Talking Movies

December 9, 2018

From the Archives: W

A penultimate dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up Oliver Stone’s forgotten and rather pointless George Bush Jr takedown.

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This George W Bush biopic reunites Oliver Stone with his Wall Street co-writer. It is thus very disappointing that there is no trace of that film’s searing indictment of American greed, but perhaps even more amazingly the man who directed JFK has lost his visual flair.

W is a very odd film, it’s not satire and it’s not a factual drama. It attempts to straddle, and falls short of, both genres. 13 Days made the Cuban Missile Crisis gripping simply by showing how Kennedy dealt with it blow by blow. Channel 4’s The Deal made the trade between Brown and Blair fascinating, even if it was largely speculative. BBC 4’s The Alan Clark Diaries made real politics hilarious. W hopelessly tries to combine all three approaches. We follow the run-up to and fall-out from the Iraq War, while flashing back to the pivotal moments in W’s life that led him to the White House. Stone though has nothing to say about these moments except that Bush has ‘daddy issues’, and that’s why he went to war. This insight isn’t profound or original but could have been heard in bars, on both the sides of the Atlantic, after too many drinks, for the last five years.

James Cromwell alone among the cast does not try to imitate his character and so nicely counterpoints Brolin’s Jr. Cromwell’s George Sr (or Poppy) appears cold and disapproving but we realise that his shepherding of his son Jeb rather than W towards the Presidency is because he wishes to shelter W from the strain of a job that does not suit his temperament. Josh Brolin is extraordinary as W. He perfectly captures the voice and mannerism of Bush Jr but also makes us care deeply for this uncomplicated jock. When W loses a 1980 run for Congress and storms into his backyard exclaiming “I’ll never be out-Texased or out-Christianed again!” we feel his pain more than the obvious satirical anticipation of his 2000 run for Presidency that Stone intends. W’s born-again Christianity is handled with surprising (and welcome) warmth, but while personally Bush saw the light, politically it led him to some dark places. However to expect that sort of complexity is to want a different, less obvious, film.

And Stone does get very obvious… Jeffrey Wright plays Saint Colin Powell while Richard Dreyfuss needs a moustache to twirl villainously as Dick Cheney. Characters say in private their most infamous public gaffes while Condoleeza Rice is written out of history, perhaps because Thandie Newton’s forced attempts to get Rice’s voice right make her screen presence too painful to dwell on. George Bush is not a bad man, he’s just a very bad president, the worst since Herbert Hoover, who also made way for a charismatic Democrat offering change, FDR. But, Oliver, we already knew that…

2/5

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September 10, 2017

Any Other Business: Part XII

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 twelfth portmanteau post on television of course!

“I know, it’s not pretty, but that is the next scene in the script and we’ll just all have to grit our teeth and get thru it together.”

American Asinine

The first time I became aware of American Assassin was when the trailer pounced on me in the cinema a few weeks ago. I was incredulous that it had been made, and was being pushed as a big deal movie, let alone that Michael Keaton was in it. Then on a TV spot the other day I saw the words “CBS Films” and suddenly that déjà vu feeling that this concept belonged on TV, maybe in an episode of Blindspot, Person of Interest, et al, suddenly made sense…

EXT.CBS BACK-LOT- DAY.

TITLE: 2016 SUMMER PRODUCTION HIATUS DAY 1

Delaney hurries through the back-lot looking stressed. He is speed-reading the first few pages of various scripts, and tossing them over his shoulder, as he walks. Suddenly he notices a group of men smoking beside beat-up cars and oil drums.

DELANEY: You can’t be smoking here!! Do you know how much f****ing ether we’ve got in this lot?

BORIS: We’re not going to set anything on fire or blow anything up unless we mean to, man, we’re professionals.

DELANEY: Hang on, I know you, you’re that slacker stuntman. What are you bums doing just hanging out here on the lot?

JOHNSON: No need to get hostile, we’re paid to be here.

DELANEY: Wait, what? I’m paying you to sit around smoking?

BORIS: Contract is for 12 months man. Not our fault there’s a production hiatus in the summer.

DELANEY: Now wait a goddamn minute! You mean I pay the actors to do TV, then they bunk off and someone else pays them to do films, but I have to keep paying you to do nothing?

JOHNSON: Hate the contract, not the contractors.

DELANEY: No, no, no. I didn’t get where I am today by not sweating people for the last ounce of blood from their contracts. You’re going to do some work!

BORIS: Hey dude, chill, there’s no TV happening, and CBS is a TV network. There’s nothing you can do.

DELANEY: Oh yeah?!

JOHNSON: Cool it Boris. Look, Boris doesn’t mean any offence. We think CBS is a fine network. We’re happy here. You’re happy with our work. The audience is happy with the procedurals and spy shows. Let’s just all – take a step back.

Delaney walks up to Johnson and pushes one finger into his chest.

DELANEY: You can take one step back, and then keep stepping back, until you reach the production offices. You, buddy boy, are making a movie.

BORIS: WHAAAT?! CBS doesn’t make movies, CBS is a network.

DELANEY: CBS is whatever I need it to be. And right now it’s a film studio. I’ve got scripts coming out the yazoo here. All of them bad. (throws all the scripts in the air) (to Johnson) Pick them up, bring them to the production office, that’s what the staff writers are going to turn into the screenplay you’re filming during this ‘hiatus’.

JOHNSON: (beat) You’ll never get away with this. This is stepping over so many union lines.

DELANEY: When they see I’ve called Hollywood’s bluff and simply stitched together rejected TV scripts and sent out it there as a blockbuster at a fraction of their budgets all your precious unions will beg me for a Blumhouse deal. Go to work…

 

#InPlayWithRay

I’ve been watching the US Open on Eurosport for the last while and laughing myself sick every time Ray Winstone appears to advertise Bet365 because he seems to have mixed up his script with the copy for an NSA recruitment campaign: “You can find us in every corner of the world. Watching. Listening. Analysing. We are … everywhere. And we … see everything. We are members of the world’s most feared spy agency favourite online sports betting company. And we gamble responsibly at Bet365.”

 

“Male player”

It is unfortunate that, in the midst of watching the US Open, and being reminded of Andy Murray’s idiotic “Male player” interjection at his losing Wimbledon press conference, I also saw episode 5 of David Eagleman’s series The Brain, which dealt with empathy. Very simplistically, when you see someone in pain, the pain matrix of your brain lights up as if you were in pain; much as your face unconsciously mirrors expressions to figure out what others are feeling. However, while we care about other people in pain, if in-groups and out-groups are introduced, we care about people in our in-group but shut down empathy for people in our out-groups. Eagleman noted an atheist cares more at seeing a hand stabbed if that hand is identified as atheist than if it is identified as theist. And social rejection hurts our brain in much the same manner as physical pain. Now, what was Murray up to with his bizarre interruption? As Nick Cohen said of Russell T Davies censoring Shakespeare, he was creating an imaginary crime to prove his moral superiority by having noticed the imaginary crime, which you did not. Murray was shaming the journalist for ‘casual sexism’, and google displays journalists fawning over how Murray schooled this male journalist for ‘casual sexism’. But the journalist was not guilty of casual sexism. He was guilty of casual logic: talking to a male player about the male draw, listing the precedents of male players in the male draw. Murray was being as illogical as if he’d attacked someone for not noting a French woman winning Best Supporting Actress when people were discussing French women winning the Best Actress Oscar. But to notice the imaginary nature of a crime is to become guilty. A witch-hunt can’t truly work until people who know there aren’t any witches join the hunt out of fear that if they refuse to hunt they’ll be accused of being a witch too. That fear of swimming against the snowflake tide explains some journalists turning on their colleague. But remember GK Chesterton’s contention that journalists parroted conventional wisdom because it saved time on a deadline; sheer idleness prioritises cheerleading nonsense over critical dissections, plus it gets clicks via headlines that pander to the internet’s emptiest vessels. Murray was being a bully, a boor, and a hypocrite. He was inviting online witch-hunters to burn this journalist, who did not deserve that abuse, and as a happy side-effect downgraded what Sam Querrey had accomplished in beating him. But because the journalist was tagged as out-group setting him on fire online was a virtuous act: who cares about the hurt feelings of bigots? It is good to hurt bigots. Any actions, however ugly, that bring about a bright future are to be applauded. The ends justify the means. (Except in Guantanamo). It was the ungracious act of a sore loser to belittle Querrey’s achievements, but Murray’s shaming action tagged himself in the angelic in-group: if you thought his behaviour bullying and conveniently self-serving you proved yourself a bigot. As for hypocrisy, well, in 2012 Murray became the first Brit to win Wimbledon since Fred Perry. Sorry, male player, male player. He became the first Brit to win Wimbledon since Virginia Wade. But that’s less impressive, isn’t it? Bridging a gap of 35 years rather than 66 years, but such questions of vanity didn’t concern Murray, did they? He naturally corrected anybody who tried to congratulate him based solely on the perspective of the male draw, didn’t he? To paraphrase James Gogarty’s memorable testimony at the Flood Tribunal – did he f***…

November 19, 2014

Any Other Business: Part IX

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 ninth portmanteau post on television of course!

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Celtic Noir

It seems I wasn’t hallucinating at the cinema a few weeks ago when I saw a teaser for An Bronntanas; in which a severed arm floated past with dead fish on a conveyor belt, a reveal I’d been expecting from the music and cinematography of the sequence; and immediately thought that was something that belonged in a Nordic Noir. TG4’s Deputy CEO, Pádhraic Ó Ciardha, says the series has broken new ground for the channel by establishing a new genre: Celtic Noir. “The direct audience feedback on social media, as well as in media commentary and reviews at home and abroad, confirms to us that An Bronntanas has hit the spot,” he said. “Regular viewers of our channel confirm that it delivers on their requirement for a súil eile approach to drama. Others remark on the innovative visual style and unique dramatic atmosphere – the Celtic Noir that has grabbed their attention in ways not unlike some recent Scandinavian TV crime drama”. TG4 has, as usual, gazumped RTE in showing the likes of Borgen and The Bridge, so it’s unsurprising that its audience noticed the family resemblance. Series Producer Ciarán Ó Cofaigh says, “We believe that we have delivered a drama series that can compete on a world stage. Personally, it is particularly satisfying to achieve this through the Irish language.” TG4 commissioned Fios Físe, a viewer panel solely comprising fluent Irish speakers, and found An Bronntanas being watched by over 60% of the panel, with approval ratings over 90%. Official TAM Ireland figures show the contemporary thriller has been seen by 340,000 people during the opening four episodes, making it one of TG4’s most popular original drama series ever. The show developed by Galway production company ROSG and Derry’s De Facto Films, cannily cast Cold Case star John Finn (famously unexpectedly fluent in Irish) alongside Dara Devaney (Na Cloigne), Owen McDonnell (Single Handed), Janusz Sheagall, and Charlotte Bradley; and added an impeccable sheen through cinematographer Cian de Buitléir capturing Connemara for director Tom Collins (Kings). The series finale of An Bronntanas airs tomorrow, Thursday 20th November, at 9.30pm on TG4. Check it out – its ambition stands in stark contrast to the drivel being perpetrated by RTE2 these days.

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Bright Lights, Tendentious Theses

I’ve been stewing in annoyance at Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities for some months now; and perhaps it’s the fact that rival art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon has lately completed the second of two far superior BBC 4 shows (Art of China, The Art of Gothic) which has finally brought my ire with Dr James Fox’ series to the boil. Fox set out to show that the 20th Century had been shaped by events in three cities in three particular years: Vienna 1908, Paris 1928, New York 1951. So far, so interesting. Fox, however, frequently seemed to be less interested in presenting a coherent argument than in maintaining his snappy title’s cachet. Jack Kerouac, probably the worst case, was shoehorned into New York 1951 by dint of the fact that he wrote On the Road in 1951. On the Road was published in 1957. How can a work be influencing the zeitgeist if it’s not been published? It doesn’t matter when it was written. For all we know JD Salinger wrote the Great American Novel in 1985 but it’s lost in a steam-trunk in his old shed. But if it was published now it would be coming it devilishly high to talk about it as a critical intervention in the culture of Reagan’s America. Kerouac was the worst but by no means only example of Fox’s tendencies: Brando’s 1951 film performance in A Streetcar Named Desire was hailed, and the fact that he’d originated that part on Broadway in 1947 ignored; Lee Strasberg and his Method were hailed, and the fact that his pupil James Dean didn’t become a star till 1955 ignored; the Method was hailed in vague terms, but any in-depth analysis was eschewed – especially the cult-like tendencies of its adoption in America. The Sun Also Rises was too early for Paris 1928, so instead A Farewell to Arms was praised to the skies; despite being verily self-parody, and featuring a heroine rightly dismissed by Richard Yates in writing workshops. Gershwin’s An American in Paris was rendered more important in the scheme of things than Rhapsody in Blue because it fit Fox’s thesis; and to hell with any internal logic between shows as having bowed down to Schoenberg’s atonal serialism in the previous episode Gershwin’s melodicism was now equally valid – what is ‘modern’ is always wonderful, even if it contradicts what was ‘modern’ last Tuesday (which is no longer modern and therefore no longer valid). Fox is absorbing when he talks about art, but when he ventures into other fields he should take Andrew Graham-Dixon’s lead and, instead of creating titles that act as prisons, embrace wide-ranging titles that allow you to link between a few but carefully selected ideas in service of a convincing argument.

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