Talking Movies

July 4, 2019

The Age of Attenborough

The Age of Attenborough can be said to have begun on the 16th of January 1979 with the broadcasting of the first episode of Life on Earth. Attenborough, before his stint as director of BBC 2 where he pioneered Wimbledon coverage and Monty Python, had of course been presenting Zoo Quest, and he presented other programmes, even delivering the Royal Instution’s Christmas Lectures in the mid-1970s. But Life on Earth was a self-consciously landmark series in the manner of Civilisation and The Ascent of Man, which Attenborough had commissioned for BBC 2 to show the ambition of the new channel.

1979 was coincidentally also the year my parents bought a humble cathode-ray tube television which has been faithfully broadcasting Attenborough’s explorations of the natural world since Life on Earth and will remain his faithful servant, as RTE 1 prepares to screen his Dynasties programme, until the 6th of August at which point the analogue signal will be turned off and this technical marvel bow out after 40 years of service.

The series that Attenborough has made over those 40 years are astonishing: The Living Planet, The First Eden, Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives, The Trials of Life, Life in the Freezer, The Private Life of Plants, The Life of Birds, The Human Face, The Blue Planet, The Life of Mammals, Life in the Undergrowth, Planet Earth, Life in Cold Blood, Life, Madagascar, Frozen Planet, Kingdom of Plants, Galapagos, Africa, Micro Monsters, Life Story, Conquest of the Skies, The Hunt, Great Barrier Reef, Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, Dynasties, Our Planet.

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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.

January 14, 2016

The Revenant

Birdman director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu goes into the wild with Leonardo DiCaprio for a survival story in the Old West.

dicaprio-xlarge

DiCaprio is Glass, a scout for an expedition led by Domhnall Gleeson’s Captain Henry, hunting for animal pelts along the Missouri River. But this puts them into dangerous proximity to ‘the Ree’ aka the Iroquois Nation. After a surprise attack by the Iroquois, who transpire to be on a Searchers mission for their chief’s kidnapped daughter, the pelt party has to literally abandon ship and head into the snowy mountains. Unfortunately that’s when Glass has an intimate encounter with an irate bear. And when the antagonistic Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) is left in charge of his care, while the rest of the party trek on, you get the feeling this won’t end well. Sure enough Fitzgerald ditches a not quite dead Glass in a shallow grave. Glass though claws his way out, and clings to life for the sake of revenge…

Not that this is a revenge movie. There’s about 20 minutes of revenge at the end. Prior to that you are watching a survival movie which quite often feels like a feature ‘Old West’ special of Bear Grylls: Born Survivor aka Man Vs Wild. Glass utilises a number of Bear’s tricks: he rearranges stones in a river to catch fish, scoops the guts out of a horse to hide inside its carcass to avoid a storm, uses a flint to light a fire, and even manages to break his fall off a cliff by using a tree. The one unconscionable thing he does is eat snow, which Bear has repeatedly warned against; but as Glass had lost his canteen at that point he probably gets a Mulligan. DiCaprio gives a committed performance, proudly displaying a kinship with Pierce Brosnan when it comes to the grunting and moaning in pain school of physical acting, while Hardy is a good antagonist; his naked self-interest quite probably as correct as Peter Weller’s misgivings in Star Trek Into Darkness.

Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski shot only in natural light in what seems little more than creating unnecessary difficulties in order to prove their worth as artistes. It doesn’t add much to the cinematic experience, these landscapes speak for themselves; indeed it grates when you’re asked to marvel at CGI animals when you’ve seen the real bison and wolves in The Hunt on the BBC. The Iroquois attack is spectacular because of the shooting style, but thereafter the in-DiCapario’s-face affectation becomes annoying. You wish the camera would back up about four feet and jack up another five so you could have some sense of location and action. There is a scene where gravely injured Glass gets down from a cliff in one startling jump-cut, the total lack of establishing shots makes you wonder if he just rolled over the edge…

The Revenant is 2 hours 36 minutes but it flies by. An engaging how-to manual for surviving the Old West ought not be confused with high cinematic art though just because its makers made its shoot a living hell.

3/5

September 21, 2009

Creation

A biopic of Charles Darwin that a creationist and Dawkins could go see and both happily leave halfway thru, agreeing that something so boring and utterly wretched wasn’t worth arguing over.

Creation opens with a caption proclaiming Darwin’s idea to be the single greatest in the history of thought, and then, for 109 minutes, casts doubt on whether cinema can communicate ideas at all. Creation is the worst of a biopic sub-genre (Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind) where great works are reduced to inanity by focusing not on the work, but, to paraphrase Creation’s captions, how the person came to write that work. You would think Darwin came to write his work by years of painstaking research, the formulation of a revolutionary hypothesis, and then months of hard graft writing up his findings by hand – but no! Darwin wrote his work addled on laudanum and guided by conversations with his dead daughter.  This conceit, like the flashbacks to his daughter’s life, is at first preposterous, then annoying, and finally unbearable.

The always capable Paul Bettany, bald but eschewing the beard of popular imagination, seems to be playing his own greatest hits. Darwin is a laudanum fiend and naturalist, like Bettany’s character in Master & Commander, who writes his great idea due to conversations with people who aren’t there, just as Bettany inspired Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Jennifer Connelly as Darwin’s religious wife is under-served by the script, although she and Bettany shine in the best scene of the film when they finally confront the possibility that their daughter’s poor health was because they married, despite being first cousins. Connelly’s character though is under-served because she is religious and this is a fatal weakness.

If you want true dramatic conflict you must give each character in an argument the possibility of winning or the scene is predetermined and therefore pointless. This holds even ethically – witness the astonishing scene in Sophie Scholl where Sophie is questioned for her anti-Nazia propagandising by a Gestapo officer in an intellectual debate in which every point Sophie makes is eloquently contradicted by him, and he makes points she can’t refute: the scene positively hums with dramatic tension even though he represents genocidal evil. In Creation poor Jeremy Northam as Reverend Innes is given dialogue which is comically bone-headed – his preaching on Genesis’ most absurd passages drives Darwin to walk out of service, while his approach to bereavement counselling for the Darwins involves endless references to God’s wise plan. This loading of the dice dramatically makes these scenes deeply idiotic, and matters are not helped by TH Huxley (Toby Jones appearing for five minutes) being more Dawkins than Huxley in his startling belligerence. Indeed his effect on Darwin in the film leads Innes to deliver his only good line, “I had always regarded you as one of those rare mortals with whom it is possible to disagree without a shade of animosity. I see that is no longer true”.

Evolution is, as Thomas Jefferson might have put it, a self-evident truth, but writers John Collee and Jon Amiel seem to think it so specious that they need a straw-man construction of religion. Ignore this bizarre farrago and instead try to watch the two BBC documentaries Darwin by David Attenborough and Did Darwin Kill God?

1/5

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