high praise when I use it for another actor, as I have occasionally done (Iron Man, Speed Racer, The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell, Death of A Salesman, 7 Reasons to Love Scott Pilgrim, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pygmalion, X-Men: First Class).

The part of Erik Lensherr is dark and vengeful, but there is some Fassbendering. The most obvious moments come in the recruitment and training montages where Erik suddenly reveals a hitherto unsuspected sardonic side. These are where any actor would grin widely at how much fun they’re having, even if Fassbender grins wider than most. The true moment that defines Fassbendering as something that only Michael Fassbender truly personifies comes in the extremely tense sequence in the Argentinian German Bar. Fassbender smiling widely drops loaded hints to the ex-Nazis, “They had no name. It was taken from them, by pig-farmers, and tailors”, his smile confusing the hell out of them, even as he slowly drains his drink, still looking affable, but perhaps to be feared. Fassbender is obviously enjoying himself far too much in this scene, but what’s more, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, he’s conveying an inner thought process of his character that other actors would not attempt – Erik really is obviously enjoying this Nazi-hunting business far too much…

December 22, 2010

The Way Back

Australian auteur Peter Weir lethargically releases his first film in seven years. Sadly, it’s not worth rising from your post-Christmas stupor to see…

Weir’s laziness is usually matched by the quality of the movies emanating from his sabbaticals (The Truman Show, Master & Commander). But, like a pianist going without practice for too long, Weir’s directing skills have become rusty, and he hits wrong notes everywhere. Across the Universe star Jim Sturgess is our bland Polish hero Janusz, sent to a Siberian gulag in 1939 after the Russians defeat his army. Here he meets imprisoned actor Mark Strong, American immigrant Ed Harris, and Colin Farrell as the hardest of hard chaws, Valka. Farrell steals the film from the anaemic leading man on the showy side, while Ed Harris steals it on the Bogart side, but this miscasting is not the worst of Weir’s blunders.

By the end of this ‘inspiring’ true story it’ll feel as if you have trekked from Siberia to India so colossal is the accumulating boredom. Sam Mendes recreated tedium in trying to depict the effect of tedium on soldiers in Jarhead; Weir makes a film that is endless and gruelling in depicting men on an endless and gruelling trek. The trouble is that it’s hard to care about their hardships as Weir introduces these men so cavalierly. A reprise of Master & Commander’s subtle depiction of an all-male closed-society is abandoned almost instantly as the 7 trekkers escape to freedom in a terrifyingly vague fashion. If you later know for sure the name of the first of the trekkers to ‘poignantly’ die then I take my furry Russian hat off to you. Weir puts his characters in peril, and only then remembers that he was supposed to make us care about them first.

His attempts to retrospectively make us care by fleshing out minor characters are sunk by the tragicomic desertion of a star, which leads to the horrifying realisation (much like Speed Racer’s telegraphed story-structure) that we’re only half-way thru the trek, and we still have the guts of a continent to go… Saoirse Ronan tries to keep this section afloat by wringing as much pathos as she can from the weak material but all too often everyone is on auto-cue delivering platitudes. As for pay-off, The Way Back features the dumbest ending imaginable; its level of insight into character psychology heralded by Janus’ Forrest Gump like explanation of how he escaped a Siberian gulag, “I just kept walking”. And keep walking he does, by God, with his ever-ambling shoes super-imposed on a newsreel montage of the Cold War’s flash-points before 2010’s most inane finale.

It may seem harsh as a judgement but only co-producers National Geographic get their money’s worth on this picture. It educationally displays the varied climates and fauna of Asia. Meanwhile you, the paying audience, get less for your money in terms of suspense, action, and emotional involvement than 3 episodes of Bear Grylls’ ever-preposterous adventures back to back provides.

2/5

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