Talking Movies

June 8, 2020

Any Other Business: Part LV

As the title suggests, so forth.

Status Maroon 5

Well, today is the first day of Status Maroon 5. Libraries are to re-open, public transport is to become more frequent (for all the use you can make of it), county wide car wanders can be undertaken, and the cocooned can be visited briefly (with exceptionally discomfiting provisos). And what next? Status Crimson Tide on June 29th with the hastened re-opening of churches, museums and galleries, pubs that serve food, alongside the planned socially distanced cafes and restaurants. But when do we return to life as it was in the first week of March? It seems that public patience with lockdown is fraying, and perhaps with good reason. The global population is reckoned at 7.8 billion and COVID-19 has killed 397,000, whereas the endlessly invoked exemplar of the last global pandemic the Spanish Influenza killed between 17,000,000 and 50,000,000 of a global population of 1.8 billion. And that global population had just suffered thru the privations and depredations of a world war. If we had just all started wearing masks in February, modelling ourselves on Hong Kong and Taiwan, could we have avoided such a crippling lockdown?

Hannibal, he’s here to tease

Around this time in 2013 I previewed, and then later weighed in on, Hannibal; the blood-spattered procedural in which Laurence Fishburne’s FBI supremo Jack Crawford teams unstable but gifted profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) with brilliant psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) to fight crime. I thought a tale of friendship between future deadly nemeses before they come into celebrated and chronicled conflict sounded suspiciously Smallville. And it wasn’t, Lecter in the pilot was very much already a supervillain; eating people for fun. Not that the fun was obvious. Hannibal was incredibly gory for a network show. At the time I thought that had it been on HBO or Showtime it would be unbearable, but Hard Candy director David Slade made it bearable by distancing the viewer with a cold colour palette and a chilly emotionless feel. At its most plot-driven it could feel like a very precisely directed Criminal Minds, with exceptionally gory crime scenes and dream sequences interspersed with exceedingly crisp dialogue between two of the BAU team. And yet, as I try manfully to finally finish the last 8 episodes of that first season 7 years later, it occurs to me that I was right to ditch the show after 5 episodes back then. Why? Well, because now it reminds me not of Criminal Minds but of Mindhunter. Far too much of Hannibal’s runtime is taken up with psychobabble sessions and lame dream sequences. There is a chilly emptiness around gory schlock to portend a great depth, which simply is not there. God forbid that plots should drive, that character should be revealed in action, that dialogue scenes should arise spontaneously and, like House’s trademark, feature two topics simultaneously – procedural and personal. The Engineer put it nicely, saying he had abandoned both shows because he was sick of being drip-fed plot like sugar water to a diabetic.

…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

It is wrong to continually think about a fictional character in relation to a real person, but The West Wing re-runs on TG4, focusing as they currently do on the electoral battle between empathetic intellectual Jed Bartlett and know-nothing jackass Rob Ritchie, make it hard not to think about Trump and the sheer vacancy he represents. Stomping all over the First Amendment he swore an oath to protect, he had protestors tear-gassed and baton-charged so he could do a strange stroll to sullenly stand in front of a Church and hold up a copy of the Bible. Holding it in such an awkward way that its proper use seemed as alien to him as if he had been clutching a Torah scroll. Did he read a passage of scripture from the holy writ? No. Did he attempt some Nixonian gesture of empathy towards the protestors? No. Did he attempt to defuse the tense situation as Bobby Kennedy had when he spoke to a crowd the night MLK was shot dead? No.  And then think of Bartlett extemporising a speech from the Biblical quote ‘Joy cometh in the morning’, of Bartlett’s desk only being seen empty in The West Wing two days after his inauguration when he thought Leo’s office was the door to a closet. And think of how Trump’s desk is empty, all the time. Trump would never read from that bible lest it show him up, because you cannot paraphrase and riff the Word of God. And that’s a problem if you cannot actually read. The empty desk betokens an empty man. Inside the bible Trump held, James said:

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabboth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you. Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

March 13, 2020

Any Other Business: Part XLV

As the title suggests, so forth.

If we just hold our position here, fellas, a plot might stumble across us

The Winds of the Pacific War

Having staggered to the end of HBO’s incredibly underwhelming miniseries The Pacific I found myself growing irate at the closing credits which revealed the fates of a number of the characters who were real. The sense of camaraderie and regret among these men over the decades following the war only highlighted the failure of the series to depict any of this camaraderie. This stands in stark contrast to the C Company in-jokes and friendships that made its predecessor Band of Brothers so compelling. Characters the show lost interest in, that I had given up for dead, turned out to have survived and the band of brothers all re-united Stateside after VJ Day. What a colossal waste of resources it was to take these ten scripts and give them the big bow wow HBO treatment. I can’t help but feel that in the golden age of miniseries in the late 1970s and early 1980s if someone had brought these ten scripts to a network executive two things would have happened. First, he would have beaten senseless the writers room who had confused the mores of New Hollywood with network television. Second, he would have patiently explained that the ten episodes proposed lacked any sense of focus or direction or indeed point. Band of Brothers was based on one book about one company on their journey from training to D-Day thru the Battle of the Bulge to Germany. The Pacific by contrast tried to pull together three books about disparate bands of brothers on different missions and failed miserably. Ditching John Basilone entirely to focus on Eugene Sledge and Robert Leckie would be the most obvious fix for some of the problems, but even then… Shortly before watching this series I had seen The Pacific War in Colour, which covers the same battles with the same soldier-memoirists using their actual words as voiceover. And maps and diagrams that gave the geography as well as the stakes of the engagements. How is it possible to have got more of a sense of the battles from CGI maps plus vague colour war footage and voiceover than from a big budget show depicting the authors of those voiceovers literally in the trenches fighting? Did The Pacific need to introduce officer characters as an excuse for some big maps on big boards in war rooms, as well as dialogue to explain how the strategy of the theatre informs the tactics that Sledge and Leckie must execute? That sort of clarity, along with putting far more effort into fleshing out the friendships of these men, should surely have been the first order of business in the outlining stage of the writing, and would have made The Pacific feel less disjointed and prone to wandering off on aimless tangents to the point where you perversely doff your cap in astonished disbelief that anybody could take the Greatest Generation’s own accounts of their Hell in the Pacific and make it so goddamn boring.

I know, Holden. Charles Manson… Even thinking about the guy makes me start to yawn.

Where is my Mind(hunter)?

I admit defeat. My temporary Netflix subscription has expired and I still had the final 4 episodes left to watch of Mindhunter season 2. I just couldn’t motivate myself to do it. I stuck in there for as a long as I could. I managed to hold on for longer than my sometime co-writer the Engineer did, making it thru the horrors of Anna Torv’s newly yellow appearance all the way to Justified star Damon Herriman’s fantastic turn as Charles Manson. And yet, for all that Herriman gave that long-anticipated sequence all he could, it was let down by, of all things, a seeming lack of confidence by the writers of Mindhunter that the audience would be interested in Holden Ford and Bill Tench interviewing Charles Freaking Manson without that Tench be given some thoroughly bogus (and oh so very painfully and slowly manufactured) ‘personal’ stake in the Manson case via his son being dragged into a macabre crime by youths. It’s Charles Manson. If you’re watching Mindhunter, you’ll be interested.

One Nation, Indivisible?

There is a keen if not sickening irony in Leo Varadkar calling for national unity at this time of global coronavirus crisis. As a minister and as Taoiseach he has presided directly and indirectly for nearly a decade over a number of campaigns designed specifically to set citizen against citizen. Public money was spent on cinema advertisements to propagandise to students that their teachers were wrong to resist Ruari Quinn’s debasement of the Junior Cert. Varadkar himself beamed broadly shortly before he became Taoiseach as he held a placard to launch his ‘Welfare cheats cheat us all’ campaign – his sole achievement as Minister for Social Protection. He was deeply involved in gay marriage and abortion referendum campaigns that were deliberately run in as bitter a fashion as possible. And his government continues advertisements lecturing us about sexual harassment on television, teaching us to always assume the worst of each other. And now, after Fine Gael losing a second election in a row, but showing even less inclination than last time to leave government, he has the audacity to turn around and lecture us all on the need for national unity – having just rejected the national unity of a national government to deal with this coronavirus crisis; because it seems fully 1/4 of the voters he wants to unify behind his continued unelected (and indeed actually rejected) leadership would fit neatly into his own personal basket of deplorables. To mash together the 1940 sentiments of David Lloyd George and Leo Amery – There is nothing which can contribute more to unity in this time than that he should sacrifice the seals of office. In the name of God, GO!

The Fall of New Seattle

And as I continue catching up iZombie the feeling of disappointment only grows stronger. The idea of making Ravi a part-time zombie for the lolz seems a Scrappy-Doo like innovation to the format, the depiction of the walled city of New Seattle never satisfies in the way that Dark Angel‘s technologically crippled Seattle did, and the season arc of Liv becoming the new Renegade opposed to Chase Graves’ Robespierrean rule rings hollow because it ignores the fact that Chase’s behaviour is motivated not by outright psychopathy but a food supply that cannot support the zombie hordes already in existence. The feelgood riff on Buffy being elected Class Protector at her Prom doesn’t feel remotely earned as a finale, and frankly I am not sure I want to watch another 13 episodes of iZombie if it’s going to keep declining this precipitously.

85,000 dead, Leo?

I’m curious as to the provenance of this figure of coronavirus potentially killing 85,000 people in Ireland. My back of the envelope calculations last week put it at potentially 39,000 dead in the Republic, and that was working from an American estimate that 39% of the population would be infected. Either Leo is assuming that closer to 80% of the population is going to be infected, or he’s assuming the coronavirus is twice as lethal as the given figure. Either of which is a startling change of parameter that I’d like to hear more about. In any case 39,000 dead from the coronavirus here would sit on top of around 30,000 deaths a year in Ireland. Which is equivalent to doubling the amount of funerals you attended last year. A nasty jolt to the national psyche. After all only 20,000 people were reported to have died here from the Spanish Flu in 1918 and 1919.

February 7, 2020

Any Other Business: Part XLIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

I don’t know, Holden, sometimes I feel I’m just playing John the Baptist to the Jesus Christ that is Criminal Minds’ Hotch.

The virtues of network television

David Fincher has walked away from Mindhunter after two seasons, and who could blame him? Joe Penhall, its creator, had walked away after the first season. Catching up with the Netflix show and HBO’s The Pacific simultaneously in the last few weeks has been a dispiriting experience. And I can’t help but feel that both cable shows could really have done with some network aesthetics being beaten into them. To wit:

  • making a character unlikeable does not magically also make them compelling, as my sometime co-writer the Engineer put it, Livia and Gregory House are horrible people but very entertaining to watch
  • all your episodes should be the same length, randomly having a 34 minute episode when your show is meant to be an hour long is not okay, it’s like a Modern Family episode ending unresolved at the ad break
  • gather an ensemble that you use every episode because they are each individually actually there for a purpose, it would for example be absurd for Josh to miss three episodes in The West Wing
  • course correct in real time by airing as you shoot rather than dumping all your episodes out as is…
  • Sans feedback you end up with (a) preposterous ciphers like Holden’s walking sociology textbook girlfriend who would have been tagged for writing out on network after negative reaction to her first few episodes (b) Wendy’s absurdly yellow makeup which made her look like she just fell out of a Van Gogh painting at best and like a cut-rate Oompa Loompa at worst (c) supporting characters disappearing with no mention of their fates, ever

  • being able to answer the question ‘what is your show about?’ with an answer that isn’t entirely abstracted, iZombie has complicated season arcs but each episode has its own internal motor
  • having episodes exist as episodes because they are actually about something, like early House‘s medical mysteries and later House‘s illuminations of character, rather than just being a spoon sized slop of gruel
  • it may seem trivial to ask for a name for each episode, but it gives the impression that you know what the point of an episode is if you can name it, rather than simply say it’s ‘Reasonably Sized Slab of Content #11’

Flights of fancy

Well, that didn’t take long. Ryanair has been told to stop using their ridiculous climate change ad because it features a lie. It features more than one, in point of fact. They do not fly direct to destinations, they are rather famous for doing the complete opposite. Beauvais is quite far from Paris, I’ve been on that bus. They do not try to fill every plane for the sake of the environment, if that was their noble aim they wouldn’t price gouge the poor saps booking the last seats just before takeoff. And if their customers really wanted to save the environment they would not fly anywhere. Until we get the early 19th Century international network of sailing clippers up and running again grounding yourself is really the only honest move.

June 30, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXXIV

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 thirty-fourth portmanteau post on matters of course!

Good Times, Bad Times

All of human life can be observed on the bus, the best and the worst. In the space of a week recently I observed benevolence and bowsiness. The bowsiness came courtesy of a new cycle lane, which gave me pause considering the BusConnects nonsense about putting cycle lanes everywhere as part of their bus ‘plan’.  As the bus pulled in to the bus stop a young woman moved forward to get on. Cue the one cyclist who would likely use the new cycle lane that hour, a white-bearded man leading two young children on bicycles. As he had to slow down to accommodate the microsecond it took her to board the bus he roared at some volume “F*** YOU! F******* YOU!!” and then cycled past, setting a splendid example to his grandchildren on how to treat strangers. I was quite taken aback, observing this road rage from the top deck. Should she have waited? Perhaps. But then the cycle lane was new. Certainly the screaming profanities were uncalled for. But then there was, mercifully, benevolence on another trip. Another white-bearded man, on foot, turned around and saw with horror the bus bearing down on him, some distance from the stop. He turned and began an agonised shuffling run, and it became clear this driver was one of those cohort in whom the milk of human kindness has soured; those who affect blindness whenever they can refuse to do someone a good deed. But then the bus’ speed began to fall. How odd. The car in front had noticed the man running and had dropped to a crawl to give him a fighting chance of making the stop. The bus driver was outraged, and hooted a couple of times. The car continued defiantly dawdling. Enraged the bus driver moved to overtake only for the car to accelerate, pushing the bus back into its holding pattern. By which time the white-bearded man had got close enough to the bus stop that he could make it by the time two Spanish students there had boarded. They were going to take their time. As the unhappy bus driver began indicating to pull in to the stop the smiling Spanish students gave thumbs up to the car who resumed normal speed down the deserted road. The white-bearded man made his bus, and it did the heart good to see such benevolence.

 

Netflix is a TV network, of middling appeal

How many people actually watch Netflix? Not that many NBC claimed a few years ago, bemoaning that a show like Jessica Jones which would be cancelled for low ratings on broadcast television became a media darling and propagandised as being a hit when on Netflix. Netflix used to keep their viewing figures a tightly guarded secret, while simultaneously boasting about the record-breaking success of everything on their service. Service? Network. Netflix is essentially a TV network. It’s not too hard to imagine in the near future Netflix, Amazon, Warner Bros+/HBOxxx, and Disney+ becoming the four networks of streaming in the way that ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox were the four networks of broadcast television in the 1990s. Indeed they may supplant them entirely, at least in the esteem of the media. Netflix claim that 30 million households/individuals/smarter than your average dachshunds watched their latest movie Murder Mystery starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. Wow! That is so impressive! Except… Only 13 million of those were in America. Given an average ticket price of $9.01 this year that would be an opening weekend haul of $117,130,000, a figure that puts Murder Mystery at No 11 at the North American Box Office for 2019! But of course Murder Mystery isn’t a movie, it’s a TV movie; something Netflix are moving heaven and earth to collapse as a distinction. Nobody had to leave their house to see Murder Mystery, nobody had to drive anywhere to see Murder Mystery, nobody had to buy popcorn to see Murder Mystery, nobody had to arrange babysitters to go see Murder Mystery, nobody had to put up with phone-using bozos to see Murder Mystery. And nobody had to fork out 9 dollars to see Murder Mystery, they’d already forked out $8.99 to watch as much as they could in a month. So taking Murder Mystery as a TV movie, which is what it is, on a TV network, which is what Netflix is, how impressive is it that 13 million people watched it in America over three days? Not very. 19.4 million viewers on average watched every episode of House season 3 but Fox didn’t release a press release to crow about it. It seems to be as important to Netflix as it is to Disney to create the impression that they are beloved on a level unknown to humanity before this moment. They’re not. 105.9 million Americans watched the finale of MASH in 1983. Beat that Netflix. Beat that Disney. If they’d all bought a ticket for it at $9.01 a pop, it would have made $954,159,000. But of course they didn’t have to – because it was (gulp) free.

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

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 thirty-third portmanteau post on matters of course!

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

May 27, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXXI

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 thirty-first portmanteau post on television of course!

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win

I gave up on Game of Thrones after suffering thru 3 seasons. I was unwilling to continue torturing myself to ‘keep up to date with pop culture’. So I’m quite amused at everyone now having a LOST-style meltdown that the show wasted their time for 8 years. In retrospect it was probably insane of HBO to greenlight a TV show based on an ongoing book series that the author clearly had no interest in finishing. I’ve long been comparing George RR Martin to a stand-up comic who 10 minutes into a 12 minute shaggy dog story loses interest and wanders off stage, leaving the poor fools in the audience outraged that he just wasted 10 minutes of their time, and even more outraged when Neil Gaiman walks by to chastise them for feeling outraged that his good friend George wasted their time – he doesn’t owe anybody the punchline to a shaggy dog story.

But now I wonder if there was another more conniving strand to his literary inaction. By refusing to finish writing the books Martin has got the poor saps Benioff & Weiss to test an ending for him to gauge reaction to it. So now Martin just has to say his books would have done it all … differently, and continue to never finish them, but do more fun things like attend sports events and fan conventions like a conquering hero, and he’ll go to his grave with that taunt irrefutable. When did he realise that by not finishing he can eternally be better than the TV ending without ever having to actually furnish his ending?

Jazz Trances, real and fictional

Happening across The Mighty Boosh late at night the other week I suddenly remembered Howard Moon’s jazz trance, something which I saw just a few years prior to a 2011 live episode of Later with Jools Holland featuring a bona fide jazz trance. Jools was trying in his inimitably (and endearing) ramshackle way to keep the show on track for time given that Newsnight was prepping to air live too once his show stopped. And standing waiting in the shadows was a 40 piece choir ready to join Elbow in a rendition of a meisterwerk, but unfortunately he’d put on a jazz band led by an aged jazz legend just before, and all four of them had gone into a proper eyes closed working out their melodies by feel jazz trance. The camera captured a nervous looking Jools baffled at how to get them to stop as he couldn’t make eye contact with any of the players: a moment of panic that reduced Dad and I to helpless laughter. At last one musician opened his eyes and Jools was able to flag him down. He stopped. And then another musician opened his eyes wondering why he’d stopped, and saw, and stopped too. Only for our man, the legend, to misinterpret this, in his jazz trance, as his merry men waiting on him to change key, which he duly did, until the third musician stopped, and then he opened his eyes, and lo, the jazz trance was broken. And a mightily relieved Jools rushed across to stop it starting up again and hurried Elbow and their 40 piece choir into action.

September 9, 2018

You get Hoynes/Trump!

It’s been a nostalgic blast watching The West Wing from the start on TG4 this past week. Coming at the exact moment that Bob Woodward’s new book of nasty quotes and the New York Times’ anonymous op-ed painted a picture of the workings of a very different Oval Office it led to disquieting thoughts about Presidents Bartlet, Obama and Trump.

The Ringer recently produced a list of the 100 best TV episodes since 2000. I got the impression reading that one contributor would almost rather say ‘not anti-hero’ than ‘hero’ because if they said hero that would bespeak not being the kind of world-weary sophisticate who writes for The Ringer. This excerpt is fairly characteristic of them:

I don’t disagree about the Bartlet hagiography, but to me that’s almost a charm of the show; in the world of Walter Whites and Hannah Horvaths and the sociopaths of Succession, the idea of the “good guy we’re rooting for” is almost quaint.

But… if the media, especially the unlimited digital ink allowed by the internet, spends its time praising only anti-heroes, difficult men… and the Emmys and Golden Globes go only to shows on cable about anti-heroes, difficult men… and both the media and industry generally deride when they don’t ignore shows  (usually on network, like, say NCIS) that feature principled heroes, can both media and industry (as seen at every awards show) really get up on such a moral high horse when an anti-hero, difficult man becomes the President? If Obama now says Trump is a symptom not the cause, is the media and industry not partially culpable? Did they not prepare the culture to bring forth just that?

Years ago I wrote but never posted a lengthy piece based around a reading of a segment of Obama’s Dreams From My Father and the complaints on BBC of a Hillary Clinton staffer that Obama had had an unfair advantage because pop culture had prepared the way for a black President via Morgan Freeman and Denis Haysbert but there was nobody similarly making straight a path in the wilderness for Hillary. But if Deep Impact and 24 were literally held to have given Obama an advantage then surely The West Wing must have contributed mightily too. During the dark days of Bush Jr’s inarticulate incompetence there was a President who was charming, articulate, intelligent, a university lecturer; he was fictional, but you can’t have everything; and Bush Jr was replaced by a President who was charming, articulate, intelligent, and a university lecturer.

But then after a decade of anti-heroes, difficult men, what do you know but the American public went and elected one of those cultural icons as President – the anti-hero-in-chief. Where could they have got such a weird idea?

Oh, for one of those crassly commercial network notes now! “Can you make President Trump more likeable?”

April 10, 2018

What becomes a Christie most?

Can the melancholic approach taken in Murder on the Orient Express work for a proposed Death on the Nile sequel?

I was quite surprised by the melancholic tone of Branagh’s first Poirot outing, but that, more than anything else, even his energetic performance as an exacting, physical Poirot, was what made the film work. And with a 350 million return on a 55 million budget it is inevitable that the sequel set up in its final scene will happen – Death on the Nile. Discussing this prospect with occasional co-writer Friedrich Bagel (which I still strongly suspect of being an assumed name) he opined that it would be better to go for a Christie mystery that has not been filmed, like The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sadly, I opined right back, two things stand in the way of that – people would riot in their cinemas at the finale of Ackroyd, and marketers would riot in their boardrooms at the prospect of actually having to do their job rather than utilise the name recognition of already beloved properties. Alors, Nile

One hopes that someone in Burbank isn’t thus scrolling through Peter Ustinov’s IMDb profile. Ticking off Evil Under the Sun and Appointment with Death as the final entries in the Branagh Poirot quadrilogy, sneakily noting Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man’s Folly, and Murder in Three Acts as potential TV specials to cross the street with to HBO if the Branagh Poirots hit a wall at the box office, or God help us looking about for young Branaghs for a potential prequel Mysterious Affair at Styles. We know that Michael Green will again be adapting Christie’s novel for Branagh to star and direct. Reviewing Murder on the Orient Express back in November I noted that Green redeemed himself from the double whammy disasters of Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 with his melancholic interpretation, which saw Branagh and composer Patrick Doyle render the murder almost as a mourning ritual. But that card can only be played once, leaving an obvious possibility that will annoy the purists.

That card is the trump that left the London Times spitting blood this Easter weekend when the BBC changed the identity of the killer in Ordeal by Innocence. It’s impossible to change the killer in Murder on the Orient Express, and one would think the same applies to Death on the Nile, but a severe rewrite (in the order of the tortures visited upon Stoker for Laurence Olivier’s Dracula) could yield anything. It is disconcerting when screenwriters assume they know better than the Queen of Crime who done it, but then there is a general tendency to sniff at Christie’s writing as being mere three-card-trick-plotting, overlooking some wonderful sly comedy as well as much darker effects of suspense, paranoia, and cynicism in The Hollow and And Then There Were None. No, if Green were to change the identity of the killer in Death on the Nile it wouldn’t be totally inadmissible, but it would be a hefty task of rewriting to keep Christie’s logic intact.

It is a matter of opinion that the melancholic card can only be played once. Green’s invented character arc for Poirot, where he admits shades of grey into a Manichean worldview is similar to the moral agony endured by Suchet’s Poirot on the same case. But Suchet’s crisis was explicitly Catholic while Branagh’s was, predictably for Hollywood, a crisis in the secular Markwellian ethics of consistency; allied to the writing of Poirot’s OCD as the scrupulosity of consistency in all things. (Although I vigorously object to the tendency to dub any and all devotion to precision as OCD, rather than, say, a devotion to precision.) I hold that the senseless murder of a kidnapped child naturally occasions a melancholic atmosphere in a way that a twisted love triangle climaxing in slaughter does not, but as Green threw out large chunks of plotting and minutiae to focus on a mood, it would not be outrageous to think he could do much the same thing for Nile.

Bagel took me to task for harping on Branagh as a physical Poirot, declaiming that Poirot was a policeman so he should be able to chase people, and that Christie herself admitted she’d blundered with his age, being retired in 1920 he would be 105 when solving crimes in 1960s Chelsea; a mistake akin to PG Wodehouse initially locating Blandings Castle damnably far from London for later plotting purposes. I retorted that Branagh’s physicality distinguishes his interpretation. Peter Ustinov naturally brought a raconteurish quality, and his bumbling was a play on how Christie made Poirot exaggerate his foreignness to trick villains into complacency. Suchet, lacking that flaneuring spirit, emphasised Poirot’s prim and proper sedentary use of the little grey cells; more true to the retired from active duty to pure consultation of Christie’s first forays with the detective. Branagh takes some of the fire from Suchet’s Poirot, indignant at evildoers expecting to get away scot-free, and makes his Belgian less retiree, more Fury at large.

To end where we began Herr Bagel wrung his hands that there is no decent actor who can play Hastings, the Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock, without being ‘annoying’. Hugh Fraser was perfect in the part for ITV, and, by indirect associations; he had previously played a villain in Edge of Darkness, he was tall where Suchet was small; I led myself to the only candidate (sic) for the part – Toby Jones. Who, by good fortune, was recently in Witness for the Prosecution for the BBC, and previously played opposite the great David Suchet on ITV’s Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh is Poirot, Jones is Hastings, the sun is high, the Nile water deceptively calm…

February 21, 2018

ADIFF 2018: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Game of Thrones and Headhunters star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a late addition to the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018, presenting his new Nordic thriller 3 THINGS.

Danish star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best-known as Jaime Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones, will no doubt be raising an army of fans for the Gala screening of suspenseful Scandinavian thriller 3 THINGS at ADIFF 2018 in Cineworld at 6.30pm on Tuesday 27th February. Tickets for 3 THINGS  have just gone on sale so snap them up fast at www.diff.ie!

ADIFF Festival Director Gráinne Humphreys said ‘With the start of the festival just hours away, I’m really excited to announce Game of Thrones stalwart Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, also known for his roles in Mama, Shotcaller, and A Second Chance, will be joining us for ADIFF 2018. Coster-Waldau’s new film, which he both stars in and of which he is an Executive Producer, 3 THINGS is a tense and claustrophobic thriller, packed with twists and turns and he shines as the master criminal who believes that he can charm his way out of any situation.’

3 THINGS takes place in a hotel where the police are negotiating the terms of a witness protection deal with the prime suspect of a robbery and an expert on explosives, Mikael (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). In order to agree to the deal, Mikael demands three things from the police: that his former girlfriend is brought to him, that the police bring him the contents of a box he has stored, and that he is served butter chicken from his favourite restaurant. The police, under heavy time pressure to get him to testify the following day, agree.

3 Things joins ADIFF’s line-up of the world’s best films coming to Dublin 21st Feb -4th March, featuring special guests including Paul Schrader (First Reformed, Paul Schrader Public Talk), Vanessa Redgrave (Sea Sorrow, Public Talk & Volta Award Presentation); Joaquin Phoenix and Rooney Mara at a Gala Screening ofMary Magdalene.

ADIFF also includes the Immersive Stories Virtual Reality Conference & Exhibition bringing top names in VR to Dublin for a two-day exploration of the future of filmed entertainment.

Tickets for the Gala screening of 3 THINGS (with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) at 6.30pm on Tuesday 27th Feb at Cineworld are on sale now at the Box Office at 12 East Essex Street Temple Bar, by phone on 01 687 7974 or online at www.diff.ie.

October 16, 2017

King Lear

The Mill Theatre returns to the Shakespearean well in autumn once again with a spirited production of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy.

Lear (Philip Judge) has decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. But, while sycophantic siblings Goneril (Sharon McCoy) and Regan (Maureen O’Connell) flatter him to get their rightful shares, his truth-telling daughter Cordelia (Clodagh Mooney Duggan) refuses to lie or exaggerate, enraging the vain Lear; and her share is thus split between her sisters’ husbands Cornwall (Fiach Kunz) and Albany (Damien Devaney). Cordelia leaves England sans dowry to become the Queen of France, and the steadfast courtier Kent (Matthew O’Brien) is banished for taking her part in the quarrel. He ‘disguises’ himself to serve Lear, while the scheming bastard Edmund (Michael David McKernan) uses the fraught situation to eliminate his legitimate brother Edgar (Tom Moran) from the line of succession to Gloucester (Damien Devaney again); exploiting the political chaos that Lear’s wise Fool (Clodagh Mooney Duggan again) foresaw…

There is a certain Game of Thrones vibe to this production, from Kent’s ‘disguise’ being a Yorkshire swagger, through the furry ruff of Lear’s greatcoat, to the stylised throne amidst three massive complicated spikes making a crown that dominates Gerard Bourke’s set design. This delivers an unexpected visual payoff when near the finale the villainous Edmund sits on the throne to lean on his sword; so close to possessing absolute power… Comparisons to Selina Cartmell’s 2013 Abbey production are inevitable as that trafficked in medieval visuals, but this production is considerably less expansive; no galleries and wolfhounds here. Director Geoff O’Keefe, however, avoids the muddled paganism Cartmell attempted. But, in a play already replete with disguises, he has doubled a number of parts; most startlingly Cordelia and the Fool being the same actress. That bold choice pays off, as do most of the doublings, though there is one silly wig.

O’Keefe doesn’t quite achieve anything as revelatory as Neill Fleming’s Claudius in last year’s Hamlet, but he adds interesting notes to multiple characters. The Fool is the apex of an uncommon commitment to the bawdiness of the play, and when CMD returns as Cordelia she holds a sword almost as a signal that she has been hardened by her exile; which makes her reunion with the mad Lear, when he finally recognises her, all the more tear-jerking. McCoy’s Goneril is more nuanced than the pantomime villain oft presented, her glances at Regan and Cordelia in the opening scene suggest a panicked resort to flattery and encouragement to her sisters to do likewise to humour a mad old man. O’Keefe perhaps overeggs her late asides to the audience being spot-lit, but McCoy grows into villainy impressively; aided by O’Connell’s novel rendering of Regan as daffy malice, and McKernan bringing out the black comedy of their love triangle as an Edmund cut from Richard III’s gloating cloth.

Judge is a notably conversational Lear in his ‘fast intent’ speech; his decision already made there is no need for pomp or majesty. This is a king in flight from majesty. Whereas previous Lears that I have seen, Owen Roe and Gerard Adlum, favoured camp notes for their madness, Judge’s Lear is childish; running, hiding behind benches, playing games with imaginary friends. His retreat from responsibility while wishing to still enjoy kingship is after all a retreat to childishness, and his shocking spit on Goneril is of a part with the spite of children. The madness on the heath is wonderfully achieved with Kris Mooney’s blue lights raking the audience while Declan Brennan’s sound effects swirl queasily. Judge’s descent into second childhood is expressed through sudden rage that almost outstrips language, perhaps the impulse for the sound design of screeching animals between scenes. In support Tom Ronayne is wonderful comic relief as a put upon servant, fussing over benches and defending himself with a cloth.

This is a fine production that has a number of interesting interpretations, and succeeds in pulling off the extreme ending which still remains the ultimate kick in the guts.

3.5/5

King Lear continues its run at the Mill Theatre until the 28th of October.

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