Talking Movies

May 27, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXXI

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirty-first portmanteau post on television of course!

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win

I gave up on Game of Thrones after suffering thru 3 seasons. I was unwilling to continue torturing myself to ‘keep up to date with pop culture’. So I’m quite amused at everyone now having a LOST-style meltdown that the show wasted their time for 8 years. In retrospect it was probably insane of HBO to greenlight a TV show based on an ongoing book series that the author clearly had no interest in finishing. I’ve long been comparing George RR Martin to a stand-up comic who 10 minutes into a 12 minute shaggy dog story loses interest and wanders off stage, leaving the poor fools in the audience outraged that he just wasted 10 minutes of their time, and even more outraged when Neil Gaiman walks by to chastise them for feeling outraged that his good friend George wasted their time – he doesn’t owe anybody the punchline to a shaggy dog story.

But now I wonder if there was another more conniving strand to his literary inaction. By refusing to finish writing the books Martin has got the poor saps Benioff & Weiss to test an ending for him to gauge reaction to it. So now Martin just has to say his books would have done it all … differently, and continue to never finish them, but do more fun things like attend sports events and fan conventions like a conquering hero, and he’ll go to his grave with that taunt irrefutable. When did he realise that by not finishing he can eternally be better than the TV ending without ever having to actually furnish his ending?

Jazz Trances, real and fictional

Happening across The Mighty Boosh late at night the other week I suddenly remembered Howard Moon’s jazz trance, something which I saw just a few years prior to a 2011 live episode of Later with Jools Holland featuring a bona fide jazz trance. Jools was trying in his inimitably (and endearing) ramshackle way to keep the show on track for time given that Newsnight was prepping to air live too once his show stopped. And standing waiting in the shadows was a 40 piece choir ready to join Elbow in a rendition of a meisterwerk, but unfortunately he’d put on a jazz band led by an aged jazz legend just before, and all four of them had gone into a proper eyes closed working out their melodies by feel jazz trance. The camera captured a nervous looking Jools baffled at how to get them to stop as he couldn’t make eye contact with any of the players: a moment of panic that reduced Dad and I to helpless laughter. At last one musician opened his eyes and Jools was able to flag him down. He stopped. And then another musician opened his eyes wondering why he’d stopped, and saw, and stopped too. Only for our man, the legend, to misinterpret this, in his jazz trance, as his merry men waiting on him to change key, which he duly did, until the third musician stopped, and then he opened his eyes, and lo, the jazz trance was broken. And a mightily relieved Jools rushed across to stop it starting up again and hurried Elbow and their 40 piece choir into action.

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April 21, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXIX

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-ninth portmanteau post on matters of course!

“Nah, I don’t like it”

This ad has been annoying me for months, to an unusual degree because of its omnipresence in the inescapable setting of a cinema. From the start I thought of the moment in Castle when his daughter’s layabout boyfriend questions what colour sofa Castle was proposing to give them  – “What colour?? Free!” That’s the lack of gratitude which offended me greatly from the start, taking a gift and just tossing it aside; like the inscribed books in second-hand bookstores I wrote about here some years back. There’s the fuzzy logic at work, you must buy a new sofa to put your own stamp on the place. Well, surely you must also only buy new build houses or else how could you possibly put your own stamp on the place? But then I suffered this ad after David Attenborough’s jeremiad about climate change. One of the talking heads featured said we need to lead a less wasteful life, and that this wouldn’t impact on our standard of living very much at all. We just need, in his example, to buy a good washing machine, care for it, and make it last. Well, this ad now offends on a whole other level. As well as the two elements that got my goat such obliviousness towards a comfortable, generously gifted sofa will end civilisation and the existing ecosystem.

A TIME TO KILL, Matthew McConaughey, 1996

A time to kill?

I had cause recently to encounter a small but outrageous rewriting of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

For everything there is a season,

And a time for every matter under heaven;

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war, and a time for peace.

God has made everything beautiful in its time.

Mysteriously some latter-day Bowdler somewhere had decided that there should no longer be a time to kill. Which makes John Grisham’s novel seem a good deal less biblically inspired and a good deal more originally vicious in retrospect. I then discovered another verse from Ecclesiastes has been given the same treatment. I didn’t recognise what 44:10, “Next let us praise illustrious people, or ancestors in their successive generations”, was meant to be until musing on the meaning of it I suddenly realised it should have been, “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us”. Again, with this change, out the window go the ironical echoes in James Agee and Walker Evans’ photojournalism of the Great Depression Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Jessica Mitford’s devastating takedown ‘Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers’. The Bowdler would no doubt defend good intentions, but no. Leave the Word of God alone. If you give yourself license to rewrite the Tanakh because you don’t like some sentiments or gendering then where do you logically end? Do you silently elide Yahweh torching Nadab and Abihu for using fire from the wrong source for their censers? And if not, why not? It’s a bit of an over-reaction, right? Please, change nothing or change everything.

April 3, 2019

Requiem

 

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

For everything there is a season,

And a time for every matter under heaven;

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war, and a time for peace.

God has made everything beautiful in its time.

 

St Paul to Timothy 4:5-8

Be careful always to choose the right course; be brave under trials; make the preaching of the Good News your life’s work, in thoroughgoing service.

As for me, my life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone. I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but to all those who have longed for his Appearing.

 

Luke 24: 13-35

On the first day of the week, two of the disciples were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking together about all that had happened. Now as they talked this over, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side; but something prevented them from recognising him.

When they drew near to the village to which they were going, he made as if to go on; but they pressed him to stay with them. ‘It is nearly evening’, they said, ‘and the day is almost over’. So he went in to stay with them. Now while he was with them at the table, he took the bread and said the blessing; then he broke it and handed it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; but he had vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?’

They set out that instant and returned to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven assembled together with their companions, who said to them, ‘Yes, it is true. The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.’ Then they told their story of what had happened on the road and how they had recognised him at the breaking of bread.

March 18, 2019

The unshared experience is not worth having

Back in 2011 I outlined a perfect scenario: reading F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while listening to Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F by George Gershwin. This of course involves reading the sparkling prose of the poet laureate of the Jazz Age to the accompaniment of the music of the Jazz Age’s pre-eminent composer, whose works might well have been performed at Gatsby’s parties. This should be done lounging outside in the sunshine; usually possible if done on the 4th of July – which is a vital component of this scenario; and drinking something deliciously iced, but undertaken; as ‘a broken series of successful gestures’ if you will; over the course of an afternoon and evening so that you get to Nick Carraway’s magnificent peroration about night falling on Gatsby’s mansion just as the sun goes down…

I noted that I had once again failed to achieve this perfect scenario. For such a bittersweet novel as Gatsby I’m not sure that such continual anticipation followed by continual failure isn’t entirely appropriate.

Last month I had been thinking that the best way to mark Bastille Day, which falls on a Sunday this year, would be to breakfast on coffee and croissants somewhere, and then stroll, sorry, flaneur, to a grand civic park like St Stephen’s Green, there to idly sit on a park bench, and listen to something like this,

while reading something by Guy de Maupassant, marked with a Monet bookmark, and then boulevardier off somewhere like the Alliance Francasie on Kildare Street for the lunch of a bon vivant and raconteur.

Now it seems that this summer I may be in a position to achieve both of these perfect reading scenarios, and I don’t really want to, because there is no point in achieving such a scenario without sharing the experience with someone else.

July 20, 2018

At least we still have… : Part IV

The fourth entry in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

As I wrote in my Top 10 Films of 2012 here when praising Damsels in Distress, the desire of Greta Gerwig’s daffy character to improve the global psyche with her creation of future international dance craze the Sambola seemed rather less daft after PSY’s eccentric ‘Gangnam Style’ stormed the world after the film’s release. Featured prominently at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang some months ago, this still led to an irresistible grin whenever played; despite the fact nobody has ever known what the lyrics are about, other than the vague impression that this is the Seoul version of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly.

And if I think of the 2012 election duel between Obama and Romney I will immediately think of this parody. Sure, not all of College Humour’s video works as well as you’d want, but when it hits the heights of this particular verse it’s irrepressible:

I got distinguished hair

And a private jet that flies me way up in the air

Buy and sell your company with so much savoir faire

I bought a mansion for each one of my two dozen heirs

Romney’s wrong-footing of Obama in the first minute of the first debate is almost worthy of a mention here in its own right. Obama had clearly prepped to face off against the accustomed robotic Romney. Little did he suspect that Romney’s operating software had been given a Reagan upgrade – and when his handler keyed in the command for ‘execute joke’ he did it perfectly, leaving Obama stunned; he was not prepared for this level of charisma. Obama staggered thru that debate looking punch-drunk before recovering his poise for the next two, but to think that Romney was pilloried in 2012 for his ‘binders full of women’, and everyone was glad that the RNC intimated that he should stop seeking to run again in 2016. Oh, what people wouldn’t give now to have had Romney as the GOP candidate in 2016 rather than Trump and his ‘binders full of payoffs to women’ (sic).

June 17, 2018

Notes on Jurassic World 2

Jurassic World 2, aka Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, certainly is the 800 pound gorilla at the moment. It was playing in the three biggest screens in Movies@Dundrum last night simultaneously. Here are some notes on’t, prepared for Dublin City FM’s breakfast show with the inimitable Patrick Doyle early this morning.

JA Bayona directed 2008 chiller The Orphanage so he knows his way around suspense horror. There is free-floating camera-work that made me dizzy when we follow the shiny new dinosaur Indoraptor. It clambers over the roof and then hangs down over the side to look in a window, and the camera floats with it, behind it, above it, in front of it… There are some delirious moments where characters can’t see dinosaurs just behind them in the shadows, but we keep glimpsing them in flashes of lightning or rains of lava, and so are fully aware there’s a dinosaur sneaking up behind the oblivious characters. Having mentioned shadow though, and aware that Bayona actually used a lot of animatronics, there’s a bit too much CGI vagueness going on. Always be suspicious in a modern creature feature when you end up at night in the rain for your big finale. It’s like Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, they don’t want you to see the monster too well because they have no confidence their graphics are up to snuff.

There’s a lack of crispness about this sequel despite having the same writers, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. They’ve lifted very heavily from the structure of The Lost World. A cold open where people encounter dinosaurs on an island that they are not prepared for. Cut to an old British Person guilt-tripping someone into going to said island to rescue the dinosaurs or something. They meet dodgy mercenary types, and then all hell breaks loose. They bring some dinosaurs back to the mainland, and then all hell breaks loose. They even have Jeff Goldblum for 3 minutes for heaven’s sake because he was in The Lost World. Let us have Goldblum to the full! This is the sort of fear of originality that also bedevilled Star Trek into Darkness with its mirror photocopy routine on Wrath of Khan. Except here, unlike JJ Abrams going big, Bayona goes small, and the dinosaurs don’t run amok in San Diego, they just do it in a stately home. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom Bad Times at the Hearst Mansion.

I like The Lost World but why so slavishly follow its exemplar when an even older flaw is apparent? Since Henry IV: Part 2 400 odd years ago sequels have seen characters that went on an arc, reconciled with each other, and looked forward to a happier future together, start the sequel back at each other’s throats, because the writers only knew how to send them on the same character arc, again. Owen and Claire begin the film reset to where they began the last one, and it’s maddening when put beside a wider sense of dissatisfaction. If you read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre at an impressionable age its theory of horror becomes part of your mental architecture: Apollonian order being disrupted by Dionysian chaos until eventually order is re-established. Is it therefore more dramatically satisfying to witness a functioning park descend into chaos like in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World than just have characters walk into existing chaos and get jump-scared constantly? It’s zombies running: it makes it too easy to scare the audience.

I didn’t get to chat about all of these points, but we did cover most of them. Tune into 103.2 FM to hear Patrick Doyle’s breakfast show every Sunday on Dublin City FM, and catch up with his excellent Classical Choice programme on Mixcloud now.

June 8, 2018

At least we still have… : Part II

The second entry in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

Why, there’s Dom and Nic’s trippy video for the Chemical Brothers’ ‘Setting Sun’, prominently featuring the vocals of Noel Gallagher. The autumn of 1996 in a bottle. I still don’t really do dance music, but this was the first single I ever bought (and on tape!). It had the power to move me to cross the dug-in trenches of genre. It seems odd I never knew they were directing so many key videos; ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’, ‘Ava Adore’, ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, ‘D’You Know What I Mean’; but it seems odd now that MTV played them!

And then there’s the immortal Snoopy Dance. Some weeks ago a younger co-worker did an end of shift dance which I thought was like the Snoopy Dance. She was highly offended by this, which was puzzling. When she did it again later I used her term, the end of shift dance, only for her to call it the ‘Stupid Dance’. Ah! Sorting out this mishearing involved grabbing a co-worker closer to my age who knew what the Snoopy Dance was and instantly pulled up on his big-screen laptop the above clip to showcase the glory of Charles Schulz’ creation. On seeing it there was a pause, and then an admission that that was kind of like her dance alright… On reflection the end of shift dance is probably closer to Jenny Lindberg’s dance in Warpaint’s ‘Disco//Very’ but that’s another post.

April 30, 2018

On Urbanity

Prefacing my attack on Legion last month I noted decorum was important, and that urbanity was important as a stylistic and aesthetic goal, and noted one could stretch to call it an ethical goal too.

What then is urbanity? When I was writing for the University Observer I used to think our house style was aiming for the droll elegance of the New Yorker.  I’m not sure anybody else did. I’m not sure I would even have been able to pin down where I got that notion of the New Yorker from, possibly a refracted Dorothy Parker vibe from the Gilmore Girls. Having recently, deliriously enjoyed James Thurber’s The Years with Ross I think that I wasn’t far off in my peculiar sense of the magazine’s house style. Although it may have been just Thurber himself rather than the New Yorker writers en masse in possession of that style. Certainly the current New Yorker writers are en masse in possession of a house style, and the deployment of it by Gladwell, Gopnik & Co can be maddening in its repetition.

The New Yorker film reviews these days mostly overshoot urbanity and instead sound jaded, and snobbish. Richard Brody’s review of Ready Player One is a recent particular lowlight. Brody seems to have the shakiest of grasps on the commercial realities of movie-making, and indeed how movies are remembered by non-critics. His notion that a blockbuster themed around 1980s nostalgia should chuck The Shining for Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre is tragicomic; once you stop laughing in astonishment, you realise he’s serious, and then need to lie down. But how should one write film reviews? I went from writing a movie column for the University Observer titled ‘Fergal’s Guide to Misanthropy’ to reviewing for InDublin. In thrall at the time to Hunter S Thompson I wrote reviews in a style that I would now never countenance. Hunter S Thompson is a great stylist, but he is not urbane.

It doesn’t matter that Hunter S Thompson is not urbane, because he is Hunter S Thompson. But it matters a great deal when people who are not Hunter S Thompson are neither urbane nor Thompsonian despite their best efforts. And those best efforts usually betray fierce labour as they attempt to do the Gonzo style without being the man who was Gonzo. As I wrote more and more film reviews for InDublin I began to appreciate that reinventing the wheel with snark and wildness each time was not sustainable. So, as I have recounted before, I turned to an earlier mentor, Michael Dwyer. I pored over his 300 review in an effort to understand how it worked, and especially how he could write so many reviews with such apparent ease; given their clarity and simplicity. I adopted my interpretation of his technique as my model.

Initially though the interpolated technique was all structural. It was only over time and ever more reviews for Dublinks.com and Talking Movies that the mature style revealed itself; borrowing a structure from Michael Dwyer had seamlessly led to an Augustan style. Films were reviewed without hyperbole over their strengths or hysteria over their weaknesses. As a result they could be reviewed with astonishing speed; my review of Prometheus took 26 minutes from first keystroke to published post. It wasn’t vitriolic, like so many reviews, it maintained an even keel. But it had taken 5 years to get to the point where that review could be penned in 26 minutes. What one looks for in urbanity is the appearance of effortlessness concealing much effort; the sprezzatura of Castiglione so promulgated by WB Yeats as the ideal of lyric poetry. Which brings us back to James Thurber…

Thurber’s droll story ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ concerns a bear that gets too fond of honey mead at the local bar:

He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

But our hero sees the error of his ways. He becomes a teetotaller, and a physical fitness freak, and boastful of how the two are connected:

To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

The simplicity of the gag makes you feel like you always knew it just after you first read it, and of course belies what must have been careful paring and paring by Thurber to get it just right. That is the key. It appears effortless; elegant, graceful, simple; and it took much effort to make it appear so. Thurber was in a contract with himself as much as the reader not to let go of the piece until he’d finely chiselled it to perfection and then polished it to remove all trace of the chisel marks. And it’s that determination to do oneself and others justice that I argue can move urbanity from aesthetics to ethics. To write urbanely is to do more, to be beneficent.

PG Wodehouse once wrote “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well”. One might advance a similar notion when it comes to urbanity. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s painfully laboured non-apology apology for the Cambridge Analytica flap:

“I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it”

A billionaire, surrounded by expensive lawyers and media consultants, who can take five days (which I like to imagine were spent brainstorming on a luxury houseboat moored in the dead centre of Lake Tahoe), to write and/or approve something as inelegant as that italicised sentence… Well, I opine, in identical manner to the man who cheats at golf, a man capable of writing like that is capable of anything.

John McGahern is the endpoint of the notion of urbanity as an ethical goal. His description of fictional Leitrim farmer (and, as Graham Price persuasively has it, dandy) Jamesie sitting in Ruttledge’s passenger seat on their way to the market I have characterised in my Irish University Review article ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ as a Stoic benediction: “He praised where he could, but most people were allowed their space without praise or blame in a gesture of hands that assigned his life and theirs to their own parts in this inexhaustible journey”. That may be the ideal of urbanity I wish for in journalism. How it got muddled together with Thurber’s New Yorker drollness in my head is a puzzler, but there it is. Socrates said that nobody would willingly commit evil. An evil-doer is in possession of imperfect information. Nobody sets out to write badly, paint badly, compose badly, or to direct a bad film. In reviewing one should try to nudge where possible, and always offer solutions when identifying problems. One should only eviscerate if something is positively harmful, and even then try to do it with a light touch. A bad review done with urbanity is a judo flip. Identify what is obnoxious, and, if possible; and it is surprisingly often possible; see how the work can be read against itself, so that it is condemned out of its own mouth.

April 10, 2018

What becomes a Christie most?

Can the melancholic approach taken in Murder on the Orient Express work for a proposed Death on the Nile sequel?

I was quite surprised by the melancholic tone of Branagh’s first Poirot outing, but that, more than anything else, even his energetic performance as an exacting, physical Poirot, was what made the film work. And with a 350 million return on a 55 million budget it is inevitable that the sequel set up in its final scene will happen – Death on the Nile. Discussing this prospect with occasional co-writer Friedrich Bagel (which I still strongly suspect of being an assumed name) he opined that it would be better to go for a Christie mystery that has not been filmed, like The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sadly, I opined right back, two things stand in the way of that – people would riot in their cinemas at the finale of Ackroyd, and marketers would riot in their boardrooms at the prospect of actually having to do their job rather than utilise the name recognition of already beloved properties. Alors, Nile

One hopes that someone in Burbank isn’t thus scrolling through Peter Ustinov’s IMDb profile. Ticking off Evil Under the Sun and Appointment with Death as the final entries in the Branagh Poirot quadrilogy, sneakily noting Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man’s Folly, and Murder in Three Acts as potential TV specials to cross the street with to HBO if the Branagh Poirots hit a wall at the box office, or God help us looking about for young Branaghs for a potential prequel Mysterious Affair at Styles. We know that Michael Green will again be adapting Christie’s novel for Branagh to star and direct. Reviewing Murder on the Orient Express back in November I noted that Green redeemed himself from the double whammy disasters of Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 with his melancholic interpretation, which saw Branagh and composer Patrick Doyle render the murder almost as a mourning ritual. But that card can only be played once, leaving an obvious possibility that will annoy the purists.

That card is the trump that left the London Times spitting blood this Easter weekend when the BBC changed the identity of the killer in Ordeal by Innocence. It’s impossible to change the killer in Murder on the Orient Express, and one would think the same applies to Death on the Nile, but a severe rewrite (in the order of the tortures visited upon Stoker for Laurence Olivier’s Dracula) could yield anything. It is disconcerting when screenwriters assume they know better than the Queen of Crime who done it, but then there is a general tendency to sniff at Christie’s writing as being mere three-card-trick-plotting, overlooking some wonderful sly comedy as well as much darker effects of suspense, paranoia, and cynicism in The Hollow and And Then There Were None. No, if Green were to change the identity of the killer in Death on the Nile it wouldn’t be totally inadmissible, but it would be a hefty task of rewriting to keep Christie’s logic intact.

It is a matter of opinion that the melancholic card can only be played once. Green’s invented character arc for Poirot, where he admits shades of grey into a Manichean worldview is similar to the moral agony endured by Suchet’s Poirot on the same case. But Suchet’s crisis was explicitly Catholic while Branagh’s was, predictably for Hollywood, a crisis in the secular Markwellian ethics of consistency; allied to the writing of Poirot’s OCD as the scrupulosity of consistency in all things. (Although I vigorously object to the tendency to dub any and all devotion to precision as OCD, rather than, say, a devotion to precision.) I hold that the senseless murder of a kidnapped child naturally occasions a melancholic atmosphere in a way that a twisted love triangle climaxing in slaughter does not, but as Green threw out large chunks of plotting and minutiae to focus on a mood, it would not be outrageous to think he could do much the same thing for Nile.

Bagel took me to task for harping on Branagh as a physical Poirot, declaiming that Poirot was a policeman so he should be able to chase people, and that Christie herself admitted she’d blundered with his age, being retired in 1920 he would be 105 when solving crimes in 1960s Chelsea; a mistake akin to PG Wodehouse initially locating Blandings Castle damnably far from London for later plotting purposes. I retorted that Branagh’s physicality distinguishes his interpretation. Peter Ustinov naturally brought a raconteurish quality, and his bumbling was a play on how Christie made Poirot exaggerate his foreignness to trick villains into complacency. Suchet, lacking that flaneuring spirit, emphasised Poirot’s prim and proper sedentary use of the little grey cells; more true to the retired from active duty to pure consultation of Christie’s first forays with the detective. Branagh takes some of the fire from Suchet’s Poirot, indignant at evildoers expecting to get away scot-free, and makes his Belgian less retiree, more Fury at large.

To end where we began Herr Bagel wrung his hands that there is no decent actor who can play Hastings, the Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock, without being ‘annoying’. Hugh Fraser was perfect in the part for ITV, and, by indirect associations; he had previously played a villain in Edge of Darkness, he was tall where Suchet was small; I led myself to the only candidate (sic) for the part – Toby Jones. Who, by good fortune, was recently in Witness for the Prosecution for the BBC, and previously played opposite the great David Suchet on ITV’s Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh is Poirot, Jones is Hastings, the sun is high, the Nile water deceptively calm…

February 23, 2018

Lady Bird

On an avalanche of hype Greta Gerwig’s second film as director finally arrives here, depicting the senior high school year of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson.

Sacramento native Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who insists on referring to herself by her new self-given given name of Lady Bird, is returning from scouting California colleges with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) when she breaks her arm being melodramatic. Further misadventures involve falling out with her fat best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and falling in with the rich, pretty, vacuous Jenna (Odeya Rush) while she goes from romancing charming co-star Danny (Lucas Hedges) to moody musician Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). She is determined to go to college on the East Coast despite money worries caused by her father Larry (Tracy Letts) being let go, and further family tension owing to her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) working checkouts despite having Berkeley degrees because of the ‘jobless recovery’. This is 2002/3, you see. 

Among the baneful distortions of reality the Oscars cause is the unrealistic hype that can destroy some films, which can never live up to expectations like ‘the greatest screen performance of all time’ Daniel Day-Lewis supposedly gave in There Will Be Blood. Lady Bird is at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes among critics, it’s meant to be the feminist film of our times, the antidote to Trump’s America, take your pick of whatever hyperbole attaches to it online. But after Frances Ha and Mistress America this film is a disappointment. Sam Levy, who shot those two as well as Maggie’s Plan, casts a hazier light over proceedings here which matches Gerwig’s impressionistic portrait of a year with vignettes and montages. But too much of Lady Bird is populated by stock characters, a vague backdrop outside the only carefully etched relationship: mother-daughter.

It’s odd that, after Twilight (!), Gerwig sees fit to also rehash Gilmore Girls’ exemplar: the dull dependable boyfriend versus the edgy erratic boyfriend. More predictable is that, like Wish I Was Here or Middlesex, Lady Bird presents an artist’s abandoned religion as ancient nonsense/psychotic cult. In this case juvenile anti-Catholicism leads directly to a terrible misstep. Lady Bird is horrible to her best friend when she’s chorus and Julie lead in their school musical, she’s horrible to her brother when failing at college admission, and, in one of the most repellent scenes I’ve ever seen, especially for a ‘charming indie’, she’s horrible to anti-abortion speaker Casey (Bayne Gibby) whose very existence she dismisses as a joke. Lady Bird isn’t very funny, talented, smart, or nice. And as this film is steadfastly uninterested in developing anyone else that’s a problem…

‘Important’ films are rarely good, and sadly it seems Gerwig is being feted for making an important film, because this falls short of what she’s done in the past.

3/5

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