Soul Food

Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen makes his feature debut with the bewildering and unforgettable Hunger, the story of the last six weeks of Bobby Sands' (Michael Fassbender) life and death in Long Kesh.

Hunger opens with the sound of dustbin lids banging off concrete streets, a relentless staccato that only stops when we are introduced to Prison Officer Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham) as he sits down to a cooked breakfast. The knuckles gripping his fork are split and raw, the scars from the last beating unable to heal before the next. Lohan checks under his car for a bomb before setting off to work in Long Kesh. A few brief lines of text give us little more than a time and place, before we are plunged into life in the prison, constructed as an Orwellian labyrinth of cells and corridors. As part of their protest against being classified as criminals, the prisoners daub their own excrement on the walls and refuse to wash, making the already hellish prison into an intolerable cess pit.

This is ground that has already been covered in films like Some Mothers Son and H3 but Hunger transcends the formal narrative of history to become a visual poem, at times urgent and immediate and at other times quietly, incessantly devastating.

McQueen and Fassbender have the confidence to allow their pictures to tell the story, removing any unnecessary dialogue and boggy historical context to narrow the focus of the film to a point of brilliant light. The central section of the film is a twenty minute long, unbroken conversation between Sands and his priest Fr Moran (Liam Cunningham) over a rickety table in a visiting room. The camera never leaves their faces as the two men talk about the decision Sands has made, the morality of his actions and the effect it will have on the people outside. It is a brilliantly conceived and written sequence, daring and demanding but the basis of our connection to this unknowable character, an almost silent presence up to that point.

From then on, Hunger details Sands gradual disappearance into skin and bone and it is harrowing stuff. Fassbender is simply brilliant in his deterioration, his calm, skeletal face staring out through the screen, the light in his eyes gradually fading. Context for the revival of the hunger strikes comes from the disembodied voice of Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons, a droning dirge of intransigence that McQueen and his screenwriter Enda Walsh position as the voice of God; the over-ripe tones set against images of desolate trees and scattered birds.

There are a few missteps, a policeman breaking down in tears during a brutal assault and an overly ecclesiastical visual nod to Michelangelo’s La Pieta, but a great film is very rarely a perfect one and these are minor flaws, only obvious because of their sincerity. As a history of the troubles and the hunger strikes, Hunger is more of a starting point than a comprehensive chronicle, but as a wholly immersive and emotionally draining piece of cinema, this is a major work, stripped of context to illuminate a wider point about the inhumanity of places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

is an astonishing film, one of the finest debuts I have ever seen, a difficult story told with extraordinary tenderness and skill, both beautiful and grotesque, spare and full of detail. It is a tour de force and McQueen’s talent blazes from the screen in every frame.

Thumb Twiddler

Since graduating from multi-million dollar, thirty second advertisements to even pricier and longer B-movies with the Balkan War flick Behind Enemy Lines, Dundalk-born director John Moore has delivered a series of shiny but empty remakes and genre exercises for Fox Studios, the latest of which is by some distance the shiniest and emptiest.

The opening line of video-game adaptation Max Payne has the titular tortured cop, played by Mark Wahlberg, growl, “I believe in pain.” Me too, Max. Even more so now.

Haunted by the grisly deaths of his wife and child years before, Max now works the ‘cold case’ desk, deep under police headquarters in a snow-blown New York. His obsession with finding the man who ruined his life leads him to investigate a gang of shadowy criminals, somehow connected to a big pharmaceutical company who make top secret drugs for the military. These glowing vials of blue goo turn ordinary soldiers into superhuman killing machines but anyone else who drinks it sees visions of demonic angels and goes insane. There is also some horribly dated nonsense about Norse tattoos. By way of conducting his investigation, Max roams the icy streets beating the lining out of anyone who stands in his way and suffering the occasional thrashing himself, a procedure that pans out much as it would if you were sat at home, playing the game.

That’s the trouble with these adaptations; the source games themselves are so heavily influenced by movies and comic books, the material cannot survive a second recycling. Making it look a bit like Sin City and lifting chunks of The Matrix and Constantine only adds to the unpleasant feeling of pre-mastication. There is nothing here but a series of special-effects sequences: no story, no characterisation and nothing to hold the flashy bits together.

His narrow range, blunt reflexes and monotone delivery mean Wahlberg's cynical gumshoe was always going to struggle to charm but, once again, the dwindling actor gives a rigid performance lacking all personality or dimension, a growling, grimacing cartoon. Moore’s insistence on lingering over the action in the interminably numerous slow-motion sequences, mandated by the source material, eventually brings him to a dead stop. Beside him, Mila Kunis as Mona the ice-queen Russian assassin looks positively agitated and all she does is lift her lip in a sneer. In the deeper background, the rapper Ludacris snoops around shiftily in an improbable trench coat and trilby while Chris O’Donnell, who’s plummet into obscurity Wahlberg should take as a chill caution, pops up for five minutes as cannon fodder.

The cast should be grateful that Moore, aiming for noir chiaroscuro, shoots most of the action through an impenetrable, over-processed murk. Sit through ten minutes of end credits and there's a short scene that sets Max up for a sequel. Agonising.

Anyone read past the words "video-game adaptation"? Anyone?

Dubya Indemnity

Although he set out to make a serious film, once he had done his exhaustive research on the subject there was something so cosmically unilateral about Mutually Assured Destruction, Stanley Kubrick’s only option was to turn to slapstick. The acid farce of Dr Strangelove is framed around a clownish cabal of madmen, somehow entrusted to positions where they hold the fate of mankind in their hands. Even if they no longer control the hand, they cling to power though arrogance and private stupidity, desperate to fulfil their own agendas regardless of the consequences. If Kubrick was alive today he might find parallels in the last days of the Bush administration and the same sour laugh in his throat.

Oliver Stone’s W., a biographical study of the brash cowpoke from Texas, chronicles George W Bush’s early years as a failed oilman and baseball team owner through his run for Congress, his work on his father’s presidential campaign, his election as Governor of Texas and finally his ascent into the White House where, at the time of writing, he is silently running down the clock until Barack Obama can take over in January, and save us all.

In W, Stone is looking to make comedy out of tragedy. Central to his analysis is a psychological conjecture about Bush only being motivated in politics to win the approval of his father, the 41st President and to prove himself a worthy scion of the illustrious family. Which is all well and good, and most likely true, but portraying him as a daddy’s boy without the smarts to realise the opportunity he has been given is not nearly a close enough analysis. Furthermore, Stone is far too selective in what he picks to illuminate his point of view. The focus here is on the fictitious Weapons of Mass Destruction, the invention that gave the green light for war and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but the details of the war itself are passed over: the four thousand American casualties and the countless hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead go unmentioned.

None of the Bush administration’s strange neologisms are referenced; water-boarding, extraordinary rendition, My Pet Goat, Haliburton, Abu Ghraib. Having already made his monument to September 11th in World Trade Centre, it is understandable that Stone doesn’t return to the subject, but there is no excuse for him passing over the scandalous response to Hurricane Katrina, the questions surrounding the 2004 election, the Enron meltdown or, even as the film was being shot, the looming financial crisis. The oddest thing about W is how even-handed Stone is with his subject but by selecting his punches he misses a lot of the ones that matter. What W lacks most is what it needs most, courage.

About three days after his ascension to power, Bush was labelled a dummy. Stone too sees him as a blundering fool but since he managed to get himself re-elected, wage war on every front he could find and destroyed the American economy from the inside, to underestimate him and his cronies seems, to me, to be a trivialisation and a mistake. The caricature is easy and Stone doesn’t make it any more difficult for himself than he has to. Part of the problem is that the story is as yet, unfinished. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser ends the film on a triumphant note, 2004’s re-election, which makes for a more manageable running time but this is a story that lacks a third act. This desire to paint the portrait in broad strokes also extends to the major figures in Bush’s life; his wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks) becomes little more than a cheerleader. His family, including envied brother Jeb, are almost invisible.

Although he shares a lot of screen time with them, Bush’s cabinet are reduced to impersonations. Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) as a rat-faced Iago. Condoleeza Rice (Thandie Newton) is a squinting schemer. Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright) is a tormented military man. Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn) is a bloodthirsty madman and Karl Rove (Toby Jones, the best of the lot) an ethereal conscience, carrying a stack of polling data. Rove and Cheney are Bush’s closest allies and the two men who understand him best, instinctively manipulating his ambitions and his fears to suit their own political ends. The drama between these characters, however, is pitched at the level of a sit com farce, when the reality is something far more sinister.

There is more meat on Stone’s deftly drawn psychodrama between father and son, with James Cromwell as Bush Sr playing a stern, almost papal figure that set expectations for his son that the boy could never match. In the midst of this flurry of pulled and missed punches, it is Josh Brolin as Dubya who holds the centre of the film together. With a puzzled smirk and a simian crouch, Brolin transcends simple mimicry to create a credible character; dislikeable and smug but somehow human in his failings. History will not be so lenient.

Ring A Ding Ding

Back in his Scrap Saturday radio days, Gerard Stembridge could skewer the highest and mightiest in the land with a single thrust. His first feature as writer and director, 1995s Guiltrip, was a dark kitchen-sink story of a marriage consumed by alcohol and violence while his pointedly frivolous sex comedy About Adam caught something of the go-go millennial mood. Eight years later, Alarm again attempts to take a snapshot of Irish society and frame it in a movie genre – this time the psychological thriller – but the result is as shrill and annoying at its title, a hopeless dud from start to finish.

Opening with a single clanging chord, Alarm introduces us to trainee journalist Molly (Ruth Bradley) as she sits with her psychiatrist, played by Emmet Bergin. Something awful happened to Molly a couple of years ago and now she lives with friends of the family (Tom Hickey and Anita Reeves). But all she wants is a place of her own, so after paying more than the asking price, she moves into an identikit house somewhere in the commuter belt. The sleazy estate agent, having patiently explained the theory of gazumping, then offers to install a burglar alarm for only a thousand euros. Molly demurs with a shudder, no alarms!

The first night in her new unsecured home, Molly throws a party for her tiger cub chums. There she meets the dark and dashing Mal (Aidan Turner), who gives her meaningful stares and offers to hang her wallpaper for her. That’s not a euphemism; he duly turns up the next day, brush and paste in hand. Molly, meanwhile, stares at him over the rim of her teacup, mentally ticking off her checklist; car, house, man. Smiling, positive Mal moves in and sad Molly is so delighted she stops taking her medication and talking to her doctors. Or anyone else, as it turns out. Then one night, the house is burgled and a bike is stolen. Kindly locals Joe and Mossie (both Owen Roe) insist on installing an alarm, but the robbers return, again and again.

Alarm is an attempt to serve the Celtic Tiger chop-suey style, on a bed of shredded movie references, but Stembridge uses a hatchet where a fillet knife is required. The result is an overcooked mess, lacking all taste and savour. Intended as a wake-up call to a society that has lost direction and is at the mercy of property carpetbaggers and lifestyle profiteers, Alarm is poorly conceived and dramatically flaccid. Neither lead is up to the task, their evident struggle not helped by cloth-eared dialogue and a series of inane plot developments. Tediously repetitive and unappealingly eccentric, Alarm soon descends into glib, patronising nonsense that is not even second rate – an insipid, technically inept and cinematically bankrupt film.

Far more shocking than any of Stembridge’s yellow-eyed observations is the realisation that our filmmakers are insistent on rendering the Irish experience down to a few greasy nuggets of cliché, just as John Boorman did in the equally facile and condescending Tiger’s Tale. Traffic jams and house prices: is that all there is? Is that what it means to be us?

Bond On The Run

The new James Bond film, the twenty second in the franchise, sees the British super-spy continue his billion dollar renaissance under Daniel Craig but if Casino Royale was a busted flush, Quantum of Solace is as incomprehensible as its clunky title, a messy, overly moody procession of stunts, stylisations and non sequiturs.

After an underwhelming credits sequence and a misjudged theme song, the story picks up an hour after the events of the first film with Bond being chased through the tunnels around Lake Garda in Northern Italy by a fleet of machine-gun toting bad guys. At the MI6 safe house in Sienna, Bond meets M (Judi Dench) who is concerned about his state of mind but still allows him to attend the interrogation of Mr. White (Jesper Christensen). It doesn’t go well and soon Bond and M realise they’ve uncovered a secret organization that is looking to take the world hostage by controlling natural resources. But Bond doesn’t really care about that, he just wants revenge for Vesper Lynd, drowned in a Venetian canal at the end of Casino Royale.

A well-realised spy-science bit, where boffins track money by satellite, leads Bond to Haiti and the feisty Camille (Olga Kurylenko). Already on her on quest for retribution, she leads him to her shifty-eyed millionaire lover, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), busy arranging the overthrow of various South American governments in return for exploration rights. Soon Bond is trailing Greene around the world while trying to keep M on his side and negotiate a clear path with his old friend Felix Leiter of the CIA (an underused Jeffrey Wright), who are also tracking the clandestine organisation for their own ends.

Whatever its failings as a story, Casino Royale had drive and panache. QoS has the same breakneck tempo, but aside from some well executed set pieces involving cars, boats and planes, the film lacks all invention and wit, ironic or otherwise. The incomprehensible script from returning writers Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade is poorly structured, dramatically underwhelming and hurriedly delivered, with dialogue replaced by detonations, exposition by explosions, vengeance by violence. As the double-crosses and duplicities pile up, the story fragments into individual scenes of choppily choreographed mayhem, pausing only to allow Craig a few moments of respite which he uses to peer out of frame, his blue eyes staring blankly at nothing in particular. He is supposed to be mourning the only woman he ever loved but going by Craig’s craggy, emotionless face, you’d never have guessed it.

If Bond himself is remote and isolated, his villainous opponent is a real disappointment. Amalric is a fine actor, but his character has nothing but the occasional bug-eyed rant to differentiate him from anyone around him. Greene is a very ordinary madman and Amalric cannot make him special. Bond’s most significant opponent is also the most unlikely, his controller and champion M, and Dench plays the role perfectly. She is one of the film’s few real pleasures.

QoS feels more like the tail end of its immediate predecessor than a standalone endeavour, the closing act of a better story collapsed into a blur of fights and face-offs. Some of this is down to the films curtailed running time (at 105 minutes it is the shortest Bond of all and a full half hour shorter than Casino Royale) but mostly it is down to a lack of any connection, between the characters and the story, the story and the audience.

Remove all the trappings of 007, the legacy of the franchise and the detritus of cliché it has collected over forty years, and what remains is a ordinary, everyday action flick, overly influenced by Jason Bourne but unremarkable in every other way.