Talking Movies

September 28, 2016

So long, and unthanks for all the Fish

It’s been a very long wait for RTE 2 to screen season 2 of Gotham, and that might say much about the state of popular opinion towards the misfiring show.

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The first season of Gotham arrived with much more fanfare in January 2015, down to the WB organising a cinema screening of the pilot which I covered for HeadStuff.org. On the big screen Gotham’s cold open was undeniably arresting, tracking a teenage Selina Kyle (Carmen Bicondova) across the rooftops of the absurdly begargoyled city until she happened upon a certain dark alleyway just in time for murder of the Waynes. Catwoman’s presence intriguingly made Batman’s formative trauma a random incident in someone else’s life. But showrunner/writer Bruno Heller and director Danny Cannon also upped the gore, and salvaged the now-pardoic crane swoop by young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) not giving the expected “NOOOOO!!!” but an ear-splitting pre-pubescent shriek.

It would be cruel to say it was all downhill from there, but not entirely untrue. Danny Cannon and director of photography David Stockton had previously brought Nikita to TV on the CW, but Gotham is on Fox, and from the beginning lacked the slick coherence of a CW show. The pilot was all about the young James Gordon (Ben McKenzie), starting work at Gotham PD as the new partner of corrupt Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). They bungled investigating the Waynes’ murder, and got investigated by Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and Crispus Allen (Andrew Stewart-Jones), who already disliked Bullock because of his deal-making friendship with mobster Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett-Smith). Gordon felt compelled (perhaps by the dramatic imperative) to promise Bruce and his guardian Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) that he would throw away his badge if he didn’t solve the case. But with the squirrelly behaviour of his fiancé Barbara Kean (Erin Richards), the obvious madness of his CSI Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith), and the menacing warnings of his father’s old acquaintance Don Carmine Falcone (John Doman), it was questionable if Gordon would live long enough to throw away his badge a la Dirty Harry…

But that set-up promised a clear path of plot that Heller simply did not possess. Montoya’s presence on the show became increasingly sporadic and tokenistic until eventually she and Allen simply disappeared from the story, while Barbara’s lost little rich girl antics were worthy of Smallville at its very worst, and eventually an extended hiatus produced the desperate gambit of bringing in Milo Ventimiglia as a serial killer for a short and trumpeted mini-arc to give the show some semblance of purpose as it staggered toward the finishing line. Reviewing Gotham‘s pilot I said there was to much to like: specifically the look of Nolan’s Gotham having Gothic elements added to it, Pertwee’s tough Alfred, Logue’s amiably shady Bullock, and Doman’s revelatory avuncular Falcone – the force for order against the chaos enveloping Gotham. There were further praiseworthy elements as the season progressed, the outre villainy of the Balloon Man serial killer felt like it stepped from the pages of early 1990s Batman comics, a flashback heavy episode in which Bullock faced off against the same possibly supernatural murderer at either end of a decade felt like late 1980s Grant Morrison Batman material, and the siege of GCPD in which Gordon was left alone to face off against a team of assassins led by Victor Zsasz was stirring enough to be Nolan-worthy.

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But this is not a show about Gordon and Bullock fighting weird crime, and more’s the loss. It’s a show about…

Well, what is it about?

The adventures of the young Bruce becoming Batman at the unusually young age of say 15 at the end of season 3? No.

Well, maybe, after all don’t forget the cliffhanger finale of Bruce discovering, deep sigh, his father’s Batcave; in a transparent riff on the LOST season 1 finale, despite the fact that finale enraged people.

The adventures of young Bruce meeting literally everyone he will meet again ‘for the first time’ 17 years later when he dons the cape at the age of 29? No.

Well, sort of. I accused Heller of having a veritable ‘Where’s Wally?’ of future super-villains: Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Ivy. He then added in Joker for good measure, and Colm Feore’s Dollmaker, as well as lumbering under the lamentable weight of Fish Mooney, a placeholder original villain, twirling her extravagant nails to hide lack of actual character.

The adventures of all of Batman’s supervillains sans the Bat but with Gordon, in a move worthy of Hamlet without the Dane? No.

Well, yes, that’s sort of where this is all heading. But as ever, only sort of. Gotham’s split focus has been its downfall. Gordon and Bullock are never allowed to do their thing, instead we have to head off and agonise over Barbara’s latest idiocy, or check in on the budding romance of Bruce and Selina; mixing tortured romance with grittier crime procedural as if Heller is confused as to both genre and what network he’s on. But this problem; that Gotham is trying to be about four different shows at once, failing in its whirling dervish act to dance between four stools, and giving everyone a nosebleed into the bargain; is in the ha’penny place to the real flaw bedevilling the show – some of the very worst writing since Smallville‘s lowest points.

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It was hard reviewing Anthropoid a few weeks ago not to make a connection between it, Green Room, and Gotham. The connection to be traced between them goes to the heart of why Gotham rapidly became a chore to watch. Anthropoid saw Nazis take a hammer to a violinist’s hand to break him in interrogation; they’re Nazis, that sort of cruelty is their way. Green Room saw Neo-Nazis take a machete to a guitarist’s hand to break a siege; they’re Neo-Nazis, they want their gun back so they can kill the band. Gotham saw The Penguin take charge of breaking up a romance to curry favour with a possible crime partner. The problem was a musician. As soon as the word ‘musician’ was mentioned you knew what was coming next. A beating doesn’t work on the guy, so Penguin steps in with some handy hedge-clippers, “He’s a musician, lose the fingers.” And the director obliged with a huge close-up of a bejewelled severed finger hitting the ground as the editors debated which to make louder, the scream of agony or the satisfying plop sound. It’s not just that it’s part of a wider problem with the violence on Gotham, which we’ll get to, but as with so much of Penguin’s psychopathy it doesn’t really make any sense. What exactly happened next? Something like this?

INT.ITALIAN PIZZA PLACE-NIGHT.

THE GIRL is looking at her watch, and looking out the window. Where is her boyfriend musician already? Her cellphone rings.

GIRL: Where the hell are you?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) (muffled voices in background) We should break up.

GIRL: What? Why? What’s that sound?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) I’m in the hospital.

GIRL: Oh my God! That’s horrible. Which one? Gotham General? I’ll come now. Why are you in the hospital?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) Someone cut off my fingers.

GIRL: Oh my God! Oh my GOD! Will you still be able to play the guitar?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) Of course I won’t be f****** able to play the f******guitar! THEY CUT OFF MY F****** FINGERS!!

GIRL: (sobbing) Oh God! Who? Why? Baby, why would anyone do such a horrible thing to you?

MUSICIAN: (O/S) I don’t know. I forgot to ask them as they took away my identity and career with a hedge clippers. But in totally unrelated news, babe, totally unrelated, I think we should break up.

This is the kind of nonsense that drove Smallville into inanity; that you could watch Lex bump someone off, and just wonder ‘Why on earth did he do that?!’ Gotham has fallen into the LOST trap of inserting Quentin Tarantino’s ‘really bitching torture scene’ whenever they run out of dramatic oomph and can’t be bothered to let conflict grow organically from characters. A sort of amped-up version of Raymond Chandler’s dictum that you have a guy with a gun walk into the room whenever you get stuck in your writing. It is of course, if done week after week, scene after scene, incredibly lazy writing. It makes things predictable despite the aim being to make things unpredictable: ‘psychopaths be crazy’ and all that. When you just ping pong from hideous double-cross to hideous double-cross, with bodies and eyeballs flying everywhere it actually becomes tiresome, and the cumulative effect is to make the whole show faintly ridiculous. All the maneuvering between Penguin, Fish, and Falcone to be King of Gotham Crime seemed like a pantomime via the Grand Guignol. At times, such as Fish’s imprisonment on Dollmaker’s island laboratory, you could literally fast-forward through the action without missing anything so poor was the dialogue and telegraphed the action. And that is to say nothing of the outrageous gore that Heller seemed in love with; Catwoman gouging out a goon’s eyes in the 2nd episode, Penguin maiming and killing half Gotham and environs, Fish gouging out her own eye to spite Dollmaker, and, in a Smallville moment, Dollmaker responding to that by giving his inept henchman an unwanted sex change and granting Fish a new eye because… Um, because that’s what was written down in the script.

The exhausted retirement of Falcone in the finale almost serves as a metaphor for the audience. We did at least get to see Fish being dropped off a large building to allow Penguin have his “Made it Ma! Top of the World!” moment, but how a show run by experienced people could’ve misjudged everything that led to the point quite so hugely is baffling. I don’t know if a radical shake-up like James Cameron and Charles H Eglee gave Dark Angel season 2 can redeem Gotham, but let’s see if having got rid of its most annoying original character it can start to become a bit more sensible.

Gotham season 2 starts on RTE 2 at the less than desirable time-slot of 10.55pm today.

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June 29, 2016

IFI Open Day 2016

The IFI is holding its annual Open Day on Saturday July 2nd with an expanded line-up of free movies running from 1pm to near 1am. As well as free movies, and the customary barbecue in the courtyard and special discount on annual IFI membership, there are a number of tours.

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In addition to the previews, old favourites, and sheer oddities, there are chances to lift the curtain and see the wizard, with talks from the IFI Archive staff and tours of the Projection Booth. The ‘Ask an Archivist’ desk in the foyer will give visitors the opportunity to learn about different film stocks, and even view and handle film yourself. The Tiernan McBride library will host members of the Archive team charged with preserving Ireland’s cinematic heritage giving talks about some of the projects they’re currently working on. Projection tours can be booked in advance to go behind the little window of flickering light, and check out the busy working of the specialised department; handling anything from digital, to 16mm and 35mm, up to 70mm – the IFI being the only cinema in the country that can run 70mm reels. The tours at 14.00, 15.00, 16.30, and 17.00 have limited places, which can be booked at scorrigan@irishfilm.ie. Give yourself an unfair advantage in the ‘Fiver a Foot’ competition in which you can win Premiere Friend membership for a year by correctly guessing the length of film in a film can. And as always IFI Membership will be available at a discounted rate for the Open Day and there’s a BBQ on the terrace from 16.00 onwards.

But what are the free movies? Well, here is your guide to the 14 films being shown in Temple Bar.

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Film 1

White Heat (13.00)

“Made it, Ma! Top of the world!!”, and all that… Gangster No 1 James Cagney is Cody Jarrett, a deranged mobster who’s unnervingly close to his mother. Directed by Raoul Walsh, who previously worked with Cagney on The Roaring Twenties, this is a B-movie classic. Walsh mashes up prison breaks, gangster power struggles, and film noir blurring of lines as an undercover agent befriends the unwitting Jarrett.

Amateur (13.30)

Indie auteur Hal Hartley’s 1994 effort follows ex-nun Isabelle, taking time out from her disreputable profession to help amnesiac Thomas piece together his forgotten life. Hartley wrote the role for Isabelle Huppert after she sent a letter begging for a part in his next film. His regular leading man Martin Donovan plays the nice guy whose head injury, we gradually realise, may have been a most happy accident.

Play On! (14.00)

The Open Day proclaimeth Shakespeare Lives! In 1899 an upcoming production of King John filmed scenes to produce the first Shakespearean film, and arguably the film world’s first trailer; before there were even proper film features to trail. Early silent film-makers pillaged the Bard for prestige purposes, so here are 24 scenes of silent Shakespeare scenarios, including a 1924 Romeo & Juliet featuring John Gielgud’s screen debut.

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Film 2

Sweet Smell of Success (15.30)

“The cat’s in the bag, and the bag is in the river.” Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s quotable and seedy screenplay finds malicious gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) finally pushing fawning press man Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to his moral breaking point. Despite James Wong Howe’s innovative cinematography and Elmer Bernstein’s downbeat jazz, its disastrous 1957 reception effectively forced director Alexander Mackendrick into academia.

Disco Pigs (15.45)

Kirsten Sheridan made her feature debut in 2001 with the first of only two Enda Walsh plays to make it to the big screen. Cillian Murphy originated the part of Pig in 1996 and reprises it alongside Elaine Cassidy as Runt. Inseparable friends with their own private language, much compared to Anthony Burgess’ nadsat, their innocence is threatened by Pig’s growing appetite for destruction and sexual pleasures.

El Clan (16.00)

White Elephant director Palbo Trapero returns with a thriller based on improbable true events. The Galtieri regime has been swept aside in 1980s Argentina, and spook Arquimedes Puccio (The Secret in their Eyes’ Guillermo Francella) develops a new line of work with the help of his son Alejandro (Peter Lanzani): kidnapping. This tale of a low-key but distinctly psychopathic crime family won the Silver Lion at Venice.

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Film 3

King Kong (17.45)

Merian C Cooper’s beloved pulp classic from the pen of Edgar Wallace is showing on 35mm. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) joins a film-making expedition to Skull Island in search of a mythical beast, and Skull Island does not disappoint. Peter Jackson uncharitably re-used some clunky dialogue in his remake, but the stop-motion special effects still thrill and it all builds to one of cinema’s most memorable finales.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (18.00)

Writer/director Taika Waititi (2014 Kiwi vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows) adapts Barry Crump’s novel. Surly teenager Ricky (Julian Dennison) is dispatched from the city to the depths of the countryside to live with foster father Hec (Sam Neill). When he runs away, pursued by Hec, the police misread the situation and begin a manhunt. Funny, touching, and, yes, Rhys Darby shows up.

The Virgin Spring (18.20)

Director Ingmar Bergman won his first Foreign Film Oscar for arguably the most uncharacteristic film he ever made, as this was loosely and bloodily reworked 12 years later as The Last House on the Left by Wes Craven. Ulla Isaksson based her script on a medieval source, examining Max von Sydow’s moral deterioration as he methodically violently attacks the men who raped and murdered his daughter.

 

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Film 4

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (20.25)

The audience choice is regrettably Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s tale of the romantic friendship between Greg (Thomas Mann) and terminally ill Rachel (Olivia Cooke). Imagine The Fault in Our Stars meets Be Kind Rewind as directed by Wes Anderson; with cinephiles so infuriating it bears out Bret Easton Ellis’ fear of film-makers who make films based only on other films, not on lived reality.

The Neon Demon (20.40)

There may be walkouts… The inimitable Nicolas Winding Refn returns, sans Ryan Gosling, but, though there may be more dialogue than Only God Forgives, that doesn’t mean he’s changed his ways. Elle Fanning is a model arrived in LA’s fashion world whose fresh innocent beauty becomes the object of envy and desire for Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, and Jena Malone. Cue Cliff Martinez synths and weirdness.

Phantom of the Paradise (20.50)

Director Brian De Palma took elements from The Phantom of the Opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Faust, and combined them with an Oscar-nominated soundtrack for this 1974 oddity which is being reappraised. Winslow, a young musician is betrayed and has his life destroyed by unscrupulous producer Swan. When Phoenix, a beautiful new talent, arrives it spurs Winslow on to seek revenge on Swan.

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Film 5

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (22.30)

Writer/director Stephan Elliot has never managed to equal the impact of his 1994 comedy-drama. Drag queens Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce journey across the Australian Outback in a bus called ‘Priscilla’ for a show at a desert resort. Weaving brings grieving transsexual Terence Stamp too as a kind deed, and so begins much bickering and some unexpected bonding with the locals.

Repo Man (22.45)

Scottish writer/director Alex Cox provided the archetypal cult classic in 1984 with his quotable and offbeat feature debut. Emilio Estevez’s bored punk Otto works with Harry Dean Stanton’s equally jaded Bud repossessing cars. But when one car has a $20,000 bounty added life suddenly gets interesting for Otto and Bud in the way that only feuding punks, scientists, aliens, government agents, and a televangelist can make it.

So, those are the films, but that’s only the beginning… For the second year in a row there are five sets of films instead of the traditional four. Trying to do four films was an endurance marathon at the best of times, but to get into five films is surely beyond anyone, and yet undoubtedly somebody will try… But they’ll have to sort out their strategy with someone else, and now for two reasons. Strategy was always important because you can, obviously, only watch one of the three films running at any given time, but also the film you choose from each set determines what films are open to you later on. Choose Play On! from the first set of films, and you make it damn near impossible to see Sweet Smell of Success from the second set of films.

And if you’re confident you can make a quick-change from The Virgin Spring to The Neon Demon just remember that you’ll have to leave one screen and join a queue for another, that nothing in Dublin has ever started on time, and that one speaker will always get carried away with their enthusiasm when lengthily introducing a film. If you’re confident you can carve a sensible cinematic path through the day, remember that some films will be unexpectedly in demand and some films will unexpectedly languish, and it is impossible to predict which category your picks will fall into. If finally, shaken by my scepticism, you retreat to a Hindenburg line that you’re confident you can guess which films will be on which screens, remember that audience choice winners Good Vibrations and Short Term 12 did not make it to Screen 1, but Submarine did. And if you will not be moved from your foolhardy confidence, remember that you may need plans B thru D cognisant of run-times and queuing.

And then there’s the second and new reason that you need to sort your strategy with a partner if you want to get into multiple films. Tickets used to be allocated, to a maximum of 4 per person, on a first come first served basis 11am on Saturday which always led to a queue forming from 9.30am onwards and snaking around on to Dame Street. Those days are over, and everyone will miss the buzz of the Open Day morning. This year for a number of reasons the ticketing system is undergoing a dramatic shake-up. Queues will now form inside the IFI itself, at a desk for each specific movie, an hour before the movie is screened – with a limit of 2 tickets per person. Obviously this makes life hard for the multiple movie devotees, because they’d have to not be watching a movie in order to queue to get a ticket to watch the next movie. The best I can think of is some sort of demented Game Theory equilibrium whereby people trade off movies they don’t mind missing to queue for someone else, in order to get tickets for something they do want in return. (If that even works outside of my fevered economics imagination) Apart from melting the minds of delusional economists who think they can outwit it, the new ticketing system should ensure that all tickets distributed will be used, with fatigue ceasing to be an issue for the early morning diehards stranded in town for the day. It will also make Open Day a bit less about crowd control and a bit more interactive, allowing the IFI to enagage with first-time visitors and regular patrons about what the IFI does in terms of festivals and programming and what the Irish Film Archive is all about.

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