Talking Movies

July 31, 2015

Don’t Mess With Veronica Mars

The second novel in the Veronica Mars mystery series has been published, and creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell are talking about reviving the TV show for an 8 episode run in the vein of True Detective. What better time to fondly remember one of the last decade’s best shows? Here’s a teaser for my HeadStuff piece on Veronica Mars.

Logan: I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me.

Veronica: Epic how?

Logan: Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, blood shed. Epic! But summer’s almost here. And we won’t see each other at all. Then you’ll leave town, and it’s over.

Veronica: Logan…

Logan: I’m sorry. About last summer. If I could do it over…

Veronica: C’mon… Ruined lives? Blood shed? You really think a relationship should be that hard?

Logan: No one writes songs about the ones that come easy.

It may seem odd to talk about Veronica Mars as a romantic show, but there’s a reason the ‘epic love’ scene was reprised in the 2014 movie; the show could be swooningly romantic, as evidenced by the giddy crane-work when Veronica kissed Logan for the first time in season 1. That was also one of the most shocking moments of season 1, not only because it felt like Veronica was betraying her dead best friend Lily by moving in on her boyfriend, but also because the pilot had introduced Logan with Veronica’s caustic voiceover: “Every school needs its psychotic jackass. Logan Echolls is ours”. Veronica’s on-off romance with Logan was not unlike Rory Gilmore’s with the equally charismatic but erratic Jess. There were nicer boys than Jason Dohring’s movie-star scion Logan, like Teddy Dunn’s Duncan Kane and Max Greenfield’s rookie cop Leo, but Leo’s fate was the voiceover gag; “It’s the old story. Girl meets boy. Girl uses boy. Girl likes boy. Boy finds out, girl gets what she deserves”; while Duncan’s entanglement with the ill-fated Meg saw Veronica nobly sacrifice her own relationship with Duncan to help him and his baby daughter evade the FBI and the Manning family, sadly pinning to her mirror a note saying ‘True love stories never end’. Season 3’s ‘nice boyfriend’ Chris Lowell’s Piz was the nicest boyfriend of all, and, in incredibly revealing commentary on the season 3 finale, Thomas noted that when Logan extravagantly apologises to a bruised Piz for beating him up earlier over a leaked sex-tape, Piz looks totally defeated; because he knows that Veronica, well-intentioned but ruthless, is the kind of girl who will only ever end up with the kind of guy who, repeatedly, has beaten people to a bloody pulp with his bare hands for hurting her.

Click here to read the full article on how Veronica Mars handled female friendship, a father-daughter detective agency, and how the sunny setting belied a dark heart of noir cynicism.

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October 8, 2014

Spinning

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Karl Shiels, Fiona Bell, Caitriona Ennis and Janet Moran are the weighty cast in Fishamble’s contribution to the Dublin Theatre Festival; a meditation on grief.

Conor (Shiels) arrives unannounced in an unnamed small town and heads for the seaside cafe run by Susan (Bell), who nearly collapses from shock – as he is the man responsible for the death of her teenage daughter Annie (Caitriona Ennis) some years before. Conor has just been released from prison for his role in her death, and has come to return Annie’s locket; and to try and explain what happened. Flashbacks that disrupt their confrontation help the audience piece together the closeness of Susan and Annie, and the courtship, marriage and divorce of Conor and Jen (Janet Moran). As more and more pieces of the puzzle are thrown at us the imminence and inevitability of tragedy weighs down on us; leading to a merciful lie and perhaps a suicide after that redemptive gesture – perhaps not; the crashing waves are ambiguous.

Sabine Dargent’s set impressionistically creates a seaside cafe with table and chairs on a raised platform; but for all other scenes the audience has to do the heavy lifting. Jim Culleton’s direction focuses attention on the great actors, but they’re not miracle workers. Deirdre Kinahan has crafted an intelligent structure, but unlike Our Few and Evil Days she hasn’t filled the structure with any surprising content. Susan and Annie’s close relationship is uncomfortably akin to Gilmore Girls, down to the decent absent father having proposed marriage and been rejected before fleeing; in this case to Melbourne. Annie is a less adorable and smart version of Rory Gilmore; and her plea that they should move to Melbourne because “Our life here is totally crap!” is unintentionally funny; even though Ennis essays a spirited teenager and Bell adeptly alternates tender with traumatised.

Spinning is so rife with cliché that it doesn’t reprise Kramer Vs Kramer or Blue Valentine so much as it descends to the level of soap opera. Moran is awful because she’s given a shrill social-climbing cipher to play. The pantomime ‘oooh!’ reaction of the audience to Conor’s “I let you go back to work” was particularly depressing. Jen insists they pay for a crèche rather than let Conor’s mother babysit, she volubly disparages his family business before happily snaffling up money and house derived from it, and full custody of daughter Kate to boot (odd that people still seriously talk about patriarchy when such sexism is legally enshrined by the courts daily isn’t it?). But all this was seemingly outweighed in the audience’s estimation by Conor’s line, even though she went back to work late hours with her ex-boyfriend.

Spinning is only 75 minutes long, yet I found myself almost checking a phantom wristwatch from its first scene; it was that quickly obvious that this wasn’t top drawer.

1/5

Spinning continues its run at Smock Alley until the 12th of October.

December 4, 2013

Black Nativity

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Langston Hughes, the Horace of Harlem, wrote Black Nativity as a play, and it’s turned into a sort of musical here with decidedly odd results.

Moody Baltimore teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) faces eviction just before Christmas. His single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) in desperation sends him on a bus to New York City to stay with her estranged parents while she tries to raise $5,000 to save their home. Langston, however, no sooner arrives in NYC than he’s jailed for doing a good deed while black. He’s rescued from sparring with fellow prisoner Tyson (Tyrese Gibson) by the arrival of Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), who is more than a bit aggrieved to meet his grandson for the first time when bailing him out of lock-up. Arriving back to their imposing Harlem brownstone grandmother Aretha (Angela Bassett) is overwhelmed with joy by Langston’s arrival, but he is stunned at the wealth on display. Will he be tempted to appropriate some to bail out his mom?

Black Nativity is a sort of musical because, despite writer/director Kasi Lemmons co-writing a number of original songs, it’s as embarrassed at being a musical as 2002’s Chicago. People burst into song, and nobody notices, or (confusingly) some people notice and join them on backing vocals as everyone else continues about their business oblivious, until in the finale everybody notices – and joins in, like a deleted James Brown scene from The Blues Brothers. It’s hard to know what the intention was, initially it seems to be a hip-hop opera, then it reverts to traditional songs, before abandoning music to become a poor man’s riff on Gilmore Girls as Rory Langston gets to know his well-to-do grandparents and understand their estrangement from his single mother. Will he discover the truth about his father? Hard not to, it’s signposted in flashing neon….

There are some things that work amidst the derivativeness, clichés and confusion. Vondie Curtis-Hall is on fine form as a wise pawnbroker, and Romiti has a good scene as compassionate cop McDaniels. A hallucinatory sequence in which the agnostic Langston imagines the pregnant busking couple Jo-Jo (Luke James) and Maria (the distractingly pretty Grace Gibson) transforming into Joseph and Mary, with Mary J Blige becoming an angel and Nas the street prophet Isaiah is interesting. But still it doesn’t come close to the BBC’s barmy but effective ‘Passion to the sounds of Madchester’ from a few years back. Ultimately Rev. Cobbs, at his celebrated Black Nativity, addressing his Christian flock, yet referring to the Nativity story as happening just before the beginning of the ‘Common Era’ by which he means the Birth of Christ, sums up Black Nativity – wilfully perverse.

Despite Kasi Lemmons assembling a veritable A-list of black acting/music talent for her bold Langston Hughes reinvention, this film about a minister’s family must be reckoned a curate’s egg.

2/5

December 4, 2012

Conversations on a Homecoming

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Druid’s lightest outing of the Dublin Theatre Festival at the Gaiety saw their sterling ensemble assemble in a 1970s pub for Tom Murphy’s serious comedy about unsuccessful emigration, a tightly-knit group’s failed dreams, and the illusory promise of their mentor.

Michael (Marty Rea) has arrived home after 10 years in New York pursuing an acting career. He finds all his old cronies more or less stuck where they were. Tom (Garret Lombard) is still teaching at the local school, and still engaged to Peggy (Eileen Walsh), and showing about as much likelihood of moving on to the next step as Rory Nolan’s Junior is of finally getting his parents’ farm.

The one person who seems to be going places is Liam (Aaron Monaghan), who seems to have absurdly as many jobs in the town as Kurt in Gilmore Girls. Michael is insistent that they can do all better if they remember the example of JJ, their mentor, who established this pub The White House with their help a decade before as a forum for ideas. Tom violently disagrees, disowning radicalism.

It’s remarkable to see Nolan and Lombard who were terrifying as ignorant thugs in Whistle transform into an amiable old duffer and an intellectual scrapper respectively in this play. Rea is as reliable as ever, his half-romance with Beth Cooke’s barmaid Ann being nicely underplayed, and his sparring with Lombard on the merit of over-reaching ambition carries some nice emotional charge to go with the wonderful barbed insults flung about.

Murphy’s play, performed without an interval, would please Aristotle in observing the classical unities but its night at the pub offers both insight and comedy under Garry Hynes’ direction.

4/5

July 2, 2010

Eclipse

David Slade, director of Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night, succeeds in returning some of Catherine Hardwicke’s viciousness to Eclipse but takes the romance tongue-in-cheek seriously…

The opening reinstates the nastiness that Hardwicke made so crucial in the first film by depicting a savage vampire attack that agonisingly turns new villain Riley. From there Slade alternates sappy romance with something that New Moon so badly lacked – a plot. The same plot broadly as the first film mind, killing spree heralds vampires heading towards Forks who target Bella, but a plot nonetheless. Slade gleefully ret-cons the vampires into ice-cold beings who shatter like glass when hit hard enough, which allows for decapitations aplenty with exploding heads and nary a drop of blood, and doesn’t make a lick of sense given that they mop up the red stuff, but why complain when it allows a lead vampire to very painfully lose an arm to a werewolf.

Slade also fleshes out the Cullens, giving Rosalie a chance to stop pouting and become a character by revealing her back-story. The real revelation though is Jackson Rathbone as Jasper who after doing a Harpo Marx impression for two films is finally given dialogue and, in revealing his Civil War past in Texas and his experience in training newborn vampires, turns out to be ridiculously charismatic. He’s matched by Xavier Samuel as Riley, who raises an army of insanely destructive newborn vampires that cause such mayhem in Seattle that sinister vampire overlords the Volturi dispatch Jane (Dakota Fanning) to kill them. Whisper it, but Fanning displays an un-nerving flair for sadistic villainy – far surpassing Bryce Dallas Howard’s underwhelming cameo as Bella’s vampire nemesis Victoria – with one moment in particular almost an exorcising of her past career.

Such almost fourth-wall breaches litter Eclipse as Slade is aware that these characters have taken on a life outside their fictional framework. When a hypothermic Bella needs to be warmed up and over-heated werewolf Jacob tells Edward “We both know I’m hotter than you”, you almost expect both actors to look directly at the audience and then return to the scene. Slade knows that teenage girls will wildly cheer Jacob’s first appearance and his first shirtless scene, especially Edward’s reaction by engaging in an epic make-out session with Bella. It is hard not to suppose that Slade and his writing associate Brian Nelson did a dialogue polish as there are tart put-downs at all these moments which make Taylor Lautner’s Jacob a more sardonic and charismatic presence here than in the previous film despite having less screen-time and also give Robert Pattinson something to play other than brooding. New Moon was unintentionally funny in its awfulness but Eclipse’s intentional comedy reaches exquisite heights in a scene when the always droll Billy Burke as Bella’s father tries to discuss accidental pregnancy with Bella while they both die of embarrassment.

Reviewing the performances of Pattinson and Lautner is of course redundant and it could be argued that the unashamed objectification of them is a positive development, but, this conflict between a dependable pretty boy and a moody pretty boy was done far better in seasons 2 and 3 of Gilmore Girls, which only highlights the enormous problem that is Bella Swan. Kristen Stewart’s original turn masked the fact that Bella is a bafflingly anaemic heroine, the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend…

This surpasses New Moon but favourable comparisons to that are like saying fewer people died when the Lusitania sank than when the Titanic went down. Eclipse isn’t as good as Twilight but it’s a qualified success as a horror film spliced with a romance that needs to wink at the audience. But when a romance needs to wink at the audience it means that you’re liable to spend as much time anthropologically observing the audience’s fevered reaction to the movie as actually watching the movie.

3/5

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