Talking Movies

October 1, 2019

The one thing we can learn from history is that nobody ever learns anything from history

Filed under: Talking Books,Talking Politics — Fergal Casey @ 8:10 pm
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Reading today about the decision to somewhat save history in Irish secondary schools was profoundly dispiriting. The arguments for history, and against history, and the underpinnings of both seemed to indicate a general idiocy.

As far as I can see from the op-ed in the Irish Independent by the Minister we ought to study history in schools to remind ourselves of how awful Ireland was in the 1950s and praise ourselves constantly for being such fine fellows in contrast. The Magdalene Laundries, the poor treatment of tinkers, gays and atheists. These all prove that people in the past were awful, and we are great. Five stars all around for being such great guys now. One might suggest that perhaps one of the most important benefits of studying history is the attempt to escape from the greatest of all mental traps – present bias.

As far as I can see from the marketing speak originating from the masters of curricula we ought not study history in schools because there are more exciting things we can surf in and out of and the purpose of education is to only do fun things. One could substitute maths or English for their dismissal of history and it would make little difference to the argument. After all, can one argue that students really enjoy maths? And with calculators and the internet who needs to learn these skills which are not transferable and of no real use in the real world outside the ivory towers of academia.

Meanwhile the Irish Times featured students decrying exams for the Leaving Certificate as being injurious to mental health and well-being. Well, yes, that’s sort of the point. Life is in general not just a succession of fun things with no crunch moments. One of the benefits of actually studying history is grappling with other civilisations and understanding that not everybody is always on the same page. If we throw out the traditional methods of education that does not mean China will follow suit, and the Confucian model of scholarship will take no prisoners of a generation educated to express themselves in bite-size opinions, scattershot samplings and stress-free study.

July 2, 2013

The Internship

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are forty-something salesmen made redundant by new technology who join what they can’t beat by becoming unlikely interns at Google.BRAY_20120725_2448.CR2

We meet Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Wilson) as their attempt to sell high-end watches to an old client is scuppered by their boss (cameoing John Goodman) unexpectedly closing their firm because manufacturers now regard salesmen as obsolete middlemen. Redundant Billy is immediately dumped by his girlfriend and soon after convinces Nick to join him in blagging their way into an internship. Arriving at Google Nick is instantly besotted with executive Dana (Rose Byrne), but she’s as unimpressed romantically with him as her boss, Chetty (Aasif Mandvi), is professionally by these two interlopers. Facing cutthroat competition led by the obnoxious cockney Graham (Max Minghella), can Billy and Nick whip their hapless mentor Lyle (Josh Brener), sullen hipster Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), self-loathing genius Tobit (Yo-Yo Santos) and flirty geek Neha (Tiya Sircar) into a team capable of winning the ‘mental Hunger Games’?

What do you think?… Co-writer Vaughn doesn’t spare the clichés, but he does run up hard against the strictures of the PG-13 rating. One of Wilson’s first lines ‘What the shit is this?’ signposts a problem which becomes ridiculous during a lengthy strip-club sequence. Would an R rating improve that sequence though? Probably not, as, regrettably following 21 and Over’s lead, this is another film that ridicules the Confucian privileging of education, instead venerating drunken debauchery, the avoidance of hard work at all costs, and endless unconvincing bluffing to compensate for such avoidance. The Internship is uncomfortably unfunny because so many scenes feature actors desperately mugging to try and wring even a single laugh from set-ups; like Lyle’s hip-hop stylings and the signature ‘on the line/online’ routine; that are just excruciatingly misguided – they’re not funny in conception or in execution.

It’s nice to see Rose Byrne using her own Australian accent for once, and there is an amusing scene where Nick tries to provide Dana with a decade’s worth of bad dating experiences by being comically rude, but The Internship has so few effective gags that the mind wanders. Doesn’t Google HQ resemble something out of Logan’s Run? How weird is it that a movie about forty-something guys made obsolete by twenty-something innovators should get its ass kicked commercially by Seth Rogen’s rival comedy This is The End? Indeed Vaughn’s co-writer Jared Stern and director Shawn Levy both worked on developing The Internship and The Watch, so this is like a fascinating controlled experiment: The Watch was being produced by Shawn Levy in this vein of comediocrity before Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg took that project and made it funny.

And then there’s the corporate angle… Doesn’t the plight of Billy and Nick tie in to Thomas Friedman’s 2007 book The World is Flat? Google is obsequiously portrayed as Friedman at his most enthusiastic would champion it – as a progressive flattening force that allows workers in India to compete against workers in Indiana by giving them the digital tools to do so. For Friedman such horizontal competition between new rivals is an opportunity for developed countries to move up the value chain by their smarts, but he never grapples with the truth that many Pittsburgh steelworkers cannot become coders in Silicon Valley: Nick masters writing HTML, but Billy cannot upskill. Ultimately Vaughn’s upbeat comedic finale is ironically only enabling an attitude Friedman criticises – that ‘imagination’ and ‘optimism’ will compensate for not learning the basics; because they weren’t a fun experience.

The Internship is a comedy badly lacking jokes, which will likely be remembered solely for its set-up’s slight mirroring of its own box-office defeat to This is The End.

1/5

May 2, 2013

Dead Man Down

Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, makes his American debut with a thriller starring Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace.

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Victor (Farrell) is a low-ranking criminal working alongside fellow foot-soldier and friend Darcy (Dominic Cooper) in the gang headed by Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), a sharp-suited villain who specialises in clearing buildings of tenants for the Mob. Hoyt is coming apart at the seams due to a three month barrage of cryptic notes, and surveillance photos with his eyes crossed out. And that’s before Paul, the trusted lieutenant he tasked with identifying the mystery stalker, turns up dead in the basement of Alphonse’s mansion. As Alphonse goes on the offensive Victor strikes up a low-key romance with his high-rise neighbour Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a beautician horribly scarred by a car accident who now shuns the world and lives with her mother Valentine (Isabelle Huppert). But embittered Beatrice may hold the key to solving the mystery of who is harassing Alphonse…

Dead Man Down’s best feature is its patient drip-feeding of surprising information in the first act. There is one truly extraordinary scene in which a victim is revealed to be a predator, and Terrence Howard’s villain on the make interestingly has something of Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday about him. Oplev defamiliarises NYC to an astonishing extent; making it a city of warehouses in deserted urban locales, docklands overgrown with green trees, and lush vegetation surrounding high-rise apartment blocks. There are a number of nail-biting sequences in the film as Darcy takes over Paul’s investigation and gets closer to the truth which got him killed, but somehow Oplev doesn’t milk the tension from them Fincher would, while his action sequences are staged efficiently rather than dazzlingly. Really this is TV’s Revenge, writ large, and not quite as attractively.

Fringe writer JH Wyman’s dialogue clunks almightily at times, not helped by Oplev shooting those scenes with lengthy pauses where the piano tinkles helpfully to suggest emotional epiphanies are being had by characters who don’t look like they’re even thinking. Oplev incredibly sabotages a scene where the voice of a dead girl says “Daddy got rid of all the monsters”, by showing us a board of photos of all the mobsters still to be killed. We got it, stop flourishing your Diploma from the Oliver Stone School of Subtlety. Wyman’s script has good intentions, but just when you’re thinking about quotes by Confucius and Gladiator on revenge the finale changes gears completely, almost as if a draft by Luc Besson of the Colombiana showstopper had got mixed up with the final pages of Dead Man Down, and profundity is banished.

You couldn’t say that Dead Man Down is a bad film, but you could only give it a very qualified thumbs-up because it so aggravatingly wastes its abundant potential.

2.5/5

December 20, 2011

The Rises and Falls of Michael Moore

Michael Moore is still making entertaining documentaries using the same methods he’s employed for the past 20 years, so why does no one care anymore?

I had this thought when I heard that Moore was in town doing a show in the Grand Canal Theatre to promote his new book, and realised that, no matter how good this new book was, only a fraction of the number of people who proudly displayed Stupid White Men on their book-shelves as a symbol of right-on resistance to George Bush Jr would bother to buy this one. It’s not like Moore’s writing has suffered an obvious fall-off and that’s the reason that people are eschewing it. Stupid White Men is very funny but also very sketchy at times in its logic and arguments, while Dude, Where’s my Country? is filled with excruciatingly childish sneering at conservatives. But both sold phenomenally well. No, whatever the quality of this book its reception will be muted because Moore’s time as de riguer reading has simply passed.

Moore’s time was quite short, lasting only around 4 years or so, but of course it wasn’t his first coming. Roger & Me launched Moore to fame in America in 1989, and set the tone for his whole career with its partisan satirical railing against corporate greed in the traditionally more neutral documentary genre. I fondly remember Moore’s TV show appearing on Channel 4 in the mid-1990s where he door-stepped businessmen and generally afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. He faded out of view for quite some time and then, almost out of nowhere, Bowling for Columbine and Stupid White Men gave him a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic. I welcomed him back as an old friend while watching Bowling for Columbine but it was clear that attacking capitalist excesses wasn’t enough anymore. He aimed higher, and ironically brought himself down.

Fahrenheit 9/11 went after George Bush Jr on a petty if entertaining level but was undone by its own indiscipline. Despite the opprobrium heaped upon it, it is a very good polemic – either side of a truly terrible half-hour about Iraq and vague conspiracy theories. More people saw this any of Moore’s other films and that’s why it was dangerously ill-judged. Fahrenheit 9/11 was designed to topple Bush from power but instead he was re-elected with a thumping majority. I think ordinary cinema-goers were inclined to view Moore’s film as a failure in propagandising, both because of its practical lack of success and its aesthetic clumsiness, and the more political among them were inclined to blame him for Bush’s victory by his populist rabble-rousing spurring the GOP into more effective voter-turnout drives. But if this was when Moore’s stock fell other circumstances wiped it out.

The tide turned quickly for a President who had boasted of spending his huge political capital, and after Hurricane Katrina, and with increasing popular discontent with the fiscal and emotional cost of the never-ending occupation of Iraq (especially its maiming of a generation of volunteer soldiers), Bush was as toxic electorally as Moore had wished to make him. Sicko thus appeared when it was already clear that Bush’s neo-conservatism was out of favour, and Capitalism: A Love Story was released at a time of utter irrelevance for any American elections. The replacement of Bush with Obama was, for the rest of the world, akin to Hunter S Thompson’s characterisation of the political demise of Lyndon B Johnson – an evil king had been overthrown, and now we all could stop worrying about over-reaching American politics. And that meant not caring about American healthcare or capitalism either…

Which is a pity because Capitalism is a fascinating watch, filled with archival gold and provocative arguments, while Sicko’s polemic for a better healthcare system is quite devastating, and might have aided Obama’s strenuous and half-successful efforts at reform – except of course that no American conservative would watch it, never mind a Tea Party member. Americans seem to have turned away from Moore as being either counter-productive or treasonous, while the rest of the world apparently has turned away from his work because it’s simply become bored with an America that patently has lost the ability to project its power as it once did, either economically or politically, and is so dogged by polarised partisan infighting as to arguably be on the verge of a constitutional crisis; because if the legislature refuses to engage with the executive but merely engages in monolithic opposition deadlock ensues.

I strongly believe that within the next thirty years we will all have absorbed, by a process of osmosis, a basic knowledge of Chinese history and culture merely as necessary background noise to understanding what will then be the world’s pre-eminent country. We will know exactly what Confucius said, and be able to talk about the origin myth of modern China in the Opium Wars with the British, and know when the various dynasties ruled as readily as we roughly know when various houses of monarchy were on the throne in England. Part of that realpolitik adjustment might already have begun in an abjuration of interest in American politics as it can now be regarded as purely a domestic American concern with greatly decreased international impact. Moore’s future success might then be dependent on American domestic politics again forcefully impacting the rest of the world.

Can Michael Moore stage another comeback? The odds are stacked against him, but who knows, the Tea Party may yet do the unthinkable for them and make him fashionable again.

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