Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Drag Me to Hell

Just one of those days - Drag Me to Hell

It happens all the time. You're having a bad day, when to top it off, you get on the wrong side of an old gypsy woman. She curses you and what do you know, next thing you're seeing demons. Worse, in three days time one of them's going to drag you down to Hell. Hell, I've been there three times this month!

Firstly let's just put things in context. Sam Raimi has long been regarded as a horror maestro principally on the basis of his 'Evil Dead' trilogy. Common wisdom goes that the first 'Evil Dead' was an out-and-out horror, a video nasty of the time, while 'Evil Dead II' was a remake played for laughs. I tend to disagree. I laughed throughout the first film (excepting one obvious scene involving a tree, a scene I still regard as in very, very questionable taste), though not so much as during the sequel. Much has been made of his love of the Three Stooges and it's true that you cannot watch pretty much any of his movies without some reference to their particularly violent brand of slapstick cropping up (even 'A Simple Plan' probably has something somewhere). The 'Evil Dead' films are riddled with it. For me then Raimi is NOT a great horror director, but someone who has a talent for a peculiar form of black comedy.

After the debacle of 'Spiderman III', Raimi's new film, 'Drag Me To Hell', has been hailed as a mean, lean return to form. The script is credited to Sam and brother Ivan, but that for me does not necessarily bode well. Whatever about his direction, screenwriting is not Sam's forte, and judging by 'Spiderman III', it's not Ivan's greatest strength either. What's more, that double credit hides that fact that it's pretty much a steal of Jacques Tourneur's classic, 'Night of the Demon', itself an adaptation of M.R. James's 'Casting the Runes'. It even 'borrows' Tourneur's final train station scene.

Reference, reference, reference! For the critics, it's really all about references, all to Raimi's back catalogue and, via that, to much of Hollywood's B-movie history. I mean the plot hinges around an old gypsy woman for crying out loud! How many Universal horror flicks does that cover? ('The Wolf Man', 'House of Dracula', to name but two.) In essence Raimi goes back to all the old tricks that made the 'Evil dead' series so exhuberant, with Alison Lohman standing in for Bruce Campbell as the terrorised Laurel to the demons' Hardy. We get white-eyed cackling hag demons, popping eyeballs, floating (not to mention dancing) possessed monsters, projectile vomit (and maggots) and all the other demonic tricks. However, lest we forget the slapstick origins of all this (silly) gore, we also get falling anvils, sacrificed kittens and the deliriously entertaining spectacle of a woman attempting to gum someone to death. I laughed out loud more than once. Raimi uses familiar camera tricks too, like Demon-cam or the background fade so common in 'Spiderman' and 'Darkman'. As to scares though, it's really all about loud noises and boo-type shocks. Raimi's is an "I'll huff and I'll puff" approach, a blustering technique signalled from the outset with EC Comics style graphics and a wildly over-the-top score by Christopher Young.

What I'm building up to here is that 'Drag Me to Hell' is in no way original and about as scary as 'Abbott and Costello meet the Wolfman'. It's also very enjoyable in an adolescent way. Certainly the audience I was with were primed for jumping and jumped a lot. Who cares that Raimi is doing absolutely nothing new or that his gothic trappings and foul-mouthed creatures belong more in Eddie Murphy's Disney vehicle, 'The Haunted Mansion', than a grown-up movie (like 'Let the Right One In', for instance). If it weren't for the popping eyeballs and spewed maggots, Raimi might be making a family movie like, eh, 'Spiderman'.

On the way out of the cinema a girl behind me made an astute observation: "There were no surprises, but then sometimes a movie doesn't have to have any surprises." Nicely put.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Star Trek

I have to admit it, I was not really bothered about seeing the 'new' 'Star Trek'. Still one must boldly go and all that malarkey....
You all know the drill, it's a genesis story about how Kirk, Spock and the others got to be who they are. With one small twist. The makers have to somehow scrap everything that's gone before (while remaining faithful to it; can't discommode the trekkies!) and create a new money-spinning franchise. I hate that idea, but inasmuch as that was the agenda, they achieve it with flying colours. The cast are all fine (even Karl Urban as Bones), each displaying a mannerism or two from their originals just so we know who we're dealing with. The story is probably as weak as any of the plots used in the previous Star Trek movies (the villain is a miner; hey, anyone see 'Supernova'. Coincidence No. 555,569,446.), but it allows enough set pieces to be strung together to entertain us. And they do. Silly though it all is it achieves the commercial aim logically (Captain), by giving us the characters but putting them all on a new starting block. I could be wrong, but doesn't the story kind of negate EVERY bit of Star Trek that has gone before? If you read my previous post on 'Timecrimes' you'll know they take the first (or second) approach to time anomalies; going back in time alters the course of history and effectively creates an alternate reality. So either all that has gone before is wiped clean (no more tribbles), or the crew we are now dealing with are an alternate crew in an alternate universe (the J.J. Abrams universe).
Anyhow expect a lot more in the Star Trek series.

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I Vampiri

'I Vampiri' (The Vampires) is a 50s Italian horror movie set in Paris. Young women are turning up drained of blood, but with no visible injuries. Is there a vampire at work? Or something even more sinister. A young journalist tries to find out and in the process save his pretty girlfriend.
Riccardo Freda's 'I Vampiri' is one of those influential 50s horror movies that pops up in film histories a lot (like 'Eyes Without a Face' or 'The Quatermass Experiment'). It paradoxically mixes themes of futuristic medical science going bad and ancient regimes feeding off the present in a story that owes much to the tale of Erzebet Bathory (see this inuit panda scarlet carwash: Film: "Countess Dracula" for more on her). It helps too that legendary horror maestro Mario Bava was cinematographer.
Freda's movie anticipates much that made Hammer films seem fresh and so presses many of the critics buttons. It's probably no accident that in an Italian film, the villain is a Duchess (kind of like Il Duce), but the villains of the piece (and though there is only one 'real' vampire, note the plural in the title) are a class, not simply people. They represent an aristocracy that still survives and wields power over a poorer population, feeding on that society's young, not just to survive, but to stay powerful.
In the end though 'I Vampiri' owes as much to the mad scientist movies of the thirties and forties as it does to any forward-looking vision. Although a vibrant Paris features throughout the movie, these aristocrats still live in a castle that would not be out of place in a Universal vision of Transylvannia. The medical theories of the Professor, who restores the Duchess's youth with blood transfusions, are laughably naive (at one point the Duchess develops 'left-handedness' from the blood of one of her victims).
It's silly stuff, but undeniably good-looking. The sets are wonderfully gothic and somehow Bava lends a dreamy quality to it all that lifts it out of the ordinary (you see that look in later Bava work such as 'The Mask of Satan' or 'Lisa and the Devil'). Old though this is (1956), the transformation of the villain from old to young woman and back again is excellently achieved (though it is a simple lighting trick used originally in Mamoulian's 'Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde', 25 years earlier). All pluses, and ones that help us forget the melodramatics of the story. Still I was expecting something of the calibre of 'Eyes without a Face' and this is not it.

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A big sci-fi flick with a half decent cast (James Spader, Angela Bassett), 'Supernova' was directed by Walter Hill with assistance from Francis Ford Coppola (and, and this should have been the clue, Jack Sholder). In the end everyone took their name off it (it's credited to a 'Thomas Lee'). It bombed.
For the record, in the distant future an emergency rescue ship responds to a mayday call from a rogue mining moon, and picks up a lone survivor with a mysterious alien artefact. Naturally this survivor is not all he seems to be, and bad things happen.
I've always been a little curious about this, given the directors involved, and so thought I'd give it a go today. I cannot quite understand how Hill, Coppola, or indeed any of the film's talent, became attached to it. There is absolutely nothing original about it. The effects are functional, but unremarkable (no real use of the titular supernova). Spader does steely well, but seems to have forgotten all other emotions. No one else is much better, including a surly Angela Bassett. Despite the money thrown at it, it still looks like a rock video (constant camera tilting, smoke everywhere) and nowhere does it seem like a real director is at work. And then there's the story! It throws in every sci-fi trope it can think of (futuristic drugs, hyperdrive mutations, buried alien artefacts, Government controlled procreation, genetic modification, Sleeper-like robots, it's all here), and just manages to seem jaded. (It even uses the plot of 'Dead Calm' at one point.)
Not worth it, even if you want to see what happened to Hill after '48 Hours', 'The Long Riders', 'Southern Comfort', etc..

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My Name is Bruce

My Name is Bruce
My Name is Bruce - The Chin Strikes Back!

..and 'My Name is Bruce' is not entirely ridiculous).
Coincidence No. 555,569,445:
The same day on which I see Charlie Kaufmann put a thinly veiled version of himself up onscreen in a movie he directs, I also see Bruce Campbell playing himself, or a caricature of himself, onscreen in a movie he also directs.
'My Name is Bruce' - or 'Army of Darkness meets Three Amigos' - uses that well worn cliche of the actor being mistaken for a hero. As per usual, some teenagers accidently unleash a Chinese demon, God of War and Protector of Bean Curd, Quan Di. Before the population of Gold Lick are decimated, the locals recruit (kidnap) a washed up Bruce Campbell (he lives in a trailer and drinks whiskey from his dog's water bowl) to defeat the creature. Just like Ash in 'Army of Darkness', and countless other Campbell Bs, our hero is vain, obnoxious and cowardly, but ultimately comes good in tackling the monster.
This not Campbell's directorial debut, though you might be forgiven for thinking that. Surprisingly, given his frequent collaborations with hyperkinetic Sam Raimi, it's flat and unimaginative visually. He seems to have learnt little from his friend. Nevertheless he manages to tell this overly familiar tale amiably enough. Even more surprising is how cardboard his acting performance is. No one could ever accuse Campbell of being subtle, but his gurning is usually done with a healthy self-conscious wink (and he was genuinely affecting as Elvis in 'Bubba Hotep'). Here, where he is supposedly playing himself, he really does seem bad.
Things do improve as the movie progresses, but it all seems every bit as low budget as it no doubt is. There is also a strain of humour at the Chinese community's expense that left a bad taste in my mouth. Ted Raimi (brother of Sam) plays (very broadly) three separate characters in the movie; a slimey agent, an Italian painter and Wing, the last descendent of the Chinese miners whose accidental death in a mining accident drives the plot. Yes, the smalltown racism of pioneering America is satirised (the death of 100 Chinese miners gets a small piece in a local newspaper dominated by the birth of a two-headed foal), but Raimi's turn is straight out of Vaudeville.
It all passes the time, but for those expecting a fourth installment in the Evil Dead series, this sorely disappoints.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

Go on, pronounce it, I dare ya!

If ever there was proof that Charlie Kaufman doesn't care for commercialism, look at that title! I swear when I was getting my ticket, two people in the queue behind me were debating whether or not to go to it simply because they couldn't pronounce the word 'synecdoche'. Well, I'm not too proud; I couldn't pronounce it either, which is why the publicity department have helpfully printed the phonetic pronunciation on the poster (sin-NECK-doh-kee, I think). Unfortunate as all the other variations I was coming up with sounded far more graceful. (Once upon a time I did know the correct pronunciation, but, like Kafka, it doesn't turn up in the conversations I tend to have these days, and such knowledge becomes lost without practice.) I wasn't going to miss this though. I've been waiting for it for a long time and it has taken its time to get here. So I practised and managed to get the word out. The cashier, however, asked 'Which one?' She meant which showing (well, obviously the next one, dumbass!), but I thought she was just getting a sadistic thrill. I smiled broadly and said it again. There, you cheeky vixen!
Was my ordeal worth it? Yes, though I am conscious I will be on one side of a very divided general opinion.
In 'Synecdoche, New York', Philip Seymour Hoffmann plays theatre director, Caden Cotard, a man falling apart in every aspect of his life except his profession. When he wins a fellowship providing him with unlimited funds to create a dramatic work of art, he develops an ambitious project to make a drama of his own life. This provides the gimmick we are all meant to go to the film to see, because this is an ongoing piece of drama, almost simulataneous to his life. It involves creating a simulacrum of New York in an airplane hangar and casting actors to play not only him and those around him, but the people playing them in a Russian doll type scenario that quickly gets out of control. None of this should be taken too literally (as if you could), but instead plays like 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' where the 'stage' represents the surreal setting that Jim Carrey's mind played in the last movie. Anything goes and does.
This is Kaufman's directorial debut and, though slightly rough around the edges at times, is a coherent vision that continually impresses. (I had seen a Bruce Campbell directed movie, 'My Name is Bruce', earlier today, so I know what an industry player out of their principal element is capable of.) There are a lot of strange things happening and a lot of changes in chronology, so to keep it reasonably sensible is some achievement.
The script has comedic elements, but this is dark stuff, dark in a profound way. Yes, Kaufman is resolutely downbeat, and the constant intimations of mortality are not going to win the film any friends from the Bebo set, but this is vital material. Instead of just mouthing the usual platitudes about life being nasty, brutish and short; or how we should marvel at that one life we live sandwiched between stretches of oblivion; or how we are all fundamentally similar in our dreams, fears and desires yet are doomed to loneliness; instead of these and other truths being merely said, Kaufman dramatises them much as his protagonist does. We feel their truth amidst the chaos of the story. And somehow we do not want to slit our wrists after encountering that truth.
That is not to say the film is flawless; very far from that. When a writer investigates himself this obsessively and this publicly you sometimes want to take him by the shoulders and shake him. (Ironically that's exactly what he has a character do when he pushes Dianne Wiest's character to the foreground.) The constant repetition central to the primary conceit also becomes a little repetitious. Ultimately though the ideas it deals with are so central to us all, that it's hard not to respect the power of the film.
From the sublime to the ridiculous (though 'Synecdoche, New York' is not quite sublime and...

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Coincidence No. 555,569,444

Last night in the pub one of the rookies professed ignorance of Kafka. Not sure how Kafka came up, but he doesn't come up too often in the conversations I get to have these days. Probably more likely to turn up in a Charlie Kaufman film, I'll admit, but hadn't done up until 'Synecdoche, New York' which I saw today and which had a character (Samantha Morton) profess ignorance of 'The Trial'. Kind of like the two days 'Cannibal Holocaust' came up in two separate conversations without any prompting from me (I swear). Now what are the chances?


Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Timecrimes - You know how it is, you fall into crime and just can't get out of the loop....

Ah, the problems of time travel!
With a plotline not far distant from American movies 'Retroactive', '12 Monkeys' and especially 'Primer', 'Timecrimes' is a low-budget Spanish movie dealing with the perils of time paradoxes. You know what, I mean, the kind of scenario that asks if you went back in time to kill your father before you were born, well, how can you? In this case backwards travel leads to the uncomfortable idea of a replicating hero. In order to get back his life (and cancel out the multiple versions of himself time travel has generated), an ordinary Joe is forced into some extraordinary, and increasingly unpalatable, 'crimes'. It sounds familiar, and it is, but somehow it's all done with flair, emotion and enough originality to make it stand out. It's also deceptively nasty.
There are many ways of pursuing the concept of time travel. One would have us believe that to change the past in any way will have unforeseen consequences that will destroy the present, or rather create another present (eg. the 'Back to the Future' movies). Sometimes this present is regarded as being in an alternative universe, where time travel is more a change in universe than time. Another theory, and one used far more often than you might think, is that any time travel to the past really has no effect on the present as what we do in the past has already happened. Ultimately this is the approach films such as 'The Terminator' or '12 Monkeys' take. Without giving the game away, 'Timecrimes', has its hero operate on the basis of one theory, while bringing about another. It is clever and, for what is to my mind an effective, if very dark, black comedy, surprisingly philosophical and touching in its approach.
It's also nicely acted especially by Karra Elejalde who spends at least a third of the movie saddled with some extra baggage. Director Nacho Vigalondo also features playing the unwitting instigator of the whole time mess, and shows more restraint than Frank Whaley who had a similar role in 'Retroactive'. Vigalondo is aware of his cinema heritage and throws in some nice references to Golden Age Universal horror movies (The Invisible Man, the Mummy, the Hunchback) and top rank Hitchcock ('Vertigo'). (The more I think of it, the figure in the pink bandages is as potent an image as any thrown up by modern horror; Darkman with a touch of colour.) It's the kind of thing that pushes my buttons, so you can hardly be surprised if I was won over by the whole thing.
So let me just repeat that: 'Timecrimes' is well worth the viewing. And this is something Hollywood apparently agrees with having snapped up the remake rights. It is easy to guess how it will alter the movie too (black comedy does not generate much American gold), and those changes might reflect very broadly the stereotypical difference between American and European cinema. However, a cursory search brought up the interesting rumour that David Cronenberg, of all people, is being seriously talked about for the director's job, Bruce Willis and Kurt Russell are being touted as possible leads, while Steven Zaillian and Timothy Sexton ('Children of Men') are being considered for the screenplay. I hate remakes, but Cronenberg isn't the kind of filmmaker to pass up the opportunity to do 'dark'. You never know, in a twisted Frankensteinian way it might work. Still I'm a realist and even the great Terry Gilliam with '12 Monkeys' did not improve on Chris Marker's French original, 'La Jetee'. So catch 'Timecrimes' in its current Spanish state before Hollywood goes back and changes it all completely.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fianna Fail - A Little Party for Little People

I know it's hard to see. Look for yourself when you get a chance and you'll see it's still hard to see.

While at a party last Saturday, someone brought my attention to the current crop of election posters. 'Notice anything about the Fianna Fail posters?' he asked. I hadn't, but asked him to explain. Apparently all Fianna Fail candidates are so ashamed of their party that the 'Fianna Fail' on each poster is almost too small to read. I thought this a very cynical manouveur on the part of our governing party, but I took his word for it, promising myself that I would investigate. Sure enough, he was right. I couldn't resist sallying forth into traffic to get up close and personal with some posters in the centre aisle, snapping on my phone. Take a look at Eoin Ryan's poster above and see how prominent his party persuasion is in comparison with Gay Mitchell (apologies for the quality; it is very poor being late evening with the sun behind). Any other Fianna Fail candidate I have seen also favours this 'less is more' approach. Perhaps everyone has already commented on this and I am playing catch up, but it strikes me as cynical, cowardly and laughable.
As I walked away from my middle of the road (physically speaking) photographic session, who should be walking towards me only Wee Willie O'Dea, he of the Little People. True to the posters, he too had his head low to the ground, I mean lowered to the ground, avoiding eye contact from all and sundry. I thought of accosting him, wondering if perhaps he might accost me in response, but when I looked around he had disappeared, as if to Fairy Land.
Let's hope they get thrashed.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Food Fights

A long and involved day left me feeling like I deserved a bento box. And I did. Savouring my accompanying pint of lager perhaps a little too much, I managed to splatter myself with several brown sauces (soy, plum, etc.). Looking at my shirt front I blushed momentarily with shame, but then I reconsidered. Saying 'To hell with it' (or words less couth to that effect), I threw scorn at the other customers and continued to spray myself with food. I felt much better afterwards.

At Freddie's

Just finished Fitzgerald's "At Freddie's". How something apparently so shallow can hide so many depths is beyond me. Set in 1963, it deals with the to-ings and fro-ings of a dramatic school for children, the Temple, presided over by the monumental Miss Wentworth, 'Freddie'. Those to-ings and fro-ings are the stuff of magic.
Where to start with that magic! Her characters, though almost always eccentric, are never grotesque, each hearted with an authentic human soul. Situating them in a perfectly believable world helps immeasurably, and you can practically smell the greasepaint, see the threadbare furniture. Then there is the delicate thread of the story itself, so fragile as to defy easy encapsulation. As cleverly as any piece of Aristotelian stagecraft, the novel integrates its cast completely with its action.
Ultimately what amazes the reader though is just how effortless it all seems. For instance, the final 30 pages are a masterclass in how to ring the bell you spent the previous 130 pages forging. It rings true.
Sheer genius. Penelope Fitzgerald, I wish you were still around to take a bow.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

The Day After the Days After

It's really been a boozy weekend. My soon to be married brother was at my parents' house when I visited yesterday, so we all ended up in the local. Nice to chat and it was. I ended up stumbling out after 1 and into a taxi.
Today then was a cinema day: 'In the Loop', then 'Wolverine'. 'In the Loop' is funny and biting, 'Wolverine' is far from the disaster the critics have been painting. Certainly neither was a masterpiece, but they allowed me to recuperate gently over the day. Then I started watching an old 50's thing, 'The Magnetic Monster', but was not unhappy when it froze after 30 minutes. Read instead, enjoying the delicate pleasures of a Penelope Fitzgerald novel, 'At Freddies'. Not quite up to the standard of some of her other treasures, but engaging all the same.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

How to Drive Your Liver to Industrial Action

Seemed like a long day yesterday though I escaped long before any harm was done. Met Justin and Ian already with a big head start in Ruaille Buaille in preparation for the Leinster-Munster match. We staked our table early, but not without a fight. A Munster contingent firstly pushed our table to the side of the screen and then seized every available seat in the place. As I was without a seat at the time I took great offence to this. Eventually I got to one just before one of them and I got a look that I gave right back. Then there was the obigatory drunk (in a bar!) who was looking for seat and company and had the good fortune to run across Justin who decided to play devil and invite him to join us. That had repercussions I will not go into. Suffice to say I ended up without a seat happily watching the match on a tv screen off to the side away from the general throng. It was all too tense for fun-loving me. I am not a sports fan, being there mostly for the day out than anything else, but it was nice to see Leinster win so convincingly. It certainly shut up one colony of red-shirted tables.
After the wedding the night before (a black tie affair), I was never going to last too long and took my leave soon after making it to the Dame Tavern. Not too drunk, nor too tired, just someone who had used up their daily allowance of endorphins.
Actually here is an unexpected side effect of coming home early. I was sitting on the couch watching 'In the Bedroom' (a real feel-good movie for one lacking endorphins), when suddenly the kitchen got a little brighter and there was a tremendous smash! I looked out to see that the glass light fitting (a screw-in job) had somehow fallen down. The screw in part was intact so that hadn't broken. It's been up since last I changed the lightbulb nearly a year ago and I tightened it well then. If I had come home to find that I would have been even more bemused. Alternatively if I had been cooking under it when it happened I might be dead (melodramatic, I know, but it was a heavy piece of glass). Strange.
Have to drop back the tux now.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Just back from a wedding. He'd better treat her right.