Thursday, November 13, 2014

It's not an Ordinary World, is it?: The Cultural Immortality of Tim Burton's 'Batman 1989'



Batman is 75 years old give or take a few months, but crucially 'BATMAN' is 25 years old.. People are still watching the film entranced by its weird directorial style, its quasi-noir feel and (let's be honest about this) its historical importance in the Batman series.

While I wasn't actually alive to experience it (I was born a few months after the film was released), people still talk of how the film's aggressive, muscular marketing campaign took over the world and changed the way blockbuster films were made - success was no longer based on dumb luck, cultural zeitgeist or even the film being any damn good - with 'BATMAN', Hollywood figured out how to shove a movie down your throat until all you wanted was to go out and buy the t-shirt, the novel, the videogame, the toys, etc - basically inject the movie into your veins. Surprisingly, or even miraculously, it managed to still be a very interesting film in a number of different ways - even if it's more of a pop-culture juggernaut than a really meaty film in its own right.



My own experience with Batman is well-documented and much like anyone else's. I discovered the Adam West show early in my infancy and was excited by the colour and adventure of it, as most kids were. One of my earliest memories is from the episode 'Smack in the Middle' where Batman holds up his cape and casts a dark shadow on his foes, frightening them into submission - from here it was clear to me that Batman was a dark avenger, a badass who struck fear into the hearts of his enemies, not merely the jovial father-figure the series loved to pretend he was. The now-legendary Animated Series from the 90s (in the 90s most superheroes just had 'cartoons'. Batman had an Animated Series) cemented this so drastically that I was a fan for life. While I don't read as many comics as I'd like to and my action figure collection isn't what it once was, Batman has undoubtedly shaped a large part of my life, my interests and ultimately my soul. He's the reason I try to do the right thing, he's the reason I brush my teeth, he's the reason why I believe in never giving up. Some people have got Jesus, I've got Batman. In a way it's a little disheartening to find out in your twenties that actually there's thousands of people just like me with the same (sometimes greater) level of devotion to a fictional character, but there you go. 

Oddly none of that would have happened if not for the Tim Burton movie - a movie I originally wasn't even allowed to watch. We were pretty avid movie-renters back in the early 90s and I recall pining over the VHS cover of both 'BATMAN' and its immediate sequel 'Batman Returns' as early as 1994 in Movie Magic near the Bottle Tower in Churchtown (it's a clothing reclamation centre now). Even just based on that cover I could tell why this was bigger, darker and more of an event than the everyday TV series - Batman was dressed all in black in a costume that was more like sculpted armour than the flimsy material Adam West wore (a British gaming magazine once affectionately likened West's physique to "a used condom filled with porridge"). The Batmobile was a stylised roadster like something Lucifer might use to race his way out of Hell. The Joker looked like someone who would end you and cackle at your grisly fate. This wasn't kids stuff.

 The ratings system is different in every country, but here in Ireland (and in the UK) we've generally stuck to a fairly straight-forward age-rating system. "BATMAN" was originally rated '15' which meant that for my conservative-minded mother, that was too dark and mature for my 5-year old self to experience. The concept of a movie being 'unsuitable' was subsequently hardwired into my brain - it felt like I'd never see the film, to the point where I'd even made my peace with that fact. Eventually an ad came on TV for the film - it was going to be shown that Saturday on Network 2 (now RTÉ 2). My mother relented and taped it for me and I watched that badboy until the tape disintegrated. 

So what about the film itself?

As has been said many times before, 'BATMAN' is almost the quintessential example of style winning out over substance. The film is largely without a plot more complicated than "The Joker is doing evil things and Batman needs to stop him or Gotham will perish" but it's the texture of the world, the weird performances, the instantly quotable dialogue and the thunderous musical score that bring the film to life.



First and foremost, Jack Nicholson is truly marvelous as the Joker. Despite the title of the film, it's basically his movie with most of the plot circling around his transformation from seedy psychologically-unhinged mobster to completely maniacal killer-clown. The way the character is written fluctuates throughout the film and in many ways, trying to figure out the m.o. of the Joker is one of the film's flaws - initially he's a revenge-killer, then he's a critique of rampant consumerism, then suddenly out of nowhere he's a sort of psychotic dadaist championing creative destruction ("I make art until someone dies")...it's a miracle that Nicholson manages to hold all these competing interpretations together, but he does without argument. For all the praise Heath Ledger would eventually go on to get, it's a close battle for me as to who gave the more interesting performance - the scene where Napier is in the plastic surgeon's office and realises the extent of his weird disfigurement (a permanent rictus-grin and bleached skin) he starts laughing, but it's this eerily gradual build-up of tension and release, like he's exhaling the last remnants of sanity from his body until finally he's cackling like a madman. It's an incredible scene that's been homaged and parodied dozens of times (Lisa Simpson gets her braces in one such tribute).



Michael Keaton as Batman has gone down in history as being one of the strangest and most rewarding casting decisions of all time. People still use it as an example of why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover or more literally, judge a film before it's released. Keaton looks nothing like the anvil-jawed, 6'4" Superman-clone of the comics and it's safe to admit that his career resumé up until that point was not that of an action hero, but the opposite entirely. Burton's thesis argument baffled fans - he chose Keaton because he didn't look like an action hero, he looked like a man who'd need to intimidate his foes in another way - it's an argument I still happen to disagree with, but anyway it paid off. Keaton is incredible as Bruce Wayne and Batman - as Batman he's the force of nature everyone was waiting for, rarely speaking and only in a quiet, menacing snarl, but it's his Bruce Wayne that was so groundbreaking. He plays Bruce as absent-minded and not all there; so driven, determined and trapped within his surreal life as a crimefighter that he doesn't really know how to be a normal person, least of all a billionaire playboy. The film's unusually laid-back dialogue really accommodates this, as does Keaton's natural chemistry with Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale and Hammer Horror-veteran Michael Gough's pitch-perfect Alfred. Unfortunately, as the film is so Nicholson-centric I'm always left wanting more scenes of Keaton, but maybe that's a good thing.

Keaton's Batman undoubtedly started a trend of not always playing to type when casting high-concept roles like this. Some have argued that it actually set off the slew of  'normal guy action-hero' films of the 1990s, where the hero was more often a regular-looking Joe than the kind of hulking commandos popularised by the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the 1980s. The payoff of Keaton undoubtedly inspired the bizarre choice of Nicolas Cage for the unmade 'Superman Lives' that was to be directed by Burton in the mid-90s. While the world and his mother have thanked God that that film wasn't made, personally I still have a morbid desire to see it - I'd happily take a weird, arthouse Superman movie with a crazy casting choice over a mundane committee-driven sulk-fest like the last two Superman movies have been. While I do ultimately think Christian Bale played the definitive Batman - Keaton arguably delivers the better actor's performance and I think given the opportunity he could have surpassed Bale. To this day I always get more excited when a director makes an unconventional casting choice rather than just casting someone who physically resembles the character. Not always, but usually it displays a confidence in the actor's ability to act and tap into the psychology of the character, rather than their ability to just throw punches and walk away from explosions. It shows an appreciation for the mythology as a serious character-study and not just as an action/adventure thrill-ride.



Obviously an analysis of this film wouldn't be complete without mentioning the rather specific diversion it takes from the established mythos. In the comics, Bruce Wayne's parents are usually slain by a faceless, unknown killer (he's been named as 'Joe Chill' depending on what era you're reading) but in this film the Joker himself is the assailant. Fans understandably found this to be a sacrilegious deviation from the status quo, but for the sake of the film, it works quite well, especially considering how disjointed a lot of the writing of the rest of the film is. At its essence, the struggle between Batman and the Joker is the ultimate modern battle between good and evil - Batman dresses like a demon but does acts of good. The Joker dresses like a clown, a figure that should make us forget our cares, but he performs acts of evil. This unsettling aberration reminds us that the world is not always as it seems. Bruce Wayne suffers a tragedy caused by crime, so he becomes something capable of ending crime, which he does, but Crime retaliates by morphing into something acutely more bizarre and more powerful. This is explored in greater detail in 'The Dark Knight', but it's there in Tim Burton's movie too - at the start of the movie two muggers steal a man's wallet at gunpoint, but Batman apprehends them, urging them to let the criminal underworld know all about him. Normal crime isn't going to happen in Gotham anymore, because Batman is here to end it all. So crime evolves, transforming from ordinary mobsters like Jack Napier into methodical criminal masterminds like the Joker. Towards the end of the film Batman has the line "I made you, you made me first," referring to how he dropped Jack into the chemicals, but Napier killed his parents in the first place. This kind of posits Jack Napier/Joker as the living embodiment of crime itself which is fine in a movie like this. The argument can be made that it make Gotham feel a little incestuous - like everything that happens revolves around a small number of people - but I think it serves the struggle of the film well. The fight between good and evil is cyclical and complex, never-ending.



Michael Gough is a perfect Alfred, desperately trying to understand and respect Bruce's mission, but also trying to get him to see a life beyond the cave (this is something that would be explored in much greater detail in Nolan's trilogy). As for the rest of the cast, they do their jobs well enough. Kim Basinger was nothing particularly special and her efforts are usually glossed over by people discussing the film. While she's generally inoffensive, I find her constant screaming a bit grating on more than a few occasions. Unlike Lois Lane in the Superman films, Vicki Vale is depicted as being largely helpless, a damsel-in-distress/scream-queen in the tradition of Fay Wray in 'King Kong' - in spite of her pleasant chemistry with Keaton, for the most part it's an awkward nothing-portrayal and it does little to balance the largely male-centric film. This is something Burton obviously saw fit to address in his empowered-Catwoman-centric sequel. Robert Wuhl plays Alexander Knox, the comic-relief, who partners with Vale in trying to discover the identity of the Batman. Wuhl is charming and hilarious and benefits greatly from the aforementioned easygoing nature of the dialogue. Bizarrely the viewer ends up rooting more for him as a romantic partner for Vicki Vale - especially as Bruce Wayne sleeps with her and never calls her back. I like to pretend that there's an unmade romantic-comedy sequel where the two characters reconcile and end up together (especially seeing as how neither of them are in any of the other films). Pat Hingle's Commissioner Gordon is fine, but he's the bumbling bureaucratic fool of the Golden and Silver Age, rather than the haunted Last Good Cop of Frank Miller's Year One (Gary Oldman would eventually bring this to life). Hingle's Gordon becomes more and more laughably inept over the course of the four films - it's no wonder Gotham's in the state it's in - he literally can't do his job without Batman's help.



Beyond the performances, the most awe-inspiring thing about Burton's film is Gotham itself, as designed by Anton Furst. Furst described the landscape of the film as though Hell had sprouted out of the ground and kept on growing; as if New York never had a planning commission to prevent grotesque offsprings of industry from infecting the architectural landscape (hideous pipes seem to crawl out of buildings, bridges connect skyscrapers together, buildings drape over the streets threatening to crumble at any second). Gotham's soul (if it has one) resides moreso in Fritz Lang's Metropolis than in any Capra-esque interpretation of 'the big city'.

As great as the Nolan films are, and as necessary as it was for those films to take place in reality, Anton Furst's nightmarish hellhole is the city of the comics come to life. Tragically Furst committed suicide in the years following the film and Warner Bros mistakenly replaced his beautiful sets with the claustrophic Bo Welch production design in 'Batman Returns'. While some fans draw comparisons between Welch's Gotham and German Expressionism (certain shots seem to be taken straight from 'Doctor Caligari') ultimately I don't care for it - it just doesn't look real or as captivating as Furst's Gotham did. 



Danny Elfman's score is a thunderous, muscular delight throughout the whole film. His music is steeped in mystery and suspense and is utterly pulpy. Some of the creepiest scenes are multiplied in eerie atmosphere thanks to Elfman's unsettling melodies. It's not hard to see how he became such a prolific presence in these kinds of films all throughout the 90s and the 00s - this is arguably the film that put him on the map. The infamous Prince soundtrack released in conjunction with the film is also featured prominently throughout, for better or worse. Personally I never cared for a lot of the songs and I feel that while they add reasonably well to some of the Joker's scenes, they're so distractingly of their time that they date a film that's trying to be timeless. Still though, it's hard to deny the weird charm of songs like 'Partyman' and even 'Batdance', a concept piece that compiles various soundbytes and lines of dialogue from the film into one big giant orgy of excess. 

As I've already alluded to, the film isn't perfect. The pacing fluctuates throughout, the plot is all over the place and none of the characters have an arc that's particularly easy to latch on to. For a film about Batman, Burton clearly doesn't find him as interesting as the villains (a recurring problem across the first four films) and even subtly positions him as a kind of fascistic antagonist, with Batman representing the darkness and angst of order against the freedom and liberating ecstasy of chaos represented by the villains (this is even more apparent in the sequel). For all of the film's supposed efforts to be unlike the Adam West TV series, that's pretty much exactly what that show did as well. And just like that series, the police force is manned by a pack of clueless idiots who can't do anything without calling Batman first - the movie just doesn't admit as blatantly. It's clear that the film was victim to dozens of rewrites - Jack Nicholson is quoted as saying that he didn't even understand why Joker was bringing Vicki to the top of the cathedral in the final act, because the reason hadn't been written into the script yet (it's still a little bit unclear, to be perfectly honest).



Burton himself has retroactively spoken against the film, calling it "kind of boring" and more of a cultural behemoth than a true film - that's certainly a criticism I'd understand. Strangely though, the strength of the performances and the atmosphere tie it all together. And if it is just a cultural behemoth rather than a true expression of cinema, it's still not quite a shallow film - there's so much to sink your teeth into that it's hard not to recognise why fans still love it after all these years. 'BATMAN' set the stage for 1990s blockbusters and it was the definitive superhero film to kick off the new decade - every superhero film released in that decade was trying to ride the wave of 'BATMAN' with varying degrees of success - The Shadow, The Phantom, The Mask of Zorro were all films about relatively super-powerless vigilantes, who possessed vast wealth, operated at night and struck from the shadows. 'The Crow''s eerie landscapes and noir-esque feel owed as much to Furst's Gotham as they did to their own source material. On TV you had stuff like The Flash and the barely-remembered Nightman which emulated Furst as well as the Danny Elfman music. The success of the film kicked off the immortal Animated Series which itself spunoff into an entire Animated Universe of DC properties culminating in the excellent 'Justice League Unlimited' (all years before anyone cared about The Avengers). Even when Marvel finally did start making films, initially their characters wore black leather jackets or black jumpsuits (the first 'Blade' movie feels an awful lot like Burton's Batman) - mirroring the debut of the Dark Knight. And it's taken a full 25 years of Batman films for the franchise to move away from the all-black look of the Batsuit in that first Tim Burton film.



Ultimately, it's not unfair to say that without Tim Burton's Batman, it's unlikely I'd be the fan I am today. I've seen the film so often that I can say without exaggeration that I could probably recite every line of dialogue. It's not a perfect film (nor is it a perfect world as Vicki Vale reminds us), but maybe it's not supposed to be. As a piece of pop culture and as an introduction to the world of Batman, it's invaluable. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

My Top 5 Favourite Superheroes of All-Time (and definitely not just from the last few months)

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, this is the big one. As you well know I'm something of a connoisseur for the tales of those who wear capes in the never-ending pursuit for truth and justice. Over the course of the four years I've written for this blog (remember - I started this back when blogs were still a thing that people cared about), throughout the drastic fluctuations of quality and writing style, I think my love of superheroes has remained consistent. I now feel qualified to present the cream of the crop, the very best superheroes in comics, television or film I've encountered in my days as an armchair critic. 

Please note that this list is in no way influenced by the fact that I have spent the last three months watching the entirety of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel".

5. Spike from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'



In at number 5 is Spike from the TV show 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. Some might find this an odd choice as he probably wouldn't be the first person you'd think of when you think of a superhero, in fact he spends roughly half the series as a villain. But he does eventually become a heroic character and a fan of spicy chicken wings and teen soaps. I think he deserves a place on this list.

4. Spike from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'



At number 4 is William Pratt, or 'William the Bloody' best known as Spike from the action/adventure series 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' that ran from 1997-2003. Spike isn't your typical superhero, but he is visually very distinctive, rarely seen without his appropriately ill-fitting leather duster.

3. Batman.



At number 3 is Batman, best known for once knocking out a Green Lantern with one punch, and drilling a guy into a wall in twenty seconds.



2. Spike from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'


I know it's probably unusual to see Spike rate so highly on a list like this, especially when he didn't even originate from a comic, but he is undoubtedly a hero, having helped save the world on a variety of occasions, including one very significant one. In many ways, he's a stronger character than Wolverine who spends a lot of time brooding about his dark past despite not really having a lot to be sorry for. In the case of Spike, we actually learn of his nightmarish acts of evil spanning the course of an entire century and we see the cause of and the result of his road to redemption. In one of the most ridiculously badass moments in the series, Spike fights a demon with flaming fists so that he can get his soul back. Explain to me how this isn't the coolest thing you've ever heard.


1. Spike from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'



Pretty much every time I watch an action/adventure genre show, I find myself saying “I wish they’d explore this character more,” or “I wish they’d develop this plot point more,” or “I wish these two things would cross over with each other,” – almost every time across the entire series of 'Buffy: The Vampire Slayer', it satisfied these idle requests…there was a period during the third season akin to a kind of pure televisual joy I’ve rarely experienced before. They just do everything you want, and so much more. “The Zeppo” and “The Wish” are two of the best episodes of the series in exploring amazing ‘What If?’ scenarios usually reserved for abstract feelings of missed opportunity at best, or fanfiction at worst. It's not just a great action/adventure show, it's oddly a great examination of adolescence and how no matter how bad things seem - ultimately life will always throw something more annoying at you, whether it's a mystical demon or having to get a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant. It is the best superhero show ever (I would say with great certainty and no fears of exaggeration that it is a million times better than 'Arrow', a series on the same American network, using a very similar formula).


I mean, in terms of the overall quality of the production, the acting, the writing and the general artistic merit of the programme - it's by no means better than the likes of say Breaking Bad or The Wire, but there are more than a number of times throughout the series where I find myself wondering if it isn't at least as good.

Few elements introduced in the show were more successful than the development of Spike. Even during the occasional migrations into mediocrity that the series suffered in the final season, Spike saved the day by being one of the most interesting characters I've ever encountered in fiction. It's worth prefacing that I knew going into the series how Spike progressed from villainy to heroism and I was convinced that it would be off-putting and maudlin - there was no way I'd ever fully buy Spike as a good guy, let alone root for a romance between him and Buffy. I was convinced it would come across as forced - a product of executive tampering for the sake of shipping fan-favourite characters together. Nope.

Buffy and Angel didn't ask to be heroes - they were chosen and had to learn to embrace the destinies they were given. Spike, starts out as pure evil, a boyish vampire who rolls into town one day and kills Buffy's greatest enemy, purely because 'the annoying one' (as he so affectionately puts it) is trying to bring about some dreadful prophecy of doom rooted in ancient rites and scrolls and destinies - whereas Spike just wants to have fun killing people - he's not terribly unlike the Joker in this sense. Pure chaos personified. The scene where he kills The Anointed One is very similar to a later scene in The Dark Knight when the Joker rolls in to the gang meeting and kills one of them with his ‘magic trick’. He doesn’t care about structures or prophecies or The Done Thing – he just wants to enjoy himself.

This puts Spike at odds with Angelus, Angel’s evil alter-ego who causes havoc throughout Season Two – Angelus is aaall about traditions and scriptures and prophecies, and tries to bring about the Apocalypse, much to Spike’s dismay. Here the unthinkable happens, when Spike teams up with Buffy for the first time - it's an uneasy alliance and the two can't wait to be rid of each other. Buffy even states quite firmly that she hates him.



Because of a series of unfortunate events, Spike finds himself reluctantly becoming the castrated comic relief when in Season Four, he is suddenly unable to hurt humans. Much to his chagrin he joins with the heroes building up an uneasy rapport with them and Buffy, whose company he can't stand, whose very presence fills him with disgust and dread and who he can't bear to be around until suddenly he realises that in fact he can't bear to be away from her. From this initial puppy love, Spike evolves into more of an anti-hero - still dreaming of the dread and destruction he once relished in, but yearning for the everlasting company of his beloved. The problem is that Spike is still ultimately an evil being, unwilling and incapable to understand a world that doesn't revolve around him and his wishes. A fact which Buffy frequently has to remind him - as much as he may think otherwise, is that he is truly incapable of love - at least the mutually fulfilling, caring, human love Buffy is referring to. When Spike's attempts finally well and truly backfire after he attempts to rape Buffy (a very difficult moment to watch), he appears defeated and seemingly places his focus on returning to his wicked ways - he visits a demon in Brazil who promises to "restore him to what he once was" (we assume the demon is going to somehow remove Spike's inhibitor chip). Spike endures a series of hellish trials, barely escaping with his life when we learn the true purpose of his quest - to restore his soul - to be the better kind of man that Buffy deserves.

His road to redemption isn't easy and his fractured mind is taunted and manipulated by The First Evil. But Spike's determination proves indomitable to the point where Buffy assures him that he has become the better man he has sought to be. In my favourite moment of the entire series, The First (posing as Spike's ex Drusilla) asks of him:

"And what makes you think you have a choice? What makes you think you'll be any good at all in this world?"

"She does. Because she believes in me."

He’s basically facing pure evil in the eye and saying 'No'. The series makes one of its boldest statements here, that even pure chaotic evil can be tamed, controlled and mastered if love should demand it. Unlike the star-crossed dynamic of Buffy and Angel, the relationship of Spike and Buffy is much more akin to real relationships - they don't make you content or bubbly or even necessarily happy all of the time and they can even be destructive and damaging, but they fill you with a drive, a confidence, a determination to be a better person - the person you want to be (even if the relationship itself might not be that great an idea in the long-run). Because it's not just some abstract notion of ambition anymore - it's a tangible, real concept that someone else believes in too. Like Buffy, Willow and even Xander – Spike proves that friendship and love will help you become the person you want to be. It sounds cheesy and maudlin and suffocating, but it works. Even if you have to drag yourself through the mud of your past evils and come face to face with all of the horrible, lazy, stupid things you used to do - you can be a better person. You can find your soul and save the world.



He's a good character and I feel he deserves a place on this list.

Friday, May 30, 2014

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is uncanny and astonishing [REVIEW]


REVIEW: ****

With Director Bryan Singer's return to the franchise comes the finest X-outing in over ten years - a grand return to form for the franchise which not only presents a fresh start, but an affectionate look back at the long-running series and a new gold standard to strive for in the future. The film has an all-star cast of characters - new and old that join forces across time, to face seemingly insurmountable odds.

"Days of Future Past" represents a bold new benchmark for a film series that has endured a long road of varying degrees of quality. The very first film (appropriately titled 'X-Men') in 2000 undoubtedly opened a door, allowing characters previously hampered by the abilities of visual effects to finally have their day on the silver screen, as well as proving in a post "Batman & Robin" world that superhero films could be high-quality action/adventure thrillers with sophisticated characters and stories - rather than absurdly campy garbage. Spider-Man took advantage of this new landscape two years later and cinemas have rarely been lacking colourful superheroes ever since.



The standard of the ensuing X-films undeniably varied - X2 was an understated triumph (people really do forget just how good it was), the third film, "X-Men: The Last Stand" is a mess - rushed into production with a questionable director, it's a sleazier, cheesier, cheaper film (in spite of the increased amount of big-budget action sequences) that laid waste to numerous characters, often simply to drum up some immediate dramatic impact (which nearly always fell flat). The downward spiral continued with the completely farcical "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", which despite the very best efforts of Hugh Jackman (who has yet to turn in a bad performance as Wolverine) was a downright foolish, stupid film that frequently doesn't make sense and looks like a mawkish B-movie. With the franchise in tatters, no one really expected "First Class" to be any good - surprisingly it was. Despite a script that's a bit ropey in more than a few places, and a questionable roster of relatively faceless C and D-list mutants (Azazel and Angel were only recently created when the film was released) the electrifying chemistry of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as young versions of Professor X and Magneto elevated the film beautifully to a level of quality the franchise hadn't seen in six years. "The Wolverine" wasn't to everyone's tastes, but I found it to be a really refreshing kind of film - it was a story that wasn't afraid to be smaller and dirtier and more character-driven, in a Summer ravaged by superhero films obsessed with mass destruction (lookin' at you "Man of Steel").



This latest outing is very loosely based on Chris Claremont's legendary two-parter of the same name, wherein Kitty Pryde is forced to go into the past to change the dystopian future that has been ravaged by a mutant/human war. Director Bryan Singer made the decision to restrict Kitty Pryde's role in the story to catalyst, with Wolverine once again providing the heroics. Logan (played by Hugh Jackman, for the seventh time) must travel to the past and enlist the help of a young, jaded Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) whose dreams of a school for mutants has been dashed by the betrayal of Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). With the help of furry genius Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and silver speedster Peter (Evan Peters) they must try and prevent a pivotal moment in history caused by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who's out for industrialist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage)'s blood.



Fans were understandably worried in the run-up to the film that Fox were once again hedging their bets on Jackman's reliable star-power rather than respecting the source material. And to be fair, this worry is not entirely unfounded - however not in the case of Jackman whose use throughout the film is perfectly balanced with the other characters. No this time it's Mystique who receives an odd amount of focus in the film, no doubt owing to Jennifer Lawrence's now-massive status in Hollywood. The plot and the pseudoscience of the film (Mystique's shapeshifting powers somehow give scientists the ability to create robots that can assimilate any mutant power - how does that work? Mystique can't duplicate other mutants' powers?) are stretched to a point that would be distracting, and while credible enough, after two viewings I still find Mystique's motivation to be a little bit forced.

These are minor concerns however, as the film is ultimately a delight, with highs far eclipsing its lows. Despite the complicated plot, Singer's heavy reliance on characterisation, humour and intelligent action sequences mean that the viewer is always interested in what's going on - unlike a lot of superhero films these days (even the very good ones) very little is overcooked or excessive. Every scene feels necessary and succinct and drives the story along nicely.



The return of series veterans Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan (for the sequences set in the future) gives the film a weight missing from previous installments. Adding other regulars from the original three films (Storm, Iceman, Shadowcat, even that guy who played Colossus despite only having a few lines of dialogue is back) makes it feel like we're watching a true "X-Men 4" and not another spinoff or prequel. McAvoy and Fassbender are a delight to watch in the younger incarnations of Xavier and Magneto - Fassbender especially brings a deadly menace to the younger Magneto that we're unused to seeing from McKellan (Sir Ian's is still my personal favourite performance however).



Adding Jackman back into the 'team' (rather than just giving him another solo film) allows the viewer to remember why he worked so well in those initial films to begin with. His seventh appearance in 14 years (that's longer than any actor played James Bond), "Days" gives Wolverine the unusual task of providing the same kind of wisdom an leadership for Xavier that the Professor once provided for him - this allows us to see just how much Logan has grown, from the cocksure loner who didn't need to work as part of a team, to a man for whom friendship, family and structure has become the most important part of his life. Of course Hugh Jackman sells it. The man is a champion of the genre and every time he's on screen you fall in love with him all over again. It's hard to speculate what involvement he'll have in future films (outside of his already-planned third solo outing) but suffice to say Fox would be foolish to exclude him entirely from future films.



Another appealing aspect of "Days of Future Past" (besides the great story and characters) was its affection and reverence for the previous X-Men films, rather than trying to shy away from them and batter on down its own route. With Hollywood's Reboot Frenzy still in full swing, it's delightful to see a series remember its roots. The final sequence provides us with a view of  a bright future, while also wiping the slate clean, with an opportunity for a new(ish) timeline to unfold (without necessarily deleting everything we've seen so far). On the other hand, "Days" is also a great starting point for young fans who might not have seen all of the preceding films - lots of characters are reintroduced throughout the film, bringing you up to speed on anything you may have missed. This kind of well-placed and thoughtful reflection on films past (I didn't even mention the return of John Ottman's terrific themes from X2) makes it even more mind-boggling that Singer was single-handedly responsible for the pretentious homage-ridden mess that was 'Superman Returns'. I hate to say it, but it almost makes you yearn for a sequel for that film - might it have been much better?



Ultimately "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is a joy to watch, one of the very best of the franchise and the entire comic book genre. While the franchise may one day be handed back to Marvel who may decide to wipe the slate clean, for now I'm more than satisfied with where the Fox-owned series seems to be heading, and as far as I'm concerned, I hope they continue to add installments to this long-running series - I've been a fan for most of my life.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Spider-Man 2 Part Deux: The Adequate Spider-Man (Review)



REVIEW: ***

As this is now the fifth Spider-Man film in just shy of twelve years, it should come as no surprise that the series (even with the supposed replenishment of a reboot two years ago) is starting to slip into the early stages of old age, set in its formulaic ways. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" however shouldn't be accused of total adherence to formula - it dips and dives and explores enough new avenues and new ideas that it should definitely be considered a noble attempt, and some of the key performances are second-to-none - but ultimately there's not enough to set it apart from the increasingly crowded superhero arena. 


Chief among the highlights of the film is Spider-Man himself - in his sophomore appearance Andrew Garfield gives one of the very best superhero performances in some time. He's always warm, always charming and crucially always believable as a teenager (despite being a grown man in his thirties). The film portrays a dedication to the teenaged way of life (just as the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics did) - we aren't simply told Peter is a young man - everything about his character is rooted in youth and innovation. He solves crimes from his bedroom by analysing photographs and diagrams awkwardly taped to his bedroom wall. He fixes his webshooters by watching YouTube tutorials (on his Sony Vaio), he makes up and breaks up with his girlfriend and sulks in his room listening to music on his Sony Mp3 player (get yours today!), he even takes the time to sweat the small stuff - the best scene in the film sees Spider-Man stopping a crowd of bullies from destroying a little boy's non-Sony science project (maybe the bullies were executives?). Sally Fields' efforts as Aunt May shouldn't go unnoticed either, and while she remains a tertiary character, once again she adds immeasurably to the texture of the film, providing an amusing obstacle to what is also one of Peter's greatest strengths. 


It should come as no surprise at this point that Emma Stone is a delight as well, oozing charm and presence and never prostituting herself to the tired old damsel-in-distress clichés that plagued the previous triumvirate of Spidey outings like a viral infection. The film gives her a very nice story arc in her own right, that never feels tacked on or undeserving. What's so amusing about the on/off love story between Gwen and Peter is that Peter's failure to commit has as much to do with his teenage insecurities as it does his duties as Spider-Man. Stone's chemistry with Garfield is so sizzling, so palpable, so superhumanly strong that it could probably conjure up Walter White's crystal meth. It is quite honestly the most natural and credible display of romance since Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in the old Superman films. A rare thing in a genre plagued by stunt-casting that doesn't always take actor chemistry into account. Many have chalked this unusual dynamite up to the real-life romance of Garfield and Stone and while that certainly owes something to the effectiveness of their scenes together, the direction of Marc Webb shouldn't go unmentioned - he is responsible for "(500) Days of Summer" after all (which still teeters tantalisingly close to being The Best Romantic Comedy Ever in my estimation) and I noticed more than a few similarities to that film during the smaller Peter/Gwen scenes. 

Before we get into the negatives, I would also like to add that I loved Paul Giamatti as the Rhino - it's the definitive portrayal and depiction of the character and I would do nothing to change the nature of the character's short-but-sweet appearances. Fans are already complaining that the marketing suggested a greater role for the character, but that's not a valid slight against the actual film in and of itself. In the Spider-Man comics I always read, Rhino was an overpowered annoyance rather than a dastardly villain and the film  perfectly captured that sense of "Ho-hum, it's Tuesday and Rhino's throwing cars around the place," rather than shoe-horning in more clichéd rubbish about a sickly sister who needed medication from OsCorp or what have you. It's actually refreshing that the series has reached the point where supervillain appearances are a normal part of Spider-Man's day-to-day life, and not some grand diversion from the usual routine. 

Thus far, you would be forgiven for thinking that I loved the film. And really, if the film had been a small, quiet exploration of a week in Spider-Man's day-to-day life, dealing with the trials and tribulations of being a teenager, juggling a part-time job and a girlfriend while also trying to win over the citizens of New York  (complete with slapstick Rhino battles), I would have been beaming from ear to ear. So many small moments throughout the film were delightful. Unfortunately, the film does what all superhero films now do - it pumps dastardly villains with sinister plots and devilish deeds in by the truckload and never really manages to coordinate them effectively. 

All of the clichés rear their ugly heads - secret rooms, hidden experiments, forgotten friendships, a disease that must be cured, unexplained costumes, mental illness played both for laughs and for ham-fisted horror, dialogue like "You're too late Spider-Man!!" "The tables have turned!!" and "I will take back what's rightfully mine!!" - even the old classic of writing out letters with newspaper headlines gets a bizarre inclusion. The film trudges through the same old setting-it-up-for-the-sequel rigamarole as the first film did, and while many of the story threads from the first film are tied up, We are Left with More Questions than Answers (TM). The spiralling plot of the film (and the franchise) again involves Peter trying to discover the mystery of his lost parents, with the seedy history of the Osborns bleeding into his investigation over the course of the film - again, as a Spider-Man fan I have no interest in Richard and Mary Parker, but even divorced from any preconceptions one may have about the world of the comics, the subplot is just too clichéd, like something out of a TV action series like 'Arrow' or 'Smallville'. A multi-million dollar movie series shouldn't be wasting its time with serialised rubbish we've all seen before.  


Jamie Foxx just isn't very good as Electro. The visuals are fine and there are some serviceable displays of computer-animation and sound design, but in a film populated by characters as meaty, modern and well-rounded as Peter, Gwen and even Aunt May - Max Dillon is cheesy and one-dimensional enough that he might as well be a Power Rangers villain (right down to the 'Silly Nerd' hairstyle, buck-tooth and glasses from 1988). At times, I half-expected Bulk and Skull to come along and throw a milkshake over his face. When he transforms into his electric alter-ego, his arc essentially ends and he is relegated to muscle-duty for the sake of the We Have to Kill Spider-Man plot. Foxx himself seems to be playing the part as he was hired to play it so it's hard to lay the blame with anyone other than Marc Webb. In some ways, it would even appear that the way Electro is depicted is Webb's way of thumbing his nose at the studio, as if to say "You want a big silly villain in your film? Here you go." It's worth mentioning as well, that pre-electrofied Max Dillon bears more than a passing similarity to Jim Carrey's pre-riddled Edward Nigma in "Batman Forever".



Even more irritating is Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn/The Green Goblin. As someone who dearly loved 'Chronicle', I did still feel that some of the acting was a bit stiff and DeHaan was certainly included in that estimation. As Harry Osborn, he plays the tortured heir as well as could be expected, and his friendship with Peter is even believable in the few short scenes they spend together as reminiscing childhood friends (again, a smaller scene adding greater weight than any of the grander scenes of action and peril). Once, however, he is charged with plunging into the depths of evil and despair, an invisible moustache appears to protrude from his face and he proceeds to twirl it like a pantomime villain for the rest of the film. The Raimi trilogy and its cast of characters receives much retroactive derision since the inception of this newer, trendier series - but I always found James Franco effective and believable as a real person (I even thought he was one of the saving graces of the notoriously-maligned third film). DeHaan is a stupid, spoiled cartoon character. A poor man's Lex Luthor. 

Ultimately, the film is split right down the middle - I adored the smaller character-driven moments as much or more than I ever have while watching a Spider-Man film. In some rare cases there were scenes and moments that are among the very best of the entire genre. The film fell spectacularly from grace however when it was required to deliver the now-customary larger elements of action, plot, villainy and pizazz. I had more interest in Peter saving the little boy from the bullies than I had in Spider-Man saving the police car from Electro. I was more engaged in Peter and Gwen talking about Korean Food than I was in Harry Osborn trying to maintain his family legacy (by doing...something?). 



As is often the case with superhero movies nowadays, the film leaves you yearning for a smaller experience that doesn't need to pander to the masses or a make a kabillion jillion box office dollars - if it's ever possible to do a Spider-Man TV series (like one of those high-budget HBO or AMC affairs) Sony should try their hand at that. Otherwise, like many others, I'm clamouring for the focus and direction of Marvel Studios in a Spider-Man movie (this film could have benefited so much from being as small and character-driven as Captain America: The Winter Soldier). 

While "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is still on the better side of 'only okay', it still stands that the webslinger needs to be rescued and brought back home to where he belongs, with the rest of The Avengers. Maintain the crucial resource of Garfield (and the rest of the cast, for that matter) and climb aboard the helicarrier. Nevertheless, the film is serviceable enough that family audiences and fanboys should enjoy their time at the cinema without too many strong feelings of resentment.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Blue Bomb Buzzes Metropolis (into rubble): My long overdue review of 'Man of Steel'

I wrote this as a Reddit comment ages ago and I imagine it's the best summation of my opinions on the film I'm likely to write:

Review: **




"Man of Steel Theatrical Trailer #3" is the greatest superhero trailer I have seen in twenty years. I have never been as feverishly excited for a film purely based on a trailer, maybe ever. From the opening bars of Hans Zimmer's soft piano and Russell Crowe's 'Goodbye my son', through Kevin Costner's "You ARE my son!" and into Cavill's pure charm, I could not wait to inject this film into my veins. 




I've been waiting for a movie version of 'Superman: Birthright', for years and this seemed like it. That story to me legitimised Superman for the new age, without undermining his beliefs, his stances, his methods. It was the perfect way to redo Superman's origin. 

When I went to see the movie in theatres, it wasn't quite what I was expecting, but I'd still say I had a good time. 

The large amounts of pseudoscience and space opera were a bit overwhelming at times when really I just wanted a character drama, but it was still really enjoyable. It was later on upon further reflection that I realised that it just wasn't the film for me. 







Defenders of the film CONSTANTLY claim that people didn't like the film because it wasn't like Donner's Superman - for me it was actually quite the opposite - once again Clark is adrift, unsure of himself and lonely until finally Jor-El basically tells him to become Superman, becoming a major character for the rest of the film and eradicating any chance of us seeing Clark really FORMULATE the idea of a 'super-hero' on his own, the way he did in 'Birthright', many other comics and 'Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman' (a very under-rated show, especially the first season).




Remember this is part of what made the Dark Knight films so interesting - Bruce didn't just get handed the keys to the Batcave, he had to CREATE the entire idea of what a Batman would be. I was HUGELY looking forward to a similar approach for Superman, but instead it's just "Here's your 40,000 year old suit son." The film just didn't develop enough of its characters well enough and it just drifted from place to place, from time to time. Frankly it was a mess.




The characterisation of Jonathan Kent was really troubling as well. A character who should really embody everything that's decent and good about America basically amounted to a coward who didn't want to help anyone and just wanted his family to stay safe at all costs. His death was just badly handled in every respect...even if you liked the way he was characterised, I'm having trouble trying to make excuses for how ridiculous that scene is. After ten seasons of Smallville with Clark using his powers in secret, you're telling me movie-Clark can't just whizz Jonathan to safety without anyone seeing him? It was dumb guys, I'm sorry. 




The level of attention given to members of the American military was a bit uncomfortable - especially when characters like Perry White were getting shorthanded. I know this has become a subject of derision for a lot of defenders of the film, but we really don't get to see Superman actually SAVE many people other than soldiers and Lois one time. 




And finally there's that awful turgid tone of the last half an hour. It's dank, dark and depressing, it almost fetishises disturbing images of 9/11 disaster and even if he does have to kill the bad guy, having Superman snap Zod's neck was grotesque and ugly and something I don't want to see in a story that's supposed to be about hope. No one can argue that Superman didn't do the right thing by killing Zod, but there's no artistic merit in it - he cries out about it for a second and then it's all smiles for the finale in the Daily Planet. 




Last thing - I'm a journalism graduate with a masters degree in multimedia and the idea that someone who has been drifting around America (we don't see him leave America like we do in other stories) working in bars and on fishing trawlers can just waltz into a job working for the greatest newspaper in the world (unless I'm mistaken that is still DP's rep in this film - Lois has a pulitzer for crying out loud!) is flat out offensive. Not only that, but unlike the meticulous attention to detail 'Birthright' gave to the plausibility of the glasses disguise, there's no explanation for it whatsoever here. You're just supposed to already know that Superman wears glasses and accept it. I thought this was (in Nolan's own words) "A film for people who've never seen a Superman film before?". 




This film could have and should have been an exploration of an honest man villified for his honest actions by an uncaring and cynical world and that honest man proving the legitimacy of his actions and showing people how to be better than they thought they could be. Superman IS an interesting character, especially when juxtaposed with the cynical frailties of modern society - all this film tried to be was a cool space opera with explosions and fights. All attempts at interesting character drama was surface-level, and I think this is why I initially enjoyed it. 

It's a really shallow movie and as a huge fan of The Dark Knight Trilogy (I am a STAUNCH defender of 'Rises'), I was massively disappointed.

Monday, March 31, 2014

'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' is a breath of fresh air for a genre that's getting stale [REVIEW]



REVIEW: ****

While the Marvel Studios movies have rarely been truly bad, I have felt that the post-Avengers films have been lacking a greater sense of ambition - both 'Iron Man 3' and 'Thor 2' seemed content to coast along with elaborate action scenes and generous doses of comedy gags. None of the 'Studios films ever aimed for the kind of intelligent, transcendant storytelling seen in 'The Dark Knight' or even the earlier X-Men films - they seemed content in providing breezy popcorn entertainment that doesn't require a lot of brainpower.This all changes in 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'.



The sequel to the 2011 film, Cap 2 is almost unrecognisable when compared to the earlier film - gone is the WWII backdrop (as Cap has awoken in the modern day) and gone are the gimmicky laser-cannon Hydra henchmen, which made much of the previous film's third act feel like a videogame. What's left is an intelligent, elaborate political thriller that puts heavy emphasis on slower, more thoughtful scenes of characterisation and dialogue, with action scenes that while exciting, are more reserved, more realistic and less reliant on computer wizardry. Veteran 'Community' directors Anthony and Joe Russo have crafted a vibrant, thrilling new chapter in the Marvel Cinemaverse and it's no surprise that their talents have been called on for the third 'Cap' film.



Robert Redford joins the cast as Alexander Pierce, one of the senior members of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury's boss. Redford is mainly present to provide 'real dramatic actor cred' to the film, as is always the case in superhero films now - but unlike other examples of this trope, Redford is given a really meaty, complex role and he always invests heavily in the scenes in which he appears; he never seems embarrassed by his presence in the film, which hasn't always been the case. The other obvious reason for his inclusion is that it recalls 1970s political thrillers like 'Three Days of the Condor' - in one scene, the Watergate Hotel is conspicuously placed in the background, again strengthening this atmosphere.



Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johannson return as Nick Fury and Black Widow respectively; both have more to do in this film than they have in many of the other Marvel movies (even 'The Avengers') and the films leaves you yearning for Black Widow to get her own film. One thing I liked about Johannson's role this time around was that there was a lot less overt sexualisation of her than there was in Iron Man 2 or the Avengers. Anthony Mackie makes his much-anticipated debut as Captain America's bessie mate 'The Falcon' and every time he's on the screen, he's a joy to watch. I sincerely hope he makes many repeat appearances across all the films - he even deserves his own film. Sebastian Stan plays the Winter Soldier, a character whose appearances are surprisingly scant throughout a film where his name appears in the title - every appearance is effective, however and Stan's presence is always successful. I've seen the film twice now, and on both occasions, I heard an audible gasp from people in the audience when they learnt the truth of the Winter Soldier in the second act.



The best thing about the film however, is of course Chris Evans as Steve Rogers. So many people were against the casting of Evans to the character given that he'd already played the Human Torch and there was a wealth of more immediately interesting choices rumoured for the role (John Krasinski would have been a really exciting choice).  What's so surprising then is that Evans injects so much personality and humanity into a character that could easily be very dry. Captain America is part of the 'old guard' of smiling, dashing heroes that many people find difficult to relate to or telling interesting stories with. What 'Winter Soldier' does so well (much like many of the best Cap stories in the comics), is that it juxtaposes Cap's earnest, black & white way of looking at the world with the realities of modern cynicism and fragile politics, where there are far more shades of grey. Throughout the film, Cap is found wondering if S.H.I.E.L.D. represents the freedom he was fighting for in WWII, or if it's just another oppressive bully - Evans relishes the role, injecting a commanding presence, a childlike wonder of modern innovation and a reassuring confidence in his ability to do the right thing. You literally would follow this guy into war.

Like the first film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier proves how it's still possible to take an older, more traditional superhero and make them interesting by framing their adventure within a modern context. This is something that 'Man of Steel' sensationally failed to do, because it didn't try - unlike that film, Cap 2 is a film that truly believes in its lead character and his innocent idealism, rather than trying to dirty him up. It stands proud as one of the very best of the Marvel Studios movies and a promising look at how superhero movies may continue to grow and become more intelligent and less reliant on the repetitive tropes of the genre.

Monday, March 24, 2014

5 Tips for Having the Craic and Saving Money in Dublin City Centre

While it’s a fair city to live in, enjoying yourself in Dublin has become an increasingly pricey enterprise - for a fairly small European city, it is guilty of being a bit of a tourist trap, with many of it’s key attractions diddle-ee-eyeing it up for the sake of tourists (especially Americans) looking to part with 50 euro notes. Far too many stories are being heard of pints costing 6 and 7 euro, and far too bloody often the selection is the same supermarket slush you can get anywhere. Negotiating your way through the pricey labyrinth of The Big Smoke without injuring your wallet is difficult, but doable. Let's take a look at five easy ways to soften the blow.


5. Stay away from Copperface Jack’s




The international notoriety of Copperface Jack's and its Harcourt Street brethren is known to all, far and wide and it's unlikely to lose its seedy lure for rural, hormonal twentysomethings anytime soon. If you want a paint-by-numbers Night Out, with a standard crowd (there's always a crowd there), basic drinks and an increased chance of nocturnal romance (he said, an eyebrow raised), there's not much of an argument to be had against Coppers.

Except that it's sweaty, expensive and crap.
Something that will come as a surprise to no one is that Copperface Jack's is a meat market, full of shady characters looking to Make a Sale and Bail. Far as the eye can see, it's as jam-packed as a tin of spam, with people pressing each other up against walls, glowing with condensation and remorse, awkwardly licking each others faces because they're so drunk off Carlsberg, Budweiser and other boring beers. Just like the ambience, the music is meticulously 'Does what it says on the tin', with chart hits spat out by a soulless DJ, followed by a smattering of sure-fire 1990s Nostalgia Choons. Look, everyone will guiltily confess to having had at least one epic night there, but it's the McDonalds of Dublin nightclubs - it's as condensed, processed and unhealthy as you can get. Unlike McDonalds though, it's expensive - last time I checked it's a tenner in, and the pisswater they serve is the same boring supermarket tipple you can get anywhere.




Instead of immediately leaping into the queue for Jack’s, think further toward the Liffey. Doyle’s of College Green is a perfectly fine establishment that doesn’t charge a cover, and offers a very similar experience to Coppers - minus the exorbitant drink prices for shit beer, and the sinister meaty ambience. Downstairs is a friendly, welcoming pub (although I did overhear a man there say that he thought ‘The Big Bang Theory’ was the best American sitcom he’d ever seen) while upstairs is a fun, vibrant night-club with the same “Play the hits” mentality that works for Coppers - but it’s less depressing because of the drinks promos, and the ability to sit down. For the best compromise between affordability, and ease of location (especially if you’re relying on public transport), Doyle’s is the happiest medium.





Style and affordability meet in The Workman’s Club and its accompanying pub, The Bison Bar however. It’s just a really cool place, with a reliably eccentric crowd and drinks promos that range from the sublime to the amazing. Where you’re stuck paying €5.50 for a Budweiser in Coppers, in Workman’s it’s a fiver for a Whiskey Sour. Even less still, is the ‘Gail Platt’, named after the eternally annoying Coronation Street character. On Sunday night’s Karaoke Night (where patrons were recently taken by storm by soulful reimaginings of Common People and Danger Zone) I managed to enjoy the company of Ms. Platt four times, for less than €20. The Rovers can’t compete - I say can’t compete with that, Ashley.




4. Cinemas: Choose Irish


Cineworld on Parnell Street (The Artist Formerly Known as The UGC) has some fine facilities, fairly friendly staff, is well-laid out and because of its exclusive IMAX screen is largely unavoidable when a big Summer blockbuster comes out. Unfortunately, it’s ferociously expensive, with tickets on the wrong side of €11, and for reasons that remain a mystery to me, it is basically the Hellmouth of cinemas; a hive of scum, villainy, and people who have loud, ignorant conversations throughout a film while waving their iPhone around like a floodlight, as though it were somehow the key to their release from this dark prison. I have actually been known to stand up and tell people to be quiet during films there. I can’t explain why, but it attracts utter dickheads and I always try to avoid the place for the sake of my sanity.





The Savoy on O’Connell Street is a classier gem, too often forgotten by modern Dubliners. While it has fewer screens (many of them smaller than its Parnell St. rival) and thus less choice of cinema times, it boasts undeniably better ambience (I love the way the staff still wear bow ties and some of the ushers look like they’ve worked there for decades) and is crucially a lot cheaper than Cineworld. It’s just a nicer place to be and I have fond memories of my recent trips there.


For less mainstream cinema, The IFI is the secret weapon of the city, with regular and affordable screenings of independent films, documentaries and classics (my girlfriend and I saw Casablanca on Valentine’s Day there two years ago and it was delightful). A similar venue is The Screen, a quiet little resource around the corner from d’Olier Street. Like the IFI, bigger Hollywood films generally aren’t shown there, but it’s a good place to see subversive character dramas, and usually the big Oscar nominees will be shown there. It also warrants a mention for its showings of all of the Batman movies in the Summer of 2012.



3. Antidotes for the Starbucks Infection


Like most European cities, Dublin is suffering from an outbreak of Starbucks coffee houses that have poisoned the city overnight, with new ones sprouting up like warts on every side of the Liffey, as Irish-owned businesses are ritually sacrificed to the American behemoth. Everybody in the world knows that Starbucks is overpriced, pretentious and rubbish - their coffee is so drab and tasteless that unless you order an expensive, syrupy, foamy cup of swill, you’re not going to enjoy your drink at all. The vacuum-packed food is so expensive that the fact that it looks stale and repulsive isn't even the reason you avoid it. The Wifi has rarely worked very well in any of the many outlets I've visited and while the staff are undoubtedly friendly, it’s that creepy, overenthusiastic, manufactured Stepford Wife-brand of friendliness that is more off-putting and repellant than it is welcoming. These places are magnets for ageing hipsters, loud and annoying tourists and complete assholes.


There are plenty of beautiful, gourmet coffee houses around Dublin, but the problem is that Starbucks isn’t trying to cater to these people. It understandably provides a service to people in a hurry, on-the-go, in a rush, etc. For a more affordable facsimile, with more down-to-Earth staff, dramatically more affordable coffee and reasonable food options, I've really fallen in love with Centra Foodhall on Abbey Street.





Don’t let its newsagenty title fool you - while it is fundamentally a shop, it works well as a café as well, with a cosy seating area and plenty of hot food options as well as self-service coffee machines, negating the need to deal with an Americanised automaton awkwardly asking what your name is so they can scrawl a hasty misspelling of it onto a paper cup. Get a loyalty card and you’ll quickly find yourself with a free cup of coffee, even though you’ve barely spent a tenner there over a two-week period.





If you’re not in a hurry, another cheap option is, strangely enough, The Decent Cigar Emporium on Grafton Street, which also offers coffee at insanely competitive prices (last time I went there it was 1.90 for an Americano). Also, it goes without saying that if your a motorist, Topaz is a caffeine-godsend.


2. Dealz is the greatest thing ever


Pound shops (a term so well-known that it has retained its iconic power long after the introduction of the euro) have always been an essential secret weapon to getting by in any major Irish town. Dublin is awash with these wonders, many of them loaded with budget-friendly eccentricities that presumably found their way over here in some kind of bulk trawler.





Dealz goes above and beyond, not just providing the bare essentials, but the nitty-gritty requirements that you find yourself needing, but not wanting to spend money on. Little things like white-boards (or chalk-boards) for the kitchen, thermoses, various bodycare products (don’t buy underarm deodorant anywhere else) and fiddly little entertainment requirements (HDMi cables, coaxial audio cables, USB chargers, blank CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes!) are all available there for pennies (149 to be exact). Also, if you’re stocking up for a movie marathon and you need some junk food, don’t bother throwing money down the toilet in Tesco - Dealz have got you sorted on that front as well, with lots of interesting confectionary that’s pricey or difficult to find elsewhere as well as the usual stuff for as little as half the price you’d pay in the supermarket.


An honourable mention must go to Tiger as well - they’re not quite a pound shop, as many of their products cost as much as €5, but they’re well-deserving of a mosey as they have a wealth of weird little oddities you didn’t know you needed (everything from herbs and spices to wind-up robots and fake moustaches).



1. Temple Bar by day, not by night.


This is common knowledge for anyone who has spent more than ten minutes in Dublin, but for those on the tear, the Temple Bar area is a ridiculous, stereotype-promoting, cliché-ridden tourist trap with legendarily expensive pubs. Don’t get me wrong, there are some truly wonderful, completely-free cultural events and unmissably quirky shops and stalls there that make it an essential spot to be during the day, but when night falls, the place rapidly deteriorates into an almighty dive.





If you want to actually experience Irish culture and not the tawdry ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’ version of it, go to Club Chonradh na Gaeilge on Harcourt Street - a bastion of truth, drinking and an tslí Gaelach. Conceptually it’s an Irish-speaking pub and at any given time, at least 80% of its patrons will usually be speaking the language - but don’t let this put you off. It’s got one of the friendliest atmospheres in Dublin and the barmen are only too happy to teach you the cúpla focal so that you can order a pionta leánn dubh. If you really want to go full-Irish, there’s traditional Irish music there quite often and even a bit of the auld damhsa. Worth mentioning that their pints are reasonably-priced as well and you’ll get a great Guinness there.


By now you’ll have realised that I hate shelling out money on crap, supermarket beer like Budweiser or Carlsberg. If you’re in town having a pint, you can enjoy far better and at cheaper cost. Places like the Portherhouse Central on Nassau Street, the Bull and Castle in Christchurch and my favourite J.W. Sweetman’s (The Artist Formerly known as Messrs Maguire) are awash with freshly brewed craft beers, on tap and often for less than a fiver (while the tasteless Budweisers are often at least a euro or two more expensive). I recommend Porterhouse’s Red Ale and Kölsch Pale Ale is a great choice if you’re in J.W. Sweetman’s (or Cologne - where it’s from, for that matter). 

Unfortunately, our national tastes are drab and uninspired even in the best environments - despite certain pubs having an abundance of these tasty treat-beers, people always favour the drab foamy rubbish they know, but you can be the change you expect in other drinkers. Hopefully I've highlighted a few money-saving spots. Even if you don't actually save any money per se, you may at least find that you've enjoyed spending it that bit more. Vive le Capitalisme!