I’m putting the blog on ice for a while as I do at this time every year. Talking Movies will return in mid January with a Top 10 of 2012 and previews of 2013′s best films . Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
December 22, 2012
Last year I wrote about the best way to read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander books, but I’m just about to conclude a macro version of that advice.
I said then that the best way to read the Aubrey/Maturin saga aka Master & Commander was a chapter or two at a time, but spaced out with days between chapters so that the entire (usually) ten chapter novel takes at least two weeks. Only that way can one truly savour the flavour of each chapter, and O’Brian’s hilarious predisposition to writing chapters that deliberately ignore the preceding chapter’s cliff-hanger. I am now one chapter away from finishing Blue at the Mizzen, book 20 of the 20 books in the Master & Commander saga. Yes, O’Brian was working on book 21 when he died, but it’s unfinished and therefore un-canonical and I’ve still to reach a decision on whether I do want to gawk over the great man’s shoulder as he’s writing. For me, this represents home shore at last…
Book 18, The Yellow Admiral, gave a chill indication of how the series might end: the ships paid off, everyone thrown on half-leave, and no more war. And then Boney escaped exile and everyone was greatly relieved… But the shadowy existence of book 21 gives comfort, the characters continue to live on – Maturin will continue to ignore comfort to observe rare beasts, and Aubrey will continue lecturing on navigational mathematics. I first started reading O’Brian’s great epic in January 2004, in a tie-in film edition of books 1 and 10 with Russell Crowe emblazoned on the cover. I’d seen Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World in December 2003 after a disastrous cock-up involving tickets for the extended The Two Towers and been sufficiently intrigued to try my hand at the revered books which had been its source.
So starting in January 2004 and ending in December 2012 I have slowly worked through all 20 books in the series, including book 10 twice; having started with it as it was the alleged source of the plot of the film. Over that time I’ve revisited the film at least 5 times, and each time been struck anew by just how much of O’Brian Weir worked into the texture of the film. Dialogue appears from across the gamut of the series and character moments are equally widely sourced. Even deleted scenes on the DVD reveal a super-subtle allusion to the future addiction to laudanum of a character in the books. And of course the books have been equally coloured by the note-perfect renditions by Crowe and Bettany of Aubrey and Maturin, even if their physiques become increasingly unapt in print.
Saying goodbye to House after 8 years was emotional, but leaving behind O’Brian will be even more wrenching as more imaginative effort always goes into the act of reading than merely viewing. Three cheers for O’Brian – Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!
December 4, 2012
Martin McDonagh suffers from difficult second film syndrome as his unfocused follow-up to In Bruges falls between the stools of straightforward black comedy and meta-meditation.
Marty (Colin Farrell) is a drunken Irish screenwriter living in Los Angeles and wrestling with his high-concept film about the nature of love and evil, Seven Psychopaths. His long-suffering girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) is reaching the end of her tether putting up with Marty, not helped by constant visits from his deranged friend Billy (Sam Rockwell); an actor with a penchant for blowing auditions by punching people and ‘helping’ Marty with research on psychopaths. Billy also has a sideline of kidnapping purebred dogs and letting his dog-loving friend Hans Kieslowksi (Christopher Walken) look after them and then return them and collect the reward which they split. But when Billy makes the mistake of kidnapping a dog belonging to mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson) all hell breaks loose. Charlie quickly identifies the dognappers, and so Marty, Billy, and Hans run for the hills.
It’s tempting to say that the best scene in this movie is the opening scene, because it’s such pure undiluted McDonagh. Michael Pitt and fellow Boardwalk Empire star Michael Stuhlbarg are jumpy hit-men waiting for their target who get into a furious and dementedly logical argument about the marksmanship that killed Dillinger. Tempting, but there are scenes of that calibre scattered throughout the movie. A Gandhi aphorism is dismantled for being illogical, Billy imitates Marty’s Irish accent with truly atrocious results, Marty freaks out when his drinking is condemned as problematic by a character high on peyote, and there is a sublime moment of paralysis involving the great Zeljko Ivanek (rocking a truly terrible moustache as Charlie’s mob lieutenant) when someone refuses to put up their hands because they don’t want to; leaving Ivanek holding a gun and feeling foolish.
But this is a scattershot movie. Marty’s screenplay keeps the film shooting off on tangents, about Quaker stalkers and homicidal Buddhists, which add little. Tom Waits, as a Dexter of the 1960s adds an amazingly gruesome thread of sadistic violence, even by Dexter standards. Abbie Cornish is pointlessly underused, as are Olga Kurylenko and Gabourey Sidibe; something referenced in criticism of Marty’s inability to write decent female characters. But surely writing a complex heroine, which McDonagh has done in his plays, would be a better tactic? McDonagh as playwright can generate unease like Pinter, comedy like Orton, and heightened language like Synge. But, bar a fraught scene with Charlie in a hospital waiting for Hans, this script fails to generate suspense. The desert finale is visually interesting, but the self-referential scripting can’t escape structural convention.
McDonagh has some interesting ideas, and even self-critique, in this script; but as a movie it wants to have its cake and eat it too, and so it never hits the heights it could.
Emma Donoghue’s original script promised to be one of the highlights of the Dublin Theatre Festival but this much-hyped take on the life and work of New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan failed to do justice to its subject and cast.
Director Annabelle Comyn reunites with her The House actors Catherine Walker, Darragh Kelly, and Lorcan Cranitch for another period piece. We meet Brennan (Walker) just as she has swapped Ranelagh for Manhattan and joined the New Yorker. But while cartoonist Addams (Kelly) and writer St Clair McKelway (Owen McDonnell) welcome their editor William Shawn (Cranitch)’s lippy new recruit, her ambition to write the Talk of the Town column staggers them.
Brennan though is good enough to quickly secure that coveted job, and then to start filing the magazine with chilling, incisive short stories about her miserable childhood. We glimpse that traumatic past complete with voiceover in scenes staged on a set within Paul O’Mahony’s set in which her parents (Barry Barnes, Michele Forbes) play out their psychodramas. But these flashbacks are quite overplayed, and, like the play, far too fragmentary.
This feels like a screenplay in disguise. There are scenes which last about a minute to play and are there purely for the sake of one good line. This approach largely kills any dramatic momentum, and a perverse decision is taken to ignore an obvious curtain at Brennan’s “atomic age marriage”. Kelly is nicely acerbic, McDonnell swaggers with some depth, and Cranitch has some wonderful moments as the long-suffering editor.
Walker is nicely acidic, but we never get a real feel for the quality of Brenna’s writing, which lessens her despair at writer’s block, while the happy ending is as perverse in its historical opportunism as Scorsese’s The Aviator.
Druid’s lightest outing of the Dublin Theatre Festival at the Gaiety saw their sterling ensemble assemble in a 1970s pub for Tom Murphy’s serious comedy about unsuccessful emigration, a tightly-knit group’s failed dreams, and the illusory promise of their mentor.
Michael (Marty Rea) has arrived home after 10 years in New York pursuing an acting career. He finds all his old cronies more or less stuck where they were. Tom (Garret Lombard) is still teaching at the local school, and still engaged to Peggy (Eileen Walsh), and showing about as much likelihood of moving on to the next step as Rory Nolan’s Junior is of finally getting his parents’ farm.
The one person who seems to be going places is Liam (Aaron Monaghan), who seems to have absurdly as many jobs in the town as Kurt in Gilmore Girls. Michael is insistent that they can do all better if they remember the example of JJ, their mentor, who established this pub The White House with their help a decade before as a forum for ideas. Tom violently disagrees, disowning radicalism.
It’s remarkable to see Nolan and Lombard who were terrifying as ignorant thugs in Whistle transform into an amiable old duffer and an intellectual scrapper respectively in this play. Rea is as reliable as ever, his half-romance with Beth Cooke’s barmaid Ann being nicely underplayed, and his sparring with Lombard on the merit of over-reaching ambition carries some nice emotional charge to go with the wonderful barbed insults flung about.
Murphy’s play, performed without an interval, would please Aristotle in observing the classical unities but its night at the pub offers both insight and comedy under Garry Hynes’ direction.
Druid stunned the brutalised Gaiety audience into silence at the Dublin Theatre Festival with Tom Murphy’s coruscating 1961 debut. Depicting violent Irish immigrants in Coventry trapped in self-mythologies of violence’s utility and “learning”’s futility it still packs an emotional sucker-punch.
Michael (Marty Rea) is married to a Coventry girl and living there, but in a tense situation. His house is being shared with three of his brothers. The brutishly violent and ignorant Hubert (Garrett Lombard) and Ignatius (Rory Nolan) are intimidating presences but Michael’s wife Betty (Eileen Walsh) is rightly most frightened of Harry (Aaron Monaghan), the street-smart brother who is running a prostitution ring. But there’re more Carneys yet…
A Whistle in the Dark was infamously rejected by the Abbey because Ernest Blythe said no such people existed in Ireland, yet the novels of John McGahern attest to the baneful reality of monsters like Michael Senior (Niall Buggy), who arrives to visit with the youngest son Des (Gavin Drea). The battle of wills to mould Des’ future is an incredibly tense and bleak affair essentially pitting barbarity against civilisation.
Nolan and Lombard are terrifying as primitive thugs, in their second outing as brothers after 2010’s Death of A Salesman, but while the ensemble was uniformly flawless Buggy’s self-pitying and savage turn as the patriarch must be singled out as being truly remarkable, while Rea was agonisingly sympathetic as the good man inexorably being dragged down to his father’s level. Garry Hynes’ direction rendered a realistic set a febrile battleground.
Graham Price and I couldn’t help but note how indebted Pinter’s The Homecoming is to Murphy’s primal scream of familial power plays, but while both have the resonance of Greek myth this is not black comedy but darkest tragedy.
December 1, 2012
Hemingway’s first novel was transformed at Belvedere College into one of the highlights of the Dublin Theatre Festival by New York troupe Elevator Repair Service.
Hemingway’s picaresque tale of America’s ‘Lost Generation’ carousing aimlessly around 1920s Paris and Spain was vividly brought to life within an impressively detailed set of The Select bar where these expats spend so much time drinking. Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) is our narrator, a maimed war-hero now earning a living as a writer. Jake spends his days drinking with his quasi-friend Robert Cohn (Matt Tierney) and Cohn’s verbally abusive girlfriend Frances (Kate Scelsa), and flirting ineffectually with native women (Kaneza Schall), but life becomes far more complicated for all these characters when Lady Brett Ashley (Lucy Taylor) breezes back into town… Jake is hopelessly in love with Brett, but his war-wound renders him impotent, and so, in one of literature’s most heartbreaking thwarted romances, Brett, despite being truly in love with only Jake, turns to many men to do for her the one thing he can’t. Her impending marriage to fellow rich Briton Mike Campbell (Pete Simpson) might perhaps stop her wandering eye but in the meantime she gets entangled with Cohn, which ensures a very tense visit to Pamplona for the Fiesta for the entire expat group; including Jake’s sardonic, macho, shooting and fishing friend Bill Gorton (Ben Williams).
This show put the other high-profile adaptation Dubliners to shame. Director John Collins begins with Jake’s casual narration straight to the audience, and then strips it away to stage dialogue scenes that use sound effects to conjure what cannot be staged, with the narration used for comic effect as Jake comments on conversations from within or for scene-setting until the climactic bullfight when, deliriously, a sports microphone appears as Jake and Brett sit together commentating using Hemingway’s narration as the star bullfighter takes on an intimidating bull; which is a table with horns being dashed about the stage by Ben Williams stomping the ground. The sound effects are truly spectacular, whether it’s glasses that don’t touch clinking together, a man stepping away from a typewriter which continues typing and when he announces in response to a question that he’s finished rings the end of a page, to the sloshing of the endless booze drunk by the characters, the lapping water and splashes of struggling fish in a pastoral idyll, and the roar of cheering and animalistic grunting from the bullfight. Small wonder that once Cohn’s role is finished Tierney stays on stage so we see him operate the live sound-work.
But this is theatricality that illuminates the novel. The dance to what would have been the catchiest song on the Continent in 1926, which continually interrupts the conversation between Brett, Jake and the Count (Vin Knight), is both a delight of ensemble choreography and encapsulates the frustrating allure of Brett; a moving target of a romantic lead who can’t be tied down by any man. Taylor’s Brett, all short blonde hair, clipped accent, and passionate recklessness, is well nigh definitive, while Iveson is immensely sympathetic and charismatic as Jake. In support in the first act Kate Scelso plays the Ugly American stereotype with astonishing gusto in a lengthy harangue. I didn’t remember Bill being a funny character, but Ben William’s performance was so modern that it was compared to Sam Rockwell and Will Arnett by my companions. Williams only features in the second act but he finds the sardonic humour and hidden tenderness in Hemingway’s declarative hardness, the highlight being his deadpan questioning of a telegram in Spanish – “What does the word Cohn mean?” The entire ensemble excelled though, not least in the amazing Fiesta sequence of pulsating lights, mass shuddering primal dance, and furious ecstatic noise; including Simpson drumming thunderously on a chair. But for all the triumphant sound and fury that created Pamplona’s excitement the heart of the play comes with lighting reduced to mere spots on Jake and Brett as they whisper their agonising unrequitable love for each other – an astonishingly intimate ending for such an expansive and exuberant play.
I had to read The Sun Also Rises for a course, which is always a good way to ruin a novel, but this production was so electric it’s actually forced me to re-evaluate and increase my estimation of Hemingway…
Corn Exchange’s flagship production of Dubliners at the Gaiety for the Dublin Theatre Festival was desperately uneven as overplayed slapstick often trounced Joyce’s muted epiphanies.
Performed under heavy face-paint on a minimalist set by Joe Vanek (that relied on expressive lighting and shadows) the show distractingly had characters narrate their own dialogue, drowning conversations with endless, unnecessary, and literal instances of he said/she said. In its defence this strategy allowed the narrator of ‘Two Sisters’ to deliver Joyce’s delicate prose, and he was cleverly also made the narrator of the next vignette, ‘An Encounter’. But the encounter is with a paedophile, played with malicious suavity by Mark O’Halloran, and the commedia dell’arte exaggerations deployed to create a crippled predator resulted in the unnerving spectacle of the audience of Joyce newcomers laughing heartily at this creation before being audibly horrified as they realised he’s not a mere eccentric. This misjudgement presaged later missteps but the painful yearning of ‘Eveline’ expertly played by Janice Byrne quickly dispelled any misgivings, and ‘Two Gallants’ saw Stephen Jones on fine swaggering form, which he continued in the ‘The Boarding House’ as the landlady’s menacing son. O’Halloran was on top comedic form opposite him as the rent-skiving actor, while the heightened slapstick style elevated the black comedy of Joyce’s hapless lodger Doran being trapped into proposing onto a much funnier plane.
After the interval that slapstick approach was imposed on stories that it defiantly did not suit. ‘Counterparts’ was rendered as stark nonsense. It was amusing to see O’Halloran never finish a sentence and dash about panic-stricken as the chief clerk, but there are things that one must not do to get a laugh, and among these is going so far over the top as to end in low-earth orbit. At first I was prepared to grant Mark Lambert as domineering lawyer Mr Alleyne the same privileges of blustering abusiveness as Will Forte as Ted Turner on Conan, but when he actually chicken-stepped around the stage in a comic fury at a slight from his subordinate I had exhausted any possible exculpatory comparisons. This was too OTT to amuse, but not his fault. Ruth McGill as his secretary used the same leer as she did as The Duchess in Alice in Funderland, and if the same expression can find equal purchase in Alice in Funderland and an adaptation of Joyce then it’s a sure sign that the adaptation of Joyce by Michael West and director Annie Ryan has strayed farcically far from the ‘scrupulous meanness’ and understated compassion of Dubliners.
Which leads one to conclude that Mark O’Halloran as an actor is truly immense. By sheer force of personality he dismissed ‘Counterparts’ to make the audience feel the tragedy of ‘A Painful Case’ as his fastidious Duffy sabotaged a relationship with Derbhle Crotty’s neglected housewife. O’Halloran made you so empathise with this cold character that when he spoke the final words of Joyce’s narration you could hear a pin drop, and hearts break. But then ‘A Mother’ painfully wasted the great Crotty’s talents by piling on the excessive slapstick to produce a painfully protracted skit devoid of any dramatic momentum, though at least it lacked the cognitive dissonance of the bungled traumatic ending of child abuse after clowning of ‘Counterparts’. ‘The Dead’ began with McGill’s performance of ‘The Lass of Aughrim’ as the story was pared down to Greta’s revelations after a party that leave her husband Gabriel stunned at how his wife was loved before she met him. O’Halloran’s delivery of the famous closing monologue ended the play on a triumphant note, and highlighted O’Halloran’s towering pre-eminence in the ensemble, the emotional power of Joyce’s material, and the frustratingly inconsistent fidelity to Joyce which held back the show.
Throughout, actors delivered their dialogue to the audience and then looked at the actor they’d been addressing, a technique Corn Exchange use in rehearsal; which made this feel like a quasi-workshop. Replacing ‘Counterparts’ and ‘A Mother’ with ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ and ‘Clay’ would immeasurably strengthen reprises…