Talking Movies

April 27, 2016

Demolition

Director Jean-Marc Vallee returns with a considerably less ‘prestige’ tale of mental disintegration and rejuvenation than his previous film Wild.

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Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a jaded investment banker so inattentive he hasn’t noticed his refrigerator leaking for 2 weeks. His wife Julia (Heather Lind) is reminding him anew just before a fatal car-crash. Work is no escape from his grief because he works for his disapproving father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), and also he doesn’t really have any grief. A confession Davis makes in a series of over-sharing letters tangentially seeking a refund from a hospital vending machine. The letters touch stoner customer services rep Karen (Naomi Watts), and soon Davis is hanging out with her and mentoring her troubled teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis). This does not impress Karen’s boyfriend Carl (CJ Wilson). Phil and Margot (Polly Draper) are even less impressed, especially as Davis disdains their plan for a scholarship in Julia’s name; being busy demolishing Julia’s open-plan house.

Bryan Sipe’s script appeared on the 2007 Blacklist of unproduced gems, but it feels like a script that should have doing the rounds in the late 1990s. There are similarities with Fight Club, American Beauty, and, as Joe Griffin pointed out to me, Falling Down. Jay M Glen, editing his first movie, offers some terrific disjunctive cuts but this does not have Fight Club’s bravura nihilism despite Davis’ enthusiastic destruction of all the consumer comforts of his oh-so-modern abode. Instead, with Yves Belanger lighting his third straight film for Vallee and casting a warm sheen over everything, it’s more akin to American Beauty’s concern with the beauty of the quotidian. The slight note of Camus’ L’Etranger in Davis pointedly not crying at his wife’s funeral deceives; this is as philosophically facile as American Beauty’s plastic bag flapping in the wind.

So thank heavens there is another film in Demolition’s DNA: Vallee’s own towering C.R.A.Z.Y. Davis, in preferring to pay contractor Jimmy (Wass Stevens) to allow him destroy condemned properties than engage with Julia’s scholarship recipient Todd (Brendan Dooling), is quite obviously dynamiting his career and life, but Vallee’s skilful use of music magicks this nervous breakdown into a spiritual awakening. And even more importantly the ‘rejuvenation’ of a bored career man by a disaffected teenager would be a tired retread (not just American Beauty but Meet Bill) were it not for Judah Lewis. Lewis, in some shots reminiscent of the young Tina Majorino, gives a star-making performance as the Bowie-adoring androgynous teenager who bonds with Davis. There are notes of Edward Furlong’s John Connor in his bravado, but the notes of vulnerability sing, and Gyllenhaal matches them with nuanced despair.

Demolition is a good, engaging film that you keep hoping will find a higher gear but when it never does its obvious good nature predisposes you to liking it more than it arguably deserves.

3.5/5

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February 18, 2016

Juno and the Paycock

The Gate is first out of the traps in the curious case of the duelling Sean O’Casey productions to mark the 1916 centenary, as his 1924 classic is here directed by Crestfall playwright Mark O’Rowe.

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Declan Conlon and Marty Rea are a formidable pairing as O’Casey’s inimitable self-deluding male comedy double-act. Conlon is the self-proclaimed nautical veteran ‘Captain’ Boyle, a work-shy layabout who once crewed a boat to Liverpool and now infuriates his long-suffering wife Juno (Derbhle Crotty) by continually carousing with ne’er-do-well neighbour Joxer (Rea) and pleading medically mysterious pains in his legs whenever the prospect of a job appears. Juno’s uphill battle to maintain the family’s dignity takes place in a starkly decaying gray tenement room, with a staircase visible whenever the front door is left open. O’Rowe exploits this bleak space with increasingly dim lighting as the Boyle family is torn asunder by its own complexes of self-delusion, social climbing, and self-destructiveness; a matrix which O’Casey uses to skewer middle-class mores, the Catholic Church, Civil War Republicans, and the Trade Union movement.

It’s startling that in just 14 years Conlon has reached the age where people would think of him not for Hotspur but for Henry IV or Falstaff. He provides a Paycock long on voluble self-pity and contempt, but short on self-awareness and compassion. Conlon is terrific at waspish contempt, but his performance suffers by O’Rowe’s directorial choices. O’Rowe, possibly reacting to Howard Davies’ 2011 Abbey production of Juno, reins in the slapstick. Davies conjured business to emphasise O’Casey’s vaudeville clowning, but Ciaran Hinds’ self-deluding bombast made his later self-righteous fury truly scary. O’Rowe’s stricter fidelity to the text narrows Conlon’s range. And so Rea’s performance stays in the memory longer. He plays Joxer with an impish quality (as if he had flitted in from a Shakespearean fantasy to laugh at mortals), shrinking into as little space as possible, legs always coiled around each other, darting in and out of windows and across the stage startlingly quickly, and extending his final refrain of ‘A Daaaarlin book’ into an almost serpentine hiss.

Paul Wills’ austere set design tracks O’Rowe’s approach, a drab room with sparse and meagre furnishings in comparison to Bob Crowley’s sprawling 2011 Abbey set, whose vivid crumbling was akin to Tyler’s brownstone in Fight Club. In this setting Crotty’s turn as Juno is characterised by exhaustion above exasperation, not the Fassbendering turn one might have anticipated; instead Ingrid Craigie’s Maisie Madigan steals scenes. Juno’s valedictory ‘It’ll what have what’s far better, it’ll have two mothers’ is hollowed by Crotty’s hapless resignation towards crippled Republican son Johnny (Fionn Walton) and synchronicity with Union daughter Mary (Caoimhe O’Malley). O’Malley elevates Mary from cipher, layering cruelty towards her ex-boyfriend (Peter Coonan) with an initial startled adherence to and a later dogged rebellion against sexual morality that seems self-destructive compulsion. Given Juno’s self-pitying matrimonial rebukes that are both loudly performed and ineffectual O’Rowe hints at matrilineal failings that bode ill for Mary’s child.

The 2011 Abbey co-production with Southbank’s National Theatre remains the recent gold standard, but O’Rowe’s more subdued take features sufficient fresh unexpected insights to render it an interesting companion piece to Davies’ exuberant interpretation.

3.5/5

Juno and the Paycock continues its run at the Gate Theatre until the 16th of April.

 

October 2, 2014

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn streamlines her twisting novel for David Fincher who turns into a 2 ½ hour thriller so utterly absorbing that it simply flies by.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) owns a bar in Carthage, Missouri with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon). Except, he doesn’t really own it – it’s in his wife’s name. In fact pretty much everything is in the name of trust-fund Amy (Rosamund Pike). So when Amy goes missing on their 5th wedding anniversary, Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) find it hard not to suspect Nick of murdering her. Nick maintains that NYC girl Amy had no friends in his hometown, seemingly unaware that shrill Noelle (Casey Wilson) was BFFs with Amy; and has photos to prove it. Nick seems distant with Amy’s peculiar writer parents Rand (David Clennon) and Marybeth (Lisa Banes), and his affair with the much younger Andie (Emily Ratajkowski) only copper-fastens his guilt; as proclaimed by cable anchor Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle).

Gone Girl is like those Ira Levin novels Stephen King praised where there wasn’t a twist at the end, more a pivot in the middle, which made it hard to discuss without ruining. Flynn’s screenplay simplifies her novel without losing its punch, indeed her streamlining improves on its latter meandering. Fincher, particularly in staging parallel reactions to a crucial TV interview, brings out black comedy that isn’t as readily apparent in the book; making this a satire on trial by media. When Amy’s traditional anniversary treasure hunt leads to incriminating evidence Nick as much as confirms his guilt by hiring legendary defence counsel, Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry). And comedian Perry’s stunt casting pays off in spades as he brings a warmth to the part not present in the book. Meanwhile Neil Patrick Harris, as Amy’s obsessive ex Desi, leaves his comfort zone for a suggestion of true creepiness. Pike showcases iciness and intelligence, while Affleck is fantastic as the hapless everyman; who we root for despite his flaws. Fincher is the kind of director who, with his endless takes, wrings great performances from actors like Affleck too often content to coast; and this should quash sceptical mutterings about Affleck’s Batman.

Affleck is helped by being half of a great double act. Margo was always going to be a great part, and Coon breaks out from theatre with her glorious turn as the spiky voice of reason. Amazingly, this is the first Fincher movie I’ve ever reviewed, and it’s a prime cut. His regular cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth stages two fever dream scenes of arresting beauty, in a sugar storm and a snow storm, while a pull-out shot at a truck stop is made strangely gorgeous. Otherwise we’re in that under-lit threatening world of The Social Network and Fight Club’s abrasive social commentary. Fincher’s customary editor Kirk Baxter and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross all join him in whooping it up in a grand guignol scene that keeps fading out and returning, again and again, as the music screeches as much as the more squeamish members of the audience. The squeamish are also treated to two other scenes, including some business with a hammer, which are that peculiar Hitchcock-plus of Fincher dark comedy. Reznor and Atticus’s score is dominated by intrusive melancholy piano, and then the electronic clicks and screeches we’ve come to expect – and that perfectly fit Fincher’s unsettling universe.

David Fincher is one of the most distinctive directors working in cinema, and this knockout punch is, with Dallas Buyers Club and Boyhood, one of the movies of 2014.

5/5

July 1, 2014

Arcade Fire & Pixies at Marlay Park

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Arcade Fire arrived at Marlay Park on the back of triumphantly headlining Glastonbury, with super-support from Pixies touring their first new album in 23 years.

Pixies’ new album Indie Cindy, culled from various EPs over the last while, is very reminiscent of 1990’s Bossanova; with elements of 1991’s Trompe le Monde. Their deafeningly loud 22 song set included new songs ‘Bagboy’, ‘Magdalena 318’, ‘Indie Cindy’, and ‘Greens and Blues’ interspersed with the old classics, and the old songs fitted in perfectly. The latest Kim Deal substitute was adept as a bassist but less so vocally in a Doolittle and Surfer Rosa heavy-set, but Dave Lovering and Joey Santiago were obviously having fun. Lovering in particular hammed up his rendition of ‘La La Love You’, even though the crowd started applauding before he’d actually finished… And therein lay the explanation for Frank Black’s distant mood. This was far from the adulatory reception Pixies received when supporting Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2004. A blisteringly raucous finale saw Pixies run together ‘Rock Music’, ‘Isla de Encanta’, and ‘Tame’, before ‘Debaser’ was abandoned because Black’s guitar had broken and he chose to take it as a sign. Truthfully the sign had come earlier when the moshpit went crazy for ‘Here Comes Your Man’ – this nearly 50 minutes in, and after ‘Wave of Mutilation’, ‘Gouge Away’, ‘Velouria’, and ‘Nimrod’s Son’ had been played without any such reaction. When the crowd at the front then went wild again a few songs later for ‘Where is My Mind?’ you could almost see Fassbender’s despairing lines as cult musician Frank run across Black’s face: “They do not know and love us? They do not know us…” This was a crowd of face-painted teenagers there for Arcade Fire, and all the Pixies they knew was thru Fight Club’s finale and their only song approved for daytime radio. This cast a slight pall over the end of the set, and, almost as if the gods had been angered, the sunny weather was replaced by a cold wind.Win Butler seemed ashamed on his fans’ behalf, and later played the intro of ‘Where is My Mind?’ while stressing the seminal nature of Pixies – ‘you really ought to know who they are’ was the clear subtext…

The stage at Marlay has changed position a lot over the years and now the audience looks past it to the mountains, the perfect backdrop really for a band with a song called ‘Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)’. Arcade Fire took to the stage at 8:30 in order to play for over two hours, although they first had to boot off their bobble-head band which had started playing ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’. Impressively the costumes used at Glastonbury were discarded for all new outfits, with Win Butler sporting a white suit with red birds adorning the jacket. After staggeringly tossing aside the totemic ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ as the second song sandwiched between two new tracks, they settled comfortably into The Suburbs; with ‘Rococo’, ‘Month of May’, ‘The Suburbs’, and ‘Ready to Start’ in succession. After some moody Funeral hits the already energised crowd were set dancing with ‘Intervention’, ‘We Exist’, ‘No Cars Go’, ‘Haiti’, ‘Reflektor’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’ one after another. And it was very noticeable just how much dancing there was going on in the crowd. Some of this may be because the gig didn’t sell out (Recession, y’all), so people had space to really go for it; but most of it was surely because of the sheer energy of the small army of musicians bouncing around and effortlessly switching instruments onstage. And offstage, with dancers throwing shapes on a platform in the crowd for ‘We Exist’, and Regine Chassagne being menaced by dancing skeletons for ‘Oh Orpheus’ on the same platform. And then the band left to allow a bobble-head Pope to rip up a photo of Miley Cyrus while standing beside a TV-screen-head man playing Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. Arcade Fire returned, heralded by their mirror-ball man speaking Irish, for an encore of ‘Afterlife’, ‘Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)’, ‘Here Comes the Night Time’, and ‘Wake Up’. And after exploding a vast shower of confetti over the crowd there really could be no second encore after that closer… It was a really good gig, but I wasn’t as blown away by it as other people were because I don’t think Reflektor stands up to their previous work. I’ve been listening to Neon Bible and really enjoying it recently, and it has almost completely fallen out of their set-list. They played 7 songs from Reflektor, and I think by their next tour only ‘Reflektor’, ‘Afterlife’, ‘It’s Never Over (Oh Orpheus)’ will still be played. But that’s three new songs U2 would kill for.

I seem to be cursed to see huge bands when they’re touring weak albums, but this will still surely be a strong contender for feel-good gig of the summer.

4/5

June 19, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

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John Green’s best-selling ‘dying teenagers in love’ YA novel gets a cinematic adaptation so perfectly dreadful it will make you question the book’s stellar reputation.

Our heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is dying of cancer. She is dragged by her mother Frannie (Laura Dern) to support meetings in a church basement, presided over by an Evangelical figure of fun who could’ve walked straight out of Fight Club. But one day Isaac (Nat Wolff), a sardonic teenager blinded in one eye by cancer, brings along to group his best friend Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a cocky teenager who lost a leg to cancer. There is an instant spark of attraction between Hazel and Augustus, and soon she has him reading her favourite cancer novel An Imperial Affliction. Augustus pesters the exiled author Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) until Van Houten’s helpful assistant Lidewij (Lotte Verbeek) invites them both to Amsterdam. But Hazel’s father Michael (Sam Trammell) urges Augustus not to push the physically frail Hazel…

The Fault in Our Stars is most interesting for its part in Shailene Woodley’s sustained campaign to become Jennifer Lawrence. J-Law was unconsciously unguarded in interviews, Woodley makes bizarre pronouncements. J-Law fronted The Hunger Games, Woodley (after consulting J-Law, she let everyone know) fronted Divergent. J-Law won an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook, Woodley attempts a serious role with an ersatz J-Law performance. Woodley was terrific in The Descendants, but here she seems to vocally channel J-Law in scenes where she’s upset or excited. And then there’s Elgort… Elgort renders Augustus an arrogant water-polo player from The OC. One assumes that Augustus is intended to be more charming, perhaps closer to a Damon Salvatore; but even the swaggering Ian Somerhalder couldn’t rescue Augustus’ excruciatingly stilted dialogue. It genuinely shocks that (500) Days of Summer’s Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber adapted.

From the sub-Mametian insistence of the lovers on calling each other Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters, to Hazel Grace’s use of the word hamartia, to Augustus’ involved (and not particularly metaphorical) cigarette metaphor everything in this film feels painfully affected. I haven’t read the book, but I’m not sure these touches could’ve worked even in print; especially the excruciating moment when deeply inappropriate PDA in the Anne Frank House is applauded.Director Josh Boone’s autumnal palette complements the actual and soundalike Coldplay that soundtracks the relentlessly weepy forced march to the movie’s crux: like The Lovely Bones and The Da Vinci Code sex is everything – being in heaven, being God; not as good or important as having had sex. Dafoe’s mercifully abrasive cameo as the novelist telling them home-truths cannot shift these insufferable lovers’ minds onto more transcendent philosophical concerns.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we encourage producers to make dross like this by going to bad movies, knowing they’re bad.

1/5

February 7, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

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Matthew McConaughey’s acting renaissance continues as Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee returns to Anglophone cinema with a far surer script than Julian Fellowes’ dire Young Victoria.

Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) is introduced in Hemingwayesque style as he gets busy with two prostitutes in a spare pen at the dangerous rodeo. An archetypal good ole boy he is soon punching his favourite cop (Steve Zahn) to ensure arrest before irate gamblers demand their money after his friend TJ (Kevin Rankin) ruins the book. Running some gambling, and spending the proceeds on drink and hookers is Woodroof’s contented life, with electrical maintenance at oil-fields providing a steady income, until he collapses and awakes in hospital to find himself being diagnosed with HIV by Drs Sevard (Denis O’Hare) and Eve (Jennifer Garner). Given 30 days to live, Woodroof goes into furious denial, before stealing AZT supplies, and eventually ending up in a squalid clinic in Mexico, where Dr Vass (Griffin Dunne) re-educates him about the FDA and supposed wonder-drug AZT…

McConaughey is initially rake-thin, as the HIV victim the doctors are amazed hasn’t died before this point, and he wastes away before your eyes over the course of 2 hours to harrowing effect. McConaughey also has no problem in being unsympathetic. He’s a perfect cliché of redneck hostility when he meets HIV+ gay transvestite Rayon (Jared Leto) in hospital. But soon Woodroof himself is on the receiving end as TJ mocks his sexuality and Woodroof finds an invisible force-field around him at his favourite bar as everyone fears catching his disease. Soon Woodroof’s quest ceases to be to save his own life, but to outwit FDA regulations for the good of all his fellow AIDS sufferers, thru the Dallas Buyers Club; run in an unlikely partnership with Rayon, whose honour he chivalrously defends in a supermarket against TJ’s homophobic slurs.

Dallas Buyers Club has one major problem, given its ‘based on a true story’ status. Barkley of the FDA (the reliably oily Michael O’Neill) makes for a strong villain, but was AZT really as poisonous a treatment as Woodroof believed or is this film cleverly playing on our fears of Big Pharma’s ability to corrupt regulation for its own profits? But against that factual concern is the superb acting and affecting arc; even as Woodroof hustles Dr Eve she warms to his hidden softer side – on being evicted he breaks into his trailer to save a painting. Woodroof’s friendship with Rayon, which sees them bickering in a supermarket about processed food like a married couple, is beautifully developed, and Rayon’s drug spiral is extremely moving. Leto didn’t play a character called Angel Face in Fight Club for nothing, he looks prettier in a dress than many actresses, but his fierce commitment to the role includes deliberately ravaging his appearance as Rayon nears the inevitable end.

McConaughey’s renaissance continues to be as spectacular it was unexpected, while Jean-Marc Vallee finally achieves an Anglophone success to rank alongside his Quebecois triumphs C.R.A.Z.Y. and Cafe de Flore.

5/5

June 27, 2013

The East

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Fight Club meets Point Break by way of Revenge as Brit Marling’s undercover corporate security operative infiltrates eco-terrorists led by Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page.

Sarah (Marling) is a former FBI counter-terrorist agent now working for Hiller-Brood, a corporate security firm led by the formidable Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). Audacious and well-resourced eco-terrorist collective The East have uploaded the first of four promised ‘jams’ punishing corporate boards for the sins of their companies. Sarah is tasked with infiltrating them, and drops out of suburban DC life to drift thru national parks and hop train carriages like a 1930s hobo looking for East fellow-travellers. Just as she’s despairing she is introduced to the group by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), and welcomed by leader Benji (Skarsgard) but disdained by his lieutenant Izzy (Page). Sarah manages to maintain her cover long enough to be implicated in a vicious jam of Big Pharma, but falling for the charismatic Benji, and his principled ecological ideals, sees her devotion to her mission wane…

Marling co-wrote the script as a starring vehicle but the film is all about Ellen Page. From the arresting opening in which Page threatens a Big Oil CEO, over horror imagery of oil seeping out of his mansion’s air-vents and sinks, she is extremely menacing. And this despite one shot where director Zal Batmanglij hilariously forgets to hide the massive height difference between the tiny Canadian (5’1”) and the mighty Scandinavian (6’6”). Marling is a better writer than actress and she and co-writer Batmanglij skilfully portray the group as dangerous lunatics akin to Martha Marcy May Marlene’s cult before deepening the portrayal. This is exemplified by the devastating drip-feed of information about Doc (Tony Kebbell), but Page benefits greatly as the forceful Izzy is so enigmatic as to appear without moral limits, but is actually almost mythological in her convictions.

There is an awful lot of Tyler Durden in Skarsgard’s Benji, who proves his devotion to the maxim “the things you own end up owning you” by squatting in a decayed mansion. Batmanglij eschews the visual bravura Fincher brought to Fight Club because despite initial similarities to the work of its Mischief Committee the jams here lack that joyousness. Durden was unburdened by self-doubt, but these characters, despite the Big Pharma jam having the elegance of an Emily gambit in Revenge, do not take her joy in retribution but are troubled by their actions against Paige Williams (Julia Ormond) and the other directors. This doesn’t convince and never feels like anything but a sop to PG-13 morality. It weighs down a third act being almost fatally dragged under by a flight of characters, infuriating politico-economic naivety, and an unnecessary twist.

The East’s third act doesn’t do the rest of the film justice, but this is an absorbing thriller whose slow-burning character studies are a welcome relief in blockbuster season.

3.5/5

April 23, 2012

NetFlix Killed the Video Store

In this blog’s first cross-over episode Think About IT’s Gerard Healy joins Talking Movies‘ Fergal Casey to discuss the arrival of NetFlix in Ireland.

1. What is NetFlix?


GH: So, NetFlix is here. What aspect of it should we discuss first?
FC: How about, “What is NetFlix?”
GH: “No one can be told what NetFlix is, you have to see it for yourself,” you mean?
FC: No, genuinely, what is NetFlix? I don’t understand this streaming business.
GH: (sighs) Fine… NetFlix allows you to stream movies and TV on your laptop, tablet or games console. Basically, it’s on-demand TV and films to a computer of your choice.
FC: How?
GH: It’s very much like YouTube. It’s essentially a website (or App in the case of Xboxes, iPads, other non-PC/laptop devices) that streams to your computer, except that it’s a paid service.
FC: So, they don’t post you DVDs in cute red envelopes?
GH: Initially NetFlix offered a “direct to your door” style service when it launched in the US, and it even extended into Canada, but NetFlix are yet to offer anything like this in Europe, and it seems unlikely we’ll ever see it as they’ve been trying to pull the service.
FC: Aw, but if they don’t do that then Netflix guilt is a thing of the past!
GH: I’m not familiar with this concept, but I gather you’re once again lamenting advances in technology, like when you moaned about the death of the cassette tape. It raises an interesting question about the future of physical media, which I’d like to discuss later.
FC: And we will, but damn it all I must lament this advance in technology! I’d rather looked forward to people I know having super-pretentious movies sitting around on top of a red envelope on their television for months on end. The same way people have Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on their shelves, but really they’re reading the latest Dan Brown…
GH: What’s wrong with Dan Brown?! His books are being made into well-paced, action-packed cinematic adventures. Speaking of which, what do you think of it from a cinematic perspective?
FC: I think Dan Brown movies are definitely not well-paced. Oh, you meant NetFlix! Hmm, well I think perhaps, perhaps, it increases the likelihood of people seeking out offbeat movies simply because it will be so much easier. I think it’s also likely to lead to an increase in dual cinema and online releases as has happened with Werner Herzog’s latest documentary Into the Abyss. But… as much as I’d like to think that people will hunt about in the scrub for interesting stuff now that it’s easier to do so on Netflix, really, to continue shamelessly plagiarising a quote from Brian Eno, I think most people will remain content to stay on the train-tracks of the mainstream. When it comes to physical distribution I think it might well prove to be the death knell for cinema releases for a certain class of films. Into the Abyss for instance doesn’t seem to have as many showings as I’d expect at the IFI, and that could well be because it’s available simultaneously on Volta. It might also act as the final nail in the coffin of film over digital, Christopher Nolan’s IMAX rampaging notwithstanding.

2. What impact is it likely to have on the home film market?

FC: I’d say minimal to be honest for the immediate future. The catalogue just isn’t strong enough. The problem is that the new films aren’t new enough, the old films aren’t good enough, and there aren’t enough films to hide this problem. If you were to join this you’d probably get less choice and quality than browsing the catalogue and then reserving titles from your local council library. And that’s before we mention the fact that if you’re on an Eircom broadband package or using 3G mobile broadband you’ll get about three movies watched before you hit your monthly limit for usage of the internet in its totality, and then pay thru the nose to watch additional movies to the tune of maybe your entire monthly NetFlix fee for accessing just one of their films.
GH: Is that scarifying factoid courtesy of The Weckler in The Sunday Business Post?
FC: What do you think?
GH: (sighs) Sometimes I wonder if he said The Matrix was now operational would you just believe him without thinking twice… We’ve already seen the death of Zavvi and Blockbusters on their knees, not to mention Game’s recent demise. I can only see this trend continuing. HMV need to be worried and Amazon might need to be as well. While they’ve innovated with their cloud computing platform (EC2), they are still dependent on their on-line retail, of which DVDs and Blu-Rays form a cornerstone.
FC: I remember when HMV was all music, then downloading destroyed that, then it became all movies, and now that’s changing too… This will hammer HMV when NetFlix get their act together.
GH: I think we should revisit this at the end.
FC: Agreed.

3. Why is its catalogue so poor compared to the US equivalent?

FC: So, before we address the threadbare quality of NetFlix’s catalogue I think we should first applaud their political integrity.
GH: Because they help stop piracy without needing a SOPA law?
FC: No, because they are, uniquely in the Irish political spectrum, beholden to no special interest group.
GH: What are you on about, Fergal?
FC: Click ‘Special Interest’ on the catalogue.
GH: Okay. (beat) Ah! I see what you mean. They have nothing in this category.
FC: A less charitable person might say this was ineptitude that summed up the whole catalogue, but I see what it really is – a proud statement of their political ethics.
GH: So, the catalogue is different from America because of tedious legal reasons involving individual contracts with studios, distributors, and copyright laws and clearances?
FC: Basically I think it’s the hold-up in getting Spaced released in America writ large.
GH: You actually don’t know do you?
FC: No, I thought you were researching this.
GH: Lucky for you, I did. Looking at it from the outside, NetFlix appears to be struggling to get all the necessary studies and TV networks to sign-up and publish their content. The likes of Sky and Apple have stolen a march on NetFlix, seemingly signing exclusive deals for the territory. Add to that the unclear and generally untested nature of internet copyright law in the UK and Ireland; it can only make the studios more hesitant. The NetFlix catalogue is clearly suffering badly as a result.
FC: Can I step in?
GH: To slate the catalogue?
FC: Yeah.
GH: Fire away.
FC:  The best thing about the catalogue is the action genre. It’s just fun, and heavy on the Statham which I approve. Recently added films, which pretty much sink the whole enterprise for many people, are running about a year behind the cinema with Blitz, The Mechanic and Drive Angry heading the films. The front page promises material that doesn’t show up when you browse the selection: Nurse Jackie, Torchwood, 24, Dr Who, Dirty Sexy Money. When you browse you merely find good stuff like two seasons of Dexter, a whole collection of South Park, and cancelled shows like Heroes, The InBetweeners, Prison Break, and The 4400. There’s no sign of recent essential shows like True Blood, Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire.
GH: Well, we were warned not to expect ‘recent’ recent stuff.
FC: Ah, yes, but it gets worse. Horror is a mixed bag of cult classics, awful shlock, the Saw movies…and the Scary Movie movies. Scary Movie is a horror of a film but it’s not a horror film…
GH: You mean that it’s a car crash, right?
FC: Not quite. I can definitely look away. Sci-fi has some decent films and again a huge amount of genre confusion. Ditto Romance, Bitter Moon and Tokyo Decadence square off with rom-coms. Documentaries can’t tell the difference between genuinely good work and the tendentious conspiracy stuff David Aaronovitch mocks in Voodoo Histories. And then there’s the simply bizarre. Gay cinema hilariously omits Milk and Brokeback Mountain, and Indie consists of unsuccessful British films and good American indie films. The thriller section features Hard Candy (yay!) but it’s sadly sub-par as a section, saving old classics like Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, while British films was so empty after tossing all the UK tripe into Indie they had to resort to dragging in TV like BBC miniseries The Day of the Triffids.
GH: My God, are you finished carping?
FC: Yes.
GH: Moving on!

4. Has Hollywood universally accepted NetFlix?

FC: Well, kicking and screaming is usually the way big businesses adapt to change. Not for nothing does Forbes advocate Blowing up the Enterprise as a leadership lesson to learn from Kirk. Nokia finally did it, and maybe Hollywood will too.
GH: What do you mean blow up the Enterprise?
FC: Get rid of something you love in order to compete with something new.
GH: What on earth has that got to do with David Lynch?
FC: Lynch said “Now if you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think that you’ve seen a film on your f****** telephone. Get real.”
GH: That’s an interesting point.

FC: President Bartlett said “Decisions are made by those who show up”. Films are for people who go out, and NetFlix is for people who stay in. Lynch should be a bit less precious about new forms of viewing movies because I think generally his audience would be the type that stays in. Who knows, eventually NetFlix might start to fund auteur film-makers to produce his kind of content for them.
GH: But will people really look for films on NetFlix if they haven’t heard of them from the marketing push of a cinema release first?
FC: Let’s not over-state the power of a marketing push, apparently a 100 million dollar marketing budget for Marvel Avengers Assemble isn’t enough to avoid confusion with a TV show that started in 1961 and ended in 1970…

5. Will NetFlix see an end to piracy?


FC: If you believe The Weckler in the SBP placing a legal option next to an illegal option always withers the illegal option. I think the internet has kind of tutored people to expect content for free, like it’s a divine right. Indeed I read a very interesting piece on that last year. I’m sceptical that Irish people will download legally rather than illegally just because they now easily can. I think there’s a certain ingrained lawlessness in the Irish psyche that regards the law as an unjust imposition, and that any way to get around it is always worth exploring; I could at this point instance the entire nation apparently waiting to see how many people might not pay Phil Hogan’s household tax before deciding whether to pay it themselves. Having said which Moonshiners would seem to indicate the same mindset in America too so who the hell knows? Unless we get silly and suggest that Appalachian dwellers are suffering from a post-colonial hangover too.
GH: Sometimes I think you watch too much Discovery Channel.
FC: Wait till you see the series of Bear Grylls blogs I have lined up…
GH: I agree there will always be a hard core that will always pirate but I don’t think it’s as big as you give it credit for. You really have to start by looking at Google, Apple and Amazon. Once they properly enter the legal streaming sphere, things might really get interesting. That said, faster broadband is key to services like this surviving.

6. What parallels can be drawn between the challenges that NetFlix presents to cinema and previous challengers TV and VHS?

FC: I don’t think it’s quite the same as those two challenges, especially not TV.
GH: Do you not think there’ll be a flood of epics or innovations?
FC: No, because I think the rise of CGI devalues the production values that were behind the 1950s epics. A cast of thousands back then was a big deal, now it’s just blah because people presume they’re all CGI. That’s why flipping a truck in The Dark Knight had an impact, because it’s become so rare to bother doing something physically rather than digitally. Also I don’t think that HD and 3-D are the magic bullets dragging people into multiplexes they were initially thought to be. 3-D has proved to be a chore as far as most people are concerned, just look at how easy it is to see films in 2-D versions; and in many cases cinemas continue to run those versions after dispensing with the headache-inducing 3-D version. I’m still to be convinced that HD is actually a good idea because it tends to take the filmic sheen off of films. If you can see the make-up on the faces of the actors you’ve actually innovated to the point where the technology has become self-defeating.
GH: True, but one has to wonder what value the average consumer actually places on filmic sheen. The largest draws always tend to be the blockbuster and the best example of that in recent time has to be Avatar, which is an epic and an innovation.
FC: I think NetFlix actually poses a more essential challenge in that it might interrogate the medium itself. Is cinema something that’s visually driven story-telling, shown on a big screen, and viewed en masse? That’s a definition Hitchcock or Spielberg would recognise. NetFlix if it becomes too dominant might make it hard to tell the difference between cinema and television. If you’re watching NetFlix rather than cinema-going, and you’re watching what we’ve talked about earlier, the more personal movies, then at what point does a one-off story of a certain length, with a visual kick to dialogue scenes with high production values, that’s shown on a small screen, become indistinguishable from HBO? What would distinguish two episodes of Whitechapel back to back from a really good British crime movie?

7. NetFlix: the future/passing phase?

GH: So, is NetFlix the future or a passing phase?
FC: The revolution will not be televised, it will be streamed.
GH: Are you actually going to be serious now?
FC: Yes, I don’t think it’s going to affect things in Ireland until the catalogue ramps up – which apparently could take as much as a year or two. Right now NetFlix resembles a bookstore that’s opened with half-empty shelves. Yes, it will get better, but why open if it’s not ready yet? But I gather you think different about its potential effect.
GH: I think it’s the start of a revolution. I think it’s going to kill DVD and Blu-Ray stone dead. People will either go to the cinema, or stream films, and–
FC: Can I just cut in here and sort of agree with you in a tangential manner?
GH: Yeah…
FC: Jeffrey Katzenberg said a few years ago that in the future all tent-pole movies would be 3-D, and there would still be 2-D films, but that they’d be small personal projects. I think I’d agree with you that people will either go to the cinema or stream films, and I think they’ll go to the cinema for blockbusters where the mass manipulation of the emotions of the audience and the big screen wow factor is crucial, and they’ll stream smaller films which are more cerebral and demand close attention.
GH: And I think that DVD collections will become a thing of the past, something that’s solely for true enthusiasts like vinyl obsessives building a collection. Novelty box-sets will likely last for a short time before the DVD/ Blu-Ray itself eventually becomes the novelty. This could spawn a generation of DVD/ Blu-Ray enthusiasts like John Cusack in High Fidelity. Even now, I can imagine Nick Hornby drafting notes on High Definition.
FC: I stopped collecting DVDs when Blu-Ray appeared. I just thought “I will never watch most of these movies enough to justify the expense, and when I’ve got my collection to a nice point some new technology will just make it obsolete”. But the whole concept of a DVD collection left me cold. The idea of a bad film being worth buying purely for the extras, or the existential crises over differences in boxes between regions, or special editions with different cuts; it all made about as much sense to me as buying a rubbish book for the sake of a nifty introduction and a cool cover.
GH: Didn’t you read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk?
FC: Yes. But I think the true equivalent would be a Dan Brown with a foreword by Paul Bettany explaining how he used the role of Silas to make a feature audition tape for the role of the Joker…
GH: I think NetFlix is the vanguard of Google, Apple (and possibly even Amazon) domination of the streamed media sphere. Google TV and Apple TV seem to only be a few months away, maybe a year.
FC: The idea of Apple TV terrifies me, Google TV a little less so, but Apple TV… (whistles) It just seems like something out of a dystopian novel the idea that Apple control so much of your life, how you listen, how you read, how you communicate, what you watch, on and on and on.
GH: I think I’m not well known for my love of Apple fanboys so let’s not get into a nodding contest here about how scared we are by Apple TV. Do you think the concept will take off?
FC: Yes, purely because those companies have so much power that if they want to synchronise things I think they can synchronise things.
GH: I think that you’d really have to see what they can come up with. Certainly anything that Google and Apple touch at the moment seems to be turning into gold. However, both Google and Amazon are yet to enter the market, and Apple is barely dipping its toes. True, Google owns YouTube, but it’s simply not positioning it in the same market as NetFlix.
FC: So it’s safe to say that this is the beginning of a revolution?
GH: Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of industry weight behind it and user interest seems genuinely strong, and besides, these things only getter better with time. The real measurement of success is how many studios and TV network sign up.
FC: Can I ask you a strategic question about all of this? Do you see a connection on the macro scale between cloud computing and NetFlix – the idea that we’re moving from the need for constant and often unutilised physical possession to just paying for something in the ether when we need to actually use the service?
GH: Cloud computing is a hefty enough topic, and I’ve covered it at some length. It’s mainly a concept aimed at the smaller business, a way of offering high-end solutions (servers with high up time or premium applications) on a much lower cost basis. Rather than paying for server hardware, data centre storage, server engineers, server licensing, clustering, etc, users simply pay a per-usage rate. Like for hosted email, you might pay for each mailbox for each month of use. So in that sense, pay as you go usage, they are some similarities.
FC: Huh, perhaps Tyler Durden got his wish after all. We’ve rejected the basic principles of western civilisation, especially the importance of material possessions.
GH: I don’t think Fight Club is on NetFlix…
FC: (groans) The revolution will begin once NetFlix have got their bloody catalogue together.

July 6, 2011

On Reading

I’ve just failed, yet again, to achieve one of my long-standing perfect reading scenarios and it’s made me reflect about my various ways of reading novels.

The perfect reading scenario in question involves 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…

Oddly enough, purely by accident, I achieved a perfect reading scenario recently for Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon; in this case the scenario being entirely weather appropriate. I read the first 70 pages outside in the summer sunshine, perfectly suiting the reminiscences by Grady Tripp of his Kerouac wanderlust youth. The second half of the book, however, found me reading and reading on a thunderously wet day even as Grady Tripp, Terry Crabtree and the other characters resolved all their complicated problems during a terribly rain-sodden Pittsburgh weekend. And then, amazingly, just as Tripp achieved a final epiphany during the downpour I heard something. Birdsong. The rain here had stopped, the sun had come out, the birds were singing their relief; and damn if Chabon’s epilogue didn’t immediately return to a sunny small town in Pennsylvania.

That sort of thing, however, hardly ever happens. Most of the time the way I read is decided by the book’s length, not esoteric synchronicities. A short book like I Am Legend or Fight Club I tend to blast thru in one sitting. Meanwhile Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone novels, masterpieces of pared-down quip-laden pulp fiction, are best devoured in three (one hundred-page) sittings over three days. Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan thrillers are longer and more substantial, so they’re best lapped up over two consecutive weekends. Finally there’s the way to read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander novels. A chapter or two at a time, but spaced out so that the entire 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.

Nearly all these ways of reading require setting aside a chunk of time for that purpose. But of course one could say the same about writing anything worth reading…

February 25, 2011

Oscar Schmoscar: Part II

The annual parade of pomposity and razzmatazz known as the Academy Awards lurches around again this Sunday, so here’s a deflating reminder of its awful track record.

The Academy has long shown a baffling inability to tell the difference between a good movie and a hole in the ground, and an artist and a hack. The Academy did not nominate David Fincher for Best Director for Seven, Fight Club, or Zodiac. The Academy did nominate him for Best Director for The Curious Case of Benjamin Boring Button. It has now nominated him again for The Social Network. There are two interpretations. The uncharitable one is that the Academy cannot tell the difference between an inane ‘drama’ and a crackling drama. The other is that they only noticed that Fincher could direct at all when he paid his dues with Benjamin Button by making a movie that ticked all the boxes for the Academy’s consideration, which resulted, by an odd coincidence, in a dire movie…

The Academy Awards have been skewed for seventy years because of their habit of giving the right people the wrong awards. The Academy gave Jimmy Stewart the Best Actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story. Jimmy Stewart didn’t even give the best male acting performance in The Philadelphia Story never mind in all the films made in 1940. They were giving him the award because they felt guilty about not awarding it to him the previous year for Mr Smith goes to Washington. The Oscars have been chasing their tails ever since, just look at Nicole Kidman who really won for her performance in Moulin Rouge! but was given the award for her far less impressive turn in The Hours. Al Pacino, in the most famous of the Academy’s belated accolades, was finally given his Best Actor Oscar for the now forgotten display of scenery chewing that was Scent of a Woman. He was not given the Oscar for his roles in The Godfather, Serpico, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, Sea of Love, or Glengarry Glen Ross, all of which would have been more worthy of such recognition.

The Academy has a terrible habit of getting stuck in default-setting for automatic nominations. In the mid-1990s it seemed that every attempt to compile a shortlist of original scripts ended in despairing wails that there were no original ideas in Hollywood anymore, until someone asked if Woody Allen had made a film this year. Another nomination to Woody, and then they only had 4 more scripts to find… Meryl Streep’s ridiculous run of nominations is further proof of this approach. The Academy may like to delude itself that all these nominations prove she’s a throwback to the Golden Age, however, Streep’s painfully mannered accents and overwrought performances made Katherine Hepburn feel impelled to let it be known that Streep was her least favourite modern actress; “Click, click, click” she said, referring to the wheels turning inside Streep’s head.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that The Social Network was a riveting film. We don’t need them patronising Inception by giving it a Best Picture nomination because it was a box-office smash, but not nominating Nolan for Director thereby signalling they’re not taking it seriously because it’s mere entertainment.

In fact, we don’t need them, period.

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