Talking Movies

August 18, 2011

Medium’s Realism

Allison DuBois sees dead people. And yet despite the show’s high concept being supernatural in the extreme Medium has been one of the most realistic shows on TV…

When I trumpeted Medium in the University Observer in 2005 I noted that it derived its emotional impact from the way creator Glenn Gordon Caron and ace Dark Angel writer/producers Moira Kirland, Rene Echevarria, and later Robert Doherty, were able to weave together domestic dramas and bizarre visions in an utterly plausible fashion. The initial hook of the show was second-guessing how Patricia Arquette’s cryptic visions would help the police solve baffling crimes. But the real hook for long-term viewing was the emotional meat of the show. I dubbed it, despite my love of the Cohens in The OC, the only portrayal worth a damn on US TV of a normal married couple raising children, with the little triumphs and little pitfalls that go with the territory. When the two strands combined, as in the episode where the ghost of a serial killer from the 1880s stalked eldest daughter Ariel, the results were truly heart-stopping, not least because that episode played out in flashbacks that implied Allison had failed to prevent her murder – a point to be returned to later. Medium’s realistic family dynamic only became more impressive an achievement over time as the strain on Joe of handling his wife and daughter’s abilities began to show, and the daughters not only became more rebellious as they aged but also more susceptible to the Roland family gift/curse for picking up psychic flashes.

It may seem odd to characterise long-takes, a favourite trick of showy directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Alfonso Cuaron, as being realistic, but Medium has always used handheld cameras that, without descending into the shaky-cam madness of JJ Abrams or Paul Greengrass, add an air of rough immediacy to proceedings, and when these cameras, so often deployed by the last-named auteurs for rapidly edited shots, suddenly do long-takes it affords an almost theatrical intimacy; especially as these long-takes are quite often gruesome confessions by killers, plot revelations achieved by a simple shift of the frame to one side to reveal an obscured detail, or horrendous crimes being unnervingly observed with an unblinking eye.

Medium was also depicting money worries in a middle-class family in the American Southwest years before the acclaimed Breaking Bad ‘broke new ground’ by doing so. The 7 seasons of Medium can almost be characterised by Joe’s fluctuating fortunes in the job market as much as by Allison’s murder cases. From happily employed to then working under stress at large corporation Aerodytech, to helplessly unemployed, to starting his own company, to working on his own invention for another corporation, to working again as a drone for yet another corporation under an inspired maniac, to replacing said maniac, Joe’s career has been a rollercoaster reflecting the sheer uncertainty of the modern economy which valorises flexibility while ignoring what that actually means. The sheer terror of being bankrupted by frivolous or half-plausible but unjust lawsuits, because you have very little savings left after the business of living has attacked your paycheque, has been dramatised repeatedly in Medium. It’s never been a given that Joe and Allison will escape financial armageddon because, unlike Breaking Bad’s excessively all-pervasive bleakness, there’s always been an unnerving lack of guaranteed happy endings in Medium. It has repeatedly demonstrated that for all her paranormal powers Allison can’t always get her man. In some cases she has egregiously failed to catch the killer and never got a second bite at the cherry. Against the backdrop that things don’t always end well, Medium has created a good deal of dread from bad familial and financial situations.

Finally there’s the realism factor engendered by the remarkable fact that they don’t do supernatural crimes on Medium, despite the occult premise of the show. Indeed one scene, during an investigation of a priest’s death, which suggested that a demon had actually possessed a possessed girl was absolutely terrifying because it broke with two seasons’ worth of assurances that the supernatural solved crimes but had no part in committing them. Sure there have been moments that get close to supernatural crimes, such as David Arquette as Allison’s ne’er-do-well brother letting John Glover take control of his body, but what Glover does then isn’t particularly supernatural as a crime; he merely uses his charisma as a motivational speaker to tempt people to succumb to an addiction they’ve been fighting, such as cigarettes or alcohol. Similarly while Allison has variously gone deaf, lost control of her hand, or lost her ability to recognise English, none of these conditions has been anything but ‘hysterical blindness’ writ large; as Rena Sofer’s doctor dubbed it in the final season: a psychological reaction to an emotional trauma. Medium as a show has dealt in realistic crimes, but these have been frequently been at the extremely chilling end of the spectrum of psychosis, as it’s been very concerned with violence against women and children. Despite being driven by a strong female lead character it’s never shrunk from depicting women as extremely vulnerable physically to the predations of disturbed men. Serial killers aplenty have committed crimes against women in Allison’s Phoenix stronghold, Eric Stoltz’s killer a terrifying example, and there’s been incredibly disturbing attacks on children too, including a horrendous crime that Det. Lee Scanlon unwittingly failed to prevent when he was a beat cop.

Medium lost some great writers along the way but it kept its standard high to the very end, and its controversial finale proved it was never afraid to be realistic to a fault.

Medium continues its swansong seventh season on Living, Fridays at 9pm.

Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie

Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie is less concert film, featuring most of the cast of Glee performing in character, and more socio-political manifesto by Ryan Murphy.

The film opens with backstage interviews with the Glee cast. Oddly some of them stay in character and some don’t. Their character names then flash up on screen during their on-stage introduction and Artie stays in his wheelchair just to hammer home that they’re performing in character as New Directions, sort of. If the film wants to refer to the performers by character name, I’m happy to oblige and save myself a visit to IMDb. Proceedings begin, of course, with the trademark god-awful cover of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. The words ‘of course’ apply to most of the numbers. This is a greatest hits package of songs that the show has affixed to particular characters, all of whom get the chance to step up and strut their stuff.

Miss Holliday cameos for one Ce Loo song, but Mr Schuster is conspicuously absent. Puck, Mercedes and Artie all get to show off with solo songs but the most notable turn is Britney’s energetic performance of ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’, which is outrageously sleazy, and leads to the thought that 3-D works well for horror and animation but is perhaps also something that could enhance musicals. Not that it works particularly well here, the choreography is too basic for there to really be anything to show off, but there are moments when it adds something. But while they fail to exploit the third dimension these are good performances – Mike Chang can dance! As indeed can the other secondary characters. But then the lead characters can really sing. Rachel belts out ‘Firework’, and, as Nadine O’Regan has noted, Katy Perry’s lungs resemble those of a blue whale.

Regrettably this is not solely a concert film. There are endless inserts following three Glee fans. Apparently Glee cures Asperger’s, makes dwarves (their term) popular and enables gay students survive high school. Apparently I hallucinated three hilarious pre-Glee seasons of Ugly Betty valorising a hopeless nerd, celebrating difference and positively depicting a fabulous high school student… Lady GaGa’s ‘Born This Way’ is the show-climaxing statement of socio-political intent, but Glee cannot sustain this solving-all-the-world’s-problems-with-a-soft-shoe-shuffle pomposity – what could? Glee is just a TV show with glaring limitations. It’s a blender which flattens all music. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and Massive Attack’s ‘Inertia Creeps’ would all emerge sounding the same, as deeply over-produced pop. I previously criticised its lack of ambition beside Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, and here Kurt performs ‘I Want to Hold your Hand’ – precisely as Taymor reinterpreted it! Even their innovations are derivative!!

This is a genuinely enjoyable concert, but the documentary segments are actually mildly disturbing…

2/5

(P.S. Stay on after the credits for another signature song…)

August 9, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

James Franco, as smugly self-satisfied as ever, develops a cure for Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately he also manages to bring about the apocalypse. Dude… Not cool.

This movie has been almost destroyed by its unusually long TV spots, which added to the cinema trailers that consisted solely of plot points and thematic statements masquerading as dialogue, leaves precious few surprises for cinema viewing. Franco’s scientist makes a breakthrough on a drug which repairs cognitive functioning in one chimpanzee, however, when she runs amok the entire research programme is canned. Everyone’s favourite slacker Tyler Labine doesn’t have the heart to put down the baby that chimpanzee had been protecting and so gives it to a reluctant Franco. Franco raises it at home where he discovers that it has inherited the effects of the drug, resulting in super-intelligence. Eventually he decides to test the drug on his own Alzheimer’s stricken father Charles (John Lithgow). Frieda Pinto’s vet warns him about messing with nature, but he convinces his boss Jacobs (a nicely cavalier David Oyelowo) to allow him develop an even more potent strain…

There are similarities with this week’s other chimpanzee release Project Nim, as Caesar is raised in a human setting, and shown using sign language and displaying very human traits, before his increasing viciousness sees him abruptly removed to live with chimpanzees who ostracise him. But this is a wild animal, a point made needlessly nastily when Caesar very deliberately bites off and eats a man’s fingers when attacking the angry next-door neighbour to protect a confused Charles. Caesar’s incarceration is interesting as Caesar is subjected to humiliation as the new inmate before using his superior intelligence to rise up the food-chain. It’s like watching Audiard’s A Prophet in a zoo. I’ve said it before but Andy Serkis is an unappreciated marvel as he does so much acting work in motion-capture. His performance as Caesar is wonderfully nuanced; you can see in his eyes the dawning of responsibility for his fellow less smart primates. John Lithgow does wonders with the material he’s given, though his transformation from mangling ‘Clair de Lune’ to concert pianist as the Alzheimer’s drug works is tasteless in its emotional manipulation. Characterisation isn’t this film’s strong point though. Frieda Pinto in particular has a barely written character.

There are a number of deliriously showy moments by director Rupert Wyatt, such as the montage of Caesar climbing a giant redwood that takes us thru 5 years in about a minute (please copy Terrence Malick), a panning shot thru a building as the apes rampage thru office space before tumbling onto the street, Jacobs entering a deserted building and not noticing what’s above him (a homage to The Birds), and a delightfully Spielbergian touch in the first arrival of the evolved primates in San Francisco being conveyed by a sudden gentle rain of loose leaves onto the joggers on a suburban road. Other highlights are an iconic line from the 1968 original, a hilarious moment when the signing circus orangutan gives the raspberry to Caesar’s grandiose plans, and a startlingly well-staged action finale on the Golden Gate Bridge.

This is a vast improvement on Tim Burton’s 2001 disaster but while it features a number of showy moments, and a nicely choreographed finale, the shallowness of characterisation holds it back.

2.5/5

Dublin Theatre Festival: 10 Plays

Peer Gynt 27 Sep – 16 Oct Belvedere College
Rough Magic’s writer Arthur Riordan updates Ibsen’s most fantastical play about loves lost and folkloric psychosis. Talking Movies favourite Rory Nolan plays the titular delusional hero and Tarab, not Grieg, provide a live musical accompaniment. Phaedra last year was a misfiring production with a similar blend of ingredients so this 3 hour show is a recommendation, with caveats…

The Lulu House 27 Sep – 16 Oct James Joyce House
Selina Cartmell, who wowed the Fringe last year directing Medea, returns with another femme fatale. Lorcan Cranitch and Camille O’Sullivan star in a mixture of musical, drama and film inspired by German playwright Wedekind’s original character and also Pabst’s silent film Pandora’s Box. This only lasts one hour, but it should be a visually rich experience.

Donka, A letter to Chekhov 29 Sep – 2 Oct Gaiety
The traditional circus spectacular at the Gaiety comes from Russia, and is one of two Festival shows about Chekhov. Clowns, acrobats and musicians not only create the world of Chekhov’s characters but, by using his diaries, portray his inner emotional world. Writer and director Daniele Finzi Pasca has previously helmed a Cirque de Soleil show and Broadway musical Rain so this should be dazzling.

Testament 29 Sep – 16 Oct Project Arts Centre
Colm Toibin writes a play, Garry Hynes directs it and Marie Mullen performs it. What could possibly go wrong? Well…. Toibin’s not a playwright, Druid do occasionally screw up, and Mullen destroyed 2007’s Long Day’s Journey into Night with her hammy turn. This is a 90 minute uninterrupted monologue with Mullen as the Virgin Mary (or maybe not, it’s vague) which could become very long…

Juno and the Paycock 29 Sep – 15 Oct Abbey
The Abbey team up with Southbank’s National Theatre for this co-production of Sean O’Casey’s old war-horse. A starry cast includes Ciaran Hinds as Captain Boyle, Risteard Cooper as his drinking buddy Joxer and Sinead Cusack as Mrs Boyle. Druid and Abbey regulars like Clare Dunne and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor fill out the ensemble grappling with melodramatic misfortunes in the middle of the Civil War.

The Speckled People 29 Sep – 15 Oct Gate
Patrick Mason is a great director, and Denis Conway, John Kavanagh and Tadhg Murphy accomplished actors, but it’s hard to regard Hugo Hamilton’s adaptation of his own memoir as anything but ‘ugh, complain theatre’, to paraphrase Clueless. Stephen Brennan will undoubtedly play the ultra-nationalist Irish father oppressing his son’s German identity, probably as a variant on his abrasive patriarch from Phaedra.

La Voix Humaine 29 Sep – 2 Oct Samuel Beckett Theatre
Jean Cocteau’s celebrated story of a desperate woman making a last-ditch phone call to her ex-lover is performed with surtitles by acclaimed Dutch actress Halina Reijn. This is a bit pricey (2 euro a minute) given that’s it’s an hour long monologue with minimalist set, but Ivo van Hove is a celebrated director and will play on the audience’s voyeuristic instincts to achieve catharsis.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets 29 Sep – 2 Oct Project Arts Centre
Theatre company 1927’s macabre cabaret style unfurls a bizarre tenement story that’s a mixture of Fritz Lang, Charles Dickens and Tim Burton. A mix of live music and performance with pre-recorded film and animation this might be the most distinctive show of the festival aesthetically. Again nearly 2 euro a minute…

16 Possible Glimpses 30 Sep – 15 Oct Peacock
Chekhov is highly regarded at this year’s festival, but that doesn’t stretch to any of his plays being performed. Instead a second play about his life and work sees Abbey favourite Marina Carr thankfully eschewing misery in the midlands for an imaginative fantasia on Chekhov, using a series of vignettes to throw his most haunting characters into his turbulent productive life.

Slattery’s Sago Saga 6 Oct – 16 Oct Rathfarnham Castle
In our end is our beginning, Arthur Riordan re-writing an old master, here adapting an unfinished novel by Flann O’Brien. Rathfarnham Castle? A dashed odd place for a play you’d say, unless you knew that this was the site-specific Performance Corporation unleashing a surreal political satire involving the quiet life of Poguemahone Hall being shattered by a T.D. with an insane plan. It involves sago…

Project Nim

If you see only one film about a chimpanzee that’s smarter than your average primate this weekend then make it this one.

James Marsh, who’s becoming a regular Werner Herzog in alternating acclaimed documentaries with features, returns to the 1970s milieu of his previous hit Man on Wire. The setting is again New York but this time the dare-devil antics are intellectual not acrobatic and the span being traversed is not the gap between the Twin Towers but between the human and chimpanzee species. Nim Chimpsky is a chimpanzee baby taken from his mother in 1973 for a Columbia University experiment. Marsh mixes archive footage and still photos with a number of interviews he’s conducted with some of the principal players in the experiment which asked can a chimp, if raised as human, be taught to communicate in sign language? Marsh’s staged reconstructions and overly dramatic pans away from his talking heads are unnecessary, there’s drama enough in the story without inserting the visual clichés of 1970s thrillers. Startlingly enough the relevant clichés are Woody Allen’s 1970s films as nearly everyone involved was sleeping with everyone else, while maintaining that this in no way affected an experiment originally intended to provide a stable family environment for Nim…

Dr Herb Terrace, a psychologist, gives the baby Nim to his ex-lover Stephanie Lafarge, a former graduate student in Oedipal psychoanalysis, who promptly breastfeeds said chimpanzee before moving on to investigating his masturbatory habits and getting him high on marijuana. Nim’s lack of progress in learning sign language sees Terrace hire Laura, a linguist, as a teacher. Hardly a surprise given that Stephanie, obviously railing against her poet husband, reveals that she thinks word are bad and that Nim lost his essence by having language foisted on him… Bob and Joyce, another couple, arrive to help in the teaching, later joined by Renee, but as Nim grows up he becomes more dangerous and Terrace abruptly terminates the experiment. It’s radically unclear from the film who collated the data, or indeed why Terrace got all the credit. Project Nim loses its way in dealing with the endless post-experiment life of Nim. Sent back to the Oklahoma facility where he was born he is treated as another dude by hippie psychologist Bob Ingersoll, who eventually forms an unlikely alliance with British veterinarian Mahoney to give Nim the special attention he deserves.

While it’s heartbreaking to see an animal being made exceptional only to be casually discarded and cast back with other chimpanzees who now regard him as a freak, Marsh forces the pathos with continual emphasis on Nim’s humanity. Nim could never remain with humans as he always remained a wild animal, a point proved by his vicious attack on Renee in which he gashed a whole thru her cheek, and then attempted to re-open it months later, from pure instinct. The true fascination of this film is the conflict in Nim between nature and nurture, to wit – the experiment. Terrace concluded (all visual evidence to the contrary) that Nim never learnt language but was merely a beggar using signs. This seems to ignore the work of Eric Berne who posited in Games People Play that all social situations were transactional, one interpretation of which is that everyone always wanted something. By which yardstick Nim mastered language’s ultimate purpose perfectly…

Columbia University won’t thank James Marsh for it but this is a fascinating study of how science can be derailed by the human factor.

3/5

August 5, 2011

Double Exposure: Cutter’s Way/House M.D.

1981 neo-noir movie Cutter’s Way, recently screened at the IFI (yet again) has been forgotten, and it’s a half-deserved neglect. It’s not a great film, but it does showcase a superb performance from John Heard as the acerbic crippled Vietnam veteran Alexander Cutter. What’s startling is just how familiar his character is…

We first hear about Cutter thru Jeff Bridges’ character Richard Bone mentioning that he needs to buy some more medicines for him. Then we’re visually introduced to Cutter sitting in a bar making fun of people he’s just met, before saying something outrageously racist about one of them, and then compounding the problem when some guys who heard the remark start to circle. Bone gets him out of this, despite Cutter’s best attempts to get Bone dragged into the fight too, by excusing him on account of his leg… Cutter then yells at Bone that he needs more pills, and throws his cane after him, breaking a neon sign. The glorious off-screen shout “That’s going on your tab Cutter” confirms that this is just how Cutter rolls. The resonances with a certain drug-addled anti-social doctor and his drug-sourcing enabling friend don’t jump off the screen at this point, although they’re apparent later. What really puts the House comparison into your mind is when Bone delivers a drunken Cutter home to his long-suffering wife. She’s played by Lisa Eichorn who could well be Jennifer Morrison’s twin sister sent back in time so startling is the resemblance to House’s team-member Allison Cameron. As the film progresses you get the weird sensation that this is what would have happened if that date between House and Cameron at the end of season 1 went well. Cameron has sunk into alcoholic depression as she waits for House to forget about his leg and his misery and just start living again…

Such sentiments are reinforced by Cutter’s memorable arrival home in his car. Drunk as a skunk he first lurches to a halt splayed across the road. He’s not going to park it there, is he? Oh no, he’s going to ram his neighbour’s car, which is in the way, reverse, ram it again, reverse again, and park in his driveway, having destroyed his neighbour’s car in the process of shunting it into the correct driveway. Cutter stomps into his house, and announces he’s been picking up hitchhiker’s and saying how much fun they were, with one qualification; “Never orgy with a monkey, the little f—ers bite”. His wife points out that he has no car insurance, “That would be his problem”, and that his licence has expired, “Car runs just fine without it”, as Cutter changes into his old army jacket to go out and deal with the police the right way by talking about duty, appearing reasonable and apologetic, and getting away with everything because, as he quietly reminds the enraged neighbour (when the cop has left) by holding up his cane, “I’m a cripple”. Later Bone in exasperation at Cutter’s deranged scheme to blackmail a local millionaire they suspect of murder yells about how he doesn’t want another lecture by Cutter on “How you just see the world as it is, a crock of shit. And oh God, don’t start in on your leg…” Needless to say Bone, like Wilson, always ends up embroiled in his friend’s maddest plans despite his objections.

There are of course substantial differences between Alexander Cutter and Gregory House. Cutter is a soldier, not a doctor, and prone to adding physical violence to his cutting rhetoric. Waiting for a procrastinating Bone to make a blackmailing phone call Cutter whips out a hand-gun and shoots the target that Bone has been messing about with on the pier arcade to hurry things along, “Give the man his goddamn doll”. Cutter even strikes his wife when she questions his choice to wallow in misery. There’s even one weirdly prophetic anticipation of House’s recent move away from audience sympathy in this violence. Cutter’s demented hero moment in the closing frames as he rides a horse thru a garden party to crash thru the window of the evil tycoon could almost be the inspiration for the shark-jumping finale of House season 7. The resemblance to Cameron is accidental and hilarious, that to Wilson not overly pronounced but still present, but Cutter’s mixture of logical deductions that pin the crime on the millionaire and his biting remarks and refusal to obey any social contract all seem classically Houseian. So, did David Shore watch Cutter’s Way years before creating House and subconsciously remember aspects of a long-forgotten character, or is this just one of those weird moments where an idea seems to be floating around waiting for someone to use it, like discoveries in physics and astronomy that parallel researchers discovered simultaneously?

Probably the latter, but it sure makes for one hell of an entertaining and oblique way to view Cutter’s Way.

August 2, 2011

Roger Daltrey @ the Park

Roger Daltrey was always bound to be highlight of the @thePark series of concerts this summer and so it proved last Tuesday.

The recession appears to be biting hard as Marlay Park remained open during the concert; which was restricted to half the size of previous events, and under canvass in a marquee tent rather than in the open air in front of Marlay House. Daltrey is back on the road as a solo artist owing to Pete Townshend’s increasing hearing difficulties, and, back-dropped by original animations from London art-school students, he’s playing all of The Who’s seminal 1969 rock-opera Tommy. Daltrey started at the staggeringly early time of 8:17pm, catching most of the crowd off-guard, leading to a stampede into the tent. This intimate venue easily allowed me to get the closest to the stage I’ve been since seeing Frank Black in the Temple Bar Music Centre in 2003.

Daltrey stated he needed to warm up his voice after getting frozen at an open-air gig in Norfolk the day before and so belted out Who classics ‘I Can See For Miles’, ‘Pictures of Lilly’ and ‘Tattoo’, as well as his collaboration with The Chieftains, before the main event. Daltrey’s onstage introduction dismissed previous attempts by The Who to perform Tommy as ‘circus versions’ – played too fast, lacking the proper instruments, and ignoring the play of various voices. Here then was Tommy as it was meant to be performed, with guitarist Simon Townshend taking over vocal duties on a number of songs to flesh out the fictional universe. Daltrey meanwhile brought out the different characters in his array of songs, with his wonderfully sinister vocals when assuming the role of Uncle Ernie a highlight; especially his chilling delivery of the one word ‘Welcome…’ at the end of ‘Tommy’s Holiday Camp’. A huge cheer greeted the album’s sing-along track, ‘Pinball Wizard’, but the whole rendition was a triumph. The semi-abstract visuals banished all memory of Ken Russell’s filmic vision, while the amazing variety, and play of light and dark, in Townshend’s music and lyrics has never been more dazzlingly displayed. The clear anticipations of Led Zeppelin and Bowie hits to be heard in some songs demonstrated the influence of this work.

After Tommy Daltrey’s band launched into some playful interpretations of the obligatory Who classics including ‘Who Are You?’ ‘My Generation’, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’, and ‘The Kids Are Alright’. A highlight was a thrilling ‘Baba O’Riley’ ending with Daltrey himself playing the run-away violin finale part on harmonica. They continued with an affectionate Johnny Cash medley, and some extended blues jams, and the theme song ‘Without Your Love’ from Daltrey’s film McVicar, before appropriately ending with just Daltrey playing the Who rarity ‘Red, Blue and Grey’ on the ukulele. Tommy is a dark album but this was a luminous performance… Daltrey left the stage at 10:53pm, having played for a whopping 2 hours 36 minutes.

Not bad for a 67 year old. And he still swings a mean microphone too…

4/5

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