Talking Movies

July 18, 2011

The Movies aren’t Dead, they just smell funny – Pt I

Mark Harris’ GQ article The Day the Movies Died has caused quite the stir this year.

Harris makes a number of interesting points in his article, which I’ll get to in Part II, but he also adopts a number of poses which I’ve criticised in the past. I was infuriated by the speciousness of his opening salvo which characterises the present as the nadir of cinema. His characterisation of the studio response to Inception is entertaining but his clinching quote “Huh. Well, you never know” isn’t real; it’s a characterisation by him of the studio response. I could rewrite that entire paragraph to end with my Groucho & Me in-joke producer character Delaney wailing “I don’t get it. I saw that movie twice and I still don’t understand it. I couldn’t even get a single trailer to properly explain it, according to people who understood it, so why did people go see it?”, and it might be just as accurate albeit more generous. If I added “And why did they see Inception and then boycott Scott Pilgrim?” it would be even more accurate. What’s frustrating is that Harris is better than this. He quotes uber-producer Scott Rudin, whose warning of the danger of betting on execution rather than a brand name is exactly what led to the studio shrug at Inception that Harris misinterprets. Christopher Nolan is due a disaster at some point. Every director, writer, playwright, musician, artist will make a screw-up of epic proportions at some point. Would you like to have to explain to your shareholders how you bet $300 million on it not being at this particular point? There is no point in making a movie no one will want to see. Even when execution is perfect, as in the case of another whack-job concept from last summer, Scott Pilgrim, people may just not go.

Harris almost destroys his argument by the way he makes it. It’s an extremely cheap shot to list movies coming out in summer 2011 and summer 2012, not by their titles but by de-contextualised sneers based on their sources, before footnoting what the films are so that you can’t easily check which sneer corresponds to which film. This is the snobbery I questioned in my Defence of Comic-Book Movies run riot, and is incredibly inane bearing in mind that The Godfather would be ‘pulp fiction crime novel’, Gone with the Wind – ‘airport novel historical romance’, Casablanca – ‘failed stage play that couldn’t even get staged’ and The Empire Strikes Back – ‘sequel to a kids sci-fi movie’. Harris’ tactic can devastate 2011’s attractions when they’re listed as adaptations of comic-books, a sequel to a sequel to a film devised from a theme-park ride, two sequels to cartoons, adaptations of children’s books, and a 5th franchise instalment. But shall we parse that approach to listing Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Winnie the Pooh, The Smurfs, and Fast & Furious 5?

The underlying assumption is that comic-book movies are rubbish because comic-books are rubbish. Never mind that Green Lantern was an enormously risky undertaking when he’s just complained Hollywood doesn’t take risks – I’ve read Green Lantern comics, no one else I know has, and many consider him to be the most ridiculous character in the DC Universe – a position tantamount to saying that execution doesn’t matter, only the source material, which is patent nonsense. Sneering at POTC’s origins is embarrassingly 2002; POTC 4 should have been sneered at because POTC 3 was an endless joyless bore that forgot everything that made POTC1 such fun. Sequels to cartoons are not intrinsically bad, something Harris unwittingly demonstrates by yoking together sequels to a charming animation and an unbearable animation. If Winnie the Pooh has no right to exist because it’s an adaptation of a children’s book we must also blacklist Babe and Watership Down, while The Smurfs is almost entirely dependent on execution. Any source can be good or bad, depending on the execution. Stephen Sommers could direct War and Peace and it would be awful, and titled War. PG Wodehouse didn’t apologise for knocking out another Jeeves & Wooster novel when he thought of an amusing storyline for them, and Fast & Furious 5 isn’t bad because it has 5 in the title – what is this, numerology?

Harris criticises summer 2011 for not having an Inception type wildcard. But does he really think people have concepts like Inception every day? What was the blockbuster people grasped for as a reference point for Inception? The Matrix. So, it only took 11 years thru the alimentary canal, as Harris puts it, for the success of the Wachowksis’ whack-job high-concept blockbuster to produce another successful whack-job high-concept blockbuster. But the lack of Inception in Space in the summer 2012 slate informs his dismissive roster-call whose lowlights are The Dark Knight Rises being a sequel to a sequel to a reboot of a comic-book movie, and Breaking Dawn: Part II being a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a YA novel. Harris’ logic appears to be (a) directors have no right to film all of a multi-novel cycle or (b) artistic integrity demands the cinematic Twilight story be left hanging. Neither of which persuades, while dismissing Nolan’s Bat-finale in such ludicrous fashion purely because of a dislike of comic-books undermines all his judgement calls.

Harris semi-apologises that some of these movies will be great, but surely he knows this apology is defeated by his prior cleverly contrived presentation of an avalanche of stupidity heading towards the multiplexes? He quotes a studio executive lamenting: “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is the screenwriting is apparently done by jaded supercomputers… The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this could go anywhere. I praised Win Win for the same quality. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The question is whether studio tactics, counter-productive market research, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself are all working against cinema by lowering the standard journeymen film-makers operate at…

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May 25, 2011

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…

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