Talking Movies

May 28, 2015

The Gigli Concert

David Grindley directs the first ever production of a Tom Murphy play at the Gate, and it’s one of Murphy’s oddest works that he presents.

DG the gigli concert

JPW King (Declan Conlon) is a hard-drinking Englishman, reduced to sleeping in his office in 1980s Dublin. How he can afford the office itself is a mystery given the non-existent patient list for his practice. But then he is a ‘Dynamatologist’, which can sound oddly like Scientology in some of King’s explanations of it. It would take someone truly desperate to enlist his professional help, someone like The Irishman (Denis Conway), a developer in the midst of a tremendous nervous breakdown who has become obsessed with singing like the Italian tenor Gigli. The Irishman is truculent, uneducated, violent, and, despite King’s belief, as told to his Irish mistress Mona (Dawn Bradfield), that qualified psychiatrists are needed, insistent that his unerring instinct has led him to the right man to solve his problem. But can King rise to the insane challenge?

Grindley has been acclaimed for his revivals of RC Sheriff’s museum-piece Journey’s End, so perhaps it’s inevitable he’d been drawn to Murphy’s 1983 puzzler that immediately precedes Conversations on a Homecoming and Bailegangaire, both recent DruidMurphy revivals. The thankless role of Mona is occasional relief from the intense two-hander in which the identity of patient and therapist is in constant transference from the moment both men end up saying “Christ, how am I going to get thru today?” in the exact same spot. But what is the play’s purpose? The publicity talks of ‘the endurance of the human spirit and our ability to achieve the impossible’, which seems delusional given that every character onstage displays alarming mental health, and the climactic ‘singing like Gigli’ is a drug-fuelled Tony Kushneresque ‘bit of wonderful theatrical illusion’, complete with a rush of red lights by Sinead McKenna for the Mephistophelian bargain being struck.

The acting is assured. Bradfield makes Mona an earthy cousin of Bailegangaire’s female triptych, but it is a minor part, notable only for Mona’s apparent coming to terms with her dire situation in a healthy way. Conway is initially dangerous and latterly assured as the developer regains a burlesque of prosperous wellbeing, but his silent screams and hanging, musical ‘Aaaand’ seem slightly mannered when exploring the Irishman’s emotional vulnerability. Conlon, in a startling change of pace from his urbanity in the just-finished Hedda Gabler, makes King a defeated figure who suddenly finds his heroic possibilities. Staying up all night reading books to try and help the Irishman, he makes Dynamatology akin to Kierkegaard’s Leap of Faith in a pivotal speech; and is hilarious in the second act when relaying some actual leaps taken as Murphy amps up the black comedy.

Murphy probes some of the darkest recesses of the 1980s Irish psyche here, with notable asides about planning corruption and political ambition, but his actual conclusions remain eternally unclear.

3/5

The Gigli Concert continues its run at the Gate until June 27th

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January 24, 2013

Lincoln

Spielberg’s long-gestating biopic depicts Daniel Day-Lewis’ Honest Abe trying  to force thru the lame-duck House of Representatives a constitutional amendment  outlawing slavery.

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Lincoln insists the outgoing House pass it by the month’s end as these  unseated Democrats have nothing to lose, and because, thanks to facilitation by  Lincoln’s Republican Party elder Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), the Confederacy  (represented by Jackie Earle Haley’s VP) are ready to negotiate an end to the  Civil War. Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) values such a peace  above Lincoln’s amendment but agrees to fund three political fixers (James  Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) in their attempt to secure the necessary  Democrat votes, even as Secretary of War Stanton (Bruce McGill) bludgeons the  South with a vicious naval assault on Wilmington to hasten the end of the war.  Meanwhile Lincoln has to contend with his estranged son Robert (Joseph  Gordon-Levitt) and long-suffering wife Mary (Sally Field) as much as radical  abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones).

Spielberg’s Lincoln is an incessant raconteur so it’s fitting that Lincoln made me think of Groucho Marx’s  anecdote of the lousy film producer nobody could bring themselves to fire  because he so reminded them of Lincoln. Lincoln is awash with familiar faces; Abe  can’t send a telegram without falling over a Girls star, Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan pop up  just to recite his Gettysburg Address to him. And a great dignity falls over  all, from those who signed up for trivial parts because it was a film about the  Great Liberator, to Steven Spielberg directing with reverent anonymity, to DP  Janusz Kaminski reining himself in to the occasional lens flare and a muted  lighting scheme. Day-Lewis’ affected gait and high-pitched voice attempts to  humanise the legend but inevitably and unfortunately recalls Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place.

Tony Kushner’s desperately unfocused script clamours for a Sorkin rewrite.  Despite establishing a ticking clock there is no sense of urgency until, with 4 days left to  the vote, Lincoln descends from Olympus to cajole Democrats. There are great  scenes: Lincoln explaining to his Cabinet with characteristic intricacy the  legal dubiousness of his Emancipation Proclamation, arguing with Stevens over  the necessity for compromise, and discoursing on Euclid and thus changing his  own mind about negotiating a peace. But, while the under-used fixers amuse, we  flail in uninteresting Congressional debates or Lincoln’s wonted quoting of  Shakespeare. JGL is wasted in a storyline which stunningly never addresses how  much affection Lincoln showers on his private secretary, Johnny. Johnny being  John Hay, who was Secretary of State to Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Such  was the valuable mentoring that Lincoln denied his own son…

And there’s Sally Field’s Mary  Todd Lincoln by way of Brothers &  Sisters… She nicely upbraids Stevens, but, her hysterical grief is so  histrionic in a scene with Abe, Day-Lewis’ gestures so theatrical, and  Spielberg’s shot-selection so disconcertingly low-angle, that you half-expect  the camera to edge back an inch and reveal a proscenium arch. Such theatricality  gives us Lincoln’s ridiculous final line, leaving Seward to stomp off for his  fatal engagement at Ford’s Theatre – “I suppose I should be going, but I would  rather stay”. Like every Spielberg flick this century this film misses a good  ending and needlessly keeps going and going, and even bafflingly resurrects  Lincoln to deliver the Second Inaugural. John  Adams is the gold standard that Lincoln had to equal to prove cinema could best TV for intelligent historical  drama of ideas. Lincoln falls  short…

This is a handsomely mounted tilt  at a worthy, important subject; assuming, as the Oscars do, that important  subjects rather than great scripts generate epochal films. To give Lincoln the  verdict, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing  they like.”

2.5/5

January 9, 2012

2012: Fears

W.E.
Madonna (!!!) directs Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson in a farcically sympathetic portrayal of the American who eventually became King Edward VIII’s wife. Edward is Master & Commander star James D’Arcy, who’s probably immensely relieved to have escaped from the ghetto of movies like Rise: Blood Hunter, but for us another trot around the bloody Abdication Crisis is a truly appalling vista. Edward VIII wanted all the wealth and privilege of being a King without the responsibility, and failed to challenge the absurdity of being forbidden to marry a divorced woman when the Church of England only existed because Henry VIII wanted to divorce a woman and remarry. Screw him…

Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close
Stephen Daldry tries to win yet more bloody Oscar nominations with an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a boy searching for the secrets left behind by the father he lost on 9/11. Daldry directs, Tom Hanks plays the father and Sandra Bullock the mother, the screenplay is by Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button scribe Eric Roth, it’s about a weighty subject, and is released within the three month attention span the Academy’s members have long since proven they possess – what’s not to hate about such a naked attempt not to make a good film but to make the sort of film that wins Oscars?

Battleship
Somewhere in Hollywood a studio executive called Delaney is about to crash his sports-car as he drives past a huge billboard poster for this movie. Delaney will stagger out of the wreckage, lurch into the traffic to stare at the promise of an incredibly fake-looking CGI alien invasion limited to the radius of an inexplicable force-field in the ocean being foiled by US Navy ships led by an equally inexplicable Liam Neeson, slumming it alongside Rihanna and shouting orders to Too Tall Skarsgaard while rattling thru an inane arc about responsibility with Taylor Kitsch, and Delaney will incoherently rave “Holy God Jesus! I thought I’d killed this movie in development!!”

Total Recall
Director Len Wiseman proved with Die Hard 4.0 that he has talent, but that does not mean remaking Total Recall is a good idea. 22 years after Arnie’s original our hero is now Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale (of course) is the dame, and there will be no mucking about on Mars because that’s not in the original story. But justifying your over-hasty remake by your fidelity to the source text is deeply suspect. Philip K Dick’s short story is clever, hilarious, and wonderful, but it’s a short story. It would barely sustain an episode of The Outer Limits. Wiseman’s foray may actually justify itself by being less ludicrously violent…

The Avengers
Joss Whedon co-writes and directs Marvel’s huge gamble to tie together the fate of all their various franchise characters in one huge blockbuster. I’ve voiced my doubts about this enterprise repeatedly and at some length. Whedon has experience writing the X-Men characters to superb effect, and he will draw great performances from his cast, probably insert a large number of good lines and hilarious moments, and may even pull off the truly great action sequence that has thus far eluded nearly all the in-house Marvel movies, but, this appears in Fears because of its lack of commercial and interior logic, and the artistic pitfalls of its choice of villains.

Snow White and the Huntsman
Kristen Stewart was once a very capable young actress. Then she became a global star almost overnight, and a horrible stiltedness overtook her. The question is now that the end of Twilight is nigh, can she manage to overcome the brittleness it inspired? Well, if she can she probably won’t start the acting comeback with this overblown nonsensical ‘version’ which sees Snow White as Warrior Princess teaming up with Thor Chris Hemsworth to take down Charlize Theron’s evil Queen with the help of a coterie of British actors of a certain age as the dwarves. Warwick Davis won’t be happy about that because Ricky Gervais will.

Men in Black 3
Will Smith seems to make a Men in Black film whenever he’s panicked about his career. I didn’t think Hancock and Seven Pounds not being well received constituted that big a crisis but apparently he did, and so here we are – once again with Smith travelling thru time in 3-D to fight aliens who are pursuing Josh Brolin aka Tommy Lee Jones in the 1960s. Four capable writers have fiddled with this script, and Barry Sonenfeld hasn’t directed a hit in a long time, so this one comes with ‘Approach with Caution’ stickers plastered all over it despite Jemaine Clement and Bill Hader’s presence in the cast.

The Dark Knight Rises
If this film isn’t a disaster I’ll be very pleasantly surprised. Anne Hathaway as Catwoman seems vindicated as a casting choice from the trailer, and there are pleasing hints from the chants being translated for Bruce Wayne as ‘Rise’ that perhaps Ras Al’Ghul’s methods really are supernatural, but, the Bat-wing seen hovering above the Bat-mobile at the end of the trailer looks like something out of Rocobop (by which I mean 1987 special effects in a 2012 movie), and the destruction of the football pitch by Bane is embarrassingly fake-looking. Perhaps Nolan has crammed in so damn much to this final instalment that he couldn’t find time to pull it off more practically, but such obnoxiously obvious CGI is the polar opposite of the legion of compositing shots he used in The Dark Knight. Would it really have been so hard to film the football player running in the stadium in Pittsburgh, then build a replica grass pitch set and blow it up in Hollywood, and composite the two together so that it looked real because what you were seeing was real – just from two different places at two different times cunningly yoked together by digital trickery. I think this is a film that no one will like, but that some people might admire; because Batman dies at the end. Bane can’t kill Batman and get away with it, audiences would rebel. But, I’m convinced that Nolan’s watched Sherlock and the end of the movie will see Batman sacrifice himself in order to rid Gotham of the intolerable evil of Bane. Batman and Bane will topple off Gotham’s Reichenbach Falls locked in eternal combat. But I think along the way to this unforgettable and traumatic finale the sense of fun that must be part of what keeps Bruce Wayne being Batman will be entirely absent, the level of grotesquery from the brutal villain will be unbearable, and everyone will start muttering about how it ruins the first two movies.

The Bourne Legacy
The Bourne franchise is really starting to really resemble the world of Robert Ludlum now, in the sense that the great man has passed on and yet still work emerges bearing his name. Jeremy Renner plays an agent who is not Jason Bourne, but has a tenuous enough link to Bourne’s world to justify the attention grabbing title. Renner is a fine actor, and it’s nice to see him headline a big summer blockbuster, but this has pointless cash-in written all over it. Tony Gilroy, writer on all previous three films, now directs this one as well in the knowledge that Damon will only return for Greengrass directing…

Django Unchained
Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz star in Quentin Tarantino’s movie about escaped slaves, underground railroaders, and bounty-hunters battling for freedom and money. Sounds good! So why is a Leonesque adventure in a nonsensical 19th Century in the Fears side of the ledger rather than the Hopes? Because just once I’d like Tarantino to make a film where you didn’t have to wince at the prospect of the unspeakable violence that was undoubtedly about to come your way along with the great dialogue, cut-up structure, and bravura directing. Is it too much to ask that he rein in his sadism for a PG-13 story one of these days?

Lincoln
Spielberg had been making this movie for a decade with Liam Neeson before he finally actually started making it and abruptly went with Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th POTUS. No longer based on 2008’s immensely long book of the moment Team of Rivals, this is now a details biopic of a working President, as Lincoln in his final months tries to legislatively copper-fasten the victory against slavery. Day-Lewis will powerhouse his way thru proceedings, leading a strong cast including the peerless Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but what worries is Tony Kushner’s script. Munich obsessively shied away from discussion of the causes and conduct of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Can Kushner really do ‘details’?

300: The Battle of Artemisia
Zack Snyder has co-written with his original 300 compadres this sequel for another director to helm while he’s busy trying to make Superman soar again at the box-office. The fact that all of the 300 Spartan warriors died in the first movie bar the narrator, who went on to lead the hilarious charge in the next battle that closed the original film, doesn’t stop Snyder & Co making a sequel – about different characters, at a different battle, before Thermopylae. Apparently sequel has some new and strange meaning that Snyder will instruct us in thru an epic, unintentionally hilarious, battle between freedom-loving Americans Athenians and tyrannical Persians.

The Great Gatsby
I venerate F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, but that is why I can’t think Baz Lurhmann’s film of it can be anything but a disaster. Leonardo DiCaprio is a good choice to play the enigmatic titular old sport, as is Joel Edgerton as his nemesis, but the blanker-than-thou Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway may narrate us all into a coma, and Carey Mulligan for all her strengths will struggle with the eternally thankless role of Daisy. My great fear is Lurhmann’s inability to handle subtlety. Gatsby is all about Fitzgerald’s prose, which flows like sparkling champagne, not swooping thru raucous parties and zeroing in on high camp comedy scenes…

Breaking Dawn: Part II
The decision to split Breaking Dawn into two films would hopefully be unwise after the awfulness of the padded Part I, but the need to see how things end will defeat any desire to punish such commercial crassness. What now for the rapidly ageing Renesme and her creepily smitten werewolf protector Jacob? How will Bella adjust to being a very, very thirsty newborn vampire? Can Michael Sheen Fassbender this film to campy heights as the Volturi travel en masse to Forks to abduct her? Or will director Bill Condon’s bizarrely perfunctory approach produce another bloated, inert, embarrassing disaster and end the series on a very low note?

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

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