Talking Movies

December 3, 2011

The Big Year

Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson star in a pleasant tale of competitive bird-watching that just stubbornly refuses to take true comedic flight.

Martin plays the retired CEO of a major company who’s trying to belatedly achieve a ‘big year’, in which he would spot more species of birds in North America in a single calendar year than any other birder. That means spotting more than 700 types of bird. This involves trekking all over the continent on hot tips to spot rare birds like the great snowy owl or the pink-footed goose, travelling to the farthest island tip of Alaska (nearer to Tokyo than Anchorage) for a week to see the Asian wildlife landing there, and chasing major storms that will cause migrating birds to touch down unexpectedly on the Gulf Coast. The lengths to which the birders go results in a number of nicely rendered stampedes and diabolical schemes and tricks as well as a charming travelogue of some of America’s prettiest landscapes.

Martin is supported in his absurd quest by his wife, but perpetually harassed by requests from his former lieutenants to head back to NYC to help them with deals. Wilson, by contrast, plays the world-record holder Bostick who is testing the patience of his wife Rosamund Pike to its breaking point. She’s taking hormones to try and conceive, but he’s never around as he’s trying to better his own record to secure his place in the history books as the undisputed best birder of all time. Black is the singleton of the trio, a divorced loser who wants to achieve something with his life, and is aided by his mother Dianne Wiest arranging his travel schedule even as his father Bryan Dennehy despairs of the stupidity of his son’s choice of goal. The adorable Rashida Jones crosses his path from time to time as a fellow birder who he just can’t summon up the courage to ask out.

It’s a delight to see Anjelica Huston crossing swords with her regular Wes Anderson colleague Wilson, over his mutiny on her birding ship in his previous ‘big year’ quest to see a rare bird rather than the whale she was showcasing to tourists. It’s also amusing to see a veritable pantheon of TV comedy actors including Joel McHale from Community, Kevin Pollak, CSI Miami’s Byron quoting British Person in the lab, Network head Jack and the demented impressionist from Studio 60, as well as Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory as a blogger causing trouble. However, this movie while big hearted, solidly acted, perfectly structured, and nicely subversive of the philosophy of winning at all costs, just doesn’t have enough jokes. There’s one sublime gag but mostly you’ll just chuckle and smile.

The verdict must rest with the good doctor, Samuel Johnson: “Worth seeing? Yes. Worth going to see? No.”

2.5/5

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November 16, 2011

Funny Bones

Last year, just before they handed the series over to Living, Sky 1 aired a season 1 episode of Bones instead of the expected season 6 episode, and it was stunning how drastically the show has changed over its run.

I wrote about Bones twice for the University Observer. The first time I was writing about the trend in US television of heroes that we already sympathised with being depicted as achingly alone, rather than their loneliness simply being a device to get us onboard with an unlikely hero such as The OC’s Seth Cohen. Dr Temperance Brennan, the brilliant crime-fighting forensic anthropologist, would tell her FBI partner Seeley Booth, “There’s nothing wrong with going on vacation by yourself”, and then do so frequently, when she wasn’t simply working through the weekend. Bones and House suggested that the excellence of these characters at their jobs was only possible by the sacrifice of their personal lives.

I later wrote an article dissecting Bones’ dramatic motor – the unresolved sexual tension between Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth. Bones was not alone in using that device as a dramatic motor but it had perhaps the most obviously thwarted yet plausible of the many frustrated relationships littering the TV schedules in 2007, and one that cried out in season 1 for a symbolic Red State/Blue State reading. Towards the end of season 1 Brennan was in New Orleans identifying victims of Hurricane Katrina when she was drugged and framed for murder. Booth immediately rushed from Washington DC to rescue her only to be upbraided on arrival for his sneering attitude towards Voodoo: “I mean, you believe that Jesus rose from the dead…”, “Jesus was not a zombie! I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff!!”

Brennan and Booth have common values and a genuine attraction that exists despite their ‘ideological’ enmity. Like Barack Obama’s famous 2004 peroration to the Democratic National Convention you can say of their partnership, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America”. Neither is a mere cipher of a political position. Brennan is militantly atheistic and scientific, but supports the death penalty unreservedly and is emotionally distant as a result of being abandoned to foster-care by her fugitive criminal parents. Booth seems modelled on John Wayne’s heroic straight-shooting all-American persona, but is an unmarried father battling to see his son, who uses his FBI job as atonement for his enormous religious guilt at murdering 50 people as an army sniper. Both characters desperately need the qualities of the other in order to be effective.

The penultimate episode of season 1 managed minor miracles in tackling the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. There was of course only so much tension that could be generated by the politico-sexual friction between the two leads. The first episode of the second season saw Brennan complain at Booth’s snippiness: “I thought we were having an interesting discussion about the War on Drugs”, “Can we please just talk about something we don’t disagree on?!” The dead silence that followed exemplified their deadlocked relationship. Little surprise then that creator Hart Hanson introduced new characters as romantic obstacles to keep the leads apart, seeming happy to relinquish to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the task of depicting a Blue State/Red State romance for the 2006/7 season with Aaron Sorkin’s Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes as the lovers sundered by politics and faith.

Regrettably Hanson never seemed to take up that task seriously again and season 6 confirmed a number of alarming developments in the show. Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember the social niceties and her conversation suffered from an almost total ignorance of pop culture. Yet season 6 saw her presented as consciously unconsciously anti-social, if that makes sense. Despite 6 years of working with Booth she acted rudely when surely she must have learnt from his example what to say by now in nearly every circumstance. In many ways her character seemed to have regressed – the hideous attempts at jokes in particular were nothing more than horrible gurning by Emily Deschanel which was as uncomfortable to watch as it probably was to perform. This impulse towards comedy at the expense of character consistency was not an isolated incident though, but part of a trend.

The music changed over the seasons from mere background mood music to cutesy cues to indicate that everything was funny; in other words that the show itself had changed from what it originally was, a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags, to a modestly smart forensics sitcom with no laugh track for its constant modestly funny gags. Any doubt of this change in direction can be dispelled by noting the change in psychiatrist from Stephen Fry to John Francis Daley. Fry was cast because as a tall clever British psychiatrist he could literally look down on Booth in judgement. Daley is a young silly American psychiatrist who Booth literally just looks down on. Similarly when Zach was written out of the show at the end of season 3 he was replaced by a revolving line-up of squinterns, each of which appeared chosen for their particular comedic shtick, even if they would eventually be belatedly granted a modicum of depth. A dramatic imperative was consistently replaced by a comedic dynamic.

The decision to kill Mr Nigel-Murray at the hands of Booth’s sniper nemesis Brodsky, after a lengthy ominously scored montage which put all the characters potentially in jeopardy, was therefore terribly misjudged. The show simply cannot sustain that type of dramatic weight at this point in its development, whereas it still could when Zach was shockingly revealed as the apprentice to the cannibal serial killer Gormagon in the traumatic finale of season 3. By far the best episode of season 6 was the episode that most closely approximated season 1 – Brennan losing her grip on reality as she investigated the death of her apparent doppelganger, a brilliant socially isolated surgeon. Her tearful declaration of love for Booth and subsequent heartbroken acceptance that she had missed her chance for happiness by her reluctance to take a risk on him when he suggested it in season 5 was both incredibly dramatically satisfying and a reminder of what the show used to be.

Season 7 will largely eschew Emily Deschanel – written out for her pregnancy. Can the show survive that and will it ever square its political circle when she returns now that Booth’s romantic anger has subsided and Brennan’s imperviousness/strength balance has reached the point where they can get it together properly?

Bones season 7 begins its run on Living at 9pm tonight.

November 9, 2011

Miscellaneous Movie Musings

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Bane
I’m expanding my tweeted reservations about Bane’s role in The Dark Knight Rises. I’ve heard it argued that Bane is a great villain because he makes Batman physically vulnerable. But Nolan’s Batman is already physically vulnerable. We’ve seen Scarecrow set him on fire, Ras Al’Ghul drop a log on him and Two-Face shoot him. Bane making Batman scared of a beating isn’t really that interesting, and it’s certainly not as interesting as what the Joker did to him. The Joker was able to wound Batman deeply both emotionally and ethically, and it’s not at all clear that you can actually top that combined intensity and subtlety of villainy. Ultimately Bane remains defined by his physique, hence the casting of the post-Bronson bulked-up Tom Hardy; he is a hulking villain in the proper sense of the word. But therein lies the problem, Bane’s physique is his defining characteristic to the exclusion of almost all else. His appearance instantly raises the question of whether this film will end with the Dark Knight crippled in a wheelchair after Bane easily breaks his back. Choose nearly any other villain in the Batman universe and it doesn’t lead to that sort of immediate mere physicality based second-guessing because they have multiple interesting storylines in the comics. Bane has Knightfall…

Just In Time
I’m becoming increasingly aggravated at the spoiler-filled trailers and TV spots being authorised by major studios for films. The Ides of March’s TV spot gives away all but one development in the entire freaking movie, which is meant to be twisty. Knowing beforehand how characters react to events you haven’t seen yet only diminishes a movie. But there’re worse examples. Olivia Wilde Thirteen dies in the first act of In Time. I knew this before I saw the film because it was flagged by a voiceover and accompanying dramatic images on a TV spot. If you know your story structure and can calculate her star value, you can easily guess that her death marks the end of the first act and is the traumatic plot-point that spurs our hero into violent action against the villains in the second act. And you’d be right. But it’d be nice to find that out in the cinema as a genuine shock rather than be told it on TV by seeing a frantic Thirteen running and collapsing into Timberlake’s arms with her body-clock showing all zeros as we’re warned ‘just don’t let your time run out’…

The Dark Knight Dies
Let’s second-guess Christopher Nolan shall we? Nolan said The Dark Knight had been chosen as a title for a very specific reason so I instantly assumed something sent Batman over the edge of his code, and predicted that it was Joker killing Alfred. I later refined that to Alfred or Rachel, and was thus not too surprised when it came to pass. I’m convinced that The Dark Knight Rises teaser trailer is subtly hinting that Batman is going to die in its final minutes. I think the closing images of rising up past skyscrapers are the hallucinations of a dying Batman imagining an ascent out of crumbling skylines, as Gotham’s consumed by evil, to the white light of Heaven. Bane will probably break someone’s back but I think it won’t be Batman it will be Gordon, and that’s why Gordon is in hospital in this trailer…

October 26, 2011

Top 10 Scary Movies

Hallowe’en is almost upon us! This weekend Contagion, Demons Never Die, Paranormal Activity 3, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and others will all contend for the horror audience at the multiplexes, while the Screen’s Monster Mash and especially the IFI’s Horrorthon with special guest (and cult hero) Michael Biehn (Aliens, Planet Terror) will cater for the hardcore ghouls. But if you’re staying in for TV or DVD scares instead here’re quality shockers to get you thru the horrid holiday.

(10) Psycho
Hitchcock’s 1960 low budget classic influenced all the other films on this list as it dealt a tremendous hammer blow to restrictions on cinematic violence. Hitchcock’s direction is almost parodically showy as the first act of the film is essentially an enormous shaggy-dog story, setting up a number of prolonged blackly comic sequences. Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates is a terrific resonant villain, especially in the chilling final scene scored by Bernard Hermann with full-on Schoenbergian atonal serialism, while the shower scene with Janet Leigh being slashed to Hermann’s bravura stabbing violins orchestration remains an iconic ‘pure cinema’ scare.

(9) The Host
You may not have heard of this one before but this recent Korean effort is already well on its way to classic status. A hilariously dysfunctional Korean family try to save their abducted youngest member from a mutated monster created by American polluters. Brilliant special effects create scares aplenty while the script is both scathing of American power politics and sublimely absurdist. This pre-dates Rodriguez’s Planet Terror in collecting misfit characters with useless skills, like a hesitant Olympic archer and a Molotov cocktail flinging former student radical, and paying off those set-ups in hilarious and unexpected ways.

(8) Halloween
John Carpenter was probably gazumped by Black Christmas to creating the slasher flick but he certainly codified the conventions of the genre with this 1978 movie. I’ve long thought Carpenter a deeply over-rated director but this film, powered by his deceptively simple yet still creepy music, features numerous sequences of nerve-rending suspense as Jamie Lee Curtis’s baby-sitter is stalked by the homicidal madman Mike Myers in his William Shatner mask. Treasure Donald Pleasance as the psychiatrist Loomis as he dead pans his reply to Curtis’ question “Was that the boogieman?” – “Yes, as a matter of fact it was”.

(7) Night of the Living Dead
George Romero usually gets far too much credit for what is tangential social satire in his Dead films, but there’s no doubt that he invented the modern zombie genre with this piece. By not cutting away when the undead started munching human flesh, and concentrating the action in a claustrophobic setting where the mismatched survivors turn on each other under the constant strain of both repelling the zombies and dealing with the ticking time-bomb of their infected, he gave us the still resonant archetypal zombie set-up. The ending is as chilling as in 1968.

(6) The Exorcist
This 1973 shocker, scored by Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and directed by William Friedkin at the short-lived height of his powers, remains one of the highest grossing movies ever made. Stephen King thought its secret was that it struck a nerve with parents concerned that they had somehow lost their children to the dark side of the 1960s, while simultaneously attracting those self-same kids eager for transgressive thrills. It’s equally likely that such frighteningly realised demonic possession just freaks people out, especially when Max Von Sydow’s stalwart priest realises he’s once again facing the originating villain, Lucifer.

(5) The Evil Dead
The Evil Dead is not a comedy-horror classic like its acclaimed sequel Evil Dead 2, but an extremely gruelling gore-fest that bookends the extreme horror tendencies of the 1970s. Director Sam Raimi made his name directing his school friend and subsequent cult legend Bruce Campbell as plucky college student Ash, fighting off evil spirits inadvertently summoned by his friends by reading an arcane tome at a remote cabin in a forest where even the trees turn out to be evil, damn evil, and prone to doing things that are still controversial. Prepare to lose your lunch.

(4) 28 Days Later
Alex Garland’s first original screenplay was blatantly a zombie reworking of The Day of the Triffids, but there are worse templates than John Wyndham’s particular variety of realistic sci-fi. The post-apocalyptic concerns of that classic became horror gold through Danny Boyle’s customarily frenetic direction of the terrifyingly energetic Infected pursuing Cillian Murphy thru an eerily deserted London. The obligatory survivors turning on each other motif is enlivened by the quality of rhetoric given to Christopher Eccleston’s barking mad soldier, while the climactic eye gouging is perhaps the most horrific act ever committed by any screen hero.

(3) Don’t Look Now
1973 classic Don’t Look Now is on the surface an art-house study, rendered in editor turned director Nicolas Roeg’s typically disjunctive style, of a couple consumed with grief over the death of their daughter trying to forget their loss and begin again by travelling to Venice. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland though begin seeing a red coated little girl tailing them at a distance thru the streets, and become convinced that it may be their dead daughter, leading to an ending so genuinely nightmarish that it will freak you out even if you’ve seen it before.

(2) Alien
Alien is a great horror film which skilfully masquerades as sci-fi, including the score from Jerry Goldsmith at his most dissonant. Ridley Scott firmly establishes the characters before bumping them off in his Gothic space-ship full of dark shadows and dripping roofs. Stephen King has noted that the absence of almost any action for the first hour leaves the audience extremely nervy for when events finally occur. The alien attacks are superbly orchestrated and you’d need nerves of steel not to do a sitting high jump at least twice in the final 20 minutes. Don’t watch while eating…

(1) Scream
Neve Campbell confidently carries this 1996 classic directed by rejuvenated horror maestro Wes Craven from Kevin Williamson’s razor sharp script. Scream is a blackly hilarious self-aware dissection of the clichés of slasher movies which is also simultaneously a genuinely brilliant slasher flick filled with gory attacks and jump out of your seat moments. Williamson’s delicious dialogue is brought to memorable life by an ensemble cast on truly top form, including star-making turns from Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Rose McGowan and Skeet Ulrich. Enjoy, oh, and please do remember, “Movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative…”

May 25, 2011

‘I need to do more theatre’

I was struck, reading the Win Win press release, by the sheer amount of theatre work, and acclaimed theatre work at that, undertaken by the lead actors.

Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambor and Burt Young all have theatre resumes as long as your arm, while Bobby Cannavale, presumably feeling guilty about his lack of theatre work, finally hit Broadway in 2008, and won a Tony nod for his troubles. What’s interesting about the resumes of this particular clutch of actors is the picture it builds up of what good actors, interested in telling emotionally engaging human stories, really want to do. Looking at the plays that they’ve done you can expand out to include more related works to create a convincing picture of just what actors have in mind when they sigh in interviews for crummy films – ‘I need to do more theatre’.

The plays explicitly mentioned in the press release include works by Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Chekhov, Stoppard, Brecht, Tennessee Williams, Neil LaBute, Theresa Reback, David Rabe, and Lanford Wilson. You could add to that list a select clutch of other names: Mamet, Sophocles, Pinter, Beckett, Lorca, Moliere, Arthur Miller, Shaw, Ibsen, Shepard, Strindberg, Friel, Hare, Churchill, Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh, Jez Butterworth, Kenneth Lonergan, John Logan, Martin Crimp. There’s a hit list of great plays and juicy roles every actor wants to have a shot at, and it boils down to a desire to do both the classics (ancient and modern) and interesting new work, which is hilariously contradictory, and also would take up all your life for very little pay if you eschewed film and TV work to do it. But…you can’t help but think that sometimes actors feel, as when Aaron Eckhart lamented to the L&H in UCD ‘I need to do more theatre….’, that it might be a more fulfilling if far less lucrative choice to concentrate on theatre.

Those great plays are nearly always the things I think of when watching good actors in bad movies, when a look of despair/desperation that doesn’t belong to the character they’re playing seems to convey the inner thought process the actor has slipped into: “God. I killed as Teach in American Buffalo a few years ago, now I’m having a nightmare within a nightmare within a really crummy exploitation vampire noir; which in some categorisations might be a nightmare. I need to do more theatre.” I will neither confirm nor deny I have someone from the movie Rise: Blood Hunter in mind when I write that…

This is not to engage in the snobbery, that theatre is a purer art form than cinema, which drove cinephile Michael Fassbender to quit the Drama Centre. It’s merely to recognise that, bar exceptional roles like James Bond, Batman and their ilk, it’s not possible in cinema to measure yourself against the standard set by actors past by taking on an unchanging role. That compulsion, which drove Jude Law to play Hamlet, ensures theatre remains an off-screen siren call…

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

I realise with a shock that I’ve been neglecting Michael Fassbender in this blog, so it’s only right to devote my 100th blog post to the man from Kerry.

Fassbender has risen in just seven years from playing the villain in a Sky One show to playing the nascent super-villain in a keenly anticipated summer blockbuster. Next week will see a piece focusing on my concept of Fassbendering, but this week let’s focus on how he made this journey. Fassbender had appeared in Band of Brothers but arguably first truly came to public consciousness as the actor in that famous Guinness ad at the end of 2003 who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. Characteristically Fassbender ended the ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again. He then played the resident Big Bad in Sky One’s Buffy homage/rip-off Hex. As fallen angel Azazeal he impressed with dark charisma, cut-glass English accent, and the distinct vibe that he was enjoying this part far too much.

2004 also saw him star in Canadian TV movie A Bear Called Winnie where, as a compassionate vet in the Canadian Army who rescued an orphaned bear cub en route to Britain for WWI, he showed an admirable ability to goof around with the adorable pet bear that would be immortalised as Winnie the Pooh. He then played the first of his continuing series of historical figures in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot as Guy Fawkes, and ended 2004 in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, displaying his fine ability to be ambiguous as the murder suspect that Holmes insists is a killer despite all evidence clearing him. He then had a showy turn as he smoked and drank his way thru After the Funeral in 2006 as a dissolute possible murderer in ITV’s Poirot, before making the jump from TV movie to actual movie, and London to Hollywood; notably later than his contemporaries Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy.

Fassbender’s ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where things really caught fire. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning, perhaps because he’s realised just how flashy this supporting role is… Stelios is the Spartan who jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Our arrows will blot out the sun”. Fassbender delivers the famous riposte in a supremely nonchalant manner, and later forms one half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and has a slo-mo fight alongside Astinos where they attack and sever Persian limbs left, right and centre. When the Persian mystics are throwing bombs it is Fassbender who runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. Who does something awesome in the denouement to enable Leonidas be even more awesome? Fassbender, of course. Who holds hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines? Fassbender. This is the kind of thing that gets you noticed when your film is an unexpected massive hit.

2008 saw him tackle two more historical figures and also contribute an upsetting turn to stark English horror Eden Lake. I reviewed that film and argued for it as a socio-economic horror as Fassbender and Kelly Reilly’s polite middle-class London couple travel to an idyllic camping spot only to be mercilessly harassed by hoodie-wearing teenagers who steal their jeep, leading to a nigh unwatchable scene where Fassbender’s innocent victim comes up against the gang’s barbed wire and box-cutters. If Fassbender had undercut his 300 image by playing sacrificial lamb to Kelly Reilly’s survivor type he made up for in Channel 4’s Civil War mini-series The Devil’s Whore where he scooped the most dashing role, coveted by Dominic West, as the Levellers’ leader Thomas Rainsborough. He made Rainsborough so charismatic that you could understand why people ignored the contradiction of an aristocrat leading a prototypical socialist movement. The series itself lost momentum after Rainsborough’s tragic demise, which not only underscored Fassbender’s outshining of West and John Simm as leading man, but ironically hammered home the loss to history of the progressive ideas of the Levellers; stifled by Cromwell only to return as demands by the Chartists in the 1840s and actions by Clement Attlee in the 1940s.

Fassbender combined elements of those roles as sacrificial lamb and charismatic leader for his tour de force performance as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s debut film Hunger. I regard Hunger as a biopic so utterly oblique as to de-politicise its subject; indeed in its shocking single depiction of just what it is the IRA does it invalidates all accusations that McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh are somehow ‘fellow travellers’. Turner Prize-winner McQueen reinvented the possibilities of cinema with a film that could almost be a video installation on how the human body slowly declines into death, and how beauty can be found in the mundane. Fassbender was luminous in his one lengthy scene with dialogue, where he argues with Liam Cunningham’s priest, forcing you to appreciate both his point of view and why men would follow this man out on hunger strike and die for him. Fassbender also emulated his acting hero Daniel Day-Lewis as he lost 14 kilos while playing the part and weighed just 59 kilos by the end of shooting. Writing about it at the time I praised Fassbender’s “awesome commitment to the part in the third act as he just wastes away in front of your eyes. This is a mesmerising performance of insane dedication that should see Fassbender go on to even juicier roles.”

And go on to juicier roles he did, as 2009 saw Fassbender work with two auteurs, and also Joel Schumacher. Tarantino’s riotous rewriting of history, Inglourious Basterds, oddly enough saw Fassbender being one of the few people playing things straight in his supporting role as Lt. Archie Hicox. As a former film critic dispatched behind enemy lines, most of his lines were delivered (allegedly in a Kerry accent initially) in his second language, German, bar glorious exceptions like “There’s a special place reserved in Hell for people who waste good scotch”. He then starred as Connor opposite newcomer Kate Jarvis as Mia in Andrea Arnold’s kitchen sink drama Fish Tank. A bracingly abrasive picture of life on an Essex council estate punctuated by moments of amazing lyrical beauty, Fassbender’s character opens up possibilities for his girlfriend’s two daughters in a stunning pastoral sequence where he gives them the attention and affection their mother denies them, and encourages Mia to channel her simmering rage at her life into focused attempts to escape it thru professional dancing. Arnold has made the most layered use of the possibilities of Fassbender’s ready smile, as his grinning Connor appears at first as the perfect surrogate father before she traumatically reverses that winning charm. This disquieting role emphasised Fassbender’s freedom from leading men’s crippling need to be loved in every role. Schumacher’s Blood Creek meanwhile may well be remembered eventually as the film where Superman and Magneto clash, but that would require that someone in the world sees it first.

In 2010 he reunited with both Dominic West and Liam Cunningham for Neil Marshall’s nonsensical historical British action film Centurion, which all concerned presumably filed under ‘guilty pleasure’. He ended the year in a nonsensical historical American action film as henchman Burke in Jonah Hex. His first appearance in the trailer saw him grinning manically while setting fire to a barn with someone in it, but sadly the film was shredded from its initial intentions. One hopes that Fassbender may eventually get to properly work with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films. And that leads us to right now, one week before the release of X-Men: First Class

So, why is Fassbender a personal hero? Obviously some of it has to do with Fassbendering, but it’s also because Fassbender is a genuinely talented actor with an immense range as well as a charming whimsicality. He can play comedy and tragedy, heroes and villains, equally well, and move from blockbuster to art-house, whimsy to avant-garde, with ease. His part as the younger version of Ian McKellen’s Magneto, as he begins the slow and half-justified decent into super-villainy, is one of the performances I’m anticipating most this year. X-Men: First Class, and Soderbergh’s Haywire in August, as well as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Promotheus next year, should catapult Fassbender into the genuine leading man status that Colin Farrell so narrowly missed out on through choosing big-name directors working on vanity projects rather than good scripts. Fassbender in addition appears to be about to make the leap without sacrificing his ability to take on interesting roles in smaller films; with roles as Carl Jung (his latest historical figure) in Cronenberg’s drama A Dangerous Method, Rochester in a pared down Jane Eyre, and the lead in a new Steve McQueen film Shame, all of which are due to be released in the same period as the Vaughn, Soderbergh and Scott blockbusters mentioned above.

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

April 1, 2010

Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation)

So, for this the final part of the three-part series, it is finally time to examine the Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation) to see historically what has been most popular with audiences. And the answer (un)surprisingly tends towards the gimmicky, the romantic, the big broad brushstrokes, the zeitgeisty, and the already popular from other mediums…

10  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
9    The Exorcist
8    Dr Zhivago
7    Jaws
6    Titanic
5   The Ten Commandments
4    E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial
3    The Sound of Music
2    Star Wars
1    Gone with the Wind

Gimmickry showcasing of spectacle, especially spectacle unavailable to TV, is important in a number of these films. The Exorcist was full of grotesque effects that TV legally couldn’t replicate. Dr Zhivago and The Ten Commandments showcased the widescreen landscapes TV couldn’t do with The Ten Commandments also being a special-effects extravaganza as well as having the proverbial ‘cast of thousands’. Star Wars was of course mind-blowing when released because of its complete reversal of previous film-making methods involving model-work, and Gone with the Wind was both in the expensive and new ‘glorious technicolour’ as well as being so lavishly produced that a Confederate veteran famously complained of the burning of Atlanta sequence that “If we’d a had that many men we’d a won the damn war!”. Jaws was nearly the pinnacle of the 1970s obsession with shooting on location, 1937’s Snow White was a risky gamble that audiences would accept feature-length animations (you’re welcome Pixar), and Titanic was a monumental folly of integrating huge sets with unprecedented use of CGI.

We criticised Avatar for using broad brushstrokes but many of these films use such a large canvas you’d have needed a damn mop. The difference is craft… Jaws was such a superbly directed suspenser that Hitchcock handed the torch to Spielberg, who then reduced children and their parents to blubbering wrecks with E.T.’s outrageous emotional manipulation. The Sound of Music showcases its joyous musical numbers with a much sharper script that you remember, and Satan Vs Christ is enlivened by a sub-plot of some depth about faith and doubt in The Exorcist. Lean never lost sight of his characters’ emotional truth in Dr Zhivago’s epic landscapes and The Ten Commandments was filled with charismatic performances, while Snow White and Star Wars enacted their simple archetypes with great charm. Gone with the Wind meanwhile successfully melds an intimate love story with an epic backdrop with humour, romance and compelling dramatic grandeur.

I’ve previously argued Gone with the Wind’s release just before the world plunged into World War II was apt as people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling through. Stephen King argued that The Exorcist appealed to parents concerned about losing their kids… and those teenagers, eager for shocks. Jaws was a subtle allegory of post-Watergate political tensions, Star Wars showcased the all-American optimism that had been so lacking in 1970s cinema, while Charlton Heston’s Moses appeared in Eisenhower’s reign as President during which Ike added references to God to both dollar bills and the Oath of Allegiance. Critics meanwhile noted E. T. as one of the first mainstream films that was informed by the new baby-boomer experience of a divorced father’s absence from a middle-class white family and the bitter cost on the children.

A number of these films were adapting already popular material. Snow White was a universally beloved fairytale, while The Exorcist, Dr Zhivago, Jaws and Gone with the Wind had all been bestselling novels, and Cecil B DeMille was dramatising the Bible. Robert Wise was adapting a hugely popular stage musical from the reigning kings of Broadway, while Star Wars drips with archetypal elements from Joseph Campbell’s rummaging thru the heroic legends of the world’s ancient cultures, and everyone thought Titanic was clichéd in the way Avatar was clichéd in its use of over-familiar story tropes, and on top of a famous event to boot. E.T. is the only original script here which would have been completely unpredictable to audiences. Perhaps the decline of reading as attention-spans collapse has eliminated the universal reception possible to films in the past, especially Gone with the Wind whose casting of Scarlett O’Hara was as protracted and famous as it was simply because so many people already had their image of Scarlett from reading Margaret Mitchell’s book. The new impossibility of gathering a monolithic audience in any sphere of entertainment means no film will ever top Gone with the Wind.

Oddly enough for an age that regards romance as a structural necessity regrettably foisted onto blockbusters or the stock-in-trade of the worst genre in the world (rom-com) we find romance dominating half these films. Snow White is the idealised fairytale romance, Omar Shariff and Julie Christie are thwarted lovers married to the wrong people in David Lean’s swooning 1965 epic, while forbidden romance again figures in Maria’s transformation from nun governess to beloved stepmother of the Von Trapp family, and Titanic is the archetypal American romance between an uptown girl and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. And of course the most tormented, dysfunctional, sweeping romance of them all stands at the very zenith. “Our love is epic”, Logan Echolls told Veronica Mars, “Epic?” “Epic. Spanning continents and decades. There’s betrayal, bloodshed and heartbreak. Epic.” And damn if Epic Love isn’t still the top film of all time. From the Golden Age of Hollywood comes the mythic love story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s romance while the Confederacy burns around them.

Titanic is the only film made since 1982 on the list. Seven of these films overcame television, with Titanic also defeating the ubiquity of video which removed the urgency of seeing something ‘only in theatres’, but we are now at an historic low for cinema-going. Why is a question for future postings…

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