Sunday, September 30, 2007

Michael Clayton (2007) Tony Gilroy

The summer film season is, by it’s very nature, a distracting force. Just remember our summer just gone; a veritable explosion of superheroes, car chases and giant robots. As we slipped into Autumn there came a handful of comedies headed by Seth Rogen, superficially different than the summer blockbusters but ultimately serving the same purpose, distracting people (in our case, a welcome diversion from the non-stop rain). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting out to make a film with the primary goal of entertaining people, but sometimes it’s more satisfying to make a film with something to chew on, a little moral ambiguity to get the brain cells churning. So, as the days get shorter and I get back into the routine of study, the cinema offerings get more serious, more literary, more intelligent. Basically, I’m in cinema heaven with the series of political thrillers and serious dramas like Breach, Rendition, A Mighty Heart and Michael Clayton either currently showing or on their way to the cinema.

Michael Clayton is the latest George Clooney vehicle showcasing his intelligence rather than his looks. It’s something I like about Clooney, that even in his most serious political roles he never seems preachy or even as if he’s grabbing for awards. He has a point to make and does so affably, it almost seems as if he isn’t really acting. In this respect, he’s the closest thing we have to a Cary Grant, somebody who just enters a film with enough self-confidence and charm to just be himself. As the eponymous character, a shady man who works as a “fixer” for a law firm, we never really get into the heart of his character, to discover what makes him tick. Personally, I was never quite sure what to make of him. In another setting this could be a problem, but in this case it suits the film perfectly, dealing as it does with lies and obsfucation.

Although Clooney is the film’s biggest sell, Tom Wilkinson delivers a standout performance as a corporate lawyer. His current client, a sinister multinational called UNorth, have murdered hundreds of farmers with a carcinogenic weed killer. Wilkinson eventually goes crazy and turns his back on his professiona duties after neglecting to take his manic-depression medication, a discomforting downward spiral of insanity. Part of Clooney’s job is convincing Wilkinson that his change of heart is a result of the resulting chemical imbalance, but to the viewer there is no doubt that it is the unbelievable guilt of compromising his morals day-in, day-out that has triggered the madness. The film’s best scene occurs with Wilkison, alone and raving in his apartment, playing UNorth’s advertising spot on repeat, the comforting words and images of small, multicultural children familiar to anyone who has ever winced at the friendly posturing of big businesses. The high-tech audio-visual equipment he uses have all been paid for with the blood of innocents, yet even this chilling scene never reaches the tense heights it could achieve. I have a feeling this is a deliberate move on the part of the director, the whole film is coated in a very slick, corporate feel which furthers the subject matter.

Bolstered by a fine supporting cast and a dense script, Michael Clayton is a head scratching treat. It won’t be for everyone, there’s little flashy or fun, and a quick glance on the IMDB boards show that many people consider it boring, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Guess what day it is?

International Talk Like A Pirate Day!

Seeing how Pirates are the second most overrated novelty profession (only just overtaken by Ninjas) and how Johnny Depp bastardized the once shebang with those dreadful films, I refuse to participate. Just look at that gurning idiot up above! Would you really want to base your entire vernacular on him? Of course not! Instead, I propose to create International Talk Like a Tax Auditor Day!

Or how about, International Talk Like a Disgraced Former Taoiseach Day!

Or if you really want to push the boat out, International Talk Like Penn Day!

Happy Wednesday, y'all.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

It's Deborah, not Debbie

So, today I met Debbie Harry, or as she now calls herself, Deborah Harry. Or as millions of people around the globe know her, Blondie. Y'know. Her:

Well, nowadays she looks more like this:

She was in HMV Grafton Street for her first ever European signing. Now, I'm really happy she decided to bestow this honour upon Ireland, but she seriously needs to fire her PR company. Why any popstar of her magnitude would chose Dublin for her first European signing is beyond me; but I'm not exactly complaining. Quentin Tarantino was in HMV last night too. It would have been awesome to queue up to see him, shake his hand and say with a big grin, "Hey, Quentin? You're a cunt."

I ended up buying a copy of her new album, Necessary Evil. Which isn't great, but not as over-produced as I had expected. It's no Mantaray, though.

This is basically our conversation (we were in the first ten people to get stuff signed)

Me: Hi. How's it going? Eh, make it out to Catherine please.
DH: That with a C or a K?
Me: That's a C.
DH: Ah. That's my mother's name, Catherine.
Me: Yeah? It's a good name.
DH: It is, yeah. There you go.
Me: Thanks. Okay, cheers, bye!
DH: See ya.

Riveting stuff. She was cool, but very aloof. I didn't have a camera with me - curses.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Watching Taxi Driver; Magnified.

I've finally seen Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver on the big screen. It was a markedly different experience from any other previous time I've watch it; the very first time I viewed Taxi Driver was at 3am during a Christmas break, hunched over the tiny television in my bedroom. The sound was turned down low so my parents wouldn't hear and I had to strain to catch all the dialogue. Despite these setbacks, the film still affected me and I couldn't sleep afterwards. This afternoon I went to see a screening of it in the Irish Film Institute. Watching it on a full-sized cinema screen, with Bernard Herrman's exquisite score surrounding me, every grainy night-scene blown up to gigantic proportions, is undoubtedly one of my best film experiences yet.
I can't help being envious of people who were going to the cinema in 1976, when Taxi Driver was originally released. It isn't until you see it in the cinema that you fully appreciate the force of it, the seediness, the beauty. It's a powerful piece of work; what must it have been like to go to the cinema on a Friday night in the 70s, coming to this film with no preconceptions? No idea if it would be any good, no anticipating of the "You talkin' to me?", no prior knowledge of what you were about to see? The violence and racism that sidle around the screen are even mre disquieting, the dreamlike quality magnified, the score is like a drug, drawing you in with the mixture of beauty and seediness that is the main dichotomy expressed in the film.

As I sat there in the screening room, an elderly couple to my left and a young guy in his 20s who kept taking his glasses on and off to my right, I felt a shiver of excitement ripple through the whole audience as the lights dimmed and the Columbia logo flickered onto the screen. There were no ads, no trailers and none of those rating's cards. The film simply started to play; one click and we had started, a giant puff of yellowing smoke from which emerges the taxi cab, set to Herrman's score. I got to thinking about Bernard Herrmann, how I had never really connected the man who scored this with the composer of Citizen Kane, Psycho and, perhaps my favourite music of his, the sweeping romanticism of Now, Voyager. I didn't have long to ruminate on him for long though, as the film started in earnest and I was pulled along in the tide. The cinematography, impressive enough when you're dog tired and straining to see a miniscule screen, was breathtaking when blown up. The film was grainy and flickery at times, but who cared? It only served to further the intense atmosphere.
As well as the technical and visceral aspects of seeing Taxi Driver in this way, much has to be said on the humour in this film. It's not exactly a comedy, but Travis' fumbling attempts to date Betsy are sweetly amusing and the audience responded wonderfully. The biggest laugh in the film came when Travis is buying the guns and the guy who sells them to him keeps offering more guns, more drugs "Crystal meth. I can get ya crystal meth," and finally, ludicrously, offering him a Cadillac. It felt great, to laugh along with 60 other people, at this masterpiece.

If anyone's interested in seeing Taxi Driver, whether on a repeat viewing or as a first-timer, I would strongly urge them to see it on a big screen if at all possible. As cinema goes, it's hard to beat.

My 3 problems with Atonement.

It’s facetious to judge a film without having seen it, but the near-constant barrage of reviews and media coverage that this film is generating means that I feel I basically know it already, and that I don’t care about the honesty of weighing in and giving my opinions without yet having seen it. Because I know I will see it, eventually. It’s inevitable - this is already turning into one of the year’s most talked about films. This is not one of the things that makes my list of quibbles, but it’s a point that bothers me. The first review of Atonement I came across was Emma’s, which I read with great avidity. I was curious to see what she thought of it, having just read the book myself. Later that week, the reviews began appearing in most of the Broadsheets and some more blogs. Then came the Venice Film Festival and the weight of press coverage this garnered was almost sickening. It bothered me that with so many other highly anticipated films showing, Atonement was the one that got the most buzz. It goes without saying I was thrilled when the Golden Lion for Best Film went to Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. If the judges had awarded Atonement the top prize, I think my head might have exploded

1. Kiera Knightly.

I’m with Mark Kermode on this one. How the hell is “Ikea Knightly” an Oscar-nominee? It completely baffles. I’ll confess (albeit with glee) that I’ve only endured the first Pirates film, which I thought was “alright, not really my thing and way too long”. The second, and subsequently the third, seemed to get progressively worse and from all accounts, so did Keira’s acting. Having been marginally interesting in Bend It Like Beckham, she has simply done nothing in recent that has dazzled. Or even, you know, not made me sigh in despair. The final straw was catching her on Jonathan Ross last night. She didn’t seem entirely sane, but nor was she interesting in a kooky way. Instead she came across as needy, trying to wheedle Ross into admiting she wasn’t a bad actress. I don’t really pick fault with the casting of her as Cecilia, probably the book’s least interesting character, so much as I fault her acting at all, full stop.

2. The adaptation of the novel.

I had some major problems with the book itself, more on which later. But while reading it, I realised that this is an exceedingly odd choice to adapt for film. Ian McEwan’s excellent Enduring Love was, in my opinion, a better novel and also had a filmable plot. Atonement’s primary concern is with writing and the destructive power of the imagination, whether a writer is ever completely honest, if it is possible to atone for a terrible crime by writing about it. These themes are engaging and thoughtful, but not ones that scream “cinematic!”. The middle section, which centres on World War II, is the most filmable section of the novel, and also the part I found least engaging. Coincidence?

3. The novel itself.

I’ll admit that I read Atonement purely for the reason that there was to be a film based on it and I always prefer to read the book first rather than after. It wasn’t through lack of trying, I’d started it on two previous occasions but always gave up. There was something that didn’t quite catch me in it’s opening chapters, but this time I ploughed on and ended up rather enjoyed sections. The opening third, set in a stately English home during a sweltering pre-war summer, was well written and I found parts thrilling. The middle section, set during the war, I found formulaic. It had the fa├žade of being well written, nicely composed sentences and McEwan’s masterful vocabulary in all it’s glory, but the sentiment seemed false to me. It was borderline boring, but not too offensive. But then came the shocker; it’s third act actually appalled me. I’m loath to reveal what exactly angered me, but it’ll suffice to say it was a cruel twists deployed by McEwan that only served to further his cleverness. I doubt he did it purely as a show-off gesture, but that’s how it read to me. The twist completely undermines everything that has come before it and plain upset me. But rethinking about it now has me conflicted; I understand that this twist was integral in driving home the central theme of the book, but at the same time I felt cheated and misled. The characters were sacrificed in favour of lamenting the fate of the author, we’ll say.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

As you can probably tell, I've been messing around with the format and layout of this blog. I was unhappy with it before, but now I can't make up my mind whether this new style is better or worse. I like the Feist picture up the top but the wider format kind of freaks me out. On one level, it allows for better viewing of pictures (see my photos down a couple of places, you can see the full front of Shakespeare & Co. rather than just the snippet that the previous format allowed) but it also has the same impact a completely blank A4 page has when you have to write a poetry essay in half an hour and your mind's gone blank; how the fuck will I fill this space? And the grey background? I like it better than white, but... Would the Fug girls shake their heads in aghast derision? Would I make E! News? Answers on a postcard please.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Back to school, yadda yadda

In honour of my (very) immenint return to school, I present my favourite cinematic schooling moments.

Donnie Darko: Richard Kelly’s directorial debut was an ambitious sci-fi that shot Jake Gyllenhaal into superstardom and left thousands of teenagers scratching their heads wondering what it all meant, but it’s crowning achievment has to be the single slo-mo tracking shot through Donnie’s high school. We meet his friends, the teachers, the school bully (who appears to be snorting coke...) and Jake’s future love interest, all set to the oddly apt strains of Tears for Fears. It’s one of the most perfect scenes in recent film history, settling nicely into the niche between the bizarre time-travelling plot and the pure weirdness inherent in high school.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off: An odd choice, as Ferris doesn't spend a second in school during the course of the film, but it's one of the highschool films. Who hasn't spent a mind-numbing maths class dreaming of going on the mitch with Ferris, Cameron and Sloane? It's such a pity that Ferris chose to skip on that particular day, as here's a glimpse of what was going on during the economics class:

"In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the... Anyone? Anyone?... the Great Depression, passed the... Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act? Which, anyone? Raised or lowered?... raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects? It did not work, and the United States sank deeper into the Great Depression. Today we have a similar debate over this. Anyone know what this is? Class? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone seen this before? The Laffer Curve. Anyone know what this says? It says that at this point on the revenue curve, you will get exactly the same amount of revenue as at this point. This is very controversial. Does anyone know what Vice President Bush called this in 1980? Anyone? Something-d-o-o economics. "Voodoo" economics."

The Breakfast Club: It's a tough choice between this and Pretty In Pink for the mandatory John Hughes flick, but for pure iconic status, it's gotta be this one. For honing in on the accuracy, and the stupidity, of school stereotypes (the jock, the princess, the weirdo, the nerd and the drop-out) and for the line "Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?", you can't beat it.

Clueless: It's been over a decade since Cher and Dionne shopped, gossiped and match-maked their way through high school, and the Valley-Girl vernacular is ridiculously outdated, but Amy Heckerling's sharp update of Jane Austen's Emma is still as funny as ever. Some of the fashion choices are priceless and it's high time "Betty" and "Baldwin" were brought back as synonyms for good looking people! Or maybe not. But hey, if we're ever faced with a tough opponont in a debate, we have Cher to look to for inspiration.

Mean Girls: Probably the best high-school film ever made. Certainly the best movie Lindsay Lohan ever made. And, wait for it, my favourite comedy of all time.

"You got your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity jocks Unfriendly black hotties, Girls who eat their feelings, Girls who don't eat anything, Desperate wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually active band geeks..."

Sadly, "Fetch" ain't never going to happen.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Cansei de Ser Sexy

C.S.S. flip the trend of “all guys and one girl” that so many indie and rock bands have adhered to throughout the years, by being made up of lots of girls and one guy. This fact, along with the facts that (a) they are Brazilian and (b) they make really fun electro-pop-punk should make you want to listen to them.

There are a number of other reasons why you should like CSS. They are:

C.S.S. like music and pop-culture (“Music is my boyfriend!” they exclaim exuberantly). They want you to enjoy them as much as they enjoy, say, Death From Above 1979. They sometimes drink too much (“Alcohol”) and enjoy being rude to people (“This Month, Day 10”). Drunken buffoons, admitting their own mistakes and prancing around in sparkling leotards? What is this, the 70s? Nope; C.S.S. present their very own brand of joyous, humane disco-pop which has absolutely nothing to do with the en-vogue stylings of Snow Patrol et all. If their album seems to run out of steam towards it’s end, you can’t blame the band themselves. They’d probably be the first to admit it.

“Lets Make Love (And Listen to Death From Above)” is probably their most sophisticated song, but is nicely representative of their general sound. Funky guitar backed with electro beats, garbled English delivered in Lovefoxx’s curiously detached vocals, handclaps, a catchy chorus that grabs you in a headlock and demands you pay attention; this is the C.S.S. sound and woe unto those who attempt to ignore it. Those jaded enough to reel off the bands from whom C.S.S. are derivative of - Le Tigre’s type of female-fronted electro-pop, the way Lovefoxx’s voice sometimes strays in Poly Styrene territory (especially on the second track, “Patins”) - are missing the point; C.S.S. may wear their influences on their multi-coloured sleeves, but they are purely of their time. Indeed, we must look to LCD Soundsystem for a taste of their ironic pop references; witness their hilarious slagging of Paris Hilton, and the emergence of a new internet culture, without which it’s fair to say C.S.S. would have floundered into Brazilian obscurity. Within the blogosphere, a whole global community of disco-depraved indie kids can revel in the joys of Cansei de Ser Sexy.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Breach (2007) Billy Ray

In a year dominated by great female performances (think; Laura Linney in Jindabyne, Marion Cottillard in La Vie En Rose, Imelda Staunton in Harry Potter, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby) it is somewhat of a relief to finally see a male performance that could be worthy of an Oscar nod come February. Chris Cooper’s turn as real-life FBI agent Robert Hanssen in Breach could well be one of the year’s defining male performances, although this muted, intelligent thriller could slip under many people’s raders.

Everyone has their favourite niche genres, whether it’s biopics of doomed musicians or high school comedies. One of my own personal favourite genres would be the political thriller; the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate being a case in point. I had been an admirer of Bill Ray’s Shattered Glass ever since I saw it a few years ago and when I heard he was making another film based in reality, this time concentrating on the downfall of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, my interest was piqued. The cast list, when I saw it, only furthered my enthusiasm for this film; the excellent Chris Cooper, the aforementioned Linney plus a bit part for The West Wing’s nasty vice-president Gary Cole. There’s always a risk of being disappointed when you look forward to something, but Breach handles it’s subject with decorum and an unshowiness that betrays it’s sensational plotline. It’s smart, well-acted and emotionally involving; a welcome change from the candy-coloured assualt of the summer film season.

In 2001, FBI hopeful Eric O’ Neill was assigned to work alongside Hanssen in order to find out his secrets. At first, O’ Neill is only told that Hanssen is a sexual pervert and that his mission is to investigate any deviant activities in order to save the FBI from any potential embarrassment. As the weeks progress, O’ Neill (a surprisingly good portrayal by Ryan Phillipe) becomes fond of Hanssen and demands to know why he is supposed to be investigating him. Reluctantly, his supervisor, Agent Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney) explains the true reason; Hanssen has been working as a spy for Russia for years, divulging vital pieces of U.S. intelligence and authorising the killing of other agents. He is a traitor and a liar.

Cooper, who has made a living playing hardened men (American Beauty, The Bourne Supremacy, Jarhead) is the unbreakable core of the film. Hanssen is obviously an extremely complex man; a devout Christian who has no qualms about betraying his fellow country. At times he seems without morals, but then a small touching gesture he makes towards O’ Neill will flip your perception of him uncomfortably. We are clearly not supposed to empathise with him, he is cruel and perverted, a heartless liar, but Cooper gives such a lifelike potrait it is difficult not to feel some glimmer of sympathy. None of the other characters know what to make of him either. “His grandchildren do love him,” admits Agent Burroughs reluctantly. It isn’t a showy performance by any means, but you can hardly keep your eyes off him. He exudes quiet menance from our very first encounter with him and O’ Neill, understandably, is terrified. He is the scariest onscreen Boss since Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, except Anna Wintour never sold secrets to the Russians. At least as far as I’m aware…

The Bourne Ultimataum, which I also enjoyed, deals with roughly the same topics as Breach; CIA, espionage, secrets. But it’s hard to think of two such dissaparate films. While the Bourne films are a frenzy of jump-cuts and wobbly handheld cameras tracking impressive car-chases, Breach is a much quieter affair. The bulk of the action takes place in offices or apartments, there is no final showdown, no jolting cameras or frentic electronic scores. It is character based, dialogue based; and even the more chilling for it. The tension builds up slowly throughout the entire film, beautifully realised in muted greys and blues, until the inevitable end rolls into place with a saddening clunk. Breach is not an uplifting film, but nor is it a downer; it simply understands that people are complicated in what they do, in what they say and what they think.

“It doesn't really matter; the judgement of other men... I know what I've done.” - Robert Hanssen, Breach.