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Posts Tagged ‘Domhnall Gleeson’

Musings on The Death of Cinema, Part Three – well, hang on, before we really get properly stuck into Will Gluck’s CGI movie version of Peter Rabbit, perhaps a little more context is required. Beatrix Potter’s original tales of the adventures of woodland characters were amongst the very first stories that I was ever read, and as a result they retain a power to affect me on a deeply emotional level: my memories of them have a fondness and delicacy to them that I find it extremely difficult to articulate. Anyone tampering with the elemental stuff of my childhood is, in effect, jabbing a sharp stick down into my subconscious. I didn’t go and see either of the Paddington films for exactly this reason: I wasn’t sure I could cope with the upwelling of emotion even a good Paddington movie would inevitably produce. But at least the Paddington films did get universally good reviews. This is not true of Peter Rabbit.

So why in sanity’s name would I go near this film? Well, to bear witness, mainly; to stare down into the blackest pits of horror and debasement unblinkingly, so I can vent my spleen all over the internet with at least the semblance of an informed opinion. Plus someone asked me to, because he thought the ensuing review might be quite funny. I ask you.

Proper critics have said some quite peculiar and arguably silly things about Peter Rabbit: ‘not all bad, just very nearly’ is just one of the far too generous notices it has drawn. There have also been various references to Beatrix Potter herself ‘spinning in her grave’, when as any fule kno Miss Potter was cremated in December 1943. However, if the rocks and stones themselves of the Lake District were to rise up in violent revolt against this horrendous travesty, if the trees and waters and small furry creatures were to gather their strength and strike a terrible blow of vengeance against all the works of man – well, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

This is apparently ‘an irreverent, contemporary comedy with attitude’ – yes, think of Miss Potter’s famous The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the first three words that bound into your skull are ‘irreverent’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘attitude’, aren’t they? James Corden voices Peter Rabbit with all the heart-warming charm of a blocked drain, while Margot Robbie is Flopsy Rabbit and Daisy Ridley is Cottontail Rabbit. (Mrs Rabbit has been killed off, as she is obviously just not street enough for modern audiences.) The rabbits spend all their time sneaking into the vegetable patch of grumpy old Mr McGregor (Sam Neill).

The substance of the book is still just about visible off in the distance, but there now follows a sequence in which Peter Rabbit actively contemplates inserting a carrot into Mr McGregor’s rectum while the latter is chasing him about the garden. The exertions of the chase cause Mr McGregor to drop dead, however, before the deed can be done.

Yup, that’s right: this is a version of Peter Rabbit in which Peter Rabbit basically kills Mr McGregor. It makes that film version of Dad’s Army where Corporal Jones shoots someone in the head look like a triumph of authenticity. The film does squirm around on this point, though, claiming that McGregor’s ‘poor lifestyle choices’ were to blame, and including a throwaway gag about Asbestos poisoning. Ha! Ha! Asbestos poisoning! That’s so contemporary and irrelevent, not to mention hilarious!

Well, inheriting the house (and, of course, the vegetable patch) is Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), a virtually unhinged control-freak who used to work for Harrods (which appears to have financed the film, as it features the most blatant and extended product placement I’ve seen in any film since Power Rangers). Cue another attitude-heavy gag about McGregor drinking water out of the Harrods toilet bowls. Needless to say, McGregor hates the rabbits and their woodland friends, but he is quite taken with his nature-loving neighbour Bea (Rose Byrne, who does not receive her customary ‘sigh’ on this occasion).

Yup, once again you are ahead of me: Bea is, we are invited to infer, Beatrix Potter herself, but rather than a multi-talented artist, natural scientist and expert mycologist, in the movie she is presented as a hippy-dippy free spirit and slightly inept abstract painter. Young McGregor is much taken with her, and she with him, rather to the chagrin of Peter Rabbit. Can Peter Rabbit drive McGregor away? Can McGregor successfully woo Bea? Can Bea make the rabbits behave, and encourage McGregor to be a bit less retentive?

All this, plus rapping sparrows, a sight gag where Mrs Tiggy-Winkle walks repeatedly into an electric fence, and the already-notorious moment when the rabbits pelt McGregor with blackberries, which he is allergic to, causing him to go into anaphylactic shock and collapse. Ho ho ho! Anaphylactic shock! That’s just so contemporary!

Once again, the film tries to smarm its way around any potential taste issues here, as the whole blackberry scene is prefaced by a moment where Peter Rabbit basically turns to the camera and says ‘Allergies are a serious business, and we’re not making fun of sufferers, because we don’t want to get letters’. Before the film proceeds to make fun of sufferers and do the whole comedy-anaphylactic-shock routine.

Just how bad is Peter Rabbit? Well, for once, words fail me. I have to resort to the following picture, which basically depicts the expression on my face for most of this movie:

In short, it is horrendously, almost indescribably bad, assuming you come to it from the point of view of someone wanting a movie with even the barest resemblance to Beatrix Potter’s charming, gentle stories.

It’s not even as if the guilty parties can claim ignorance, for the tiny sliver of the film which is actually pleasant to watch is a fully-animated flashback, done in the style of the book’s original illustrations, depicting the happier days of the rabbit family. It completely gets the sweetness and subtlety of the original tales, which just makes the ghastliness of the rest of the movie all the more reprehensible: they could have done a whole movie like that. They chose otherwise. They have no defence.

This is almost the Platonic ideal of a well-known property being wrenched violently out of shape simply in order to exploit its name-recognition factor. In places this almost resembles a mean-spirited parody of Beatrix Potter, with her stories subverted by the inclusion of a knowing, desperately self-aware sense of humour. Is the whole thing supposed to be ironic on some level? I’m not sure. The closing section certainly seems to be having some fun at the expense of grisly and formulaic Richard Curtis-style rom-coms. Fair enough; there’s fun to be had there. But don’t do it if it means doing this kind of violence to poor little Peter Rabbit.

Normally I could find the generosity to suggest that this film has a certain level of technical competence, and the performances of the two leads are serviceable enough. But not in this case. This is a knowing, premeditated violation of an innocent children’s classic, a wilful, unconscionable cash-grab (and before you say anything, I used my free ticket card to get in to see it, so my conscience is clear) of such mercenary awfulness it is almost impossible to watch without despair swallowing your soul. The success of the Paddington films means more horrors of this ilk are almost inevitable, I fear. The one faint glimmer of hope I can offer is that there were only five people at the screening I went to, and none of them were from the target demographic for this film. So there is at least a chance it is dying on its cotton-tailed arse. It deserves to; it honestly deserves to. Not so much a work of art as a sin against nature.

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It must be that time of year again, for there seems to be a conspiracy at work to make me feel stupid and/or lacking in true gravitas. It’s becoming very nearly an annual thing, as I say, and always just as awards season is kicking off in earnest: the great and the good announce their lists of contenders and nominees for the big prizes, I duly go along to check out some of the most lauded films, and emerge, bemused, a couple of hours later, honestly not entirely sure quite what the fuss is about.

This is, admittedly, a slightly negative note upon which to start a review, but then it seems somewhat in keeping with the general tone of Alejandro G Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is one of most thorough-goingly bleak and uncompromising films I’ve seen in a long while.

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You want to hear about the story? Well, frankly, it strikes me as a rather secondary element of the film, but here we go: in 1823, a party of trappers in a remote North American wilderness find themselves under relentless attack by a war party of the local Ree Native American tribe. A handful of the men manage to escape the slaughter, due in no small part to the expertise of their guide and scout, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man well-versed in the ways of the locals (he even has a half-native son to prove it).

However, as the group struggles back to their base, disaster strikes when Glass is attacked and savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, leaving him close to death. The leader of the group, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), refuses to leave Glass to die alone, and eventually agrees to pay a few of the men to stay with him and do what’s necessary. Taking him up on this offer is the slightly unhinged Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy at his Tom Hardiest), who, with respect to the whole stay with Glass – wait till he dies – bury him plan, is quite prepared to skip the middle step…

But Fitzgerald has reckoned without Glass’ almost inhuman will to survive, and the guide crawls out of his grave and slowly begins to recuperate, intent on getting his revenge on Fitzgerald. But there are many miles of frozen wilderness, filled with hostile Ree, between Glass and his objective, and Fitzgerald is not a man to take lightly…

Well, it sounds like the stuff of a fairly traditional action-adventure story, with a lot of western trappings, and I suppose to some extent it is: there are lots of shootings, stabbings, and various fights during the film’s very considerable running time. But it never really feels like an actual action-adventure, and probably even less like a western. It’s just a bit too relentlessly bleak and horrible for that.

I was browsing around the blog last night, seeing what I’d written about other problematic Oscar nominees in the past, and I came across what I said about 12 Years a Slave. Many of the things I said then definitely rang a bell with what was going through my mind about The Revenant – ‘a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery’, ‘a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish’, and ‘almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value’.
Well, I should make it very clear that I don’t think The Revenant is a bad film; by any objective standard, this is a film made with enormous skill and thoughtfulness. There are very few moments of it which are not strikingly beautiful to look at, and – while not as tricksy as the single-take shenanigans of Birdman – Inarritu engages in some bravura camerawork at key moments in the story.

But at the same time I can’t help wondering if there is less going on here than meets the eye. On one level, this is a simple story about a man who simply refuses to die until he’s carried out his self-appointed mission, and what such a man is capable of (I wasn’t surprised to see that DiCaprio has said this is one of the toughest films he’s ever done, nor that he had five stunt doubles – I imagine the first four died mid-shoot). But on another level… well, that’s the thing, if there is another level I don’t really see what it is. It’s just buried a bit too deeply.

It doesn’t really help that much of the peripheral plot feels a bit murky, too – the fact that a lot of the dialogue, Tom Hardy’s in particular, is delivered in such a thick accent as to be utterly unintelligible, is probably responsible for some of this. But there are subplots whose connection to the main story seem either unarticulated or entirely arbitrary – a party of Ree wander through the film, searching for a kidnapped young woman. They play a key role in the resolution of the climax but I’ve no idea why things play out in the way they do, based on what I saw in the rest of the film.

Another relevant line from the 12 Years piece is ‘this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point’, and this time around it’s the treatment of native Americans that the film has something to say about. It is, as you would expect, a very revisionist western (to the extent it’s a western at all), and while the Ree may carry out atrocities against the European characters, it’s made very clear that they are ultimately victims rather than aggressors.

As I said, this is a serious film, and a well-made and good-looking one. I’m not completely sure if the performances are actually as good as all that, but I suppose the willingness of the performers to suffer for their art, not to mention their services to the growing of luxuriant beards, demand some sort of recognition. And I know the Academy likes serious films, and historical films (especially ones about American history). But 12 Oscar nominations? Really? That’s more than The Godfather, West Side Story, or Lawrence of Arabia, and The Revenant isn’t in the same league as any of them.

I think it’s probably just a case of momentum, that this film is the work of a bunch of people whom the Academy, on some subliminal level, is aware it really likes and feels like it should be nominating on a regular basis – Inarritu, obviously, following his success last year, and also DiCaprio – who’s almost become one of those people whose lack of an Oscar colours how they are perceived. Maybe even Tom Hardy has also joined this club, he’s certainly done good enough work in plenty of high-profile films recently.

The Academy is ultimately a political body with its own little quirks and fixations and I think it’s this that explains why The Revenant has done quite so well in terms of racking up the gong nominations this year. I will say again that it’s not a bad film, though neither will it suffuse you with joy and good humour: it is very heavy going. On the whole, much easier to admire than to actually like or enjoy.

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When you’ve written one inarguably brilliant novel (I refer to The Beach) and had a hand in making one of the most influential movies of the last 15 years (that would be 28 Days Later), I think you’ve earned the right to have anything else you produce treated with at least a modicum of interest and anticipation. So it was that I and a few friends found ourselves trotting off to see Ex Machina, a new SF movie written and directed by Alex Garland (also responsible for… well, see the start of the paragraph).

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Arriving at the cinema I found myself treated to a surprise cameo, not in the film itself but in the theatre, for who should be sitting across the aisle to us but my very slight acquaintance and one-time commenter on this blog, Mr Peter Hitchens (the writer, Mail on Sunday columnist, Right Wing thinker, and compiler of amusing indices). I know some people are surprised by my regard and fondness for Mr H, given our politics are – to put it mildly – somewhat divergent, but I have great respect for his intellect and integrity. Plus, anyone whom David Cameron thinks is ‘a maniac’ must be doing something right.

Trying not to let Mr H’s presence distract me too much, I settled down to watch the film. It concerns Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young employee of a major corporation who wins the staff lottery, for which the prize is to visit the head of the company at his remote, futuristic compound. Said boss is Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), and – having compelled Caleb to sign a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement – he reveals what he’s been working on.

Not only has Nathan seemingly solved the numerous problems of designing convincingly humanoid robots, he has also cracked the knotty issue of strong AI – probably. The thing is, he can’t be sure whether his creation is genuinely sentient or not, and to this end wants Caleb to interact with the construct and see if he is convinced of her sentience. For, yes, it is a she: the android (or should that be gynoid? Hmmm) is named Ava and played by Alicia Vikander (Ava looks rather like Robocop’s half-finished little sister).

Suffice to say that Caleb finds himself much taken with Ava, and increasingly sympathetic to her plight as – apparently – nothing but a very complex toy in the hands of the increasingly sinister and objectionable Nathan. But can he really trust either of them? And is everything going on quite what it seems to be?

One of the things propelling me to see Ex Machina was the glowing reviews it received from other acquaintances, and the first thing I have to say is that this is absolutely not a bad film. Though it clearly shows the influences of a number of other prominent SF films (others have suggested it is similar to both Westworld and I, Robot), it wears these quite lightly, and while it some degree resembles the ‘cerebral’ type of SF movie most frequently made between 1968 and 1977, the narrative is never cumbersome or especially difficult to follow. (Perhaps just as well, given I was uncomfortably aware of buzzes and flashes coming from the smartphone of one of Britain’s most prominent Right Wing commentators at several points during the film.)

As I’m sure many people are sick of being reminded, artificial intelligence is one of the few serious subjects on which I feel qualified to offer an opinion, having written a dissertation on it, and as a serious examination of the topic I think Ex Machina is only a qualified success at best. Garland has clearly done his research on the topic, with name-checks for thought-experiments like the black-and-white room and talk of the importance of invested semantics and so on, so it certainly sounds competent. On the other hand, many references are made to the Turing test, with Caleb’s encounters with Ava described as being an extended version of one – but I’m afraid this seemed to me to be so methodologically unsound I was instantly sceptical (his knowing she is a machine all along essentially invalidates the test per se, to say nothing of the Turing test being somewhat discredited as genuine assessment of AI anyway). As it turns out, the fact that this isn’t a ‘proper’ Turing test turns out to be central to the plot, with Nathan fully aware of its shortcomings – but it doesn’t explain why Caleb isn’t more dubious of what he’s participating in. Oh well: to err is human (which does seem to be one of the film’s themes).

In any case, the film is clearly intended to function as a fable rather than a naturalistic drama, although quite what it’s about is not entirely clear. There is a time-honoured tradition of any story about AI or robotics concluding with what Isaac Asimov used to refer to as the clank-clank-aaargh stage, but it would obviously be spoiling the story for me to reveal if Ex Machina also goes in this direction. For most of its duration it seems to be addressing many of the issues involved in the development of strong AI only in passing – if we did build a sentient machine, what moral right would we have to effectively hold it in slavery? – and it seemed to me that the film was rather more concerned not with human-machine relations but how people treat each other, and specifically the way in which men objectify women. It’s not by chance that Nathan’s AI has female form. It’s an interesting approach to the issue, but again what the film is trying to say beyond the obvious is unclear (and if Alex Garland really is serious about criticising male objectification of women, making a film in which every major female character has a full-frontal nude scene is a slightly odd way of doing so).

Nevertheless, Garland’s direction is assured and the film looks very impressive throughout: the visuals have a pristine coolness that matches the measured tone of proceeding. Every shot feels like it has been very carefully worked out and made as immaculate as possible. The problem with this, however, is that the visuals sometimes dominate and render the story itself somewhat inscrutable. This is problematic when what the film is trying to say is open to several interpretations, most of which are mutually exclusive. Is it suggesting that machine intelligence will essentially prove to be cold and unknowable, something inherently alien and perhaps hostile? Or is it trying to indicate quite the opposite, that our machine creations will only be flawed and dangerous inasmuch as they resemble us so closely? It’s not that the film is deliberately ambiguous on this, but more that it doesn’t really suggest it has any real position at all.

At the risk of stealing the Mail on Sunday’s thunder (and there are some words I never thought I’d type), I can reveal that Mr Hitchens found the film to be generally enjoyable, although he thought it descended into absurdity in the last five minutes. Well, I had less of a problem with that than he did, and I was pleasantly surprised, during our brief chat, to discover his familiarity with 70s SF touchstones – I had to remind myself he really doesn’t know me and restrain my indignation at the suggestion I might not have seen Westworld myself (Mr H, should you be reading, the link to the review is up the page). (Despite his good-natured grumbling about being asked for instant film criticism, I thought he had a decent crack at it.)

On the whole I thought this was a superior SF movie and a very impressive debut from Garland. This may not be the only low-budget, highbrow genre movie we see this year starring Isaacs and Gleeson (NB: irony is present), but it may well prove the most interesting. Still, it’s not perfect – it bears a certain resemblance to an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, just one slightly less impressive than most. If that sounds like damnation by faint praise, it really isn’t meant to: this is a good film, just not quite a great one.

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A little-known revelation from the annals of archaeology is the fact that an American tobacco beetle has been discovered buried in volcanic ash on a Bronze Age site in Crete. The implications of this are startling, and for a long time I could only begin to imagine the impact this must have had on professionals and historians – everything they understood about how early civilisation functioned must have been shaken to the core. It must have been shocking and unsettling, almost impossible to believe. Now, though, I can empathise with them much more easily, for I had a similar reaction to the news that they were making a movie about Frank Sidebottom.

Frank Sidebottom? A movie about Frank Sidebottom? Even now I can barely assimilate the words, and this is after having seen Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, the film in question. For anyone not familiar with Frank Sidebottom – which I suspect is a sizable majority in any sane gathering – he was a cult figure on the music and comedy scenes, primarily in the Greater Manchester area, and mainly in the 1980s and 1990s. He was instantly identifiable, due to making all his public appearances wearing an oversized fibreglass head: one of those people you instantly recognise as either a one-off comedic genius, or as a slightly creepy and annoying pest.

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Given this, you could have probably have cast virtually anyone as Frank in this movie: but they have managed the surprising (not to mention baffling) coup of luring Michael Fassbender into occupying the fake cranium in question. For all that, Fassbender gets the ‘and’ credit in this film; top billing goes to Scoot McNairy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Domhnall Gleeson (enjoying one last flush of indie credibility now he’s been cast in Star Wars: Episode JJ).

Gleeson plays Jon, an earnest young English singer-songwriter who does not let a little thing like lack of talent impede his pursuit of his dreams. Then, a chance encounter with a touring American band gives him a remarkable opportunity: when their keyboard player is sectioned, he is invited, first to fill in on a gig, and then to assist them in recording their first album. On the team are manager Don (McNairy), psychotically aggressive theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and, at the heart of it all, the charismatic, enigmatic, inspirational figure of Frank himself…

Well, as you can perhaps see, this is not really a biography of Frank Sidebottom (nor indeed the man behind the head, Chris Sievey): all the characters are fictional, there’s no mention of Timperley, the name ‘Sidebottom’ is never used, and Fassbender opts to play Frank with a midwestern drawl rather than a nasal Mancunian whine (on reflection we should perhaps be grateful for this last). So in a sense this is not the movie it first appears to be, for all that Sievey gave his blessing to the project prior to his death in 2010.

This is perhaps a little surprising, as the script has been co-written by Jon Ronson, best known as a journalist and screenwriter these days, but a one-time member of the Frank Sidebottom Oh Blimey Big Band. On the other hand, as I believe I have intimated, the potential audience for an actual Sidebottom movie would be very limited. This is something more accessible and thematic, about wanting to unlock your creativity and really communicate with other people: it just happens to use the idea of a man in a Frank Sidebottom head as its central image.

And for the most part it is very successful. In some ways this slightly resembles This Must Be The Place, being an off-beat globetrotting comedy-drama with a vague musical theme, but the comedy here is broader and the tone less consistent. The story is, let’s be honest, not remotely plausible, but the deadpan absurdity of the whole enterprise is actually rather winning. Gleeson is convincing and likeable as a character who could easily have been slightly annoying, while Fassbender reveals an unexpected talent for physical comedy (as well as for acting inside a big fake head). For the first two acts this is a funny, if somewhat ridiculous deadpan black comedy.

Not sure about the third act, however, in which the band head to the SXSW festival in Texas, only to be confronted by their own frailties and personal problems. The tone here abruptly turns much darker and more serious, and I’m not sure it’s a switch the film successfully achieves. The conclusion is also not entirely satisfying.

But, on the whole, this is not enough to spoil the movie, which is well-made and engaging throughout. It has useful things to say, weirdly enough, about the nature of the creative process and the various coping mechanisms people use to deal with life. It also reminds us that, for some people, madness can be the thing that keeps them sane. In the end it abstracts the idea of Frank Sidebottom and uses him as a metaphor for the figurative masks many people wear when facing the world – also, perhaps, that it is sometimes easier to be an icon than a human being. I’m not sure what dedicated Sidebottom fans will make of Frank – no doubt cries of ‘Heresy!’ will be echoing around Altrincham – but for everyone else this is a likeable and entertaining, if somewhat flawed movie.

 

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