Talking Movies

December 1, 2012

Dubliners

Corn Exchange’s flagship production of Dubliners at the Gaiety for the Dublin Theatre Festival was desperately uneven as overplayed slapstick often trounced Joyce’s muted epiphanies.

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Performed under heavy face-paint on a minimalist set by Joe Vanek (that relied on expressive lighting and shadows) the show distractingly had characters narrate their own dialogue, drowning conversations with endless, unnecessary, and literal instances of he said/she said. In its defence this strategy allowed the narrator of ‘Two Sisters’ to deliver Joyce’s delicate prose, and he was cleverly also made the narrator of the next vignette, ‘An Encounter’. But the encounter is with a paedophile, played with malicious suavity by Mark O’Halloran, and the commedia dell’arte exaggerations deployed to create a crippled predator resulted in the unnerving spectacle of the audience of Joyce newcomers laughing heartily at this creation before being audibly horrified as they realised he’s not a mere eccentric. This misjudgement presaged later missteps but the painful yearning of ‘Eveline’ expertly played by Janice Byrne quickly dispelled any misgivings, and ‘Two Gallants’ saw Stephen Jones on fine swaggering form, which he continued in the ‘The Boarding House’ as the landlady’s menacing son. O’Halloran was on top comedic form opposite him as the rent-skiving actor, while the heightened slapstick style elevated the black comedy of Joyce’s hapless lodger Doran being trapped into proposing onto a much funnier plane.

After the interval that slapstick approach was imposed on stories that it defiantly did not suit. ‘Counterparts’ was rendered as stark nonsense. It was amusing to see O’Halloran never finish a sentence and dash about panic-stricken as the chief clerk, but there are things that one must not do to get a laugh, and among these is going so far over the top as to end in low-earth orbit. At first I was prepared to grant Mark Lambert as domineering lawyer Mr Alleyne the same privileges of blustering abusiveness as Will Forte as Ted Turner on Conan, but when he actually chicken-stepped around the stage in a comic fury at a slight from his subordinate I had exhausted any possible exculpatory comparisons. This was too OTT to amuse, but not his fault. Ruth McGill as his secretary used the same leer as she did as The Duchess in Alice in Funderland, and if the same expression can find equal purchase in Alice in Funderland and an adaptation of Joyce then it’s a sure sign that the adaptation of Joyce by Michael West and director Annie Ryan has strayed farcically far from the ‘scrupulous meanness’ and understated compassion of Dubliners.

Which leads one to conclude that Mark O’Halloran as an actor is truly immense. By sheer force of personality he dismissed ‘Counterparts’ to make the audience feel the tragedy of ‘A Painful Case’ as his fastidious Duffy sabotaged a relationship with Derbhle Crotty’s neglected housewife. O’Halloran made you so empathise with this cold character that when he spoke the final words of Joyce’s narration you could hear a pin drop, and hearts break. But then ‘A Mother’ painfully wasted the great Crotty’s talents by piling on the excessive slapstick to produce a painfully protracted skit devoid of any dramatic momentum, though at least it lacked the cognitive dissonance of the bungled traumatic ending of child abuse after clowning of ‘Counterparts’. ‘The Dead’ began with McGill’s performance of ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ as the story was pared down to Greta’s revelations after a party that leave her husband Gabriel stunned at how his wife was loved before she met him. O’Halloran’s delivery of the famous closing monologue ended the play on a triumphant note, and highlighted O’Halloran’s towering pre-eminence in the ensemble, the emotional power of Joyce’s material, and the frustratingly inconsistent fidelity to Joyce which held back the show.

Throughout, actors delivered their dialogue to the audience and then looked at the actor they’d been addressing, a technique Corn Exchange use in rehearsal; which made this feel like a quasi-workshop. Replacing ‘Counterparts’ and ‘A Mother’ with ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ and ‘Clay’ would immeasurably strengthen reprises…

2.5/5

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August 24, 2012

The Watch

Screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg rescue a Ben Stiller sci-fi comedy from the intended clutches of lamestream auteur Shawn Levy and the results are a hoot and a holler.

Ben Stiller is slightly boring Costco manager Evan, who sets up various clubs to build community spirit in Ohio, and is horrified to find his store’s night-watchman murdered and skinned. He promptly sets up a neighbourhood watch to track down the killer. Much to his displeasure, the only people who show up are loudmouth dad Bob (Vince Vaughn), wannabe vigilante Franklin (Jonah Hill) and British divorcee Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade). (Well, he’s actually pretty pleased with Jamarcus, as Evan’s been looking for a black friend in the name of diversity.) The watch get no respect from slightly crazed police officer (Will Forte), or their neighbours, but when they find destructive alien technology, and then aliens infiltrating the community, there’s only one thing to do. Save the world… And misbehave royally, of course. Who wouldn’t take pictures with a Hawaiian-shirted dead alien?

This movie is Rogen & Goldberg par excellence, so if you don’t like their shtick you’re better off skipping it. I’m one of the very few who appreciated what they were trying to do with The Green Hornet, and this movie confirms the suspicion I first voiced when reviewing Superbad; that hiding behind their scatology is sweetness. I thought then that the scatology might be there purely to get financing but I now realise that it’s an integral if occasionally uncomfortable part of the package, as if Seth Rogen was a big friendly slob of a dog that you just can’t housetrain but you still love him to bits anyway. “She married you, not your dead ****” is the key line of hidden heart as a ruminant Vaughn tries to comfort a depressed Stiller on whether marriage can survive infertility.

The Watch feels exactly like what it is, a structurally sound script rewritten to insert rambling absurdity and profane hilarity. Some elements are familiar: Will Forte’s cop is a close cousin of SNL co-star Bill Hader’s Superbad maniac, while Hill’s lunatic is a riff on Rogen’s character in Observe and Report, and a key final act detail is pure Superbad. Some elements are totally fresh: Richard Ayoade’s equally deadpan delivery of utter nonsense and total logic, Billy Crudup’s glorious cameo as Stiller’s creepily tactile new neighbour, and some serious ballistic overkill with a hard-to-kill alien. The comic invention on display flags in the middle as screenplay structural conventions take over but roars back for a very funny finale; not least because just when you’ve been lamenting Rosemarie DeWitt being underused as Stiller’s wife she gets her own hilarious motif.

The Watch isn’t quite as hilarious as Superbad but it is far better than any proposed PG-13 version could have been and better than any actual Hangover instalment is.

4/5

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